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Newly appointed interim president addresses Midwestern Seminary chapel

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Students, faculty and staff of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary quietly gathered for a called chapel to hear newly appointed interim president Mike Whitehead apply principles from Proverbs to the previous day’s events. Reflecting on crisis experiences from his own life, Whitehead sought to offer biblical principles to guide the seminary community in the wake of the trustee board’s decision to fire President Mark Coppenger Sept. 14.
Whitehead, 49, has served as the seminary’s vice president for business affairs since the fall of 1995, and was asked by trustees to provide leadership for the seminary during an interim period. The board will meet Oct. 18-19 in its regular session to receive a report on the process for naming a presidential search committee as well as a recommendation for a severance package for Coppenger.
In his introduction, Whitehead made clear that he is not a theologian, but a lawyer, having agreed to what he termed “a battlefield promotion in the course of combat in the war between the cultures and the war that God is engaged in for truth and souls.” Acknowledging that “a casualty” had occurred in that war, referring to Coppenger, Whitehead quoted from 2 Samuel 3 as David spoke of Abner’s death with the question: “Do you not know that a prince and great man has fallen this day in Israel and I am weak today?”
Whitehead said he was asked by the board of trustees and the Lord “to do this assignment as long as the Lord calls … .” To further clarify, Whitehead continued, “Mark Coppenger is not dead. A brother has been wounded. There’s been a fall and we want to talk about that briefly.”
Whitehead prayed for “grace, peace, blessing, and mercy” to be granted by God to Coppenger, recognizing the “emotional shock” the seminary community is experiencing.
“Bring us to our knees. That’s where we need to be.” Whitehead expressed confidence Coppenger would again carry out “the vision and passion of his life” to train the next generation to fulfill the Great Commission.
Whitehead assured those gathered he would act on behalf of the trustees to be sure the Coppenger family was taken care of during the transition at his regular salary until trustees could work out the terms of severance. “So you can put those rumors to rest that there was some sort of haste or rush or a summary eviction from his office. Some of those things that have happened in denominational agencies before will not happen here.”
He clarified the action was not “a judgment of this man’s life and ministry.”
Instead, he characterized it as “an employment decision that the board thought was necessary for the welfare and leadership of this seminary.”
Whitehead met with Coppenger the night after the firing, and learned how students and others had already ministered by sharing their concerns. “You keep that up,” Whitehead said. “He loves every person in this room and wants to enjoy the bond of Christian fellowship we had and continue to have, but he really needs expressions of love back and forth.”
With well over 300 people listening intently to the 45-minute message, Whitehead referenced:
— Psalm 37 as a passage he and Coppenger had “chewed on” during the trustee investigation;
— Psalm 22 and 23 as scripture that had ministered to his own life during the tragic death of his father in a power plant accident; and
— Proverbs 3:1-12 to trust in God when his older brother was gunned down in a burglary and to find comfort when he battled thyroid cancer last year.
He then offered the Proverbs passage to the seminary community as a context for dealing with issues related they were now facing.
Urging students to memorize scripture as a preparation for future difficulty, Whitehead said, “Don’t wait until the crisis to start having your quiet time again. It’s too late then. You’d better have some of the Word of God planted to draw on or you’re going to wake up disoriented when the phone call comes that some crisis has come to your family.”
In such times, Whitehead said Christians will benefit from the instruction in Proverbs to recall God’s teaching and commandments while being careful to retain kindness and truth. “There’s a lot of unkindness being said about one another in our seminary family,” he stated, referring to media reports and anticipated phone calls. He warned them of “lots of opportunities to say unkind words about our brothers or sisters in Christ” and to take sides. “Men and women in Christian ministry disagree at times, and go separate ways at times. That happens in ministry.”
Whitehead predicted students preparing for ministry would someday get an unpredicted call about disputes and differences between Christians. Having thought “everything was fine, all of a sudden it erupts into public knowledge. You’ll say, ‘I never would have dreamed that was a problem.’”
He further warned against a temptation to gossip, stating, “I want to speak the truth in love and kindness, bind it around our necks which is close to our mouths.” Whitehead added “if we choke ourself with a principle,” it should be, “do not let an unkind word go out of these lips about my brother Mark, about brothers and sisters on the seminary board, about my fellow faculty members, or about the students.
Whitehead challenged his listeners to find God’s favor as described in Prov. 3:4, building a reputation for responding in a godly manner. Whitehead said he believes all parties would “want God to lead us in the way of gracious, kind speech about these issues, and not in a way that would displease the Lord, hurt our reputation, the reputation of the school and of our colleagues.”
Whitehead said the Lord would honor humility, not arrogance, quoting verse 7. While some might respond to reports about Coppenger by saying, “At least I don’t have that kind of sin in my life,” Whitehead related a statement he made to trustees. “There’s more sin in my life in any given 24-hour period than you’ve read about Mark Coppenger’s sin in the last three months. Whatever appeared about him in the newspapers, there’s probably more of that sin in each of our hearts.”
Restating the biblical truth that “all have sinned and fall way far short,” Whitehead said, “None of us has any platform to say his sin’s worse than my sin.”
While Christians are not to “arrogantly claim a holier-than-thou self-righteous attitude,” Whitehead said trustees had a responsibility to investigate facts and form a judgment.
After what he described as “agonizing hours of investigation, interviews and prayerful deliberation,” Whitehead submitted “the trustees believe they did the right thing.
