DALLAS, Texas — In a nearly unanimous vote, members of First Baptist Church of Dallas voted July 8 to end their 40-year ownership of Criswell College, paving the way for the school’s independence.
The vote followed the unanimous recommendation of First Baptist’s deacons on June 16 and months of negotiations between leaders of the church and Criswell College, a four-year school with its own radio station, KCBI-FM in Dallas, also broadcast as KCRN (AM & FM) in San Angelo, Texas, and KSYE-FM in southern Oklahoma.
First Baptist members voted with raised hands after hearing from several leaders from the church’s deacon body and Criswell College’s trustee board, including pastor and the school’s current chancellor, Robert Jeffress, who in quoting the school’s trustee chairman called the separation agreement a “win-win-win situation” — a win for the church and the school “but most importantly, it’s a win for the kingdom of God. That’s what we all want here.”
The fate of the radio station had been a “distraction” since talk of a proposed sale by the college became public several years ago. “It’s time for all of that to come to an end,” Jeffress said, explaining that the station would be jointly owned by the church and school as the two members of a newly formed nonprofit corporation.
The separation would allow the school to get back to its primary task of “training men and women with a biblical worldview and training preachers” and would give it an advantage in fundraising, Jeffress said, while offering the church a “valuable and much-needed solution” to the burden of tending to the school.
Jeffress told church members the college’s governance also had become a distraction for the last three pastors, whose duties included serving as chancellor alongside the school’s president.
Criswell trustee chairman Michael Deahl, a First Baptist deacon, said the separation would give the college its “best chance to reach the next level,” enhance fundraising, make it easier for the school to comply with its accrediting agency’s governance requirements, and relieve the school of operating the radio station.
Asked by a church member how the school planned to avoid drifting away like Harvard from its biblical roots, Deahl said trustees would be diligent in seeing that the articles of faith remain a requirement for trustees and faculty while receiving accountability from affiliation with the churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC).
Deahl praised the deacon leaders and trustees who negotiated the agreement after what had been at times a tense relationship.
“I believe God has intervened in this process,” allowing it to be settled “in an amicable way” that will “honor the cause and name of Jesus Christ,” Deahl said.
The separation agreement creates a nonprofit corporation with a 50-50 ownership split of radio station KCBI, which will be operated and managed by First Baptist. Criswell College will be a non-voting member of the corporation.
In turn, the agreement states that the corporation will make a fixed annual contribution to Criswell College. The school will retain all of its other assets. The ministry potential for KCBI is “unlimited” and would be enhanced by the church’s media ministry, Jeffress said.
The agreement also includes options for the church and college to buy out the other’s interest in the station after a set period of years.
Criswell College’s new governance would take effect Jan. 1. The changes require approval from the Federal Communications Commission and the school’s accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Criswell College’s interim president, Lamar Cooper, said in June after the trustees endorsed the plan: “I also am pleased that we have been able to accomplish this amicably, and trust that the college and church will continue to serve our Lord in a spirit of cooperation.”
Deahl appointed a six-member transition committee to report back by Aug. 31 with proposed bylaw changes for the school. The team includes trustees Curtis Baker, chairman, Jack Brady and Jack Pogue, all of Dallas; Paul Pressler of Houston; Jim Richards, SBTC executive director; and Cooper. Deahl will serve ex-officio on the transition committee at the behest of Baker. The trustees would vote on the recommendations in their next scheduled meeting Sept. 25.
Criswell College is an affiliated ministry partner of the SBTC, the only four-year school receiving budgeted funding annually from the convention. The convention also has an affiliated relationship with two-year Jacksonville College and a non-budgeted fraternal relationship with Houston Baptist University.
First Baptist launched the college in 1969 when founding chancellor W.A. Criswell announced his vision for an institution to provide biblical training for pastors, Sunday School teachers and other laymen who had not completed college-level ministerial training. The first classes were held in 1970. Today, nearly 400 students attend undergraduate and master’s-level courses.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)