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Pastor’s resignation sparks discussion of accreditation

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The resignation of a prominent Florida church’s pastor over falsified education credentials is raising questions for many Southern Baptists about the importance of ministers receiving accredited theological degrees.

Steven Flockhart was pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Fla., less than two months before he resigned in August over a controversy involving fabricated education credentials.

Flockhart submitted a one-line resignation to church leaders after admitting he did not hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the respected institutions as he had claimed, according to reports from the Palm Beach Post.

A copy of Flockhart’s resume obtained by Baptist Press made it appear that he held a bachelor’s degree from Columbia International University in Columbia, S.C., and a master’s degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. But an investigation by the Palm Beach Post revealed that Flockhart actually obtained bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees through correspondence courses at Covington Theological Seminary, a Georgia school not accredited by any recognized accrediting agency.

Covington, based in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., claims its accreditation through an agency that is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and is an outgrowth of a company that was once charged with fraud.

As of mid-October, Covington’s website said the school is accredited by Accrediting Commission International (ACI) of Beebe, Ark. ACI once was known as the International Accrediting Commission based in Missouri but changed its name and moved to Arkansas after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to the Post.

Jimmy Dukes, associate provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press obtaining a theological degree from an institution accredited by a recognized accreditation agency is important for ministers because it validates the quality of a minister’s training.

“Accreditation is the mark of quality control. I’m not sure what mark [of quality control] you would use apart from accreditation,” Dukes said.

“I certainly would never say there is no value to a non-accredited institution. That simply would not be true,” he said. “But it would seem to me that what we have agreed to do in our institutions, accredited institutions, is to abide by common standards, and I think there’s a great deal of value in that.”

Obtaining accredited theological degrees is particularly important for ministers who want to obtain advanced degrees at other institutions because most schools require an accredited master’s degree in order for a student to qualify for doctoral work, Dukes said.

Seeking accreditation does not compromise a school’s theological fidelity, he said, because the accreditation process allows a school to set its own mission statement and purpose.

Dukes urged churches to check the accreditation of a prospective pastor’s alma mater by contacting accrediting agencies. “They can check the websites of either the regional accrediting agencies or the Association of Theological Schools and find out that kind of information,” he said.

But Waylan Owens, a former vice president at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary who was in charge of guiding accreditation-related matters, cautioned that accreditation might not be the best mark of a seminary’s quality.

Though the accreditation process allows schools to set their own educational goals, a postmodern mindset among accrediting agencies compromises the value of accreditation, Owens told Baptist Press.

“Parents and churches assume [accreditation] means one thing, and it doesn’t,” said Owens, who still teaches at Southeastern and serves as pastor of Good Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, N.C. “Accreditation does not guarantee that your son or daughter will walk across that stage with a quality education.”

Accrediting agencies do not dictate what a school must believe theologically, but many accrediting agencies hold liberal values and have an educational philosophy that is different from the educational philosophy of most Southern Baptists, Owens said.

“There is not direct pressure on your doctrinal statement. There is indirect pressure,” he said. “I don’t know how the accreditors really can help it. The whole educational establishment is liberal in its thinking…. The way a conservative does education and the way a liberal does education are really in some places very different.

“Liberals approach education as being a matter of just exploring — there is no right, there is no wrong, let’s just look at all sides of things and try to create a tolerant open-minded person,” Owens explained. “A conservative says no. We want to teach everything that’s out there. But we are going to advocate what we believe to be true.”

Within the educational world, there is some pressure to put the federal government in charge of all accreditation in higher education, Owens said. If that happens, liberal influence in accrediting agencies likely will increase, he said.

Accreditation is important for pastors who are considering an additional degree if they want to teach in higher education, Owens said. Otherwise, pastors should talk to people who attended the school they are considering and find out if the education is helpful, he said.

If a pastor search committee wants to know whether a school attended by a ministerial candidate is reputable, a better way than checking accreditation is to call one of the six Southern Baptist seminaries and ask for its evaluation of the school under consideration, Owens advised.

“In Southern Baptist life a tremendous resource that the churches just don’t know about is their seminaries,” he said.

An option for ministers considering accredited theological education at either the master’s or the doctoral level is one of the six SBC seminaries — Southeastern Seminary; New Orleans Seminary; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.; Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.; and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif. In addition to classes at their main campuses, the seminaries offer classes at extension centers across the country.

For ministers considering accredited undergraduate education, New Orleans, Southeastern, Southern, Southwestern and Midwestern all have undergraduate colleges.

Seminary Extension, based in Nashville, Tenn., offers accredited undergraduate-level education in the form of correspondence courses, Internet courses, courses taught through interactive computer software and courses taught in classrooms around the country.