U.S. Baptists support Zimbabwe seminary

Twenty-three years after stepping out on faith to launch Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, the Alliance of Baptists is now working with partners to birth the Zimbabwe Theological Seminary.

By Bob Allen

Two U.S. Baptist groups that formerly sponsored a Baptist seminary in Zimbabwe have switched loyalty to a new school started since the 2011 firing of a principal who opposed changes in governing documents that included required adherence to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

The Zimbabwe Theological Seminary in Gweru, Zimbabwe, opened classes last September and enrolls 50 students, said Philip Mudzidzi, an adjunct lecturer at the new seminary and former national youth and student director of the Zimbabwe Baptist Convention.

Last July the Zimbabwe Baptist Convention fired Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe principal Henry Mugabe for refusing to abide by an amended school charter adopted by a new council formed to replace the seminary’s board of trustees.

Changes reportedly related to the transfer of school property from the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board to the Baptist Convention of Zimbabwe, naming the president of the Zimbabwe Baptist convention the seminary’s official legal authority, and requiring all academic staff “to subscribe to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message upheld by the Baptist Convention of Zimbabwe, IMB and the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Mugabe, a Ph.D. graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who has taught adjunctively at U.S. seminaries affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, is appealing his termination in Zimbabwe and is not officially connected to the new seminary. He is visiting the United States this summer, with speaking engagements being arranged by the Lott Carey Missionary Convention, which lists the new Zimbabwe Theological Seminary as a global partner.

The Lott Carey convention, formed in 1897 by black Baptists in the United States committed to missionary work on the African continent, was one of several funding sources tapped by Mugabe in the 1990s to make up for a reorientation of Southern Baptist International Mission Board priorities that meant funds would no longer be available for operating institutions like the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe.

Another was the Alliance of Baptists, a 25-year-old organization of 135 churches formed by progressives seeking distance from the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. One of the Alliance’s early actions in 1989 was to launch what became the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, to fill a void of “reverence for biblical authority and respect for open inquiry and responsible scholarship” created by the loss of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an idea at the time widely viewed as ambitious or even audacious.

Recently the Alliance sent out a press release saying for similar reasons, the group is “helping give birth” to the new Zimbabwe Theological Seminary. According to the release, a group of U.S. Baptists committed to the new seminary began teleconference meetings last summer to coordinate support efforts.

Chris Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., provided the phone bridge and took early leadership in the conversations. Early meetings included staff members from the Alliance of Baptists, the Lott Carey convention and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.

In addition to funding, the group focused on securing books for the new seminary’s library and helping to develop and launch a website.

Beginning with a book list provided by the seminary, team members e-mailed colleagues and friends across the country asking for assistance. Some donors gave books from their personal libraries; others purchased books and donated them to the new school.

Renowned Baptist scholar Glenn Hinson heard about the need and elected to donate his entire library collection. “It is not easy even at age 80 to part with things you have cherished much of your life,” Hinson, senior professor of church history and spirituality at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, admitted in the news release. As of the end of May he had filled 92 boxes and estimated he would send 50 more.

When the seminary requested Bibles, students at BTSR and the library at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond donated more than 75. The committee quickly determined that fundraising was needed to help offset the cost of shipping -- $3.50 per pound and more than $13,000 to date. They recruited individuals, schools, Sunday-school classes and vacation Bible school programs in Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky to adopt the cause as a mission project.

A former BTSR student donated her time to design a new seminary logo. Colleagues at Lott Carey volunteered their webmaster to design, launch and maintain a new website, now up and running at www.zimsem.org.

The Italian Baptist Union, another longtime partner of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe, also pledged support for the new school.

The website describes the Zimbabwe Theological Seminary as committed to a “distinctively Baptist heritage with an ecumenical commitment, a global perspective, and participation in the worldwide Christian mission.”

Mudzidzi said about 10 denominations are represented so far, including Anglicans, Evangelical Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists and some of the African-initiated churches, also known as indigenous churches, independent denominations established by African initiative rather than foreign missionaries.

Mudzidzi said the new seminary is seeking accreditation through Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo.

The Alliance of Baptists press release described successes so far as “a testimony to the power of collaboration and cooperation.”

“No one group or organization could have launched this groundbreaking new school alone,” the release stated. “As a global village, however, we are making the dream a reality.”