For years, Southwestern Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention has suffered from the corruption of its leaders. That's normal for leaders in this denomination. What's not normal is their antics becoming known to the public.
The story of Southwestern Seminary illustrates an inescapable truth about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). For years now, the top positions of the SBC have operated as money-making and power-growing machines for the denomination’s top leaders. However, those positions aren’t always the ones most people might initially suspect. Elected officers for this denomination may come and go, but it’s the long-term positions that rake in the real money and power in the SBC. These positions include leadership roles at SBC-branded seminaries.
The battles raging around Southwestern Seminary in recent years give us a potent clue about what’s happening behind the scenes at this embattled denomination. They also tell us exactly what happens when any authoritarian organization becomes dysfunctional.
A quick origin story: Southwestern Seminary timeline
Southwestern Seminary is Southern Baptist shorthand for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. They also abbreviate the name as SWBTS. Originally part of Baylor University’s theology department in Waco, it became its own entity in 1908 and moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Most recently, it enrolled 1,821 full-time students in the 2021-2022 school year. (Source: Page 135 of the PDF of the SBC’s 2023 Book of Reports.)
Back in the 1990s, the school became a battleground for the denomination’s last great schism, the so-called Conservative Resurgence. The seminary’s then-president was Russell Dilday, who’d been appointed in 1977. He opposed the ultra-conservative takeover of the SBC. He particularly opposed ultraconservatives’ attempts to enshrine inerrancy into SBC seminaries’ bedrock.
Inerrancy is a childish, poorly-informed doctrinal stance that has come to dominate right-wing evangelicalism. To keep things simple, it means that the Bible is without error in any way whatsoever. Everything it says is true to the letter, and everything it claims happened really did happen just as it relates.
Normies don’t usually understand just how deeply inerrancy infests and infects modern evangelical thinking. Every single terrible, cruelty-is-the-point thing that evangelicals do is informed by inerrancy. By wielding inerrancy as a crude club, evangelical leaders can convince ordinarily-sensible and basically-compassionate followers to embrace ludicrous, unworkable, obviously-hypocritical, obviously-harmful, and even disgustingly-evil policies like criminalized abortion, female subjugation and purity culture, and total opposition to social safety nets.
Before the 1970s, inerrancy was largely a Calvinist thing. Calvinists wanted to get the SBC on board with the idea, particularly the SBC’s seminary students. Those students represented the SBC’s entire future, after all. They were its future leaders. If they became Calvinist through embracing inerrancy, their flocks would—at least in theory—go that way as well.
It’s ironic, really, that once Calvinists implanted inerrancy into Southern Baptists’ thinking, it would become its own thing. About half of the SBC goes in for Calvinism, but pretty much all of them are inerrantists.
Of the two factions now fighting, the ones wanting a drilldown on the Conservative Resurgence—the Old Guard, I call them—are inerrantists, yes, but they’re largely Arminians (generally speaking, the opposite of Calvinists). The faction opposing them these days—whom I call the Pretend Progressives—contains a surprising number of Calvinists.
But Dilday opposed what the architects of the Conservative Resurgence wanted. And so those schemers needed Dilday gone.
Southwestern Seminary in the crosshairs of the Conservative Resurgence
In 1994, the schemers finally fired Dilday—and in a particularly odious and cowardly way:
As the so-called “conservative resurgence” gained control of the trustee-nominating process, he [Dilday] faced opposition and hostility. Many trustees felt it was Dilday’s opposition to their conservative agenda that fueled the fire.
On March 9, 1994, Dilday was removed without warning and was locked out of his office while still attending the meeting in which he was fired.Baptist Standard, 1999
Don’t worry. Dilday landed on his feet. A few years earlier, Baylor had established its own seminary, George Truett Theological Seminary, in what appears to be a reaction to rising ultra-conservatism within the SBC. Its president immediately hired Dilday to be the school’s professor of preaching.
With their enemy gone, the SBC schism’s hand-picked trustees then elected Ken Hemphill as Dilday’s replacement. He was their faction’s man. However, he was only there until 2003. At the time, spicy rumors flew that Hemphill had quit before he could be fired. Moreover, rumor went that for his concession to leave, Hemphill had been given a very cushy landing with a brand-new sinecure position created just for him.
(In 2018, he’d run for the presidency of the SBC itself, though he’d lose to his faction’s enemy, J.D. Greear.)
For what it’s worth, that all seems quite plausible to me, knowing what I do of SBC leaders. But everyone’s hush-hush about what Hemphill might have done that would have been serious enough to demand his ouster. Chances are good it was something financial. At any rate, the school’s trustees—now a committee dominated by men chosen by folks involved in the Conservative Resurgence—unanimously elected Paige Patterson as its next president.
