HUDSON, Mich. (BP) — Elton Spurgeon doesn’t often speak of his ancestry, as he suspects many would anticipate characteristics of the famed preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, recorded in his family’s oral history as his great-great-grandfather.
“Great-great-grandfather is what I’ve always been told,” Spurgeon told Baptist Press. “I guess they kept the name in the family, because my brother’s named Charles Haddon, I have an uncle named Charles Haddon.”
Unlike the late Spurgeon, known widely as a prolific preacher, theologian, author and educator, the 63-year-old Elton Spurgeon pastors the 30-member Thornhill Baptist Church in quaint Hudson, Mich. The retired tool and die maker is a 2015 graduate of the Southern Baptist Convention Seminary Extension (SE) pastoral studies diploma program, designed for pastors unable to attend one of six Southern Baptist seminaries.
SE classmates often ask, “So, tell me, are you as good as him?” Spurgeon said. “No, I’m just a simple guy.”
Already a seasoned pastor of 20 years, he found SE a convenient way to further his theological education. He was a deacon serving as interim pastor of Thornhill Baptist Church when members asked him to lead the church upon the death of the previous pastor 10 years ago. He noted he had felt the call to preach for much of his life.
“My desires were back in 1973 when I accepted Christ, I felt a calling to preach,” Spurgeon said. “I was preaching as a deacon, I was doing pulpit supplies. I was preaching before I even got into the Southern Baptist Convention.”
When he decided at age 59 to increase his knowledge of Scripture, he enrolled in SE courses at Faith Baptist Church in Adrian. Legally blind by then, his sight gradually taken by diabetes, he caught rides to school with a classmate whose route crossed the church’s location. He completed the pastoral studies program in three-and-a-half years, taking courses as his schedule permitted. Eventually, classes were moved to his pastorate.
“It made me study the Bible a lot deeper than what I was doing,” Spurgeon said.
He was able to take one class a week at a manageable cost. The U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War relied on optical instruments from the Veterans Administration to help him see textbooks.
Spurgeon is one of many who have utilized SE, supervised by the Southern Baptist Convention Council of Seminary Presidents (CSP). CSP President R. Albert Mohler Jr., in the CSP’s 2015 ministry report, said SE helps ensure
“the vision of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and the founders of Southern Seminary and our five sister schools that every single Southern Baptist would be within the reach of the educational program of our seminaries.”
The total number of courses taught in SE since its 1951 inception has not been tabulated, as registrations are recorded manually on paper, but since the school’s inception of electronic recordkeeping in 1980, more than 230,000 courses have been taught, SE Director Randal Williams told BP. While most students do not take courses in order to complete an academic program, Williams said, 757 non-duplicated students took courses in 2014-2015, and 50 graduated from a certificate or diploma program.
“In other words, not everyone is called to complete a degree as a part of their ministry call,” Williams said. “Many are called to seminary and when that is so, we try to help them get connected to our seminaries and discourage them from taking our courses. We are not a substitute for seminary, but we are a great way for those not called to seminary to get excellent training.”
Courses are offered through correspondence and at numerous locations across the nation, including churches and local association facilities, at a cost of $136 or $169 plus textbooks, Williams said.
“All of our courses were written by current [or] past professors of our seminaries and they focus on immediate application,” Williams said, “because our students are usually serving in a church while they are taking the courses…. When we have had these courses evaluated in the past, they have been recommended for two or three college credit hours, so for the quality and depth of these courses that price is really low.”
David Eglinsdoerfer, a member of Faith Baptist Church in Adrian, Mich., hopes his SE pastoral studies diploma will be accepted for credit hours when he enrolls in correspondence courses at Louisiana Baptist University and Seminary (LBU) in Shreveport, La., he told BP.
Eglinsdoerfer heard a call to ministry years ago, but became distracted when his mentor and grandfather Russell Phillips died of a brain tumor in 2001. Eglinsdoerfer, a 39-year-old security guard, enrolled in SE when he recommitted to ministry as a father of three.
“A lot of it’s the cost. I don’t make much money,” he told BP. “A lot of pastors don’t have a degree, so Seminary Extension gives them knowledge they wouldn’t normally have. It’s kind of neat to learn from other pastors.”
Eglinsdoerfer, who suffers from dyslexia, said he relies heavily on the Holy Spirit to help him succeed.
“I can’t read very well … I can’t do regular notes,” he said. “I have to rely on the Spirit more to help me with that.”
His pastor Greg Burdine teaches an SE class through the Lendale Association, a nine-church group that provides a $100 tuition supplement per class for students who are members of association churches.
“Most of the guys that are in our association have never been to Bible college or seminary at all,” Burdine told BP. “They’ve just been called into ministry right from their vocation or pulled in from their church…. Several were deacons.”
The association restarted classes several years ago when association pastors expressed a desire for courses.
“The big thing is that it’s convenient for men and women that are not able to move their family and go to a Bible college or a seminary,” Burdine said. “Sometimes it’s just not feasible.”
Classes meet once weekly, allow students to take course loads suited to their schedules, and involve much group discussion and fellowship. Enrollment information is available at seminaryextension.org.
For Spurgeon, classes were challenging and intense, but he expressed assurance that the Lord would help him succeed.
“It’s a matter of the heart. I mean if the Lord leads you to it, you should do it. And regardless of you thinking you’re not smart enough, or you don’t have the time, God will provide,” he told BP. “I always had a standing joke with these [SE] guys, that I go in with three brain cells and I come out with two. [I appreciate] the knowledge that I got and the fellowship I got with the other Christian brothers.”