SBC LIFE Please tell us about your pilgrimage into Southern Baptist higher education, and specifically, to Southwestern.
Hemphill I never expected nor sought to be the president of Southwestern. I fully anticipated that I would pastor a local church for the entirety of my ministry, though I occasionally thought it might be fulfilling to teach at one of our seminaries after I retired from the local church.
I have been privileged to have wonderful pastorates in a rural church, a small town church, and in a mega-church setting in a large metropolitan area. My last pastorate at First Baptist Norfolk was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I would love to have completed my ministry there. About seven years ago, I began to have a great burden to help pastors who had become confused and discouraged by the lack of vitality and growth in their church setting. Responding to that concern, I became the first director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth working with the Baptist Sunday School Board and the Home Mission Board.
When the trustees first approached me about Southwestern, I declined an invitation to discuss it with them since I had so recently moved to my new position in Atlanta. As I prayed about the interest of the Southwestern trustees, God began to stir my heart. I sought council with my two presidents, Larry Lewis and Jimmy Draper. To my surprise both encouraged me to consider the work at Southwestern. I should have expected as much since both men are Southwesterners.
As I began the dialogue with the trustees, God settled my heart when they shared their vision for turning out ministers that love the Lord, know the Word, and have a passion for the world. When they told me that nearly 40 percent of all Southern Baptist ministers who received seminary training would be trained at Southwestern, I realized God had given me the desire of my heart. Soon after arriving "on the hill" I had a profound sense of peace that every experience of my training and ministry had led to this one defining moment. I thank God for the opportunity afforded me at Southwestern.
SBC LIFE What unique contribution do you see Southwestern making to the Southern Baptist Convention in the next five years?
Hemphill Southwestern's history and heritage has been evangelism and missions in the context of theological integrity. Our goal is to both respond to and anticipate the needs of our denomination and its churches as we move into the new millennium. For the sake of the Kingdom and Southern Baptist work, we must keep Southwestern on the cutting edge of theological education. I see several unique trends that will enable Southwestern to make a significant contribution to our Southern Baptist Convention through theological education.
This year we have the largest enrollment of international students in the history of the school. I think Southwestern will continually expand its global ministry with unique partnerships such as those recently established with Korea and Japan.
The broad scope of our Ph.D. tracts will enable Southwestern to continue to provide a large number of professors and pastors with outstanding conservative academic credentials.
The recent purchase of the Geoffrey Breed Collection of English Baptist history will be the foundation for our Baptist History and Heritage Center at Southwestern. We are committed to graduating students with an understanding and love for Baptist heritage.
We have recently pioneered a Doctor of Education Ministries (D.E.M.) degree, which is similar to a D.Min., but built on the religious education degree.
Our lay theological program will assist laity in utilizing their unique gifts for the Kingdom of God. This will be especially helpful for those persons considering volunteer mission work.
We are committed to developing a training program for those ministers already in ministry positions who cannot leave their present position and attend seminary for three years.
Our new Leadership Development Complex expresses our commitment to provide lifelong leadership development for Southern Baptists through cutting-edge short-term learning experiences.
SBC LIFE What trends do you see in theological education in the next ten years, especially among Southern Baptists?
Hemphill There are a number of exciting trends in theological education. First, I believe we will see a greater emphasis on mentoring relationships in seminary training. Attitude and ability to build relationships are crucial to ministry success, and these are best built in small group relationships.
Second, we will see a greater emphasis on integrated learning that helps students build team relationships. Southwestern is moving to a core curriculum which will bring students from the education, music, and theology schools together for foundational learning.
Third, you will see more emphasis on practical missions and evangelism involvement for students. With the visionary leadership of our two mission agencies, Southern Baptist students have a great advantage in this area.
Fourth, I think we will see more training opportunities and strategies for ministers who are called to bivocational ministry. This strategy will better enable us to plant churches in unreached pioneer areas in American and around the world.
SBC LIFE Suppose someone said to you, "Our ministers don't need theological training, they just need to get out into the fields and start evangelizing," how would you respond?
Hemphill While I can identify with the passion to get out into the fields ripe unto harvest, passion alone is not adequate preparation for effective ministry. Jesus chose men with passion and then took them aside for training before He sent them into their own ministry. There has never been a day when thorough training was more essential than today.
Members of our congregation and those we are trying to reach are more highly educated than at any time in history. When the minister has the thorough preparation provided by a theological degree, the people in the community understand the critical significance of the work to which we have been called. If I were required to have heart surgery, I certainly would want a doctor who had thoroughly prepared. The minister doesn't simply deal with life and death issues, the minister deals with eternal issues. For that reason, full preparation is even more critical for the minister. With the current emphasis on practical training, there is no reason that the minister in training should not be fully involved in ministry.
SBC LIFE As we approach the dawn of a new century, what excites you most about Southwestern?
Hemphill As we approach the 21st century, I am really excited about the commitment of our faculty to address the critical issues that will enable Southwestern to be on the cutting edge of theological education. Southwestern has the unique advantage of having long-tenured faculty serving side-by-side with new faculty members who will be the future of Southwestern.
SBC LIFE How can Southern Baptists most effectively pray for you and for the seminary?
Hemphill Like the apostle Paul, I would request that you would pray that God would give me open doors for ministry. You can pray that the Lord will give me wisdom as I make the decisions that will impact the future of Southwestern. Pray for our students. They face unique challenges as they juggle family responsibilities, work requirements, and classroom requirements. Pray that our graduates will find God's place of service. Pray that the Lord will provide the resources necessary to keep our tuition at a reasonable rate.