With buildings battered and congregations scattered, pastors in post-Katrina New Orleans were worn out.
"There were pastors living in trailers, half their congregation gone, devastated, discouraged." said Bill Taylor, former director of Network Partnerships of LifeWay Church Resources who now serves as a consultant to the North American Mission Board. "They had problems with insurance. They couldn't handle it. They needed somebody to help all the time."
From the heartbreak of Katrina came the spark of an idea. Initially, the plan was to bring in Christian educators to help on a short-term basis, Taylor said. But the problems were just too large. And the beleaguered churches were in no position to pay staffers.
Then came a simple formula: Seminary students, plus sponsoring churches or associations, plus churches in need. The end result? Practical experience for students and bruised churches revitalized through an initiative now known as Unlimited Partnership — New Orleans.
The project is a joint effort of the North American Mission Board, the Louisiana Baptist Convention, the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Funding for the pilot project comes from sponsor churches throughout the Southern Baptist Convention.
After less than a year of operation, Unlimited Partnerships already is expanding into seven more churches in the New Orleans area and seven churches on the storm-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The seminary students aren't doing "grunt" work but real ministry in four areas: evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, and starting new units. A sponsoring church provides the funds to place a student in a local church. The Baptist association chooses the churches. The seminary pre-screens the students, and Taylor meets with them twice a month. The students are paid a stipend and receive course credit for their work.
"I told the pastors, the students can't be glorified church secretaries," Taylor said.
And they haven't been, Taylor said. Consider the story of NOBTS student Bethany Hales at New Covenant Community Family Church, an African American church in New Orleans.
In nearly six months of ministry, Hales created a Sunday School program, a Backyard Bible Club behind a neighborhood car wash, and a women's Bible study with an average attendance of twenty-seven. She also organized sports camps that recorded twenty-nine decisions for Christ; seven children already have been baptized.
In advance of a church revival, twenty-seven people came to Christ as a result of door-to-door evangelism Hales helped organize.
Thanks in part to Hales' work, church attendance has doubled from twenty-five to fifty-five, and fourteen people have been baptized. Sunday school was started June 10, averaging twenty-five to thirty in attendance.
"God has done so much," Hales said. "And it has all happened in such a way that only God can get the credit."
In the neighborhoods surrounding the church, crime is high and drug use rampant, yet "God has enabled us to provide a way for children to rise above these circumstances," Hales said. "He is doing a wonderful work in this community."
Hales said there have been overwhelming times, but "God has prepared me for this through my entire past ministry experiences. At one point, when it was overwhelming, someone in the partnership told me to seek God's glory in everything and to be satisfied in His presence everyday."
Dillard Wilbanks, a Christian educator at First Baptist Church in Dallas, wrote to Taylor to note the impact of Unlimited Partnerships — New Orleans.
"First Baptist Dallas invests some $1 million annually in hands-on mission endeavors in and around the city, none of which I believe will make a greater contribution to the Kingdom and to the spiritual rebirth of a city than Unlimited Partnerships," Wilbanks wrote.
"It's really gone well," said Joe Sherrer, chair of New Orleans Seminary's division of Christian education. "One of the challenges we've had is finding places in Christian education for people to get practical experience. This has provided them a way to get real-life experience and at the same time benefit the local church."
Taylor's goal is to grow the Unlimited Partnerships program to fifty students.
"These young people are doing things that fulltime staff members can't do," Taylor said. "It's exciting. This is a win-win for the student. It's a win-win for the seminary. It's a win-win for the congregations."
And for the future, it may well be a win-win for the city of New Orleans.