Amid doctrinal concerns, 2023 SBC Ministry Report reveals sharp declines in seminary enrollment 

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June 5, 2023

By Collin M. Hain

Over recent years, conservative Southern Baptists have voiced wide concern over the leftward drift of several Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) seminaries. These concerns, many of which are outlined in the Conservative Baptist Network’s recently published Evidences, have gone largely unanswered by the institutions’ leadership. The 2023 Ministry Report published by the Executive Committee (EC) of the SBC seemingly echoes the concerns of Southern Baptists through sharp student enrollment declines and financial concerns.

Each year, the Executive Committee posts the annual Ministry Report, a collection of reports from the 12 entities owned by the Convention. The report includes a note from each entity president, responses to ministry inquiries, their goals and accomplishments from the previous year, and financial statements. The six SBC seminaries include student enrollment data.

This year’s report marks overall declines in SBC seminary enrollment, a 20.8% academic year-over-year drop in SBC full-time equivalent (FTE) student count.

Summary of SBC FTE Enrollment Changes for Academic Years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, as reported in the 2022 and 2023 Ministry Reports:

Brad Jurkovich, pastor of First Baptist Bossier in Bossier City, La., and spokesperson for the Network, says the role seminaries play in the Southern Baptist family is of utmost importance.  

“When I attended Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1995-2000, we experienced an incredible move of God in a thriving spiritual climate, evangelism, and numerical growth. This was in stark contrast to earlier years where there were leaders who were teaching things contrary to Scripture, or simply doubting the sufficiency and inerrancy of God’s Word,” Jurkovich said. “Our Southern Baptist seminaries are vital to the health and strength of our churches, missions, and overall evangelistic efforts throughout the world. What is taught in our seminaries will immediately affect the pulpits of our churches. If we are teaching anything that embraces or affirms unbiblical ideologies, we cannot expect God to bless that.

“When our seminaries affirm the sufficiency of Scripture and reject unbiblical ideologies and cultural whims, then that is when our Southern Baptist seminaries can flourish and stay strong. People are looking for clarity and conviction. Our Southern Baptist seminaries ought to be leading the way in doctrinal conviction and courage.”

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS)

Suffering the sharpest decline, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary saw a 39.8% decrease in SBC FTE enrollment. In his presidential letter included in the 2023 Ministry Report, Danny Akin, Southeastern’s president, reported new degree programs and large preview day turnout.

“We recently had the largest College and Seminary Preview Days on our campus in our history,” said Akin.

Yet, the school reported 763 students for academic year 2021-2022, down from 1,268 in 2020-2021. 

Among concerns raised by some Southern Baptists is Southeastern’s embrace of Critical Race Theory. In 2018, Akin appeared in a video produced with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission titled “What do White Christians Need to be Mindful of When Speaking out about Racial Reconciliation?” He said,

White Christians need to learn, above all things, I think to be good listeners. Over the last several years, as I’ve tried to help build a culture for racial reconciliation and kingdom diversity, which is a core value of Southeastern Seminary, I’ve come to understand more and more that my perspective is not the perspective of my African-American brothers and sisters, or my Hispanic brothers and sisters, [or] my Asian brothers and sisters. They really do see life differently; they’re operating out of a different paradigm, a different context that’s very different than mine. And I didn’t really realize that until I stopped talking and began to listen. So I think one of the things that white evangelicals, in particular, have got to do is become better listeners. In addition to that, we have got to be willing to surrender power, which is again not indigenous to our nature. As I often say, not only do we need to invite ethnic minorities into our room and to have a seat at the table, we even need to be willing to surrender leadership at the table if we’re really going to make progress and really help our brothers and sisters understand we see them on an equal plane with ourselves.

Walter Strickland, associate vice president for Kingdom Diversity Initiatives and assistant professor of systematic and contextual theology at Southeastern, also serves as associate research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. In an interview with the New York Times in October 2018, Strickland said the following about James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology,

Dr. Cone allowed me to see a new vista, a new space, a new avenue to allow the gospel to be made manifest. So, I sort of look at what the gospel is doing as a more broad reality now. Not that I’ve switched the spiritual for the physical or the social, but both.”

Strickland later admitted to teaching Cone’s ideas, saying,

While Cone’s ideas are in play, I don’t mention him by name, because I don’t want to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in their way… If I’m able to demonstrate that this black man in front of them has read the Bible, I gain credit with them.

