CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (BP) — Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tenn., has a reputation as an independent Baptist school but has been taking steps to strengthen its ties with Southern Baptists, most recently in the hiring of a new president.
Steve Echols, a member of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s faculty the past 11 years, began serving as Tennessee Temple’s president in January.
“I’m a lifelong Southern Baptist — saved in a Southern Baptist church, grew up in a very strong Southern Baptist church, served nothing but Southern Baptist churches all my life,” Echols told Baptist Press, adding that in each church where he was pastor, he emphasized the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong missions offerings.
Echols said the presidential search committee at Tennessee Temple spoke at length with him about helping to guide the school closer to the SBC.
Schools typically affiliate with and receive support from state conventions in order to be considered Southern Baptist colleges and universities. Tennessee Temple does not receive any funding from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, nor does the state convention have a role in electing the school’s trustees.
Tennessee Temple “would love” to affiliate with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, Echols said, but “that is something that ultimately is in the hands of Tennessee Baptists.”
“We aim to serve Tennessee Baptists,” he said.
Tennessee Temple was founded in 1946 by Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, and the school and church remain closely affiliated today. Then-pastor Lee Roberson served as the school’s first president until 1984.
“Dr. Roberson and others originally were in the SBC — a lot of people don’t know that — but they moved as part of the fundamentalist movement and independent Baptist movement away from the convention,” Echols said.
Eight years ago, then-pastor David Bouler led Highland Park to reestablish its relationship with the Hamilton County Baptist Association in Chattanooga.
“The church was accepted immediately without any kind of probationary period or anything,” Echols said. “The church began to give to the association and also to the Cooperative Program.”
Danny Lovett, a subsequent pastor, led the church to strengthen its ties with Tennessee Baptists and Southern Baptists before he became dean of Liberty Seminary in Lynchburg, Va., last year.
The church recently called a new pastor, Jeremy Roberts, a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary who previously served on staff at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia.
According the Highland Park’s 2011 Annual Church Profile data filed with the Tennessee convention, the church gave $2,400 through the Cooperative Program, or 0.5 percent of its $745,306 undesignated receipts. The church reported weekly worship attendance of 310.
Since the church resumed cooperating with the SBC, the school has sought to do so as well, Echols said. “We’re very much still a ministry of the church as we seek to minister to the church. So the SBC relationship with Highland Park reflects upon us,” Echols said.
Echols said he believes all of Tennessee Temple’s faculty members attend Southern Baptist churches.
“There were times when independent Baptists and Southern Baptists had sharp differences, and a lot of folks tend to think of Tennessee Temple in that way,” Echols told BP. But now he regards it as a Southern Baptist school “in terms of the campus feel, the students we have, all that’s going on.” He said most of Tennessee Temple’s students are part of Highland Park or at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, both Southern Baptist churches.
When Echols assumed leadership at Tennessee Temple, one of his priorities was for the school’s trustees to adopt the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The school’s April 30 spring graduation will include a formal ceremony in which all of the faculty sign the Southern Baptist statement of beliefs.
“So our entire faculty has already agreed to be in line with the Baptist Faith and Message,” Echols said. “We still have our belief statements that we’ve had all along, but we feel like the Baptist Faith and Message is in harmony with that. So I think that speaks pretty strongly. There aren’t many schools doing that. We want to say to Southern Baptists, ‘This is a safe place to send your students, theologically.'”
Tennessee Temple had a booth in the exhibit hall at the SBC annual meeting last year and will do so again this year, Echols said.
During his time at New Orleans Seminary, Echols, 56, served as associate dean and professor of leadership. He also served as pastor for more than 30 years at churches in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.
Echols earned a Ph.D. and a master of divinity at New Orleans Seminary as well as a doctor of ministry degree at Beeson Divinity School and a master of arts in management at Birmingham-Southern College. He and his wife Julie have two grown children, Jeremy and Joy.
Upon Echol’s departure from New Orleans Seminary, Chuck Kelley, the school’s president, said Echols “had an exemplary tenure at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He excelled as a teacher, an administrator and a leader. We will miss him dearly but realize he is perfectly suited for this new Kingdom mission.”
Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Seminary, said Echols “has made immense contributions to NOBTS in all the roles in which he has served.”
“We will miss him greatly, but we are confident that he will make a great contribution to the Kingdom of God as president of Tennessee Temple University,” Lemke told BP.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).