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Hemphill came to Southwestern 5 years ago with a pastor’s heart

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As the tall stranger rode into the Texas town, the people anxiously awaited what the man in the white cowboy hat would do first. Some feared the worst — a bloody showdown at high noon. Then the stranger’s boots hit the dusty Fort Worth streets.
But the stranger didn’t come with guns blazing. Instead he came with open arms and an open heart, bringing to a hurting, healing campus exactly what the Great Physician had prescribed: a pastor.
When some of the first shots were fired, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Ken Hemphill didn’t fire back. During his first semester, thank-you letters were sent to donors, some of whom attacked the new president with notes scribbled on their replies.
“Some of them were pretty cruel,” Hemphill recalls. “I think I was surprised to see pastors who had such bitterness. I struggled to wonder how they could minister in their local church and in their own context with that kind of anger.”
Hemphill drew on his God-given pastoral skills — gifts that he had seen modeled by his father, a Baptist preacher in North Carolina.
“I tried to write back in a way to encourage them to release the anger,” Hemphill says. “They didn’t have to like me or support the seminary, but they did have to get this thing resolved in their own hearts to go on with the ministry.”
It’s been five years since Hemphill took the reins at Southwestern. And with a pastor’s touch, he has guided the seminary through the pain that comes when there is transition in the president’s office and has helped usher in another exciting era with a range of highlights:
— Enrollment has increased six consecutive semesters.
— Donations are at near-record levels.
— The curriculum has been revamped and expanded.
— Campus construction and renovation projects abound.
— Endowment has increased more than 60 percent.
— Southwestern is more global than ever.
— The first Christian school administration, corporate chaplaincy and Islamic studies programs are available as well as a unique church-planting program.
“We’ve certainly faced challenges,” Hemphill says. “I think we’ve faced them with a great deal of optimism and vision, and the Lord has worked in the midst of that to create a stable and strong and growing environment here.”
It’s a good thing Hemphill didn’t check his pastor’s hat at his office door when he came to campus, but pastor is inadequate to describe the role of president of an institution that is part academic and part vocational training, a multimillion dollar business, a ministry, a missions and evangelism center and a Southern Baptist Convention entity.
One of Hemphill’s strengths is that he doesn’t try to do it all himself.
Daryl Eldridge, dean of the school of educational ministries, says Hemphill “empowers his staff to utilize their spiritual gifts. His trust breeds loyalty and a commitment to the team.”
In 1994 Hemphill identified three goals: increased prayer on campus, financial stability and a more student-friendly campus. After five years, he sees substantial progress on each of those goals:
— After his administration initiated prayer emphases the first two years, the students took over organizing ministries like prayer pods. With prayer walks, a prayer room, a prayer network with churches and student-led prayer meetings, Hemphill does not see prayer abating.
— When the school raised salaries while keeping tuition reasonable, he credited the business office and Southern Baptists who contribute to Southwestern directly or through the Cooperative Program.
He credits Jack Terry, vice president for institutional advancement, for “telling the story of Southwestern” to donors.
— Hemphill is pleased with the campus mall, a new park-like area that is one of several “friendly” steps taken by the administration. The seminary has also renovated the seminary’s pool and built a student lounge, prayer room and coffee shop.
“This institution exists for the students — not for staff, faculty, administration,” Hemphill says.
Hemphill has encouraged staff members to be more sensitive to students who often have pressure from juggling school, ministry, work, family and finances.
“They’ve got to keep all these balls in the air at one time while they try to get a theological education to go wherever God has called them,” he notes. “So many of our students are here at such great sacrifice. You’re kind of compelled to ask, What else can I do? How else can I help?”
A pleasant surprise has been the seminary’s globalization. The 188 international students last spring is a record, and the seminary is forging relationships with seminaries in Korea, Cuba and Japan and a hospital in India.
In 1994 Hemphill used the word “excited” to describe how he felt about the seminary. As he looks to the future, Hemphill says he is excited about:
— a new core curriculum that will require all students to take evangelism, spiritual formation, leadership and worship courses.
— cell groups of incoming students who will meet with a professor for spiritual formation.
— the leadership development complex that will help ministers on the field obtain needed education.
Hemphill considers himself blessed by those who support him. From professors and trustees to the late former President Robert Naylor and former theology dean Tommy Lea, Hemphill has found God providing needed encouragement. He also finds support beyond the campus from men like Lifeway Christian Resources President James T. Draper Jr. and Annuity Board President O.S. Hawkins.
He is grateful for his deans and vice presidents, and his officers are quick to return the compliment.
“His most unique quality is his creativity,” says Hubert Martin, vice president of business affairs. “He has one of the most creative minds of anyone with whom I have had the privilege to serve.”
“President Hemphill … has always been a Christian statesman, a man of integrity, a person of deep commitment to the cause of Christ,” says Scotty Gray, vice president of academic administration.
Hemphill is also grateful for his family, particularly his wife, Paula, who he says “has as much a heart for the seminary and for the students as I do. I think she fits the place so well in terms of being a president’s wife and being a mentor for pastors’ wives.”
Occasionally, Hemphill admits, he longs for the pastorate. He says his interim at First Baptist Dallas “fulfilled the need and creates an urge.”
“I love the local church,” he says. “That’s in some sense why I’m here. It’s kind of a two-sided coin because I realize that here we can train 40 percent of all the folks that are trained at Southern Baptist seminaries for local church ministry.
“To say that I’ve never had the thought that I’d like to leave some of the unique pressures and tensions of this job and go back into pastoral ministry, I would be less than honest,” he says. “And yet you’ve got to stay where God wants you.”
Although Hemphill knows challenges remain, he wants Southern Baptists to know that as long as he is president “Southwestern will fulfill its covenant that it has made with them not only to guard the sacred treasure of doctrinal integrity and a great passion for the Bible, but also to equip students to do the work that the churches expect them to do.”
A seminary committee recently explored the question, “What does a Southern Baptist church have the right to expect from a Southwestern graduate?” The answer: a passion and ability to lead people to Christ; to disciple others; to have a dynamic, personal walk with the Lord; to know the Bible and how to interpret it; and to lead others.
“That’s how we began redesigning the seminary,” Hemphill says.
The immediate challenge is to provide student housing. Housing units are being renovated and plans have been made for unique living-and-learning centers.
“The challenge is to raise the money,” Hemphill says.
In his list to give credit for the seminary’s progress, one name is often repeated — God.
“Here we are making our best effort, but in the midst of it God picks that up some way and takes it well past what we ever thought,” he says. “And there’s always this kind of divine tension that God does it, but he works through human instruments.
“All we can do is respond humbly to that and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for using me.'”

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  • Matt Sanders