In recent years, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and The College at Southeastern welcomed approximately 500 new students each semester to a variety of study programs. Almost 40 percent take online classes, while more than 1,700 walk into classrooms on the Wake Forest campus.
This term will be very different. Thirty of the new students are incarcerated at the Nash Correctional Institution, located 40 miles from the main campus.
The new North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP), offered through SEBTS, began with a convocation service at the Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C., Aug. 21.
“Welcome to The College at Southeastern,” Danny Akin, president of SEBTS and The College at Southeastern, said to the NCFMP inaugural class. “Words are not adequate to express how glad I am that you are students at our school.”
Danny Akin, SEBTS president, welcomes new students in Nash Correctional Institution at the inaugural convocation service for the seminary's North Carolina Field Minister Program.
Jamie Dew, dean of The College at Southeastern, led a prayer at the beginning of the service.
“We come to this moment with incredible amounts of excitement and joy for what you have done,” said Dew. He gave thanks for the many years of preparation that led to the launch of NCFMP and prayed that God’s mercy would “flow through the prisons of North Carolina.”
SEBTS started the program in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and Joe Gibbs’ Game Plan for Life men’s discipleship. In addition to Game Plan for Life, the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina is helping fund the NCFMP for its first five years in order to cover the program’s capital costs.
The program, which offers a bachelor of arts degree in pastoral ministry with a secondary emphasis in counseling and psychology,
is offered to inmates who carry a minimum sentence of 15 years. The goal is to offer theological training that will prepare students to minister in the context of the North Carolina prison system. SEBTS faculty will teach courses in dedicated facilities on site at Nash Correctional Institute.
Seth Bible, director of prison programs at SEBTS, noted the importance of this initial convocation service.
“Today we are not just gathered here to meet for the sake of meeting; we are meeting in a very ceremonial way to ring in the beginning of this academic school year and the start of this very important program,” said Bible.
The NCFMP is best defined by the partnership that makes it possible, Bible said. The college, in cooperation with the N.C. Department of Public Safety, strives to educate and equip long-term offenders for the purpose of changing the culture within the prison system.
After four years of “intense course work” each student will earn a fully accredited bachelor of arts degree in pastoral ministry. There is no program like this in the N.C. prison system, according to Bible.
Primary financial supporters include Joe Gibbs’ Game Plan for Life and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Additional financial support is being solicited from individuals and foundations.
Three-time Super Bowl champion and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs sees NCFMP as a personal milestone and reflection of God’s character.
“I consider the field minister program to be one of the most important things I'll ever do in my life," said Gibbs, “because this could go on long after I’m gone.”
Gibbs reminded the inmates, “The great thing about our God – He is a God of second chances.”
Jane Gilchrist, general counsel for the Department of Public Safety, expressed excitement about the program and thanked the sponsors for their support and willingness to “address a critical need in our facilities.
“This program will prepare these graduates to provide pastoral care and counseling at many of our facilities,” she said. “These men are among the [prison] population daily. They see what’s going on, and they have a feel for problems that may occur.
“They can assist in helping members of our population move forward with their lives in prison as well as assist in preparation for life outside these walls.”
Gilchrist drew a spiritual metaphor of light and darkness and referred to the recent solar eclipse.
“Today is a unique day,” said Gilchrist. “Most people are paying attention to an event that brings darkness to parts of North Carolina; however, there is no eclipse here at Nash Correctional. There is nothing but light and brightness as we begin the North Carolina Field Minister Program.”
Akin said seminary professors will “challenge and push” the 30 new students to study diligently.
“We do so because you have answered a calling – a calling to represent the King of Kings and Lord of Lords right here in what I think is one of the great mission fields in America. It is our prayer that this model will succeed for the glory of God.”
Akin said he aspires to duplicate this instructional model, “not only in America, but literally, around the world.”
The seminary will admit 30 students into NCFMP each year, allowing for a capacity of 120 participating inmates within four years. The 30 current students were selected from 300 applicants across the state prison system.
The NCFMP is modeled after degree programs in the Angola Prison in Louisiana and Darrington Prison in Texas, which are taught by the faculty of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.