New Orleans


Written from Washington, D.C. on the evening of March 24, 2019

Dear Dr. Kelley:

This is not a letter I wanted to write, both because it has the potential to create pain for you at a time of family health concerns and personal ministry transition and because it forces me to continually face the consequences for my own sin. When last I wrote about your ministry as president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I expressed my sincere gratitude for the legacy of evangelistic fervor, compassion for sinners, and mentoring commitments that have distinguished your long service to Southern Baptists and the Lord whom we both love.

I also want to express again my gratitude for the phone call we had the last week of August soon after your sermon, “The Baptist Blues,” gained attention across the convention. You told Baptist Press in the aftermath that you would have “changed a thing or two” about the way you expressed your ideas in that sermon, noting that “simmering divisions” in our convention could never be addressed if we didn’t talk openly about the problems that created them. I followed up that phone call with a Sept. 10 letter to you commemorating the substance of our conversation, in which I noted your “kind tone and courteous response” that “gave me some assurance that we will not need to have a similar conversation again.”

Because I agree with you that Southern Baptists will never effectively address the crises we presently face without open, honest conversation, I now write to you openly to ask for clarification about words you are reported to have spoken in the presence of other denominational leaders.

Specifically, Dr. Kelley, it has been reported that you have actively sought to influence the process for determining your own successor as president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Moreover, it has been reported by witnesses who heard you express at a recent meeting of denominational leaders your concern that a decision to elect an ethnic minority as the seminary’s ninth president would hurt the school. The reason for your reported opposition to the election of an ethnic minority as president is because you perceived such an election would create hardships on the institution’s fundraising activities.

When I first heard this report, I was in disbelief. Not only is it completely untrue that the election of our convention’s first ethnic minority seminary president would reduce the seminary’s donor pool, but the opposite is true. New Orleans Seminary, which has suffered consistent enrollment shortfalls and declining revenues in recent years, would likely unleash the untapped spiritual and economic power of the more than 10,000 non-Anglo majority churches that support Southern Baptist causes through the Cooperative Program.

I simply would not believe that a seminary president, serving in the heart of a city where more than 60 percent of the residents are African American and in the shadow of the great Franklin Avenue Baptist Church where former convention president Fred Luter serves as pastor, would countenance such a thought, let alone utter it.

Then I heard the same report twice more by persons using the exact same language, who were at the exact same meeting, when you are reported to have expressed this opinion. Deuteronomy makes it clear: “One witness is not enough. In the presence of two or three witnesses, a matter is established.”

Now before I ask you a few very direct questions, Dr. Kelley, I want to be candid about my own failings. “We all stumble in many ways,” the Epistle of James teaches. “If any man does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.”  I confess to you, my brother, that I am not perfect. In fact, I have spoken carelessly on matters of race in the past, and I am capable of doing so again. Outdated modes of thinking, prejudice, and un-Christlike patterns of speech are like Type 1 Diabetes for me. I have to watch my daily diet of thought, and I need a regular injection of God’s Word to help produce in my heart the kinds of affections and attitudes that my sinful flesh does not produce on its own.

But God has been working on me about this for several years now. It is why I committed to helping write and pass resolutions for the Southern Baptist Convention calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag and denouncing white supremacy. It is why I have repented of telling racially insensitive jokes and worked intentionally to cultivate more ethnically diverse social and professional fellowship and collaborations. Truth be told, when I first was called out for my own insensitivities and discriminatory biases, my first defense was to tell people “that’s not what I really think. I was joking.”

But out of the heart the mouth speaks, doesn’t it Dr. Kelley?  I realized I had a speech problem because I had a heart problem. So I want you to know that I am not intending to cause you pain here, or even to spotlight your potentially careless speech with respect to diversity and inclusion in the Southern Baptist Convention.

As you know, there has already been concern that one SBC search committee did not meaningfully engage any ethnic minority in their search for a president of the Executive Committee. Within a week, that committee is expected to nominate Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd as president. Three prominent SBC pastors — including two former convention presidents — publicly addressed their dismay that the process seemed to exclude competent, qualified, and Christ-honoring ethnic minorities. Apparently, “God’s man” is, once again, another white man.

And many of us are sick about it.

