Leavell College of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary marked two milestones during its commencement May 18: surpassing 5,000 graduates during 25 years as a four-year institution.
"We are preparing students so that they are first and foremost grounded in their biblical understanding," Thomas Strong III, dean of Leavell College, said in an interview. "We are preparing students to build their lives upon the Scripture and then to help others do so as well."
This commitment to the Bible and biblical ministry leads to a deep commitment to the local church among the school's students, Strong said.
This year's top graduating bachelor's student, Jerome Bradley, exemplifies that dedication. Bradley, who will continue as a master's degree student at NOBTS in the fall, sensed a call to ministry while serving as a Sunday School teacher at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Retired after 33 years in the military and federal government service, Bradley began studying at Leavell College with the goal of becoming a chaplain. Throughout his time in the undergraduate program, Bradley continued to teach at his church and serves as a counselor at the Bridge City Youth Detention Center.
Leavell College students "have not forsaken the church," Strong said, but see its "great place in the Kingdom."
Creating an undergraduate program
Known first as the School of Christian Training, Leavell College began offering full bachelor's degrees during the 1992-1993 school year. From the beginning, the college prioritized adult learners seeking a basic level of ministry training. In the early years, Leavell College only accepted students age 25 or older. Jimmy Dukes, the first dean of the four-year college, designed the bachelor's program with the idea that many of the school's graduates would continue their study in the NOBTS graduate program.
While the age restriction has been removed, Leavell College still attracts many adult learners transitioning from other careers along with traditional college-aged students. All students who attend Leavell College are required to articulate a call to ministry and must be endorsed by a church.
In 1997, the college was renamed the College of Undergraduate Studies at NOBTS to better reflect its expanded mission. In 2003, NOBTS trustees approved the Leavell College name to honor the contributions of the Leavell family. Landrum Leavell II, NOBTS president from 1975-1995, was president of the seminary when the four-year college was founded. Roland Q. Leavell served as the seminary's president from 1946-1958 and was instrumental in the acquisition and construction of the current NOBTS campus.
A longstanding commitment
The passion which led to the creation of Leavell College stretches back to the seminary's beginnings 100 years ago. And the first attempts at establishing a college date to the 1950s.
NOBTS -- Baptist Bible Institute at the time -- was founded in 1917 as a graduate school tasked with training pastors, ministers and missionaries. A four-year college degree was required for entrance into the BBI programs. Noticing a number of God-called ministers in the area who did not have a college degree, visionary leaders at BBI created courses to offer basic ministry training for non-degree students.
The first efforts to formalize the undergraduate program came when NOBTS applied for membership in the American Association of Theological Schools in 1954. Because the accrediting agency only worked with graduate institutions, NOBTS created the School of Christian Training (SCT) to oversee the undergraduate program. SCT had a separate faculty who taught certificate and diploma-level courses when the school opened in 1956. Initial plans called for the development of a four-year undergraduate degree.
The first incarnation of SCT was short-lived. By 1958, NOBTS officials dropped plans to develop undergraduate degrees but continued to offer certificate and diploma training for those without a college degree through the department of Christian training.
The School of Christian Training was reinstituted in 1976 to bring better focus to the ongoing undergraduate training efforts. The second incarnation of SCT offered diplomas and associate degrees in multiple languages at multiple sites. Ray Rust, who died earlier this year, helped reestablish SCT and served as acting director during the first year.
The SCT was led by a series of committed leaders including first full-time director Fred Moseley, who served from 1977-1981; Jerry Breazeale, who was named director in 1981 and served until 1989; and Dukes, who led the SCT from 1990-1999. Under Dukes' leadership, SCT developed and implemented four-year degrees to prepare students for graduate study.
One of the first men Dukes hired to serve on the faculty of the new college was Strong, now the school's dean. Strong joined the faculty as a New Testament professor. In 1999, when Dukes was asked to lead the seminary's growing extension center system, Strong was selected to serve as dean of the college.
Today, Leavell College offers four associate degree programs (Christian ministry, music and worship, children's ministry and women's ministry) and two bachelor's degree programs (Christian ministry and music). The college also offers diploma and certificate programs to enhance the ministry of the local church. Students can complete a degree by studying on the main campus in semester-length classes or short-term workshops, at an extension center or online.
Leavell College continues to play a vital role in the life of NOBTS. Many of the school's 5,000 graduates continued their studies at NOBTS or other SBC seminaries. The college remains one of the top feeder colleges for NOBTS graduate-level students.