SBC LIFE Please tell us about your pilgrimage into Southern Baptist higher education, and specifically, to Southeastern.
Patterson Well, it's a monumental surprise to me to be a part of Christian education. When I made my commitment to the ministry, it was to be an evangelist and a Bible teacher. But even then, I had a strong interest in young preachers.
As a 16-year-old young preacher I always extended a call at the end of the service to those who might commit themselves to the ministry, and I always worked with them.
I received my BA at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, and a Th.M. and Th.D. in Theology at New Orleans Seminary. But I had no intention of being anything other than an evangelist and a Bible teacher.
Then, when I went to my fourth pastorate, I decided I had missed God's calling. I said, "Okay, Lord, I will accept the assignment of being a pastor," at which time Dr. Criswell called from Dallas and said, "I want you to come be president of the Criswell College." I had always said I would never be president of anybody's anything. But to my astonishment I ended up at Criswell, where I served for seventeen years.
While I was at Criswell College, I began to realize how God had prepared me. He had given me four very distinct and unique types of church in which to serve as pastor, I had extensive evangelistic experience, and I had traveled to forty-five or fifty nations to do mission work. For the first time it dawned on me, "God has deliberately prepared you so that no matter what you encounter with your young preachers, you will have been there. You will be able to say, 'This is the way – walk in it.'"
I've always loved young preachers and missionaries, and wanted to do what I could to help them channel the fire, keep the passions high, and learn to walk with God. During my time at Criswell I understood that this is what God had uniquely prepared me to do.
Then came the big-gest surprise of all. Six years ago I assumed the presidency of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – the last place I ever would have considered myself as a possible figure.
SBC LIFE What unique contribution do you see Southeastern making to the Southern Baptist Convention in the next five years?
Patterson Southeastern is a "special forces" training school. We try to provide a spiritual "Seal Team" school for men and women who desire to attempt the impossible with God's help. For those who are trained occupation troops, we say, "God bless you." Those have to be there, too. But that's just not our thing. We want to train a generation of men and women who will tackle anything and go to the toughest places in the world to do it.
More than one-third of our graduates are going into church planting. We've entered into a ten-year partnership with New Hampshire to plant fifty new churches. We're also working in the same way with Ontario, Canada.
Another example of our "special forces" emphasis is in our plans for Salem, Mass. Just about every attempt in recent years to plant an evangelical church there has failed because of the heavy influence of witchcraft. Well, we're going to plant a church there next summer. You could say we've got Salem in the cross hairs.
Also, about one-third of our people are committed to international missions. Of those, the vast majority will go into closed countries, to circumstances where just about everything else has failed up until now. We deliberately try to prepare them for that.
We also consider ourselves, together with our five other seminaries, to be one of six strategic points that is committed to generating one last missionary adventure before Jesus comes.
SBC LIFE What trends do you see in theological education in the next ten years, especially among Southern Baptists?
Patterson First, let me speak to the broad situation. I see generally declining enrollment and diminishing demand being made upon students in the areas of biblical studies, languages, and theology. Furthermore, I see rather broad scale, ecumenical confusion. I also anticipate a Herculean effort to maintain status, demonstrated by more emphasis on technological delivery systems, extension campuses, distant learning programs, all purporting to be quality education, but almost inevitably failing to achieve what they promise.
Christianity is nothing if it is not personal, interpersonal, and community. Technology may be an assistant here but it cannot be the ruler.
Among Southern Baptists, I think the university divinity schools will mostly survive, but with relatively small enrollments and little significant impact on society in general, and on the church in particular. The exception to that, of course, would be Beeson Divinity School.
The Association of Theological Schools Fact Book shows that over a period of three to four years, most seminaries are barely holding their own, if that. Many are dropping in enrollment. To the contrary, I think the conservative resurgence has had a positive impact on our seminaries in two ways. It means there are more people coming out of the churches with a commitment to the Lord's work. Secondly, it means that they have a place to go where they feel they will not be thwarted in their convictions, but encouraged in them.
Our six seminaries, with strong doctrinal and evangelistic commitments, and a profound commitment to campus-based learning, will continue to experience growth and will have monumental impact on both society and the church.
Early on in the conservative revival, Adrian Rogers asked me one day, "Suppose this dog catches this truck, what on earth does he do with it?" And I said, "What on earth are you talking about?" He said, "Where are your presidents of the six seminaries?" I said, "I do not have a clue." I thought about it for a minute, and said, "God will raise them up." At that time, Al Mohler, Mark Coppenger, Chuck Kelley, Ken Hemphill, and Bill Crews were not even blips on anybody's radar screen.
I must say, it's exciting to me as a president to serve with five other presidents who are so far beyond me that I can look to them and say, "Thank you, Lord, for giving me that kind of example and guidance."
SBC LIFE Suppose someone said to you, "Our ministers don't need theological training, they just need to get out into the fields and start evangelizing," how would you respond?
Patterson I would have three responses. First, that's tragic rejection of Scripture, which plainly says, "Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."
Secondly, if you added one word to the statement, and said that our ministers don't need formal or traditional theological training, then I would have to say that I am glad that I'm part of a denomination that doesn't require formal education for service to Christ. Even as an educator, I think that's misplaced. The crucial elements in a person's effective ministry are a conversion experience, a call to the ministry, and diligent study, whether formal or informal.
The third thing I would say is that SBC seminaries no longer consist of firemen attempting to quench the hot flames of evangelical passion. Rather, we've become flight engineers to channel the flame into the afterburners. So now, if ever, is the perfect time to attend one of our six seminaries.
SBC LIFE As we approach the dawn of a new century, what excites you most about Southeastern?
Patterson I'm most excited about the passion, commitment, and sacrifice of our students, in stark contrast to most of what you see in America. In an age of wimp-ism and mushy sentimentalism, masquerading as love and tolerance, these students are an oasis of courage and faith in a desert of self-ism.
We have over 100 that go out every Friday night to evangelize, instead of going into the various entertainment venues. They have charted a five-mile radius around Wake Forest with the intention of getting the gospel to every home. Many of our students upon graduation are passing up fairly nice salaries in established churches in order to go to the Northeast and plant churches and be poor.
It is also exciting to see a faculty of cogent scholastic achievement that did not lose its heart while it expanded its mind.
It's exciting to me to begin to hear the sounds of the "latter rain" on the Eastern Seaboard – a real movement of God before Jesus returns, hopefully with Southeastern very much at the heart of it.
When I came here, there were some churches that were aggressively evangelistic, and ebullient in their service to Christ. But on the whole, up and down the Eastern Seaboard there was a movement to the loss of Sunday School enrollment, no Sunday night services, and a dip in the number of baptisms.
And just within the six years I've been here, we can now find in almost every community along the Southeast coast at least one church that has really come to life and accepted the challenge. That's gradually working its way north, and that's exactly what we want to do – and there's a big target on the Big Apple.
SBC LIFE How can Southern Baptists most effectively pray for you and for the seminary?
Patterson I would say in three ways. Number one, that we can maintain a white-hot passion for Jesus and for the lost. Number two, that we never waver from our Christian and Baptist doctrinal commitment. And number three, that the Lord will always keep our people morally pure, uncompromisingly just, and motivated and activated by a I Corinthians 13 kind of love.