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Palm Beach Atlantic University loosens Southern Baptist ties

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)–Southern Baptists are no longer required to enjoy majority status on Palm Beach Atlantic University’s board of trustees and within PBA’s school of ministry faculty ranks after a lopsided majority of the board approved amendments to the school’s bylaws Nov. 21. Remaining in place at the school with historic Baptist ties are bylaw stipulations that require the offices of president, vice president of religious life and dean of the school of ministry be held by Southern Baptists.

The changes diminishing explicit Southern Baptist representation at PBA come in the midst of presidential transition at the 35-year-old university located on 25 acres in downtown West Palm Beach, adjacent to First Baptist Church — called PBA’s “mother” by Jess Moody, founding PBA president and former pastor of the church.

PBA leaders insist the changes do not reflect a movement toward a more liberal, secular university, but are necessary in light of the school’s growing financial support and student enrollment from non-Southern Baptist evangelicals. Citing as evidence of PBA’s determination to remain a conservative, evangelical school, officials point to another bylaw change adopted in September which requires for the first time that all school of ministry faculty affirm a new statement of faith rooted in historic, Christian doctrine.

PBA is a Christian liberal arts university with more than 2,500 students in 70 undergraduate programs and five graduate programs, as well as a doctoral program in pharmacy.

The new language of Article II, Section 6 (membership of the board of trustees) of the school’s bylaws states, “All members and potential members are required to be active, conservative, evangelical and committed Christians who embrace and support the PBA statement of faith, as well as the Preamble to the By-Laws.” Previously, the bylaw required that “a majority of Trustees must be active members of a Southern Baptist church.” PBA currently has 41 trustees.

The bylaw amendments on trustee membership and school of ministry faculty were first attempted at the Sept. 26 trustee meeting, but fell 1 percent shy of the two-thirds majority required to change the bylaws. In November the amendments were adopted with only two opposing votes.

Although some sentiment existed to drop the Southern Baptist affiliation requirement for the school’s top administrative posts, the board’s executive committee rejected the change, according to board chairman and life trustee Don Warren.

Warren, in an interview with Florida Baptist Witness, said, “As we have grown and expanded it has become clear to me that for financial reasons we need to involve people other than Southern Baptists. … I’m firmly convinced after having many [on the board] that the non-Southern Baptist Christians are just as good as the other as long as they believe like we do.” Warren is a retired West Palm Beach physician and member of First Baptist Church.

“I’m a Southern Baptist born and bred. I’m a great believer in Southern Baptists, but I’m also a great believer in my Christian brothers whatever their [denomination]. I think we’ve made a very, very wise decision. I think there will always be a lot of Southern Baptists on the board in my lifetime. I’m not going to worry about after my lifetime,” Warren said, adding that the future direction of the school is “God’s responsibility.”

PBA’s interim president, Ken Mahanes, has urged Florida Baptists not to assume the school is becoming liberal. “Whereas most schools that have had denominational affiliation, particularly our Baptist schools owned by our state Baptist conventions, have started down the slippery slope into liberalism and then total secularity and as a first step detached themselves from the denomination, I really believe the reverse is occurring at PBAU,” Mahanes told the Witness.

Mahanes became interim president in November after Paul Corts accepted a position with the U.S. Justice Department.

Mahanes said he believes the trustee membership requirement should be “looked at in tandem with” the new bylaw requiring affirmation of the new statement of faith by ministry faculty beginning in the 2003-04 academic year. A lifelong Southern Baptist pastor before joining the PBA’s administration in 1998 as vice president of religious life and dean of the school of ministry, Mahanes previously served on the board of a Baptist college but resigned “as a matter of conscience” because of the school’s liberal drift.

The new statement, drafted by Mahanes and based largely on the World Evangelical Alliance’s confession of faith, is a “strongly worded, evangelical, conservative affirmation of faith,” Mahanes said.

“I’ve come to the conviction that one’s spiritual and theological commitments are more important qualifiers both for trustees and school of ministry faculty than is one’s denominational affiliation,” he added.

Although all leaders of the school are required to affirm the university’s “Preamble” — “a well-worded statement for the 1960s,” as described by Mahanes, the new statement of faith demonstrates that PBA is “actually becoming more biblically conservative and more committed to evangelical belief than we had been.”

Some Florida Baptists, however, particularly in the Palm Lake Baptist Association, are concerned about the recent bylaw changes.

John Brackin, the association’s director of missions, told the Witness, “My concern is that Southern Baptists realize that we have been basically disenfranchised from the school and that the Baptist history related to the school has been revised so that it looks like Southern Baptists had no part in the school.”

