BENNINGTON, Vt. (BP) -- A college with strong Southern Baptist ties is preparing to open in Vermont, the least-churched state in the nation, with a goal of training church planters for service in New England.
Northeastern Baptist College, with classes set to start in August 2013 in Bennington, Vt., will require all faculty and students to sign and uphold the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Southern Baptists' statement of faith.
The school recently formalized a partnership with the Green Mountain Baptist Association in Vermont and is cooperating with the Baptist Convention of New England.
Mark Ballard, Northeastern's president, told Baptist Press the school will help address a main problem in the task of reaching New England for Christ.
When God calls residents of New England to the Gospel ministry, he said, they often travel south for college and seminary, intending to return home for service. Instead, many settle in the South, and few go back to New England as pastors and church planters, Ballard said.
Traditionally, Baptist colleges have been funded by Baptist state conventions. The Baptist Convention of New England, though, has a little more than 300 churches for all six New England states, and about two-thirds of its budget comes from outside New England through the North American Mission Board and LifeWay Christian Resources, Ballard said.
"We're kind of in this catch-22. Everybody knows we need a Baptist college here so we can train students and keep them here, but the problem is our convention is not strong enough to support a college like that," Ballard, a longtime New England church planter, said. "In order for us to get strong enough to support a college like that, we've got to have workers here."
The circular problem is part of what God used to convince Ballard that he needed to help start an accredited four-year school.
"Somebody has got to have faith and step out," he said. "For a long time I prayed somebody would, and I didn't think it would be me. I didn't necessarily want it to be me initially, but that was God's call, and I said, 'OK.'"
While offering bachelor's degrees in biblical studies, music and education, Northeastern will focus on helping students develop "the mind of a scholar, the heart of a shepherd and the perseverance of a soldier."
In addition to classroom time, depending on their degree track, students will gain practical ministry experience by serving in churches alongside area pastors or in the K-12 Christian school that is housed in the same building as the college.
"One of the things every church planter in New England that I know of is starving for is more help," said Ballard, a former president of the Baptist Convention of New England and a former LifeWay trustee. "Practical experience is good for the student, but in New England, it's critical for the churches."
For students in the biblical studies track, there is a unique emphasis on church planting and entrepreneurial leadership. Ballard recognizes that one of the challenges church planters face is funding, so he is assembling some of the best entrepreneurs he can find to teach students how to make money when they're serving on the field.
"What we're trying to do through a few of our classes in that program is help our church planters gain the principles so they can go into an area and quickly assess what they can do to offset their income when they need to in order to stay on task for the church planting effort," Ballard said.
Because the local association and the state convention are not in positions to fund the school, Ballard is "trying to tell the story far and wide and praying that the Lord will touch the hearts of people to help us … ."
Paige Patterson, Jimmy Draper and Fred Luter are among the Southern Baptist leaders who have provided endorsements for Northeastern Baptist College.
"The fact of the matter is what we're attempting here is the impossible," Ballard said. "... We all know the debt that our country owes to New England. The Baptist Faith and Message is built on the New Hampshire Confession. We all know what D.L. Moody did here. We all know about the Great Awakenings. Yet we also know that today the Northeast is the most unchurched.
"Vermont is the self-proclaimed least churched state in the nation. Fifteen miles from where I'm sitting on campus is the site of the Haystack Revival, yet you look around today and see the devastation," Ballard said. "So you're realistic about it, but you rely on the Savior."
Ballard is asking Southern Baptists across the nation to be a part of launching Northeastern Baptist College by the tried and true methods of praying, giving and going.
Mission teams from North Carolina, Virginia and Alabama are among those who have traveled to Bennington to help convert the 19,000 square feet of space on the third and fourth floors of a former Ramada Inn and Conference Center into a Baptist college.
"We've had volunteer couples come for a week or two," Ballard said.
The school hopes to launch with 100 students next year, and Ballard tells people there's no better place to send their students than to Northeastern, where they'll gain knowledge but also practical ministry experience.
"Less than 2 percent of the state of Vermont claims to have a relationship with Christ, so this is an unreached people group right here in our own country," Ballard said.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. For more information, visit Northeastern Baptist College online at www.nebcvt.org
. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).