“Meeting students where they live.” This slogan heads a poster promoting Birmingham Theological Seminary (BTS). Displaying photos of four BTS students—a police detective, a school teacher, a construction manager looking at blueprints, and a pastor behind a pulpit—the poster counters the stereotypical images of seminary students.

Since 1973, BTS has quietly but effectively trained and equipped hundreds of students, primarily from metropolitan Birmingham and other parts of Alabama. “We are a best-kept secret kind of deal,” said Glenn Waddell, seminary president. “We are ethnically diverse, low-cost, [un]traditional—we have not found anything else quite like it.”

Rethinking the Seminary Experience

Typically, “going to seminary” has entailed pulling up roots from professions—and churches—and relocating to a campus miles away. BTS is different. The seminary’s localized design accommodates men already leading churches in the area, as well as “bi-vocational” individuals serving churches or other ministries while also holding jobs in the secular world.

Waddell, one of only four full-time staff at the seminary, exemplifies BTS’s outside-the-box approach. Although he’s currently pursuing a master of arts in religion, his background is more eclectic—a mechanical engineering degree and juris doctorate from the University of Alabama, and a 16-year law practice. 

The school’s vice president of academic affairs, Thaddeus James, Jr., has similarly unusual roots. He started out as a BTS student while serving as a regional manager for Auto Zone. “My 25 years of business experience transferred well to what I do today,” said James. “Training, teaching, developing our staff.”

The instructional staff at BTS is also atypical. Almost all the professors are adjunct faculty, teaching part-time while working as full-time pastors in the Birmingham area. This offers students instruction from seasoned practitioners who live out the biblical truths they impart.

“With our faculty, it’s not that they were pastors, but they are pastors,” James said. “Their teaching is not theoretical. Our students receive solid, Reformed theological training, and they benefit from their instructors’ years of practical application and knowledge.”

The BTS campus—or lack of one—is another distinctive. Visitors expecting stately academic buildings will be disappointed. Classes are hosted at churches around the city, including Briarwood Presbyterian (PCA), and Birmingham Easonian Baptist Bible College. Extension centers are located in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Huntsville, Dothan, and Demopolis. For students outside Alabama, distance education courses are available.

BTS has also established cooperative and teaching relationships in New Zealand, Ukraine, Uganda, Japan, Korea, China, and Australia, as well as Puerto Rico. But its primary focus remains students who live and work in greater Birmingham.

Borderline Heresy—the Mother of Invention

Cofounders Frank Barker, Jr. and William Hay initially conceived of BTS out of an urgent need. Both were on the board of a ministry to inner-city children. “The individual heading the ministry was a good man, doing a great work, and he clearly had a hunger for more training,” Hay recalled. “But the biblical teaching he was receiving was borderline heresy. We wanted to find a way to offer solid theological training he could afford that would not require him to leave what he was doing.”

Their concern was not for only one person, Barker noted. “We wondered how many others would like to receive a good theological education, if it were readily available.”

Initially, weekend classes were offered following two degree tracks: a master of divinity and a master of religious education. Fifty-two students enrolled, including 21 who wanted to audit courses. Professors from Covenant and Reformed Seminaries taught the classes, along with Barker and Hay.

Within months the PCA came into being, enfolding Briarwood Presbyterian Church. Eventually Barker and Hay identified enough local clergy to teach at the seminary, eliminating the need to import faculty. Class offerings expanded into early morning hours and evenings, Monday through Friday.

Affordable, Accessible Education

Location, relatively low personnel costs, and the decision not to invest in bricks and mortar have combined to minimize tuition costs for BTS students, keeping fees at roughly 20 percent of the rates charged by most seminaries. As a result, more than 3,500 students have taken courses, and more than 350 have earned masters-level degrees.

“The main difference (between BTS and traditional seminaries) is we have made ourselves available to people in our area,” Hay noted. “They don’t have to move to go to seminary; our seminary goes to where the people are.”

Seth Wallace, a church resourcing representative for Mission to the World (MTW) in Lawrenceville, Ga., vouched for the seminary’s quality education. He holds a degree from BTS in biblical studies and is nearly three-quarters of the way to a master of divinity. He has also assisted in developing a CD/DVD-based distance learning curriculum, becoming “involved with the heart and soul of the seminary.”

“The pastors who serve as professors have a passion for training the next generation of church leaders. They don’t do it for the money. If that were the case, they could probably make more money delivering pizzas,” joked Wallace. “It’s more of an integrated approach to train and equip men while they serve in ministry, rather than sending them off to seminary and receiving them back several years later.”

