PHOENIX (BP)–Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees will convene Tuesday, June 24 to consider Paige Patterson, current president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., as the next president of the Fort Worth school. In an exclusive interview in Phoenix with Dallas Morning News religion writer Berta Delgado and the Southern Baptist Texan, Patterson confirmed that he had agreed to the meeting.
“What happens after that nobody knows,” Patterson said. “Betting on what a group of Baptists is going to do is more risky than putting down your bet on Funny Cide [the race horse].”
“I don’t know what they are going to do, but there is a fairly good chance they may extend the call to come to Southwestern.”
Soon after Southwestern Seminary president Kenneth Hemphill announced his retirement on April 8, speculation surfaced that Patterson was the leading candidate. The 60-year-old native Texan served as pastor of churches in Louisiana, Arkansas, and his home state before spending 28 years in theological education. For 17 of those years, he served as president of The Criswell College in Dallas.
When told of his commendation to SWBTS trustees by numerous Southern Baptist leaders, including Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and Georgia pastor James Merritt, Patterson shifted the focus to the “fabulous job” Hemphill had done during his nine-year tenure.
“Ken went into a situation that was, of course, in terrific turmoil,” Patterson said. “And by the superbness of his Christian character – whatever anybody said about him, whatever anybody interpreted – he was the epitome of what a Christian gentlemen ought to be in those situations.” Patterson credited Hemphill with laying a foundation that will make it much easier for the next president.
As for those who say he is well-qualified for the job, Patterson said, “I really appreciate the confidence of these people, albeit, it is a little frightening. I know only too well my own inadequacies and limited abilities. I hope it [their confidence] is not ill-placed.”
As he paused to think about the impact he might have if selected president of Southwestern Seminary, Patterson added, “If I go, I would hope that I could somehow be as able as they seem to think I am.”
Patterson is often described as the co-architect of the conservative resurgence in the SBC along with Houston judge Paul Pressler. He conceded there is little that the Southwestern Presidential Search Committee doesn’t know about him. “I live my life in a gold-fish bowl.” And yet, the mention of Patterson’s name draws strong reaction in moderate circles.
“If you follow Jesus, you are under obligation to love everybody and try to get along with everybody regardless of whether you agree with them or not, regardless of their position,” Patterson responded. “My purpose in life is to try to hold positions that I believe to be sacred and true in such a way that it does as little damage and as much good as possible. I think where that interdicts in our dealing with people who think differently than we do is probably more in the methodology than anything else.”
Patterson’s long-time friend Richard Land has remarked, “Paige is good to his enemies; God help his friends.” That characterization grew out of Patterson’s tendency to pull pranks on his friends, says his wife Dorothy.
“I don’t play pranks on those who are after me. I try to be very sweet and gentle,” he explained. However, he quickly admitted, “Those who are my friends are constantly victimized. That is true.”
Patterson admitted to “playing to the peanut gallery,” early in the Wednesday evening session of the SBC’s annual meeting on June 18. Earlier in the day, Graham announced that Patterson would be reporting for Southeastern Seminary as well as making “a significant announcement.” Instead of the confirmation that he is being considered at Southwestern Seminary, Patterson offered his version of John Madden’s “six-legged turkey,” announcing the latest mission endeavors by Southeastern students.
For several months, sources at Southeastern Seminary have discounted speculation that Patterson would consider leaving the institution that has enjoyed such phenomenal growth. Public Relations Director Jerry Higgins said enrollment has increased from 700 students when Patterson began serving in 1992 to over 2,200 enrolled today. Higgins estimated another 500 students study at Southeastern College of Wake Forest that was begun during Patterson’s tenure.
For Patterson and his wife the thought of leaving Southeastern Seminary is “extraordinarily painful for me to contemplate,” he said. During their recent mission trip to the Czech Republic, the couple spent much of their time in prayer, trying to discern God’s will.
“There is a part of me that can never be moved from Southeastern,” he said. “It has been the most precious single experience of my entire life. Every place has been special, but nothings like Southeastern.”
Ending fears that he would recruit Southeastern Seminary faculty to follow him to Fort Worth should he be elected president of Southwestern Seminary, he said, “I would not take any faculty from there even though I would cherish having every one of them.” In addition, he is anxious to see a $16.5 million fundraising campaign carried to fruition. “Our pledge will be paid, we will complete that.”
Patterson said his reticence in leaving has nothing to do with the prospect of a new ministry at SW. “My father was a Th.D. student at Southwestern when I was born. So I have ties there, and I love it,” adding, “I’m a Texan.” Instead, his hesitation “has all to do with my extraordinary great love for Southeastern.”
Like her husband, Dorothy Patterson has an interest in theological training specifically focusing on ministers’ wives.
“My passion, after my home and family, if I have any energies left over, I like pouring it into young women, helping to prepare them for what I think is the most exciting venture of life.”
Sharing her husband’s gratitude for the past decade’s work, she added through tears, “We love Southeastern, but it doesn’t mean we can’t love another ministry.”