“It’s hard to get it all right and figure out how’s this going to affect everybody.”
He said they decided “we can’t figure all that out.” Whitehead said the trustees then decided to do what they believed God had told them to do. After allowing the president to respond, Whitehead explained, “They worked through that and came up with yesterday’s result.”
As he read from the official statement of the trustee board, various students could be heard crying and Whitehead appeared emotional. The release said Coppenger’s confessed “expressions of anger” had “irreparably damaged his ability to lead the seminary.” He was credited with “four years of outstanding innovation, creativity and dedication to the Lord’s work” at Midwestern Seminary.
Whitehead said, “The board chose not to talk about details of facts that were investigated that had been reported in earlier press accounts — what Dr. Coppenger admitted to as misappropriation of anger.” He added, “There were a number of people who said at times in the past they had been offended by Mark’s temper or anger … .
“Mark admitted and apologized to the board for his misappropriation of anger, said he was sorry he was now realizing that people had been stung by his anger and he wanted to seek to make that right.” Whitehead said, “He was in the process and had made some contacts with some folks to address the issue.”
However, as Whitehead explained, the full board had been called together a month prior to their regular session out of the conviction that “it’s important that this matter be settled now,” apart from other business.
“They chose not to disclose details because those are a matter of executive session,” he said, referring to the need for privacy when personnel issues are considered. “So they chose to maintain that confidentiality and also to keep confidential the vote.”
Whitehead said it was taken by secret ballot in an open session with the division of the vote not reported.
As he continued to draw guidance from Proverbs, Whitehead spoke of the need for spiritual healing in relationships on campus, noting the refreshment it will bring. “It’ll take a miracle and God’s a miracle-working God.” He expressed confidence in the prayers of the “world-class faculty that Dr. Coppenger had helped assemble.”
Whitehead pledged to honor God in the use of the school’s resources, adding, “We are in good, solid, sound financial condition.” With Southern Baptist Cooperative Program receipts surpassing the denomination’s budget by 12 percent this year, Whitehead said, “God could in the next couple of weeks send us a check from Nashville for a million dollars that we weren’t planning on.”
Calling that “a miracle,” Whitehead said it revealed the blessing and providence of God.
Even the ambitious $30 million capital campaign could be accomplished, Whitehead predicted. “Mark Coppenger had a dream for great buildings and grounds in the future. But Mark wanted what was God’s dream and if it was God’s dream, God can do it.”
Referring to the sovereignty of God, Whitehead said God was not surprised by yesterday’s events, though people are shocked. “He knew it was coming. It’s under control — so every person he planned to give a dollar to the school is still going to give the dollar.”
Turning his concluding remarks to the warning in Proverbs 3:11 to “not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe his reproof,” Whitehead said, “There’s plenty that’s gotta get cleaned up in me day by day — in every one of us.” Warning those present not to ignore God’s stern warnings, he reminded God reproves those he loves.
“There’s still plenty of grace for Mark,” he added. Whitehead called the expression of anger “relatively minor stuff” compared to the Ten Commandments. “He didn’t break the `Big Ten’ except in thought, word or deed like everyone of you and I have broken the `Big Ten.’“
“Mark’s been saved by the grace of God, called by the mercy of God and God’s going to use him,” he continued. “But the trustees examined facts and evidence about a pattern of conduct over time and it was the painful judgment that discipline was required for Mark’s good and for the school’s good,” acknowledging discipline is painful.
Calling the trustees “God’s authority in this case to make these decisions,” Whitehead said, “They believed this was the right decision to make. On the limited facts that I’ve got, I believe the trustees did their best to do what they thought was the right thing.”
Restating Coppenger’s belief that he could “admit to some of these things, was not sure some of the charges were true and felt some were unfair,” Whitehead referred to the former president as wounded. “But I know it’s his heart to say, ‘Lord teach me. I don’t want to go through this lesson again. I don’t want little sins to be hidden and stored up.’”
Whitehead said neither he nor the trustees had judged Coppenger’s sin. “They had to judge his performance in the best interest of the school.”
Noting “life is going to go on for us,” Whitehead said, “It’s going to be good and honorable work to serve the Lord. Final exams will still come here,” he told the students, urging them to continue studying. “I’ll keep paying the bills in the business office. The faculty will still study and prepare and equip you. And Southern Baptists — nearly 16 million strong — around America will keep giving money to support God’s work here.”
Assured by SBC President Paige Patterson of the prayers of all five of the other Southern Baptist seminary presidents, Whitehead shared their concern for the school and Coppenger. He said their generous commitment was an expression of grace. “When seminary presidents talk like that it’s a miracle of God.”
Referring to the student body as the school’s treasure, Whitehead said, “That’s why we’re here. And our faculty — that’s why students are here. And we’ll do all we can in the administration to support that work of God as we’re equipping God-called men and women to evangelize and congregationalize this world biblically, and especially the Great Plains where Mark’s prayer has been that we would see prairie fire.”
Whitehead predicted, “When it sparks, he’ll be there. You can bet with Mark’s passion for revival, wherever he’ll be, he’ll be a part of that.”
Deciding not to use the remaining minutes to field questions as previously announced, Whitehead called on Jim Cogdill, vice president for academic affairs, to close in prayer. A second called chapel is scheduled Sept. 16 at 10 a.m.

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  • Tammi Ledbetter