Consternation over the softening of positions on LGBTQ issues were heightened with Southeastern’s 2020 hiring of Karen Swallow Prior as research professor of English and Christianity and culture. In a June 14, 2018 tweet, Prior said, “I signed the Nashville Statement and believe all sinners can be Christians. I also endorse the ReVoice conference. This makes me a target for extremists on both sides.” 

ReVoice’s mission statement says, “Revoice exists to support and encourage Christians who are sexual minorities so they can flourish in historic Christian traditions.” The organization’s website also says, “We hope that every LGBTQ+ person experiences the love of Jesus and a community that loves and supports them on their faith journey.” 

On March 20, 2023, Prior announced in a tweet that she would resign from SEBTS at the end of the academic semester, citing differing visions “for carrying out the Great Commission.”

Additionally, at its 2022 spring graduation, SEBTS awarded a female student the Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry degree, which the school describes as an introduction “to the knowledge and skills central to the work of pastors through classes in pastoral ministry, discipleship, counseling, and Bible exposition.” 

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS)

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s 2021-2022 SBC FTE enrollment was reported as 793, a 29.5% decrease from 2020-2021’s report of 1,126 students. Southwestern Seminary’s recent years have been marked by multiple leadership shifts, financial instability, and deteriorating clarity regarding the seminary’s mission and theological positions.

Though inerrancy has long been a term Baptists have used positively to describe a commitment to trusting in the veracity and authority of Scripture, now former president Adam Greenway seemed to distance himself from the term in comments for a 2019 Baptist Standard article (later reposted by Baptist Press).

“For some, that language [inerrancy] became politically weaponized and personally problematic,” Greenway told the Baptist Standard.

Greenway resigned from his position as president in October 2022.

Another issue raising concern among some Southern Baptists in regard to Southwestern Semianry is the promotion of standpoint epistemology in the classroom. Jeffrey Bingham, former interim president, former dean of theology, and current occupant of the Jesse Hendley Chair of Biblical Theology, had this to say in a Fall 2019 class (emphasis added):

There is no objective person in this classroom. You all have prejudices, you are all predisposed, all of you are wearing a pair of spectacles and that pair of spectacles is influenced by the tradition you embrace, your family, it’s influenced by the culture you come from, it’s influenced by your experiences and endless other items, which is why I ultimately have no hope in private Bible reading. Uh, I can’t believe I said that. But let me go ahead and say it again in case you didn’t catch it the first time. Ultimately, I have no ultimate hope for private Bible reading. Now I encourage private Bible reading. I exhort you to read your Bible privately. I encourage you to practice a personal devotional time. But, ultimately, my hope is for Bible reading that is done in the community, by the community. … See, you don’t want me to universalize on my own, the Bible reading that I do privately. Because the Bible reading that I do privately emphasizes particular prejudices and particular predispositions.

Bingham went on to explain that his Americanism, his maleness, and his whiteness taints his interpretation of Scripture. 

On April 18, 2023, the SWBTS Board of Trustees named David S. Dockery as the institution’s 10th president and O.S. Hawkins as chancellor, a move praised by many conservative Southern Baptists.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS)

Softening on LGBTQ positions is among concerns at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Preaching a message entitled “Aftermath: Ministering in a Post-Marriage Culture” at the 2014 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission national conference, “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” SBTS President Albert Mohler said,

Now early in this controversy I felt it quite necessary, in order to make clear the Gospel, to deny anything like a sexual orientation, and speaking at an event for the National Association of Evangelicals twenty-something years ago, I made that point. I repent of that. I believe that a biblical theological understanding, a robust biblical theological understanding would point to us that human sexual effective profiles of who we are sexually is far more deeply rooted than the will if that were so easy.

The embrace of Critical Race Theory is another concern. During the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Ala., Curtis Woods, then a professor at SBTS, presented Resolution 9, which describes Critical Race Theory as “a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society,” and Intersectionality as “the study of how different personal characteristics overlap and inform one’s experience.” The Convention adopted the resolution in the last hours of the final session of the Annual Meeting.

In the course of preparing to be nominated for the SBC presidency, Mohler later joined the Council of Seminary Presidents in releasing a statement publicly opposing Critical Race Theory, reaffirming “with eagerness the Baptist Faith & Message as the doctrinal statement that unites and defines Southern Baptist cooperation and establishes the confessional unity of our Convention.”

Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern, participated in a panel entitled “Ethnic Harmony and the Holy Spirit” at Bethlehem College and Seminary’s Pastors’ Conference in 2018. During the event, Williams said:

When we think about white supremacy, it’s not only the overt, violent expressions that you see on the television. In Charlottesville, for example. But white supremacy is an ideological construct that believes that whiteness is superior to non-whiteness. So then, how this shows up, in part, is it shows up in curriculum. Right? I’m a seminary professor, and in theological education, you’re hard-pressed to find many evangelical institutions that have a regular requirement of black and brown authors. And often, what happens is whiteness becomes the standard by which all good theology is judged. You understand what I’m saying? So that if it’s right theology, it’s written by a white scholar who is contextualizing that theology for white audiences. And so one of the things we see is, and hear this very, very carefully. There’s racism by intent, and there’s racism by consequence. You can have racism operating in a context where is [sic] there are no individual racists. And that, in part, is the way in which white supremacy works, in a socially sophisticated way. When you have whiteness as the priority and when folks work and operate in such a way with curriculum, with economics, or with policies to maintain and to posture and to privilege that whiteness and then to require those who are non-white to culturally colonize to whiteness. So then we think about reconciliation and ethnic hostility; the solution is not more black and brown faces in white spaces who colonize to whiteness. The solution is fundamentally, yes, the gospel, the cross, the resurrection, right? The blood of Jesus. But also dethroning white supremacy in all of the forms in which it shows up in Christian spaces, folks. Because when Jesus died to disarm those principalities and powers, one of those principalities and powers, I would argue, is white supremacy and all that it entails. So feel that tonight. White supremacy’s not just violence or KKK or lynchings. It is also the belief, directly or indirectly, that whiteness is rightness, and everything has to be judged by that.

Matthew Hall, the former dean of Boyce College at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (2016-2019), former provost and senior vice president of academic administration at SBTS (2019-2022), and former research fellow for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (2014-2022), was the guest of the Coffee and Cream podcast on July 15, 2018. In the podcast, Matthew Hall speaks to the racial reconciliation he believes is needed in the Southern Baptist Convention. Toward the end of the video Matthew Hall says:

I am a racist, okay, so if that freaks you out, if you think the worst thing somebody can call you is a racist, then you’re not thinking biblically, because guess what, like, I’m gonna struggle with racism and white supremacy until the day I die and get my glorified body and in a completely renewed and sanctified mind. Because I am immersed in a culture where I benefit from racism all the time.

Matthew Hall was appointed provost and senior vice president of Biola University in July 2022.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) 

Like other SBC seminaries, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary also reported a steep decline in student enrollment. The school marked 867 FTE students for academic year 2021-2022, down from 1,145 the previous year. 

In a December 2022 letter included in the report to the EC, NOBTS President, Jamie Dew, celebrated recent campus renovations, including those in the newly named Fred Luter, Jr. Student Center as well as the school’s primary dining space, Landrum Hall, and student housing. 

“These are challenging days for institutions like ours, but we believe these investments will allow us to serve our students well in the coming days,” Dew wrote in the letter included. “Like similar institutions we are fighting the headwinds of economic, demographic, and cultural shifts that make the work of recruitment that much more challenging. However, we are grateful that we are able to report growth in many of our programs and look forward to continued growth in the days ahead.”

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS)

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary reported a 3.5 percent growth in FTE enrollment, the largest gain of all seminaries. The seminary has defied the years-long trend of SBC seminary enrollment decline. Midwestern President Jason Allen, in this year’s Ministry Report, celebrated 10 consecutive years of record enrollment.

“Though there are likely numerous reasons for our continued growth, one important reason is our faculty,” Allen said in the report. “Each faculty member is strong in their conviction to adhere to God’s Word, to Southern Baptist beliefs, and to train a new generation of pastors, ministers, and missionaries.” 

Gateway Seminary

As one of two seminaries that reported growth, Gateway Seminary saw a 0.6 percent year-over-year growth in FTE enrollment. Jeff Iorg, the seminary’s president, emphasized commitment to their mission, despite the political climate of the west coast. Iorg said in the Ministry Report, “Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention continues to fulfill our mission of shaping leaders who expand God’s kingdom around the world. We have done this, like many of you in the past year, while facing political turmoil, international conflicts, and rampant inflation. God has sustained us through it all!”

Read the full Ministry Report here.