I first met Neil and Elizabeth Griffin outside the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City. As I stood at the hotel entrance with my longtime friend, Lollie Cogswell, and her elder sister Louise Brooks, Neil and Elizabeth drove up in a Lincoln Town Car to retrieve us for a Sunday brunch hosted by Judge Paul Pressler at the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird. We piled into the car — Elizabeth insisted on sitting in the back seat with the ladies — and Neil drove the 27 miles where we would meet another messenger (and law school classmate of Judge Pressler), Jack Ingram of Commerce, TX. A young assistant to Judge Pressler, Jay Lifshultz, rode separately with the Presslers and their son, Paul IV.
I learned on the ride to Cliff Lodge that the Griffins were longtime members of Bellevue Baptist Church and close friends of Dr. Adrian Rogers. In fact, the Griffins had lived around the corner from the Rogerses for years. Then in their 70s, the Griffins were childless. But they had cultivated a love for young ministers and a desire to underwrite their ministry preparation that filled the void.
Along the way, Neil told me about his childhood in rural Tennessee, about barefoot days of poverty during the depression. and about entering the hotel business and banking. The Griffins had driven all the way from Memphis to Salt Lake, as they usually did for the annual meeting, so they would have their own car and be able to chauffeur their friends and fellow messengers around the convention host city. Brunch that day was paid for by Jack Ingram, but only after some protest by the Griffins, who were not used to having others pay for their meals.
We rode back to Salt Lake City together to make the Pastor’s Conference.
Before leaving Salt Lake, I exchanged contact information with the Griffins, who invited me to stay at their home any time I was in Memphis. Later that year, while driving back to Texas from Wake Forest, NC for the Christmas holiday, I stopped at the Griffins and attended Bellevue with them on Sunday morning. We went to lunch at a cafeteria not far from their home, and I drove on to Texas.
Two years later, I ran into the Griffins again in Orlando for the SBC annual meeting. That Sunday morning, Neil and Elizabeth drove me to church (my memory tells me it was Aloma Baptist in Winter Park, but it may have been First Baptist) to hear Dr. Adrian Rogers preach. After the service, Neil introduced me to Dr. Rogers, who pulled on my necktie and then bear hugged me.
I was star struck, as most young preachers were when meeting Adrian for the first time. Later that week, after the adoption of the BFM2k, I sat in the lounge on one of the top floors of the Rosen Hotel with my friend Bruce Ashford watching news coverage of the day’s events. After a few minutes, we realized someone was standing behind us.
It was Adrian Rogers.
So there we sat, with Adrian standing behind us, watching Al Mohler explain what Baptists had done earlier that day to a world that never seems to understand the complexities and, in fact, beauty of Southern Baptist polity.
The 2000 convention ended, and I went back to Wake Forest later that summer. (I had briefly attended SWBTS in 1999-2000 while serving as interim pastor of a small church in North Texas). Along the way, again, I stopped at the Griffins house for the night.
Early the next morning, after coffee, I was preparing to pack up my car and continue the journey to Wake Forest when Neil asked me to wait a few more moments. He ventured downstairs to the basement, and after a few moments he slowly climbed the stairs to meet me in the entryway to their home. He handed me an envelope, his eyes filling with tears.
Inside that envelope was a check made out to Southeastern Seminary for $1000.00. Choking through his tears, Neil told me he and Elizabeth wanted to help pay for my seminary education. I cried a little with him, we hugged, and I drove to Wake Forest to finish my M.Div.
That was the first of several $1000.00 checks the Griffins wrote to help cover the costs of my seminary education. When I graduated from Southeastern in Dec. 2002, they sent me a card with a $100.00 bill.
Over the years, we corresponded back and forth and would see each other at annual meetings. When Adrian died, I called Neil and Elizabeth to express my condolences. Neil died in 2007, and I wrote Elizabeth a note expressing my thanks for how Neil and she had invested in my life.
I didn’t see Elizabeth again until the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando. One afternoon, Elizabeth and I found each other standing at the bank of elevators. We got on the elevator together and started to ride up.
It was a little tense. I knew she was upset with me.
“Ben, you know Dr. Rogers would not approve of what you’re doing to Paige.”
“Mrs. Griffin, I don’t think he’d approve of what Paige is doing to the convention either.”
I told her I loved her, and that I would never forget how kind and generous she and Neil had been to me through the years. I gave her a hug and we went our separate ways. I never saw Elizabeth again after that.
Last summer, I received an assortment of photos that appeared to have been taken from surveillance videos. They showed Elizabeth, thin and frail with a walker, being escorted into a law office by Dorothy Patterson, bent over and bloated with a cane. They showed Dorothy being chauffeured around Memphis in a white BMW. They showed them at Mid-America Seminary with Paige Patterson and his aide-de-camp, Scott Colter. And they showed them at an executive terminal in Memphis as they prepared to board a private jet. A note accompanying the photos asked questions about why the Pattersons — at the height of COVID closures — were taking a private jet to meet with Elizabeth Griffin and her lawyers.
My instincts told me what was up. They were working on another old woman to get a piece of her estate, just like they had years before in Dallas and countless times in between. It made me sick. It made me angry.
The Griffins had been supporting SEBTS for years, beginning with the trustee service of their pastor, Dr. Rogers. They had supported SWBTS, Mid-America, and countless other ministries and ministry students through the years. But now Elizabeth was in poor health, into her 90s, and living in an assisted living facility in Germantown.
When I got those pictures, I thought of writing Elizabeth again and telling her what the Pattersons were up to, how they’d hollowed out SWBTS, defunded faculty retirement and health benefits, purchased fake Dead Sea Scrolls for millions, mishandled sexual abuse, misappropriated institutional funds, absconded with valuable seminary property, and the list goes on.
But I decided the last thing a dying old woman needed was the burden of all those facts. I determined then to simply pray for her, and that God would in good time reveal the truth about the Pattersonian penchant for bilking little old ladies.
Today, the estate of Elizabeth Griffin is still in probate. I do not know how she resolved to modify her testamentary gifts to Southeastern, Southwestern, or other ministries she and Neil had supported through the years. But this I do know.
Neil and Elizabeth Griffin were the best kind of Christian laypeople. They were honest, faithful, and generous. I also know this:
They were determined to use their money to underwrite the legacy of Adrian Rogers. That is why they gave to SEBTS. It’s why they gave to SWBTS. It’s why they gave to Mid-America.
As for the Sandy Creek Foundation?
There doesn’t seem to be anything about that organization that represents the character, vision, and commitments of the greatest preacher Southern Baptists have ever known.