Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Russell H. Dilday appeared before the school’s board of trustees March 8 for what appeared to be a scheduled performance review.
The next day, however, trustees for Southwestern, operated by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), went into executive session for about an hour. Word spread quickly across the Fort Worth campus, and students and faculty gathered outside the door to sing and pray. Dilday emerged and informed onlookers that the largest seminary in the world no longer had a president.
Soon after, newly elected trustee chair Ralph W. Pulley, Jr., made it official: Dilday had been fired from the post he held for 16 years.
According to Baptist Press, trustees said Southwestern “needed a new direction for the twenty-first century.” At a news conference, Pulley declined to reveal the vote of the 40-member board. Nor did he comment on whether he regarded Dilday as the latest victim in the long-standing power struggle between conservatives and moderates within the SBC.
“This happened so suddenly and unexpectedly that we’re still trying to assess what the damage will be,” says Leon McBeth, a church historian wbo has taught at Southwestern for 34 years. According to McBeth, trustees had been trying to oust Dilday for a long time but “didn’t have the votes.” That changed, he says, as Dilday’s supporters rotated off the board and opponents were elected.
Rather than a liberal-conservative rift, McBeth says “it is a struggle between two kinds of conservatives.” The more conservative generally holds a strict view of scriptural inerrancy.
“If any event is going to create a schism in the Southern Baptist Convention, this is it,” says Bill Leonard, religion chair at Samford University in Birmingham. He cites Dilday’s “impeccable” credentials as a traditionalist. “There’s no way this can be seen as a theological purge. It’s a political purge.”
Dilday’s access to seminary offices has been restricted. He and his wife were ordered to vacate their campus house by June 7, though Dilday, 63, has received a severance package. Until a new president is hired, William B. Tolar, the school’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, will chair a team of vice presidents who will hire an interim president.
McBeth says he is trying to talk students and faculty into riding out the storm, although several have told him they are considering leaving the school. “Russell Dilday is a man of high personal integrity and the greatest motivator I have ever worked with,” McBeth says. “We’re in grief here. We regret what happened and how it was done. But we’ve still got a job to do.”
In a word to supporters, Dilday likewise urged students, staff, and faculty to carry on, even though it would be “awkward and difficult.”
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