Jo Anne Embleton
Jacksonville Daily Progress
Tucked away at near the edge of the Jacksonville city limits is probably the area's best-kept secret: The Baptist Missionary Association Theological Seminary.
It is, said post-graduate student Jordan Tew, a gem he's glad he discovered.
The Karnack native was attending Jacksonville College and looking at schools when he met several instructors from the seminary.
“I became interested after learning that it was accredited and would be able to equip me to do the ministry I feel called to do,” he said, explaining that he is studying for his master's in divinity, with the goal of becoming a pastor.
“I wanted to come here because I knew the program would support my conservative values and my beliefs about the Bible,” he said. “I decided to stay on (in Jacksonville) when I could have gone (elsewhere), because I know I can learn from professors who are experts in their fields.
“This school is very academic, yet very practical in that I can take what I learn here and use it real-life situations,” Tew added.
Seminary dean Dr. Philip Attebery says he's “heard so many people say that the seminary is the best kept secret in East Texas or that it really is a hidden gem in our community,” which is flattering, but also challenging because its profile isn't as visible as administrators would like.
“We are the only seminary between Shreveport and Dallas,” added BMATS librarian James Blaylock. “Some of our churches think Jacksonville College is the seminary.”
It's not a far leap, however: The seminary was originally part of a program that initiated at the college, but became an independent entity in 1955.
Both are under the umbrella of the Baptist Missionary Association.
“When they decided to start (an independent) seminary, they separated the campuses and offered the seminary to the national association of churches that support us,” Attebery explained, adding that after scouting several different sites across the country, the national group decided to let the program remain in Jacksonville.
Located on an 18-acre site at 1530 E. Pine, the seminary is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to award associate, bachelors and masters degrees; it also is accredited by the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools to award the Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Church Ministries and the Master of Arts (Religion) degree, according to www.bmats.edu.
It also is a member of the Council of Southwester Theological Schools and the American Theological Library Association.
Attebury calls the program unique not only in that it embraces BMA theology but “in the emphasis we have on disciple-making.”
The seminary motto, taken from verse three of the book of Jude, “Earnestly contending for the faith,” takes to heart Jesus' command to go forth and preach to all nations.
The program focuses on ministry, preparing students for “leadership roles within a Christian ministry/church context,” Attebery said.
Some go on to become pastors of churches throughout the country, while others are called to missionary life, military chaplaincy or to work as educators, deacons and other church leaders.
BMATS degrees focus on the Bible and ministry courses that focus on history, doctrine, Scripture, preaching, disciple-making and worship, he said.
Annually, an estimated 180 students enroll in the local seminary, though “we may not have that many in a give semester,” Attebury said.
“Right now they're down from where we were say, five or six years ago, I'd say part of it is due to the economy. About the time the economy (slipped), we started seeing a decline in enrollment. Most (educational institutions) saw that, too, and we feel we've held our own pretty well.”
Students mostly are from the East Texas area, while others hail from states and different countries, representing different denominations.
“We'll have people who will call and ask 'Can I come because I'm a Southern Baptist or member of a non-denominational church?' Of course they can,” he said.
Seminary courses are open to all who meet admission requirements; Attebery estimates 10-15 percent of the student body is female.
Tuition is set at $420 per class, with a $75 registration fee for the semester; 12-hour semester averages about $1500. Online courses, on the other hand, are $100 each and tuition assistance is offered through federal financial aid and seminary aid.
“We try to keep the costs lost low,” Attebury said.
Classes – taught by a 15-member faculty, of which six are full-time instructors – are offered on a semester basis as well as online.
Intensive weeklong classes, part of the seminary's Motion Program, allow students to fit in a semester's worth of work in a 40-hour school week.
These are offered during summertime and between the regular semesters, and “students prepare with a lot of reading and writing before the class, and then after,” Attebery said.
Many seminarians take advantage of the program, he added, explaining that “allows them to take a lighter load” during a regular semester.
“Some people find it easier to take a week off work than it is to take every tuesday afternoon off, so it's just another opportunity (for students). We've had several students from out of state who pretty much earned their degree that way, because they come for January courses and through the summer,” he said.
The small class size, which have a student-teacher ratio of 10:1, allows individualized attention and fosters closer interaction among students and instructors.
“The atmosphere, the situation, the structure allows for better interaction – one of the key things in being in ministry is that you have to be able to communicate with people,” the dean said. “You can't hide in seclusion, you just can't do that in the ministry.”
Video conference classes have helped promote the school's international aspect, allowing students from other countries to learn alongside those in East Texas, thanks to the magic of telecommunications.
“We just concluded a two-year project with students in the Philippines, and next week we'll kick off a Biblical Greek class to several different sites in Spanish-speaking countries,” Attebery said.
The building that houses the video conference classroom also holds part of the seminary's 80,000-volume library.
Librarian Blaylock, himself a BMATS graduate with a master of religious education degree, said when he first took the job in 1972, the facility had 3,000 to 4,000 volumes.
Now, “I believe we are the biggest library in Jacksonville,” possibly even Cherokee County, “and 50-60 percent of the collection is theological material,” with many of the volumes gifted by churches and pastors, he said.
While a majority of students enrolled at BMATS are focused on a life of ministry, “we would love for people to take advantage of opportunities” that focus on their spiritual life, Attebery said.
“We've found that a lot of folks want to learn how to share their faith, so we have (offered courses on that topic) quite often. We enjoy sharing good news and interacting with people in the community in a friendly way,” he said.
Pausing, he added, “there are few areas like (East Texas, where people are comfortable talking) about God and Jesus and church, (even though) they might not be real active in a church,” he said.
And this very well may be why the Baptist Missionary Association seminary is flourishing in East Texas.
“The environment, the community is certainly an advantage” for the program. “We have had great support through the years,” Attebery said.