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Seminary trustees approve new training centers, Sat. M.Div.

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Trustees at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary endorsed a new Saturday master of divinity plan, approved certificate courses in Haiti and at the state prison in Mississippi and selected new employee health coverage during a busy meeting Oct. 13.

The desire to make theological training available to as many men and women as possible is the driving force behind the new Saturday master of divinity plan approved by the trustee board.

The 91-hour Saturday master of divinity plan is designed for students in full-time jobs or ministry positions who have scheduling conflicts during the week. It follows the pattern of the seminary’s basic master of divinity, including work in biblical languages. Students are introduced to the Greek and Hebrew grammars and must take one exegesis course in each biblical language. The degree exposes students to courses in theology, pastoral ministry, Christian education and biblical studies.

Classes will meet for intensive sessions four to six times depending on the hours required for the course. Fifty hours of required courses will be offered on a five-year cycle. The remaining 36 hours must be taken through other means such as academic workshops, regular classes, approved independent studies or Internet courses. Fourteen of these hours are free electives.

“About 40 percent of ministers throughout the Southeast have no theological training,” said Steve Lemke, seminary provost. “Many of these are bivocational ministers who cannot afford to leave their jobs and ministry positions to go to a residential seminary campus. Our hope in offering the Saturday M.Div. is to make theological education accessible to these ministers. We believe that a sharpened tool does the best work.”

The Saturday M.Div. will be offered on the main campus and at extension centers in Atlanta, Jacksonville, Fla., and Orlando, Fla. Students at extension sites must complete a minimum of 30 hours of the degree on the main campus.

A desire for accessibility was also behind the approval of two new certificate programs — one in Port au Prince, Haiti, and another in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Both initiatives received unanimous support from the trustees.

The board voted to partner with the Florida Baptist Convention in offering ministry training for Haitian pastors and church leaders. The seminary and the convention already work together in training Haitian pastors in Miami at the seminary’s South Florida Extension Center. According to Jimmy Dukes, dean of the extension center system at New Orleans Seminary, the training program in Haiti is a natural outflow of that work in Miami.

“We are privileged to provide this basic training for ministers in Haiti,” Dukes said. “My own experience in Haiti convinces me these men are eager to get all the training they can get to prepare them to communicate the Gospel in their home area.”

“I am grateful to Dr. John Sullivan [executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention] and the others at the Florida Baptist Convention who are willing to provide resources for this program. I believe it will have an impact on the church in Haiti.”

With the success of an undergraduate program at the Angola (La.) State Penitentiary, trustees were eager to launch a second prison training program. The board endorsed a certificate in Christian ministry program at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss. Started as a pilot earlier this fall, the program teaches basic ministry skills to Christian inmates who serve as missionaries inside the prison walls. In just a few short months, the ministry has reached some of the toughest inmates in the prison.

Seminary President Chuck Kelley told the story of a white supremacist gang leader who recently accepted Christ through the witness of a certificate student. He immediately began sharing his newfound faith with others in the gang. In fact, the top three leaders of this same racist group made professions of faith.

“Isn’t God great?” Kelley said. “That’s the sort of thing God is doing through New Orleans Seminary.”

Cooperation with the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board has been essential in the development of the program. Dukes hopes the partnership will result in an expanded ministry similar to the one at Angola. Students in the program at Angola led 85 of their fellow inmates to Christ last year.

The Angola program has received significant national attention during the past year. Christianity Today ran a feature article about the program and Religion & Ethics Newsweekly highlighted it for PBS. During the recent Republican National Convention, Miss America 2003 Erika Harold praised the theological training efforts at Angola. (A transcript of her speech is available at www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,131041,00.html.)

Trustees also tackled the rising cost of health benefits. For the past few years the seminary has experienced a significant spike in insurance costs for faculty members and full-time staff members.

The seminary’s insurance provider, GuideStone Financial Resources (formerly known as the Annuity Board), had utilized the Oschner Health Plan (OHP), a Louisiana-based Health Maintenance Organization (HMO). Humana recently acquired OHP and announced a 28 percent increase beginning in January 2005.

Seminary officials contacted GuideStone to find a cost effective option with comparable benefits. GuideStone recommended a plan that utilizes Blue Cross Blue Shield’s national Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) network.

Clay Corvin, vice president for business affairs, estimated a cost increase of more than $1 million over the next three years if the seminary remained with Humana. For Blue Cross Blue Shield, the estimated three-year increase is only $20,000.

Trustees unanimously approved a switch from Humana to the GuideStone PPO plan.

To offset the increased deductible of the PPO plan, trustees also approved a Health Reimbursement Agreement (HRA). The tax-free HRA pays the deductible for those covered by seminary insurance.

During the first year of the plan, the HPA will cover 100 percent of the employees’ $3,000 deductible. In the second year, the HPA pays all but $250 dollars of the deductible for the employee. In the third year, the HPA pays all but $250 deductible for the employee and a $500 deductible for a family. Corvin said when money allotted for the program is not used it would be rolled into an endowment to continue the HPA benefit.

During the meeting the board welcomed five new trustees who were approved at the 2004 Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis. The new trustees are David Bains of New Orleans, David Daffern of Peoria, Ariz., Terry Douglas of Peach Bottom, Pa., Eric Hahn of Escondido, Calif. and Steven Renfrow of Bluffton, Ohio.

In other action trustees voted to:

— purchase property adjacent to the seminary’s North Georgia Campus in Decatur, Ga. The large lot will help with the continuing development of the metro Atlanta extension center.

— approve the use of credit cards for payment of tuition and fees and allow undergraduate students to participate in the Louisiana Tuition Opportunity Program (TOPS), the state scholarship program. The trustee action allows qualified students to voluntarily participate in the scholarship program.