Patterson Withdraws from SBC Annual Meeting

Decision will avoid a distracting showdown on first day of Southern Baptist delegates’ Dallas gathering.
Patterson Withdraws from SBC Annual Meeting
Image: Adam Covington / Baptist Press

Paige Patterson will no longer preach an honorary sermon at the annual meeting of America’s largest Protestant denomination this month.

The figurehead of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was slated to preach the high-profile “convention sermon” in Dallas on June 13, but he released a statement this morning addressing the controversy that’s surrounded him the past several weeks and announcing his plans to skip the convention:

In a few days, for the first time in 66 years I will not attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention—having begun attending when I was nine. As many of you know, I was elected in 2017 to deliver the 2018 annual convention sermon, but I have now respectfully requested to be released from this high privilege because I do not want my role as a preacher to detract in any way from the important business of our convention and because my desire is to work toward biblical harmony at our annual meeting. Many messengers have implored me to carry out this assignment, but this convention is not about me, and I have every confidence that this decision is best and right.

Had he not backed out, delegates would have had the opportunity to vote to replace Patterson with an alternate speaker—a possibility that denominational leaders feared would be a distracting and damaging start to the meeting’s focus on evangelism, baptisms, and other matters.

In a message to SBC leaders, the 75-year-old also resigned as chairman of the Evangelism Task Force, again citing a desire for denominational unity.

Austin pastor Kie Bowman, who had been elected as the convention’s alternate preacher, will deliver a sermon on Wednesday in Patterson’s place.

The news of Patterson’s abdication came a week after the chair of the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) revealed last Friday that Patterson lied to trustees about a rape allegation that came before him at another seminary, withheld documents from his previous presidency, and referenced attempting to “break down” the victim of a more recent rape incident.

The former seminary president, though, took issue with the allegations against him, saying:

Recently, I have been accused, publicly and privately, of a number of things—none of which I acknowledge as having done in the way portrayed, and others that I am confident I absolutely did not do. I’ll just speak to several examples. First, a poor choice of words has occurred, in and out of the pulpit, over decades of ministry. I regret each case in which my heart and message were not clearly presented.

On the other hand, I take exception to accusations that I ever knowingly ignored or failed to follow appropriate protocols in cases of reported abuse of women, students, or staff at any institution where I have served. Indeed, the Southwestern trustees confirmed as much in their public statement of May 23, 2018: “The board affirmed a motion stating evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse.”

For my words, demeanor, sentiments, or disposition to have been twisted to suggest the very antithesis to who I am and the biblical message I have presented over half a century not only is crushing to me and my family but also inevitably proves hurtful to others in the process. I have never sought to inflict hurt upon a woman or man. (Full statement below.)

Board chair Kevin Ueckert offered more details surrounding the board’s recent decision to fire the former SWBTS leader, referencing documentation of a 2003 rape allegation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), which Patterson previously led for over a decade, as well as emails surrounding a 2015 rape allegation at Southwestern.

The SEBTS graduate—whose story was reported in The Washington Post and who has since made her case public on social media—claimed that Patterson and fellow officials did not report her rape, discouraged her from doing so, and urged her to forgive the perpetrator.

The information in the SEBTS student record Ueckert reviewed “contradicts a statement previously provided by Dr. Patterson in response to a direct question by a board member.”

Additionally, while president of SWBTS, “Patterson sent an email (the contents of which were shared with the Board on May 22) to the Chief of Campus Security in which Dr. Patterson discussed meeting with the student alone so that he could ‘break her down’ and that he preferred no officials be present.”

“The attitude expressed by Dr. Patterson in that email is antithetical to the core values of our faith and to SWBTS,” the board chair stated. “Moreover, the correlation between what has been reported and also revealed in the student record regarding the 2003 allegation at Southeastern and the contents of this email are undeniable.”

Since his May 30 termination, SWBTS has located documents from his tenure at SEBTS, including 31 pages posted online by a Patterson supporter—the wife of his former chief of staff—who had hoped the documentation would absolve him. The documents were shared without permission of the students referenced in them, and Ueckert described their publication as “inappropriate and unethical.” The Star-Telegram, the local Fort Worth newspaper, examined the claims.

Still, the board stands by its unanimous decision to fire Patterson, with Ueckert saying, “In this difficult situation, the Executive Committee based its decision on the current performance of the president and did not allow the legacy of Dr. Patterson or the #MeToo pressure to steer the outcome. We did not react; rather, we decisively exercised our responsibility based on the Seminary’s biblically informed core values and integrity.”

As CT previously reported:

In addition to the controversial remarks, Patterson had faced scrutiny for declining full-time enrollment and finances at Southwestern, which exceeded its budget last school year, despite cutting staff.

One month into his tenure in 2003, Patterson declared an end to declining enrollment at SWBTS and predicted the seminary was on its way to 6,000 full-time students, according to Baptist Press. His precedent: SEBTS grew from less than 600 full-time students to more than 2,300 under his leadership. However, SWBTS has suffered a steady decline to 1,393 full-time students this school year.

