A ministry of Hillcrest Baptist Church, Gainesville Baptist Seminary and Bible College has continued to grow since it began in 1991.
"Every semester we’ve been picking up a few," said James Hatcher, pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church and president of the college.
The church, originally located in Gainesville, was started in 1987. The college was created four years later as a Bible institute. It was able to offer degrees after receiving a charter in 1996.
When the school was located in Gainesville, it had an average of about 16 students. Since its move to Clermont 2« years ago, more have been enrolling.
This semester, the college had 26 students register.
"That’s the most we’ve ever had," Hatcher said. "More are supposed to be coming next semester, too. It’s growing a little now that we’ve moved up here."
Students can earn four different theology degrees based on how many semester hours they have taken: associate, bachelor, master and doctorate.
Students who haven’t graduated from high school still can take classes at the Bible institute level, and can receive a diploma in theology or Bible instead of a degree.
A variety of courses are offered. They include classes on individual books of the Bible; two music classes; world and United States history; youth ministry; evangelism and pastoral administration. Electives include sign language,
counseling, economics, Baptist history and Christian ethics.
Hatcher wrote an office administration course last fall, designed for wives of preachers and missionaries "and anybody else who wants to take it."
Lamar Askew first found out about the college at a tent meeting where Hatcher spoke.
"I had heard about the school but never really thought that much about it," he said.
But one of the classes Hatcher mentioned, Baptist history, stuck in Askew’s mind and so he enrolled in the college.
"It really was just the work of the Lord," Askew said.
Originally, Askew had only planned to take the one course, but after talking with a student working on his doctorate degree about the importance of having a degree, Askew decided to pursue an associate’s degree, which he earned in 2000.
Five years later, he received a bachelor’s degree.
Classes at the college meet every Monday and Tuesday evening at the church, with a 30-minute chapel service in-between.
Four men volunteer their time to teach the courses: Dr. Keith Allison, pastor of Fairfield Baptist Church in Clarkesville; the Rev. Chad Rogers; the Rev. Ross Sparks, pastor of Gateway Baptist Church in Cleveland; and the Rev. Mark Wheeler, a full-time evangelist.
None are paid for their work.
"They’re willing to do it to help students," Hatcher said. "We just do it as a ministry. That way we keep tuition down low so they can afford to come."
Tuition is $50 per semester hour, or $100 per class.
"We try not to load them down heavy," Hatcher said.
Sparks, dean of students for the college, is teaching a 1 & 2 Corinthians course this semester. He has taught at the college for about four years.
"I think the school is doing a good work," he said. "I think it’s a needed thing."
Being a college professor "is different than pastoring or teaching Sunday school because you’re teaching preachers," Sparks said. "The opportunity to influence someone else’s ministry is one of the greatest blessings of it."
Hatcher wants to make that opportunity known to as many people as he can, and has started going to different high schools in the area to talk about the college.
Many students don’t like to go far away from home to attend school, and he said the college is an option for those wanting to go into ministry.
"I want to make it available for them so they can come if they desire to," he said.
Askew had planned to return to school this semester to begin working on his master’s degree, but was stretched thin on time.
He serves as volunteer chaplain at Bethany Baptist Church in Gainesville, works with the church’s prison ministry and teaches an adult Sunday school class.
But he does plan to go back and continue his education.
"When you take eight hours of classes in two days and work full-time too, it’s pretty demanding," Askew said. "But it was worth it. It’s helped me a whole lot in my teaching and my preaching and my ministry."
Sparks said in the short time he has taught at the college he has seen students go on to succeed in other ministries.
"When I went to Bible college a pastor of that church said, ‘A call to preach is a call to prepare.’ And that always stuck with me," he said.
Askew continues to share that message with his students.
"I tell them, ‘You need to prepare yourself for what the Lord wants you to do.’"