My Reflections on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

After reading several statements by women regarding their time as students at SWBTS, I decided to write one of my own.  I attended Southwestern in the mid 1980’s just as the conservative resurgence was gaining steam.  My experience at seminary was so very different than the women who have written about studying there recently.  I am not writing this to invalidate other’s statements nor to presume that every woman at Southwestern had the same positive experience I did. I write this simply as a possible contrast between the climate under Dr. Patterson’s leadership and earlier years.  

A little background.  I am sixty years old, a Southern Baptist since age seventeen, and have served in collegiate ministry my whole career.  My first exposure to SWBTS was a campus visit right after I graduated from college.  My pastor and mentors all recommended I consider attending seminary, in particular their alma mater, SWBTS.  They felt it would be important training for me as I prepared to work with college students.  I decided that I would like to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree. The only problem: you had to take preaching.  Why should I take preaching?  I had no intention of being a “preacher.”  So, I made an appointment with Dr. Jesse Northcutt, esteemed and beloved professor of preaching. (Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.)  I showed up in his office and asked him to let me substitute a different class for preaching.  I figured this would be a no-brainer for a woman.  He, however, was immovable.  If I planned to work with university students, he said, then, I would undoubtedly have countless opportunities to speak before groups in the future. I would prepare Bible Studies. I would need to make a compelling, articulate case for Christ from Scripture to unconvinced students. Preaching class would be good for me, he said. In short: I would not be allowed to substitute.  In the intervening years, I have, indeed, spoken for dozens of women’s retreats and prepared and led untold numbers of Bible studies. I have engaged lost students with the Gospel. Preaching class was the foundation for, what I hope, have become clear and compelling communication skills over the years.  I was sad when I heard a few years ago that women are no longer allowed to take the class.    

Another story I recall occurred in Dr. David Garland’s Old Testament class.  When I arrived on campus in 1982, I was definitely in the minority as a woman and I was keenly aware of that.  Often, I would be one of two or three women in a class.  In Dr. Garland’s class, I believe I was the only woman. There was a man in my class who was extroverted and witty, and to be frank, I always felt, a little arrogant.  One day as the class was settling in for lecture and Dr. Garland was preparing to begin, this young man began to tell the class a story.  He recounted something that had occurred between him and his wife.  I don’t remember the details. But I do remember the story ended with his wife as the punchline.  I think I probably laughed along with everyone else. Yet, it was vaguely demeaning.  I can still see Dr. Garland standing quietly at his podium, not smiling.  When the laughter had died away, and he had the room’s full attention, he said something like this: “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. __________.  My wife has been God’s greatest gift and blessing in my life.”  He proceeded to brag on his wife, tell of his need and his appreciation for her, and how he would not be the man he was without her.  I can still remember the dead silence in the class.  I remember the tears that welled up in my eyes.  And I remember thinking, these men will not forget this moment. Obviously, I have never forgotten it.     

The conservative resurgence was always a mystery to me.  I agree with others who have said it often felt mean-spirited, and more about power plays and position than humble concern for doctrine.  As we began to hear murmurs of “liberal professors” I kept thinking, “Who are they talking about?  Where are these men who don’t believe the Bible?  The men who don’t love the Gospel?”  Was this whole “war” waged because of one professor somewhere out there while many others were simply collateral damage?  I certainly had professors at seminary I liked better than others. I have forgotten many of their names.  But I never had one professor who didn’t love God and believe the Bible.  I have the fondest affection and gratitude for Dr. MacGorman, Dr. Vaughn, Dr. Kirkpatrick, Dr. Garland, Dr. Leafblad, and others, who shaped my life and my mind in Christ.  I always felt heard, valued, encouraged, and challenged by them.  I never felt dismissed or demeaned by any one of them. They took genuine interest in me and took me seriously. One time a roommate and I had been discussing some issue and decided we wanted to know what retired professor T.B. Maston thought about it.  We called and made an appointment to see him in his home near the seminary.  I do not remember the content of our discussion that afternoon, but I do remember how graciously he received us, and served us tea - two women alone with this great old saint in his home!  It was so kind of him to make time for two less-than-brilliant minds, who, frankly, just wanted to be near him and aspired to be like him.  

Upon graduating from seminary I moved to California to work on a university campus and have proceeded to live and minister most of my life outside of the Bible belt. (I currently serve in Kansas.) This has kept me somewhat at a distance from denominational politics and machinations.  A few years ago I cancelled my Southwestern News alumni journal because I grew weary of every single article being by or about Dr. Patterson. The final straw was the edition where he wrote a lengthy article about Baptist history and belief.  He all but flat out said that if you aren’t a Southern Baptist you aren’t Biblical.  To which I said, baloney, and promptly (sadly) emailed to have my name removed from the mailing list.  

I have always loved being a Southern Baptist. Warts and all, these are my people, my tribe to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude.  I cannot attend the convention in Dallas this year.  I am praying for all who will attend and I join in asking for God to pour out his Spirit in powerful and fresh ways.  There are so many important, Kingdom issues facing us.  I am full of hope that God is at work! Finally, I would like to say that after all I have seen and heard recently, I would not sit to hear a convention sermon delivered by Paige Patterson.  In light of the recent action by the Board of Trustees Executive Committee to fire Dr. Patterson and remove all titles and benefits, I pray that he will now withdraw from preaching the sermon.  There is much work and prayer and repair to be done among us.  Finally, I trust that someone has already submitted a work order to begin removing the stained glass windows of Dr. Patterson and Judge Pressler.  Apart from all that has been revealed, those should never have been installed in the first place.