Despite this frustrating retread, much progress has been made to effect greater racial diversity in Southern Baptist life. Our convention president, J.D. Greear, has appointed the most diverse committees in Southern Baptist history. The chairman of this year’s resolutions committee, Dr. Curtis Wood, will be leading that important committee. The tellers committee will have a female chairperson this year. All in, Dr. Greear’s appointments to date have laid out a vision for Southern Baptists’ future that resists the temptations toward outdated racial homogeneity and unbiblical biases. These efforts are complemented and reinforced across our convention at nearly every turn.

At Southeastern Seminary, for instance, Dr. Danny Akin has enlisted the help of Dr. Walter Strickland to help realize Kingdom diversity on campus and across that institution’s ministry platforms. Months ago, Dr. Albert Mohler led Southern Seminary to release a much-needed assessment of that institution’s complicated past on race issues, calling for an “honest lament” over past sins and purposing not to “rewrite the past” but rather “write the truth.” At the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Dr. Russell Moore is providing a consistent prophetic witness on issues of racial reconciliation, and calling Southern Baptists to a new horizon of Kingdom focus and multi-racial ministry participation and engagement.

Against that backdrop, I have carefully read recent reports of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, both to the Southern Baptist Convention and to the seminary’s accreditors. This year, New Orleans reported “no change” to the primary race/ethnicity of enrolled students since the previous year. The numbers are telling.

For Fall 2018, NOBTS reported 448 White, Non-Hispanic M.Div students and 55 Black, Non-Hispanic students. There were 12 Black MRE/MCE/MA students in religious education, and 70 White students. There were 10 “Special MA” Black students and 127 White students. For the MPS degree, there were 51 White students and 13 Black students.

At the research degree level, the enrollment numbers were as follows: MA/MAR/MTS (4 Black and 47 White); DMIN (2 Black and 34 White); EdD (1 Black and 10 White); ThM (2 Black and 48 White); PhD (2 Black and 72 White).

Quite simply, Dr. Kelley, these numbers are embarrassing. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary exists in a state with the 2nd highest population of African Americans, adjacent to the state with the highest population (Mississippi). Two other states with the highest African American populations are within the immediate sphere of NOBTS influence (Alabama and Georgia). If ever there were a school that should be reaching, equipping, and deploying the next generation of Black ministers, it is New Orleans.

But that is not what has been happening, according to the seminary’s publicly available accreditation reports. In fact, for every Black student who graduates NOBTS with an M.Div. or D.Min., there are 10 white graduates. And for every Black student graduating with a Th.M. or Ph.D., there are 37 White graduates.

So Dr. Kelley, I ask you two questions very plainly:

  1. Have you stated in any context a concern that the election of an ethnic minority to succeed you as seminary president would harm the seminary’s recruitment or fundraising efforts? If so, will you explain your thinking in this regard or offer some clarification about your meaning?
  2. Do you believe that NOBTS record with respect to the recruitment, training, and graduation of ethnic minority students reflects a commitment to serve the churches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia? If so, how best can Southern Baptists understand this success?

I eagerly anticipate your response, and have prayed today that the Lord will give you great clarity of thought, wisdom of speech, and focus of mind to reassure Southern Baptists that New Orleans Seminary understands its unique ministry opportunity with respect to race relations in the SBC and that you are personally committed to seeing ethnic minorities assume senior executive leadership roles as presidents of our convention’s entities.


Benjamin Cole

16 thoughts on “New Orleans

  1. I sure hope that R Floyd is not going to be trotted out as the new head of the EC

    Please tell me I misread that sentence

  2. It may be a fine point, but the need for this letter tells me that the President of NOBTS views the donors (and the CP) as the Seminary’s source of supply. As I told the EC at the 2006 Convention in Greensboro, they need to revise their thinking to acknowledge God is their supply, and seek to please Him in all things. Including their next President.

    I would not have guessed this about Dr. Kelly. Come to think of it, I’d not have guessed it of the Executive Committee, either.

  3. Ben, I would like to ask two questions of serious consideration as you publicly attempt to denounce a legacy and shame a man of God who has been faithful to the call of serving in leadership for over 30 years at NOBTS:

    1. Why not approach this matter in private as you have had the opportunity on previous occasions as you mentioned to talk to him? Maybe you would gain a correct perspective for what may have been clearly said.

    2. How in the heavens does the rate of ethnic diverse graduation rates garner responsibility to the former President? This case is undoubtedly subjective to you assuming that the President chooses who comes in and who graduates. No one, and I repeat no one can make a minority choose a campus and/or decide their graduation track. This is foolishness to assume that.

