Against the Shepherds: What I Want to Say to Myself (and You)

I never really planned to write more on this blog; I established this site because I needed space to make a statement. I made it and really didn’t feel I had a whole lot more to say. However, I recently learned that Paige Patterson, despite being dismissed from his position at Soutwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), has found a new platform. He will be co-teaching a course in Christian Ethics at Southern Evangelical Seminary. This comes at a cultural moment when women speaking out about what they’ve experienced has had mixed results, and I know a lot of you are feeling what I’m feeling, and not just about Patterson, but also about a host of people working hard to protect powerful men from the newfound power of the collective voices of women.

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For those of you reading this more from connection to me than concerns about Southern Baptist life, here is a recap of just a handful of the accusations that have been leveled against Paige Patterson:

  • Mishandled Megan Lively’s report of rape at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) (where he was then president) in 2003 by, among other things, saying in an internal email that he wanted to get her alone to “break her down” and did not report the rape to civil authorities
  • Lied in response to a direct question from the SWBTS Board of Trustees about his handling of the 2003 rape case
  • Engaged in a variety of insubordinate behaviors in an attempt to maintain control over SWBTS and oust Trustees who might hold him accountable for the management of the finances of the institution
  • Advised battered women to stay with their abusive husbands and endure beatings and said in 2000 he had said “I’m very happy” to one woman who told him that advice was why she had two black eyes
  • Told a student at SWBTS that it was a “good thing” she had been raped in 2013, allowed her assailant to remain on campus, and threatened legal action against her mother for questioning this
  • Sexually objectifed a 16-year-old girl as a sermon illustration in 2014, which was recorded on video, and further implied that harassment of girls and women was, bizarrely, a righteous act because it was an appreciation of the handiwork of God
  • Fired Nathan Montgomery and revoked his financial aid in 2018 for tweeting a link to a Christianity Today article that was critical of Patterson’s comments about spousal abuse
  • Took 50 boxes of material from the archives at SEBTS in 2003 without authorization
  • Instructed employees to disregard established admissions policies to “bump up the numbers” even if that meant disregarding federal law and jeopardizing the institution’s accreditation
  • Ostentatiously lived a lavish lifestyle at the expense of SWBTS while cutting programs for students and laying off many employees because of financial strain
  • Had a stained glass window made of himself and installed it in the SWBTS chapel in 2015, said chapel built at a cost of tens of millions of dollars while cutting programs and laying off staff (see above)
  • Told Sheri Klouda her job was secure in 2003, then fired her in 2006 because he didn’t want women teaching in the School of Theology
  • Body shamed women in sermons
  • Refused to even meet with any of the 44 women who said they had been sexually harassed and abused by a former student who he continued to highly recommend to churches as a pastor (Darrell Gilyard)
  • Revoked a job offer after John Cornish wrote a blog post revealing that his wife had been married before to a physically abusive man, because Patterson would never consider hiring a divorced person or the spouse of someone who had previously been divorced under any circumstances

Many things about the times we’re living through seem like a perverse series of articles in The Onion. Most of the things in the list above are things people accused Patterson of with corroborating evidence; there is video or other documentation or Patterson doesn’t deny that they happened. Even so, someone at an evangelical seminary thought it was a good idea for Patterson to teach an ethics course to students training to be ministers.

It is noteworthy that this institution would hire someone to teach an ethics course who is not an ethicist. Patterson wrote his Th.D. dissertation on the soteriological views of John Leadley Dagg, a 19th-century American theologian, and as far as I’m aware has never produced any academic work in ethics (he did write a more academic commentary on Revelation, but his writings have primarily been devotional in nature). There are a great many more people much more academically qualified to teach an ethics course at an evangelical seminary than he is, so it seems to me he was chosen on purpose, to send a message to all of us who have protested about the things he has done and the environments he has created and the leadership he has exercised that we do not matter, that he is the only one who matters. We have heard this message before from many quarters, so it triggers a familiar feeling of powerless rage.

I need to tell you this, because I need to tell myself this. You matter. What has happened to you matters. If you have been abused, threatened, silenced, disregarded, and shamed, know this: You are not alone and it is not okay. You are also not powerless, because we are not powerless.

I keep thinking about a passage in Ezekiel.

Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…

Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds… (Ezekiel 34:2-5, 10)

We will struggle. We will be heard sometimes, and at other times we will not. There are battles we will fight against leaders (shepherds) who abuse their leadership. We will lose some of them. The shepherds may be living it up while the sheep suffer, but when they do, they do so without divine approval. They will tell you otherwise. Don’t be persuaded.

