Applause from family, friends, and faculty echoed throughout the Nash Correctional Institution gymnasium as the first graduates of The College at Southeastern’s North Carolina Field Minister Program filed in one by one. All 24 graduates of the NCFMP graduated with honors, and the program has seen an 80 percent graduation rate this year.
“Almost exactly four years and four months ago today, many of us gathered here in this very gym to usher in the start of this program with our very first convocation service,” said Seth Bible, director of prison programs at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“We had no idea what the future would hold for our first cohort of students, but we were confident in the God that held that future in his hands.”
Culmination of a dream
Dec. 15, 2021 marked a special day in the life of Southeastern as it was the culmination of a dream that began in 2016 when SEBTS President Danny Akin, representatives from Game Plan for Life, and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) met to discuss what it would look like to offer a bachelor of arts in pastoral ministry to offenders in North Carolina. Little did they know that nearly five years later, they would be seeing the program’s first graduates deployed across the North Carolina prison system.
The program held its first classes in August 2017 with 30 students. That number has now risen to 90 students. The men graduating this fall will be divided into five teams and sent throughout prisons within the state, having the opportunity to change the culture of the prison system from the inside out through counseling, mentorship, and training to the incarcerated population.
During his charge to the graduates, Akin reminded them that they are called to fulfill the Great Commission through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit and by the authority of Christ. “It is our prayer for all of you that you would be sent as ambassadors for Christ,” Akin said.
Experiencing a milestone like graduation is exciting, but it was not without challenges along the way.
When North Carolina went into a state of emergency on Friday, March 13, 2020, Southeastern’s prison program did not miss a beat in moving its classes online. The NCFMP was only one of two programs in the country to move into teaching live, synchronous classes for incarcerated persons in the Spring 2020 semester. Because of social distancing measures, each cohort of students in the NCFMP was divided into three classrooms. Throughout the spring and fall semesters, students logged into one Zoom meeting on a TV screen to watch their professor’s lecture together.
‘Beacon of hope’
This fall, the Prison Seminaries Foundation awarded SEBTS the Seminary of the Year Award during the 3rd Annual Partners in Moral Rehabilitation Conference. Now, as the semester has come to a close, the program is seeing 24 men graduate with a bachelor of arts in pastoral ministry.
“The most important people involved in this project are the students sitting right in front of me today. They have overcome incredible odds,” said Bible, noting in his address the providence of God, the people involved in the program, and the partnership at work through these four and half years. “They have achieved something very few people in their context have had the opportunity to achieve. They are truly remarkable individuals, and I could not be prouder of each one of them.”
Todd Ishee, commissioner of prisons for DPS, called the 24 graduates a “beacon of hope” for the approximately 29,000 men and women in the North Carolina prison system.
“We are hopeful that you will be a part of a culture change here in North Carolina across our prison system,” said Ishee, noting his hope to “weave [the program] into the fabric of our prison organization so that it can’t be undone.”
In his address to the graduates, Joe Gibbs, founder of Game Plan for Life, reminded graduates of the legacy they will leave for Christ as they go out to minister across North Carolina prison systems.
“What we’ll leave on this earth is our influence on others. You guys have been empowered, God has given you this opportunity, and I believe you’re going to lead many to Christ.”
To learn more about the North Carolina Field Minister Program, click here.