Thanks to the commitment of the Southern Seminary community and the Lord’s favor, SBTS and Boyce classrooms remained open through the fall and spring semesters—reaching record enrollment for fall (3,323) winter (1,511) and spring (3,225).

While more than 1,300 American colleges and universities shifted to online or hybrid classrooms in the fall—and with 65 percent of colleges reporting declining enrollment— Southern stayed ahead of COVID-19 and completed a healthy academic year.

Higher education faced a crisis. But Southern’s mission to train Christian ministers endured.

Last year SBTS President Albert Mohler said: “We are facing a challenge that is without precedent for anyone living. It is taking a toll on our hearts, even as we understand the very same sense of seriousness and gravity that falls upon our churches, our state conventions, and our common work together. We certainly did not choose to experience this challenge, but the Lord has called us to faithfulness—even in the midst of this crisis—and to serve Southern Baptists with everything we have and everything we are as we look to the future.”

Testing Was Key to Staying Healthy

Brent Small, associate vice president of human resources, said testing was central to success. Immediately after students were sent home during the 2020 spring semester, Small and the rest of the staff got to work.

“If we’re going to remain open,” Small said, “we’re going to have to test.”

Due to the fast action of Small and others, Southern acquired a rapid testing machine and put it to good use. Having a testing ma- chine, however, was not enough.

“Once we had the equipment, we had to come up with a way to schedule, track, and administer the testing.” Small said. “We also needed a plan to care for anyone who tested positive.”

Campus Technology and the Hagan Clinic were indispensable to the operation as well. A plan was implemented to randomly test 15 percent of the population per week. Along with testing, classrooms were fitted with plexiglass shields and desks were spread out for social distancing.

“Higher education faced a crisis. But Southern’s mission to train Christian ministers endured.”

With the students coming soon, all employees were tested with zero positives. As fall approached and the testing began, there were zero reentry cases and zero spread in the dorms. Southern performed more than 4,000 tests with only 32 positives. Classrooms remained open.

On July 31, 2020 shortly before classes were set to resume, Mohler addressed the Southern community: “We have never been more prayerful or careful in preparing for a new academic year.”

To stress the responsibility of individual community members toward one another, SBTS added a line to the school covenant urging adherence to the COVID regulations.

Mohler added, “The covenant is a reminder of the fact that we owe one another every effort to protect one another.”

Without the dedication and service to one another, Southern’s fall and spring semesters could have looked different. But love for neighbor and the desire to provide the finest Christian education triumphed.

“Everyone took it seriously.” Small said, “It was a lot of hard work on the clinic, tech, and the students. But it was the Lord’s favor in the end.”

Tuition Reductions and the Path to Record Enrollment

Polling shows 67 percent of colleges and universities reported decreased revenue from tuition and student housing during the pandemic. But Southern preemptively acted by lowering tuition 15 percent and eliminating the $250 online class fee. SBTS and Boyce College went on to reach full enrollment for the fall and spring semesters.

The decisions came from a meeting of the SBTS Board of Trustees on April 20, 2020. In a virtual meeting, the board approved a revised budget which cut tuition.

Financial board chairman Rick Staab says the actions were unanimously supported and required “quick and decisive action.”

“Under Dr. Mohler’s leadership the entire administration has taken bold steps to reduce costs, consolidate operations and revise the annual budget.” Staab said “in an effort to position the institution for whatever the near future may demand. The financial board is unanimous in its support of Dr. Mohler and his staff, and we affirm the appropriateness and effectiveness of the actions taken to position the seminary for the future recovery of normal operations.”

Lowering tuition, while American financial problems persist, is a step towards fulfilling Southern’s mission of providing accessible theological training.

Baptist press reported that SBTS and Boyce College reached a total enrollment of approximately 5,500 students for the 2019–20 academic year. The 2020–21 year numbered 8,059.

Provost Matthew Hall said, “Christian higher education and theological education were already experiencing seismic shifts before the COVID-19 pandemic, but those have only accelerated. In the past year we have seen scores of institutions buckle under the pressures of diminishing enrollment and unsustainable business models.

“That makes what God has done here at Southern Seminary and Boyce College all the more extraordinary. Our great ambition is to see this record number of students ever more faithful to Christ, more confident in the power of his Word, and more committed to the Great Commission.”

Mohler added that Southern’s enrollment success is due in part to a commitment to online education. With all of the major degree programs available online—including over 100 courses—Southern was ahead of the game as institutions across America moved to distance learning.

“Now we know why that investment was so important. . . . The same faculty that draws students to the campus draws students online,” Mohler told Baptist Press. “Our students are experiencing economic stress and the goal is to pass along all possible savings to the students.”

Lowered tuition and more accessible distance learning are just a couple steps Southern has taken to renew a commitment to theological education during the uncertain times. Continued full enrollment demonstrates the success Southern’s measures have generated.

“Our determination is to act responsibly now, so that Southern Seminary continues to lead the Southern Baptist Convention, fulfilling the mission given to us since 1859 and emerging from this challenge even more faithful than we began,” Mohler said.

But through all the necessary changes, some things remained the same, and SBTS continued to send graduates out into various fields of service.

Graduated More Than 500

In Southern’s 227th commencement in May, 232 students received degrees from the semi- nary and 236 graduated in the fall, both numbers an increase from the previous year.

In words addressed personally to the fall graduates, Mohler pointed them to Luke 2:15– 20, which he described as the first preaching of the gospel—a fact that’s often overlooked, but one that well illustrates the God-called steward’s most fundamental mission.

“They made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child, the saying that the angels had given them,” Mohler said.

“We need to do exactly what those shepherds did. That’s really the task of Christian ministry, that’s really the task of Christian proclamation—to make known the saying we have received. It’s not just one saying, it’s not just the angelic declaration of the identity of the baby in the manger, it is beyond that; it is the entirety of all that is revealed in God’s Word.

“You’re going to preach and teach the Word of God. You’re going to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. You’re going to be heralds of the gospel. You’re going to be stewards of the mysteries of Christ. Whatever your ministry, wherever the Lord may take you, you’re basically going to be imitators of these shepherds.”