For Jeffrey Bingham, God’s call to the interim presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) was literally a phone call.
Photo by Kathleen Murray
"Through His gifted preachers," God “has been writing a script the community needed to hear” in Southwestern Seminary chapel services this fall, said interim president Jeffrey Bingham.
As a May 22-23 meeting of Southwestern’s trustees stretched into the early-morning hours, Bingham, dean of the seminary’s School of Theology, couldn’t sleep in his hotel room at a conference in Chicago. He followed reports of the meeting, wondering what the board would decide about the fate of then-president Paige Patterson.
Then just after 3 a.m., Bingham’s phone rang. It was trustee chairman Kevin Ueckert informing him of the board’s decision to move Patterson to president emeritus status effective immediately and offer Bingham the role of interim president.
“I had no previous indication that my name was in consideration for the interim position,” Bingham said. “The phone call caught me by surprise.”
Nearly five months into his new assignment, Bingham is preparing for his first meeting of the full trustee board as interim president. At that meeting Oct. 15-17, he expects “frank conversation” about the trustee executive committee’s decision May 30 to terminate Patterson. But he also expects all trustees “to be devoted to the future of Southwestern Seminary.”
As Bingham envisions that future, he told Baptist Press in an interview, it includes the continuation of a spiritual renewal afoot on the Fort Worth, Texas, campus and a commitment to welcome all Southern Baptists who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message – “regardless of where they are on the question of Calvinism or Arminianism or the question of Reformed theology and Anabaptist theology.”
‘I had to care for her’
Back in his Chicago hotel room, however, Bingham didn’t know whether he should volunteer to lead the seminary forward.
“I told [Ueckert] I was quite speechless and that the job was something which was larger than I was and for which I, in my humanity, was not equipped,” Bingham said. But he agreed to pray and consider the trustees’ offer for the rest of the morning.
After talking with his wife Pamela and praying, he accepted. “It was my seminary,” he said. “I had to care for her.”
Photo by Adam Covington
Interim president Jeffrey Bingham scoops ice cream for Southwestern Seminary faculty and staff at a meeting to begin the academic year.
Why did trustees decide Bingham was the right man for interim leadership?
“I haven’t really asked that question,” Bingham said. “… I trust the body of Christ” and “believe the board of trustees is a group of believers who have been gathered together by God’s will and providence and that the Lord is using that group, that community to guide the people of Southwestern.”
Among Bingham’s qualifications likely considered by trustees are his experience pastoring a small west Texas church; his doctor of philosophy degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS); his extensive administrative and teaching experience at DTS, Criswell College, Wheaton College and Southwestern; and his expertise in patristics, the study of the first several centuries of church history following the New Testament era.
Douglas Moo, a New Testament professor at Wheaton, where Bingham served as associate dean of the biblical and theological studies department, said Bingham was “fairly laid back” as a leader and believed “it was better to try to manage things behind the scenes rather than to throw his weight around … He was willing to listen and not particularly interested in always getting his own way.”
‘A new vitality’
In the early days of Bingham’s interim presidency at Southwestern, the trustee executive committee rightly exercised a heightened degree of oversight on the seminary’s day-to-day operations, given “the difficult times that had occurred,” Bingham said. By late summer though, the executive committee began “returning more and more to a traditional level of oversight.”
By welcome week for new students in August, Bingham said, matriculating ministers in training “would not have had the slightest indication that Southwestern Seminary was in a period of transition simply because the staff and faculty – the heart of the seminary – were present to do their job with excellence.”
Another surprising feature of campus life since Bingham assumed leadership is a “new vitality” in chapel, he said.
It’s “a frequent thing” for students and faculty to say “how chapel has been special to them this semester,” Bingham said.
Preachers have focused in the seminary’s twice-weekly chapel services this fall on Christ, the “central virtues of the Christian life” and the “need to be revived” among other themes, Bingham said. Six special services for the Southwestern community to seek God are scheduled Oct. 23-25.
God, “through his gifted preachers,” Bingham said, “has been writing a script the community needed to hear.”
‘People will need to talk’
Amid the blossoming spiritual renewal on campus, Southwestern’s trustees are convening this week to consider, among other matters, a motion referred from the Southern Baptist Convention “that the whole board of trustees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary consider revisiting their original decision concerning Paige Patterson.”
At this summer’s SBC annual meeting in Dallas, Southwestern trustees expressed divergent viewpoints on Patterson’s termination during debate on a separate motion to remove from the board all members of the trustee executive committee. South Carolina trustee Wayne Dickard spoke for the motion while Texas trustee Bart Barber, an executive committee member, said the executive committee’s termination of Patterson was necessary.
At this week’s meeting, Bingham said, “people will need to talk to each other about thoughts that they’ve had since those late days in May. I think it will be a time of true and frank conversation. But these are a group of men and women who love Southwestern Seminary, and I think ultimately all of them will be devoted to the future of Southwestern Seminary.”
To all Southern Baptists, Bingham said, “As the Lord allows, the issues of disagreement” and hurt over Patterson’s departure can “be dealt with in a godly and Christ-like and humble way.” But “my prayer is that even as we disagree over those things and even as we still have questions and we’re still confused, that we are able to commit together to supporting students who come to Southwestern to be trained for worldwide ministry.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)