New Baptist seminary offers a moderate alternative to traditional school for ministers

Posted: Friday, May 10, 2002

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- The first student has yet to register. The only full-time faculty position is unfilled. And the entire school will squeeze into several third-floor rooms offered by a Baptist church.

Yet pastor-turned-seminary president Greg Earwood envisions classrooms full of students attending the new Baptist Seminary of Kentucky -- a moderate alternative to the venerable and increasingly conservative Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

''We have plenty of room for a good beginning,'' he said. ''We feel God's leadership in this, God's blessing and God's help. Without that, it won't happen.''

The seminary, in the planning stages since the mid-1990s, will open Aug. 26, joining a handful of other alternative Baptist schools. Its inception was a reaction to the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Southern Seminary -- and the consolidation of that power.

So far, about 50 people have expressed interest in attending the new seminary, and several prospects have committed, Earwood said. He hopes the initial class will have as many as 30 students.

The student body will likely include women aspiring to become pastors, he said. Women also attend Southern Seminary, but its president, the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., opposes women serving as pastors, in line with SBC teaching.

Earwood plans to hire a half-dozen or so adjunct professors for the fall semester.

A Southern Seminary alumnus, Earwood is a former pastor in Louisville, Murray and Georgetown. He said the faculty at the new seminary will teach according to Scripture and traditional Baptist heritage. But professors will not be required to sign a Baptist doctrinal statement, which limits give-and-take between teachers and students, he said.

''We want an openness in the classroom where the students hear various perspectives and have an opportunity to develop their own theological perspective,'' he said.

Earwood said the new seminary, which will offer master's of divinity degrees, can coexist with Southern Seminary, each appealing to students with compatible viewpoints. He said seminaries like his will become a lasting necessity because conservatives are entrenched in leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.

''There are some who have talked about the pendulum swinging back,'' he said. ''I am not one of those who believe it's going to happen. I think their course is set, and we need to provide an option for Baptists in this region in light of their shift.''

Southern Seminary, founded in 1859, is among six seminaries operated by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Lawrence Smith, a spokesman for Southern Seminary, declined to comment on the opening of the new school. He said enrollment at Southern Seminary is around 2,800, and officials hope it will surpass 3,000 in the next year.

''It's apparent that a vast majority of Southern Baptists are pleased with the direction of Southern Seminary because they are sending their students here in ever-increasing numbers,'' Smith said.

Still, the new seminary in Lexington is already drawing support from churches, moderate Baptist organizations and other schools.

About 25 Kentucky churches have offered financial support, Earwood said. Fund raising has netted more than $330,000 in gifts and pledges since last August, he said, and the seminary's first-year budget is expected to be about $500,000.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a national organization representing moderate Baptists, will contribute $15,000 for scholarships, Earwood said. Its state-level affiliate, the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship, has given $10,000 and pledged another $40,000 over two years, he said.

The fellowship, based in Atlanta, supports 12 seminaries, theology schools or Baptist studies programs. Two-thirds of them opened since the ''fundamentalist takeover'' of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Terry Hamrick, coordinator for leadership development with the cooperative.

First Baptist Church of Frankfort has committed $10,000 for the seminary's first year, and will make contributions in future years. The church's pastor, the Rev. David K. Hinson, is one of 12 seminary trustees.

''We want to be a model in leading other churches toward support of this seminary,'' said Hinson, a Southern Seminary graduate. ''We firmly believe there needs to be a place of theological education with openness and free inquiry into the Scriptures.''

The new seminary is getting rent-free use of several rooms at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Lexington. Georgetown College, a Baptist institution, will offer adjunct professors and lend books from its libraries. It also will handle the seminary's record keeping.

Baptist Seminary of Kentucky is just the latest moderate seminary to rise from the rift among Southern Baptists. Earwood said the new seminary is modeled in part after Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Va.

In the fall of 1991, that seminary opened with 32 students and three full-time faculty members. Its classes were held in space rented from a Presbyterian seminary. Eleven years later, the seminary now has more than 300 students, 15 full-time faculty and its own small campus.

Its president, Tom Graves, said the denominational division was painful; his own father was a dean at Southern Seminary for 30 years. But the rift led to a re-examination of how ministers were trained, he said.

The new Kentucky seminary will seek to build a ''spiritual foundation'' among prospective pastors, Earwood said. It also will focus on the practical aspects of being a minister, he said.

Eventually, the seminary will look for its own home. Earwood predicted many centrist Baptists will gravitate toward the seminary, and he projects a time, perhaps in a decade, when enrollment reaches 200 to 300.

''We'll see if Baptists are willing to get behind this effort,'' Earwood said. ''We believe they are.''

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