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WRAP-UP: New Orleans trustees ponder theological education for the 21st century

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–What will the seminary of the 21st century look like?

Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, set forth a vision for the seminary’s future during the NOBTS trustees’ fall meeting Oct 15.

Theological education began experiencing major changes after the technological advances of the 1990s, Kelley said, and dramatic changes will continue sweeping through theological and ministry training in the years ahead. Change and innovation, he said, are new constants.

In a presentation titled “Back to Our Future,” Kelley outlined his vision for a 21st-century seminary. He compared the situation in ministry training to that of a gazelle and a lion in Africa. Each day an African gazelle must outrun the fastest lion to survive. The lion, on the other hand, faces death if he does not outrun the slowest gazelle.

“In Africa, it doesn’t matter if you are a lion or a gazelle, you better wake up running,” Kelley said. “That’s the way it is now in the world of theological education.

“Change has become an unavoidable force that will permanently affect the shape of higher education,” he said.

NOBTS is well equipped to face these new challenges, in part, due to the Hurricane Katrina experience, Kelley continued. During the time the main campus was closed for repairs, the faculty learned much about teaching Internet and Internet-aided courses.

Even before Katrina forced additional innovations and changes, the “look” of the New Orleans seminary was changing, as NOBTS already was becoming a system rather than a campus, Kelley said. When Katrina hit, nearly half of the seminary’s students were studying at an extension site, and the seminary already offered a number of courses online.

In the past, Kelley said, ministry training was centralized on a main campus with standardized programs. But Kelley likened the seminary of the future to a cafeteria filled with options. The seminary of the future will have campus-based programs, extension programs, Internet programs and mentoring programs designed to meet the changing needs of students, he said.

“It is incumbent upon us to find a variety of ways to meet the needs of today’s ministers and today’s potential students,” Kelley said.

For Kelley, accessibility is the key word for the seminary’s future. He noted that a large number of those serving in ministry today have little or no theological training, yet many would seek training if more options were available. The cafeteria approach, he said, provides a wide array of options for these potential students.

Becoming a 21st-century seminary will not be easy on the faculty, Kelley said, noting that professors will be asked learn innovative teaching methods while continuing to improve their skills in the traditional classroom setting. Research and writing will continue to be an important part of the NOBTS professors’ work throughout this learning process, he noted.

And contrary to popular thinking, online classes will not decrease the professor’s workload, Kelley said. A professor teaching in a traditional classroom is able to answer a question once. The entire class can hear and benefit from this answer. In online courses, the professor often has to answer the same questions over and over again. While the online class size is smaller, the professor’s time investment is significantly more.

A major hurdle facing the seminary and Southern Baptists in general is the convention’s decline over the past few decades, Kelley said. Charts to illustrate the decline in baptisms showed that nearly 25 percent of SBC churches did not baptize anyone in 2007. Another 50 percent baptized 10 people or less last year.

“This is a real crisis,” Kelley said. “This is what we have to address. We have to make a difference in students’ lives.”

At some point decline becomes irreversible, Kelley said, voicing hope for the SBC and for the next generation of ministers, believing they can turn around struggling churches. The seminary, Kelley said, must raise up disciplined, skillful ministers who are passionate about reaching people for Christ.

During his report Kelley also addressed the need for additional housing on the New Orleans campus. In 2007 trustees approved a plan to build 100 two-bedroom apartments as soon as funding becomes available. These units will replace apartments lost to Katrina damage. Some money has been donated, but the seminary does not have funding available to begin the project.

The housing need has become critical, Kelley said. He called on the trustees to pray that God will provide the $5 million needed to construct the first of three approved buildings.

In other action, trustees approved the seminary’s investment strategy and approved Waller Baptist Church in Bossier City, La., as a biblical ministry certificate training site.

Kelley announced two new presidential appointments to the faculty — Angie Bauman as an instructor in Christian education at the North Georgia extension center hub and Clyde Hall as professor of youth ministry. In addition, the following administrative appointments were announced:

— Dennis Phelps as acting assistant director for Mississippi/Louisiana extension centers.

— Jerry Barlow as acting director of communications.

— Angie Bauman as director of student services for the North Georgia hub.

— Francis Kimmitt as assistant director of the North Georgia Hub.

— Darryl Ferrington as acting chair for the division of music ministries.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.