There are things I believe I know something about and things I know I know nothing about. Running a seminary is one thing I know that I know nothing about. I know a little something from my years on the Executive Board of the BCI, and on its Admin Team, about accounting for a non-profit, just enough to know that the ins and outs of the use of temporarily restricted funds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is beyond my ability to understand and opine. I have largely stayed out of those discussions. I have also advocated “trusting the trustees” because we don’t have a lot of alternatives unless you want the kind of chaos the Hatley motion would have brought last year. Thank God we didn’t walk that road.
But “trust the trustees” doesn’t mean that we have to keep our mouths shut. I nearly laughed out loud when Bart Barber called himself a “blabbermouth” in the post published yesterday. I consider him a pretty good friend, but I can tell you that of all the words I would use to describe him, that would be far down the list. Any real info I got on the SWBTS brouhaha last year I had to get from someone other than the one trustee I know well. If he was blabbing, it wasn’t to me! But that doesn’t mean I can’t unload on him from time to time. I have the freedom to give him a piece of my mind – value is debatable – about trustee actions, even if he gives me little information in return.
Today, I am going to give a piece of my mind to all the trustees of Southwestern, my alma mater. I graduated in 1981 with my M.Div, back before the Conservative Resurgence took hold there. I am thankful for the changes that took place there even if I am unhappy with some of the things that have happened along the way. Here are my thoughts about what needs to happen at the school as we look to the future.
1. Take a look backward.
I badly want the school to move forward. I commented today on another post to the effect that there are some who will not be content until Dr. Patterson is brought back and pilloried and others that will only rest when that happens to the trustees. Southwestern needs to stop looking back and start moving forward and most of those I talk to related to the school want to do that.
Dr. Bingham, the interim president, has done an excellent job. I’ve spoken privately to several people who tell me that there is a positive and hopeful spirit on campus that hasn’t existed in a quite a while. When the next president comes, he will owe a great deal to Dr. Bingham. Well done and thank you.
But sometimes there are things that need to be taken care of in the past so that the school can move forward. I think that might be the case here. I would make the following suggestions, without belaboring them.
- The school needs to give a public accounting for the financial issues that have been made public. Maybe it is a big deal and maybe it is a tempest in a teapot, created by us bloggers in our housecoats down in our mothers’ basements. But since it has become such a big deal, the school needs to get ahead of this and inform the people what is going on. Let’s face it, it will come up at the Q&A time in Birmingham. Why wait till then?
- This issue of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were purchased and are reported to fake needs to be investigated fully and reported to the SBC.
- There may be some “issues” from the past that need to be dealt with where there are still hard feelings. Maybe they have been resolved and maybe they haven’t.
The SBC has shown that those leaders who inform the people and deal forthrightly with issues may face momentary problems, but get the support of the convention. Look at what Dr. Rainer is doing at LifeWay concerning the brick and mortar stores. Look at Platt. Face the music and we will stand behind you.
I want my alma mater to look forward, but I think that if it does not address some of the issues, there will be people bringing those up. Better to deal with the past as quickly and transparently as possible so we can move forward.
2. Take a look inward.
Southwestern needs to look inward and clarify what kind of school it is going to be. Too often, it was seen as the anti-Southern, the alternative to Calvinism. That isn’t all bad, of course. Having a school were non-Calvinist theology is on display is fine by me. That kind of theological variety is healthy for us. But I would hope that SWBTS would reach for more than just an oppositional stance.
- It should be convictional – After the recent disturbing events at SBU, we need to be reminded that being moored to the BF&M takes constant vigilance.
- It should be theologically diverse, within limits – the BF&M is a document of diversity, within broad Baptist limits. I hope Southwestern will continue (I think it is true at this point) to be a school that leans to the non-Calvinist but includes all soteriological stripes that are faithful to the BF&M.
- It should be excellent – I believe this is the direction that it is headed now. In the last couple of years, the controversy and financial issues have been such a drag on the school, but it has good professors and an enthusiastic student body. With a focus on financial integrity at every level, academic excellence, theological precision, and spiritual passion, it can return to its place as a leader among theological institutions.
Now, for some more specific suggestions.
3. Take a look outward.
We had an analysis of the current SWBTS financial position that included some recommendations. Among those was an increase in enrollment at SWBTS. Duh? More students not only means more tuition but in the SBC, if the enrollment increases in the right programs, it means an increase in the Cooperative Program allotment. In the last couple of years, the controversy at SWBTS has certainly not helped recruitment. Southwestern needs to attract more students.
Here is where I wander into sharing my ignorance, perhaps, but share it I will. I would make some specific suggestions here.
- Continue to build rigorous academic excellence – this is the key. Build the kind of programs with the kind of faculty that provides the kind of education that students want to receive. That is the best recruiting. I believe that this is already taking place – SWBTS has good faculty and good programs. This just needs to continue. Reputation can sometimes be harder to build than excellence itself. Keep working to provide a great Baptist education and to make it better!
- Consider lowering tuition costs – this was an idea I had during the previous discussion. A suggestion was made to raise tuition to put more money in the coffers. I am not sure that is a great idea. If you raise the tuition and everyone takes the same number of hours, a tuition increase brings more money in. But if you raise tuition it might drive students away or lead them to reduce their course schedule – self-defeating. I wonder about the opposite. Reduce tuition, especially in programs in which Cooperative Program calculations are made. There may be rules here that I am not aware of, but if you reduce tuition and get more people taking more hours it brings in more money, right? There’s probably a flaw there, but I don’t see it.
- Focus on the Hispanic World – Southwestern is uniquely positioned to minister in the Southwest and even in Central America. Again, there may be issues I am not aware of, but a Spanish Speaking pastor-training program at SWBTS seems like a workable idea. Is there a seminary in Central America I don’t know about? Maybe there is? But there are plenty of Spanish speaking people in the Southwest.
I think SWBTS is on the right track now, from all I have seen. I believe they could benefit from a look backward that deals with a few of the issues of the past, from some self-examination that gives sharper focus to who they want to be today, and a look outward to how they attract students.
Again, I know that my understanding of seminary life is limited. Much of this may be naive. But I hope that perhaps there is an idea or two here that can be used. I know the trustees – blabbermouths that some of them are – won’t respond, but maybe they will read.