Mo. Bapt. university urged to clarify faith statement

by Missouri Pathway staff , posted Wednesday, July 17, 2019 (one month ago)

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BOLIVAR, Mo. (BP) -- Southwest Baptist University's (SBU) Statement of Faith has not been implemented effectively across the fabric of the university, according to an external peer assessment committee that completed its work there in June.

The committee, which was commissioned by SBU late last year, was led by David Dockery, chancellor of Trinity International University. In particular, the committee evaluated the key elements of Baptist distinctiveness that inform SBU's identity as a Missouri Baptist institution. See related Baptist Press report.

According to an SBU press release, the committee also reported that, due to the lack of a clearly implemented Statement of Faith, the doctrinal position of SBU has been perceived as ambiguous.

"This lack of clarity has led to an erosion of trust between the University and Missouri Baptists," the press release stated. "SBU and the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) must work together to restore that trust."

The committee completed its review and "responded appropriately to the SBU administration" in late June, Dockery told The Pathway in a June 26th email.

"The committee worked together for five months with the hope of providing help, guidance, and encouragement to the SBU community," he said. "We trust that the recommendations from the committee will be helpful for President Turner and the SBU administration."

Dockery added that the committee "will be glad to work with the SBU administration to comment further on our work when the SBU administration thinks that it would be helpful for us to do so."

Mark Rains, chairman, SBU Board of Trustees, noted, "We appreciate the work of Dr. Dockery and the Peer Assessment Committee. We will now continue their work by digesting this assessment and working with SBU Administration to respond in a deliberate fashion."

The Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees will publicly release an executive summary of the review after it has been shared internally. With many employees not on campus during the summer, it will take a few weeks to accomplish internal communication.

SBU President Eric Turner also praised the work of the committee and is committed to lead the efforts needed to ensure the spiritual vitality of SBU.

"Dr. Dockery and the committee have accurately and effectively surmised the situation in which SBU has found herself," Turner said. "Over the coming weeks and months, you will see evidence of SBU's thoughtful response to this assessment."

Turner noted the university is "currently working to clarify, boldly articulate and implement our Statement of Faith that will further align and strengthen our Baptist identity and Christian faith.

"Since my arrival at SBU, I have recognized the need for SBU to strengthen our relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention and its churches. This assessment affirms that position," he said. "We must collectively work together to rebuild trust between SBU and Missouri Baptists."

MBC Executive Director John Yeats is encouraged by SBU's response to the committee's assessment.

"In the life of every institution with denominational roots, there are those moments in history to reinvigorate the core Biblical beliefs within the context of the educational environment," Yeats said. "Dr. Dockery and his team, at the invitation of Dr. Turner, have assessed and provided a recommended framework to bring doctrinal and missional revival to SBU."

Yeats noted he is "deeply encouraged that decisive and strategic implementation is characteristic of Dr. Turner's leadership.

"This peer assessment is a welcomed tool for him and the SBU Board of Trustees to use as a guide in the days ahead," Yeats said. "Pray for SBU as they work diligently to establish bold initiatives that demonstrate their alignment with Missouri Baptist churches."

Committee formed amid expressions of doctrinal concern

Last December SBU announced the formation of this peer assessment committee for fostering "dialogue regarding faith and learning," including "deeper conversations and evaluations regarding orthodoxy" within the university.

According to the university's "strategic planning process," which was instituted after Turner began his presidency at SBU last fall, conversations regarding matters of faith and learning were intended to begin in the fall of 2019.

But plans changed after the Nov. 28, 2018, termination of Clint Bass, a tenured associate professor in SBU's Redford College of Theology and Ministry.

According to the SBU administration, Bass was terminated because of alleged violations of the SBU Faculty Handbook and the "ethical and professional canons of the teaching profession." In January, the Educational Policies and Personnel Committee of SBU's board of trustees affirmed the administration's decision and reasoning for his termination. See related BP story.

But Bass disputed these claims, saying he was fired for defending theological conservatism. Prior to his termination, he alleged last year that some faculty members in the Redford College -- including the college's dean, Rodney Reeves -- contradicted the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM 2000) by denying biblical inerrancy and by affirming what Bass described as problematic doctrinal views. Similar allegations were soon posted online and on social media. In response, Reeves and other Redford College faculty members denied the allegations.

Nevertheless, as a result of these doctrinal and confessional concerns, SBU moved up its timeline for starting conversations on faith and learning, and commissioned the external peer assessment committee.

SBU to clarify Statement of Faith

After completing its work, the peer assessment committee advised that, for the long-term health and faithfulness of the school, SBU must clarify its Statement of Faith to be a clear and compelling theological framework.

SBU's governing documents do not list the BFM 2000 as its Statement of Faith. In fact, the school's Statement of Faith was adopted in 1921 -- four years before the Southern Baptist Convention drafted and adopted its first version of the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925.

According to an SBU press release, the school's current Statement of Faith was reaffirmed by MBC messengers in 2012.

After Missouri Baptists approved a revision of the MBC's governing documents in 2017, the MBC requested that SBU and other entities amend their own governing documents in several respects, such as identifying the MBC as a "corporate member" and by affirming the BFM 2000. These conversations between SBU and the MBC have been on-going for several years.

SBU, MBC leaders work to strengthen bonds

Currently, SBU and MBC leaders are actively working to strengthen their shared relationship.

Turner noted he is "grateful to Dr. Yeats and the Missouri Baptist leadership in our collaborative conversations regarding these issues.

"Our collective efforts are intended to ensure Southwest Baptist University will be the exemplar Christian University providing a transformative and holistic educational experience for years to come," he said.

Over the course of its assessment, the committee met with SBU administration, faculty and staff, SBU trustees, and MBC leadership. The committee's conversations and research led to findings that were presented to the SBU administration and the Executive Committee of SBU's board of trustees.

Dockery said the peer assessment committee is "particularly grateful to the leaders of SBU and the Missouri Baptist Convention for their openness with the committee and their shared desire to strengthen the work of the SBU community in the days ahead.

"I am thankful for the dedicated work of the other committee members, who join with me in offering prayers for God's help, guidance and blessing for SBU for the months and years to come," he said.

This article was first reported by The Pathway (mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
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