Brackin, who also teaches adjunctively in the school of ministry, pointed to a Nov. 26 news story in the campus newspaper, The Compass, which paraphrased Warren as saying PBA “has never received money from a Southern Baptist convention or association.”

The association’s records are incomplete, Brackin said, but the association had a line item in its annual budget of at least $9,000 from the school’s inception in 1968 until 1993. He noted that many churches in the association for many years also funded PBA in their budgets.

Although unfamiliar with the new statement of faith, Brackin said if it is a conservative, evangelical statement, “I think it’s a good sign.” He also expressed “tremendous confidence” in the leadership of Mahanes.

Keith Thomas, pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach and a member of the PBA trustee board, also had high praise for Mahanes, but was one of two trustees to oppose the bylaw amendments.

“Every institution that doesn’t have solid theological moorings is going to drift and within a very short time will not remotely resemble what it was initially driven to be and designed to be,” Thomas said in an interview with the Witness. “I do have some concerns.”

Thomas said he is encouraged by the adoption of the new statement of faith. “We would definitely be in a precarious situation without that kind of mooring, at least,” he said.

He expressed regret for the loosening of Southern Baptist ties in light of the school’s connection to First Baptist Church.

“Palm Beach Atlantic University has been benefited by the blood, sweat and tears of a lot of wonderful people from First Baptist Church and has been greatly encouraged through the years by the people of First Baptist Church,” Thomas said.

Jess Moody, the founding PBA president and former pastor of First Baptist Church, told the Witness, “If it weren’t for the First Baptist Church there would be no Palm Beach Atlantic. … The First Baptist Church in many ways is the mother of that school.”

Moody declined to offer an opinion about the bylaw amendments “because I don’t know the details,” but added, “I’m grieved because First Baptist Church put their life into getting this school born. A lot of Baptists in Florida helped the school.”

Moody resigned as president in 1975 and left the church in 1976, but has remained close to the school since, including teaching in the school of ministry each spring semester.

“I think in a way [the bylaw changes] put the school on the spot to tell Florida Baptists, ‘We’re your friend.’ … I think the school will do that,” Moody said.

Although PBA was never officially connected to the Florida Baptist State Convention, the history of Baptists in south Florida and the school are closely interwoven.

In many ways, the existence of PBA is a direct result of efforts by the convention to establish a Baptist junior college — Florida Baptist College — in south Florida. While Florida Baptist College was created by the state convention in a special called session in 1967, the college never opened its doors. Soon after creating the college, the FBSC voted to “hold plans in abeyance pending a decision by Billy Graham concerning development of a Christian university in Palm Beach Gardens,” according to a 1970 report of the Palm Beach Atlantic Relationship Committee.

Citing a lack of funds, PBA’s four-year status and other criteria, the state convention declined to adopt PBA in 1970, which was founded as a four-year college and started classes in the fall of 1968 after Graham decided he would not start a school.

Warren expressed regret that the state convention did not adopt PBA and that Southern Baptists have not more fully embraced the school. He has often “wondered … as we’re down here struggling for money, why no one ever seems to think we might be a good mission project.”

At the university’s founding and through its early years, the board of trustees was elected entirely by Palm Lake Baptist Association. Over the years, the school’s formal relationship to the association decreased and eventually ended.

In 1985, the Florida Baptist State Board of Missions included PBA in the state convention ministerial scholarship program, earmarking up to $65,000 to the university’s ministerial students. Currently, the convention provides $20,000 to PBA students.

Through his spokesman, Don Hepburn, FBC Executive Director-Treasurer John Sullivan told the Witness that he would present the scholarship matter for the consideration of the State Board of Missions’ program committee in May. “We are not going to disappoint these students by withdrawing funds this year,” Sullivan said, adding that “the convention will honor its commitment” of $20,000 budgeted for 2003.

Sullivan, who said, “Ken Mahanes is a man of great integrity,” declined to comment on the board’s bylaw changes, noting the trustee action “is not a concern of the state convention.”

Mahanes expressed appreciation for the scholarship funds and said he hoped they would continue. “We’re going to continue to do the best we can to recruit the brightest and the best Southern Baptist students to service the churches to provide the education for young people to be supported of our [Southern Baptist] mission program.”

Mahanes said PBA would continue to participate in the Association of Southern Baptist Colleges and Schools and would continue to send students on short-term mission trips through the SBC International Mission Board.

“What I would hope Southern Baptists would keep in mind is what PBA has done for them through the years,” Mahanes said. “Many of our students in the school of ministry are now pastors of Southern Baptist churches in Florida.”

He added, “The tie that binds us together, I think, has been strong through the years and from our end that tie has not loosened at all.”
The new statement of faith by ministry faculty at Palm Beach Atlantic University may be viewed on the Florida Baptist Witness website at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith Sr.