Recovering Faithfulness: A Family Perspective
As I reflect on the occasion of our three decades here, I do so first with gratitude to the Lord for what he has done and then with amazement that I am blessed to be part of the story. The backstory is familiar to some of how we were living in suburban Atlanta when the presidential search committee at Southern Seminary began their work to nominate a new president.
On the beautiful campus of Southern Seminary and Boyce College, spring means families are happily gathering outside at last for picnics and outdoor fun. Children are everywhere some pushed along in strollers, others worn in stretchy infant slings, and others still run about on their toddler legs. We once had two littles in tow with a stroller for walks on the campus. Can that really be thirty years ago? The calendar confirms it, yet it does not seem possible. We are doting grandparents now, but when we came back here in 1993 when Al was elected president, we were parents to four-year-old Katie and one-year-old Christopher.
I vividly remember many things about those first days here, even as other events now run together. Aiding my memory is the detailed journal I kept from when Katie was born until Christopher started school. While at times burdensome to keep up, mixed among the schedules and the seemingly unimportant details are many milestones and references to the adorable things kids say and do, along with my musings on events from those early years. This journal reminds me of events I had completely forgotten about and would not believe if I did not see them in my own handwriting. I have particularly enjoyed reading through those entries now in 2023.
As I reflect on the occasion of our three decades here, I do so first with gratitude to the Lord for what he has done and then with amazement that I am blessed to be part of the story. The backstory is familiar to some of how we were living in suburban Atlanta when the presidential search committee at Southern Seminary began their work to nominate a new president. My dear 33-year-old husband was on the short list. This process coincided with the long days when our precious baby boy had colic and our toddler daughter was trying to figure out how to navigate a life of sharing her parents with this little baby who seemed to be quite unhappy. I was exhausted and in retrospect did not think it was likely that we would move back to Louisville less than four years after Al had completed his PhD. at the beloved seminary where we spent the first six years of our marriage. But it became clear very quickly the Lord had other plans.
After meeting with Al, the search committee responded that he “completely blew them away.” The search committee met the next day, and here is a direct quote from my journal as to what one trustee told me: “We met at 2:00 pm to discuss our plans. At 2:01 pm, it was apparent that we had a unanimous decision. Each member of the committee was excited to share a Bible verse. It was the same verse: ‘Let no one despise you for your youth.’ (I Tim 4:12).” Another trustee observed, “studies of institutions reveal that long-tenured administrations have the most significant influences on the school.” With a 33-year-old president, there was a potential for a record-long tenure, and with that, the age issue was answered.
The committee, who had previously announced it would wait two weeks to make a decision, chose instead to make a lasting memory for us. The chairman called Al the next day as they knew we were still in the area visiting family and said, “There is a question that has come up, and we need you to answer it. I am confident you can address it. We would like you and Mary to come back up here for dinner.” I had one dress suitable for an interview with me so I had no choice but to borrow a dress from my mother-in-law. We returned for dinner with no idea what the question could be. Al’s gaze was riveted on the chairman as he does not like surprises and was eager to answer the committee’s question. In a rare moment, I saw what was coming first, as I noticed many wives pulling out cameras. The question was simply this: “Will you accept the unanimous nomination of this committee to be the ninth president of Southern Seminary?” And so it began. We had the joy of telling both sets of parents in person. What a whirlwind! But I remember that day, February 19, 1993 like it was yesterday.
The four of us made our first trip to the campus on April 6 after the full board met in Atlanta on March 26 and elected Al as president. We stayed at the Guest House, which is now the Foundation House. We had a family photo taken on the porch of the Guest House and went to have a tour of what would be our new home. I attended a student forum in the chapel that gave me a little taste of the hostility that was to come. I described it in my journal simply as “infuriating.” So we returned to Atlanta to get our house on the market and started saying our goodbyes to friends and church members. We moved to Louisville on Memorial Day weekend after some very frustrated movers finally finished packing up “all of those books.” Those who had to unload them on the other end were no less frustrated.
Since we knew almost no one in Louisville at this point, the seminary arranged for students to come and babysit at the house while we worked on the massive task of unpacking and setting up the house, even as several rooms were thankfully well furnished for the many seminary events we would soon begin to host. We learned later that some of those students were not pleased we were there, but ignorance was bliss. We were grateful to have the summer to figure things out before the busy fall, with the arrival of new students, new faculty, new trustees, and the inauguration all looming large. We celebrated our tenth anniversary that summer and marveled at how the Lord had blessed us from our newlywed home in Fuller Hall just ten years prior to a new calling in the President’s Home with two precious children.
During that summer, we would take breaks and go to the campus for walks as we sought to get to know faculty and students. Our youth was an asset, given the amount of energy needed for the tasks at hand, but we certainly seemed to blend in more with the student families than the faculty. On one memorable occasion, several families approached us rather timidly and said quietly, “We are glad you are here. We believe in what you are doing.” I remember being happy to hear that but amazed at the reluctance to speak up and say so boldly. They were clearly in the minority and knew it.
Over the course of the next several years, we faced many difficult days as my husband courageously carried out the task of recovering faithfulness at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, fulfilling all that he brilliantly outlined to the search committee. I know he shielded me by not recounting many mean-spirited attacks, but I could certainly see the toll it was taking on him. I am beyond grateful for the lack of internet in those days. No tweets. No blog posts. No Facebook groups. We resolved to continue to prioritize our family and took great joy in playing with our kids and going on outings with them, knowing they were completely clueless about what was happening across the street. We have shared in the past how five-year-old Katie once slipped a note under a closed door while we were discussing the latest crisis. The note simply said, “I love you.” Thankfully, she perceptively knew how we were protecting her from hurt that she could detect in our faces, but she communicated her love in the best way she could. How kind the Lord is to allow such memories to prevail while the distasteful memories continue to fade.
Those dark days slowly gave way to brighter days as the Lord began to bring to Southern new students and key new faculty members—who brought with them precious families with whom we could link arms. Friendships were forged that continue to this day for us and our now grown children. The painful experiences of protests, sitins, boycotted faculty Christmas parties, rude graduates crossing the stage, and more all now seem unthinkable. Some of those new faculty wives joined me in starting Seminary Wives Institute, where we have trained student wives for over 25 years and counting.
We have seen the Lord do a marvelous work in recovering faithfulness and returning Southern Seminary to its roots as the Bible is fervently taught as the infallible and inerrant Word of God. Against the naysayers’ predictions, student housing is full and families flock to our campus. Boyce College is thriving. We have the thrill of seeing the children of some of our first graduates from the Mohler era return to where they were once pushed in strollers and now sit in classrooms, many meeting future spouses! God is so good.
Al and I will celebrate forty years of marriage this summer. Not long ago, we couldn’t well imagine being forty years old. Praise the Lord for his provision in allowing us to be healthy as we continue to do the work set before us—which is admittedly different than it was in 1993.
I hope this does not appear to be self-serving, but no one could be prouder of the work my husband has done here than I am. What an honor it is to walk beside him and watch him use his amazing intellect and unprecedented work ethic. I have seen the Lord bring Galatians 6:9 to fruition in his work: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” There were many times, perhaps some of which are known only to me, when it would have been easier to “give up” and go do something else. Those thoughts were fleeting. The Lord sustained him, and we do have the joy of reaping the harvest. It is stunning to think about the over fifteen thousand graduates who have earned degrees from Southern Seminary and Boyce College since 1993. How humbling to consider how many thousands of couples and young families this includes who are now serving in a myriad of capacities as they take the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ locally and to the ends of the earth.
They have been educated through the diligent work of our stellar faculty, who passionately love the Lord and his Word as they teach without reservation the truth once for all delivered to the saints. Every time we see those happy families pushing their strollers, our hearts swell with joy as our mission here is confirmed yet again. God is faithful. Soli Deo Gloria!