SBC Life Articles

Seminary Extension

Steven Long was 26 years old when he first sensed God's call to ministry. He struggled with the call, realizing he had never been to college and had no theological training.

"Uprooting my family and starting college was more than I thought I could handle at the time," Long said. "Then my pastor suggested the alternative of starting my education at a Seminary Extension Center in the neighboring association. I could do this easily, and I enrolled without delay."

Long said, "While attending Seminary Extension classes God spoke to me through my studies, my teacher, and my fellow students. I received affirmation and direction concerning my call to ministry in addition to being better equipped to start preaching. After two years of classes and one year of preaching, God called me to pastor my first church. Soon afterward, God opened the door for me to start college."

Long went on to complete college, obtain a Masters of Divinity, and is nearly finished with his Doctor of Ministry degree at Midwestern Baptist Seminary.

In a recent letter to Ed Thiele, executive director of Seminary Extension, Long testified that God, through Seminary Extension, "gave me the focus for ministry, the foundation for my theological education, and the courage to get a college and seminary degree."

Presently, Long is director of missions for the Linn-Livingston Baptist Association in Missouri. As you might expect, his association sponsors an Extension Center.

The Need

Seminary Extension, sometimes called Southern Baptists' best kept secret, was born almost fifty years ago because of a desperate need of thousands of ministers, and the dogged determination of one man.

In the late 1940s, servicemen had returned home from WWII, Southern Baptists were growing in number, baptisms were up, and the level of giving was increasing. Optimism was high, yet there was cause for concern. The level of education for many Southern Baptist pastors remained disturbingly low.

A denominational study committee reported in 1949 that less than one-third of Southern Baptist ministers had both college and seminary training. Another third had not gone past high school.

Churches were being led by pastors with no more theological education than the Sunday School teachers sitting before them in the pews. Many not only had no formal education, they opposed it. Good-hearted and dedicated men, they distrusted colleges and seminaries, fearing "book learning" would somehow contaminate the messages they preached from The Book.

Those who yearned for further education had substantial obstacles before them. They had families to support. They had jobs they dared not leave. They shepherded a church – or churches – that needed them where they were. They had neither the funds nor the time to go away to school.

The First Director

God had one man on the scene ready to make a difference. Lee Gallman, a scholarly, soft-spoken Alabamian, recognized the need and set out to persuade Southern Baptists to consider a new concept in education. Learning opportunities could, and should, be taken to pastors where they lived.

His persistent, and often lonely, efforts over the years finally paid off. The Inter-Seminary Council of the three SBC seminaries – Southern, Southwestern, New Orleans – was charged with addressing the concern of untrained ministers.

The council, with the blessings of the three seminary presidents, decided the time had come to provide local education opportunities for untrained ministers. So in Jackson, Miss., June 15, 1951, the first Seminary Extension Department was opened. R. Lee Gallman was director.

But tough times were ahead. Gallman knocked on doors and spoke to anyone who would listen, addressing Southern Baptists on the merits of "seminary extension." He drove thousands of miles and talked to hundreds of ministers, directors of missions, and denominational leaders.

Gallman, forever the student himself, was said to keep a little book holder on his steering wheel, and read as he drove, "keeping one eye on his book and the other on the road."

By 1956, 106 extension centers had been established, enrolling 3,358 students in sixteen states. Two full-time workers had been added to the staff. And three new seminaries joined the Inter-seminary Council as sponsors of Seminary Extension – Midwestern, Golden Gate, and Southeastern.

An Ongoing Need

While the face of education has changed through the years with more colleges and seminaries, satellite programs, and on-line classes, the need for Seminary Extension remains.

Seminary Extension continues to reach out to the large numbers of church leaders with little or no formal education. Classes are available to students for whom English is a second language and for the deaf. Deacons, Sunday School teachers, and church staff may also take courses. But the majority of the students are bivocational and ethnic ministers.

Seminary Extension is also meeting the needs of pastors and church leaders who may have college, or even graduate degrees. But they have no theological education to equip them for ministry.

Don Full, pastor of West Side Baptist Church, Springfield, Ill. had a formal education, including earning a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University. But when God called Don to lead a church, he immediately realized his need for biblical training.

"My first choice would have been to get a seminary degree," he said. But keeping his job with the Illinois State Board of Education and staying with his church made that impossible. So, in 1980, he began taking Seminary Extension courses. By 1996, he had completed the sixteen courses needed to earn a Diploma in Biblical Studies, and he continues to take courses.

Since Dr. Full is an educator by profession, his measurement of the worth of Seminary Extension is significant. "I have found taking the courses is a good way to discipline myself to study," he said. "Seminary Extension offers me good courses – a wide variety of courses – and good resources."

Addressing Varied Levels of Need

Seminary Extension is flexible enough to meet the needs of persons with all levels of education, whether they have only a high school diploma or less, or possess a graduate degree. To meet the diverse education needs, Seminary Extension offers courses at two learning levels: the Diploma-Level and the Basic-Level.

