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FIRST-PERSON: A time to go, a time to grow

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Having been raised Roman Catholic, saved in a Presbyterian church and discipled through a para-church ministry, I knew little of the Southern Baptist tradition or Dr. Paige Patterson until I was hired to teach Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In fact, it would be accurate to say that I had heard as little about Dr. Patterson as he had heard about me. I knew nothing of his tenure as SBC president. I knew nothing of the “conservative takeover.” I knew nothing of the tumultuous years of transition that took place prior to my hiring. All I knew was that the missionary friend who recommended me for the job had loved his time at Southeastern and he had a high opinion of the place. I had no front-loaded bias.

My first conversation with Dr. Patterson took place at a small Chinese restaurant near the seminary. I sat on one side of the table. Dr. Patterson and the academic dean (Dr. L. Russ Bush) sat on the other side. It was an interesting lunch. While Dr. Bush peppered me with questions about my credentials and experience, Dr. Patterson barraged me with moral scenarios and “what ifs.”

Taking turns, they alternately fired questions like hunters seeking to bag the true nature my abilities, beliefs and character. They probably had great fun watching their prey scramble for answers.

I, on the other hand, did my best to answer their questions.

Once they were satisfied with my academic qualifications, it became evident in the interview that what really mattered to Dr. Patterson were four simple things:

1) Did I love Jesus?

2) Did I love and own the Scriptures as authoritative and inerrant?

3) Did I have a heart for the lost?

4) Did I have moral integrity?

At the completion of the interview, I was sure it was both the strangest and most wonderful interview I had ever had. It left me, however, a bit perplexed. While I knew I would take the job if they offered, the interview resulted in me having some questions of my own, questions that could only be answered by time and firsthand experience:

What kind of a place is this Southeastern? What kind of man asks the kind of questions Dr. Patterson was asking on a job interview?

Over these past three years, I have had my questions answered. I have had the privilege of serving in one of the most positive, on task and innovative seminaries in the world. And I have had the privilege to watch and learn from one of the greatest leaders of men I have ever seen or heard.

While Paige Patterson has many abilities and intellectual gifts that set him apart in their own right, and while he self-admittedly has many failings, those things are not the core stuff of greatness or leadership. It is the day-in, day-out life he modeled that makes people want to follow. It’s the passionate, steady integrity, the honest and gracious leadership, and the Kingdom-centered vision he lived out before the faculty, staff and students that make him great and a man who earned my deep loyalty.

Watching him weep for the lost, get angry at injustice, love and honor his wife, believe in and support his faculty even when they err, and never make a personal attack against his many (and harshest) critics was simply remarkable. While I never heard Paige Patterson utter the Apostle Paul’s words to “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), he never had to.

Now is the time for Dr. Patterson to leave Southeastern. It is time for him to hunt for new men to lead to excellence our sister seminary. This summer he leaves us at Southeastern and will take over as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It is hard for us to see him go. But we all know the time is right.

Dr. Patterson is a man inextricably bound together with the Great Commission. He knows spiritual multiplication is a key to evangelism. He knows that there are few institutions on earth that have as much potential to strike a blow for Christ around the world as a Southern Baptist seminary. While his detractors may accuse him of mixed motives, there is no question among the faculty and staff here at Southeastern that the only agenda that drives him is a heart for the King and the King’s Kingdom. Love him or hate him, Paige Patterson is a man committed to being as influential as possible in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Discipleship, leading by example, finding new leaders and training potential leaders to lead, only asking of his staff that which he first models, giving all he has and is for the sake of the Gospel — this is what Paige Patterson is about and what he modeled for us. If sending our president off for the greater cause of Christ is what is at hand, then we do it with a tear and with great joy.

Here at Southeastern, we’ll miss Dr. Patterson’s leadership. We’ll miss his wealth of experience and wisdom. We’ll miss his heart and we will miss his driving hope for God’s Kingdom on this earth. We’ll miss his humor and his pats on the back. But I believe we have learned something about courage, passion, integrity and vision. Just as he always modeled, we know that there is only One whose “well done” really matters.

That is the legacy of Paige Patterson at Southeastern. It’s now our opportunity to expand on that legacy.

Over the past three years, I’ve had my two questions answered. Southeastern is, in my opinion, the finest seminary in America. Paige Patterson is among the finest, most godly, men I have ever met and an unrivaled leader.

There is now just one new question that must be answered: What will the future hold? Perhaps the Book of Ecclesiastes holds the answer. It teaches that there is a time for everything. Here at Southeastern, it’s a time to go.

But for both Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries, it is a time to grow.
Mark D. Liederbach is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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  • Mark Liederbach