Although it’s been over eight months since a tsunami of controversy hit Southwest Baptist University’s campus following the dismissal of a tenured Bible professor, Clint Bass, the campus is still feeling waves of impact and change today.
On the cusp of a new school year, the university confirmed in an email Tuesday, Aug. 6, it is searching for a new dean of the Courts Redford College of Theology and Ministry following the resignation of former dean Rodney Reeves.
The statement said Reeves, who left the university to become senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Arkansas, served on SBU’s faculty for 19 years — 15 of those as the Redford College’s dean.
“We have no specific timeline for a hiring decision,” SBU president Eric Turner said in the release. “We would like to fill the position as quickly as possible, but we also want to take enough time to follow all university procedures in the hiring process.”
Turner said SBU provost Lee Skinkle will serve as the Redford College interim dean.
“Please join me in praying for the university as we conduct the search process,” Turner said.
In a public post shared Sunday, Aug. 4, on his Facebook page, Reeves said his move to Jonesboro “is a joy mingled with sorrow, leaving the work I have loved for 19 years at SBU, my outstanding colleagues (especially at Redford College), and our dear friends at FBC, Bolivar.”
Hit by another wave, SBU announced seemingly unfavorable findings following the completion of a review of SBU’s integration of faith, learning and doctrine by a peer assessment committee led by David Dockery, chancellor of Trinity International University.
An SBU news release, posted to its website Monday, July 15, said the committee “evaluated the key elements of Baptist distinctiveness that inform SBU’s identity as a Missouri Baptist institution.”
Over the course of the assessment, the committee met with SBU administration, trustees, faculty and staff, as well as Missouri Baptist Convention leadership, the release said.
“The key finding of the committee is the university’s statement of faith has not been implemented effectively across the fabric of the university,” the release said.
In turn, the committee found “the doctrinal position of SBU has been perceived as ambiguous,” leading to “an erosion of trust between the university and Missouri Baptists,” the release said.
The evaluation found that for the “long-term health and faithfulness of SBU,” the university “must clarify” its statement of faith — which was adopted in 1921 and reaffirmed by Missouri Baptist Convention messengers in 2012 — “to be a clear and compelling theological framework.”
“Dr. Dockery and the committee have accurately and effectively surmised the situation in which SBU has found herself,” Turner said in the release. “Over the coming weeks and months, you will see evidence of SBU’s thoughtful response to this assessment.”
Turner said SBU is “currently working to clarify, boldly articulate and implement” the university’s statement of faith so it “will further align and strengthen our Baptist identity and Christian faith.”
“Since my arrival at SBU, I have recognized the need for SBU to strengthen our relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention and its churches,” Turner said. “This assessment affirms that position. We must collectively work together to rebuild trust between SBU and Missouri Baptists.”
In the release, Dockery thanked SBU’s leaders and the Missouri Baptist Convention “for their openness with the committee and their shared desire to strengthen the work of the SBU community in the days ahead.”
John Yeats, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, reacted to the assessment in the release, saying institutions with denominational roots have “moments in history to reinvigorate the core Biblical beliefs.”
“Dr. Dockery and his team, at the invitation of Dr. Turner, have assessed and provided a recommended framework to bring doctrinal and missional revival to SBU,” Yeats said, adding the assessment will be a “welcomed tool” for Turner and the university’s trustees as they move forward.
In the release, Mark Rains, chair of SBU’s board of trustees, said the board appreciates the work of Dockery and the committee.
“We will now continue their work by digesting this assessment and working with SBU administration to respond in a deliberate fashion,” Rains said.
The release said the committee’s findings, generated from conversations and research, were presented to SBU’s administration and the board of trustees’ executive committee.
Executive committee members include Rains, Ryan Palmer, Syndee Chase, Don Fahrni, Jana Horner, Bob Ingold, Donna Neil and Rebecca Randles, according to an individual familiar with the board.
However, it appears access to the full report will be limited.
The board’s executive committee will “publicly release an executive summary of the review after it has been shared internally,” the release said.
In an email Tuesday, Aug. 6, SBU communications director Charlotte Marsch said the peer assessment committee’s report “is an internal resource that was submitted to the SBU administration and the executive committee of SBU’s board of trustees.”
She said the board’s executive committee will present the report to the board during an executive session at a regularly scheduled October board meeting.
“In the interest of transparency and building trust with our constituents, the executive committee has chosen to release an executive summary of this internal resource at the appropriate time,” Marsch said.
In an email Thursday, Aug. 8, Rob Phillips, director of ministry and apologetics with the Missouri Baptist Convention, confirmed Yeats, who was out of the office on urgent family business, did not receive a copy of the full report.
“But, he expects to receive the same information that members of the SBU board of trustees receive,” Phillips said.
Phillips said SBU trustees, who are elected by messengers of Missouri Baptist churches at the convention’s annual meeting, “represent the interests of all Missouri Baptists.”
He said Yeats — “like all Missouri Baptists” — trusts the convention’s elected boards and “expects them to deal appropriately with issues related to the institutions they govern.”
Phillips said the convention understands SBU withholding the entire report, because “there may be sensitive personnel details, or other confidential information, that requires the university to act prudently to protect the rights of all those involved in the investigation.”
“Most Baptists generally prefer as much transparency as is reasonable, and letting the sun shine on Baptist ministry business is usually a good rule of thumb,” Phillips said.
Phillips, however, took on a different tone when asked about the continued censure of SBU trustee, Kyle Lee.
“That’s a different matter,” he said.
As previously reported in the BH-FP, SBU’s board of trustees censured and excluded one of its elected trustees in a special board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 22.
Citing a conflict of interest policy, Rains said in a statement, “We felt our trust had been violated by the board member’s actions.”
Sources close to Lee confirm he was escorted by security from the Jan. 22 meeting and continues to remain separated from SBU’s board.
Lee, who was elected to serve as a trustee in 2018, is an elder alongside Bass at Southern Hills Baptist Church in Bolivar. His current trustee term expires in 2023.
“The (Missouri Baptist Convention) executive board has standing committees that relate to our entities, and they are working with SBU leaders, in consultation with legal counsel, to determine the most appropriate response,” Phillips said.
Phillips said while there is debate about the power of SBU’s board to “censure a trustee for a period of time, an entity board does not have the right to determine the criteria, qualifications or acceptability of trustees of an entity.”
“That right rests with the Missouri Baptist Convention messengers,” he said. “An entity cannot exclude a trustee indefinitely from his duties. That is one issue we are addressing.”