Faith can be hard to maintain in the face of these onslaughts–faith in God, in ourselves, in the people around us we need for support when we lack sufficient strength to handle things without them. It’s okay to struggle. We’re struggling together against these shepherds. And that–the power of our collective struggle–is the thing that gives me hope right now, even in the face of those working so hard to send us the message that we do not, we will not, matter to them. We don’t have to matter to them to matter. You matter to me. You’ve told me I matter to you. We matter to the God who is against abusive shepherds. We matter to each other. That is more than enough.

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Why the “Removal” of Paige Patterson Isn’t Enough

In 2007, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Theology (M.A.Th) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I went to SWBTS at the age of 22 with a fresh B.A. in hand. I’d gone to college in the same town where I grew up, and I’d been homeschooled well before most people knew there was such a thing as homeschooling. And now I was in another state, trying to make sense of how to navigate a new city alone. I had faith in Southern Baptists, though—a misplaced faith. I was sure it was going to be wonderful. I was unprepared for what my first semester, in the fall of 2004, had in store for me.

FSCN5881[1]This is a story that is only partly about Paige Patterson, whom many of us in my time at Southwestern considered a wholly unapologetic misogynist—and yes, I mean woman hater, not just a conservative man. This story is, in fact, mostly not about that. This is about the unrelentingly abusive environment women at SWBTS endured and the culture of silence that enabled and continues to enable it at SWBTS and other Southern Baptist institutions.

What I write below comes from my memory and the journals I kept as a student at Southwestern from 2004-2007.

On October 18, 2004, by the sheer grace of God I had a chance encounter with a woman I barely knew. We had both dated a student employed at Southwestern as a security guard. He was studying for his M.Div. with an intent to go into youth ministry. That evening, she and I had both been overcome by an irresistible impulse to go to the pond, despite trying to stay home and focus on other things.

Today, I would characterize my own experiences in the dating relationship as transgressions of boundaries, sexually inappropriate comments, and dishonesty that had resulted in my ultimate refusal to continue to see him. She brought the subject up to me and we exchanged stories. I had come to have serious concerns about him as a sexual predator and so had she. She lacked vocabulary for some of her experience. So did I. She told me about experiences far more serious and alarming than my own, which frightened me as they suggested what he might be capable of doing. I recognized patterns in his conduct toward both of us.

There were some other concerns. He had made unsettling comments to me, including one that stands out in my mind now as if it was yesterday: “You don’t understand. I can go anywhere I want on campus. I have access to every building. I have keys to every door. And I know where you live.” In context, this was about why I shouldn’t necessarily trust the the security guards, particularly another one who showed interest in me, and he used his own power as the reason, but given all that had transpired it made me especially fearful of him. He had also spoken of soon being allowed to carry a gun on patrol. He would call me when he didn’t notice my car in the parking lot outside Barnard Hall and demand to know where I’d been, or he’d call me if he saw me talking to another man to express his displeasure (and my peers were, after all, mostly men; despite programs that attracted many women to study at SWBTS, my classes in the School of Theology sometimes had me outnumbered by a 25-to-1 male to female ratio), or he’d call just to tell me he’d seen me on campus a few minutes ago. It made me feel I was being stalked. The other woman also had stories of behavior that had left her feeling threatened and unsafe.

While she and I talked in the gazebo, we were startled when he approached us in uniform and told us casually that he had intentionally bumped a pedestrian with the squad car when he was on patrol because he was annoyed with the person. I don’t remember anything else he said that night. But after he left us, sitting there together late at night in the gazebo, I turned to this woman I barely knew and asked her to come with me to meet with the chief of security. She agreed. The next morning, we spoke with a woman we knew had also been involved with the predator, but she declined to join us.

This is the part where I should pause to say that not everything about Southwestern was against me in that moment. I had previously had a few chats with the Chief because I had gone out with one of his security guards, and knew he was a kindly older man who’d retired from active duty on a police force some time ago. I felt comfortable, for some reason, starting there, in part because many of my concerns were related to the predatory man’s job—he should not, I thought, have access to every building, keys to every door, and access to a gun. That seemed like it was the most pressing thing. She agreed to go with me. And so we went, a day or so later, to talk to Southwestern’s chief of security.

It was an encouraging meeting. He reassured me that the predator did not actually have official access to a gun and would not be allowed to carry one. I had hope at that point and was naïve enough to think the ethics we were meant to uphold, our shared commitment to righteousness, would win the day. The Chief very clearly believed us, but said he would need to talk to the security guard in question. He then asked us if we would like to pursue disciplinary action to address his place on campus as a student as well; we said we did want to do that. He said he would approach the administration on our behalf.