As the leader of that entire takeover scheme, Patterson’s new position represented a cardinal victory for his faction.
Paige Patterson (and his faction) temporarily loses Southwestern Seminary
Patterson would rule the school until 2018. That year, though, two massive scandals rocked the SBC. One directly involved him.
First, Frank Page retired from his position as president of the SBC’s top-ranked Executive Committee. He was one of the men behind the Conservative Resurgence, and a huge big name in the SBC as a whole. From 2006 to 2008, he even served as the denomination’s president! Very quickly, though, we all learned that he’d had unapproved sex. That was why he was retiring. This scandal may have primed Southern Baptists to be particularly sensitive to hypocrisy in their highest-profile leaders.
Then, Southwestern Seminary quietly fired Paige Patterson. At first, it seemed like he’d lost his job over advice he liked to give women who were married to abusive husbands. And that didn’t make sense at all. It was horrifying, but it was also quintessentially evangelical: they should forgive their husbands, pray for them extra lots, and be as submissive as they could possibly be—all in hopes that it’d humble their abusers and bring them to proper Jesusing. Patterson had been giving this advice for years, so why was it suddenly a big problem? Ditto for the other allegations swirling around him.
Very quickly, the SBC divulged what had really happened. Paige Patterson had egregiously mishandled a sex assault accusation at Southwestern Seminary. It was so egregiously mishandled that the denomination’s members would have completely freaked out to hear about it.
So it’d been covered up.
What Paige Patterson did as the leader of Southwestern Seminary
In 2015, a young female student reported a rape on campus at the hands of a fellow student. In response, Patterson manipulated her in a way that also sounds particularly, well, evangelical.
After receiving threats from her attacker, Jane Roe says she met with Patterson and several other seminary officials, all male, in August 2015. She felt embarrassed to be prodded by a 73-year-old male to share “lurid and graphic details” of sexual assault in a room full of other men but says that Patterson “seemed to enjoy” making her uncomfortable with his questions.
Roe says she told Patterson through tears that she felt like “damaged goods” and that no godly man would want her. Patterson allegedly replied that her rape was “a good thing,” because the right man would not care if she was virgin or not.
The woman says Patterson told her he was “too busy” to deal with her rape allegation because it was the beginning of the semester. He grudgingly called police, she says, because the report was made on campus. If he had received the report off campus, Patterson allegedly said, there would be no need to involve law enforcement.Baptist News Global, June 24, 2019
When campus security visited the accused rapist’s home, they found a variety of firearms there. They expelled him over the guns. (At the time, they apparently feared that mentioning the rapist’s victim might have put her at additional risk.)
Afterward, Paige Patterson met with the victim and her family over a completely different matter: a dispute with a female faculty member. Beforehand, Patterson had told the chief of security not to attend the meeting because he had “to break her down and I may need no official types there….” (Ellipses in original.)
It sounds like the victim wasn’t expecting Patterson to be at this meeting, but she sure got a surprise:
Patterson was there and took over the meeting, accusing Roe of lying. He informed her he had contacted her alleged attacker to get “his side of the story” – despite the fact police had warned that confronting him about the abuse allegations could endanger the woman and her family – and the man had claimed their sexual relationship was consensual.
By the end of the confrontation, Roe says Patterson seemed disappointed to concede that he found no reason to expel her, but “So far, it’s just your word against his.”Baptist News Global, June 24, 2019
The accused rapist was not only a student. He also turned out to be an employee of Southwestern Seminary. Due to his job there, he held the keys to its buildings—including to the one where his victim lived and worked. The accused rapist even bragged that Patterson himself had told him that having an “extensive criminal history” wouldn’t stop him from becoming a Baptist minister.
There’s more even than that, and it is all incredibly shocking and damning. I’m not even mentioning the financial stuff Patterson allegedly did. The point is, Southwestern Seminary should have booted its creepy, misogynistic, spendthrift president a long, long time ago.
Balancing the Force at Southwestern Seminary—or at least trying to
Between getting Russell Dilday fired and 2018, the Conservative Resurgence shifted form and focus. Before, its faction members had pushed hard on inerrancy. Now, the faction drilled down more on the ultraconservative ideals that inerrancy supported. They were now the Old Guard: stalwart defenders of all the oppressive, regressive ideals that Southern Baptist leaders could possibly enshrine into their denomination.
But by 2018, that faction had lost not one but two leaders from Southwestern Seminary. Maybe that’s how Adam Greenway became its next president. Maybe someone wanted to balance the Force, so to speak.
