Oklahoma Baptist University (OBU) President Heath Thomas was a recent guest of the Messenger Insight podcast. Since starting his presidency this year, Thomas has seen unexpected changes occur due to the pandemic in 2020, but he is encouraged by God’s provision and with the prospect of new programs at OBU and the ambition of recent graduates.

One graduate in particular Thomas mentioned is Misael Gonzalez who is currently serving at Owasso, First as teaching pastor. Thomas said Gonzalez is already having an impact at this great Oklahoma Baptist church, and he is a reflection of the entire graduating class.

“These are our graduates,” Thomas said. “These are the folks who come to OBU; they are equipped, and then they go to their communities to make a difference, or if God calls them to advanced study, they are going to ‘Tier One’ universities.”

Thomas mentioned a recent OBU nursing school graduate who was accepted at Vanderbilt University’s graduate school, and he said OBU has a 99 percent placement rate of graduates.

“OBU is worth Oklahoma Baptists’ investment because we want to receive our students from our churches, equip them under the lordship of Jesus Christ so that they leverage their lives for Jesus for eternal and lasting Gospel impact in whatever sector that God places our graduates,” he said.

Thomas addressed a major change that will be happening for the fall semester. OBU’s Board of Trustees voted to move up the start of semester to Monday, Aug. 10. No fall break will be observed, and final exams will take place prior to Thanksgiving (Nov. 16-19). The purpose of this schedule change, Thomas said, is to reduce the threat of COVID-19 spread during the course of the semester.

“OBU is taking the approach that we are anticipating a second wave of COVID, based on what we see with the CDC recommendations,” he said. “We want to be prepared for that. We are starting a week early and then we are removing Fall Break, so we will power through the entire fall semester and be done the final week before we take Thanksgiving Break. At Thanksgiving, students will not come back to class.”

Since OBU draws students from all over the country, it is possible, Thomas said, that some students will be coming from “hot spots,” areas that are greatly impacted by COVID-19.

“When you think about OBU, we are not an island. We are a major industry in Shawnee and for the greater Oklahoma City metro,” Thomas said. “We don’t want our students going into our businesses and into our workspaces all over this area, either contracting COVID and bringing it back to campus or contacting it on campus and taking it out to the community. We felt like to be a good neighbor, to be wise with our campus, we wanted to start sooner and end a little more quickly.”

Thomas said he already has heard back from students and families of students saying they appreciate OBU’s decision for the schedule change, knowing the University has the students’ health in mind.

On the podcast, Thomas also spoke about the “B.A. to M.Div.” program, which will allow students the benefit of earning up to 27 hours toward a master’s degree at one of the six Southern Baptist seminaries, which include Gateway Seminary, Midwestern Seminary, New Orleans Seminary, Southeastern Seminary, Southern Seminary and Southwestern Seminary.

“We have great Southern Baptist seminaries,” Thomas said. “All six of them are fantastic. Each have their own strengths. Each have their own geographical locations, and I love each and every one of them.”

Thomas said the “B.A. to M.Div.” program will be “biblically-rooted, Gospel-centered and practical.” All six seminaries are “on board,” Thomas said, and will work with OBU students.

“If a student is called to ministry or called to the mission field or called to bi-vocational or co-vocational ministry,” he said, “they can be adequately equipped at OBU and then get up to 27 hours toward their master’s degree, cut down the runway and get out into the churches immediately.”

Thomas also discussed a new degree program with Lexington Correction Center, developed in partnership with Oklahoma Baptists. With Oklahoma having a high incarceration rate, he believes this program will transform lives by equipping students and will advance the Gospel by embracing brokenness.

“We created a bachelor of arts in Christian studies that will be deployed through the Lexington Correctional Facility,” Thomas said. “The Department of Corrections said (Lexington) would be a good place to begin this program and can pull from all prisons in the state. We plan to put 40 students in the program. This will help inmates understand the Gospel, what it is to live well before the Lord and what it is to make a positive impact in community rather than a destructive impact.”

The program, which will be highlighted in the upcoming Edna McMillan Oklahoma State Missions Offering, is modeled from similar programs in Louisiana and Texas that have been successful and seen a change in the culture of prisons. After the inmates receive a bachelor’s degree, Thomas said they become eligible to be chaplain assistants or helpers in other prisons, as they are sent to other prisons across the state.

“It’s a long look, but we’re looking at lasting impact,” Thomas said. “We are thrilled about this opportunity and very grateful for the partnership with the Department of Corrections.”

To hear the interview with Thomas on the Messenger Insight podcast, visit baptistmessenger.com/thomas.