July 1, 2003
KANSAS CITY – The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has no plans to close Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, according to a July 2 letter written by the chairman of the SBC Executive Committee.
Gary Smith characterized much of the information floating around the convention as nothing but "rumor," telling Executive Committee members that "correct information is always better than speculation and misinformation."
While there are no plans to close Midwestern, no one is denying the matter has been privately discussed in recent months. Word of such discussions have steadily leaked for weeks and finally became public at the July 15 meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention’s (MBC) Executive Board. That is when David Baker, a conservative board member and respected pastor of First Baptist Church, Belton, told the board that the SBC could close the seminary.
Baker’s comment came during debate in which he was speaking in favor of a motion to divert to Midwestern $250,000 that would have been earmarked for William Jewell College. He spoke immediately after the board voted, 44-4, to remove William Jewell from the 2004 budget.
The portion of Baker’s comment dealing with the SBC closing Midwestern caught most of the 49 MBC Executive Board members by surprise, triggering a flurry of questions in the hallways after the meeting. Baker, a trustee for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., later admitted that much of his information was "second-hand," but that he believed it to be true and felt it was time Missouri Baptists knew "what was going on."
I agree. It is time Missouri Baptists know what has happened.
In his July 2 letter, Smith explained the genesis of the Midwestern debate. It began with SBC Executive Committee appointments to the SBC Funding Study Committee. Examining the funding mechanism for the SBC’s six seminaries was among the study committee’s tasks. The committee was led by Smith, pastor of Fielder Road Baptist Church, Arlington, Texas; Morris Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the Executive Committee; and William E. Anderson, Executive Committee vice chairman and a retired pastor from Clearwater, Fla. The three men visited Midwestern April 21 to ask school trustees if they would consider approving a status change.
"The change being considered by the committee was the transformation of Midwestern from full-fledged seminary to a regional campus in the Kansas City area as an extension of one of our other Southern Baptist seminaries," Smith explained in his letter. Smith did not say which seminary to which Midwestern could become an extension, but speculation has centered on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
"I took that as a euphemism for closing Midwestern," said Roger Moran, research director for the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association and one of three Missouri Baptists on the SBC Executive Committee. "It was just a nice way of saying, ‘we’re going to close it.’" Moran was surprised the topic was being discussed. He has since seen Smith’s letter and been briefed by Chapman, whom Moran still strongly supports. In fact, Moran felt a bit betrayed by the study committee, saying, "because of the serious long-term strategic ramifications for the MBC, I wish the committee would have at least let me know that Midwestern was considered for closure." Moran said, "it is increasingly evident that closing Midwestern is a bad idea" and says he is now relatively confident that the Midwestern issue is off the table.
Heat begins to rise
Representing Midwestern in the April 21 meeting were Phil Roberts, Midwestern president; Dan Eddington, chairman of Midwestern’s board of trustees and pastor, First Baptist Church, Carson City, Nev.; and David Tolliver, a Midwestern trustee and pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church, Excelsior Springs, Mo. Like Moran, all three expressed surprise when the talks turned toward closing Midwestern or making it an extension of another seminary.
"I believed, based on what they said, that they came to shut Midwestern down," Tolliver recalls. He understood the three SBC study committee members to say that if Midwestern trustees refused to accept a change in status, then the SBC Executive Committee could take the issue to messengers at the SBC’s annual meeting in June in Phoenix and ask them to remove current Midwestern trustees.
Smith makes no mention of removing trustees in his letter and indeed such a dramatic move would have been a tall order. Roberts, Eddington and Tolliver made it clear that Missouri Baptists would fight them over any move to change Midwestern.
There is no doubt that nerves were becoming a bit frayed. Many Missouri Baptists that I have talked with in recent weeks were beginning to apply war paint. It is not clear whether this was an overreaction, but what is clear is that war drums began beating again among battle-hardened conservatives in the "Show Me" state. Missourians, like Moran, could be seen joining Roberts in vigorously lobbying SBC Executive Committee members on the convention floor in Phoenix. In addition, there were murmurs of Project 1000 forces mobilizing to carry the fight to the SBC’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, with Baker calling for 2,000 Missouri Baptists to show up as messengers. (Project 1000 was the conservative, pro-SBC organization of laity and pastors who prevented a takeover of the MBC by pro-Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) moderates/liberals in the state. As a friend of mine recently put it, "If there is one organization that SBC leaders respect – and maybe even fear – it is Project 1000.")
