SBC seminaries send forth graduates

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The work of the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention is showcased with each spring's commencement. Reports on five of the seminaries' services follow:

MIDWESTERN -- The instruction of the Apostle Paul in the first seven verses of the Book of Romans provides graduates of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., with answers to vital questions for life, the seminary's president said.

R. Philip Roberts preached from Romans 1:1-7 at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., May 16. He said Paul showed a strong grasp of the answers to questions graduates should ask themselves: Who am I? What is my purpose? Where am I going?

Scientists seek to quantify the number of cells in the human body, Roberts said, and "most folks think that's all they are -- just a freak accident of impersonal forces."

People's inability to identify who they are from God's perspective has led to the moral decline of the culture, Roberts added. "But Paul knew who he was -- Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ."

Roberts encouraged graduates to live out the words William Borden wrote in his Bible as he poured out his life for God rather than enjoying the lifestyle of an heir to his family's fortune: "A life lived in sacrifice, obedience and service to Christ, whether ended at age 25, 45, 65 or 85, should and shall always have written at the end of it, 'No reserves, no retreats, no regrets.'"

The majority of the 96 graduates at the school's 49th commencement earned master of divinity degrees while 28 received master of arts degrees and 20 received bachelor's degrees.

Eight students received doctor of ministry degrees, and three received the doctor of educational ministry. Two students received the associate of arts degree, and one received a diploma for the ministering wife. Three of the graduates received two degrees, and four members of the same family earned master of divinity degrees, according to registrar Dave Richards.

Ben Awbrey, an associate professor of preaching, received the professor of the year award. Also, the Class of 2009 presented a $1,000 scholarship for a 2010 graduate, expressing a desire for one class of students to bless the next.

Presidential medallions were awarded to Godwin and Margaret Opara in recognition of their service for Christ and generous gifts to the Building for the Future capital campaign. The Oparas served on the Midwestern board of regents and capital campaign council.

Godwin's father was involved in the establishment of a church in eastern Nigeria planted by Southern Baptists. The Oparas launched a company, Transtecs Corporation, which became a leader in technology for the government and aeronautics industry. They have five grown children and are active members of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, Kan.

"Thirty-two years ago, when I left my country of birth, Nigeria, to come to this, my adopted country, the U.S., if anybody had told me at that time that I would be in the midst of this distinguished group, I would not have believed it," Godwin said. "By the grace of God and His holiness and His mercies, we are able to be where we are today."

Roberts said the Oparas' help and encouragement to Midwestern has been monumental.

NEW ORLEANS -- The life of a Baptist minister is no Hollywood movie, Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told 295 graduates at the school's commencement May 16. Ministry packs challenges that no screenwriter could imagine.

But God's Word and its stories of heroes of the Christian faith provide a soundtrack for those in ministry that offers greater encouragement than any majestic movie theme or classic costume, Kelley said.

Using film clips featuring some of Hollywood's great epics and heroes -- the fedora-sporting archaeologist Indiana Jones, the secretive swordsman Zorro and the Jedi knights of Star Wars -- Kelley told graduates that motivation for ministry would be easier if backed by a dramatic soundtrack. To illustrate, Kelley donned a Jones-style fedora and whip as the movie's theme played in the background. But that's not real life.

"There's no scriptwriter who could possibly make up what happens in a Baptist church," Kelley said. "And every one of you who are graduating will find yourself saying as you go through your life in ministry, 'They never told us about this at seminary.'"

But Scripture provides an exhilarating soundtrack for those times when people in ministry need it most, Kelley said. He cited Hebrews 11 and 12, which lists those in the hall of fame of the Christian faith who through God's strength won victories in war, stood fast in the flames and persevered through persecution.

God's reward for such men and women is outlined in Hebrews 11:39-40: "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect."

"This is the thing that every one of you knows about your life in ministry that lies ahead," Kelley said. "Wherever you go and whatever you face, somebody serving Jesus has been there before you. Someone has faced the same kind of problems. Somebody has faced the same kind of crisis. Somebody has been at something that seemed hopeless and that insurmountable, and God has made a way.

"That is the great testimony of all who have gone before," Kelley said. "That is the keynote in our ministerial soundtrack: That we know that wherever we are, whatever we face, God will make a way. We of all people here at NOBTS should know that."

Almost four years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the seminary campus. In Leavell Chapel, where the graduation ceremonies took place, Katrina smashed the chapel's large rear window, splintered an organ and ripped a hole in the ceiling. Water covered two-thirds of the campus, and faculty and student housing was flooded. Some of the graduates lost all they had on Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina invaded the seminary.