The Chief then met with the predator. The Chief later told us that the predator’s initial response was to lie about everything, even to the point of claiming he’d never dated either one of us—a claim that the Chief knew was false because he’d already known me as someone who had dated the predator. But the Chief said he was used to this sort of thing and being a trained interrogator he had managed to extract a confession.

As quickly as he legally could, the Chief said, he’d fired the predator. I always felt he was on our side, that it seemed he actually believed in the duty he had as a Christian as well as the chief of security to protect us from harm. So at first, I felt safer.

Toward the end of October, we were summoned to an ethics hearing. The Chief also testified about his opinions of all of us as an interrogator—he was inclined to believe the accusers. The predator was never in the same room with us. But nonetheless, that was a traumatizing meeting. Before we spoke at all, a high level administrator told us that he wasn’t sure who should be subject to disciplinary action—the predator or us (for trying to harm the man). We were undeterred. We told our stories and demanded that they consider what a degree from Southwestern would mean—did SWBTS want to endorse such behavior in a youth minister?

The administrator said he would talk to the predator but that we would not be informed of the result. He warned us further that he knew we’d spoken to people “on and off campus” about our experiences and that we should stop immediately or else we would face disciplinary action.

The other woman was put on probation after the hearing, she later told me. Someone close to the proceedings later told me that the ethics committee then met with the predator and said they voted to expel him from SWBTS on the basis of dishonesty. I was troubled that it had not been on the basis of predatory behavior toward women.

My nightmare wasn’t over, however. My roommate and I were sitting a few rows back from the front in chapel that week when the predator and a group of men I didn’t know sat in the row behind me. It felt like an effort to intimidate me. He said, loudly and in my direction, that he had met with Paige Patterson and he’d been vindicated, because Dr. Patterson had exercised his authority to unilaterally reverse the decision of the ethics committee. He said, “Dr. Patterson said, ‘It’s not like you’re on drugs or anything. It’s just girls.’” He was not expelled, he said. He would continue his pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree. I wondered if the other men knew who I was.

I looked up at Paige Patterson, sitting less than 100 feet away from me on the chapel stage. He surely could see this, I thought, and must know who I was. I felt sure he could see that in addition to everything else, the predator was wholly unrepentant. It apparently did not matter. Some time later I discussed my disappointment with the situation with a professor whose response was that I was sinning by not accepting the decision of “those in authority over you.”

I believe a lay person rather than a minister or seminary professor did the more righteous thing in response to this turn of events. The Chief told me he’d told his entire squad to look out for me. They patrolled 24/7. It seemed as though wherever I went in that short span of time that the predator remained a student, a uniformed officer would walk up and say hello to me, just a friendly greeting, but it felt like more than that—a public warning, in a subtle way, that I was being watched over. It didn’t make me feel altogether safe at SWBTS—I never really did after that—but it mitigated a tiny bit of the harm, and reminded me that someone had believed me.

The predator left SWBTS not long after that, having been expelled again, a source close to the matter told me, because he refused to comply with the rules imposed by seminary housing. He was gone but my feeling of unease never left me, because after that I felt sure that no one was going to stand up for a woman at Southwestern.

Indeed, it felt like no one did. I was there when the last woman was fired as a professor in the School of Theology (Sheri Klouda, my Hebrew professor) on the stated basis that she was a woman; when Paige Patterson approached the pulpit after a female student in chapel had sung a solo and said it was good she’d worn a skirt down to her ankles or else nobody would have been able to think about anything but her body; when a member of the faculty told me he agreed that women weren’t being treated well at SWBTS but “I’m only a few years away from retirement and I don’t want to die on this hill;” when a man in one of my classes joked that sophia, the Greek word for wisdom, shouldn’t be in the feminine because “no woman is wise” and the instructor just shrugged and looked at me, the only woman in the room, with a kind of embarrassment but didn’t tell the student not to make such comments, or the rest of the class not to laugh at them; when a man laughed in my face because I was angry that another male student had sought me out to tell me that women and men are not equal in value; when a close friend was supposed to give a sermon in expository preaching class and the instructor told all the (male) students not to show up to hear it and sent his wife to take notes so he wouldn’t hear it either and graded her from that; I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed no one was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career, and I supposed these men had more fear of him than they did of the God they claimed to serve, or else they had sympathies with his misogyny and just weren’t as comfortable being quite as open about it to my face.

The best thing SWBTS did for me in those three years was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger. With that anger, I dedicated my masters thesis to a woman who’d been fired just before I got there, Karen Bullock, whom I’d initially hoped would supervise me, I saved up enough money to apply to graduate schools so far away from SWBTS that I’d practically have to fall in the ocean to put more distance between it and me, and I studied hard for the GRE, ensured I had the highest grades possible, and received generous offers of fellowships at multiple Ivy League institutions. I chose Princeton University, packed my things, moved to New Jersey, and thought I was free.