Eddington told The Pathway’s Allen Palmeri July 17 that he was "dead certain" the study committee was going to push to close Midwestern.
"It was a very real concern," he said. That concern prompted Eddington and Roberts to travel to Nashville for the April 24 meeting, a meeting to which they were not invited. Eddington said it was only after they had "pushed their way in" that they were allowed to speak to the funding study committee, and according to Eddington, persuaded them to not close Midwestern.
Smith has since attempted to assuage any concern Missouri Baptists — or a growing number of surprised SBC Executive Committee members — had about a potential Midwestern closing, stating in his letter that Roberts and the Midwestern trustees — both in the April 21 and 24 meetings — "made a compelling argument on behalf of Midwestern."
Other seminary presidents spoke to the funding study committee in opposition to closing Midwestern, including Paige Patterson of Southwestern and Al Mohler of Southern. Patterson has reportedly told some Missourians privately that Midwestern is "off the table." Indeed, when the study committee met again June 26, Roberts and Tolliver both attended and there was no mention of Midwestern.
Smith, in his letter, said Chapman, in a subsequent communiqué after the April meetings and intense lobbying by Missourians in Phoenix conveyed the following to Roberts:
"1. The committee never considered an outright closure of Midwestern, but was investigating whether it would be more efficient to provide seminary education in the Kansas City area from a regional campus rather than a stand-alone seminary.
"2. The committee decided not to recommend serious changes in the status of Midwestern apart from possible comprehensive strategies for the whole system of SBC theological education delivery, which shall be considered in future meetings.
"3. The committee’s work is not completed and it will continue to study a variety of issues concerning funding for all SBC enterprises."
Smith then added: "It is not true that the SBC Funding Study Committee has decided to recommend to the Executive Committee the closure of Midwestern Seminary." Smith went on to explain that the discussions about Midwestern were only part of a broader review concerning the funding of all six SBC seminaries. The controversy has left some Missouri Baptist leaders uncertain as to whether they have seen the last of any attempt to close Midwestern.
Some final thoughts
Rumors of Midwestern’s demise have been greatly exaggerated over the decades. The institution, a strategic plant when created by the SBC, remains a key to bolstering efforts to carry the Gospel to the Midwest. So what are Missouri Baptists to make of this latest episode?
First, the SBC Executive Committee not only has the right, but the responsibility to ensure that good stewardship is exercised with Cooperative Program funds. In this case the funding study committee says it was examining a wide range of possibilities and that Midwestern was only one. In fairness to the committee, no formal proposal to close Midwestern was ever brought forward. From my perspective, this matter surfaced solely within the confines of a budgetary debate, well within the responsibility of the committee. No doubt there were members who think a change for Midwestern would be a good thing.
Should a discussion over Midwestern’s future recur, I would recommend the study committee lay the ground work for such discussions by meeting with Missouri Baptist leaders in the earliest stages. This will avoid needless surprises and conflicts. There should be no surprises and everything should be out in the open from the start because such discussions – if not handled adroitly – can damage Midwestern’s ability to raise money and attract students.
I believe Missouri Baptists are reasonable people who support the SBC. If the SBC can openly make the case that it would be in the best interest for Midwestern to undergo a change, then I believe the majority would concur.
It is imperative for the SBC to understand how important Midwestern is to Missouri Baptists. Without Midwestern, from where will Missouri churches get their next generation of "preacher boys?" Kansas City is full of lost people and Midwestern continues to be a beacon for our Lord Jesus in a community shrouded in spiritual darkness. Missouri Baptists are committed to the future of Midwestern and will fight with all their might in its behalf.
Missouri Baptists well understand the importance of theological education. If the SBC and MBC are to survive, their survival will be in correlation to the quality education – grounded in Biblical fidelity – provided by its seminaries.
Southern Baptists in Missouri must never forget that moderates/liberals are pouring a significant amount of their resources into — often times illegally seized (through the self-perpetuation trustee scheme) — state Baptist colleges and universities. The CBF now claims to support more than a dozen moderate/liberal seminaries and schools of theology. It’s political arm, known as the "Baptists Committed" or "Mainstream" movement, has said moderates and liberals will focus their attention on gaining control of at least 48 state Baptist colleges and universities, thus underscoring the importance of Midwestern and its five sister SBC seminaries.
Let me also offer a word of caution to our estranged moderate/liberal brethren, for they have long hoped – and predicted – that SBC conservatives would turn against one another: Don’t misunderstand the Midwestern debate. It has been but a family spat. The circle remains unbroken.