    With all respect, I understand you may have deep concerns and if these allegations are true, of course that is room to be concern, but what this blog looks like to me, in my opinion, is a middle school-like gossip spree to once again tear down a leader on their way out the door.

    1. There is no denunciation or public shaming of Dr. Kelley, man or legacy, in this post. Is Dr. Kelley lessened in your eyes? My guess is he is not. So it is with thousands, perhaps millions, of men and women who know Dr. Kelley in one way or another. Dr. Kelley’s great reputation and God-honoring legacy are already secure.

      If, in the presence of two or three witnesses, Dr. Kelley said what he is purported to have said about the likelihood that an president of color will negatively affect fundraising at a seminary, then Dr. Kelley has brought shame on himself and warrants denunciation in a proportionate manner. If uttered by an otherwise godly and honorable ministry leader such as Dr. Kelley, then those comments not only belittle excellent candidates for the position, but they belittle every potential supporter of NOBTS by implying they would never give to a seminary led by a president who happens to be an ethnic minority.

      If Dr. Kelley said no such thing, well, now Dr. Kelley has a chance to strongly and publicly denounce the witnesses who claim to have heard it. He also has a chance to declare that racial prejudice has no place in ministries of any kind. Ben Cole’s post is doing every supporter of SBC seminaries and every contributor to SBC causes a huge favor by offering Dr. Kelley a chance to address publicly this matter of public ministry concern.

      The tendency among some ministry leaders to scurry behind Matthew 18 at times when they are confronted in a public manner about things they have said that impact their public ministries is a corruption and twisting of what Jesus was teaching in that passage. Matthew 18 is a mighty teaching that applies to every believer; it simply does not apply here.

  4. I sure hope Dr Kelley did not say those things. On another note, please, please please let it NOT be Armani Ronnie!!! How colossally disappointing that appointment would be. Extreme ego, “good ‘ole boy” network and kicking it reverse all rolled up in one.

  5. I know some will say “how dare you?”

    However, I for one, do not know Dr Kelley. I have the deepest respect for his labor and ministry at New Orleans,

    BB I am grateful for your missionary zeal, willingness to stand in the gap, and tell it like it is and NEEDS TO BE.

    I am grateful for the awesome fight you and your buddy from Okie made several years ago. I do not possess your ability with words.

    I spent four wonderful years at Southwestern. Love every minute. Worked in the old Book Nook. Baptist Book Store had been kicked out. One of my main duties to make copies of Thd seminar papers. I did this for three years. I also made me a copy. Also made copies of their thesis papers …. plus my copy. Regretfully I did not keep copies. That was 55 yrs ago.


  6. If a qualified minority were hired (knowing some will object to that adjective) and less money was raised as a result, then it seems that the suspicion of intransigent racism in the SBC would be clearly confirmed.

    Further, if a seminary can only survive by denying (practically if not expressly) the truth of Galatians 3:28, then it seem self-evident that the seminary should close.

  7. I commend the compassionate, humble, and brotherly tone of your open letter to Dr. Kelley. I see you here standing in for countless SBC congregants who have no doubt heard rumors of Dr. Kelley’s comments and wonder whether they are true.

    I applaud the public manner by which you bring this concern to Dr. Kelley. This is not a private concern. This is a the type of concern that, if true, cannot be remedied by a one-on-one conversation between just you and Dr. Kelley.

    You are approaching the public SBC leader of a public SBC ministry about publicly impactful statements he apparently made about the qualifications necessary to fill a public SBC leadership position. You are doing so after hearing from multiple direct witnesses to the statement, and after confessing your own weaknesses on the same issue of racial insensitivity.

    I, like you, hope these witnesses heard wrong. And if so, you are giving Dr. Kelley a public opportunity to not only deny their “testimony” and denounce it as gossip, but also to allow the public damage of what will then be false witnesses to be laid at their feet.

  8. Question: Did you speak to Dr. Kelley about your concerns privately before publicly sharing your opinions in the form of an open rebuke? Matthew 18 still matters!

  9. If the statements were made publicly Matt 18 does not apply. In fact, they are to be rebuked publicly and sharply. Titus 1:9-14

  10. Are the people who heard these comments willing to come forward and be named?

    Yes, I realize the irony of asking this question while remaining anonymous.

  11. call it out!!! This kind of stuff is running rampant throughout SBC affiliations. So sad. Those who are silent in addressing these matters only contribute to the hurt, pain, and delayed progression in truly representing the body of Christ.

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