DALLAS–A five-member ad hoc committee of the Criswell College board of trustees will study the school’s current condition and report by Oct. 1 on a possible change in governance that could pave the way for independence from First Baptist Church of Dallas.
Although the church launched the college in 1969 when founder W.A. Criswell announced his vision for an institution that would provide biblical training for Sunday School teachers, other laymen and pastors who had not completed college-level ministerial training, the school’s relationship with the church Criswell pastored for 50 years has been questioned in recent months.
As recently as May 22, the board resolved “not to take any action to separate the College and KCBI from the Church at this time,” while not prohibiting designated representatives from further discussions.
“There’s really no newsworthy action taken other than really just a desire to continue the relationship that we’re enjoying right now,” Pastor Robert Jefress told the TEXAN in describing that last meeting. The Board’s executive committee was called together on three occasions over the summer and two trustees resigned for undisclosed reasons. Replacing Brian Hermes and Ted Raines are Ed Rawls and Ken Sibley, elected by the board at the Aug. 21 meeting.
At least 40 alumni gathered prior to the most recent meeting and discussed their concern for the school’s future in light of the recent resignation of Jerry Johnson as president. While declaring support for interim president Lamar Cooper, the alumni association’s resolution encouraged the board to promote and advance the school’s independence, describing their support of the trustees as contingent on having “at the forefront the best interests of the Criswell College.”
“The Criswell College Alumni Association will support the First Baptist Church of Dallas in their cooperation with/and support of the Board of Trustees in the separation of the College from the Church to be associated and accountable to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention for the purposes of continued doctrinal integrity.”
The notion of the SBTC having a more prominent role was introduced by the state convention’s executive board on Aug. 12 with the passage of a resolution expressing a desire to be part of the solution to ongoing discussion about the school’s future. First Baptist Dallas is one of 2,060 SBTC-affiliated congregations while Criswell College is the only affiliated four-year college.
Trustee chairman Michael Deahl will chair the study committee, joined by Curtis Baker, Jack Brady, Mack Roller and Cooper. Deahl told the TEXAN that the board action initiated “a process designed to resolve the questions concerning the relationship between the College and First Baptist Church of Dallas.”
“The Ad Hoc Committee has been charged with the task of prayerfully conducting a thorough study of the College and the preparation of a written report for the Board setting forth the Committee’s findings and conclusions, including a clear definition of the purpose of the College and the options available if there is a change in the governance structure of the College,” Deahl explained.
Once the board has reviewed and approved their report, Deahl said it will be submitted to the church.
“It is anticipated that a joint team will be formed at that time for the purpose of developing a
recommended course of action,” he added. “It is the hope and prayer of the Board of Trustees that this process will be completed in a calm, orderly and Christ-honoring manner.”
Board members received the SBTC resolution which expressed a willingness to consider increasing the percentage of in-state Cooperative Program budget receipts allocated to Criswell College as well as a one-time grant for transition with the understanding that such steps would allow the school to attain independent status.
Trustees worked behind closed doors for an hour and a half in what was described by Deahl as a
discussion of the relationship between the school and the church. However, the issue surfaced again during the remaining portion of the meeting as the board considered and later approved the $8.5 million budget for 2009, reduced from $9.1 million in the current year.
Board member Bo Sexton probed Chief Financial Officer Ken Ensley about the school’s assets, first asking him to “rate the biggest contributor to Criswell College,” and later seeking clarification of any restrictions on assets such as those provided by the Criswell Foundation.
Trustee Jack Pogue interjected his thoughts, stating, “The endowments at the Criswell Foundation are created by contracts between that donor and the Foundation Board. Those contracts spell out how that money is to be used,” he stated.
Annual allocations to the college vary from year to year with the amount given in 2008 set at about a third of a million dollars.
“What I’m trying to get after is how much money do we have to operate the school,” Sexton stated. “I look at these numbers and it looks like, man, we’re doing fantastic. Can we meet payroll, do the pensions, pay the bills–can we do that?” he asked.
“We are doing all of that,” Ensley replied, while also noting the difficulty in establishing the largest source of funding since gifts from outside sources vary each year. Year-to-date private gifts for 2008 were reported at $8.4 million, drastically higher than the anticipated $842,403 that was budgeted.
“All of our contributions are not reflected,” added SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards who serves as an ex-officio member of the trustee board. Noting that the school receives 3.25 percent of the in-state budgeting of Cooperative Program receipts from SBTC churches, Richards said the convention also scholarships students from those congregations and helps fund mission trips, providing funds in addition to the $312,977 allocated for 2008.
In answer to trustee Calvin Wittman’s inquiry as to the amount provided by First Baptist Church of Dallas, Ensley said $56,000 was given to academic programs and $12,000 to the communications division in 2008.
Trustee Jim Skinner noted the difference in how an accrediting agency asks for income to be reported and how the Board benefits from distinguishing between restricted, temporarily restricted and unrestricted funds.
Trustee Allen Dodgen recalled that the same question arose several years earlier when the board audited the school’s accounts and verified the extent of control over assets.
Cooper affirmed his confidence in the proposed budget when asked for his opinion by Wittman. After receiving signals that most educational institutions should expect a 30 percent reduction in enrollment due to economic factors such as the cost of gasoline, Cooper said he reworked the schedule to allow for concentrated studies on Mondays.
“It looks like we’ll be somewhere near 400 for which I’m really thankful given all that’s happened,” Cooper added.
Pressing the point of Sexton’s earlier question, Wittman asked Ensley, “But we’re in good shape financially and we can pay our bills, pay our staff, and have a positive cash flow?”
“Yes,” Ensley assured.
After approving the budget, Cooper responded to trustee Steve Washburn’s question about the morale on campus. Describing the attitude of students at the first chapel as “upbeat and enthusiastic,” Cooper said he preached from Isaiah 41 to encourage them with the 14 “I will” promises of God.
“Sometimes we just have to step back from the circumstances and say that God is bigger than the circumstances. I’ve been around the sun sixty-six and a half times and I could tell them, ‘I’m not telling you what I think, I’m not giving you theory, but out of my experience that God can step in and overrule circumstances.’”
“I’ve got a grandson who plays Upward Basketball who we were told would be a vegetable, but we said we were going to give God time,” Cooper recalled. “I lost my wife two years ago this Saturday and I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it and a lot of my friends thought I wasn’t gonna make it and yet God brought someone else into my life and gave me a new lease on life. So instead of thinking about retirement, I really don’t have any plans to retire. Somebody may retire me, but as long as God keeps giving me these opportunities I’m going to try to do my best to fulfill them.”
Cooper shared a similar exhortation with faculty, he said, reminding them they were twice-called—first to salvation and then to the ministry, and reminded them of the essential nature of their work.
“None of us is here by accident,” he told trustees, further encouraging the Board to “stand fast, affirming one another, asking God to bless and prosper us in every good work.”
“This isn’t spiritual rocket science—it’s just living by faith. That’s who we are and what we do. As long as we communicate that we’re OK.”
Deahl closed the meeting by telling trustees they had been engaged in spiritual warfare, asking them not to lose sight of the spiritual dimension.
“This is kingdom work and kingdom ministry,” he said, asking them to pray for God’s intervention and guidance for the ad hoc committee.
Richards offered the benediction, expressing appreciation for God’s sovereignty whereby “anything that would seek to disrupt God’s plan would always be an utter failure.” In addition to requesting “peace, direction and resolution” that would honor God, he asked for blessing on First Baptist Church of Dallas, its pastor and leaders, as well as Criswell College and its leaders and Board, “that we will all submit our will to your will, that you might accomplish that which pleases you for the kingdom.”