Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson was removed Wednesday from his job as president of his seminary amid a backlash from thousands of women, but that doesn’t mean his role in the Southern Baptist Convention is over. Patterson is still set to deliver the high-profile sermon at the convention’s annual meeting, which is expected to draw thousands to Dallas next month, and that prospect has alarmed many Southern Baptists, who fear it could send the wrong message to women.
Patterson was chosen as this year’s sermon preacher during last year’s annual meeting in Phoenix by about 5,000 Southern Baptists who were there. The only way he will not preach the sermon this year is if he personally withdraws or if “messengers” — delegates appointed by Southern Baptist churches — vote for him not to give the sermon. Messengers can make a motion on the first day of the meeting, which is June 12. Patterson is set to preach the next day.
Patterson has sent notices to some groups that were scheduled to have him speak in the future, saying he is willing to step away if it would harm their ministries, according to Ed Stetzer, a highly connected Southern Baptist who is also the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Stetzer said he hopes Patterson will also back down from giving the sermon at the convention.
“If he speaks at the convention, the incalculable damage of the last few weeks will be exponentially magnified,” Stetzer wrote in a statement to The Washington Post. Stetzer said that he hopes Patterson will step away but that if he doesn’t, a motion calling for him to step down will probably pass. Charles Patrick, a spokesman for the seminary, did not respond to requests on Saturday and Sunday for comment on whether Patterson still plans to give the sermon.
Although the board removed him as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, he was made president emeritus on Tuesday, will receive compensation and has the option of living as “theologian-in-residence” at the seminary’s new Baptist Heritage Center. A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Patterson is revered among many Southern Baptists for his role in directing the convention in a more conservative direction decades ago. The convention, which falls under the evangelical umbrella, is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with about 15 million members.
In recent weeks, Patterson has faced backlash for recorded remarks he made between 2000 and 2014 about women, including commenting on a teenage girl’s body. He also said that women who are abused almost always should stay with their husbands. Thousands of Southern Baptist women petitioned the seminary’s board of trustees to remove him, and he later apologized for his comments about the teenager but not those about abused women.
It appears that Southwestern’s board did not consider Patterson’s handling of a 2003 alleged rape at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., as a key factor in its decision to remove him as president. The chairman of the board at Southwestern, Kevin Ueckert, said in an email to The Post that the board’s focus was on Southwestern but declined to say whether events at Southeastern were discussed.
A woman contacted The Post to say that she was raped while a student at Southeastern in 2003, when Patterson was president there. The woman has said that after the incident, Patterson told her not to go to police and instead encouraged her to forgive her alleged assailant, who was her boyfriend at the time. A seminary student who was the boyfriend’s roommate told The Post that the woman shared with him details of her allegations shortly after she said the incident had occurred.
The alleged incident was also mentioned in a letter to the woman from the dean of students in 2003 in which she was informed that she would be put on probation for two years for visiting a male student in his dorm against school rules. Her alleged assailant, who was never charged with a crime and did not respond to requests for comment, was expelled. The Post has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual assault. Patterson and Southwestern’s spokesman have not replied to repeated requests for comment about her allegations.
The woman said she was shocked that Patterson was treated so generously by Southwestern’s board of trustees given his taped comments about a teenage girl’s body and women’s appearances and her own allegations regarding Patterson’s response, which were published by The Post the morning of the board meeting.
The woman said that while conservative Christians can still hold true to a theology that suggests women look to men for leadership in the home and in the church, “they can value and respect women in a different way that Paige Patterson has not.”
The woman had initially considered coming forward at the June 12 meeting and making a motion to remove Patterson as the one who gives a sermon, which was first reported by Southern Baptist blogger Wade Burleson in a tweet on Friday. But the woman told The Post on Saturday that she had decided against going to Dallas and had decided to forgive Patterson.
After 13 hours of deliberations that went into the early hours of Wednesday morning, the seminary’s board vaguely cited a “direction of new leadership” because of challenges related to the seminary’s “enrollment, financial, leadership and institutional identity” as reasons for Patterson’s removal, without mentioning any specific incidents concerning women.
The board’s statement released to the media on Wednesday said, “Evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse,” but it did not identify specific incidents. And on Thursday, Ueckert said in a statement to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “As part of this, Dr. Paige Patterson’s legal counsel shared confidential details related to a specific incident of assault, which included reporting the matter to law officials.”
However, Ueckert did not state what incident he was talking about, according to the Star-Telegram.
In a statement to The Post, Ueckert said both statements were referring to another incident raised in 2015 at Southwestern in Texas, not the woman’s allegations regarding Patterson’s response at Southeastern in North Carolina in 2003. However, the seminary had not released the details of that incident before its earlier statement, and it is unclear who raised that incident for consideration. When asked how the 2015 incident arose, Ueckert responded, “We have no more news to share.”
“Your focus has been about both Southeastern and Southwestern, which I fully appreciate and respect,” Ueckert said in an email. “Our focus at the Board meeting, however, was” Southwestern.
That incident, he said in an email, was referencing allegations made in August 2015 by a female Southwestern student against a male student. “The police were involved and met with the individual making the allegations,” he said.
A former Southwestern security officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works in Southern Baptist ministry and feared putting his job in jeopardy, confirmed the allegations. He said a female student claimed she was raped but later recanted her accusation, saying she was upset at her boyfriend, who had broken up with her. He said that the woman had gone to Patterson directly and that Patterson reported it to campus security, after which campus security took it to police.
In an email to The Post, Ueckert declined to respond to questions regarding the alleged assault at Southeastern and whether the details were discussed at the trustee meeting.
“I do not believe we have enough information to definitively comment on the allegations pertaining to Southeastern that were being reported as the Board was meeting,” he said in an email.