Midwestern Seminary trustees fire Mark T. Coppenger as president

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)--A majority of trustees of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary voted to fire President Mark T. Coppenger Sept. 14, concluding that Coppenger’s expressions of anger have “irreparably damaged his ability to lead this seminary.” His dismissal was effective immediately.

The stunning announcement by trustee chairman Carl Weiser followed about 13 hours of closed-door sessions Sept. 13-14 by 29 trustees. After the long executive session Weiser opened the meeting to the media shortly after noon Sept. 14 and recognized trustee Gary Peek, Pascagoula, Miss., who moved to “dismiss Mark Coppenger immediately.” Weiser announced the secret ballot vote was a majority for the motion.

Weiser then announced he would be the spokesman on the matter and that trustees would not be available to the media. He said he had instructed them to reply “no comment” when asked. Violations of that policy by trustees would be dealt with “very seriously,” he added. Trustees then continued their closed-door executive session.

Later that afternoon trustees again opened their meeting and Robert Collins, trustee from Blue Springs, Mo., made a motion to have Michael K. Whitehead, seminary vice president for business affairs and assistant professor of church and law, named “acting president.”

Weiser, pastor of Hyland Heights Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va., asked for a vote and ruled the motion was approved unanimously. Weiser told Whitehead “we have confidence in your leadership. You have our support.”

Then Kent Cochran, trustee from Kansas City, moved that the trustees’ executive committee bring a recommendation for a “severance package” for Coppenger to the regularly-scheduled trustee board meeting in October. He said Coppenger’s present compensation would continue until that meeting. In a second part to his motion, Cochran asked the executive committee to bring a recommendation for a “presidential search committee.” Both motions passed unanimously in a show of hands.

In a news conference following the trustee meeting, Weiser said an investigation began in June regarding complaints about Coppenger’s anger. He praised Coppenger for “four years of outstanding” creativity and progress at the seminary where, he said, Coppenger had assembled a “world class faculty.” Weiser said the dismissal also created an “enormous hurt” for the seminary.

“After hours of agonizing discussion and interviews with Dr. Coppenger and vice presidents, a majority of the board concluded that the expressions of anger admitted to by Dr. Coppenger had irreparably damaged his ability to lead the seminary,” Weiser said.

A spokesperson for Coppenger said he would make no comment following his firing and reaffirmed his expression of repentance of “misappropriation of anger” given trustee executive committee members in a meeting July 30. The executive committee received his statement then and reported that specific recommendations regarding steps to repentance and restoration were embraced by the president. The executive committee was to make a report to an October trustees meeting.

Coppenger told the Kansas City Star, in a story Sept. 15, after the meeting that “God is in control, and I am looking forward to the next thing. I wish the best for Midwestern, and I will be cheering from the sidelines.”

A seminary spokesman said that Coppenger and his family will move to Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 25. A special reception for Coppenger is scheduled Sept. 19 at his home church in Kansas City, Trinity North Baptist Church.

Coppenger, 51, was elected in 1995 as the third president of Midwestern, established in 1957, the smallest of the six seminaries owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention. Enrollment has risen from 494 students in 1995 to about 700 students this fall.

Weiser refused to reveal the vote totals in the secret ballot which fired Coppenger, telling a news conference “we need to move forward. This was a personnel matter.”

Twenty-nine of the 35 members of the board were in attendance at the special called meeting, just one month before the regularly scheduled Oct. 18-19 meeting.

The special meeting was called for by 15 trustees who wanted to discuss questions surrounding the leadership of the president. A previously scheduled Aug. 26-27 executive committee meeting was cancelled while trustee leadership struggled to find a hotel and arrangements for the special meeting.

Although Weiser asked the seminary’s attorney whether the special called meeting could be combined with the October session it was ruled the special meeting could only deal with the Coppenger matter. It costs the seminary between $30,000 and $40,000 to convene a regular trustee meeting.

During the long closed sessions, trustees talked to a number of staff people and a former trustee board chairman. Trustees also had two sessions with Coppenger. Speaking to trustees were: Coppenger, Whitehead; Harold W. Poage, vice president for institutional advancement; James Paul Cogdill Jr., vice president for academic affairs; Gary Ledbetter, vice president for student development; and Bob Lilly, Baltimore, pastor and former trustees board chairman.

At a news conference following the meeting Whitehead said he was “grieved in the loss of a colleague and the death of the vision Mark had for the seminary.”

“It’s a deep hurt, I’m deeply concerned for Mark,” Whitehead said while he hoped the transition would be “smooth and respectful.” He met with seminary faculty in a closed meeting later that afternoon. A special chapel for Midwestern students was held Sept. 15 on campus for seminary officials to speak to the students..

Whitehead is an attorney and formerly, from 1990-95, the general counsel for the SBC Christian Life Commission (now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission). He is a graduate of the University of Missouri at Columbia with both a bachelor of arts and juris doctor degrees. He is also teaches church and law at the seminary.

Whitehead, 50, and his wife, Janet, have three children: Jonathan, Holly, and Hannah.

Asked at the news conference if he would accept the presidential post if offered by the trustees, Whitehead said he was not a typical person for that position since he is not a theologian, has never taken a seminary class but would certainly pray about it if asked.

Before assuming Midwestern’s presidency, Coppenger had been vice president for convention relations for the SBC Executive Committee since early 1991. He served the previous two years as executive director of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana; six years as a philosophy professor at Wheaton College near Chicago; and earlier was pastor of First Baptist Church, El Dorado, Ark.

He also served 30 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard and had been a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Army’s Office of Public Affairs at the Pentagon.

Coppenger is a 1970 graduate of Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas who earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., in 1974 and later a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas.

He and his wife, Sharon, have two sons and a daughter: Caleb, Jedidiah and Chesed.

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