Church Planting Movements and the Crisis of Power in the SBC, Pt. 4.

While it is true that any convention of the size and scope of the “world’s largest Protestant denomination” will require, to some extent, immense political savvy, and that some men will master the art of politics as a necessary evil for the convention, other men are consumed by it. Denominational politics is like surgical ether: it can either make the convention’s work painless and productive, or it can burn and kill you. It can either grease the gears of evangelistic initiative, making sure that money and personnel are allocated most prudentially, or it can serve to distill power into the offices of a Machiavellian few. I have seen both of these results from watching others become entangled in a web of political deceit and from experiencing it firsthand.

In 1997, I began my graduate studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, an institution led, at that time, by a man who has put almost as many denominational employees out of work as he has mounted wild African game on his wall.(17) Almost immediately, I became consumed with the gossipy tidbits and who’s-in-who’s-out trivia of denominational power-brokering. Of those petty squabbles, none interested me more than the emerging conflicts over mission strategy and personality differences between the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, and Jerry Rankin at the IMB. I knew little of Rankin, as we had never even met. Patterson, on the other hand, was a mentor and role model – for a time. Before long, I came to understand that Patterson operated as a one-man doctrinal watchdog within the convention.(18) In fact, Patterson moves with a deft political skill that would make Karl Rove salivate like old Pavlov’s dog. One of Patterson’s former bosses has aptly noted that “when it comes to politics, [Patterson] makes [former President] Lyndon Johnson look like a candy striper.”(19) For a season, I was personally close to Patterson and able to observe firsthand the degree of quid pro quo that he employs with regularity when achieving his political ends in the denomination. This is not to say that Patterson’s motives are altogether ignoble, but neither is it correct to reckon him faultless. Proximity to greatness exposes great flaws. I have seen a good many of them up close.

During the course of my seminary training at Southeastern, I befriended Patterson’s missiologist and confidant, Keith Eitel, who offered me the chance to serve in the seminary’s Great Commission Center as a student worker. For several years, Eitel and Patterson had jointly pioneered a new training model for career missionaries in which students would study at the Wake Forest based seminary campus in a crash-course two year curriculum of theology, history, and missiology followed by two years of field assignment under appointment with the International Mission Board. The program required that students were under both the academic supervision of the seminary faculty and the field supervision of the IMB’s career personnel. This arrangement put students into a position to observe firsthand implementation of the new paradigm Rankin’s administration brought to the mission board. It also put Patterson and Eitel in a position to get reports from those students about what they saw, heard, and experienced. With hundreds of students spread out across the globe, Patterson was able to monitor more acutely how Rankin’s policies were in accord with the Baptist Faith & Message and the degree of compliance that field missionaries showed within the tighter doctrinal constraints. Soon, the reports came rolling in. This is not to suggest that the 2+2 program of seminary/mission training was planned for the purpose of diffusing likeminded students throughout the International Mission Board and coaching them in the finer arts of denominational espionage, but the effect was the same. Before long, the rift between Patterson and Rankin widened as students were instructed how to pass through the mission training process quietly, keeping logs of what they saw and heard and sending them back to Eitel, who would in turn share them with Patterson and IMB trustees.(20) Rankin responded by warning his administrators in Richmond about the incoming “moles,” terminating the missionary service of some Southeastern students(21), and by threatening to end the relationship with Southeastern Seminary altogether.(22) Never one to surrender the last word, Patterson responded by forwarding to every IMB trustee a paper by Eitel that was critical of Rankin – a paper that accused Rankin of continuing the trends of neo-orthodox theology set by his predecessors at the board, and of belittling the importance of a seminary education.(23) To each of these charges Rankin responded with understandable offense.

By 2003, I had traveled to four continents and met with numerous field missionaries as a part of my studies and work with the Center for Great Commission at Southeastern. During the summer of 2001, I met with five missionaries in Ankara, Turkey, only to discover firsthand that field personnel were being given exemptions from signing the statement of faith. One missionary leader in particular protested with considerable hostility that he “resented” having his doctrinal beliefs questioned by “a bunch of trustees.”(24) On a trip to East Africa in 2002, I visited with a regional leader of the IMB who explained to me and my colleague, Ed Pruitt, that the signing of the BFM 2000 had been a headache because of the numbers of folks who were writing explanations of why they disagreed with key provisions of the doctrinal statement. Their exceptions were granted. Their written responses were kept in field offices. The headquarters in Richmond was only notified that they had “signed.” Thus the signing of the BFM 2000, while appearing to be a crackdown on doctrinal nonconformity complete with a few dozen related terminations seemed to be, to those looking for excuses to criticize Rankin, a charade – a bureaucratic document shuffle – for some regional leadership teams of the International Mission Board.(25) Again, while there is no evidence of which I am aware that Rankin was informed about these discrepancies, the reports we were getting from field missionaries led us to press the point that sweeping changes were needed at the mission board. Patterson’s plan was, at least, to secure a top administrative post for Keith Eitel at the IMB, or to get rid of Rankin and replace him altogether. Rankin, however, proved more politically nimble than anyone could predict.(26)


(17) Surely some will read this sentence and think that I am using rhetorical flourish to conceal an inadequate factual basis for my assertions. This paper is not concerned, however, with tracing the political power that Paige Patterson wields within the denomination. Time enough will afford me opportunities to publish biographies and histories that will examine my thesis. Suffice it to say, that those who wish to explore the truth of this claim will find a wealth of investigative fodder along the way, and more than a few willing interlocutors who are able to point fingers toward fruitful fields of research. In the meantime, interested persons should look up the names Steven Kovach, Paul Brock, Linda Rogers, Bruce Corley, David Crutchley, C.B. Scott, David Sinclair, and a host of other names that you will be able to read about in a forthcoming book entitled, “The Red Bishop,” by yours truly.

