Trustees of SBTS affirm strategic plan, pledging continued faithfulness in the midst of COVID-19 crisis.
Meeting for the first time by digital technology, the Board of Trustees of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary held its annual Spring meeting on April 20 against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic. The board marked complete attendance and conducted its business understanding the historic nature of the meeting, said President R. Albert Mohler Jr. Mohler presented a strategic report to the trustees that highlighted the institution's responsibility to lead faithfully amidst the COVID-19 crisis and that, in Mohler’s words, underlined the administration’s “absolute determination to continue Southern Seminary’s legacy and mission with excellence and faithfulness long into the future.”
In his report to the trustees, Mohler noted that the seminary has demonstrated leadership and tenacity during times of crisis, from its founding in 1859 until today, through the Civil War, two World Wars, the 1918 pandemic, and the Great Depression. “Since 1859, Southern Baptists have turned to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for pastors, missionaries, and other servants of Christ.” It will continue faithfully training church leaders through the crisis presented by the coronavirus, said Mohler.
The scale of the crisis, Mohler said, compounds the pre-existing issues faced by American higher education. Financial pressures were already forcing big changes in the business models of universities and colleges, and the coronavirus is likely to accelerate the changes considerably.
The administration presented a budget and a revised business model that was premised on and anticipated those changes. Mohler noted that the business model will unfold over time and that it is focused on efficiency and commitments that will further enhance the seminary’s stewardship of the mission assigned to it by Southern Baptists.
“We’ll serve the convention better by adopting these new revisions to our structure,” Mohler said, “and we will continue to make our primary investment into our faculty and building that faculty for the future.”
The budget approved by the Board of Trustees for the upcoming year is set for a thirty-percent reduction in both revenue and expenditures. As Mohler explained, Southern Seminary has built a large residential enrollment that has now been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of early March, the Seminary and Boyce College had marked one of the largest on-campus enrollments in the history of theological education. “But, just a few weeks ago, we had to send our on-campus students home,” Mohler recalled. “The fact is that the COVID-19 crisis alters the financial landscape, and this is particularly true for higher education.” It is estimated that the non-profit sector of the U.S. economy will face a significant loss of revenue in the coming months. As Mohler said, the higher education sector will not escape that loss of revenue. In that scenario, the seminary aims to maximize its stewardship by making budgetary decisions now, rather than delaying to a future date.
“Our determination is to act responsibly now, so that Southern Seminary continues to lead in the Southern Baptist Convention, fulfilling the mission given to us since 1859 and emerging from this challenge even more faithful than we began.”
“Clearly, this new academic structure and the budgetary reduction will include some reduction in staffing and personnel. These are deadly serious times. We are facing a challenge that is without precedent for anyone living. It is taking a toll on our hearts, even as we understand the very same sense of seriousness and gravity that falls upon our churches, our state conventions, and our common work together. We certainly did not choose to experience this challenge, but the Lord has called us to faithfulness, even in the midst of this crisis and to serve Southern Baptists with everything we have and everything we are as we look to the future. Southern Baptists are in this together, and we will be faithful together.”
Chairman of the financial board, Rick Staab added, “The seminary faces an unprecedented challenge during this pandemic and economic shutdown."
“The effort to preserve the institution, whose primary mission is to train pastors to spread the gospel throughout the world, requires quick and decisive action. Under Dr. Mohler’s leadership the entire administration has taken bold steps to reduce costs, consolidate operations, and revise the annual budget, in an effort to position the institution for whatever the near future may demand. The financial board is unanimous in its support of Dr. Mohler and his staff, and we affirm the appropriateness and effectiveness of the actions taken to position the Seminary for the future recovery of normal operations.”
Online education will be central to continuing Southern’s mission of theological training going forward. The seminary began its online program twenty-five years ago and has invested significant capital into developing a robust online experience for the equipping of gospel servants, said Mohler. In light of the current crisis, with on-campus teaching and residential learning suspended, “we now know why that investment was so important,” he said.
Mohler pointed to the strength and size of Southern Seminary and Boyce College online programs, underlining the fact that the seminary’s programs of study are already available online and with years of institutional experience. “The same faculty that draws students to the campus, draws students online,” Mohler said. “Southern Seminary’s strength in online education is such that we are in a strong position to offer the same academic excellence online as on-campus, with all of our major degree programs and over 100 courses available online.”
In addition, Boyce College has added five new online degree options, including three joint baccalaureate and Master of Divinity programs, beginning fall 2020. The seminary already offers both the Master of Divinity and the Master of Arts in Theological Studies degrees online. This summer, students can take up to 75 classes online, including several live online courses.
The Board of Trustees authorized its financial board to approve adjusting the budget either upwards or downwards, given financial realities the seminary may face. One primary concern will be the question of when and how students can return to residence and instruction on college, university, and seminary campuses. Though the times require online learning, the seminary remains committed to in-person on-campus theological education. While the decision to reconvene on-campus study is in the hands of government authorities, Mohler made clear that Southern Seminary and Boyce College are “just as committed to on-campus theological education and worldview education as ever.”
“Our commitment to the on-campus program is unbroken and undiminished, but given the COVID-19 crisis on-campus programs of instruction are at this point on hold. We will be absolutely ready to welcome students back to the campus just as soon as we can, but the decision on that timing is out of our hands.”
In his report to the Board of Trustees, Mohler noted his confidence in the future of the Southern Baptist Convention and his confidence in the enduring generosity of Southern Baptists and the Convention’s on-going vision for missions, evangelism, church planting, and theological education, while acknowledging that every area of Baptist life is under stress and will continue to be so for some time. “We want to reduce that stress and not add to it,” Mohler said.
Responding to that stress, the trustees approved a fee structure for student costs that will significantly lower the cost of a student’s education. “Given financial realities,” Mohler said, “it has become clear that we will serve Southern Baptists best by lowering the costs for students with the goal not only to enable them to continue their theological education, but to do so understanding the changed circumstances many students, families, and churches will find themselves.
“We are lowering the cost to make the theological education that is trusted for truth even more accessible.”
During its meeting the board also elected Clint Pressley as the chairman of the board. Pressley is the senior pastor of Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he previously served as the first vice chairman of the board. John Montgomery, dean of spiritual life at California Baptist University in Riverside, California, and former second vice chairman, was elected the first vice chairman of the board. Nick Floyd, who serves as the senior pastor of Cross Church in Northwest Arkansas and who has been a trustee since 2012, was elected as second vice chairman. Louisville businessman Rick Staab will serve as the chairman of the financial board. Keith Daniels, businessman from Dallas, Texas, was re-elected as the board’s secretary. Trustees also adopted provisions to meet digitally, if required for future trustee board and executive committee meetings.