Sunday, January 30, 2011

Providing Theological Education Where the People Are

The twelfth semester of classes offered by Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, began this month.  Since September 2005, we have provided 32 classes in Murfreesboro and students have had access to a number of online classes.  Four students have received the Master of Divinity degree and two more will complete their degrees this semester.

This effort has had its challenges, but the strategy of offering theological education for women and men who are already involved in ministry in their local contexts is making a difference for a number of ministers, their families, and their churches.  This would not have been possible without the involvement of a number of persons and organizations.

First, Molly Marshall and the leadership of Central Seminary.  During a time of financial challenge, President Marshall has been willing to undertake this innovative and risky effort to provide the support needed by churches and ministers.  We have learned much in this process and have had the freedom to make the necessary changes to continue this worthy effort.

Second, Michael Smith and the leadership of First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro.  Mike and Phil Potratz, the minister of Christian formation, as well as other staff and lay leadership have gone out of their way to provide the facilities and services that are so necessary to hosting seminary classes.  This has also benefited the church as a number of members have become lifelong learners by taking seminary classes and three church members have pursued degrees.

Third, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Initially, TCBF provided the services of their coordinator (me) to serve as volunteer site director as well as financial support.  Terry Maples, current TCBF field coordinator, and Judy Fryer, administrative coordinator, continue that tradition of support.  Terry Hamrick, CBF’s coordinator of missional leadership, has provided advice, encouragement, and found financial assistance for the work.

Fourth, gifted teachers both from the faculty at Shawnee and local adjunct instructors.  Eight of the faculty and staff at Central have taught classes in Murfreesboro, requiring both travel and weekend investment of their time and energy.  We have been fortunate to identify 12 excellent adjunct faculty members from middle Tennessee to teach everything from Christian Heritage to Homiletics.  Many are ministry practitioners who bring knowledge and experience as well as enthusiasm to the task.

Finally, and most important,  the students.  Their commitment and enthusiasm make the effort worthwhile.  All are involved in church ministry in some way, either as volunteers or staff ministers (full or part-time).  Many have “real” jobs during the week ranging from medical professional to law enforcement officer.  Most have family commitments.  Despite all of this, they come to class on weekends ready to engage in the process of theological formation.  They are an extraordinary group of individuals.

This is one of the ways that theological education must be offered in the future if graduate theological institutions want to serve the churches and those called to ministry.

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