Transition at Southwestern

When the president of the world’s largest seminary takes early retirement, it is natural for us to ask what really happened. The trustees were gracious and generous with severance and Ken Hemphill seems genuinely excited to lead the Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis for Southern Baptists. Still, we are conditioned to view cynically claims of God’s will and best wishes. Were there really other factors at work in Dr. Hemphill’s decision to leave Southwestern? Of course there were.

When a religious leader or pastor claims to sense God’s leading to make a change, we speak of it as though he must have had a dramatic and unexpected vision unless he’s glossing over more mundane unhappiness or ambition. After resigning from my first full-time church, a deacon who had been a bit of a pill came to me privately and told me he hoped I was not leaving because of him. Surprised, I told him that although we had bruised each other on occasion, I was sincere in saying that God was leading me to another ministry. Having said that, God has used people and events as messengers in my life and the lives of all his other servants, Ken Hemphill included. There is always “another story” behind leadership transition. In hindsight, successes and failures can be applied to an outcome with some dexterity. It’s never as easy to project these into the future. God may use successes, failures, and surprises to get our attention or lead us in another direction. It’s still his leading.

Dr. Hemphill’s testimony is familiar as he speaks of God leading him through a process of release from his current ministry followed by a welcome vision for a new venture. It is a testimony most of us could give. Maybe that is the “real truth.” Unhappy people are always around to claim that they told us so. They will gladly apply every rumored and real conflict to institutional transition as though it makes liars of those who claim to see God at work in the change. It is not necessarily so. Reporters looking for the “real story” will flock to these grumps and portray them as the only honest spokesmen, even though they usually have only second hand knowledge of the event in question.

If the trustees and Ken Hemphill were saying contradictory things about his leaving, we’d look for the real story. That’s not happening. The president was not fired and no one who had a part in the process, himself included, is portraying this as a forced retirement. As much fun as it may be for some to sow discord, we’re left with the choice of questioning the integrity and motives of all parties or taking them at their word. There is no good reason to do that. The more interesting question has to do with what’s next.PAN class=body>

In 1978, Russell Dilday inherited the largest seminary in the world from Robert Naylor. Fifteen years later, Dr. Dilday turned over a marvelous physical plant and much smaller student population to Ken Hemphill. During his nine years as president, Dr. Hemphill has also expanded Southwestern’s facilities and endowment, and has regained about 400 of the 2,000 students lost during the previous administration. In the meantime, some of the other SBC seminaries have experienced explosive growth. Something important needs to change if Southern Baptists’ largest seminary is to retain that title. While big is not a worthy end in itself, a well-funded, conservative seminary in the largest state for Southern Baptists should be leading the six SBC schools in growth, ministry, and vision.

This is the challenge faced by Southwestern’s presidential search team. No doubt they are already getting lots of advice. It happened with the last search committee. Alumni, donors, students, faculty members, newspapers, and outsiders all had an opinion about what the next president had better not be. It affected the outcome. That has probably already begun for the current search process. I strongly urge them to take a different attitude this time. While Southern Baptists do and should have a right to make suggestions, this advice should not all bear the same weight. Consider the source. Disgruntled alums who would turn the clock back to the Dilday years will never support Southwestern again. Donors and prospective donors who make threats are less concerned with giving than with tying strings to the gift. The seminary also has implacable critics who will only make suggestions about what or who the seminary should avoid. These folks will not hear any honest answer to their criticism. As politely and firmly as possible, disregard these voices.

Southwestern does not face a transition comparable to the one faced by Southern or Southeastern and these schools have flourished under conservative leadership. New donors have replaced those who abandoned the seminaries and new students have more than replaced those who rejected the new direction of the faculties and administrations. If these examples were not out there, Southwestern’s trustees should still seek a man who has the charisma and vision to lead the seminary beyond its current status. It will require courage and prayer. And it will require a proactive, not reactive decision.

Although not desperate, this change of administration is crucial for SWBTS. Pray for the search committee as you ignore those who still want to chase rumors and nourish discontent. The seminary’s students have impacted Texas</st1

Correspondent
Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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