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Midwestern Seminary’s interim president addresses trustees

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–A month after being named interim president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Michael Whitehead told the board of trustees that the institution is well positioned to be a great seminary. “We have nothing to cry about,” he said during the time set aside for the president’s report.
Within the faculty, Whitehead said, “every department and every division now has a stalwart inerrantist teaching that every word of God’s Scripture is true and infallible.” Referring to former President Mark Coppenger’s contribution in building a world-class faculty, Whitehead said the school has “never been stronger, more poised for power in preaching the truth of God’s inerrant Word.”
The 49-year old vice president for business affairs at Midwestern was named by the trustee board to serve as interim president following the Sept. 14 termination of Mark Coppenger during a called meeting. After four years of service for which Coppenger was credited with outstanding creativity and progress, a majority of the trustees voted to dismiss him for expressions of anger described by the board as having “irreparably damaged his ability to lead this seminary.”
Trustee Ron Elliott of Bellevue, Neb., opened the regular fall meeting Oct. 18-19 with a reminder that “God wants us to seek to continue to do everything properly and in an orderly manner.” He acknowledged, “The last several months have been tough on all of us. By God’s grace, we have sought to do everything we’ve done properly, in an orderly manner and in a way that would honor the Lord.”
Encouraging trustees to “dwell together in unity,” Elliott said, “Some of us will have to set aside our hurts and some of the things that we’re struggling with still and let God bring us together and unite us.”
Whitehead thanked trustees for their godly commitment “to do right even when it is very, very difficult.” In asking them to pray for a hedge of protection around the seminary, Whitehead reminded, “Satan has a plan to injure this seminary, to wound us and make us less effective.”
He noted his appreciation that the faculty had “pulled together,” and shared that Coppenger had expressed his confidence that God is in control of the situation and his own life. Whitehead classified the seminary’s difficulties as miniscule compared to the concurrent tragedy at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, where Southwestern Seminary students were killed, the battle Texas trustee Charles Kelley faces with cancer and the anguish Colorado trustee Ken Barnett faces over the death of his wife.
“God puts some things back in perspective for us in those events,” Whitehead said.
Through chapel sessions with students and dialog with faculty, Whitehead said questions and concerns had been answered regarding the board’s termination of Coppenger. He said explanations were given “in good faith, but with some discretion for the integrity” of the trustee process. Informed that “the board did their best to do the right thing based on substantial, credible evidence,” Whitehead added, “… they [faculty and staff] don’t need to know the details. They trust our board as godly men and women.”
Describing the termination of Coppenger as the toughest decision many of the trustees had faced in their Christian lives, Whitehead recounted seeing “tears of agonizing heart-searching decision-making.” He added, “The students and faculty have appreciated that.”
Responding to allegations that the school’s enrollment is in decline, Whitehead reported an 11 percent increase with the total head count rising to 659 this fall compared to 534 in 1997 and 594 in 1998. “In spite of the increased head count, our full-time equivalent [FTE] enrollment is down,” Whitehead said, clarifying that 24 credit hours taken per year is the equivalent of one student enrolled full time.
With FTEs reportedly down by about 10 percent, Whitehead explained, “It’s the FTEs that pay the bills — it’s how we measure the financial revenue stream for the future.” While extension enrollment is up, Whitehead noted that both the headcount and FTEs are down at the main campus in Kansas City. “On the main campus we have a smaller number of students and those students are taking a smaller number of courses.”
Whitehead said he had asked Jim Cogdill, vice president for academic affairs, and Gary Ledbetter, vice president for student development, to serve with him as a task force to study issues of enrollment and recruitment.
In addition to reporting on this year’s enrollment, Whitehead said the FTE report for the previous year had been corrected due to “computer errors and human errors,” citing as an example, the inclusion of transferred credits. The earlier report of 380 FTEs has been corrected to be 326 for the previous year.
“If every FTE counts for $6,000, you can see you’re talking about real money,” Whitehead said. He expressed gratitude at the response of the Council of Seminary Presidents when the mistake was acknowledged. “They said, ‘We all make mistakes. This is about grace, not law. We’re not going to count that against you.'”
Furthermore, the SBC Executive Committee’s decision to freeze the seminary funding formula for the next decade will benefit Midwestern Seminary. Whitehead said no change would be made to the way funds are allocated from Cooperative Program receipts. “They’ve been nothing but magnanimous in the way they’ve wanted to work with us and commit Southern Baptist energies to make sure there is a seminary in Kansas City that is passionately presenting Christ for the glory of God for the joy of all people,” Whitehead said.
He called for a public relations effort to get the truth out about the seminary. While critics have accused some professors of being “committed to a man whose initials are J.C.,” Whitehead, without specifying the name, said, “As long as I’m here, the board’s here and the professors are here, the only man at Midwestern Seminary that we’re going to worship with the initials J.C. is Jesus Christ.”
“Where things have been distorted, unbalanced and exaggerated, we need to correct the record,” Whitehead insisted. “We believe in aggressive evangelism in reaching every man on the planet with the good news of Christ. It is not just for some people, but for every person. Not just certain people may come, but whosoever will may come.”
Convinced that is the message for which the seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention stands, Whitehead added that “give and take” in the academic community will naturally occur as faculty and students differ in their articulation of varying perspectives. “But we all believe every word of the Bible is true. We may believe them somewhat differently, but we stand unequivocally that the seminary is committed to evangelism and discipleship.”
Whitehead said the school would focus on training Christian leaders “to serve Great Commission churches to passionately proclaim Christ for the glory of God and the joy of all people.” He defined the gospel message as being “without limitation” and “made available freely to every man and woman.”
Having already expressed gratitude for Whitehead’s spirit, love of the Lord and commitment to God, board chairman Carl Weiser responded with gratitude for Whitehead’s leadership. “The Southern Baptist Convention stands with us and will support us.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter