One of the influences of my Baptist upbringing was on my education. Growing up in a small Arizona town, the only educational option was the local public school. It was actually a pretty good school, comparatively, consistently one of the best in the county and state, having been recognized as such in recent years. But it was public education and by the time I was ready for college, I recognized the distinct secular influence on educational philosophy, and decided to dig up the extra tuition and fees for a Christian college. I chose the one affiliated with Arizona Southern Baptists at the time, Grand Canyon College, now Grand Canyon University.
Grand Canyon College was an excellent school. It was small, 1,300 students enrolled in all undergraduate programs at the time, on a campus on the west-central side of Phoenix. Most of the students commuted from home, but the small residential community of about 400 was close-knit and friendly. It was known state-wide for having a strong teacher education program and more than half the students there were majoring in elementary or secondary education. The combination of a strong education program and a strong business program had produced a unique training and development major that attracted many students. It’s Biblical studies were traditionally Southern Baptist in spite of its location in a western state and conservative at a time when other SBC state convention schools were moving to the left. It was an NAIA power in men’s basketball and baseball, winning national titles in both sports with regularity.
So I majored in history and English, and minored in Biblical studies in preparation for a teaching career. I didn’t realize at the time that my understanding of the differences in Christian and secular educational philosophy would lead me to a career in Christian school education, but the roots for that were grown while I was a student at Grand Canyon.
At some point following my graduation, the school’s leadership achieved university status, dividing the growing school up into colleges. As the only accredited Christian-affiliated college in the fast growing Phoenix area, the school was bound to grow. Unfortunately, a lack of responsible leadership within the sponsoring state convention led to a scandal in the Baptist Foundation of Arizona that not only crippled the ministry of Arizona Southern Baptists, who still suffer from its effects, but put the crown jewel of their ministry institutions, Grand Canyon University, at risk of closure.
You can read the long, horrible story of the financial misdeeds of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona by looking it up, I won’t go into it here. It’s what happens when individuals have too much influence and power in a church organization and can hand-pick the trustees who oversee their operation. Though the school itself was not involved in the scandal, since it was owned by the state Baptist convention, its assets, including its endowment and property, were at risk of being seized to pay off the massive losses incurred by the foundation. The trustees had no choice but to declare themselves self-perpetuating and to separate the school from the convention’s ownership and control.
The school did take a financial hit, enrollment declined and for a while it looked bad. But God was gracious and found a way not only to keep the school open, but also to expand its tents, so to speak. Sometimes denominational control of a college can be a limiting factor, especially in a place like Arizona, where the Christian population is small and scattered among dozens of different groups. In just a couple of short decades since impending disaster, my alma mater Grand Canyon University has emerged as the premier Christian university in the West. From near-financial disaster, GCU strengthened its financial standing by becoming an on-line provider and built a niche in graduate level degree programs. Initially setting up a corporation as a for-profit school, the university recently went back to non-profit status. This fall, 20,000 students enrolled in on-campus classes and the total student body, including on-line students, adds up to more than 70,000. It has maintained its Christian identity and has become one of just a handful of schools in the country to offer certification programs for Christian school teachers. It has a strong Biblical studies program and its own graduate level theological seminary.
I can only hope for the same kind of recovery for my other alma mater, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. Right now, it doesn’t look good.
Trustee boards elected by the annual Southern Baptist Convention gathering are in charge of seminaries. Southwestern’s problems stem from a situation similar to that in Arizona; a trustee board hand-picked by the seminary president over a period of time, made up of individuals he could trust to let him run the school without much in the way of oversight. He “earned the right” to call his own shots by doing something many Southern Baptists consider as an act that saved the convention from liberalism. His “reward” was to be given the high paying, high prestige jobs of leading two of the denomination’s seminaries, Southeastern and Southwestern.
Southwestern was, under more moderate Baptist leadership, the largest theological seminary in the world. More than 5,500 students attended classes on its campus on “Seminary Hill” on the south side of Ft. Worth. When I was there, the convention and a number of private contributors combined to provide classroom education without tuition. We paid a “matriculation fee,” and our housing if we lived on campus. The only condition was an agreement to spend at least five years serving the convention through ministry service in one of its churches or institutions.
And even though in denominational political terms the SBC was led by “moderates” during Southwestern’s golden years, the seminary itself was unswervingly conservative in every aspect of its curriculum and instruction. Many of its alumni were deeply involved in the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC and much of the content of the written works of many of its professors was used in support of the BFM 2000 when it was written. The school’s thorough commitment to conservative, Biblical scholarship in a genuinely Baptist tradition is one of the reasons I consider the favor-granting, loyalty-demanding spoils system of the current denominational leadership abhorrent and counter to Christian principles of the integrity of a denominational operation. Had it been left alone by the resurgence leadership, it would still be the SBC’s largest, most influential and most conservative theological seminary.
Since the turn of the 21st century, however, Southwestern has been attempting to weather a decline in enrollment, from over 5,000 students to under 2,000. Money has been tight. The school instituted a fee schedule with tuition charges by the credit hour, scholarship money declined and the school increased its indebtedness to build facilities not justified by enrollment drops. The trustees themselves are now calling the school’s financial situation “bleak,” large numbers of employees have been let go or laid off and it doesn’t seem like very many people are in the loop to know what is going on. It should be very disconcerting for Baptists when this sort of thing happens. Is this the Baptist Foundation of Arizona scandal all over again? Over the next few months, we shall see.
The time I spent at Southwestern was a time of personal inspiration and renewal of faith for me. I had some of the best professors and classmates. It was a revival in every way. I hope that it experiences the same kind of renaissance that Grand Canyon University has experienced. It will need a visionary leader who is committed to theological education and can see the bigger picture of where the students will be making an impact for Christ in the world, not someone who is given the presidency of the seminary as a reward for service in a denominational preacher war.