Diploma-Level courses are college level courses. More than sixty subjects are available in this category, many accepted for credit toward a degree by colleges and universities across the country. Diploma-Level courses are ideally suited for persons who have completed at least their high school diploma but have been unable to attend a seminary.

By taking sixteen prescribed courses, students can earn diplomas awarded by Seminary Extension in Pastoral Ministries, Educational Ministries, and Biblical Studies. Diplomas are also awarded by SBC seminaries to students who complete a prescribed number of courses through Seminary Extension.

Basic-Level courses are non-credit, non-transferable courses for students who prefer easy-to-read materials. Although dealing with adult concepts, each course is written on a simplified reading level.

Basic-Level courses are often used by students for whom English is a second language-including those who speak Spanish, Korean, Laotian, Cambodian, and Russian. Persons studying Basic curriculum courses can earn certificates in Biblical Backgrounds, Church Leadership, and Pastoral Training.

At both the Diploma and Basic levels, students may enroll for a single course or pursue a long-range study program.

Though courses are available patterned to each person's learning level, Dr. Thiele, executive director of Seminary Extension, emphasizes, "We don't offer an easy way to become a well-trained leader. A lot of self-discipline and hard work is required to complete one of our diplomas. We do, however, make it possible for the dedicated man or woman to have an excellent educational experience where they live."

An Enhanced Link with SBC Seminaries

Seminary Extension has always been closely tied to the SBC seminaries. Today the Southern Baptist Convention Annual lists Seminary Extension as a ministry of the Council of Seminary Presidents. The Council is made up of the six seminary presidents. Dr. Kenneth S. Hemphill, president of Southwestern, is current chairman of the Council.

Seminary Extension's academic council is composed of the deans of the six seminaries. The deans and Seminary Extension staff together develop new courses, select texts, and secure writers.

Seminary Extension's close ties with the seminaries is further evidenced by the fact most of the study guides and texts have been written by SBC seminary professors.

"We are grateful we can assure Southern Baptists the theology and biblical interpretation of our courses is as sound as that of our seminaries," said Dr. Thiele. "I am grateful also for the scholars in our seminaries who accept writing assignments with us. They are already busy teaching and speaking and writing. But they multiply their ministry by preparing courses for our students."

Seminary Extension also has strong roots in state Baptist conventions. Twenty-six conventions have special representatives who assist existing Extension Centers and help start new ones in their state.

On-the-Job Training Opportunities

Dr. Thiele said, "With the current emphasis in our denomination on church planting, more bivocational ministers are needed. As God calls them, they can be trained through seminary courses while they are learning on the job. This is already happening, but the pace can be quickened as more of the called learn about Seminary Extension."

James Brandon, director of missions for Southwestern Idaho Baptist Area, knows all about the value of on the job theological training.

"We use mostly bivocational ministers, or lay ministers, in Idaho to pastor new churches as they are started," he said. "We had problems getting pastors from the South to come serve in our challenging situations. Those who did come usually didn't stay long."

But there was no need to look elsewhere for pastors, Brandon pointed out. God was calling men already in Idaho to serve Idaho's churches. In 1996-97, twelve men surrendered to the gospel ministry in his area. Today most are already pastoring churches or starting new churches in towns, villages, and communities. These are lawyers, engineers, businessmen, builders, carpenters, schoolteachers, and blue-collar laborers – the young, middle-aged, and elderly.

Only one ingredient was missing, said Brandon. "These men needed theological training to carry out their calling effectively." So he started the Seminary Extension Program of Southern Baptists in Southwestern Idaho. Twenty-five students enrolled in 1997, and more than thirty in 1998. The ministers are profiting from what they learn, as are the churches they serve.

Today, Seminary Extension is taking theological education to people "where they are" – in all fifty states and some foreign countries, in cities and in remote areas – helping students grow in knowledge of the Bible, and through them, strengthening churches.

The Executive Director

Edward Thiele came to the offices of Seminary Extension in Nashville to begin serving as executive director, January 1, 1997. For thirteen years he had been professor of discipleship at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Before that he was a pastor in Baytown, Texas.

Charles S. Kelley, Jr., president of New Orleans Seminary, described Thiele as "a man of deep spirituality, with a profound love for students, and extensive experience in both the local church and theological education."

Kelley predicted, "His great desire will be to help students develop a deep walk with God, a thorough understanding of the Bible, and the basic skills necessary for effective ministry."

He was right. Thiele wholeheartedly supports Seminary Extension's mission "to provide a Christian educational ministry of excellent quality at the pre-college and college level to church leaders and members where they live." He says, "Our aim is to help men and women who love the Lord become better equipped to serve Him."

How Courses Are Delivered

Students can take Seminary Extension courses in a traditional classroom setting by enrolling at one of the 450 Extension Centers located throughout the United States and in several foreign countries. Or they can study by correspondence through Seminary Extension's Independent Study Institute. Student can, and do, use both methods of study. For further information, write Seminary Extension at 901 Commerce Street, #500, Nashville, TN 37203; or call 615-242-2453; or e-mail: [email protected]

    About the Author

  • Leonard Hill