"We're the kind of people that God calls to run into the fire and not away from it, into danger and not away from it," Kelley said. "And our lives will be spent dealing with problems, heartaches and brokenness. Much of it will be in the lives of the people we serve; some of it is going to be our own brokenness. But we have this great cloud of witnesses about us, all who have gone before, giving that ringing testimony: God will make a way."

The other movement in the soundtrack of ministry is the harmony in our own relationship with Jesus Christ, he said.

"I'll tell you what's more important than your circumstances," Kelley said, "It's your reaction to your circumstances."

He added, "In every case you will have a choice about how you respond, and it's the choice you make to respond that makes all the difference in the world. You will find yourself ready if you keep that heart in tune with God."

The author of Hebrews reminds readers of the third and last part of the soundtrack of a life in ministry. Christ saw the joy that was to come as a result of the cross, and then He endured the cross. That is the key, Kelley said.

"Some people think that heaven is an excuse to cop out of earth, that people who are heavenly minded can have no earthly good. Nothing could be further from the truth," Kelley said. "It is having in your mind and in your heart and in your soul that which is to come; that certainty that something better is coming that gives us the courage to face however big a mess we have to face. That simple little phrase -- something better is coming. This is the gift that Jesus gave to us."

Kelley then took his digital music player, a device worthless without headphones, to draw his final parallel. Prayer provides the headphones to hear God's encouraging soundtrack for ministry, he said.

"The most important thing you will take away from here is not the knowledge in your head or the skills in your hands. It is that intimate relationship with God that every single day through the simple act of prayer and submission will release in your soul His amazing power," Kelley said.

While they could not attend the commencement, 40 students from Mississippi's Parchman Prison and 103 Haitian students were recognized during the service.

Twenty-seven inmates at Parchman received bachelor of arts in Christian ministry degrees, and 13 prisoners received associate degrees in the Christian ministry. The Haiti graduates each earned the certificate in pastoral ministry through the seminary's Center for the Americas in Miami.

SOUTHEASTERN -- In a Binkley Chapel ceremony, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern celebrated spring commencement by conferring degrees on 210 graduates May 22.

Daniel Akin, Southeastern's president, gave the charge to the graduates from Philippians 1:21, which Akin called "the heartbeat of my life and the joy of my existence, on my best days."

The verse, which the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi while he was imprisoned, says, "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."

"Regardless of the future, in life or in death, it is all about Jesus," Akin said.

Calling this the ultimate win-win scenario, Akin said his prayer for the graduates and their family and friends was that it would be the win-win situation of their own lives and deaths.

"My prayer is that you will live for Christ the way God intended, and when you die, it will not be to an enemy that you go, but to a friend.

"'Death is not my enemy,' Paul was saying. 'It's my friend, my escort into the very presence of Jesus,'" Akin said.

In the passage, Paul gives insights into a life worth living, including recognizing that for him Christ was life and death.

"All of us must make a personal decision as to what makes life worth living," Akin said, adding that the decision will determine the motivating force in a person's life.

"It's a practical thing. Life is not just marking time and punching a clock. It's a practical philosophy," he said. "Real life has a purpose, and it is about Jesus. He is the one who said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' He's either right or wrong. If He's the King of Kings and God raised Him from the dead, then He is right."

Akin said that for Paul it was all about Christ.

"He died for you, was raised for you and has the right to dictate every area of your life," Akin told the graduates.

Quoting Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, leader of the Moravian Brethren, Akin said, "I have but one enthusiasm. It is Christ and only Christ." This enthusiasm for Christ alone is what drove both Zinzendorf and the Apostle Paul. Paul had one ambition: that whether in life or death, he would bring glory to God, Akin said.

"Listen to me. Death is inevitable. You will die. If Jesus tarries His coming, it is a fact that you and I will die," Akin said. "We can cheat many things, but we cannot cheat death.

"Living for anything other than Christ would mean to die is loss. If you say, 'For me to live is money,' then to die is to leave it all behind. 'For me to live is power,' then to die is to be eternally impotent."

Akin said when Christ is life, then life is gain and death is gain.

"It's a win-win scenario. Life is Christ and death is even more of Christ," he said.

To the families and friends of the graduates, Akin said, "I will challenge you to have the ultimate win-win scenario and accept Christ as your Savior. If to live is anything other than Jesus for you, you made a bad decision, and to die is eternal torment. It is the ultimate lose-lose situation."

SOUTHERN -- Faithful ministers proclaim the Gospel as incompetents -- "frail children of dust" -- so that the power of God can shine brightly as He works through them, R. Albert Mohler Jr. told graduates during the 203rd commencement May 15 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Preaching from 2 Corinthians 4:7-11 and the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13, Mohler, Southern's ninth president, reminded the class of 244 graduates that they are not up to the task of Gospel ministry but God will work through their efforts to save sinners and to bring glory to Himself.

