As a United Methodist affiliated institution committed to ecumenism, Perkins has always attracted a diverse body of students. Now there’s a place at Perkins for Baptist students to call home while connecting with the broader Baptist world.
Initiated in 2018, the Baptist House of Studies is building a community for Baptist students to learn about their tradition and a network of resources to support them in their path toward ordination or other professional positions in Baptist churches.
“The Baptist House’s offerings will be multipronged, but the first aim is to signal to the world that Perkins is interested in welcoming Baptist students who want a seminary education,” said Jaime Clark-Soles, director of the Baptist House and professor of New Testament at Perkins.
Clark-Soles, an ordained American Baptist minister, was invited by Perkins Dean Craig Hill in July to launch the Baptist House of Studies, with help from fellow faculty member Isabel Docampo and George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. Organizers are planning a February 25 kickoff gathering at Mason’s home, with Dallas-area Baptist leaders as well as leaders from other congregational traditions
“Many of us outside the Baptist tradition don’t realize what a wide range of denominations and churches exists under the Baptist umbrella,” said Perkins Dean Craig Hill. “There are many Baptist students who will fit quite comfortably at Perkins, who want the education we offer, and who will bring important insights and perspectives to our community. We are eager to serve and to learn from them.”
Organizers say that having a Baptist House on campus will give all Perkins students an opportunity to benefit from the distinctive emphases of the Baptist tradition, including freedom of religion, freedom of individual believers to interpret the Bible, “soul freedom” (engaging God according to one’s conscience without coercion by human authorities) and church freedom (i.e., the autonomy of local congregations).
“Baptists will learn greatly from their United Methodist sisters and brothers, understanding their perspectives and reflecting on the differences and similarities, and vice versa,” said Mason, who is a longtime leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “In an increasingly pluralist world, they will need to find common cause with Christians wearing other uniforms rather than huddling up only with their own team.”
Plans are underway for Mason to teach a course in Baptist history and polity in the 2020-21 school year and to establish connections with a variety of Baptist churches, denominations, agencies and institutions.
“We’re building relationships with churches that will partner with us to set up internships and other opportunities for Baptist students,” said Docampo, director of The Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions at Perkins.
Given that Baptist congregations are autonomous, Baptist pastors aren’t appointed by a connectional system. That means they must seek employment individually and, for Baptist pastors, handle some additional responsibilities. By connecting Baptist students to Baptist conferences, retreats and educational opportunities, the Baptist House will assist these students in networking, preparing for and fulfilling their call.
The Baptist House of Studies will also provide spiritual formation, mentoring and preparation for ordination for students as well as special programming open to all Perkins students, SMU, the Metroplex community and beyond.
“We’ve always had a few Baptist students at Perkins,” said Docampo, who is an American Baptist. “Part of this is about being intentional about creating a community and opportunities for them.”
While welcoming all Baptist students, the program will also help fill a niche by serving students affiliated with moderate to progressive Baptist traditions, such as the Alliance of Baptists, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Baptist Peace Fellowship and American Baptist Churches USA. While there are Baptist-affiliated theology schools in the North Texas area – such as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth – most are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Docampo thinks the niche offers many possibilities for broadening Perkins’ reach.
“As a Latina feminist who is also very progressive, I’m excited about the prospect of creating a community that will nurture people in the Latinx community,” Docampo said.
The “house of studies” concept originated in British universities; in the U.S., several seminaries have a Baptist House of Studies, including Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt and Brite Divinity. The Baptist House of Studies doesn’t occupy a physical space – although that’s a possibility down the road. Instead, it is creating a network for fellowship, support and resources for Baptist students. And given the large number of Baptists in Texas, Clark-Soles said, the field is ripe for harvest.
“This will assist in the recruitment of Baptist students to Perkins by assuring them that they can get what they need to serve well as Baptist ministers,” she said. “At the same time, they’ll benefit from the vast resources of Perkins and SMU, in the setting of a large metropolitan area with many arts and cultural offerings.”
Mason adds that the presence of the Baptist House of Studies at Perkins will also benefit students from other congregationally autonomous traditions.
“The Baptist House will also offer hospitality for our free church cousins in denominations like the United Church of Christ (UCC), Disciples of Christ, Anabaptist (Mennonite) and nondenominational churches, all of which operate within a basic congregational polity,” said Mason.
While Baptist students at Perkins will be the first priority, leaders also hope the Baptist House will evolve into a connecting point that could bring Baptist leaders, laypeople and the wider community to the SMU campus for special events. Fall 2019 will see Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, speak on religious freedom at Perkins. The Baptist House of Studies will host the Baptist-affiliated Shurden Lectures at Perkins in the spring of 2020.
Said Clark-Soles: “I see no reason not to dream big and see where it takes us!”