End of an Era–Paige Patterson Rides into the Sunset

The Paige Patterson era finally came to a conclusion–not in the President’s office of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he served for the last twelve years, not in the pulpit of one of the thousands of Southern Baptist churches where he preached through his storied career, and not in one of the untold committee meetings he chaired through the decades as he directed the denomination he loved so much.


It ended instead at today’s last session of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual convention.


I won’t go into all the events, rumors and decisions that led to Paige’s firing last month. You can find that complicated story reported in other places. It’s what came after that mattered.


The final chapter began when Florida pastor Thomas Hartley brought a motion to dismiss the executive committee of the Southwestern seminary’s board of trustees because, as he saw it, they acted in opposition to the larger board when they terminated Patterson on May 30.


In a manner only Southern Baptists understand, debate broke out on the floor and the moderator and parliamentarian had their hands full keeping the meeting in order. Finally, Texas pastor and member of the threatened executive committee Bart Barber spoke. His remarks were devastating to Hartley’s motion but it was Patterson’s reputation that really took a hit.


According to instances Barber documented in detail, Patterson had a track record of arrogance, duplicity and manipulation towards the trustees. He even refused to meet with them for months at a time. The executive committee’s decision to terminate him wasn’t the knee-jerk reaction to media pressure that Hartley’s motion claimed but the result of long and painful experience.


I’d never heard anything like this in a public business meeting. My first thought was that Barber would probably hear from Patterson’s lawyer before dinner. But the longer he spoke the more I realized that he wasn’t defaming Paige’s character so much as endorsing the authority of the board of trustees in carrying out their fiduciary responsibilities to the denomination. He concluded with a remarkable plea. “If you remove this executive committee for taking this action,” he said, “you’ll take the spine out of every board of trustees over every Southern Baptist institution.”


It was as if an adult walked into the room. The place erupted in applause and when the vote on the motion was taken a few minutes later I thought maybe 90% of the messengers were against it. When the moderator announced the motion’s  failure the majority jumped to their feet in a standing ovation. I believe they did so as much from relief that this sordid episode in SBC history was finally over as from enthusiasm over winning a critical vote.


I couldn’t help but to think it was yet another transitional moment in a convention filled with them already. Paige Patterson has been the most visible and powerful leader in our denomination for the last 30 years. It was inevitable that he and his colleagues soon would give way to the coming generation of leaders. But for his ministry to end like this, with a last futile gesture by his friends to try and salvage some scraps of his reputation with a misguided parliamentary maneuver, struck me as sad and pitiful.


We’re almost done here and I’m sitting in the last session right now. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is about to speak. He’s a rock star to many in our denomination (I’m a big fan) but reviled by many others. His presentation will probably get a lot of pushback. I can’t wait.


Thanks to the Dallas Morning News for the picture at top