REVIEW: SWBTS Convocation Day


One week ago today we spent nearly 9 hours on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Upon our early arrival, we circumambulated the campus proper and made our way to the Naylor Student Center for caffeine and morning victuals.  The campus was quiet. Four cars were parked in front of Pecan Manor.

And then, approximately 30 minutes before chapel began, we entered the MacGorman Center for Performing Arts for the first time. Walking past the baptismal font, we made our way upstairs to find a perch in the balcony, asking a chapel greeter if the balcony was open for seating beforehand.

Having been assured the balcony was available, we sat down on the front row and began watching.  Jeff Bingham came in for a microphone check.  Leo Day was warming up. A handful of students milled about. On the main floor below, armed security guards with flak jackets and riot gear accessories paced the aisles.

Having been told by several sources that Paige Patterson bragged about having snipers on the catwalks, we looked diligently for firsthand verification. Nothing resembling a sniper could be seen.

Side note: A former seminary official has described to me a formal “active shooter plan” that was formulated during the Patterson era following the 2007 attacks at Virginia Tech. Platform personnel and campus security’s first objective, we are told, was to protect the seminary’s president and first lady and remove them to safety.

Throughout the chapel service — including the excellent sermon preached by Interim President Bingham — armed, uniformed guards paced the floor, up and down the stairs, from doorway to doorway.  It seemed a bit excessive, and perhaps a throwback to sundry Pattersonian paranoiae.

And then the lights in the balcony went out.

Alone in the darkened upper gallery, we determined to make our way to the main floor and join the congregation for the chapel service. By the time everthing was going, there were around 750 faculty, students, staff, and guests in the 3,500 seat auditorium.

An admission: The auditorium is really magnificent in person. The acoustics are splendid. The lighting is production quality. The seats are comfortable. The question remains whether Southwestern Seminary needed a 3,500-seat auditorium and 96,000 feet of space to house fake Dead Sea Scrolls and display the Pattersons’ collection of Christmas creches or showcase idolatrous stained glass windows.  But the auditorium itself is first class.

After chapel, we met several students, enjoyed friendly banter with a few professors on the lawn, and then had lunch off-campus with a much-respected Southern Baptist scholar before returning for a series of meetings, both planned and unplanned.

Three additional words of commendation about the seminary community on convocation day:

First, the library assistants are excellent. From the circulation desk to the serials counter to the computer lab, every person we approached for assistance was courteous, efficient, and generally seemed to enjoy the chance to help a researcher in his quest for seldom-accessed materials.  But more about Southwestern’s library in a forthcoming post . . .

Second, the preaching faculty — under the leadership of Dean David Allen — has done a masterful job compiling a dedicated library full of homiletics texts, preaching guides, and sermon preparation references. In what used to be the World Missions Center, there is now a comfortable research area for students of the prophetic craft. The longtime convention parliamentarian and one of the seminary’s preaching professors sat with us for half an hour or more talking about the school, its students, and its future.

We maintain, however, that the School of Preaching should be brought back under the School of Theology, both administratively and pedagogically. Its separate existence is superfluous. Its administrative structure is redundant. Its identity apart from the School of Theology will inevitably result in secondary priority on any number of fronts.

And third, the present anvil upon which the seminary finds itself under painful hammering has served, in part, to strengthen it.  Our visits in the Development Office, the Student Services division, and the Communications Office proved telling. Random though felicitous conversations with senior administration officers across the campus gave us greater confidence that their loyalties — transfixed for so long in a toxic cult of personality — has been liberated. Some of them confessed, quite candidly, that the fear of the Pattersons has given way to fear of the Lord. They feel more free to pursue their calling, speak their hearts and minds, and associate themselves without threats of reprisal from Pecan Manor or the presidential suite.

In the coming days, we will post in greater detail about secondary concerns regarding both academic and development issues at Southwestern Seminary.  For now, we are pleased to report the seminary seems coming to better terms with its new future, its historic mission, and its Baptist identity now that the reign of terror has ended, even if presidential home remains conspicuously occupied by squatters.

(End note: SWBTS trustees should estimate the costs associated with housing the Pattersons in Pecan Manor — including prorated rent at market rate for an equivalent home — and deduct that amount from any severance package offered to the school’s terminated president.)