Darkness was not going to win!” “Chuck” Kelley insists.
The President of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Charles “Chuck” S. Kelley Jr., still takes pride in the fact that, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and caused more than $75 million damage to his Gentilly campus, the school’s building contractor managed to get power to keep the school’s landmark steeple lit each evening.
“For a while, that steeple was the only light in much of downtown New Orleans,” says Kelley, and it meant “we were coming back to Gentilly and we were not leaving.”
“Being a part of New Orleans is a part of our mission,” he explains.
The 85-acre campus was hard hit by the storm and inundated by floodwaters from the broken walls of the London Avenue Canal. Classes had already begun that semester in 2005, and Kelley was intent that school resume as quickly as possible and that the planned December graduation ceremonies take place as scheduled.
Ten days after Hurricane Katrina the faculty re-grouped in Fort Worth, Texas, at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, at which Kelley’s brother-in-law, Dr. Paige Patterson, serves as president.
Kelley convened the faculty meeting. “After I showed them pictures of their homes underwater – most had lost everything – I said we would like to have our normal December graduation.”
He proudly recalls: “It was the most amazing performance by theological faculty – just phenomenal! They spent about nine hours that day and the next day, and they completely reinvented our curriculum – so we did not cancel any classes or programs.”
The graduation took place as scheduled, but in Birmingham, Ala. The campus opened in January 2006, and since then it has housed visiting volunteers in the recovery effort and continued to put its community’s hands to work for its neighbors.
The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is part and parcel of the Southern Baptist Convention, second largest religious denomination in the country. (Catholics claim first place.) In the past decades the Southern Baptists have grown more conservative, but the New Orleans seminary didn’t have the upheavals seen in other church-supported schools. Some credit for this goes to the good-humored late Dr. Landrum Leavell, longtime NOBTS president.
As Kelley, a former president who served 15 years, says, “We are basically theologically conservative. Dr. Leavell’s emphasis was just to stay focused on what Southern Baptists paid us to do, and let the Convention sort itself out.
We train ministers; that’s all we do.”
The school was founded by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1917, and began as the Baptist Bible Institute in the Garden District buildings vacated by Newcomb College in the 1200 block of Washington Avenue when Newcomb moved Uptown. The seminary relocated to the 3900 block of Gentilly Boulevard in 1952, but the Washington Avenue gates are still on campus.
NOBTS has an undergraduate college, and offers graduate programs for master’s and doctoral degrees. All forms of ministry – including music, missionary and pastoral training – are included. The school is accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. Kelley says it may be the largest seminary in the world, with some 3,600 students.
“Our goal is to make theological education accessible to anyone called by God to the ministry,” he explains. “If there is a way to deliver theological education, we do it.”
That includes video classrooms where students at different locations can participate in lectures and discussions, internet courses, programs at churches and satellite campuses in other areas including Atlanta and Orlando.
One successful program is in prisons in Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. The Louisiana program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola began about 15 years ago, around when he was named head of the seminary, Kelley explains.
“It’s the most incredible illustration of the power of Christianity I’ve ever seen,“ he says. “We teach students in Angola, in our program there, exactly what we teach our ministers in training. They can earn an associate degree in ministry, or a bachelor’s degree in our undergraduate college.” Kelley estimates that about 150 Angola prisoners have participated in the program. He also noted that not all those inmates are Southern Baptists – even Muslims have taken part.
Prisoners must earn the privilege of participating and also demonstrate a religious calling, he says. “Every student who is admitted into the program must take up some form of ministry after they finish – it’s about getting them involved with their fellow inmates afterwards.” Some might start a Bible study group on their cellblock; others work with the prison’s hospice program for terminally ill or aging inmates.
The NOBTS Angola students also worked hard after Katrina, when an influx of angry New Orleans inmates and arrestees arrived. “Our prison ministers started doing Bible study with them and they really helped with that population.”
Kelley himself was an NOBTS student. A native Texan, he was called to the ministry while a student at Baylor University. After graduation he came to NOBTS in 1975, and ultimately earned a Doctor of Divinity degree in ’83 and joined the faculty. He was a professor of Evangelism and head of the Pastoral Ministries Division; he headed the Southern Baptist Center for Evangelism and Church Growth located on the school’s campus and served as the seminary’s director of field education. He was named president in ’96.
Kelley’s wife, Rhonda (née Harrington), met him when both were students at Baylor University. She later earned a doctorate at the University of New Orleans in special education and speech pathology. Rhonda Kelley’s father was the Reverend Bob Harrington, remembered by New Orleanians as the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” and known for carrying a red Bible.
Do NOBTS students preach in the streets? Permit requirements make that difficult today, but “every single student spends a semester going out into the city of New Orleans talking about Christ; knocking on doors.”
“Most of our students are adult learners – the typical student is married and most have at least one child.” Financing a ministerial education can be a challenge. “It’s not a lucrative calling, the ministry. We have to work to really control our expenses,” Kelley says. Southern Baptist students always get scholarship help, and some is available to other students as well.
The campus community offers a peaceful environment (“Sometimes the students call it ‘Mayberry,’” Kelley says), but the city offers ample opportunity for ministers in training.
Student Ben Niscavits has been at NOBTS for three years with his wife, Chrystin, and two children. The family hopes to go on missions abroad. Currently, he works with Global Maritime Ministries. “It’s basically like being a port chaplain,” he says. “I take these guys wherever they need to go, and we have a center on Tchoupitoulas Street where they can e-mail or call home.” He continues, “And I try to engage in conversations about the Gospel, about Jesus. It’s kind of pre-work for my post overseas.” Work in the city is essential, he believes. “If we only stay in a Christian bubble, we miss out.”
“The sun never sets on the NOBTS alumni – we have students all over the nation, all over the world.” Kelley proudly boasts. Getting outside the bubble is something they learned to do in New Orleans.