Independence brings new era at Criswell College

DALLAS–August 1 marked the beginning of a new era at Criswell College, according to the parties involved in navigating the school’s independence from First Baptist Church of Dallas where former pastor W.A. Criswell launched a Bible institute 40 years ago that he said would be “based on conservative evangelical Christianity as practiced in our church” to train leaders for ministry.

“Criswell College operated under the ultimate authority of the members of First Baptist Dallas. This new structure enables the college to expand into new opportunities under an independent board and leadership,” leaders said in a joint release issued at a signing ceremony July 29 in the office of Interim President Lamar Cooper. In 1991, the campus was relocated less than two miles east from the facilities of the church, which remains in downtown Dallas, to 4010 Gaston Avenue.

Emphasizing the shared past and future vision, the release stated, “Both institutions hold steadfastly to the core values on which both were established and built. Both institutions will continue to apply these critical values, the college in the development and training of the next generation of pastors and ministry leaders?the church in sharing the gospel with the city of Dallas.”

The fate of radio station KCBI-FM (90.9) is spelled out in the release, noting the station “has served both the college and the church and will continue to be a dynamic ministry to the Dallas-Fort Worth market.” More specifically, “Management of the radio station will move from the college to a new non-profit organization, First Dallas Media Inc.”

From the school’s perspective, many benefits will derive from the separation without losing the legacy that Criswell established.

“There will be no change in our commitment to the Bible as God’s infallible and inerrant Word, nor to any other doctrinal position,” Cooper told the TEXAN. Calling the separation a historic moment, he said, “We are greatly indebted to the vision of our founder, Dr. W.A. Criswell, and to the members of First Baptist Church Dallas who embraced that vision.”

Cooper said the separation would give the school a new identity?no longer viewed as a church school that is an appendage of the historic downtown church. “It will therefore make it easier to recruit students for on-campus and our new distance education programs.”

He also expects the separation to help development and fund-raising, attracting donors who, prior to the separation, “incorrectly surmised that the college was supported largely by budgeted allocations from First Baptist Church of Dallas.

“As an independent entity, we look forward to our continued cooperation with the church in reaching common goals appropriate to the kingdom’s work,” Cooper said. “As a cooperative affiliate we also look forward to a closer working relationship with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the churches of our convention.”

Under terms of the separation, the school immediately operates under the authority of a new board that includes members elected from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the W.A. Criswell Foundation, both of which are affiliated with the college. In addition to eight trustees nominated from each of those entities, the college names five at-large members and the new board is responsible for ratifying all 21 people.

Previously, the bylaws stipulated at least 12 of the 21-member trustee board were to be drawn from among FBC members.

Serving as chairman of that new board is Jimmy Pritchard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Forney. “This is a unique opportunity for Criswell College to build in a significant way upon the foundation of its past,” Pritchard told the TEXAN. “A new day always brings exciting possibilities as well as special challenges.” He expressed hope that the school would “rise to make the most of the new opportunities” and confidence in conquering any challenges in coming days.

Terms of separation were approved by members of the church and the school’s trustees last summer, paving the way for a transition team to draft a Separation and Contribution Agreement. Church and school representatives signed final documents early this year. Legal documents were ratified Feb. 2, awaiting approval by the Federal Communications Commission and Internal Revenue Service for the go-ahead that allowed separation Aug. 1.

Having served as chairman of the prior governing board since 2005 and a board member since 1998, Dallas attorney Michael Deahl described the separation transaction as “undoubtedly the most significant milestone in the history of Criswell College” apart from its initial founding, “and certainly the most challenging transaction I have ever been involved with.”

While the concept had been informally considered for many years, discussions began in earnest in January 2008, he said. He recalled the hurdles that had to be overcome to get to this point, including the satisfactory agreement of terms of separation, particularly the disposition of KCBI and other radio stations, approval of the transaction by college trustees as well as church deacons and members, approval of the change in governance by the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, as well as approvals from the FCC and IRS.

First Dallas Media Inc. has the college and First Baptist Church as its sole members. FBC will exercise control over the non-profit entity through the election of its trustees. The church will continue operating the radio ministry, utilizing income generated from program support and donors. The college will receive guaranteed annual income from station revenue.

“I realize that many members of the college’s constituency have been waiting and watching to see if the separation was really going to happen,” Deahl conceded. Now that it has occurred, he said the school’s independent status and alignment with the SBTC and W.A. Criswell Foundation “will serve as an impetus for the college to broaden its influence and ministry in the years to come.”

Deahl was eager to recognize the entire Criswell College and KCBI family “who remained focused on the work of the ministry throughout the ups and downs of the past several years, my fellow trustees at the college who took their responsibilities seriously, always held me accountable, and were a privilege to lead, the church staff and deacon leadership who were instrumental in enabling the separation transaction to be completed in a spirit of cooperation and harmony, and college Interim President Lamar Cooper, who has provided solid and stable leadership at the college for the past two years.”

After the separation agreement papers were signed, SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards told the TEXAN, “A new day has dawned at Criswell College. The rich heritage of First Baptist Church, Dallas, will always be a part of the college’s legacy.”

Richards expressed confidence that the future of the school “is as limitless as the promises of God,” and pledged SBTC’s commitment to helping Criswell College transition “to the greatest days of ministry yet.”

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