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Roberts & trustees reach accord; severance approved for Whitehead

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Trustees of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary deliberated for more than eight hours behind closed doors in an Oct. 8 called meeting, resolving an allegation of misconduct by the school’s president and approving a severance agreement with the vice president for business affairs.

“We had a productive meeting and are now looking forward to the inauguration” of Midwestern President R. Philip Roberts, stated board chairman C.M. “Buster” Brown of Mt. Pleasant, S.C. “We’re moving full speed ahead,” Brown said, acknowledging that issues brought to the table were resolved. Twenty-eight of the current slate of 34 trustees were present, with two vacancies yet to be filled.

Trustee Gary Peak of Moss Point, Miss., had accused Roberts of misusing seminary travel funds and violating policies. Questions were raised in regard to the recent discipline of Business Affairs Vice President Michael Whitehead, who was placed on administrative leave Sept. 24 at the request of Brown and board vice chairman Joe Bunce of Bloomfield, N.M.

Thirteen trustees agreed with Peak’s call for a special meeting just two weeks before Roberts’ inauguration as the fourth president of Midwestern. Not all of those who called for the meeting were necessarily in sympathy with Peak’s charges, with some of them wanting any hint of misconduct resolved before the Oct. 22-23 inauguration.

After the meeting, Peak related his satisfaction with the resolution of all issues he had raised, preferring not to recap details of the trustee discussion. During the trustee session, Peak reportedly withdrew his charges and no formal action thus was taken.

Rejecting earlier speculation that he might resign, Peak said, “I’m not a quitter. I was chastised for the way I handled it,” he acknowledged in reference to the charges he circulated to trustees by e-mail in his request for a called meeting.

Other trustees praised Peak’s expression of regret for the way he raised his concerns. As trustees walked out of the meeting room, SBC President James Merritt, who had traveled to Kansas City for the session, told Peak, “You’re a big man for what you said in there,” praising the spirit of his remarks.

Peak told Baptist Press that he fully supports Roberts and expects to have a good working relationship with him in the future.

As Midwestern Seminary closed out a weeklong global missions emphasis that renewed the school’s commitment to preparing missionaries for service around the world, Roberts read a statement Oct. 4 declaring his confidence that “the Lord will see any allegations against me cleared.” He described the “sudden and totally unjustified allegations” as evidence that “glorious and grand days” are ahead for the youngest seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Following the called meeting, Roberts reiterated his conviction that the events were “an indication that the Lord has some good things in store for Midwestern.” He added, “We had to come through a crisis like this, given some of the problems in the past, in order to take a more positive direction for the future.”

Roberts compared his first eight months in office as getting through “the eye of a storm.” He explained, “To get out of the way of a hurricane, you have to go through some rough waters. Now the wide open ocean is before us and we have our sails up, ready to go.”

After officially elected trustees met privately for a brief discussion and time of prayer, Merritt was welcomed to participate in the remaining eight hours of deliberation held at the Embassy Suites Hotel from 2 p.m. until nearly midnight with a break for dinner. Merritt’s attendance hearkened to the time in 1962 when then-SBC President Herschell Hobbs concluded that the conflict over Midwestern professor Ralph Elliott’s book, “The Message of Genesis,” significantly threatened the seminary’s relationship with the convention and justified his presence at a board meeting.

Former trustee Steve Simko who resigned this summer after moving from Colfax, Ind., to a Missouri pastorate, also was asked to participate in the afternoon portion of the meeting, having served on the board’s executive committee.

As trustees emerged late Monday night expressing satisfaction at the resolution of all issues, Merritt praised the Christlike spirit of participants. “It was a very productive meeting. There was a lot of candor and an honest examination of the issues they were facing. Overall, there is no question that the full board is excited about Dr. Roberts. And there’s no question that the best days of Midwestern are ahead.” Merritt is pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church of Snellville.

In an Aug. 24 letter, Roberts responded to Peak’s charges and described the trustee’s method of communicating as “completely contrary to your pledge to me at our April 2001 board meeting as well as to all proper biblical conduct.”

