Following a busy spring meeting of the school’s board of trustees, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley delivered his annual State of the Seminary address April 18. Taking a reflective look at his 17 years as president, Kelley challenged faculty, staff and students to always search for God’s hand at work in all seasons of life and ministry.
Less than a month after the death of former NOBTS Hebrew professor Rick Byargeon, Kelley said the book of Ecclesiastes, which Byargeon translated for the Holman Christian Standard Bible, had been on his mind. He pointed specifically to Ecclesiastes 3:4, which says there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”
“I thought that really does summarize where we are as a seminary,” Kelley said.
Kelley recalled the excitement of his election as president in 1996 and the days that followed. His predecessor, Landrum P. Leavell II, had already initiated the seminary’s extension center system, aimed at taking theological education closer to the churches students serve. In conjunction with that, seminary officials began to breathe new life into the school’s curriculum soon after Kelley became president. They rebuilt the M.Div. program from the ground up, Kelley said, around seven core competencies needed for ministry.
“No one was doing this at the time,” he said.
But with those advances would come challenges. Early into his presidency, Kelley said, seminary officials – along with many around the New Orleans area – discovered widespread property damage from formosan termites, an invasive species of termite that wreaks havoc on trees and houses.
“Buildings were severely damaged, trees were downed. We lost so many trees I stopped counting,” Kelley said. “And so the school was healthy and we had a smooth transition, but we had to deal with these formosan termites.”
The school embarked on a previously unforeseen building project, replacing professor homes and student apartments undermined by termite damage.
By 2004, New Orleans Seminary enrollment had vaulted the school to first among Southern Baptist seminaries.
“It absolutely stunned and shocked everyone, especially the other seminaries,” Kelley said.
And then the very next year, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, flooding much of the city and the seminary campus.
“We were all homeless, and we were scattered across 29 states,” Kelley said.
Even as rebuilding and recovery efforts were underway, the global economy fell into recession. The Great Recession led to a decline in Cooperative Program giving and, eventually, layoffs at NOBTS. Kelley said it was the first time since the Great Depression that the seminary had been forced to layoff faculty.
“In the midst of all that, there was a massive change in the whole field of higher education,” Kelley said. “Literally, the lifestyle of every professor had to change because the world was changing around us.”