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TRUSTEES: NOBTS charts future course

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley used the language of an explorer as he talked to the board of trustees about the school’s path into the future. The path, he said, will include a wide range of options for ministry training.

Today’s seminary professor must be as good with a compass as he is with a map, Kelly said, noting that maps and compasses help travelers find their way, but in very different ways.

“A map tells you precisely where to go,” Kelley said during the Oct. 13 meeting. “A compass tells you the direction to head.”

While the mission and the message will remain the same, training methods will change, Kelley said. Professors at NOBTS will teach in ways that they were not taught.

“We must be a fellowship of explorers reinventing the seminary experience for Southern Baptists in the 21st century,” Kelley told the trustees.

The culture and number of churches in south Louisiana as well as sweeping changes rippling throughout higher education make a future of innovation a necessity, Kelley said, noting that innovation has long been a part of NOBTS’ training strategy.

With the exceptions of New Orleans and Golden Gate, the other SBC seminaries are located in areas with a strong evangelical presence and numerous SBC churches within a 50-mile radius, Kelley said. With its small evangelical population, the New Orleans area has only 200 SBC churches within a 50-mile radius of the main campus.

“The reality is we are unlikely to draw a residential student body similar to four of the other SBC seminaries,” Kelley said. “Our setting has had great impact on how we do seminary.”

Regarding the rising tide in academia affecting the way colleges, universities and seminaries are offering training, Kelly said the changes are driven by student expectations and the rising costs of education. More and more, students expect schools to offer new training options that do not require them to relocate to a campus.

Because of strategies developed long ago, NOBTS is well-positioned to meet these challenges, Kelley said. For many years, the seminary has seen the need to extend its reach through innovative training approaches. Kelley’s predecessor, Landrum Leavell II, launched a network of extension centers to offer training closer to the places pastors and ministers were serving. Under Kelley, the extension center system expanded and began looking to the Internet as a training avenue.

“Hurricane Katrina forced us more quickly into the future we had already envisioned,” Kelley said. “Our story arc has not really varied. We have the same mission. We have the same strategy. The fact that we had a good understanding of our strategy and mission was a big part of us getting through the experience of Katrina.”

Kelley said the seminary intends to make some form of theological training available to every God-called Southern Baptist. This will be accomplished through a ministry-training “cafeteria” with a variety of options. Undergraduate and graduate certificates provide basic ministry training, while associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees offer more comprehensive training and professional and research doctorates provide the highest levels of ministry training available.

Kelley said NOBTS offers four distinct paths to theological training — residential, extension centers, Internet and church-based programs. He assured trustees that traditional residential training remains a key component of the seminary’s strategy. However, extension centers, Internet courses and church-based training options will continue to grow as NOBTS works to meet the needs of God-called men and women.

Trustees voted to affirm the NOBTS strategy of making theological training accessible by approving three new certificate training sites. Two of the sites will offer basic church leadership certificates, while another will offer graduate level certificate instruction.

The Ridge Baptist Association in Florida was approved to offer the church leadership certificate program, which is designed to offer basic ministry training to pastors and lay leaders. Classes will meet at Calvary Baptist Church in Winter Haven, Fla. A similar program at First Baptist Church in Biloxi, Miss., also was approved to provide training for pastors and lay leaders in the Gulf Coast Baptist Association.

Trustees also voted to launch a graduate certificate program in Lafayette, La., at East Bayou Baptist Church, which currently hosts an NOBTS undergraduate extension center. The center is projected to begin offering the 16-hour graduate certificate in practical church leadership in August 2011, pending approval from accreditation agencies. The hours may be transferred into a master’s program at the seminary if students choose to pursue a degree.

Trustees also received a final report on the sale of the seminary’s property in Decatur, Ga. The property was the former Columbia Drive Baptist Church and served for the North Georgia extension center for many years. The board authorized the sale in 2007. Initially, the deal called for a long payout of the sale price. Before last spring’s trustee meeting, the buyer expressed interest in restructuring the terms of the deal and completing the sale this year. The board authorized the NOBTS administration to pursue this new option.

“The benefit for us in this renegotiation is $2.6 million in cash sooner than we would have received it with the [initial deal],” Kelley said.

Instead of using the money for a large project, the seminary put $1.5 million from the sale in an insurance reserve fund. Following Katrina, insurance companies established deductibles on all properties. Kelley said the seminary is working to establish a $5 million reserve to cover the maximum possible deductible. Once the reserve is established, interest from the fund will be used to pay for ongoing campus maintenance. The other $1.1 million from the sale will be held in reserve to guard against fluctuations in giving and Cooperative Program support through the Southern Baptist Convention.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.