ARLINGTON—Gene Wilkes takes the helm of the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute with his eyes wide open to the reality of a radically transformed landscape in seminary-level education.
Legacy Church in Plano, who was elected the institute’s president in October and will be inaugurated in February.“We are aware of the changes taking place in theological education. The competition is heating up,” said Wilkes, former pastor of
The institute’s founders in 2004 envisioned a hybrid delivery system that would combine video classrooms, online instruction and “teaching churches” where experienced pastor-teachers would mentor ministers-in-training.
In the decade since then, some traditional residential seminaries have experimented with online and distance learning to try to reverse enrollment declines—particularly since the economic downturn in 2008.
“Change takes place in culture, universities and business first, and then in churches and finally in seminaries. But seminaries realize now they cannot continue to do it the way it’s always been done,” Wilkes noted.
The Association of Theological Schools reported enrollment in its accredited schools declined by more than 5,000 students in the United States and Canada between 2007 and 2011. The schools posted a slight increase in 2012, due primarily to an increased number of member schools, said Eliza Smith Brown, director of communications and external relations for ATS.
Changing view of online courses
Traditionally, the ATS commission on accrediting insisted no more than one-third of a master of divinity degree could be completed through online courses. However, last August, the board of commissioners granted exceptions to the residency requirement to six member schools—three that grant master of arts degrees in ministry-related professional programs and three that offer either master of divinity degrees.
They included programs at three Southern Baptist schools—the master of divinity at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the master of arts in church planting at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the master of divinity and master of arts in Christian education programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Nearly 20,000 of the 74,000 students enrolled in ATS member schools completed at least one course by distance education during the 2011-2012 academic year.
At the same time, universities also have expanded both graduate-level ministry-related degrees and online courses. For example, in its first semester of operation, Wayland Baptist University’s online master of divinity program reported 18 students enrolled and at least 29 more in the application process.
Paul Sadler, dean of Wayland’s School of Religion and Philosophy, noted the program—designed to equip students for military chaplaincy, as well as provide a master of divinity program for ministry students who do not live near a traditional seminary—continues to receive applicants almost weekly.
Emphasis on church-based education
The B.H. Carroll Institute recognizes it faces stiff competition from “brick-and-mortar” residential schools, but Wilkes insists the institute’s emphasis on church-based education sets it apart.
“Our core value and vision is to return theological education to the local church,” he said, noting the school’s namesake, pioneering Texas Baptist statesman B.H. Carroll, started mentoring pastors long before he became founding president of Southwestern Seminary.
“It’s that model of a mature pastor/mentor guiding leaders in the local churches. … “I believe the local-church environment is still the best environment for training ministers.”
Unlike schools that offer courses entirely online or only in traditional classrooms, the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute offers “a hybrid model that includes face-to-face interaction and that leverages technology through video classrooms and online instruction,” Wilkes said. “We want that face-to-face connection, but we also want to provide an education that is accessible, affordable and achievable.”
However, the promise of personal interaction with a pastor-mentor offers its own set of challenges, he acknowledged. After nearly a decade, the institute has enlisted only 27 teaching churches, all in Texas and Arkansas.
“We have the challenge of strategically placing teaching churches in areas where they are near students and where we have resources for faculty,” he said.
A variety of ministry-related degrees
Rather than trying to compete head-on with schools that offer a variety of ministry-related degrees, the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute has narrowed its focus.
“Our niche is offering academic degrees. There are other platforms for training lay people or offering specialized training for church planters. We believe our focus should be to provide a systematic academic program to prepare pastor-teachers,” Wilkes said.
“We are elevating the role of pastor as pastor/teacher. There was a time not long ago when the emphasis was on the pastor as CEO. Now, there’s an emphasis on the pastor as entrepreneur. Carroll provides opportunity for pastors who are academically inclined to be trained at the master’s level and doctoral level.”
Outside conventional parameters
However, accreditation matters to academically inclined students, and while accrediting agencies are making changes, the Carroll Institute does not fit conventional parameters.
“We are helping the accrediting groups see the new paradigm,” Wilkes said. “We’re not just a seminary with online classes.”
In January 2007, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board certified the institute to grant degrees. Last February, the Association for Biblical Higher Education accredited the school. But two hurdles have to be cleared before the institute can receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools and ATS, Wilkes said.
One obstacle centers on helping the accrediting agencies understand the institute does not have “extensions” of a central campus. “Rather than offering seminary by extension, our classrooms are the local churches,” Wilkes said.
The other problem focuses on the definition of “library.” While the institute received 5,000 volumes from Eddie Belle Newport, widow of John Newport, philosophy of religion professor and academic vice president at Southwestern Seminary, and Lois Hendricks, widow of theology professor William Hendricks, donated an additional 500 volumes, most of its collection is offered to students digitally.
So far, the institute has 70 alumni. About 80 percent of students receive some scholarship assistance—all from foundations, individuals and churches since the institute receives no financial assistance from any denomination.
Most global students are on full scholarships, and the institute’s international reach continues to expand. The most recent graduating class included four global students, and the student body represents 13 countries, as well as 26 states.
The institute offers instruction in Cuba and Russia, and it recently received approval to offer courses in Vietnam.
“We train indigenous leaders in their indigenous language in their own culture and context,” Wilkes said, noting when international students move to the United States to pursue their education, only one-third return to their countries of origin.
The current study body includes 91 in the master’s program, 37 doctoral students, 29 “readers” who are auditing courses and nine in the diploma program, plus 60 students in the master’s degree program in Cuba and one doctoral student there. In addition, about 1,500 other “readers” are auditing classes overseas.
Due to the lack of Internet access in Cuba, courses are delivered on flash drives used on computers provided by Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas.
“Our goal is not to build any seminaries in the places where we offer classes. Our goal is to raise up pastor-scholars who can teach where they live and serve. We want to work ourselves out of a job in Cuba when we have five or six Ph.D.s there who can teach. We’re not trying to establish schools,” Wilkes said.
“Our effort is to work with recognized churches globally. We don’t do underground work. We go into Cuba with religious visas and fully comply with the guidelines prescribed.”
Wilkes recognizes he has assumed leadership of an institute that not only does not fit traditional models, but also came into being within the context of theological controversy.
Russell Dilday, former president of Southwestern Seminary until trustees fired him in 1994, was the Carroll Institute’s founding chancellor, and Bruce Corley, former dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Seminary, was the institute’s first president.
“We know some look at B.H. Carroll as a reaction to denominational realities and the turnover at other institutions,” Wilkes acknowledged. “I don’t want to be a part of reaction. I’m driven by our mission and vision.”
A challenging future
In the next five years, as some of the faculty—mostly former Southwestern Seminary professors—who have been a part of the institute since its founding retire, the school faces the challenge of finding scholars of comparable standing, he noted.
“We have 57 students connected to our Ph.D. program now, and we know it’s because of who our professors are,” Wilkes said. “Even so, we know there is a new generation of scholars coming up, and they grew up in this environment, understating what it means to deliver academic quality in the way people are learning now. That is exciting to me.
“The model and the mission is why I’m here.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: After originally posted, one sentence was edited to delete an incorrect reference to the BHCTI offering classes in South Korea. The institute has graduated a PhD candidate who is teaching in South Korea, but not courses offered by BHCTI.