May 5, 2003
We don't make up the news; we report what happens
___The report on the early "retirement" of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Ken Hemphill seems to have taken a life of its own.
___Three weeks ago, the Standard announced Hemphill's early "retirement" to become strategist for the Southern Baptist Convention's Empowering Kingdom Growth initiative. Hemphill said he would leave the Fort Worth seminary this summer to take the new post in Nashville, where he would be employed by the SBC Executive Committee and LifeWay Christian Resources.
___Two weeks ago, the Standard reported more about Hemphill's departure. The story quoted a former professor who said he and other seminary sources understood Hemphill had been called to a meeting in North Carolina, wh
ere he was told to resign or be fired. It also noted some SBC leaders reportedly helped broker a deal to allow Hemphill to stay until this year and also helped him move to the specially created position in Nashville.
The staff and board of directors of the Baptist Standard stand committed to reporting the important news that impacts Baptists and the kingdom of God.
___Last week, the Standard published a letter from Hemphill accusing this newspaper of printing "speculation that borders on libel." Hemphill's letter said he had not met with SBC leaders to discuss "a deal to remain at or leave Southwestern." It also said the North Carolina meeting involved three mentors who prayed about his desire to "move back to pastoral ministry." An editor's note explained that every assertion in the story Hemphill protested was directly attributed to a source or confirmed by a minimum of three knowledgeable sources. It also noted the Southwestern community lives under such fear of reprisal from seminary trustees and administration that few are willing to be quoted on the record by name.
___Shortly after that issue of the paper went to the printer, Baptist Press, the SBC's public relations arm, distributed a story quoting various SBC leaders. They claimed the Standard had published a story that was "patently a lie," "not even partially true" and "patently false."
___The four-page BP story buttressed Hemphill's assertion that SBC leaders had not met with him to discuss a deal to leave the seminary and denied that SBC leaders had met to broker a position for Hemphill in Nashville. The BP story also criticized the Standard for utilizing unnamed sources for its report on the background of Hemphill's departure. And at least three times, the BP story emphasized how Hemphill had considered leaving the seminary presidency to re-enter the "pastoral ministry" or the "pastoral role."
___To quote Shakespeare: "Methinks thee protesteth too much." Or, in the country vernacular, "The dog that yelps is the one you hit."
___Several issues stand out in BP's protest:
___First, despite the criticism of the Standard's use of unnamed sources, the assertion that Hemphill previously met with SBC leaders who told him to resign or be fired was attributed to a specific source. The Standard's article noted Lorin Cranford, a former Southwestern professor who now lives in North Carolina, said about a half-dozen sources closely related to the seminary confirmed such a meeting took place.
___The Standard's editors prefer not to quote unnamed sources. We realize specific names add credibility to any story. However, judicious use of unnamed sources sometimes is necessary in order to report the full story. This is true in the case of Southwestern, where faculty, staff and students fear the consequences of speaking publicly on the record. Even retired faculty have said they fear retirement benefits will be withheld if they speak out. If only one individual wished to speak anonymously, the Standard would not utilize that source. But in the case of the story about Hemphill's departure, each unattributed assertion was corroborated by three separate sources.
___Second, the BP protest downplayed the idea that a deal was brokered to provide Hemphill with another job. At least four times, the BP story denied Hemphill "met with" SBC leaders to work out an exit plan. This straw-man logic assumes the leaders had to actually meet with Hemphill to work out a plan.
___And how's this for a plan? Hemphill can "retire" a year before he's technically eligible to qualify for retirement benefits. To reach that requirement, the seminary agrees to pay his salary for that year, freeing him to leave and to take the Empowering Kingdom Growth job at no salary cost to his new employers, the Executive Committee and LifeWay Christian Resources. This arrangement should be quite interesting to Texas Baptists, who have been accused in recent years of not providing enough financial support to Southwestern. The seminary can afford to pay a presidential salary for an ex-president who lives in Tennessee and, presumably, also pay his successor.
___Third, the BP story emphasized that Hemphill's stated desire over the past few years was to re-enter the pastoral ministry. How does that assertion--implicitly a criticism of the Standard for tacitly questioning his motives for leaving the seminary--reconcile with the fact he actually left the seminary for a denominational promotion job?
___As has been stated at about this spot on this page before, I know most of you are tired of reading about denominational conflict and controversy. We're tired of reporting it. However, the staff and board of directors of the Baptist Standard stand committed to reporting the important news that impacts Baptists and the kingdom of God. The truth is that Hemphill has had a hard way to go with a number of Southwestern's trustees for several years. He's naturally affable and congenial, personality traits that mitigate against a hard shift to the right, which is what many trustees wanted. So, Hemphill's departure was not all sweetness and light. That story is not enjoyable to tell, but it's a story Baptists have a right to know.
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