Who will open the western seminary?" Those words from president L. R. Scarborough in a chapel speech in 1924 were forever etched into the mind of Isam B. Hodges, then a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
However, the dream of a western seminary did not begin with Scarborough or Hodges. The dream began with Harvey Gilbert, a Southern Baptist home missionary to California. In 1859, he founded a Baptist Institute in San Rafael, just a few miles north of the present Northern California campus.
Although it began as a Christian boarding school, the plan was to become a full theological school for equipping church leaders in the west. But along with that dream came the nightmare of the Civil War, and the dream was put on hold for almost a century.
The dream was rekindled in Hodges when he was serving as pastor of Golden Gate Baptist Church in Oakland, California. Through his efforts, the charter was issued for Golden Gate Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on July 24, 1944, and classes began later that year at Golden Gate Baptist Church with sixteen students enrolled. Hodges was the first president, and instructors served without pay.
Hodges led the Seminary during its first year, and then stepped aside in 1945 when the California Convention of Southern Baptists accepted ownership of the Seminary. Benjamin O. Herring, a twenty-year professor of Bible at Baylor University was elected as the second president in 1946.
The California State Convention petitioned the Southern Baptist Convention to accept the Seminary as a Southern Baptist Convention agency. Meanwhile, new property was purchased in Berkeley at Grove and Addison streets, where there was a three-story brick building. The Seminary graduated seventeen students in its first graduating class.
In 1950, the Southern Baptist Convention made Golden Gate Seminary a Convention institution.
Harold K. Graves, in 1952, became the first president to be named after adoption by the Southern Baptist Convention. Under Graves' leadership the Seminary purchased a large piece of land in 1953 on Strawberry Point in Marin County, six miles north of the famous Golden Gate Bridge. The 148 acres was once the proposed site for the United Nations building.
After six years of planning and construction, the facilities opened in 1959. With the new campus, Graves sought out a strong faculty and, in 1961, the Seminary gained full accreditation.
During the next twenty years new student housing and a new library were constructed and enrollment continued to increase, which led to the establishment of four new campuses — Southern California in 1973, Pacific Northwest in 1980, Arizona in 1995, and Rocky Mountain in Colorado in 1996.
An Urban System of Campuses
"A distinctive feature of Golden Gate Seminary is our locations in major metropolitan areas in the western United States," noted Jeff P. Iorg, the Seminary's seventh president. "With fully accredited campuses in or near San Francisco, California; Los Angeles, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon, we are located in five of the seven largest metropolitan statistical areas in the western half of our country.
From time to time, it has been proposed Golden Gate move one or more campuses to a more suburban or small town location. The high cost of urban locations is usually cited as the primary reason. Financially, it would be less costly to work in a different environment. But missionally, it would be a step in the wrong direction.
A February 2008 population study released by the United Nations indicates 50 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by the end of 2008 and about 70 percent will be urban dwellers by 2050. There will be at least twenty-seven mega cities (population over 10 million) by that time.
One prominent mission leader recently complimented Golden Gate graduates' success in overseas service. Dr. Iorg recalled his comments, "One of the reasons for your students' success is they are already urbanized by living on or near your campuses. They already know how to function in a big city environment." This has not been a strongpoint for Southern Baptists, noted Dr. Iorg. "We have been a suburban, small town, rural denomination. Going into the city, into the heart of major cities, has been difficult. But that is changing. We have specific efforts underway to develop new church planting strategies, new ministry models, and new paradigms of evangelism for urban settings."
Golden Gate has a track record of accepting the challenge of preparing people for urban ministry. It is implementing new courses and degree programs to further this effort. It knows the future of world-shaping Kingdom growth is in the cities.
A Unified System of Campuses
The regional campuses and online delivery format all function as part of Golden Gate's unified system, philosophy, and vision — to bring quality education and training close to where future leaders live and work. They are committed to doing all they can to become the primary provider of effective Christian leaders for the churches of tomorrow.
Northern California: Mill Valley, California
The campus in Northern California is located just north of San Francisco in one of the most beautiful regions in the world. Surrounded by cultural landmarks and more than 12 million people, the campus' strategic location provides a wonderful setting for laboratory learning and ministry.
Southern California: Brea, California
Golden Gate began providing theological education to church leaders in the Los Angeles area more than thirty years ago. Today, more than two hundred students attend classes at the campus in north Orange County and an extension site at Saddleback Community Church. In alliance with local Baptist associations and churches, the Southern California sites are providing quality, contextual education within one of the largest mission fields in the world.
Pacific Northwest: Vancouver, Washington
Established in 1980, accredited courses are offered in the facilities of the Northwest Baptist Convention in Vancouver, Washington. Future leaders train here among a vast mission field with great unchurched areas and people. Many students on this campus are already pastors of churches in Washington and Oregon, while others serve in staff positions throughout churches in the Northwest.
Arizona: Scottsdale, Arizona
The Arizona campus is located in the ethnically-diverse Phoenix metro area, offering students ministry opportunities while they simultaneously work toward their degree programs. Arizona campus leaders pride themselves in training future leaders to effectively serve in multiple church ministries as well as local, national, and international ministries.
Rocky Mountain: Centennial, Colorado
The campus in Centennial, Colorado, is easily accessible to students and church leaders in the greater Denver metro area. Course offerings are designed to fit the schedules of those already in ministry, or those working full-time. A partnership between the seminary and the North American Mission Board provides for special training in church planting, short- and long-term internships, and two-year deployments in strategic church planting opportunities.
Innovative Delivery Systems
Golden Gate Seminary delivers online education (up to thirty hours toward any degree) designed to develop competent students, regardless of location. Classes are 100 percent online and require no visits to a campus. These fully-accredited, ten- to fifteen-week, masters-level courses can be applied to any masters program at Golden Gate, such as master of divinity, master of theological studies, or master of arts in education leadership degrees. Golden Gate also offers short-term, hybrid (part online), and other delivery formats to accommodate students in the vast regional areas of the West. A very unique program, Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD), is an educational outreach providing basic ministerial training in multiple languages. Golden Gate currently supports fifty CLD centers.
An Exciting Challenge
"What matters most is our mission," Iorg told students, faculty, staff, and friends at the beginning of the academic year. "Men and women across the country are answering the call to train at Golden Gate so that they can take the Gospel to the nations of the world." Iorg continued, "Leadership has been the issue, and shaping leaders has been the priority at Golden Gate for more than a decade. Expect that focus to continue." He emphasized that God has given Golden Gate Seminary a distinct mission: to shape effective Christian leaders who accelerate the fulfillment of the Great Commission in the churches of the west and on mission to the world.
With the immense western region, the varied cultures of both believers and non-believers, and the cost of living in the west, Iorg is both inspired and challenged. "The potential for Golden Gate is unlimited, but the challenges for the Seminary sometimes seem almost insurmountable."
Iorg finds comfort in that paradox. "That is the perfect situation," he said. "Through God's grace and power the seminary will continue to thrive .... God must be trusted, and trust Him we will!"
GGBTS Fast Facts
• Tenth largest seminary in the US
• Fully accredited
• 6,513 graduates since 1946
• 1,750 students in 2007
• 54 percent non-Anglo/46 percent Anglo
Phyllis Evans is a member of Hillside Church of Marin in Corte Madera, California, and director of communications for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. Various members of the GGBTS staff contributed to this article.