New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley borrowed Charles Dickens’ opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities to describe the school’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the recent economic recession: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
In many ways, the story of NOBTS is a “tale of two seminaries,” Kelley said.
After a long, hard recovery following Katrina and the recession, the seminary has emerged as a powerful force for reaching the nations with the Gospel. More than ever, it is impacting New Orleans with evangelism, missions, and ministry and training leaders for churches of many languages and races, both in the United States and abroad. Kelley gave thanks for God’s faithfulness to the “School of Providence and Prayer.”
“He’s the same God in the storm and the blue sky,” Kelley said.
Founded in 1718, La Nouvelle-Orléans began as a French colony and, thanks to trade along the Mississippi River, grew into the “Queen City of the South.” With its French, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Creole, African, and English population, New Orleans has always been a culturally diverse city.
Baptist work started slow in New Orleans. First Baptist Church formed in 1843 with ten charter members, and Coliseum Place Baptist Church followed in 1854. Both churches struggled financially at first. Only two other churches, Valence Street (1884) and St. Charles Avenue (1898), were founded before the turn of the twentieth century.
Still, Mississippi Baptist Record editor P. I. Lipsey saw in New Orleans fertile ground for the Gospel.
Lipsey believed a theological school would help the cause of Christ in the city and serve as a gateway for mission endeavors in South America. He wrote an editorial in 1912 imploring the Southern Baptist Convention to start a seminary in New Orleans. Lispey’s call for action was answered in 1917 during the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. That year, messengers voted to establish the Baptist Bible Institute (BBI) in New Orleans. BBI became the Convention’s third seminary, but the first created by a messenger vote.
Like prior Baptist work in New Orleans, BBI had a rocky start. Due to a deadly yellow fever outbreak in the city, the seminary’s first semester was delayed. The new school finally opened its doors October 1, 1918.
From its inception, BBI emphasized evangelism and ministry, busing seminarians throughout the city for street preaching and witnessing opportunities among the diverse population. The school gained a reputation of producing pastors and evangelists with mission fervor.
In 1946, trustees voted to change the school’s name to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and in 1953, NOBTS moved to a beautiful new campus in the city’s Gentilly neighborhood.
On the new campus, the seminary experienced steady growth and further established its reputation for training pastors, music ministers, and missionaries.
In the early 1980s, NOBTS opened its first extension center in metro Atlanta in order to train pastors in that area who wanted seminary education but didn’t want to leave their ministries and relocate. The decision shaped the seminary’s future.
Staying in New Orleans
In the late 1990s, after Kelley was elected president, NOBTS began studying its future. The campus needed renovations, technology upgrades, and new housing. Curriculum and scheduling also needed an update. As a part of its work, a fifteen-member committee even considered relocation.
Ultimately, the committee decided not to relocate and recommended that the seminary remain in New Orleans. In March of 1998, trustees affirmed that recommendation and approved a comprehensive overhaul of the school that brought new housing, innovative technology, and a revised curriculum designed to prepare students for twenty-first century ministry.
“Today we say to Southern Baptists, you have a seminary on mission in New Orleans,” Kelley said at the time. “We will teach the students you send us to learn ministry by doing ministry. We will learn to function and thrive in an urban setting so that our churches can learn to function and thrive in an urban setting. We will train students in a cross-cultural environment so that they will be ready, willing, and able to go anywhere God calls to do ministry.”
New Orleans’ unique urban setting, Kelley said, offered “the perfect laboratory for preparation for ministry.”
Seven years after that decision, the seminary faced its darkest hour with Hurricane Katrina. Most of the campus, including all student housing, was inundated by flood waters. Repairs would be costly and time consuming. Faced again with the choice of either relocating or rebuilding, trustees expressed a commitment to return to New Orleans to offer help and hope to the hurting community.
The board voted unanimously to remain in New Orleans, and Southern Baptists poured onto the NOBTS campus to help rebuild, saving millions of dollars in restoration labor costs. Faithful donors gave sacrificially to help with the effort. The result: less than a year after Katrina, the campus was fully reopened.
But just as NOBTS started to emerge from Katrina, the school faced another setback—the global recession. In late 2011 however, the financial situation began to improve. Cooperative Program giving, which provides a crucial portion of the seminary’s budget, stabilized and donors established a new scholarship and helped the school build new housing.
The New NOBTS
Long before the waters of Katrina flooded New Orleans and threatened its future, NOBTS actively engaged the city with the Gospel. But the hurricane served as a catalyst that intensified the seminary’s efforts to reach the city. Following the storm, the seminary community helped neighbors gut and rebuild their homes and served as an anchor for recovery efforts in the Gentilly neighborhood.
The seminary’s commitment to evangelism remains strong. Each semester students share the Gospel with thousands of people through the evangelism practicum program. Thousands more hear the Gospel as students mingle in the city and interact with its residents outside of class.
Each week NOBTS students, faculty, and staff members help feed and clothe the homeless, tutor children, coach sports teams, and minister to international students and port workers through local churches. These acts of service come naturally through the seminary’s emphasis on integrating academics and practical ministry. The School of Providence and Prayer has a unique witness in this most unique city. New Orleans isn’t always an easy place to be, but to the seminary it’s home. New Orleans Seminary’s mission field starts at the front gate and extends throughout the world.
NOBTS continues to invest in extension center training, language training, and certificate training in mission contexts. The school has extension centers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Most of the centers teach in English, but a growing number are teaching in the heart language of immigrants.
In Florida, NOBTS is working closely with the Florida Baptist Convention to offer language programs to help Cuban and Haitian pastors reach their communities with the Gospel. This partnership now includes training programs in Cuba and Haiti.
NOBTS launched a Korean-language program in Atlanta which offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral training for Korean believers.
In addition to language programs, the seminary launched certificate training programs for African American church leaders in Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana.
The seminary also offers certificate, associate, and bachelor-level courses to inmates at maximum security prisons in Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
As the world becomes more urban and multicultural, NOBTS is well-positioned to train twenty-first century leaders to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
NOBTS weathered the worst of times in the aftermath of Katrina and the global recession. But the seminary community grew in faith, and commitment to the school’s mission remained strong. As for the best of times, the seminary family believes those are still to come.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations and Frank Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Both are members of First Baptist Church of New Orleans.