The presidents of two Southern Baptist Convention seminaries—Adam W. Greenway of The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Jamie Dew of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary—participated in a live Zoom chat on “leading in/beyond COVID-19” with hosts Matt Henslee and Kyle Bueermann of “Not Another Baptist Podcast,” May 28. 

The two presidents, who were elected to their positions within three months of each other last year, reflected on lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic, how to lead with wisdom and grace as things gradually return to normal, and what advice they would give students currently deciding whether to attend seminary online or in person this fall. 

Concerning what the transition to fully online classes this semester due to COVID-19 precautions has taught him, Greenway said, “There are some things that we can do in person or we can do online, and it’s just as good online. There are other things that we can do in person or online, but it’s clearly better in person. COVID-19, I think, is giving us a deeper appreciation for real, in-person community.”

Dew agreed, “If COVID-19 has done anything, it has given us a scenario that reminds us of just how much we need each other. We need each other relationally, we need each other psychologically, we need each other spiritually, we need each other missiologically. And so it’s given us a context now that should forever change the way we celebrate and embrace public gathering.”

The two noted, however, that some positive lessons have been learned from this pandemic and will be useful moving forward, such as continuing to meet with church members via Zoom during the week in order to stay connected. 

Greenway explained, “The sad fact of the matter is too many Christians go Sunday to Sunday with no interaction with each other. And through this [technology], we can see each other, we can hear each other, we can, in a sense, have a degree of virtual community where we can be together Thursday afternoon, Wednesday night, Saturday morning—whatever we want to do. There is great flexibility in finding ways to be intentional in connecting.”

Dew added that Zoom can continue to be utilized for Sunday School meetings with members unable attend the church campus, and that, in the seminary context, he personally will continue to produce weekly video messages to his students—a habit born out of necessity during COVID-19. 

What the pandemic has “forced us to do in thinking outside the box,” Dew said, “is we have gone into the mode of ‘engage, engage, engage,’ and get creative in doing it. And I hope when we come through the other side of this and are able to get back to normal, we don’t lose that. Maybe we can engage face to face now, but I hope that we’re forever a little bit different about the intentionality of just connecting with people and talking with people.”

Concerning the process of returning to in-person gatherings at church and at school, the two agreed that “grace and latitude” are key, particularly regarding such issues as some churches requiring members to wear masks and others not. 

Dew noted that the transition is “going to look different for everybody,” especially for rural churches relative to urban churches, and so he encouraged the Christian community to “give grace to everybody, expect innovation, welcome innovation, and then let’s learn from each other as we do it.”

Greenway added that, during the transition, church leaders must rely on the Lord. 

“COVID-19 is reminding us [that] Christ is far more at work to preserve, to protect, and to perpetuate His church than any of us,” he said. “And our sufficiency needs to be seen in Him. We need to be prayerful in terms of how we re-gather, how we do what we do, how we continue to be the church even as we’re not gathering together or, if we are gathering together, being socially distant and responsible and the like.”

As students make plans for the fall and are considering whether to do their theological education online or in person—especially in light of the seminaries’ proven ability to conduct their programs fully online during the pandemic—the two presidents encouraged them to, if possible, choose the on-campus experience.  

Dew, though acknowledging that “the quality of the product that our schools produce in our online classes is solid,” nevertheless said, “If you have the opportunity to get to campus, get to campus, for this reason: the longer it takes you to do your degree program, the less likely it is that you will finish.”

Dew noted that residential students, on average, take 12 hours per semester, while online students take an average of only 3-6 hours. This drawing out of the education experience renders it less likely that online students will finish their degrees, Dew said. 

“We don’t exist to dabble in theological education and ministry preparation,” said Dew. “We exist to get people here, get them prepared, and send them out so they can get to the church and to the mission field. And students don’t come here to dabble either. So, let’s not dabble.”

Greenway similarly noted the strength of Southwestern Seminary’s online programs and acknowledged that, for some people, online classes truly are the best option. But he nevertheless advocated for on-campus theological education. 

“There are intangibles that you just can’t get in the same way in this format,” said Greenway of the online program. “Some of the best content of these Zoom meetings has been what didn’t make it into the recordings—it’s the pre-conversation; it’s the post-conversation. In the same way, some of the most memorable content I ever received in seminary was not part of the planned lecture from the professor; it was after class as he was walking out and I was walking with him to the office. It’s organic; you can’t script it, you can’t plan it—you have to be there.”

“You need a theological education that will sustain you for decades,” Greenway concluded. “That means it’s not just about the transmission of content; it’s about the transformation of life. And that happens most significantly when you’re living together, learning together, serving together.”

To listen to the full conversation, see here