Six months after his son’s death by suicide, Ergun Caner stepped down today as president of Brewton-Parker College (BPC). After working hard the past year to successfully restore the struggling Southern Baptist college to health, Caner told trustees he now needs to focus on his own.
“Brewton-Parker College cannot become a healthy, growing and stable college under the leadership of a man who is broken,” he told BPC's board. “And I am admitting to you that I am broken. I can’t get over his death, and I am not sure I want to. I do know that I cannot muster the fight needed to be the leader of our college. My family and my heart need healing, and you deserve better.”
After 15-year-old Braxton died in July, Caner went back to work “because, frankly, that’s all I knew to do.”
But in November, he was hospitalized. “A heart catheterization, the removal of seven pints of fluid and all the tests in the world can’t resolve this one issue,” he told trustees. “[T]his position demands a person’s full attention and full strength. At the moment, I have neither. When Braxton died, a part of me died as well.”
The board unanimously passed a resolution of support for Caner, who plans to return to Texas to heal with his wife and their 10-year-old son. [Full statement below.]
Trustees chose Caner for the school’s 16th president last year because “he has endured relentless and pagan attacks like a warrior. We need a warrior as our next president."
Caner, the first former Muslim to lead an evangelical seminary, served as head of Liberty University's seminary for five years. He was removed in 2010 over concerns that he had been "self-contradictory" in public statements about his faith background. While serving as a vice president at Arlington Baptist Theological Seminary, he sued two men for posting videos of his public testimony on YouTube.
Caner led BPC's fight to secure its accreditation after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges voted to place the school on probation in June because of financial stability and business administration concerns. The school’s accreditation was reinstated and probationary status removed last month.
Caner's words are reminiscent of Kay Warren’s, who wrote on Facebook nearly a year after she and her husband, pastor Rick Warren, lost their son Matthew to suicide: "As the one-year anniversary of Matthew's death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to 'move on.' … I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They're never coming back. We will never be the same again."
After Matthew’s death in April 2013, Rick and Kay Warren have spurred evangelical efforts to address suicide and mental health—a need underscored when pastor Isaac Hunter, the son of prominent pastor Joel Hunter, took his own life in December 2013.
Even though nearly 1 in 4 pastors acknowledge they have “personally struggled with mental illness,” and 1 in 4 US adults experience mental illness in a given year, the majority of pastors (66 percent) rarely or never talk about mental illness in sermons or before large groups, a LifeWay and Focus on the Family study found.
“We have to break the stigma that causes people to say that people with mental illness are just of no value,” said LifeWay Research's Ed Stetzer, who explored the topic in a three-part series on his CT blog. “These high-profile suicides made it okay to talk about, but I think Christians have been slower than the population at large to recognize what mental illness is, let alone what they should do."
CT noted how Braxton's death prompted (some) soul-searching among online Christian watchdogs. [Update: The Georgia Baptist Convention passed a resolution on social media, cyber-bulling, and teen suicide in November that includes a list of guidelines from Braxton. The previous month, BPC created a related memorial fund.]
Here is Caner's full statement and BPC's response:
I have asked for the unusual privilege of calling together the Board of Trustees this morning, before the committees meet.
I believe a summary of the past twelve months is in order, given our context. When I arrived last year, we immediately set out to prepare for the SACS Team visit in April. That visit did not go as we had expected, and it led to our appeal in San Antonio in June. Though the appeal vote did not resolve our five-year struggle, in September we won a remand of our case with SACS, and along with our attorneys and the entire Executive Team, we prepared in earnest for December. We presented our case before the SACS committee on December 6, and two days later, we accomplished what no other college has ever done- we were reaffirmed by SACS and taken off probation. After five years of struggle we are out of crisis.
Intermingled with all those legal meetings, the college saw over one hundred students saved in our Fall revival, balanced our budget and ended our fiscal year in the black.
This herculean effort and victory could not have been accomplished anywhere else, I believe. The faculty, staff, Board and students of BPC are to be commended, and BPC is now ready to once again be a thriving institution.
I missed two very obvious events of the past year however. In July, my fifteen-year old son Braxton committed suicide. I was back to work a week later because, frankly, that’s all I knew to do. The subsequent result was my hospitalization in November. A heart catheterization, the removal of seven pints of fluid and all the tests in the world can’t resolve this one issue.
Brewton-Parker College cannot become a healthy, growing and stable college under the leadership of a man who is broken. And I am admitting to you that I am broken. I can’t get over his death, and I am not sure I want to. I do know that I cannot muster the fight needed to be the leader of our college. My family and my heart need healing, and you deserve better.
Therefore I am resigning as President, so I can go back to Texas and heal with my wife and ten year old son, Drake. It is one thing to lead a college through a crisis, but this position demands a person’s full attention and full strength. At the moment, I have neither. When Braxton died, a part of me died as well.
I shall endeavor to fulfill whatever obligations are necessary through the year, though I believe attending to the needs of my family are most important to me at the moment. I want to personally thank you for calling me as President, and allowing me to see the greatest victories I’ve ever experienced in my entire 30-year professional life. I believe God has an incredible future in store for Brewton Parker College. I shall be cheering you on.
Ergun Caner, D.Theol.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES RESOLUTION
WHEREAS, Dr. Ergun Caner served as President of Brewton-Parker College from January 1, 2014 to January 20, 2015, a crucial and pivotal time for the college; and
WHEREAS, during Dr. Ergun Caner’s tenure, Brewton-Parker College overcame a monumental challenge when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) first voted to remove the school from accreditation, then, upon a successful appeal of this decision, the school celebrated a great victory in December 2014, when SACS fully reinstated Brewton-Parker’s accreditation; and
WHEREAS, during Dr. Ergun Caner’s tenure, Brewton-Parker College continued to grow stronger financially, lives were won on campus with decisions for Jesus Christ and the mission of the school continued forward; and
WHEREAS, Dr. Caner and his family recently suffered a tragic loss in the death of their son, Braxton; now
BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees of Brewton-Parker College hereby express our thanks and appreciation for Dr. Ergun Caner’s service; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees of Brewton-Parker College, pray for God’s blessing and restoration for Dr. Caner and his family as they move forward through a time of personal tragedy and healing; and for Dr. Caner much success in his future endeavors.