On paper, Greenway’s pedigree looked impeccable. Just as Patterson himself had come to Southwestern Seminary from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), Greenway had previously served as a dean there. Beyond that, a number of Southern Baptists enthusiastically supported Greenway’s election to the role.
However, he was clearly not a made man for the Old Guard. For a start, he specifically rejected Calvinism as a base tenet for the seminary—along with most of the ideals of the Conservative Resurgence. Unsurprisingly, from the start of his time there the Old Guard attacked him with everything they had.
He lasted all of about three years, resigning in 2022.
Three years of nonstop attacks finally bear fruit
When he accepted the leadership role at Southwestern Seminary, Greenway inherited a huge financial mess from Paige Patterson. As well, he stepped into a huge faction squabble with inadequate resources.
All that said, I don’t think he ever expected what was coming his way. Eventually, he’d say as much.
Over the years, it got downright boring for me to see the Old Guard’s vicious, nonstop attacks on Adam Greenway. The poor guy couldn’t do a single thing that they liked. He was their proverbial bitch eatin’ crackers (BEC): they hated him so much that even if they saw him just eating some crackers, they’d get furious at him.
(So much for Jesus’ failed prediction that incredible, incandescent love would make heathens immediately recognize his followers and know that a real live god formed the center of their movement. Also, so much for Jesus’ direct orders to love each other. As well, so much for the entire Love Chapter.)
In real terms, Greenway struggled with the financial ruin facing Southwestern Seminary, serious allegations regarding Patterson’s potential theft of seminary property, and the faction warfare left in Patterson’s wake. Behind the scenes, huge donors and megachurch pastors allegedly lobbied for Greenway’s removal. It all reminded me of the power vacuum left after King Robert Baratheon died in Game of Thrones.
When Greenway finally resigned, the Old Guard rejoiced. Evangelical Dark Web ran his photo beside the rage-crying soyjack meme. Capstone Report called him “woke” and “incompetent.” Pulpit & Pen gloated that “another ‘Mohlerite'” had finally been destroyed.
(Al Mohler is a solid Old Guard guy and a made man all the way, just nowhere near as extreme as the faction likes these days. And so they’ve sneeringly assigned him membership in their enemy faction. Frequently, they also call their enemies within the SBC “Democrats,” “Woke,” “Elites,” and “liberals.” Very loving, much incandescent!)
Southwestern Seminary gets a new president—and an unsurprising damage report
After Greenway’s resignation, Southwestern Seminary elected David Dockery as its interim president. In April 2023, they put a ring on it by making him their new official president. It probably wasn’t too difficult a choice. Dockery has a great deal of experience in running seminaries, and he seems to have a level head on his shoulders.
But Dockery’s no stranger to this seminary. In fact, Adam Greenway had initially hired Dockery in 2019 to be Southwestern Seminary’s new theologian-in-residence.
The Old Guard already hated Dockery just because Greenway, their BEC, had hired him. One Old Guard site had attacked Dockery in 2020 as a leader in “the war against conservative values.” Yes, really. But they’ve all been strangely quiet about his ascension to the actual presidency of Southwestern Seminary.
Maybe they’re too busy chewing on an utterly unsurprising damage report about Greenway’s administration to worry about tearing this esteemed old gent apart.
The Sligar report provokes demands for a trustee meeting
In late May 2023, someone at Southwestern leaked an email and memo. Both documents reached eager recipients. Capstone published both of them. They call the memo “the Sligar report,” since a seminary trustee named Aaron Sligar wrote it. Sligar apparently has experience in conducting investigations, with the email describing him as “a former Federal investigator.” However, I can’t tell who asked him to investigate; he only writes that “it was requested.”
Sligar’s memo contains multiple accusations of runaway spending, dodgy budgetary allocation, and even potentially illegal and criminal policies regarding the seminary’s official credit cards. In my opinion (IANAA: I am not an accountant), Sligar makes Greenway sound like he was absolutely scrambling to find money for his seminary—and to limit the seminary’s financial vulnerabilities. Though the Old Guard typically found his staffing cuts to be sinister in nature and politically-motivated, I always saw them as a desperate measure to save money somewhere. This report reinforces the impression I already had of Greenway.
As for the email, it demands a special meeting of the trustees to discuss the report. It also complains that the Executive Committee of the SBC wanted to keep the trustees in the dark about it by not letting them have it in written form, so they also wanted to discuss that.
When Capstone asked Southwestern’s officers about the report, they responded as anyone might expect by saying it “does not represent an official statement from the board.”
Mark Wingfield of Baptist News Global urged caution regarding springing to conclusions about the report and how it relates to the ongoing multiple dramas going on at Southwestern Seminary. But I reckon his warning came too late; that ship had already sailed.
