To be Jeff Bingham for a day . . .


Alumni and supporters of Southwestern Seminary have been receiving letters this week from Interim President Jeffrey Bingham.  They are addressed, rather impersonally, to a “Friend of Southwestern.”

The opening paragraph of that letter claims that “a new academic year begins in August and we will welcome over 3,300 students to campus.”

This is misleading.

According to Southwestern’s last report to the SBC Executive Committee, there are only 2,172 SBC students (non-duplicating headcount) on the seminary’s main campus, 264 non-SBC students, with 135 SBC students enrolled in extensions in Houston, San Antonio, Plano, Shawnee, and Little Rock.  A total of three students are enrolled in the seminary’s Certificate in Women’s Studies program, and five are enrolled in the Certificate in Family Consumer Science program. Information about the consumer science certificate has been removed from the seminary’s website.

Another 192 non-SBC students are enrolled at Darrington Prison in Brazoria County, and 10 students (all music certificate) are enrolled in the seminary’s campus in Hong Kong. Twenty-four non-SBC students are enrolled in the campus in Bonn, Germany.

You read that right. Hong Kong and Bonn.

(Stop for just a moment and think about the fact that the only Southern Baptist seminary with an official campus in Germany is also the only research-PhD awarding seminary that offers no German classes to its students.  Unless, of course, you are enrolled in the music school where one professor teaches German grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Doctoral students in the School of Theology are permitted instead to use Rosetta Stone or pursue their foreign language requirement at another school. But we digress.)

Bingham’s letter continues:

“A generous ministry partner has provided a summer matching gift of $48,000 to double every gift made to the seminary by August 31, 2018….A business reply envelope is also enclosed with this letter.”

The Baptist Blogger has written a check today to Southwestern for $100.00, and we will continue sending a check every month for the 2018-19 academic term. We want the school to prosper, and are willing to put money behind it.

But here’s the point of this post:

This massive and impersonal mailing presents a missed opportunity for the seminary faculty and staff.  If I were Jeff Bingham for a day, I would have established a mandatory program of alumni and donor engagement that required all persons receiving salary or compensation from the school to hand-write a personal note to EVERY recipient of these solicitation letters.

And I’d scale the responsibility based on faculty rank.  For instance, if the seminary were sending out 20,000 letters, I would announce a particular time that faculty were required to meet in the Leadership Center or another appropriate campus venue to personally fold, stuff, and sign every letter that was being sent out.  I would make Craig Blaising, the seminary provost, and all the seminary deans and associate deans responsible to sign 200 each.  Full-time professors would sign 150 each; associate and assistant professors would sign 100 each. Retired faculty still teaching would have 50 each.

It could be a Saturday morning, and have coffee and donuts and make it an event. Every faculty member would be told to put their personal business card in the letter and invite the letters’ recipients to write or call them with any prayer requests in which they’d like the seminary community to join them.

And we would do this every month, to the current donor pool and to prospects.

The faculty would become the face of the school. For fifteen years there has been one name — well, actually two — that were synonymous with Southwestern. So thoroughly Pattersonian was every mailing, every publication, every picture, that the seminary still is finding and scrubbing promotional photos online that prominently feature the former First Couple.

We suspect that senior faculty who have given decades to the school — through every danger, toil, and snare — would be there bright and early, and excited to do their part.  I can see James Leo Garrett, for instance, or Jack MacGorman there. Jack Terry and Daniel Sanchez too.

Neither should the Interim President send out letters that make it sound like the seminary is healthy and in good shape going forward. He should be honest.  He should tell people the school has been through hell this year, and lay the facts before the seminary’s strongest allies about its financial situation, enrollment, and ask them to pray and give that the school might — by God’s grace — pull out of the course spiraling downward that Paige and Dorothy Patterson started.

If Southwestern is going to survive, it is going to mean all hands on deck for these sorts of fundraising efforts. Bingham should probably require every faculty member to submit 10 names of student prospects every month, and track every contact with them. Southwestern used to have a powerhouse faculty with lots of name recognition that earned enough student interest to weather enrollment shortfalls.

But that’s not the case anymore.  A handful of professors are writing and publishing and preaching and doing their best to build a reputation for scholarship and spiritual fervor for the school.

Others, like the professor occupying the Dorothy Patterson Chair of Women’s Studies, have had book contracts cancelled in recent days due to lack of interest.

Bottom line: The loyal and hard-working Southwestern faculty, in the end, are going to be the ones who will save the school. Either that, or they will be the ones who finally kill it.

For years, Patterson & Co. have been telling people that the seminary is a place to model the local church. Well, when your church has lost a thousand members or more, fired the pastor and the senior education minister, and is facing several lawsuits, what do you do?

You get back to basics. You get the members who are left and you make a plan to rebuild. And you do it with every member who’s willing to help.

You put 80 year old grandmothers back on nursery duty and you relaunch the visitation program and you start knocking on doors.

And you probably use the opportunity to purge the rolls of some dead weight.

And then you work like it all depends on you and pray like it all depends on God.

But impersonal form letters with more dubious enrollment reports do not help the situation.