The path that led to Southwest Baptist University’s accreditation woes in many ways started just across the street. Yet, this weekend the school in Bolivar, Missouri, will partner with that neighboring church — Southern Hills Baptist Church — for a conference already sparking controversy and plans for a protest.
The conference on Saturday (Feb. 19) — “The Gender Choice: Whose Is it?” — will feature presentations from leaders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a group formed in 1987 to promote a “complementarian” view of gender that defines men and women as holding complimentary but different roles in marriage, family, and churches. Those espousing this perspective restrict women from many ministry roles and insist on male leadership in families. The alternative perspective of “egalitarianism” argues women and men are created equal.
The speakers at Saturday’s event will include CBMW President Denny Burk, who is also a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate school in Louisville, Kentucky. Burk and another CBMW leader who will speak at the conference, Colin Smothers, were criticized earlier this month for “despicable” attacks on Beth Allison Barr, author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth. Burk will also preach at Southern Hills on Sunday and in SBU’s chapel on Monday.
“We are also excited to partner with Southwest Baptist University for this event,” Southern Hills pastor Ted Bachman told the Missouri Baptist Convention’s publication. “We are thankful for Dr. [Rick] Melson’s leadership at SBU and his desire to provide biblical clarity and direction on these issues in higher education. This type of unapologetic commitment on gender and gender roles at the university level sets SBU apart as an institution committed to moving towards a biblical worldview in all academic disciplines.”
Such compliments from the neighboring Baptist church have been rare during the three-year conflict over power and theology at SBU. The controversies led to SBU’s accrediting body placing the school on probation in November — a status that will continue for two years. And much of that controversy occurred because of actions by the leadership of Southern Hills.
The conflict first erupted publicly in December 2018 when religion professor Clint Bass appealed his firing for violating the faculty handbook. Bass, an elder at Southern Hills, had allegedly been meeting with MBC leaders and pastors as part of an effort to force out other religion professors. Bachman had joined Bass in the effort. Bass leveled attacks against various Baptist churches — including First Baptist in Bolivar — and other institutions like Word&Way.
When the SBU’s trustees upheld Bass’s firing by then-President Eric Turner, the board also censured and excluded one of its trustees for violating the board’s conflict of interest policy in Bass’s case. That trustee was Kyle Lee, a fellow elder with Bass at Southern Hills. Then in October of 2019, the board voted to officially remove Lee as a member, though MBC leaders argued the board lacked such legal authority.
Lee had come on the board while Bachman served on the MBC’s Nominating Committee. The process employed by Bachman and his fellow committee members soon sparked animosity at MBC meetings. Ahead of the 2019 MBC annual meeting, SBU’s board publicly complained about the MBC’s committee. Then at the MBC annual meeting, Turner criticized the Nominating Committee for rejecting SBU’s slate of nominees in violation of the written rules, historic practices, and how other institutions were treated that year. At the end of his SBU report, three Southern Hills members went to the microphones to ask critical questions attacking Turner and some religion professors. Supporters of Bass also passed out anonymous fliers attacking SBU at the meeting.
In 2020, Lee returned to the board, which adopted new governing documents that MBC leaders had demanded. The new documents would create creedal requirements for professors and administrators, name the MBC as sole corporate member, and declare SBU trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the MBC. The new creedal requirements for religion professors, the president, and the provost included affirming two statements created by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Danvers Statement of 1988 focuses on defining roles for men and women according to complementarianism. The Nashville Statement of 2017 focuses on issues of sexuality as it condemns homosexuality, transgender identity, and sexual activity outside of marriage.
The new governing documents, however, quickly sparked problems. Russell Jackson, an SBU alum, filed a complaint with SBU’s accrediting body to raise concerns about the governing documents. The ensuing investigation led to the school’s probation status. Meanwhile, Lee and other trustees used the new governing documents — including the CBMW statements — to target professors for denials of tenure or promotion. This action was also cited by the accrediting body as a reason for the school’s probation.
The governing articles never even went into effect because a Baptist layman in Bolivar, an SBU professor, and an SBU student filed court motions to intervene in the process — and a judge ruled in their favor on July 1, 2021.
The next month, SBU trustees met to consider the preliminary, nonpublic report from their accrediting body regarding the investigation into Jackson’s complaint. The trustees voted to withdraw their governing articles. Additionally, Lee, who had become the board’s vice chair, resigned from the board. Those actions, however, proved too little, too late to stop the probation decision that officially came in the final, public report from the investigation.
The trustees in August also voted to name Rick Melson the new SBU president following Turner’s resignation amid his conflict with the new board members Bachman had helped nominate. Melson, who has a history at controversy-plagued institutions, tried in November to spin the probation decision as minor.
But as he did so in an emergency faculty meeting on the day the probation decision was announced, he was pressed by a faculty member about the unresolved issues with the church across the street. Melson acknowledged that “there is some history with individuals of particular churches,” but quickly pivoted to urge the faculty to “remain as a family in unity.” Noting that “a car has a windshield and a rearview mirror,” Melson told faculty he has put those issues “in my rearview mirror.”
“Let’s give everyone the benefit of the doubt as we move forward. Let’s trust people,” he added.
As Melson moves forward in partnering with Southern Hills, several faculty members the church’s leaders helped push out are still in the rearview mirror.
For those looking through their windshield as they head to Southern Hills for Saturday’s conference, they’ll likely see demonstrators protesting the event. Individuals plan to gather on the sidewalk to “remind the LGBTQ+ community of Bolivar that they are loved, welcomed, and celebrated.” People will meet at a local Episcopal church to make signs before heading over to “spread joy and love” as they stand on a sidewalk between Southern Hills and SBU.