SWBTS Trustee Week

The attention of the SBC has been turned, most fortunately, to the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is evidenced, of course, by no fewer than eight articles in Baptist Press over a seven-day period, unprecedented coverage in the nation’s newspapers, and no small bit of blogging chatter.

There is considerable speculation about the “leaking” of presidential reports to the trustees, and as much conjecture about the maneuvering and manipulation of trustees, bloggers, and seminary administrators alike. I make no pretense of understanding the trustee action(s) of the past week, either the motivation or consequence thereof. I sat in the meetings as an observer, spending most of my time perusing a scholarly periodical of one sort or another, or reading a book.

Before chapel on Tuesday, I sat nearby while Tammi Reed Ledbetter from the SBTexan reassured trustee Dwight McKissic that she “knew his heart,” while cautioning him that “others” meant “harm” to the seminary. Leaning into Dwight McKissic, looking thin and tall and matter-of-fact like Jane Hathaway, Mrs. Ledbetter warned the freshman Texas trustee that others might use him as another weapon with which to attack the school, or its president, Paige Patterson. Dwight, as always, was gracious and forgiving where I would have been insulted and taciturn. The ability to use a trustee – or a reporter for that matter – for political gain in the convention is equally possible for those who support Patterson’s agenda for the convention as it is for those who question it. Nevertheless, I’m sure Southern Baptists are quite competent to judge the degree of journalistic impartiality represented in the past week’s onslaught of Ledbetter contributions to Baptist Press.

I must confess that I watch the orchestration of SWBTS trustee meetings with a jaundiced eye. It is not that I distrust the processes and personalities of trustee oversight. Rather, I know the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and I am inclined to a prime facie skepticism of institutional bureaucracies, especially when I have had the good fortune to smell the foul odor at close range and see the corrupting influence of unchecked power upon men of otherwise charitable dispositions.

I do not trust Paige Patterson to run a denominational institution without careful trustee oversight and transparent accountability before the convention that pays his salary. In fact, I don’t think any man should be allowed to lead an institution without meticulous trustee scrutiny of his spending, his appointments, and his application of trustee policies and/or guidelines. Unlike others, I do not believe that gratitude for a man’s service to the convention requires our denomination to sign blank checks for his endowment aspirations, to “put our hands over our mouths” and acquiesce to his latest agenda for the IMB or NAMB, or to yield the governance of one square inch of denominational property, the articulation of one syllable of our denominational confession of faith, or one thin dime of our denominational assets, regardless of how “conservative” the “resurgence” he led.

I believe that the interests and assets of Southern Baptists are best protected and administered in an environment of transparent trustee governance whereby the authorized boards of convention agencies and institutions are elected to preserve the sacred trust committed unto them by messengers to the annual meeting. I believe that NAMB would have been better served by more careful trustee oversight. I believe that Bob Reccord’s name and testimony would have been spared the unfortunate characterization he received because trustees did too little too late to exercise their prerogatives of governance.

One interesting detail coming out of the trustee meeting is the statement concerning private prayer languages. I’ll not labor the point of my obvious disagreement with this statement’s adoption, except to note the difference between the statement proposed by Paige Patterson, and the final statement that was adopted by trustees.

Patterson’s statement, provided to seminary trustees on Monday for discussion during the closed, informal session, included the following, curiously irrelevant sentence in the final paragraph:

“Southwestern Seminary will continue to advocate the full equality of women and men but will also continue to honor the New Testament teaching that women not hold positions teaching or ruling men in the family or the church of God.”

Yet, the final trustee statement, as reported in Baptist Press, excluded the sentence about women’s roles. I suppose the trustees recognized that Patterson’s insertion of the language concerning women’s roles was more about striking Dwight McKissic, whose church allows women to serve in ministry roles that include public proclamation, than it was about addressing the issue of so-called “Pentecostal/Neo-Charismatic” theological influences in Baptist life. I only wish they would have rejected the statement altogether, though I understand from one seminary trustee that some of them felt in the odd predicament of either “supporting the president” or “siding with bloggers.”

