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Criswell College dispute goes public

DALLAS (BP)–A Texas pastor and trustee of Criswell College has publicly accused leaders of First Baptist Church in Dallas of plotting to sell the school’s assets to finance a new building program for the church.

First Baptist’s pastor, Robert Jeffress, denies the accusation.

In a letter dated July 30, Steve Washburn, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pflugerville, just outside of Austin, Texas, and a trustee told “friends of Criswell College” that leaders of the Dallas church and college trustees have been at odds over a plan to give the college to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and liquidate Criswell’s assets, including its radio station, KCBI-FM. The school’s trustees voted in April 2008 not to become part of the seminary’s undergraduate program.

Washburn’s charge was echoed by college president Jerry Johnson, who released a statement Aug. 1 that said, in part: “For six months, the chancellor has been trying to cannibalize Criswell College to fund his building program at the church, which will cost $170 to $240 million. Furthermore, the chancellor has stated and started a plan to stack the Criswell College board with trustees that will go along with his plan to liquidate college assets, including our campus and KCBI, for the financial benefit of the church.”

Jeffress, who came to the Dallas pulpit in August 2007 after 15 years at First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, said the accusation was the product of an “overactive imagination.”

“Neither the deacons nor I have any plan to sell KCBI or the campus of Criswell College, period,” Jeffress told The Dallas Morning News. “Given that our church building committee just engaged an architect, I find it strange that Dr. Johnson would claim to know how much our building project, which is still several years away, is going to cost. This, along with the alleged plan to sell college assets, is just another example of Dr. Johnson’s overactive imagination.”

As pastor of FBC Dallas, Jeffress is automatically chancellor of Criswell College, which was founded by the congregation in 1970 under the leadership of their late pastor, W.A. Criswell.

The school is incorporated separately from the church and holds the license to the radio station, which one observer estimates is worth $20 million, according to the Dallas newspaper. All the school’s trustees, however, must be approved by the congregation; 12 of the 21 trustees must be members of the church.

Washburn’s letter asserted that church leaders and college trustees had agreed that the school should move toward separating from the church. The letter also said that recent “financial success of the college is too great a temptation for church leadership.” Although the college has “struggled financially throughout most if its history … for the last three years the school has been especially blessed, ending fiscal year 2007/2008 more than $7 million in the black.”

Jeffress told the Dallas Morning News that a study needs to be conducted on whether the college, which has about 350 students, has a viable niche in the higher education market, since Southwestern Seminary has an undergraduate program.

Criswell College was placed on probation in June 2007 by its accrediting organization, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, over concerns about its financial stability. The school was taken off probation in June this year.

Johnson expressed surprise when the school was placed on probation, telling the Dallas Morning News at the time that the school had seen “recent positive developments,” including new endowments of more than $6 million.

Criswell trustees passed two significant resolutions in May of this year related to the school. One resolution, as reported by The Dallas Morning News, stated that the college “has no intention of selling 90.9 KCBI, and will not revisit this issue for a period of 5 years.” The trustees also passed a resolution saying that the college would “not to take any action to separate the College and KCBI from the church at this time.”
Compiled by Mark Kelly, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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