SBC Life Articles

Making Theological Education Accessible in Houston and Beyond

A seminary looking for a home campus and a church looking to minister joined forces to provide a full campus for master’s level studies in theology in the greater Houston area.

For nearly forty years, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Havard School for Theological Studies (formerly Southwestern in Houston) has equipped students for ministry and engaged this vibrant, international city with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With a population of more than two million, Houston is the nation’s fourth largest city.

Wanting to train students seeking theological preparation who were unable to relocate to the main campus in Fort Worth, Southwestern began offering theological education in Houston in 1975 with extension courses on the campus of Houston Baptist University.

A quarter of a century later, Park Place Baptist Church, true to its well-known heritage of faith, deeded its facilities to Southwestern Seminary in 2002. The seminary began transforming the property into a state-of-the-art campus. A generous gift in honor of retired Houston pastor/ evangelist J. Dalton Havard provided the initial establishment of the Houston campus, including its namesake: The J. Dalton Havard School for Theological Studies.

In 2004, J. Denny Autrey, with more than thirty years of pastoral and missions experience, was named the first resident dean of Southwestern’s Havard School. He joined a strong faculty that exhibits scholarship as well as evangelistic zeal.

“The Havard School brings a unique mixture of practical application and academic fervor to the classroom, thus helping produce scholars on fire,” Autrey said.

Today, Southwestern’s Havard School is a full, degree-granting campus offering a bachelor of science in biblical studies, master of divinity, master of arts in Christian education, master of arts in lay ministry, and master of arts in theology.

Over the past four decades, Southwestern’s Houston campus has trained hundreds of Southern Baptist pastors and other church ministers, many of whom lead thriving churches in Texas.

Gregg Matte, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church and president of the 2013 Pastors’ Conference, commuted from his Breakaway Ministries at Texas A&M University to Houston for seven years as he earned his master’s degree at the Houston campus.

Matte says he enjoyed the arsenal of ministry resources he acquired as well as the sharpening he received from professors and students.

“The thing that Southwestern really blessed me with was the tools and the ability to study,” Matte said. “That’s what was really helpful to me. I knew where to turn when I didn’t know the answers on things. It gave me the ability not to fear study but to go further into the study. I still have my seminary folders in my back office.”

Matt Carter, pastor of The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, and a speaker at this year’s Pastors’ Conference, also received his theological training at Southwestern in Houston. The church, which sees more than eight thousand people attend and serve in worship services on four campuses each Sunday, shines a strong Gospel light in its city and sends missionaries around the world to engage unreached people and people groups with the message of Jesus Christ.

Carter believes his studies at Southwestern greatly impacted his ministry and prepared him for leading The Austin Stone. He points to his study of biblical languages and systematic theology as instrumental in shaping his preaching and ministry.

“Before I took systematic theology,” Carter said, “I . . . did not place theology on a very high pedestal. I didn’t quite understand its importance. I was just one of these guys who said, ‘Just love Jesus and read your Bible.’ Going through systematic theology really wrapped my mind around the doctrines of our faith.

“It made me a better pastor; it made me a better preacher. To be able to articulate to people why we believe what we believe and why we do what we do, and being able to base everything on the authority of Scripture was massive for me in my ministry,” he added. “A pastor at times is going to have to stand up. You’re going to have to make tough decisions, make tough calls, and stand on tough things. And if you don’t know why you’re doing it biblically, you’re not going to have the authority you need to make that stand.”

In 2011, Southwestern embarked on a new approach to making theological education accessible to those who could not otherwise receive it. Modeled after New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s program at Louisiana’s Angola state penitentiary, Southwestern began offering a bachelor’s degree to select students at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Darrington prison unit, located south of Houston.

The 125-semester hour, accredited bachelor’s degree is taught and supervised by three full-time and two adjunct professors from Southwestern’s Havard campus. Forty students were selected the first year from approximately seven hundred applications, with a requirement that each inmate accepted into the program have at least ten years before parole eligibility.

The seminary adds forty students per year, as funding allows. Private funding supports the entire project, with no taxpayer money used for the program. Along with paying professors, donations provide furniture, computers, materials, and books for the library.

During the program’s inaugural convocation, Ben Phillips, associate dean at Southwestern’s Havard campus and director of the Darrington extension program, said, “We are here to celebrate what God is going to be doing and how God is going to use these men and the lives they touch to bring honor and glory to His name, because we believe above all else that God uses His Gospel, given in His Word, to change people’s lives, to take the worst of the worst, to take sinners and transform them into Christlike saints.”

Graduates of the program will minister to other inmates both at Darrington and, eventually, in prisons across the state as inmate chaplains.

“They will not only assist in mentoring and counseling other inmates at Darrington, but someday, when the graduation rate grows, they will go to other units and start impacting young, non-violent inmates and help them turn their lives around because they will be returning to the streets of Texas,” said Texas state senator John Whitmire, who serves as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

In 2013, Southwestern Seminary continues its pattern of making theological education accessible to those not only in Houston but to anyone around the world with Internet access. This summer, the seminary launched the shortest fully online master’s degree among Southern Baptist seminaries with its master of theological studies. Trustees approved the thirty-six-hour degree at their spring meeting on April 3.

Seminary administrators and trustees said the fully accredited degree combines the rigorous academic content that Southwestern is known for with the accessibility and affordability those in ministry often need.

Additionally, those serving on a church staff at least twenty hours per week receive a 30 percent discount off tuition and fees, which opens the door for more pastors to be equipped for ministry while remaining where God has called them to serve. Beginning in fall 2013, Southwestern will also offer online classes in Spanish with the goal of a completely online Spanish-language master of theological studies degree in the future.

Southwestern’s Havard School represents one of many ways the seminary seeks to make theological education convenient and accessible. Along with its many extension centers in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas as well as its online courses, Southwestern continues to offer innovative solutions for equipping pastors, missionaries, and ministers to preach the Word and reach the world.

    About the Author

  • Keith Collier