Ralph Patterson, the detective in the BTS poster, plans to complete work on a master’s degree in 2010. A 16-year veteran of police work, he serves a 600-member congregation as a senior pastor assistant. One day he hopes to lead a church; in the meantime, his education has served him well both in the sanctuary and on the job.

“One of the things I have learned at the seminary is how to relate what I learn to my duties with the police department,” said Patterson. “The Scriptures give me direction for my duties on the job. From Dr. Barker I have learned about being a lifestyle witness for Christ, being able to share my faith at work whenever I’m given the opportunity.”

Cory Varden, a manager for Rives Construction Company in Birmingham, has attended BTS for two years, pursuing a degree in biblical studies. His current ministry consists of leading a young couples Bible study and volunteering at a downtown men’s mission. But he envisions a vocational ministry role one day. He applauds the hands-on teaching approach. “BTS is definitely geared toward working people not able to go to classes full-time. I’m not familiar with other seminaries, but there’s a real benefit in being in a small class with other working adults walking through the same journey I am.”

The relational dynamic of a community-oriented seminary is invaluable, according to Waddell. “Often students attend BTS for a number of years, developing strong relationships—ones that last—with professors and classmates, many of them also pastors. It’s not unusual to hear a student ask his professor, ‘Pastor, in your church, how do you handle this?’ Or, ‘Can we meet for lunch to talk about this?'”

Intentional Diversity

One other major distinction is the diversity of BTS’s student body. Approximately half of the students are African-American, and at least one has become the pastor of a local PCA congregation.

“Ethnic diversity does not define us, but it’s a significant part of who we are,” Waddell said, noting this might broaden the PCA’s predominantly white, middle-class demographics.

In envisioning BTS, “preparing African-American pastors to lead PCA congregations was definitely a part of our thinking,” said Barker. “Over the years we have had many African-American enrollees. Since I was on the board of Birmingham Easonian Baptist Bible College, we were able to encourage that.”

Thaddeus James, who is African-American, has appreciated the seminary’s outreach to minorities. “The high percentage of black students is intentional. You want to feel welcome, to feel a part of it,” he said. “In most seminaries it’s either/or—white or African-American. Our diverse faculty makes a big difference. But it’s not only ethnic diversity, but also the denominational variety. We are able to get sound Reformed theology out there without hitting students over the head with it.

“At BTS, relationships are forged in the classroom,” James continued. “Many students have never studied under a black professor. It can change your worldview. And classroom discussions with fellow students of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, working on projects together, can broaden your horizons. You really get to know each other. That’s where transformation takes place.'”

Larry Cockrell, pastor of Household of Faith Church (PCA) in Birmingham, earned his master of religious education from BTS while working as an engineer at Alabama Power and assisting with church plants, first Frontier Christian Church and then Household of Faith. Today he teaches leadership development, church administration, theology of missions, and church planting.

Cockrell, who is also African-American, foresees significant change in the PCA’s ethnic makeup. “At BTS we are hoping to attract African-Americans who one day will plant PCA churches. We already have several African-American church plants in the Birmingham area. As the PCA has grown, the number of African-American church planters has increased from three or four to about 25, and we hope to see that increase as more men are trained.”

Traveling to different parts of the country to work with local congregations, Wallace is acutely aware of this need. “Most of the time, we don’t step out of our own circles—racial, ethnic, theological, or socioeconomic. BTS helps students learn about and appreciate one another, bringing to light the common ground we share. This helps to erase differences, animosity, or misunderstandings we might have.

Sharing the BTS Model

Barker, now pastor emeritus at Briarwood, continues to teach a popular Old Testament survey course, as well as personal evangelism. He admits that BTS has grown far beyond his original vision. “We definitely didn’t imagine it becoming as large and diverse as it is, with extensions in other cities and associations overseas. It’s really exciting.”

BTS officials say they would welcome similar initiatives in other cities, but not as “franchises.” “We really want to give it away,” said Waddell. “We are not in the business of trying to establish extensions of Birmingham Theological Seminaries around the nation. A significant part of our student population consists of lay leaders just wanting to know more about the Bible. There is a definite need for ruling elders to become better equipped, not only in Bible knowledge but also to lead using well-developed, sound theology.”

Wallace agrees. “I would wholeheartedly endorse seeing the BTS model developed in other areas of the country. If it could be replicated elsewhere, men would not have to leave their jobs or move their families. They could continue teaching Sunday school classes and serving in other ways, rather than having to move and develop new church and ministry relationships.”

Robert J. Tamasy, a member of North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., an Atlanta-based ministry to business and professional leaders; author of Business at Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, and co-author of The Heart of Mentoring with David A. Stoddard.