Other news outlets are likely to publish accounts today about dissension among trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and allegations of impropriety related to real estate deals.
We’re not publishing such a story today for two simple reasons: We don’t have all the facts. And some of the facts we do have appear to contradict each other.
We will celebrate one thing, however. BNG’s coverage of the secrecy in which the seminary’s finances and enrollment are perpetually shrouded got the attention of some trustees, who already have demanded their officers give them more information.
Now, some of these trustees have demanded a called meeting of the board next week — just a month after the full board’s regular meeting. It turns out there were important details the full trustee board didn’t get told.
As BNG also has reported regarding other Southern Baptist Convention agencies and institutions, the root problem is trustee boards that are bigger than some SBC churches, which leads to concentration of power — and information — in a small executive committee of trustees that lacks accountability.
That’s a story for another day, but it’s necessary background to what comes next here.
Keep in mind also that most SBC seminary trustees serve two consecutive five-year terms, meaning they will sit on those boards three times longer than most master’s degrees students will be enrolled. Most of Southwestern’s current trustees are now working with their third president.
“What’s confusing about Southwestern’s current situation is there are multiple major stories playing out simultaneously.”
What’s confusing about Southwestern’s current situation is there are multiple major stories playing out simultaneously. Some of these story lines are related, and some are not. Yet it’s too early to say for sure which ones are which.
Here are the big themes:
One: Last fall, trustees forced out President Adam Greenway after only three years at the helm, citing devastatingly low enrollment and significant — but not detailed — financial problems. In Greenway’s defense, he inherited a huge mess left by his predecessor, Paige Patterson who, it now appears, was better at publicizing his brand than actually sustaining a seminary. To Greenway’s discredit, he surrounded himself with some staff members who turned out not to be the best choices and he fell into some of the same spending traps as his predecessor. And amid a global pandemic, he couldn’t reverse the crippling enrollment decline.
Two: Across the last two presidencies, Southwestern has faced some serious problems with mishandled sexual abuse cases. That’s ultimately what brought down Patterson. And it’s what could bring down the whole place depending on what happens in the next few days. We have learned on extremely good authority — verified by multiple sources — that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating something about sexual abuse at Southwestern and that this may center on one particular employee’s actions — possibly among others. And that employee reportedly has an axe to grind with colleagues who did not remain loyal to Greenway.
By now, I hope you’re sensing why this is an opinion piece and not a news story. Some made-for-TV movies have fewer plot twists.
“The full trustee board apparently was not told about this strategy. And now there’s hell to pay.”
Third: The seminary has financial problems but also is real estate rich. Selling off some of that land could bring a much-needed infusion of cash. That’s why the seminary agreed to sell a tract of student housing to the city of Fort Worth for $11 million. It will become emergency housing for Fort Worth’s unhoused and for victims of domestic violence. Bravo for that. That’s just the beginning of likely land deals to come. Apparently in anticipation of that, a seminary executive formed a separate corporation called Future Fort Worth, along with two prominent businessmen. The problem is: The full trustee board apparently was not told about this strategy. And now there’s hell to pay. It looks bad even if it’s not.
Fourth: That brings us back full circle to dysfunction on the trustee board. Those duly elected to guide the seminary believe they have not been given nearly all the information they need. BNG’s reporting on the April board meeting was cited in an email to the board president from an unnamed group of trustees demanding a called meeting next week. Among other things, they are quite upset that a trustee investigation of alleged financial improprieties under Greenway’s watch was not fully presented to the board. It appears the first time some trustees knew there was a written report is when they read about it in BNG. Bravo for us, but that’s not the way it should be.
Right now, accusations are flying and suspicions are raised about who knew what when and who has betrayed whom in retaliation for what. It is impossible for us to know the verified facts. That’s why you’re reading this opinion piece instead of a news article.
When we can sort it out, we’ll publish a news article that will set everything in its place.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what’s necessary now is for Southwestern’s administration and trustee leadership to tell the whole truth. The full trustee board — and the Southern Baptists who pay the bills with their offerings — deserves to know full details on enrollment and finances and pending litigation and possible land deals.
“What’s necessary now is for Southwestern’s administration and trustee leadership to tell the whole truth.”
If Future Fort Worth — a corporation registered at the address of a seminary-owned home — has been created with the blessing of administration, they ought to say so. And they ought to inform the board of trustees.
If seminary employees are being hauled before the Department of Justice for any reason, it would be a good idea for administration to get out ahead of that story by telling it first.
I do not write these suggestions as someone removed from reality. Once upon a time, I served as director of news and information for Southwestern Seminary and then as associate director of the news office at the SBC Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board). It is disheartening to see the two SBC entities I know best fall into such a delusional spell of secrecy and obfuscation.
Baptists have long believed churches and denominations and governments work most fully in accordance with God’s will when we “tell the truth and trust the people.”
Leaders at Southwestern Seminary need to take a Baptist history course again.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He is the author of the new book Honestly: Telling the Truth About the Bible and Ourselves.
What happened at Southwestern and why does it matter? | Analysis by Mark Wingfield