Of considerable interest to me was that none of the stories or press releases about the trustee meeting included an account of the new undergraduate program for Southwestern’s college. For years Southern Baptists have joked about the “Mrs.” degree, a fictitious diploma awarded to single women who find a husband and start having babies before the completion of their theological training. But the joking is over now that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees have approved a major degree concentration in “homemaking.”

I nearly shot Diet Coke out my nose when I heard the recommendation to begin a degree in “homemaking,” not only because it was immediately obvious that there are no limits to the absurdity of such a degree, but because it was actually suggested that four semesters of Greek or Latin will make for a better home. Included in the degree are 7 hours of “Food and Nutrition” courses, complete with a meal preparation laboratory, and 7 hours of “Design and Apparel,” with a clothing construction lab. It stretches the imagination to see how such a degree falls under the umbrella of institutional mission conceived by Southern Baptists for their seminaries. In fact, it seems quite silly.

I’m sure that the preacher boys of Southwestern Seminary will be ever so grateful that their wives have been taught sewing and cooking and child-rearing and ironing and baking and dusting by the highly credentialed faculty charged with so noble an academic assignment. And I’m sure that the wafting wind of cookies and pies, along with the soft hum of Singer sewing machines will make the campus of Southwestern Seminary a much more inviting place. But I’m equally sure that Southern Baptists have never envisioned their Cooperative Program dollars being spent to subsidize courses on the proper techniques for wearing aprons or frosting muffins or hanging drapes or serving tea and scones and clotted cream.

A seminary degree in cookie-baking is about as useful as an M.Div. in automotive repair, if you ask me. Nevertheless, SWBTS has to do something to pull out of the enrollment slide that has marked the early Patterson tenure if they are going to reach the president’s goal of 6000 students by 2010. By reading the seminary press releases, however, it doesn’t appear that they intend to market the degree with much visibility. How many girls, if any, will jump at the chance to translate The Iliad while ironing pantaloons and icing petit fours might surprise the churches of the convention who entrust Southwestern Seminary with the heavy task of robust theological preparation.

Now all of that aside, I must admit how much I enjoyed the excellent chapel sermon that Patterson preached on Tuesday. The seminary president is, without a doubt, one of the finest preachers in the country. His simple outline, coupled with his rich exposition and moving appeal, reminded me how much I love to hear Patterson preach. I remember well those days back at Southeastern when Patterson, full of emotion, would appeal for students to surrender their lives to the task of foreign missions. Inevitably, young couples with children — sometimes infants — would make their way down the aisle to surrender to the call. On those occasions, Patterson’s usual jolly countenance would turn to a frown. His eyes would water and his face would redden. Burying his head in his hands, Patterson would cry at the sight of their sacrifice and obedience. Seeing him like that would usually get me to crying too, and until this day there is a soft place in my heart for missionaries who follow God’s call to foreign fields of service.

On Tuesday, it wasn’t the appeal to serve the Lord overseas that brought tears to Patterson’s eyes and a choking break to his voice. It was, rather, the recitation of hymns about intimacy with the Lord in prayer that moved the heart of the man. Watching him there, from the highest point in the balcony, I thought to myself.

With a Bible in his hand, and a tear running down his cheek, the president of Southwestern Seminary was able to put aside all the conflicts, all the schemes and strategies, and for half an hour he stood before men bearing a word from God to lift their souls to the sublime. It is there, behind that pulpit, that Patterson is at his best. The sincerity in his voice and the earnest expression on his face eclipse all the denominational politicking, and for a moment, a complex man with a simple faith yields to the better angels of his nature.

Southwestern Seminary trustees have their work cut out for them. Patterson once told me in his Wake Forest office that “all power in heaven and earth had been given unto him.” He prefers a monarchy over an oligarchy, and he will take as much power as the trustees will surrender. In this, he is not alone, for such is the tendency of all those with similar office.

Blogging may be regarded by some as a damn curse, but if the medium has served to open up the governance of SBC institutions to greater scrutiny, then it is also part blessing. How long the influence of blogging will continue is anybody’s guess. For now, it is clear that trustees read the blogs, and are much more careful in the execution of their fiduciary responsibilities to protect the interests of the Southern Baptist Convention. That, I suggest, is never a bad thing.