Sunday, September 14, 2003

Uneducated preacher era fades in Appalachia

The Associated Press

PINEVILLE, Ky. - Jim Norman wasn't always the articulate wordsmith who now shines as a Southern Baptist pastor.

Not so long ago, Norman was just another high school dropout from Appalachia who had gone on to earn a living for his wife and children.

By his own admission, the 37-year-old carpet installer was unable to match subjects and verbs in simple sentences. He stumbled clumsily over many of the words in his Bible.

So when he began sensing God's call to ministry, Norman felt he had to go to school.

"I needed an education," he said. "I needed to be able to communicate, to relate to people. I needed to be able to understand the Bible, to interpret Scripture correctly."

Like Norman, a growing number of country preachers across Appalachia are opting for higher education, despite a pervasive mountain belief that those whom God calls to ministry should not seek a formal theological education.

Norman said some friends in his mountain community suggested he attend Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, a small school outside Pineville that trains ministers for rural churches. Others, he said, warned that preachers who go to school are showing a lack of faith in God's ability to equip ministers for service.

"There has been a mind-set that preachers get in the pulpit and God will fill their mouths with the right words," said Cathie Canary, an administrator at Appalachian Bible College in Bradley, W.Va.

Enrollment in existing Bible schools is rising and new schools are sprouting to help meet the demand, said Randall Bell, associate director of the Accrediting Association for Bible Colleges in Orlando, Fla.

Bell said his agency accredits 110 such schools - up from 50 in 1973 - with total enrollment of about 36,000 students. He said some 1,200 other Bible colleges, most of which are unaccredited, serve an additional 36,000 students.

With 300 students, Appalachian Bible College, which was established in 1950, has doubled in enrollment in the past 20 years. Enrollment at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College has grown from 135 to 205 over the past 10 years.

Those schools, along with the Kentucky Mountain Bible College at Vancleve, are turning out about 100 new graduates a year. Most are serving in central Appalachia.

"This area has been known for strong feelings against educated ministers," said Bill Whittaker, president of the Clear Creek school. "We still have churches in our area who do not believe in educating ministers. But we don't run into that as much anymore."

Hiram Adkins, a soft-spoken Old Regular Baptist pastor from Pikeville, said his objection goes beyond that. He said preachers who go to school simply don't have the faith to trust God to prepare them for ministry.

Adkins, 72, said he has never preached a prepared sermon in his 46 years as a minister.

"I have found for me to try to study up a message just don't work," he said. "I just turn my heart over to the Lord."

Adkins, one of staunchest holdouts on the education issue, said only people who are truly called by God can do that.

Adkins concedes, however, that the number of people who share his view is shrinking.

"There still are some people who have what I believe to be the mistaken notion that there is somehow incompatibility between academic excellence and spiritual zeal," Bell said

However, Bell said educational levels of the general population, and therefore congregations, have increased to the point that preachers also must be educated to effectively minister the gospel.

"If you're going to minister to an educated congregation, you must be educated so that you hold their respect," Bell said.

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