Newest Southwestern, TBC graduates reflect on time of equipping, study on Seminary Hill
Representing the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Texas Baptist College core value of being globally engaged, the 339 men and women who received their diplomas and certificates during the Dec. 1 commencement ceremony on the Fort Worth campus represented 30 states and United States territories and 18 countries outside of the U.S. Forty-three percent of the credentials awarded represented non-English language programs, including the seminary’s Chinese, Korean, and Spanish language degree programs.
The fall 2023 graduating class also accomplished many “firsts,” including Fernando José Santos Rivera, a native of Puerto Rico, who was awarded the first Spanish Master of Divinity degree through the institution’s Hispanic Programs. Additionally, the first group of female students to earn the Advanced Certificate in Ministry Studies in Spanish also received their certificates during the graduation exercises. Thirty-three percent of the credentials awarded were in the institution’s Spanish language programs.
The 57 men and women who were awarded doctoral degrees from Southwestern’s research and professional doctoral programs were the largest number of students to earn the credentials in a single semester in the seminary’s history – besting the record set in Dec. 2022 by one graduate. The number of doctoral graduates also included 19 graduates of the institution’s Korean Doctor of Ministry degree program.
In cooperation with the North American Mission Board’s SEND Network, 58 graduates earned certificates in Hispanic Church Planting.
Philip Levant, past chairman of the board of trustees at Southwestern Seminary and pastor of Iglesia Bautista La Vid in Fort Worth, Texas, earned a Master of Divinity degree from the School of Theology. Levant earned a Master of Music with a concentration in conducting from Southwestern in 2002. Levant currently serves as a member of the board of trustees.
Each graduate has their own unique story of how God used their time on Seminary Hill to refine, live, and find their callings.
Javier Arnaldo Sotolongo earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in World Christian Studies from the Roy J. Fish School of Evangelism and Missions. Sotolongo is the senior pastor of Iglesia Bautista Estrella de Belen in Hialeah, Florida, which is located outside of Miami.
Sotolongo said though he has “been in the ministry for 38 years” the last eight years studying to earn a Master of Theological Studies (2016) and Ph.D. at Southwestern “has awakened and renewed a passion for evangelism and missions in me.” He explained he has known about the institution since he was a teenager and the option to study through the seminary’s “online program worked perfectly because I didn’t have to leave the ministry.”
“I have a high opinion of all teachers” at Southwestern, Sotolongo said. “I saw them as very committed men and women of God” and “everyone who works at SWBTS has been an inspiration.”
In addition to pastoring his church, Sotolongo serves as adjunct faculty at Southwestern and the Baptist College of Florida in Graceville, Florida.
A native of Stroud, Oklahoma, James R. Raffety earned a Doctor of Educational Ministries in family ministry from the Jack D. Terry School of Educational Ministries. Currently Raffety serves as the senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Raffety said during his time of study at Southwestern he has “learned to trust the Lord for my every need.”
“Not that I did not know that before,” he explained, “but I know even more now that He is directing and guiding my entire life.”
While Raffety said he plans to “continue to serve in my current position and seek opportunities to teach others from what I have learned,” he added that he has learned that “theological education is not just about learning, it is about obedience and following Him whenever, wherever, however He calls.”
“My life is His, bought with a price, and for His use,” Raffety concluded.
Fort Worth native Timothy Ferris earned a Master of Divinity with a concentration in biblical counseling from the School of Theology. Ferris chose to study at Southwestern because many of his “close friends and pastors in my life have graduated from SWBTS.” He explained he had believed for many years that his “chances of going into ministry were dashed by a divorce I did not want” but “God kept growing in me a desire to minister to others.” When he realized he “preferred to serve in jail as a volunteer chaplain than work” in his vocational job, his wife, Linda, “urged” him to call Southwestern about attending as a student.
Ferris, who has pastored City View Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, for more than a year, has learned through his study on Seminary Hill that “there is no ending to what one may learn from Scripture.”
“Scripture is sufficient for all matters of life that reveal God and lead one to repentance,” Ferris explained. “I have learned the basics of Greek and Hebrew, as well as opposing theological beliefs, and have honed my skills in evangelism.”
However, Ferris added, “The greatest thing that has been reinforced is that I am not alone and apart from Christ, I can do nothing.”
Ferris plans to begin working on a Doctor of Ministry in biblical counseling following graduation “in order to be better prepared to counsel the harder cases and to train others to become biblical counselors in some capacity.”
