FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Southern Baptists are one generation away from a situation in which graduating seminary students cannot go to the mission field or pastor small churches, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said in his first report to seminary trustees Oct. 21.
The reason that these young ministers will not be able to pursue their callings, Patterson said, is indebtedness.
“No mission-sending agency will appoint any student from your school who has existing indebtedness,” Patterson said. “The average Southern Baptist church has less than 200 people in Sunday School. If students graduate with a large amount of debt, they will not be able to make enough money to climb out of debt from their education and pastor those churches.”
Patterson said that students are paying four to five times as much as they used to in tuition costs and working more to pay for their education. Therefore, they cannot take as many hours, which alters their fulltime status and affects the amount of Cooperative Program funds distributed to Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, he said.
“While the number of students has been growing from [the] 10,000 to 14,000 level [in SBC seminaries] in the period of the last eight years, it is also true the number of hours each student has been taking has been falling,” he said.
“When I went to seminary … the cost was about $200 a semester, period. That was about all we had to pay. The Cooperative Program largely handled all of it. Today, 38 percent of our budget is all that is CP supported.”
The solution to the problem of student indebtedness, Patterson said, is a special offering for the SBC seminaries. The offering is needed in spite of the fact that the six SBC seminaries educate students at one-quarter the cost of such seminaries as Trinity, Gordon-Conwell and Dallas Theological Seminary, he said.
Providing more CP funds to the seminaries to cover the increases in tuition isn’t likely, Patterson acknowledged.
“Fifty percent of the funds are given through churches to the International Mission Board. How are we going to up the percentage of what comes to the seminaries? The only way to do that is to take away from the IMB. It’s not going to happen. Or the North American Mission Board; it’s not going to happen.
“I can see no hope for the funding of increasingly expensive institutions … . How do you do it? So we went to the Executive Committee and proposed we establish a new offering for the seminaries.”
That new offering would make it possible to support students and increase faculty salaries, Patterson said.
“The seminaries will all have a greater amount of money,” he said. “One particular concern is faculty salaries. If you’ve looked at this you know this is an astonishing and heartbreaking situation. Southern Baptists are going to have to give an account to God for what we have not done in that regard.”
Patterson said that, even if the SBC chooses to establish the proposed “W.A. Criswell Offering” for the seminaries, there could be a negative outcome for the offering.
“There is an element of risk,” Patterson said. “I do not know if it will succeed or not. My hunch is that, since the six seminaries are enjoying their greatest convention-wide popularity in history, we would overwhelmingly win in such a thing.”
Southwestern trustee Van McClain, associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary’s extension campus in New York, made a motion that the seminary trustee board draft a resolution stating the board’s support for the proposed offering. The resolution would be addressed to the SBC Executive Committee, McClain said. Seminary trustees approved the drafting of the resolution.
Patterson said that it was understandable that some Southern Baptist leaders feared the offering as an attempt to return to the “society days,” a period before the Cooperative Program when each organization raised its own support. He said, however, that the goal of the seminary offering is not to harm the Cooperative Program or “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
“My own response is that such a view is shortsighted, because in your own church, when you are getting people to give, the more they give the more they give,” Patterson said.
Michael Dean, former chairman of the trustee board, asked if the real reason the SBC Executive Committee opposed the seminary offering was because of a changing position on theological education, where it preferred “more of an MBA approach.” That approach would mean more off-campus extension centers, more distance learning and more technology-based education.
Patterson said he believed so.
“The fundamental distinction in how you do seminary education is very much involved in this,” he said. At the most recent Executive Committee meeting, he said, some new committee members said they believed that the “age of electronics has dawned, that the seminary campus is antiquated as an idea and that we need to move to primarily an electronic delivery system.”
Patterson said that the members saw these steps as the only way to reduce overhead costs, but that he was “ever the opponent of that.”
“When the day comes that you train cardiac surgeons by an electronic medium and U.S. Navy Seals are trained on extension campuses and by means of electronic media, we’ll be ready to do that in the seminary,” he said. “But you know that will never happen. There are some kinds of situations that require on-the-job training.”
He added that the mentoring relationships between faculty members and students cannot be replaced, nor can the close contact with brothers and sisters in Christ who are pursuing the same calling.
“Nobody here who is a seminary graduate could ever tell me the things he learned in seminary,” he said. “You can’t, even though you learned a lot. But if I asked who impacted your life while you were in seminary, you would immediately start naming off professors who shaped you.”
Patterson said that seminary officials and trustees should be arguing that the SBC not “dumb down the future” by moving to any other model of seminary education than the present one.
“We are in serious danger of doing that,” he said. “… We are not training occupation troops here. We are not training people how to clean their rifle only to put it on the shelf. We are training people to parachute behind enemy lines and take beachheads for Christ. … If we have them for three years we can give you a tiger. Bat him down as many times as you want to and he’ll be back. He will not fail. He will be morally upright and will not embarrass the church of God.”