Mary was in a difficult situation. A Christian since her youth, she felt the leadership of God to become a minister, perhaps a hospital chaplain. She knew that this required further education. There were many challenges for her to face, however. First, she was a member of a rather conservative church that did not encourage women to pursue ordained ministry. Second, she was in her mid-forties and already trained and employed as a nurse. Third, her husband was an established professional himself with a good practice. While supportive of her call, he did not want to relocate or for them to be separated for long periods of time. Fourth, her children were becoming young adults, but she still wanted to be involved in their lives. Fifth, there was no program of theological education geographically close to her that could accommodate all of these challenges!
Mary sought the counsel of friends in ministry. She tried commuting to take a class at a seminary over 200 miles away but that was not sustainable. She diligently sought other options. Her call to ministry and to prepare for effective ministry was strong. What could she do?
Fortunately, a seminary partnered with a church in her area and began offering fully accredited classes for the Master of Divinity degree. Mary began taking classes while continuing to juggle home, family, work, and church responsibilities at the same time, but at least her classes were in her area. She shared in learning with other students in similar life situations. She was taught by professors from the main campus as well as qualified adjunct faculty from her geographical area. She preached her first sermon in a seminary class and soon was invited by a fellow classmate to preach in his church. She did a Clinical Pastoral Education unit at a local hospital as preparation for serving as a chaplain. Eventually, Mary became the first student at her seminary extension site to receive the Master of Divinity degree.
Mary is now a hospital chaplain and is an ordained minister. Getting to that position did not come easily, but her seminary degree and the ministry opportunities it generated prepared her to accomplish her goal.
Mary is one of several students now in ministry who benefited from the partnership of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, and Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to offer a fully accredited Master of Divinity degree in Tennessee. Others are chaplains or serving local congregations.
This experiment in theological education is now ten years old and it has been continually evolving. The seminary began to offer distance or on-line classes to supplement on site classes. The program is now centered at Scarritt-Bennett Conference Center in Nashville. A new Master of Divinity curriculum will offer students even more flexibility and accessibility as they prepare for ministry.
There are many people like Mary who have been called to ministry and want to prepare for that task. I am thankful that Central Baptist Theological Seminary continues to be in the vanguard in meeting the needs of these individuals as well as the churches and institutions they serve. This is the future of theological education.