Shaelee Prado, a native of Lantana, Texas, holds the distinction as the first graduate of the 5-year program, having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities from Texas Baptist College and a Master of Divinity from the Terry School. Prado said she “desired to attend a classical education taught from a biblical worldview. While attending a Preview Day for TBC, she remembered she “was impressed with the professor panel and how much they loved and cared for their students.”
“I remember one professor stating that he valued my relationship with God more than my grade in his class,” Prado recalled.
Through both of her degree programs, Prado said she has had “many great opportunities to share my faith locally, occasionally joining my professors in evangelizing the community as well as overseas short-term trips.” Prado also served two years as an intern through the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, internship program that is hosted in partnership with the seminary.
“With my undergrad, I tremendously grew in breadth and depth of knowledge in literature, philosophy, and critical thinking,” Prado noted. “Through my master’s classes, I further built on that knowledge with systematic theology and practical application for ministry.”
Prado expressed her gratitude for one professor who took time “to spur me on and encourage me” when she “expressed struggles and discouragement regarding my studies because of a reading disability.” She also added she “received that same encouragement from other professors who gave me confidence to do hard things for the betterment of my soul.”
A “simple Google search of all existing master’s programs in worship leadership” led Caleb Chen, a native of Irvine, California, to Southwestern Seminary. Chen, who earned a Master of Music in worship leadership from the School of Church Music and Worship, said he found Southwestern’s worship leadership program “to be the most suitable for my needs.”
For Chen, the music director at Redemption City Church in Benbrook, Texas, one of the “biggest lessons” he has learned during his time of study on Seminary Hill is that “humility is a journey and doesn’t end.”
“There are always ways to be humbled by the Holy Spirit,” Chen explained. “Southwestern has been integral in my equipping for ministry by bringing a comprehensive education in biblical worship.”
He added that “there is so much more to musical worship than what leaders expect in churches today.”
Chen plans to continue serving at Redemption City Church following graduation.
As a student earning a master’s degree from the Fish School, Mika Monroe* said a “simple assignment” her first semester that entailed having “10 spiritual conversations with people from different religious backgrounds” has “led to friendships with Muslims families” that have been built during her time at Southwestern.
Monroe came to Southwestern after feeling “a burden to begin to take active steps towards overseas ministry” while she was serving in her local church.
“I knew there were many opportunities available but didn’t know where to start,” she explained. “I wanted to be in a place where I could be surrounded by likeminded students and learn from the experience of people who have lived in cross-cultural contexts.”
Monroe said during her time of study at Southwestern she has learned “the value of humility, curiosity, and boldness.” She explained she “found a great amount of joy in being curious about what people believe, whether in systematic theology, church history, or in a living room with my Muslim friends.” Monroe observed each of these “requires humility, recognizing that every individual brings their own perspective, and they are worth hearing.” Boldness is also needed “to ask questions when you don’t know something and to share kindly when you have a different perspective,” she added.
Monroe is “currently praying about opportunities to serve overseas” but will “continue to serve in the refugee community” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Alayna Marie Gale Petty, a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities graduate from Texas Baptist College, has learned “that it’s a privilege to be used by the Lord to make His name known here and around the world.” The Weatherford, Texas, native added that a person has “to be willing to follow where the Lord leads in obedience even if it’s not where you thought you’d end up.”
Petty explained the summer after she “surrendered” her career to the Lord she began to work with refugees. The opportunity allowed her to meet a Muslim for the first time – an 87-year-old woman originally from Somalia. Petty said the woman, Iggy, “was not what I expected” as her new friend was “kind and so hospitable.” Through Iggy and the stories of many other refugees Petty said she “grew a love for the nations and desire to see them surrender their lives to the Lord.” After spending time serving with the International Mission Board in Southeast Asia, Petty began her studies at Texas Baptist College.
While Petty continues to seek the Lord for her next steps following graduation, she believes “it will definitely involve refugees and women’s ministry in a big way because that love for simply hearing their stories and traveling to their home countries is still there.”
Petty said “the most valuable thing” she “gained from TBC is the community.”
“There is so much growth that happens in your college years and to walk alongside my peers and professors here is something I will always cherish,” Petty concluded. “I will take the best of what they have taught me over the last four years with me in however I serve the Lord next.”
*Name changed for security reasons.