SBC seminary students getting much more than academic training

by Tess Schoonhoven, posted Friday, April 17, 2020 (3 months ago)

EDITOR'S NOTE: April 19 is SBC Seminaries Sunday in the Southern Baptist Convention.

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Southern Baptist seminaries have stepped up to provide students support both financially and personally during the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the aid seminaries have been able to offer students can be credited to the Cooperative Program's (CP) positive impact on operating budgets.

Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS), said CP is essential to the mission of MBTS in ways far greater than simply being a revenue source.

"Cooperative Program funds are a generous and necessary act of support for the students we train," Allen said. "More broadly, the Cooperative Program reflects Southern Baptists' ongoing commitment to train a new generation of ministers and missionaries and serves as an ongoing instrument of accountability for the seminaries they own."

Allen said the CP funds that aid the school's operating budget allow for fundraising efforts to focus on students' needs that may fall outside direct institutional support.

"Often these two needs are interconnected, of course, but we are able to spend more institutional energy raising funds for student amenities and services, as well as student scholarship and support funds," Allen said.

Other Southern Baptist seminaries are finding themselves in similar situations.

Financial aid

Southeastern Baptist Theology Seminary (SEBTS) has set aside funds to help students who are experiencing financial loss and stress due to the pandemic, according to Griffin Gulledge, director of marketing and communications at SEBTS.

Students are able to submit an application outlining their need, Gulledge said.

Danny Akin, president of SEBTS, said through savings, donors and previously available financial aid, SEBTS has set aside $275,000 for those students in need.

"We are fortunate to be in a position to care for those students who need help with not only tuition but in some rare instances also rent payments and bill assistance," Akin said. "This is a difficult time in our country, but also in the lives of our students. We are committed to do whatever we can do to ease that burden during this season so that students can continue to be equipped to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission."

In a video release, Jamie Dew, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, announced the school has begun to offer scholarships for summer courses, funded by donors, for half of the normal tuition rates.

"[Our donors] stepped up in a major way over the last couple weeks to provide a very significant amount of financial aid for [our students] this summer," Dew said in the video.

Dew encouraged students to enroll and prepare now for the courses ahead in the summer.

"Let's study together this summer, take advantage of the gifts and generosity of our friends and our donors and together continue pressing forward for the cause of Christ," Dew said.

Adam W. Greenway, president of The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the seminary is taking multiple measures to bring aid to students in order not to disrupt their coursework and, in the end, their calling to become more faithful ministers of the Gospel.

"Southwestern Seminary has launched a Student Relief Emergency Fund to help our students who have been dramatically affected by the pandemic," Greenway said. "We are receiving donations designated for the fund on our website. We are also freezing tuition for the coming academic year, as well as certain fees. We are calling on our seminary alumni and friends to assist us so that financial difficulties not be allowed to stand in the way for those pursuing theological education."

Gateway Seminary has also set up a $250,000 relief fund to help students who are now in unforeseen circumstances of financial difficulty.

Tyler Sanders, director of communications at Gateway, said donors have also stepped in to directly help students with needs such as groceries and food donations.

In addition to this relief fund, Gateway opened a $50,000 fundraiser, which ends at midnight tonight (April 17), to help students with costs such as groceries, bills, car repairs and counseling.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has released new scholarship opportunities as well as secured an additional $230,000 in funding to support students negatively impacted by COVID-19, according to Charles Smith, vice president for institutional relations at MBTS.

Kody Gibson, vice president for communications at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the seminary has waived the technological fee for online courses and expanded their course offerings over the summer to more than 75 different options.

Personal encouragement

Each seminary has not only sought to care for its students financially, but academically as well, understanding that the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected the environment of students' learning, which in turn can affect academic success.

Sanders said faculty at Gateway are encouraged to approach student concerns from a pastoral perspective.

"Faculty are helping students learn about and use already existing policies that assist students in difficult positions," Sanders said. "For instance, faculty are spending more time helping students assess whether they need to request incomplete status for a class in order to extend deadlines. All student needs are being treated with extra grace and redoubled service."

Smith noted MBTS faculty, staff and student leaders are calling all current students on a weekly basis for support and prayer.

Additionally, the MBTS student life team has been putting together and sending out care packages to students who went back home for the remainder of the semester. These packages include items such as books, hand sanitizer and snack food.

Similarly, the student life team has delivered backpacks full of toys, crayons and activities for many of the families that still remain on campus.

Southern Seminary (SBTS) has engaged students through their residential directors, calling students to check in on their physical, spiritual, emotional, relational, academic and financial health.

"They've already spoken to every student that was formerly on campus at least once and will continue to pursue those relationships digitally until we're able to welcome students back onto campus," Gibson said.

Student life resources at SBTS have also been made available, including online chapel services, faculty interviews and mock news reports.

Gibson said the SBTS student life office has also partnered with the center for biblical living to provide counseling for students facing challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shepherding groups -- faculty led mentorship and community building groups for students -- have also continued remotely, Gibson said.

A release from SWBTS noted that the shift to online engagement both in course work and community has been received very well by both students and faculty.

"Professors continue to cover the same course material and discussions and are willing to do what it takes to maintain some of the positive elements typically unique to an in-person classroom experience," the release stated.

Southeastern, Akin said, has been connecting individually with students through phone calls organized by the director of college life, Jake Hatfield, and director of graduate life, Missie Branch.

"We are trying to reach students first by phone and then by email to touch base and see how we can serve them during these unusual circumstances," Akin said.

Tess Schoonhoven is a Baptist Press staff writer.
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