In a bittersweet and poignant setting, 21 members of the final graduating class at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond were awarded degrees and certificates in commencement exercises May 25 in Richmond, Virginia.
The graduating class was larger than usual, as faculty and students condensed as much coursework as possible into the ensuing months following a unanimous vote of the school’s trustees in November to close the seminary due to financial pressures. Trustees initially indicated the free-standing seminary would close at the end of the academic year in June. A month later, however, they determined that the severity of the financial crisis required ending day-to-day operations in January instead.
“Today, instead of nine of you, there are 21 of you,” Beth McMahon, outgoing director of communications, told the graduates, praising them and the faculty and staff who helped get them to the finish line.
Established by vote of the Southern Baptist Alliance (later renamed Alliance of Baptists) in 1989, BTSR opened for classes in the fall of 1991, offering an alternative to the six seminaries owned by the Southern Baptist Convention following a decade-long, fundamentalist takeover of the denomination’s institutions and agencies. BTSR was the first of 15 theological institutions to receive funding from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Range of emotions
Commencement speaker and BTSR alumna Elizabeth Mangham Lott and other program leaders acknowledged that the crowd of more than 800 gathered in the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church and those watching via live stream were, in Lott’s words, “all over the place” in dealing with the reality of the school’s closing after 30 years.
“We are standing in the middle of all kinds of transitions,” Lott said. She urged the larger BTSR community to “bless each other in the midst of our grief, no matter how it is manifesting.”
Lott, pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, noted that “transition” is a key word for the church and the world to which the graduates are called to serve.
“Everything is changing in American religious life. It isn’t all changing at the same pace or in the same ways, but the institutions we knew and loved – the very ones that formed and shaped and sent us – are changing forever. And you, my friends, are called to work and serve and love for this season of transformation.”
Wherever that calling takes them, Lott said, graduates will be “serving the Church in a season of simultaneous death and birth, and that means you will be making up a lot of things as you go. There is no road map for this.”
“We are not called to be TED Talks pastors and innovation experts and entrepreneurial success stories,” but leaders in Jesus’ “revolution of love,” she said. She cited Rachel Held Evans, an influential Christian writer who died unexpectedly on May 4 at age 37: “There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”
While the challenges are daunting, Lott assured graduates they will never be alone. “The way forward is collaborative. Wherever all this is going, we’re going together.” Further, she reminded them, a thread that runs throughout scripture is that “God says you do not have to do this work alone.”
Impact of closing
The 21 newly-minted alumni join 750 others who hold one or more BTSR degrees. The decision to close affected more than 40 students who will have to finish their degrees elsewhere, five full-time faculty and three full-time and four part-time staff, according to McMahon.
Three of the five full-time faculty were present but chose not to participate in commencement exercises: Mark Biddle, Russell T. Cherry professor of Old Testament; Elizabeth Newman, Eula Mae and John Baugh professor of theology and ethics; and Scott Spencer, professor of New Testament and biblical interpretation.
Following the closure announcement, BTSR President Linda McKinnish Bridges, staff and trustees led a fundraising campaign to provide severances for the five professors. Bridges told Baptist News Global on May 27 that a total of more than $340,000 was raised for severances awarded in April to each of the five.
All five, Bridges said, were invited to participate in the commencement program. The two who did so were Tracy Hartman, Daniel O. Aleshire professor of homiletics and practical theology and acting dean and vice president of academic affairs, and Arthur Wright Jr., affiliate professor of spirituality and New Testament.
In her address, Lott invoked BTSR’s 30-year commitment – and now its ongoing legacy – as a servant community dedicated to preparing women and men for Christian ministry. “BTSR handed us a towel with our name on it,” she said.
The reference was to a practice introduced by founding President Tom Graves and incorporated into every commencement program since then. A white towel bearing the person’s name is presented to each graduate, symbolic of the scene of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples depicted in the Gospel of John.
In addition to the graduating class, 15 former students who are transferring to other schools or places of employment were recognized and awarded a servant towel.
In an emotional blessing and benediction, Bridges, a member of the school’s founding faculty who taught from 1991 to 2001 before returning in 2017 as the school’s third president, acknowledged that “this was not an ending any of us anticipated.” (Graves was followed in 2007 by Ron Crawford who retired 10 years later.)
Lifting her own towel, Bridges said the “simple utilitarian piece of fabric” is “a deep and abiding symbol” of the shared calling of service to God and to the world that permeated the BTSR community for three decades.
“It represents service for the common good, not for personal gain;” she said, “service that calls for both firm accountability and generous grace in the very same breath; service that understands that failure can be success, defeat can signal growth and suffering can serve for gain.
“No buildings remain; the lease will soon be over; there will be no geographical place to call home. It’s just you. You are BTSR.
“You, in how you choose to live in the world, are and will be BTSR.”
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