NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Through a meager start 85 years ago and the subsequent Great Depression, God’s faithfulness and providence are a part of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s heritage, President Chuck Kelley said at the December commencement.
With 171 graduates, the seminary recorded its largest-ever December graduating class.
Students earned degrees from 28 different programs, including nine specialized master of divinity degrees in biblical languages, biblical studies, Christian education, Christian thought, evangelistic church growth, missions, people group strategies, psychology and counseling, and urban missions. More than 20 graduates earned doctorate-level degrees including the recently-approved doctor of educational ministry degree.
Speaking to a capacity crowd in Leavell Chapel Dec. 21, Kelley admonished the graduates to remember the heritage of the School of Providence and Prayer, an early name of the seminary. It is a heritage that has served to prepare the graduates for future ministry, Kelley said.
“Traditions become the anchor points of our lives,” he said. “As a graduate … you’re a part of the great traditions that have always characterized the School of Providence and Prayer.”
Kelley challenged the graduates to carry on three hallmarks of the seminary.
The first hallmark cited by Kelley is courageous service. He recounted the seminary’s beginnings when in 1917 Southern Baptists voted to put a Southern Baptist seminary started from scratch in the city of New Orleans.
“What were they thinking?” he chuckled, explaining that there were only five Southern Baptist churches in the whole city, four of which were mission churches. Even with only one fully self-supporting church, the Southern Baptist Convention decided to build a seminary in New Orleans, “a city a lot more famous for its sin than for its righteousness, a lot more famous for its partying than for its worship,” he said.
“What they were thinking is that the seminary ought to be a lighthouse as well as a schoolhouse. They knew the very best way to learn ministry is to do ministry,” said Kelley, now serving in his seventh year as the seminary’s eighth president.
“What you have done in earning these degrees … is earn the privilege to roll up your sleeves and go to the places that need it the most and do ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. While you have been here in this place, God has imparted to you the kind of courage and the will to not be intimidated by any circumstance, to not be afraid to go any place, but to always be ready to do ministry in the name of Jesus. …
“Wherever God leads you, whatever the cost, whatever the price, whether alone or with a group, do it for the glory of God and the good of his people,” Kelley said.
Citing the second tradition, a strong sense of community birthed during the seminary’s earliest days, Kelley recounted the hard times faced by the little struggling Baptist seminary in uptown New Orleans led by its first president, B.H. DeMent.
DeMent’s students often would go to the boat docks nearby on the Mississippi River and gather leftover bananas and bring them back to the campus for people to eat, he recounted. After faculty and students ministered on weekends, they would all gather in the seminary cafeteria, bringing whatever food they received as payment, since money was rarely given, and divided it up by families so that no family would be without food for the week.
“That sense of community is what literally held our seminary together in very difficult times,” Kelley said. “That sense of community is what you need to make as a hallmark of your ministry. We at New Orleans Seminary believe that we are always a part of the community of faith, of family, of God.”
The third hallmark, Kelley said, is the simple practice of endurance, drawn from the seminary’s experience during the Great Depression.
Kelley recounted how then-President W.W. Hamilton wearily came home late one night only to discover lights burning in one of the classrooms. Very upset, knowing that pennies would make a difference in the survival of the seminary, Hamilton went to the education building, walked upstairs to the classroom with the light on. He opened the door, only to find that spread out all over the floor of the classroom were students on their faces praying that God would provide whatever was necessary to keep the doors of the seminary open.
“That’s the way it has always been in this family,” Kelley said. “We know that hard times come and that challenges can be great. But we know that God is always sufficient if only we will trust in him.”
The day came when the Southern Baptist Convention appointed a committee to consider closing the doors of the seminary, Kelley continued. The decision was finally made by the committee that the seminary would be allowed to operate a little while longer to see if it could make it by reducing the size of the entire staff, faculty and administration to a total of five people.
“The record shows that when that announcement was made, one of the few fights of the school’s history occurred among the seminary’s faculty,” Kelley said. The young professors said they needed to go so that the older professors, who had many years of service and wisdom, could stay. The older professors said they should leave so that the younger professors, in the prime of their lives with great energy and great vision, could teach.
“What a fight over who would get the privilege of being laid off!” Kelley marveled. “I wonder if anybody in that room knew what would be ahead. It was a spirit of being willing to sacrifice for others that began to be deeply woven into the fabric of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.”
Today, that little struggling school is one of the largest seminaries on the face of the earth, Kelley celebrated, noting that more than 3,000 students have enrolled for the second consecutive year. In addition, the seminary campus is being renovated and education is becoming more technologically advanced.
“What have we learned? We have learned that those who stick by their stuff receive the harvest in the end. As your ministry unfolds and your life goes on, remember the way will get hard; the challenge will be great. You’ll see some wonderful times, and you’ll walk through some bad days.
“But you’ll know a great harvest for your life is coming. We know it not because of who you are or what you want to do. We know it because of the awesome power of our God.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP photo library at http://bpnews.net. Photo titles: NEW RECORD and HANDSHAKE.