And now, the official meeting’s conclusions
The trustees got their meeting on May 30, 2023. On the seminary’s official website, they published their findings from that meeting on June 7, 2023.
In their writeup, we find that the trustees created a task force to examine seminary spending in Fall 2022. That task force added Sligar to the team this past March 2023. Their findings are stark and simple:
[. . .] Adam Greenway engaged in a pattern of spending that the task force believes did not reflect proper stewardship of seminary resources. This pattern of spending occurred without deference to financial controls and seminary financial policies.“Summary of Findings,” June 7, 2023
“Stewardship” is evangelical Christianese. It implies that Jesus himself divinely inspires and commands evangelicals to use their resources wisely. Evangelicals often think that poor stewardship is a sin, but they can always rationalize their own spending while condemning that of others.
Specifically, this writeup condemns Greenway’s spending on his personal home and office:
The task force found that a significant amount of the work done on the President’s home was carried out by the seminary’s facilities team, creating an unsustainable demand, and contributing to poor morale and high turnover. It was reported that employees were often asked to do the same job multiple times to meet Greenway’s demanding expectations. Multiple change orders were also true with outside contractors, increasing costs of the projects.
Between the summer of 2020 and early 2021, over $500,000 was spent on the President’s office, including renovations and furniture.“Summary of Findings,” June 7, 2023
The report summarizes with another potent Christianese word:
We grieve the pattern of poor stewardship evident in this summary of the task force’s findings.“Summary of Findings,” June 7, 2023
“Grieving” is very Jesus-flavored sadness. The word implies that Jesus also feels that way and has made the evangelical feel sad as well. Though normies typically associate the word with mourning dead loved ones, evangelicals often deploy it in the context of injustice. In that sense, it also carries connotations of righteous anger. So these trustees are sad and properly, righteously angry—just as Jesus himself would be—over this spending.
Then, the trustees reinforce their support for David Dockery’s presidency and express their high hopes for the school’s future.
The fight ain’t over at Southwestern Seminary
Analyses of the audited financial reports from Southwestern Seminary reveal some really eye-popping details. As enrollment declined year after year, spending generally increased annually. Last year, the school faced an USD$8M deficit. Between 2002 and 2022, the school amassed a $140M deficit in total. But the 2002 deficit wasn’t too bad. It only exploded in 2003, when Patterson became the school’s president.
To curb future financial impropriety, the trustees have put “guardrails” in place to prevent the worst of the abuses they uncovered. We’ll see how well those work. Dysfunctional authoritarians bristle at oversight of any kind. If Dockery falls into that camp, he’ll find ways to get around them.
Even if he doesn’t, he still faces faction warfare at the school. Analyses and reports all paint a sad picture of that warfare behind the scenes. The leak of the Sligar report itself may have come from a Greenway sympathizer at Southwestern Seminary who was outraged over his factional enemies’ attacks on the guy.
If anything, the fighting isn’t over at all at this school.
Why this entire drama matters
I didn’t write this article to point and laugh at yet more Christian hypocrisy, though there’s plenty of that hypocrisy to behold in it.
Rather, I want to stress that the SBC is a spectacularly-poorly-run business managed by dysfunctional authoritarians. What’s happening in their denomination is what we ought to expect out of any such group.
Many fairly-functional authoritarian groups exist in our world. Some are small, like gaming/comic conventions whose leaders style themselves as “benevolent despots” (or my favorite, a “playful despot” running a gaming group I played with years ago). Some are huge. Though the American military often suffers from its own troubles, for the most part it operates as a functional authoritarian organization. To a lesser extent and with more of the same caveats, so does the American justice system.
To be functional, authoritarian groups need rigid, easily-understood, universally-applied rules, completely reliable oversight to ensure that everyone in the organization follows those rules, and absolutely standardized, equally- and quickly-applied, and proportional penalties for disobeying those rules. Most of all, its leaders at all levels must operate transparently and with accountability, and they must put the safety of the group’s members far above the group’s overall image and credibility.
When any aspect of that formula fails, it must be quickly corrected.
If it isn’t, but is instead allowed to continue and to encroach on other aspects of the formula, that group is going to become dysfunctional.
Once that dysfunction gets too far and infects too much of the group’s power structure, there is no fixing it. It is hopelessly corrupted. Not even a god could untangle all those messy allegiances, backroom agreements, secret concessions, favorites’ shielding, and vendettas.
Let such a group’s leaders fuss, scheme, and finagle to grab what they can while they can still make money from the group. For members, it is safest for them to use the only meaningful power remaining to them in such a group: to walk away.