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Do Cooperative Baptists Want to Support Theological Education?

The Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond is closing its doors at the end of this academic year.

The seminary has blessed many through its capable administration, gifted faculty and effective alumni.

Born with a great vision in a time of Baptist turmoil, the seminary encouraged many who were seeking an alternative path for theological education and ministry formation.

In light of the seminary’s closing, Paul Baxley, senior minister of First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia, asked these questions: “As Cooperative Baptists, are we really committed to the importance of theological education in preparation for ministry? While there is still time, are we willing to act boldly to strengthen our remaining schools so that congregations may thrive and ministers may be trained? Are we willing to envision a new covenant between our churches, our current ministers, our theological schools and those whom God is calling into ministry now and in the future?”

My answer is an equivocal “maybe.”

The statements I am about to make are based on my own experience and impressions. I welcome rebuttal and correction from those more knowledgeable.

I suggest we look at the categories that Baxley lists – churches, ministers and theological schools – and add CBF (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship) Global and the state CBF organizations.

  1. My impression is that the seminaries that wish to serve CBF and its related churches have done most of the heavy lifting up to this point.

They may be free-standing institutions, affiliated with a university or related to another denomination.

In each case, they raise their own support, handle the recruiting of students and attain the instructional and administrative standards to maintain accreditation.

They have taken the initiative to reach out to churches for support, developed donors and foundations as contributors and encouraged their students to be part of CBF general assembly meetings and CBF missions.

  1. Ministers who have graduated from these schools have been good representatives of their institutions through their ministries, networking to help graduates find placement and often urging their churches to support their alma mater.

Unfortunately, many of the graduates of the CBF-oriented theological schools have found more opportunities with American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, Methodists and Presbyterians than with progressive Baptist congregations, so their impact in the CBF system is lost.

  1. Churches just don’t get it.

Unless there is a CBF-oriented school in the immediate area, most church members and search committees don’t know the difference between Liberty’s Rawlings School of Divinity and Baylor’s Truett Theological Seminary.

I have consulted with members of more than one pastor search committee who were struggling to distinguish among the theological schools on applicants’ resumes.

  1. CBF state and regional organizations have, for the most part, only shared information about theological schools.

They have worked to keep the theological schools before their constituents through presentations at meetings, hosting seminary exhibitors and funding scholarships (one named in my honor, offered by the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship).

Rarely, however, do these entities provide any direct financial support to theological institutions.

  1. What is CBF Global doing?

For one thing, seminarians are included in the Young Adult Network. This network includes individuals from the following categories of young Baptists: seminarians, young clergy (up to age 35), young adult laity (ages 21 to 35) and those who minister alongside individuals from the above age ranges, according to the CBF website.

For another, CBF provides or has provided scholarship funding to students who attend 20 theological education programs and regularly provide direct scholarships for 15.

I believe that CBF Global is interested in seminarians but is concerned about becoming too connected to theological institutions. Perhaps the institutions feel the same way.

Finally, here are some general observations:

  • Certain programs provided through CBF Global encourage students in CBF-oriented seminaries, but it is too little.
  • Although early graduates of the theological schools are rising to places of prominence in CBF churches and life, the support for those schools has not increased.
  • The entire system is informal, loose and tenuous. Due to what happened to Baptists in the South in the late 20th century, perhaps that is what all involved prefer.
  • Is there anyone who really wants to forge “a new covenant” to assure the future of CBF-oriented theological education?

So, my response to Baxley’s question is, “Maybe.” But I am an optimist.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Harrison’s blog, Barnabas File. It is used with permission.

Ircel Harrison

Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is supplemental associate professor of missional theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary.