On the matter of presidential elections

SWBTS Poster

Eleven years ago, we published the above spoof inspirational poster for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Paige Patterson had just given his annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention, asserting boldly that the Fort Worth school was neither drifting downstream into liberalism, nor ecumenism, nor neo-orthodoxy (three of the old man’s favorite straw men). Rather, Patterson stated, Southwestern was charting a course upstream, against the cultural currents, into utopian days of full enrollment, a building bonanza, etc.

Those days never came. Instead, Southern Baptists now own a pawn shop of a seminary after fifteen years of declining enrollment, multi-million dollar debt, the advanced disrepair of campus facilities, and a top-heavy faculty largely built on patronage rather than performance.

When we originally posted the overturned, rusted out ship poster, we were chided by the president of Guidestone Financial Resources, who told us directly that we would be much more effective if we stayed away from lampooning his alma mater and its president and first lady. For more than 10 years thereafter, we stopped this blog altogether. When we resumed blogging, nearly every prediction we made about the school held true.

Back in 2007, Patterson had been able to “skirt the question of declining enrollment, rising expenditures, and accreditation jeopardy.”  We predicted that Patterson would eventually “have to face the music and explain to the convention why Southwestern continues to lag behind the other seminaries.” If the trend continued unaddressed, Southwestern would “be due for a considerable drop” in Cooperative Program funds.

Time has proven us more accurate than we wanted to be.

We also wrongly anticipated Patterson’s “imminent retirement.” He didn’t retire, and eleven years later the school is just emerging from the smoldering dumpster fire he left behind after his termination.  More troubling is the seeming unwillingness of the trustees to be forthright with the convention about the serious crises that face the seminary. It also appears unlikely they have given a full disclosure of such matters to the finalists now under consideration to fill the presidential vacancy.

We hate to say it like this, but there is simply no other explanation: either the trustees are incompetent (unable to understand what has occurred) or deceptive (unwilling to own up to it given their own complicity in the school’s steady decline).

That would make them either fools or frauds.

Or maybe we are wrong, and the trustees are already preparing a comprehensive, transparent report that will be released this spring. (Brief aside: Does it bother you that Southern Seminary can provide a 71-page report on its record of racism since 1859 but Southwestern can’t tell you what happened to its endowment since 2003? Or how much it spent on fake Dead Sea Scrolls? Or how much the Patterson’s severance package was?)

A growing number of the school’s alumni and donor base are watching the selection process very carefully. We can only conjecture what is going on inside the committee’s brains. After a half dozen “listening sessions” with seminary stakeholders, faculty, and students, the trustee search committee seems to have distilled their options to a handful of potential candidates.

But until the trustees put together a comprehensive report on the seminary’s real condition and have a full disclosure of the challenges facing its current financial, enrollment, physical property, institutional development, and structural health, no candidate should proceed. In fact, the only candidate who would proceed without such disclosure is probably not capable of doing the job.

Which brings us to presidential elections.

It seems to us that the presidential selection process for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is a lot like America’s 1992 presidential election.  Like that year, there seem to be three viable candidates, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Also like that year, whichever candidate is elected will face a tough economy, a fractured constituency, and out-of-control spending.

First, there was an incumbent who was probably the most qualified person to become president in the nation’s history. George H.W. Bush, who passed away last year at age 94, should have been the front-runner by every measure. But his adroit diplomatic skill, administrative experience, and calm, patrician demeanor was not enough to overcome a few handicaps.

There was also a wild card, outside candidate with an impressive record in business and an uncanny ability to connect with the common man despite his native quirkiness. H. Ross Perot, whose presidential aspirations were widely rumored for years, filled a certain void for the American electorate. He was affable and clever, a Boy Scout in a business suit. He probably had a better understanding of the situation facing the country than the other candidates. But he fell into the oldest, most predictable trap in politics: he peaked too soon.

And then there was a synthetic Arkansas politician who loved nothing more than the sound of his own voice and never met a camera he didn’t like. Somehow, despite a problematic record and persistent questions about how fit he was for the office, William Jefferson Clinton emerged as a viable candidate. His well-oiled machine — you might call it slick — included publicists, media executives, and the usual suspects from Hollywood.

Back in 1992, Ross Perot made a pretty simple case against Bill Clinton’s candidacy: “If you look at every single factor in his 12 years in Arkansas, you’ll realize that when you’re at the bottom of everything, there’s no place to go but up.” Which is to say that a man’s record is the obvious place you look if you want to take a measure of his potential for success.

And that must be the case for the next president of Southwestern Seminary. The school has been built on a cult of personality for the last fifteen years; it dare not entertain another one. And it should go without saying that any man would lead a graduate school of theology should have made, at the very minimum, some scholarly contribution at some point.

All eyes are on Southwestern’s trustees. Will they tell the truth — the whole truth — about what’s happened at the school? Because if they can’t do that, then chances are slim that they have the collective good judgment to choose a president who can help them dig out of the ditch.

And in that case, Southern Baptists would be better served by sending a wrecking ball through the campus, preferably starting with those damned stained glass windows.