"Jesus Christ calls His ministers from the ranks of the incompetent so that He will show his singular competence through them," Mohler said. "He uses earthen vessels to demonstrate His own life in us. He confounds the wisdom of the wise by using the unworthy to demonstrate His worth.

"These graduates have followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul to Timothy. They have invested years of study so that they can present themselves to God as workers who need not be ashamed, who rightly handle the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15] They are scholars of the Word of God, trained theologians and teachers, gifted servants of the church. But the sole competency is that of God Himself.

Mohler said the Lord's Prayer establishes the priority of ministers: to see God's will be done "on earth as it is in heaven." And by admitting their need to be given "our daily bread," all of God's people, including ministers, are confirming their own dependence upon their Creator for all things, he said.

The words which conclude the Bible's most famous prayer -- "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory" -- well summarize the battle cry of ministry and discipleship, Mohler said.

"We send these graduates out as citizens, ministers and viceregents of a Kingdom that cannot be shaken," Mohler said. "They go out as those whose destiny is secure in Christ and whose course is charted by King Jesus. They are the called, the sent and the chosen. They are a race of whom the world is not worthy, who are themselves the unworthy made worthy in Christ and in Christ alone.

"They go out in power. Not the power of profession or the power of wealth. They may not look to the world like an intimidating militia, but they are the army of God -- 'soldiers of Christ, in truth arrayed.' They are the powerless made powerful in Christ; the weak through whom the Lord will show His strength. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church they shall serve, and the forces of evil will flee their proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God."

Ministers perform their work while adorned in glory -- not in glory as the world typically defines it, Mohler said, but in the glory of the crucified, risen, ascended and reigning Christ. The glory of Christ is now invisible but will be revealed at the end of the ages, Mohler said.

"They are vessels of clay who bear the glory of the incorruptible Christ, who show His wounds and bear His scars and will both live and die to the glory of God alone," he said. "Death holds no sting and Satan holds no scepter to them.

"They will go out to preach and to teach and to tell a lost world about Jesus and His love," he said. "They will push back against the darkness as the children of light. They will plant and water and sometimes reap, and their labor will never be in vain."

SOUTHWESTERN -- Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, challenged graduates to recognize the peculiarity of their graduation during the school's 217th commencement May 8.

"What is peculiar about your graduation is it necessarily falls into one of two categories," Patterson said. "Either you have chosen, in a way, what is only pitiable, and your graduation is sound and fury with no meaning at all; or else, you of all men and women on the face of the globe are most to be envied. There is no in-between."

Patterson preached from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul tells the Corinthian church that unless Christ had truly risen from the dead, then their faith and preaching was in vain.

"The truth of the matter is that you made your decision to come to seminary, hinging on that salient truth," Patterson said. "You have made a bad decision.... But not if the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, where the body of Christ was laid, is empty."

Compared to those who obtain secular degrees and great wealth, seminary graduates have chosen the most enviable of all professions because of the resurrection of Christ, Patterson said.

The seminary conferred degrees on 232 students, including 13 undergraduate, 198 master's level and 21 doctoral degrees.

Barry Bishop, a master of divinity graduate, said his studies have equipped him for a lifetime of ministry.

"I think the professors did a great job of showing how you have to be steeped in the Bible in everything you do," Bishop said. "This is the beginning of a lifetime of scholarship, studying and learning the Bible, and taking it to others."

Bishop, pastor of a small, rural church in his hometown of Gatesville, Texas, received the LifeWay Pastoral Leadership Award during the final chapel service of the semester. He was chosen by seminary faculty based on his heart for the Gospel and ministry in the local church.

Katie Schild became the first graduate with the bachelor of arts in music degree at the College at Southwestern, a program that started in 2007. Schild said she cherishes the community of musicians and believers she has been a part of at Southwestern, and she appreciates the music professors' emphasis on using talents for God's glory.

The music degree contains the core curriculum at the College at Southwestern and replaces languages, physical education and fine arts classes with a 44-hour concentration in either worship, performance or composition.

Based on reports by Tammi Reed Ledbetter of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Paul F. South of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Lauren Crane of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Jeff Robinson of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Keith Collier of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This compilation of graduation ceremonies at Southern Baptist seminaries does not include a report on the commencements at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary's five campuses. The Northern California Campus graduation is May 29 in Mill Valley; the Pacific Northwest Campus graduation is May 30 in Vancouver, Wash. Graduation ceremonies have been held at GGBTS campuses in Southern California (Brea), Arizona (Phoenix) and Rocky Mountain (Denver). Baptist Press' report on the GGBTS commencements will be published in early June.

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