Roberts told Baptist Press in an Oct. 4 interview that he had appealed to the board during the April meeting to end the years of a broken relationship between administration and trustees. “We don’t actually have to have bad things being done to make this institution less than effective or crippled,” he recalled telling them. “We just have to be gossiping. That’s enough to do it.”

He said he asked them to pledge to each other that they would follow the biblical guidelines of Matthew 18. If they had concerns he asked them to come to him first. And if any should remain unsatisfied with his answers, he urged them to “take it anyway you want, but do me the service of coming to me first.”

Roberts told Baptist Press Oct. 9, “I have full confidence in the integrity of our staff and administration and I’m confident this is a crisis that won’t be repeated anytime soon.” He indicated that the board expressed “total endorsement of the concept of handling this kind of informational concerns or potential conflict in a biblical fashion.” Roberts acknowledged his desire to better communicate with the board. “This is a relationship I have to develop and grow into it — six months into the job it’s less than perfect. But my commitment is to be as forthright and proactive in developing those relationships as possible.”

Roberts met with the board for more than an hour during the afternoon session. Following the break for dinner, trustees called in Fred Powell, a presidential assistant at Midwestern from 1997 until his recent resignation, hearing him for less than an hour. He was followed by Whitehead who remained in the closed session for an hour and a half. The board deliberated two additional hours before inviting Roberts back in for a brief time at the conclusion.

A statement issued by trustees addressed their resolution of Whitehead’s status with the seminary.

“On behalf of faculty, staff and students, MBTS trustees would like to express our gratitude and appreciation to Dr. Mike Whitehead for over five years of faithful service to the Lord through Midwestern Seminary. Dr. Whitehead has served with integrity in each capacity in which the board has assigned him, as Vice President of Business Affairs and as interim president for nearly two years.

“The Lord has blessed the school during Dr. Whitehead’s tenure with growing enrollment, financial stability and a spirit of harmony on campus during Dr. Whitehead’s leadership. Now, as Dr. Whitehead commences an administrative leave, we the Board of MBTS want to ask God’s blessings on Mike and his family as he seeks fresh direction from God.”

Board vice chairman Joe Bunce delivered the statement, declining to make any further clarification. He delivered a response from Whitehead which read:

“What blessing God has bestowed on me to work alongside faculty, staff and students at Midwestern since 1995, when I was elected by the board of trustees. There have been difficult days and delightful days, but God has been so faithful throughout. I am spiritually richer for fresh encounters with God in chapel services, in classes, and in office prayer meetings. I will never forget the many dear friends God has given me at Midwestern.”

He continued, “But the Lord seems to be saying that it is time for something new. As I enter this period of board-approved leave, I am excited to see where God will lead, and excited to do whatever God says to do. I wish the very best for MBTS and shall be in prayer for the Seminary faculty, staff, students and trustees. God be with you,” he concluded. Whitehead declined an opportunity to interviewed, stating that he could not comment further.

Bunce commented in regard to the called meeting, “There were some things accomplished here that were very positive. I praise God for the wonderful protocol we do have — whether here or anywhere — as a convention. It’s a gift and that makes it easier.” He emphasized his confidence in Roberts, stating, “The president continues to be a man of proven integrity.”

Midwestern Academic Affairs Vice President Malcolm Yarnell waited outside the meeting, prepared to deliver a message of the faculty’s commitment to fulfill the mission of the seminary in training ministers for service in the Midwest and around the world. They also pledged to pray for the trustees throughout their deliberations.

Yarnell was joined by Institutional Advancement Vice President Michael Wilson and Student Development Vice President Alan Branch in expressing confidence in Roberts’ leadership as well as God’s control of the situation to “bring light to reveal the truth.”

Missions professor Ron Rogers also prepared a letter to the trustees urging a recognition of the “unsettling times” the school had just endured following the termination of the last president in 1999. “This institution … is just beginning to turn the corner in our move toward a bright, successful, and challenging future.”

He urged trustees to settle the dispute in a Christlike manner, adding, “This is not the time for airing personal grievances and insisting on winning personal arguments. It is the time to unite around the glory of our Lord and His passion for the nations. Your decision will affect this seminary’s ability to achieve its purpose and mission for years to come.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter