Samford University’s seminary-type extension classes train pastors, teachers, laypeoplecomments (2)
June 26, 2014
By Jennifer Davis Rash
There was a time you would have been hard pressed to find an Alabama Baptist pastor who had not attended — or at least knew about — seminary-type extension classes through Samford University in Birmingham.
In fact, the extension ministry, originally known as The Howard Plan, quickly became the model for the Southern Baptist Convention after it launched as the first-of-its-kind program in the nation in 1947.
And while accreditation standards changed the dynamics and large student enrollment of the program in the late 1950s, it has remained a consistent training force across the state in more than 20 locations, including five prisons.
As the program heads into the upcoming fall semester, it will have a new name and a new director — Ministry Training Institute led by Kevin Blackwell, assistant to the president for church relations.
“These are seminary-type courses on a certificate level,” said Blackwell, interim pastor of Vaughn Forest Baptist Church, Montgomery, and president of the upcoming Alabama Baptist Pastors Conference. “It provides an opportunity to enrich our churches in a tremendous way. It not only trains pastors who have not had an opportunity to go to seminary, but it also provides a place for Sunday School teachers, church leaders and individual church members to deepen their scriptural knowledge.
“We are using the same textbooks I used in seminary,” he said. “My dream is to train hundreds of people for the gospel ministry.”
Blackwell holds a bachelor of arts in biblical studies from Samford and a master of divinity and doctor of ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Samford President Andrew Westmoreland noted the new church relations position indicates his personal commitment to the effort.
“Even though the name has changed, the commitment remains the same,” Westmoreland said. “In fact, I view what we are doing here as even taking a step beyond what we’ve done in the past.”
Samford also has absorbed all funding for the program, which originally received an allotment from the Alabama Baptist State Convention.
“In the past we have enjoyed financial support from the convention, but times have become difficult for convention budgets, and I understand those pressures,” Westmoreland said. “But even with reduced funding for the program, Samford is determined to do everything we can to continue this outreach to Alabama Baptists.”
The extension program has had a variety of directors throughout its history, including Jim Pounds, who most recently led the program for nearly 15 years as part of his work with Samford’s Beeson Divinity School.
“I remain grateful for Jim’s careful stewardship of the program and am grateful for how he has worked closely with Kevin in the transition,” Westmoreland noted.
“Kevin is uniquely prepared to provide this service through Samford to Alabama Baptists,” he said. “He has a heart for reaching lost people for Christ. He is vitally interested in church renewal and revitalization. He has come to occupy leadership positions over the past several years in state convention work. All of this combined with his Samford background and his interest in higher education make him well qualified to serve in this position.”
Blackwell said the extension classes are affordable and accessible. All Alabama Baptists have access to one of the extension centers in the state (see sidebar graphic), and the cost is $50 per class. While courses can be taken at will, a student must complete 30 course hours to earn a certificate. The certificate hours are to be earned through six core classes and four elective classes.
The classes are held in churches and associations and are taught by area pastors with appropriate credentials and seminary training.
“Most of our centers are in areas where our churches are struggling,” Blackwell said. “The center directors decide which classes and schedules work best for their area.”
James Preachers, director of missions for Sardis Baptist Association, has directed the center in New Brockton at the Coffee Baptist Association office since 1977.
“I’ve always seen a gap and a need in Sunday School teachers being prepared to teach,” he said. “I got involved with the extension center because I had a desire to see quality in Sunday School classrooms and disciples. I felt a keen calling to get involved in trying to change the situation.”
Resource for Bible teachers
Most students who attend are pastors, aspiring pastors, laypeople who desire theological education and Sunday School teachers, he said, noting, “For some this is the only higher education they’ve had.”
Blackwell added, “The Ministry Training Institute has tremendous value to our churches, associations, conventions and directors of missions.
“Directors of missions have seen the value of using the Ministry Training Institute to give affordable and accessible education opportunities to the ministers in their association who have little theological or ministry education,” he said. “And that concept can be wed with the Samford name, a quality institution of higher learning — quality with a practical nature.
“You could argue that we have a seat at the table on a world stage.”
Most classes begin the last week of August and the deadline for registering is two weeks prior to the first class.
For more information, visit www.samford.edu/go/mti or call Blackwell at 205-726-4055.
(Maggie Walsh contributed)