New England Baptist college blooms from long-ago seed
BENNINGTON, Vt. (BP) -- The launch of Northeastern Baptist College means faith has become sight for its president, Mark Ballard.
The new school in Vermont opened for classes in August, bringing to fruition a seed planted in Ballard's life more than two decades earlier. With a goal of preparing students to evangelize the world, especially New England and the rest of the Northeast United States, the college now has 44 students in its second semester.
When Ballard was a teenage preacher in Colorado in the 1980s, he did not have the opportunity most of the Northeastern Baptist College students now have for the first time -- to attend a Southern Baptist-related college in the same region of the country.
Ballard sensed a need to attend a Baptist school, but the "options were nearly nonexistent in my home state at the time, and it burdened me that most of our young people had to move to Texas or Oklahoma to attend a Baptist college," he told Baptist Press.
That burden increased when churches in southern Colorado began approaching him about being their pastor. "I felt needed on the field immediately but also believed I needed college," he recalled in an email interview. "It was during this time of struggle the Lord planted a seed in my heart that one day He would use me to start a Baptist college where that option was not readily available."
Ballard said he "pretty much lost sight" of it while in college and seminary, but God began reminding him "of that seed He planted so many years earlier" when his wife and he moved to New Hampshire in 1998 to start a church. "In October 2009, the Lord seemed to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'Now is the time" and he subsequently began organizing teams of people to work toward the launch of the school. After 12 years as pastor of Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Londonderry, N.H., he began working full-time in 2010 to put together staff, faculty, program, facilities and students for the 2013 start-up of Northeastern Baptist College (NEBC) in Bennington, Vt.
Located in southern Vermont, Bennington is at the geographic center of the Northeast in Southern Baptist North American Mission Board strategy. According to NAMB, 67 million people live in the region, which stretches from southern Maryland to the northern tip of Maine, and an estimated 82 percent do not know Christ. One church exists for each 37,000 people in the Northeast.
NEBC -- which has established a partnership with the Baptist Convention of New England and the Green Mountain Baptist Association in Vermont -- can play a vital role in the region for the Gospel of Jesus not only because of its strategic location and biblical foundation – the school's statement of faith is the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 -- but because of its practical orientation, Ballard said.
Students -- whom the school says it seeks to equip with "the mind of a scholar, the heart of a shepherd and the perseverance of a soldier" -- participate in practical ministries, mentoring times, shepherding groups and internships. "Our students are already having an impact on the community of Bennington and through several local churches in the region," Ballard said. "Several of our students prayerwalk, hit the streets sharing the Gospel and are involved in disaster relief and other servanthood projects which open the door to share the Gospel. In addition, several have been leading worship and teaching Sunday School and Bible studies in local congregations."
In addition, the college's twice-weekly chapel services feature the 251 Club, which stands for the 251 communities in Vermont. Students learn about a different town or city in each service, and they pray for an evangelical Christian witness there.
NEBC will be a "huge asset to ministry" in Vermont and the remainder of New England because of "the DNA of the school," said Lyandon Warren, NAMB's church planting catalyst in Vermont.
The focus on "practical theological training" will be "very beneficial" to the Kingdom of God, said Warren, who has started two churches while serving in Vermont for nearly eight years. "I think [NEBC] will be a tool used of God to help usher in a great harvest of souls and revival" in New England.
"With numerous struggling churches in the area, along with a growing number of new church plants, students have plenty of opportunity to partner with the local church to train and utilize their gifts and abilities," Warren said in an email interview. "NEBC is located in an area that has one of the lowest church affiliation rates within the U.S. Evangelism, church planting and pastoral opportunities abound. I can't think of a better combination for a school that is wanting to train people for ministry."
Phillip Steadman, pastor of Capstone Baptist Church in North Bennington, said the launch of NEBC is "God at work" and he believes the school "will play a key part in reaching the Northeast for Jesus."
Southern Baptists have started seven churches in the last seven years in Vermont but now have a goal of planting 11 more churches in a year, Steadman said by email. "There is no coincidence in this happening just as this school begins training and equipping planters, worship leaders and teachers."
Most of NEBC's students in its first year are from New England and New York, although a few are from Pennsylvania and Virginia, Ballard said. He expects some of next year's new students to be from southern states. Already, the college has received more than 40 new applications for next fall, when Ballard hopes NEBC will surpass 100 students.
Nearly 60 percent of the college's students are 25 or younger, while a quarter are 35 or older.
Timothy Groos transferred from a school in New York for NEBC's inaugural year.
Upon meeting NEBC's president a year ago, Groos "heard [Ballard's] obedience to God's call and steps of faith to start a Christian college in [Vermont] and to do it knowing it was simply a means to an end -- that end being the revival of the sleeping church and the salvation of the lost in the Northeast" as well as "the glory of God," he said by email.
NEBC "is merely a manifestation of what God is only beginning to do to impact the Northeast," said Gross, who not only is a student but serves as the school's admissions manager.
The college opened with two bachelor's degrees -- one in biblical studies with four tracks, including a church planting/entrepreneurial leadership emphasis, and one in music ministry with three concentrations. The school plans to introduce bachelor's degrees in education, business and biblical counseling in the future, said Ballard, who earned his a master of divinity degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina and an undergraduate degree at Criswell College in Dallas. Ballard, who is working on a Ph.D. at Southeastern, was inaugurated as NEBC's president in October.
Southern Baptist teams from at least nine states outside the Northeast helped prepare NEBC's facilities for use. The college shares a former Ramada Inn and Conference Center with an elementary and secondary Christian school. NEBC uses the third and fourth floors of the building while Grace Christian School is housed on the first two floors.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).