New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
In the steamy heat of August and the chill of January they come to New Orleans — God-called men and women. Some are on their own, with only a few suitcases and a worn Bible. Others are families in minivans, filled with energetic children and hearts for ministry.
They may not know it, but they do not come to seminary alone. According to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley, their training involves all Southern Baptists working together.
"We feel like that in this process of theological education, it is a multi-party partnership. One part of the partnership is the seminary and its commitment to do theological education as efficiently as possible. That's our responsibility. We ask ourselves all the time, 'Is there a more efficient way of doing this?' We want to have a quality education delivered in an efficient manner."
The partnership also involves churches working together. Every course these students will take, every lecture they hear, every book they borrow from the library, virtually every part of their seminary experience, is made possible by the Cooperative Program, a partnership fueled by generous gifts from Southern Baptists in congregations small and large.
"Literally every church in the SBC is participating in the Cooperative Program. For every one of our students, you can honestly say that Mount Pisgah Baptist Church in Hot Coffee, Mississippi, is helping put you through seminary," Kelley said "That's the beautiful thing about the Cooperative Program; there is not another thing like it in the world."
The Cooperative Program fueled an explosion in growth of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1940s and 50s, and a worldwide mission force stretching to the uttermost parts of the globe. Created in 1925, the Cooperative Program has been the gold standard in the evangelical world for funding evangelistic efforts, theological education, and mission work at home and abroad.
However, the story is about more than money. At NOBTS, Cooperative Program dollars pack a powerful punch. From learning how to study and teach the Bible, to practicing personal evangelism in the streets of New Orleans, every aspect of the seminary's work is directly impacted by the Cooperative Program. As a result, a seminary education is more affordable, giving God-called men and women the chance for practical and academic training for ministry.
Seminary Provost Steve Lemke is among NOBTS administrators who see the day-to-day impact of the Cooperative Program on the life of the seminary. So committed is the seminary to helping students understand the role of the initiative in Baptist life, it created an endowed chair and a course concentrating on the CP. Every student must take the Cooperative Program course.
In classes like the CP course, the seminary instills the cooperation principles embodied by the Cooperative Program. Students leave the course with an understanding that churches can do more by working together than alone. The hope is that graduates of NOBTS will lead the churches they serve to embrace and support the Cooperative Program.
Keeping Costs Down, Training More Students
As Provost, Lemke is part of the administrative team that prayerfully wrestles over the seminary budget each year. Cooperative Program funding contributes about 45 percent to the overall budget. Without the Cooperative Program, Lemke said, the cost of a seminary education at NOBTS, and other SBC seminaries, would double or even triple.
"The bottom line is, we could not be a seminary with 3,600 students if it weren't for the CP. I would guess that immediately, if we had to double or triple our tuition, it would be beyond the ability of most people to pay," Lemke said. "Not that they wouldn't want to come to seminary, they just wouldn't be able to afford it."
Seminarians, generally, have struggled financially during their time in school. However, in the past, when Lemke and others were in seminary, they paid a one-time matriculation fee of $100, 200, or $400, which covered the tuition expense. Today, students wrestle with not only higher tuition, but also higher day-to-day expenses of life.
By offsetting tuition costs, the Cooperative Program helps Southern Baptist seminaries provide a real value in the world of theological training.
According to the Association of Theological Schools, the major accrediting agency for schools of theology in North America, the average cost per year for an American seminary student is $30,000. At NOBTS, that cost is $9,000 per student, per year.
However, academic excellence has not been sacrificed for the sake of affordability. A 2005 study published in the highly respected Chronicle of Higher Education listed NOBTS twelfth in faculty scholarly productivity among seminaries and divinity schools in the United States and Canada. NOBTS ranked between the Graduate Theological Union (eleventh) and Princeton Theological Seminary.
A Pastor's Perspective
David Leavell, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Millington, Tennessee, is not only an NOBTS alumnus, but also a seminary trustee and Foundation Board. Leavell's family left an imprint on Southern Baptist life, particular at NOBTS. His father, the late Landrum P. Leavell II, and his great-uncle, the late Roland Q. Leavell, each served as president of the school.
The importance of the Cooperative Program was impressed upon David Leavell early in his life. Landrum Leavell — like his successor Chuck Kelley — was a major supporter of the Cooperative Program who saw the program's benefits as a pastor and as a seminary president.
