76-year-old SBTS graduate endures wife’s death, Hurricane Katrina to earn degree

Communications Staff — December 12, 2006

Nearly five years ago, William Rogers began working on his Doctor of Ministry degree at age 71.

Dec. 8, Rogers earned his D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at age 76, the oldest graduate in his class. During those five years, the New Orleans pastor endured the death of his wife and the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, seeking to hold himself and his church together as he completed his degree.

Rogers dream of earning a doctorate was a long shot from the beginning.

Getting started

In 2001, Rogers received a letter from the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth about the D.Min. program it offered at Southern Seminary. Out of school for more than 40 years, Rogers dismissed the letter without a second thought. Then came a second letter. And then a third.

“I got the second letter and thought, ‘It would be a chance in a thousand to be accepted,’ and I threw it away,” he said. “The third time, something in my heart said ‘if you don’t check this out you will regret it for the rest of your life.’ So I decided to give the school a call.

“I would have been satisfied if I had never been accepted, but Dr. J.D. Payne told me to send in an application. I did, and I got accepted.”

In January 2002, Rogers enrolled in the D.Min. program at Southern, 42 years after earning his master of divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A pastor of more than 50 years, Rogers has served as senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church near downtown New Orleans for the past 30 years. While working on his D.Min., Rogers continued serving at Grace, commuting to Louisville with his wife, Joan, for J-term classes each January and summer.

“When we would drive on the campus of Southern Seminary, Joan would say ‘I feel like when I drive on the campus, I drive into heaven,’” Rogers said.

Faithfulness amidst pain and suffering

Rogers and Joan celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2003 and Rogers slowly but surely continued to work on his degree. During September 2004, the couple had to evacuate their home because of Hurricane Ivan. Returning home after the evacuation, Rogers said he and his wife were teasing each other like they always did and were glad to be back safe and sound.

“I went to start the coffee and put some laundry in and then I went back to tell her the coffee was ready,” he said. “When I came back she was on the floor.”

Members of an emergency medical team worked to resuscitate Joan, but were unsuccessful. She died of an apparent heart attack, and after 51 years of marriage, Rogers was alone.

“Jesus took her by the hand, and said ‘Joan, it’s time to go home,’ and He took her home,” Rogers said.

Devastated by the loss, Rogers lost 30 pounds and considered giving up his pursuit of a degree. However, buoyed by the support of his congregation, he decided to press on.

“It was very hard for me,” he said. “I didn’t get over it, but I got through it.”

A year later, Rogers had begun work on his final project and the path to a doctorate seemed clear.

Then Hurricane Katrina struck.

The extent of the flooding from Katrina caught many people off guard because no hurricane in the past had such a devastating impact, Rogers said.

“Some of the members of my congregation had water 15 feet deep in their neighborhood,” he said. “New Orleans looked like a third-world country. Flooded water came into our church and my house. What the flooded waters didn’t do, the hard winds did.”

Rogers evacuated to his son’s home—one of five children—in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., to stay clear of the storm. Members of Grace Baptist also scattered across the country, and Katrina threatened to tear apart Rogers’ church just as it had New Orleans. However, though separated by great distances, the congregation remained intact through the church’s website.

“About three weeks before Katrina, a lady in our church felt an overwhelming need to start a webpage for the church,” Rogers explained. “After the hurricane, we began posting our contact information and evacuation location on the website. We kept the church together when everybody in the church had evacuated.”

Grace Baptist partnered with the Louisiana Baptist Convention in relief efforts, working with other local churches to help rebuild communities.

“We were able to function as a church before all of our members got back,” Rogers said, nearly moved to tears. “We started scheduling volunteers to help rebuild New Orleans, from our church and other churches in the area. At one time, we had 75 people from 24 different churches helping gut and rebuild homes in the area. People would truck in the materials necessary and we worked to rebuild neighborhoods and communities near the church.”

Six weeks after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, a few members of Grace Baptist met on the front steps Oct. 9 for a worship service led by associate pastor Charlie Dale. Rogers returned Nov. 1, and on Nov. 5 the church held its 101st anniversary service. Current or past members of Grace Baptist drove from Texas, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and other states to attend the anniversary service.

Recounting God’s faithfulness to his church, Rogers noted that the congregation now has greater influence in its community than ever before.

“Our church now has the reputation of reaching out to people,” he said. “We have been able to reach the local people in a great way.”

Needless to say, Rogers’ D.Min. studies were placed on hold in the months following Katrina. Four months after the storm hit the coast, Rogers got back to work.

J.D. Payne, assistant professor of church planting and evangelism at Southern Seminary and Rogers’ doctoral supervisor, said Rogers’ upbeat attitude and persistence enabled him to continue on in the midst of such harrowing circumstances.

“During his study, he has shown the most Christ-like spirit that I‘ve seen in some time,” he said. “In light of his circumstances, I never sensed a critical or hardened heart. I never heard him complain. Bill never seemed discouraged, though I‘m sure he probably was at times. He was just an example of what it means to walk in joy even in difficult days. I found him to be an encourager to me as he was going through the process.”

Finishing strong

Katrina caused Rogers to lose more than 1,000 books. However, Rogers said LifeWay Christian Resources and other businesses replenished much of his library, sending him boxes and boxes of books.

Rogers’ project, the final step in earning a D.Min., focused on how Grace Baptist carried out the five functions of its mission statement. Payne asked Rogers to include a chapter detailing his and the church’s experiences in the months following Katrina.

Friendly, supportive students and experienced professors made Southern’s doctoral program well worth the effort, Rogers said.

“The cohort system, where you work closely with five other students, was one of the main things that impressed me [about the program],” he said. “Six of us started out together in 2002, and we got to be like brothers. I was old enough to be their father, but they didn’t treat me like that.

“We also had the best professors you could find, receiving individual instruction from professors like Dr. Thom Rainer, Dr. Chuck Lawless, Dr. Tim Beougher and Dr. J.D. Payne. I‘ve never been around men like that before.”

Reflecting on his decision to pursue the doctorate, Rogers said he is grateful he gave it a shot and he encourages other pastors to do the same.

“Look, try it,” he said. “I wasn’t the world’s best scholar in seminary, but I came back and I did it. You can do better than you think you can do, so just try it.”

Rogers said that through all of the pain and suffering he endured in the last few years, especially losing his wife, God has always comforted him.

“When you have a strong relationship with your wife, like I did, it is difficult to move on. For a while, I would cry myself to sleep. It was hard, it really was hard,” he said. “But I know that God doesn’t make mistakes. And I know that God comforted me. He says that He will not leave His people comfortless and He didn’t leave me.”

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