Patterson was in Germany for a speaking event when the SWBTS executive board terminated him, per his former chief of staff’s Twitter account. In the wake of trustees’ initial decision to send Patterson into early retirement, he and his wife told the SWBTS community by email that they were, “of course, hurt” by the trustees’ actions. “But we did not compromise and we still have our voice to witness,” the Pattersons said. “That we will attempt to faithfully do.”

Baptist Pressrounded up reactions to Patterson’s firing. A petition in defense of Patterson gained more than 650 signatures over the course of May, while a petition seeking Southern Baptist women opposed to Patterson gained more than 3,350.

Patterson’s full letter, released June 9, reads:

Dear Southern Baptist Family:

On May 22 the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary met together in a board meeting called at my request.  At that meeting, in which I briefly participated, I was asked to assume the position of President Emeritus of Southwestern, and I accepted this reassignment. One week later, May 30, the executive committee of the board met, though this time I was not asked to participate and was unable to address or answer questions for committee members since I was in Germany for a preaching assignment. While in Germany, I received a phone call informing me I had been relieved of all responsibilities with and compensation from the Seminary effective immediately.

Since much has been reported and written about these matters in recent weeks, I wanted to address briefly a few points. It is not in my spirit or my heart to debate or revisit the decisions of the trustees to whom I was accountable as president of Southwestern, other than the brief comments that follow.

Recently, I have been accused, publicly and privately, of a number of things—none of which I acknowledge as having done in the way portrayed, and others that I am confident I absolutely did not do. I’ll just speak to several examples. First, a poor choice of words has occurred, in and out of the pulpit, over decades of ministry. I regret each case in which my heart and message were not clearly presented.

On the other hand, I take exception to accusations that I ever knowingly ignored or failed to follow appropriate protocols in cases of reported abuse of women, students, or staff at any institution where I have served. Indeed, the Southwestern trustees confirmed as much in their public statement of May 23, 2018: “The board affirmed a motion stating evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse.”

For my words, demeanor, sentiments, or disposition to have been twisted to suggest the very antithesis to who I am and the biblical message I have presented over half a century not only is crushing to me and my family but also inevitably proves hurtful to others in the process. I have never sought to inflict hurt upon a woman or man.

For the last 43 years, through service in three institutions, I have attempted to prepare pastors and missionaries academically, evangelistically, and spiritually for kingdom endeavors.  Today, on behalf of my sweetheart Dorothy, who has labored faithfully by my side through both sorrows and triumphs, and on behalf of my children and grandchildren, I want to express my gratitude to God for Southern Baptists.  You have often encouraged our hearts.  You have prayed for us in a multitude of ways.  I would ask of no one of you more than you have given.  What I have given back is a pittance compared to your kindness to me.

I wish further to thank the faculties and administrators who have held high my arms during both calm and raging waters.  I love you all.  To all of my students, including nearly 10,000 graduates whose diplomas I have personally signed, I thank you for your uncommon love for me, and more important, your unwavering devotion to our Lord.

To those who have ever opposed me or have embraced a different vision, I would be remiss if I did not thank you also.  Your opposition kept me on my face before God, reminded me of just how very human I am, and outlined in tantalizing colors the mercies of God, which I have received in profusion from our Lord.  I pray for heaven’s kindness for each of you. 

At age 75, while my occupation has changed, my calling and passion have not been disturbed.  Soon Southwestern will have a new president.  I am riding off into the setting sun—but with a Bible in my hand and a witness from my heart until He comes for me individually or for us all in the air.  I ask Southern Baptists to hold the new president of Southwestern before God in earnest prayer.  He will be a great man, but the level of his attainment will be dependent to a large degree on your concert of prayer.  I know that you will not fail in this endeavor. 

 In a few days, for the first time in 66 years I will not attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention – having begun attending when I was nine.  As many of you know, I was elected in 2017 to deliver the 2018 annual convention sermon, but I have now respectfully requested to be released from this high privilege because I do not want my role as a preacher to detract in any way from the important business of our convention and because my desire is to work toward biblical harmony at our annual meeting. Many messengers have implored me to carry out this assignment, but this convention is not about me, and I have every confidence that this decision is best and right.

Now, may I just leave you with a challenge? I have with stumbling step, limited ability, and stuttering tongue desired to bequeath to the world an orthodox denomination with a heart and message for a world of lost people.  My part is small in the amazing history of the people we call Baptists.  But as insignificant as it may be, I will be praying every day that you will cling to the whole Bible as the Word of the living God and at the same moment give that Word to every lost person on this globe, knowing that Christ died for all and that every man, woman, boy, and girl who comes to the Lord Jesus in saving faith will be saved. Would you join me in that endeavor?  Please link your hearts with Dorothy and me in expressing thanksgiving to our Lord for His abundant mercies to us all.

November
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