Do You Really Believe You Can Turn This Ship Around?
I had heard that the seminary in Louisville was the most liberal Baptist school and some had advised me to mark and avoid it. But a family friend had a connection to the school and he urged me to take a trip to Kentucky to check it out for myself. On that visit, I met Al Mohler for the first time. That consequential meeting changed the course of my life and began a vital friendship that continues to this day.
In the fall of 1993, I visited The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. I didn’t know much about Southern Baptist history or politics. I was barely aware of the Conservative Resurgence that took place while I was in high school and college. I just wanted to serve Jesus in vocational ministry and knew I needed training. I had heard that the seminary in Louisville was the most liberal Baptist school and some had advised me to mark and avoid it. But a family friend had a connection to the school and he urged me to take a trip to Kentucky to check it out for myself. On that visit, I met Al Mohler for the first time. That consequential meeting changed the course of my life and began a vital friendship that continues to this day.
I was raised in a Christian home and grew up attending church. Our family had a lot of diverse church experiences. My earliest childhood church memories are of a mainline United Methodist church in West Tennessee. We were immersed in a fundamentalist, KJV-only, independent Baptist church in South Florida in elementary school. When I was in the second grade, we moved to North Florida and joined a Southern Baptist church. A few years later we helped plant an Evangelical Free church in our neighborhood. We moved again when I was in high school and joined a small rural Southern Baptist church. The point is that by the time I understood a call to ministry as a junior in college, I had no sense of theological tribe or denominational identification – I was just a believer in Jesus who wanted to serve.
Fortunately for me, my parents and pastors gave me a high view of Scripture, strong training in personal evangelism, and a love for my church. As I considered the options for ministry training, I wanted to attend a seminary that would add intellectual underpinning to the biblical beliefs I had developed at home and church. One of my mentors warned me that the environment at Southern was likely to rob me of my enthusiasm for evangelism as well as my confidence in the Bible. Wherever I ended up attending graduate school, I was determined to hold onto my childhood convictions.
On that Louisville trip, I spent a few days on the campus of Southern Seminary. I played basketball in the gym, toured the campus, and attended some classes. It became clear that Dr. Mohler was not very popular on campus. He had only assumed the presidency of Southern a few months earlier, and was already revealing plans to radically alter the school’s direction. The professors were not fans and said so from their lecterns. The students were upset about the new president, and several became emotional in informal conversations in the cafeteria.
After being on campus for a few days, I had an appointment for a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Mohler. By the time I walked into his then-office on the first floor of Norton Hall, I had pretty much decided that Southern was not for me. I was discouraged by the spirit on campus. It was too liberal, too angry, too bitter, and too contentious. I wasn’t interested in getting involved with all of that. I just wanted to be trained to be a pastor. Southern wasn’t for me.
When I walked into his office for the first time, I had no awareness of Dr. Mohler’s intellectual brilliance, nor of his academic accomplishments, nor his rock-ribbed commitment to faithful, orthodox, biblical Christianity. I didn’t know about the incredible depth and breadth of his leadership abilities. All I saw was a guy with gigantic glasses who appeared to be a little young for his job. And yet, as I talked with him in his office, I began to experience a massive change of heart. What did he say that changed my direction?
Honestly, the entire vibe on campus felt old, stale, and angry. The sense of bitter resentment against a new conservative direction was palpable. And the freshly minted president was obviously unpopular with students and faculty alike. As a prospective student, the whole scene was unsettling. It was obvious that reclaiming the school for effective gospel service would be a steep climb. I wondered if a true turnaround was even possible.
First, Dr. Mohler made it clear that he intended to return Southern Seminary to its confessional roots. He introduced me to the Abstract of Principles and handed me a white paper briefly explaining each article in the document. Instructors would be held accountable to the Abstract and would be required to teach “in accordance with, and not contrary to” that statement of faith.
Second, Dr. Mohler explained that his emphasis on the Abstract reclaimed the theological mandate of the founders of the school. That confessional heritage had been forfeited over decades of leftward movement by the faculty and administration at Southern Seminary. Dr. Mohler intended to take it back.
Third, Dr. Mohler was absolutely determined to use every ethical lever of leadership to restore the theological commitments of the seminary. The Conservative Resurgence in the SBC centered on the truthfulness and authority of the Bible. Ma and Pa Southern Baptist wanted their missionaries and their seminaries to reflect their beliefs, especially around biblical inerrancy and the priority of evangelism. While many believed that a turnaround at Southern was impossible, Al Mohler was confident God had placed and called him to Southern’s presidency for this purpose. He knew what Southern Baptists expected of him and intended to fulfill those expectations.
As our meeting neared its end, I asked Dr. Mohler a question that was important to me. I said, “The students here don’t like you. That faculty isn’t on your side. After being on campus for a few days, I don’t know if you can really pull this off. Do you really believe you can turn this ship around?” Dr. Mohler replied, “I intend to either turn this ship around or I intend to sink it.” The conviction on display in that conversation was life-changing for me. I didn’t know if Dr. Mohler could finish the task or not, but I wanted to be a part of what God was doing at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And I wanted to learn leadership from a guy with that kind of resolve.
I walked out of that meeting, walked down the hall, and wrote a check for my first deposit. I spent the next decade and a half of my life at Southern Seminary. I completed an MDiv., and then a PhD. I taught as an adjunct. I became a dean and served on the president’s cabinet. I was elected to the faculty and proudly signed the Abstract. In 2008, God called us to South Florida, where I serve as the Lead Pastor of Family Church. But that conversation in the fall of 1993 turned out to be so pivotal in my life – from that day on, SBTS has been my school.