(18) The size of the staff required to facilitate Patterson’s and his wife’s correspondence is quite impressive. Through a well-honed network of deputies, many of whom are on convention payroll, Patterson is able to keep his finger on the pulse of most trustee matters of the agencies and institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention. For more information on all the Patterson connections at the IMB alone, see below.

(19) Joel Gregory, Too Great a Temptation, 100. Gregory also notes that Patterson “always told [him] the truth, but not always all of it.” I shall leave it, for now, to the unencumbered intuition of Christian ethicists to determine the moral consequence of such half-truth telling.

(20) In an email dated July 3, 2003, and copied to IMB Trustee Bill Sanderson, Keith Eitel instructed a team of student missionaries about the church-planting sessions at the missionary training center in Virginia. Eitel explained: “There seems to be a series of lessons on Church Planting Movements that are given during which a highly questionable ecclesiology is presented. The ‘mock’ or ‘practice’ house churches done in the quads where you’ll be staying are also reflective of this questionable ecclesiology. The ordinances, in particular, may be an issue for you, i.e. the way they will be conducted or taught about and the role of ladies in the places of house church leadership.”

The letter continues: “I am going to suggest the following to help navigate you through this experience. 1) Try your best (and ask God to aid you) to simply be compliant, listen to the folk that may say or do these things, don’t raise questions or try to resist things you may hear that you know are blatantly and biblically wrong; 2) Instead, keep a daily journal or log of events. In your log, provide the date, time, place, person involved where you hear these things that you know are incorrect. Write out, as nearly as possible verbatim, what was said and provide any clarifying observations or comments you may wish; 3) When you’re finished up and your tie at MLC [Missionary Learning Center] is done, Email or snail mail me a copy of your log.”

(21) Ibid. “If, or when, these things crop up, I wanted you to be informed and advised as to what to do. These things have caused some of our graduates and even 2+2/3 students to encounter problems and be sent away. We don’t want that to happen anymore.” This reality was further confirmed to me when I was approached by Marilyn Stevens, a Richmond associate (recently retired, name changed) of the North Africa/Middle East region of the IMB during my time at the Missionary Learning Center. Marilyn asked me, quite bluntly, during the first of several visits if I was “one of those students from Southeastern who had a problem with women in leadership.”

(22) In a letter to Eitel dated October 30, 2003, Rankin responded to many of Eitel’s concerns. The letter ended with Rankin raising questions about the long-term viability of the IMB’s partnership with Eitel. Rankin wrote: “It is difficult to understand how you could nurture a positive partnership between SEBTS and the IMB if you truly believe the slanderous and misleading statements you have written.”

(23) Patterson is a master of doublespeak, if not duplicity. While he states in his cover letter that “without a doubt, the keenest thinking in missiology occurs on the staff of the International Mission Board,” his purpose is clearly not to affirm that thinking. Rather, he wished to give trustees the “benefit of [Eitel’s] thinking” – thinking that was, without a doubt, quite critical of Rankin. I obtained a copy of the letter, dated September 24, 2003, from a mission board trustee who felt, “caught in the middle.” It is true that there was another issue playing out between Eitel and Rankin as a group of trustees were putting Eitel’s name forward to replace Rankin’s right hand, Don Kammerdiener. Rumors abounded at the Wake Forest campus that Rankin was blocking consideration of Eitel’s name and that false reports of Eitel’s disinterest in the position were being disseminated. Rankin maintains in his possession a copy of confidential correspondence that shows how Patterson intended to block Rankin’s choice for Kammerdiener’s replacement and push Eitel as a stalking horse candidate. In recent months, I have received copies of email correspondence between a group of trustees that explained the strategy to get Eitel into a top post at the IMB to “implement Paige’s vision.” It is clear to me that Patterson has demonstrated considerable insincerity. If the purpose of forwarding Eitel’s paper was to open the trustee’s access to Eitel’s thought and thus gain him a hearing for Kammerdiener’s post, then Patterson’s letter does not reflect that. Whatever the case, the reasons behind any involvement by Patterson in promoting a candidate, let alone his own close confidant – for a sister agency’s vice presidency is inscrutable, other than to solidify further personal power in the convention, of course.

(24) Because this particular missionary is still serving overseas, I am choosing not to mention him by name. There are two others, however, who participated in the conversation and are able to corroborate.

(25) Rankin has assured me in writing that the regional committees of trustees met and reviewed each exception that was granted.

(26) I have obtained copies of correspondence between IMB trustees and the president of Southwestern seminary in which Patterson suggests outright that the IMB would be served well by a vacancy at the top. In time, these emails will be made available to the IMB investigation committee.

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