Editor’s Statement: Todd and I (Dave) consulted on the construction of this post and I was the one who personally verified the information about the conversation that took place that caused all of the controversy. We would like to clarify that the purpose of this post was to ask the question as to how to address the issue of whether the election of a minority president would actually cause a donor problem. Todd was careful to express his admiration for Dr. Kelley and did not lay the charge of racism at his feet, though some have falsely accused him of such.I was told that the communication came in response to a question about whether a minority should be considered as president. Dr. Kelley was not expressing his personal views but speaking analytically. That was the issue Todd was trying to speak to – would a minority hire cause donor trouble and how that question should be addressed.I spoke to a member of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary community today and he shared some facts with me. He affirmed that Dr. Kelley is not racist in any way. While we did not assert that, some have drawn that conclusion. He shared with me several initiatives that have been going on in recent years at NOBTS to attract and encourage minority involvement at the faculty level. He also told me that he has personal knowledge of some of the major donors to the seminary and says that far from being racist, they have been intentional in funding minority initiatives at the seminary. He did not believe that a minority president would affect donations negatively at New Orleans Seminary.This man is a friend and I believe he is speaking truthfully to me. We do not know the intent of Dr. Kelley’s statement, but we would make it clear that:1. We do not accuse Dr. Kelley of racism – now or in the article.2. We are glad to hear of racial initiatives going on at New Orleans.3. We are pleased to know of major donors at New Orleans with a heart for such initiatives.
I have always been a defender of pragmatism in ministry in the sense that we need to do things in a way that makes sense. As one of my professors often reminded me that pragmatic means practical and, given the choice between practical and impractical, let’s make the wiser choices to do effective evangelism and contextualize our ministry to the culture around us. Yet, there is a kind of “fierce pragmatism” that can creep in and cause us to compromise our values for the supposed sake of the greater good – an “ends justify the means” kind of pragmatism that highly values the goals of ministry but compromises core values on the way to achieving them.
What we have seen over the past several months is the unveiling of the ill effects of that kind of pragmatism and its costs to the integrity of our witness as Christians and Southern Baptists. Thinking back over the many revelations of our own #metoo/#churchtoo moment, the shocking part of the news stories is more than the fact that abuse has happened in the church, but that fierce pragmatism has placed values such as the reputation of the ministry or the threat of lawsuits above that of dealing righteously on behalf of the abused and bringing abusers to justice and the consequences of their actions. The worst kind of pragmatism reigned in many of our churches and institutions, where leaders deemed it practical to tolerate a lack of justice for the larger supposed goal of protecting the ministry. Even when such actions come to light, other leaders remain reluctant to take action to right past wrongs. Such pragmatism comes at a high cost.
Now we are seeing an opportunity to make the same kind of willful compromise around the issue of race. New accusations appeared yesterday that, if true, demonstrate a temptation toward pragmatism in regard to race in our decision making. The idea now floating out there is that the selection of a minority to lead one of our SBC seminaries would come at the cost of decreased donations and enrollment because of hidden racism. The question to be considered, although minority candidates might be interviewed, is whether the pragmatic, wise decision would be to choose a white president.
As a disclaimer, we have received first-hand corroborating confirmation from trusted sources that the remarks were made concerning donations. Still, I don’t know the motivation behind the remarks, how those remarks were received by all present, or whether or not they had any influence on the search committee. I am merely sharing what I believe are the implications of the issue itself. Also, I am hesitant to comment at all given my deep appreciation for the evangelistic zeal of this leader and his generous and enthusiastic support of our team as we led the SBC Pastor’s Conference. Finally, there is no indication that the trustees on the search team took any such counsel as a factor in their decision and we do not yet know who they will present as the candidate for the position. Still, the issue is out there and to whatever extent anyone would factor the cost of hiring a minority to entity head leadership, that question and its consideration has profound implications. It is those implications that the rest of this article will address.
Jesus does call us to “count the cost” of following him. And there very well may be a cost to hiring a person of color to lead one of our seminaries. It may indeed be true that financial contributions and enrollment would suffer if a minority was selected to lead the institution. Now, that is no small cost. I am quite sure that the current seminary presidents and their trustee boards have had many conversations about financial realities in today’s world. Generational shifts and giving trends are already a concern, and one of the discussions surely concerns the education bubble and the health of organizations going forward even as the education market is changing and contracting. A loss of significant donors is no small thing when seminaries are struggling to keep the doors open in a declining market and there is a very real and present danger that our seminary could suffer. If there is a pervasive hidden racism in the SBC, there may indeed be a cost to selecting a person of color to executive leadership.
Counting the cost should help you prepare for the consequences of a right decision, but it should not keep you from doing what is right. “How much will it cost?” is a legitimate question, but it is not the only question much less the most important. Ultimately, counting the cost reveals what you value most and what values are negotiable. And here’s the rub of fierce pragmatism and of allowing the cost of doing what is right to deter you from pursuing righteousness: the cost is still high!
What’s the worst thing that could happen? That the seminary might close? Yes, that would be a costly outcome. Counting the cost goes both ways – what is the cost of deliberately NOT hiring a minority? Is it not infinitely more costly for an institution to continue on the premise that racism should be tolerated?!? Would it not be better for the seminary to die than for it to live by “pragmatic racism.”
When Jesus called his would be followers to count the cost, he was making a point: there IS a cost to being a follower of Jesus! There IS a cost of doing what is right. Jesus’ call was ultimately a call to be willing to pay that cost for the overwhelmingly better choice of following him. Jesus calls us to make our choice with eternity in view and trusting him with the outcome when we choose to follow him. Whatever the cost of doing the right thing, what you gain is always better than what you lose.