Since learning a few days ago that Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond will close next June, I have struggled to find words that express my grief. Some have said this sad day could have been avoided. Others have said it was inevitable. Some said the school itself was impossible from its beginning. I know; I was a senior religion major at Wake Forest University as the new school prepared to open. The expectations among most were that it wouldn’t last even a decade. In those days, there were no natural steps for a moderate or progressive Baptist called to ministry. Everything required a leap.
At a pivotal time in my faith and ministry, I was blessed to become part of the BTSR community as a Doctor of Ministry student in 1999. My two-year journey in that cohort of students was a gift of grace. The lessons I learned from faculty and fellow students alike are still part of my ministry practice. As I was working on my final project in that program, then President Tom Graves invited me to coordinate the seminary’s response to the Lilly Endowment’s request for proposals to encourage high school youth toward theological reflection and ministerial vocation. When that grant was fully funded, I had the privilege of working at BTSR for two years as the ministries we dreamed, in collaboration with other partners, became reality.
My five years in the BTSR community were life-changing. I carry life-long partnerships in ministry from those years, I was taught by incredible faculty, and I gained profoundly influential mentors. I found myself in a school that was boldly imagining a new partnership between seminary and congregation, a school that was actively open to innovation, where love for the church, academic rigor and spiritual formation were seen as complimentary and not contradictory, where seasoned pastors taught alongside gifted scholars, where Baptists absolutely committed to local church autonomy also nourished a love for the Global Church, and where a deep conviction that daughters as well as sons should prophesy ran deep in the school’s DNA. Being part of BTSR at that time renewed my faith and transformed my ministry. That is my testimony. This week has born witness to the truth that I am not alone.
“Being part of BTSR at that time renewed my faith and transformed my ministry. That is my testimony.”
I grieve the seminary’s closing. I grieve for its remarkable faculty, its devoted staff, its students, other alumnae, for those who invested so generously in this seminary, and for our larger Cooperative Baptist Fellowship family, for whom this is a significant loss. In these first days of grief, many of us are asking difficult questions. Increasingly, though, I find myself asking whether I, and others like me, could have done more to support the seminary and secure its future.
BTSR was always a bold and risky dream: a new free-standing seminary tethered neither to a university or a large denominational infrastructure, without either the blessing or challenge of long tradition, almost solely dependent on relationships with congregations and their leaders. In the three decades the school has existed, the landscape of theological education has changed dramatically, and economic pressures have been mounting for congregations, denominations and schools alike. Student debt is rising at an alarming rate. In hindsight, there may not have been a more difficult time in recent history to establish a free-standing seminary. But as one of my first mentors in ministry taught me: “Success is never the reason for an act of faith, the only reason for an act of faith is faith itself.”
“BTSR was always a bold and risky dream: a new free-standing seminary tethered neither to a university or a large denominational infrastructure.”
Those who founded BTSR took a great leap to leave behind more secure positions in order to start something new. They fully recognized the difficulty and stepped out in faith anyway. Even today – especially today – I thank God they did. I would not be as I am had they not.
BTSR is not the only theological school that is facing challenges and important transitions. So, from this grief, an urgent question arises. 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?
Will our Fellowship recognize that we have a necessary collective and catalyzing role to play? Are we willing to give more generously of time, energy, mind, heart and finances toward the cause of ministerial formation, within and beyond the theological schools? Will we allow the closing of BTSR to stir us toward the renewal of our historic commitment to cooperate for the sake of ministerial formation and theological education? Or will we cling to some notion that what has happened at BTSR cannot happen anywhere else? In this season might we summon some portion of the courageous faith that led to the establishment of BTSR?
Some have found hope in the fact that the closing of BTSR will give way to the formation of an initiative to pursue justice and reconciliation in central Virginia. That is a fitting fulfillment of BTSR’s legacy, since it was a desire to seek racial reconciliation that first drew the BTSR pioneers to Richmond. But I can’t help but wonder if an even more compelling way to honor BTSR’s legacy would be for Cooperative Baptists to reaffirm our historic commitment to the centrality of theological education in preparation for a ministerial life and steadfastly commit to work together toward a bold new covenant between congregations and schools so that we might step into a future where we all thrive together. I pray we will, and emboldened by resurrection confidence that overwhelms all else, I believe we will.