Pair of Pastors Synchronize Degree Certifications
The Reverends Barry and Karen Ballard of Wyalusing Presbyterian Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Rome, respectively, received their Doctorate of Theology degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA, on May 14. While the couple had not embarked on their pursuit of a doctorate at the same time, they were able to coordinate their separate quests and share their accomplishments in a ceremony that was poignant for a number of reasons.
“Our mentor (Dr. David Currie) really wanted to graduate a couple,” said Karen, who garnered her Masters of Divinity degree in 1989, a year earlier than her husband. “He really pushed Barry to graduate.”
As it turned out, the Ballards were one of two sets of couples to receive four of 29 Doctorate degrees. Approximately 170 additional theology students received their Masters degrees during the ceremony, which played to the diversity of the pastors seeking higher education.
Not only did the degree recipients represent a number of foreign countries, Barry noted, they came from many walks of life and planned to use their new certification in a variety of ways.
“Some are going into pulpit ministry, others are going into missions work, and some will be teachers,” said Barry, who described Gordon-Conwell’s doctorate program as “a global outreach.”
The school’s pride in its ethnic diversity is evident at its website, where the United Kingdom, South Korea, Brazil, China, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Indonesia are listed among the nations from which students travel to complete their theological training.
A multi-cultural atmosphere prevailed during both the Baccalaureate service held on May 13 and the official graduation ceremony, during which friends and family members who attended the event in support of the individual graduates greeted their receipt of diplomas with chants and songs indigenous to their respective cultures. The keynote speaker was the president of the International Bible Society of Egypt.
“It was so cool to be a part of that,” stated Karen, who appreciated the fact that the multi-ethnic experience was a regular aspect of the curriculum at the seminary.
Barry added that the multi-cultural element of his education at Gordon-Conwell exemplified Jesus’ directive to “Go and make disciples in all nations,” noting that many of the graduates will return to their native lands “to fulfill that commission.” Barry expressed his gratitude for being able to make friends from throughout the world, many of whom have invited the Ballards to visit them.
Karen suggested that being immersed in a world cultures setting as part of her education has opened her eyes in ways that she had not predicted. “I think you look beyond what the media represents, and you realize that there is always another story, especially if it involves Christianity and persecution,” she stated. “You’re a little more sensitive when those countries make the news. The church is there, whether the media is or not.”
“Being from a small town, you tend to think that you are isolated,” Barry added. Pursuing his goals alongside people from so many nations, he said, made him realize that “You can have an impact on the rest of the world.”
The Ballards were joined in Massachusetts by their daughter and son, Kirstyn and Wesley, as well as by Rome church members Sylvia Abrams and Peggy Hughes. Barry’s father, Dick Ballard, was unable to attend as planned. Seminary president Dennis Hollinger honored children and parents of graduates during the ceremony by asking them to stand.
Barry noted that the Ballard children were impressed by the gathering and the topics by five speakers over the course of the two-day event.
“They picked some things up from the speakers that they reflected back to me,” he explained. The graduation provided an opportunity for the youths to meet fellow students of the Ballards whom they had talked about over the years and vice versa.
“It validated the whole group for everyone,” said Karen. “It was really neat to come together like that.”
The Bradford County entourage left South Hamilton after the ceremony on Saturday evening, and the Ballards managed to make it to their respective pulpits for Sunday morning services—albeit a bit jet-lagged.
“Both of our congregations have been so supportive of us,” said Karen, whose church organist played the opening refrain from “Pomp and Circumstance” as she entered the sanctuary. “They (parishioners) were our project. It seemed right to be here on Sunday and celebrate with them.”
The decade-long pursuit of the doctorate degrees by the Ballards involved course work at separate campuses associated with the Gordon-Conwell Seminary and three two-week residencies over a three-year period, as well as each of the Ballards developing an individual thesis and a plan or project for implementing it in their respective churches.
Barry’s thesis was “Outreach and Discipleship.” In his efforts to answer the self-imposed question, “How can we make better followers of Jesus,” he found himself drawing comparisons between St. Patrick and St. Columba—who converted pagan northern Scots to Christianity—to ministering in small-town America.
“I wanted to get the people to see our church as an outpost of God’s kingdom,” Barry related.
Karen’s thesis was “The Challenge of Keeping the Sabbath,” which centered on building the spiritual foundation of ministry leaders.
When asked how their lives or their individual ministries might change now that they have obtained their degrees, both of the Ballards agreed that their mission all along was to stay the course.
Referring back to their respective theses, Barry said, “It’s not something that is ever completed, so I don’t see that my part of (outreach and discipleship) at the church is done yet.”
“There’s a lot more under the umbrella (of my thesis) to pursue,” Karen concurred. “Now I’m better tooled to pursue it.”