"In his pastoral ministry, he had a high regard for cooperative ministry and for the Cooperative Program. That carried over into his denominational service at the seminary where he became a direct benefactor for the mission dollars that he had been funneling in as a pastor. He got to see that even more intensely," Leavell said of his father.
He added, "Without the Cooperative Program, all of our entities would not be able to function in the Kingdom enterprise that God has called us to as Southern Baptists. He's always had a high regard for that."
Leavell, in keeping with the family tradition, and in response to the Lord's call, entered New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as a student. There, he saw the impact of the Cooperative Program more clearly. More than 50 percent of his classmates, Leavell estimated, would not have been able to enter seminary without the help of the Cooperative Program.
"The Cooperative Program is just making it affordable, so that we can do what God's called us to do and get the training we need to serve the churches of the SBC," Leavell said.
Now, as a pastor, Leavell seeks to keep the Cooperative Program on the minds and hearts of his church members.
"You've got to constantly remind your people of what we do with our resources. We're not only fully accountable for our day-to-day expenses, but we're accountable to take the Gospel to the world," Leavell said.
"Our Cooperative mission dollars are dollars well-invested because they are going places and doing things that as an individual church, no matter how large you could be, or how small, you couldn't impact missions the way you can when you join together and act cooperatively."
Leavell has witnessed concrete examples of the Cooperative Program's success. He recounted the story of Bob and Becky Counts who serve as missionaries in Benin, West Africa.
"It would have never been possible had it not been for the support and the cooperation of Southern Baptists who held out their financial lifeline to them, and allowed them to do what God had called them to do," Leavell said. "In so doing, we saw the fruit of a thirty-year ministry, with converts, churches, pastors, ministry. It was just an amazing journey to see the fruit of thirty years invested in people in other lands."
But Leavell will also see the Cooperative Program help two future NOBTS families from his church in Millington, Tennessee, as they prepare for a life of ministry.
"We're going to have two families begin their seminary education this fall on campus," Leavell said. "Without the benefit of the CP, neither one of them would be able to go."
At New Orleans Seminary, the Cooperative Program's impact reaches far beyond bricks and mortar, opening the door to a diverse population of God-called men and women, allowing them to receive a high-quality, affordable seminary education. More than just offering an inexpensive education, the CP is helping to equip the next generation of pastors, teachers, and missionaries who will give their all to reach the world with the Gospel.
A Global Reach
Making Theological Education Accessible
In this most unconventional of cities, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has embraced unconventional methods to make educational excellence accessible around the globe.
NOBTS President Chuck Kelley cited the school's out-of-the-box approach in his recent State of the Seminary Address as one of the key mileposts in the institution's ninety-three years.
The seminary has survived and thrived because, Kelley said, "It was willing to embrace the unconventional. To be willing to see this place so utterly un-Baptist as not a threat or a difficulty, but as an opportunity to do something great for the Kingdom of God."
On the Main Campus in New Orleans, students receive an effective mix of academic and practical ministry training. Rather than seeing the unique city as a hindrance in the training process, NOBTS uses its urban setting as an advantage. New Orleans has become an ideal "laboratory" for NOBTS students to learn the "ins and outs" of missions and ministry.
The seminary also embraced and applied new technologies on an unprecedented scale to deliver theological education to students both on the main campus and at extension centers throughout the Southeast.
"We have learned that if we are going to do the work of the Kingdom of God, we can't simply do it in the conventional traditional ways," Kelley said. "Though there's nothing wrong with those ways, they became conventional for a reason — they worked. We must also be committed to pushing the edge of the envelope, to get out of the box, to do those things that are opportunities for something new, rather than what has been done in the past."
Those opportunities sparked the creation of extension centers throughout the Southeast, hybrid courses that offer a combination of online learning and classroom instruction, and online learning, which allows students to meet the majority of their degree requirements from anywhere in the world.
"Our aim is to make theological education accessible to anyone in the world, wherever God leads them to serve," said NOBTS Provost Steve Lemke.
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.
"Our great concern is making theological education as accessible as possible to as many people as possible," Kelley said. "This is filling in the gaps for people for whom traditional theological education is not available."