But I wasn’t really, because now I keep reading about the same sort of thing seemingly every day.

When I graduated from SWBTS in 2007, the faculty of the School of Theology voted for me as that year’s recipient of the Albert K. Venting, Jr. Memorial Award, given to the graduating student who demonstrates the highest levels of academic achievement, leadership, and potential for future ministry. I remember that at the time a member of the faculty explained, “You’ve been up for every award the seminary offers all along, but we weren’t allowed to give you any of them because you’re a woman.” I never won awards for Greek, Hebrew, church history, theology, or anything else, even though I had a 4.19 GPA. Another faculty member said, however, that Dr. Patterson, not wanting the faculty to award the institution’s highest honor to a woman even though he couldn’t stop them from giving this one to me because it was by majority vote, had created a new award (the President’s Award) which would supersede the Venting Award in prestige. The recipient, a man, had been hand selected by Patterson himself. I was unsure whether this was something Dr. Patterson had expressed to him or if it was speculation. It certainly fit my impressions of Dr. Patterson by that point, and there was such an award given in 2007. At the award ceremony, the only other woman to receive an award of any kind was the recipient of an award for women’s ministry. I don’t recall Dr. Patterson ever directly congratulating me on the award I won, though he was present at the ceremony.

Paige Patterson did sign the certificate for the Venting Award, but it had been printed without reference to leadership or ministry potential. Thus, I had a certificate signed by Dr. Patterson that congratulated me on my academic achievement alone, rather than all the award was supposed to be for. People told me, although I didn’t fully believe them, that I was all of those things, whether or not the certificate acknowledged them. I didn’t believe them because it is hard to believe much that is good about yourself after three years of spiritual battering.

I never sought to have a local church ministry; I pursued an academic course with the intent to work in higher education. I still consider that my primary calling. Nonetheless, I did lead and minister as well as earn my Princeton Ph.D. after I left Southwestern. I was an officer in a student ministry organization at Princeton. I led worship in church and on campus. I sang in a choir. I collected and distributed prayer lists. I managed the budgets. I organized events. I brought snacks. I celebrated birthdays. I founded a women’s prayer group. I hosted a commissioning event for a fellow student. I counseled younger women. I drove people to religious retreats in the mountains. I taught Sunday School. I took the Lord’s Supper (which you may know as Communion) to elderly shut ins. I gave presentations on religious history all over the U.S. I facilitated classroom discussions of quandaries in Christian ethics for Princeton undergraduates (both male and female), and at the end of my last semester received a rare honor from my preceptorial students—a round of applause that brought tears to my eyes as I thought of all Southwestern hadn’t thought I should do or be. I led Bible studies—with and without men in them—and preached sermons practically against my will, always turning down more invitations than I received and fleeing one church when I began to fear they were going to attempt to make me their pastor via surprise ordination. In all of this I felt wholly and painfully disconnected from my seminary; I feel very confident I will never turn up in Southwestern News.

But lately with all the news that has come out nationally, I have found myself mentally returning to Southwestern, to those angry and fearful times, and to that award at graduation in 2007. If you who were and are at Southwestern, who were and are affiliated with Southern Baptist life, do consider me a leader, then I implore you to follow me in calling for Paige Patterson’s full and actual removal from Southwestern’s campus and payroll and an eradication of the abusive culture that is so harmful to women in Southern Baptist seminaries. Follow the example of your own former chief of security. Believe the women. Take action against their abusers.

They can’t threaten me with disciplinary action to ensure my silence anymore. There is nothing Southwestern can do to me now. I would like to publicly apologize to any women who have suffered because I have kept this to myself for more than a decade. I do not blame myself, although I have had to learn to forgive myself. Forgiving a few of my seminary professors is a continual process that may take the rest of my natural life, but I am working on it; I can imagine, better than I could at the time, how much they felt they had at stake, especially the younger ones. In a way, I consider them victims of this culture, too, as they sought ways to avoid being put in situations that would violate their consciences while they also sought to protect their jobs and families in a very precarious industry. As I have reflected on this, I have also considered how silence harmed my relationships with a few of my seminary professors who, in retrospect, I believe would have done more if I’d talked with them about this. Many of my professors are likely to be shocked and alarmed by this story and will likely grieve with me over what has been lost. In my opinion, we have all been spiritually abused at SWBTS.

If you hold the faith that I would hope you would that it is better to stand for what is right even when it costs you something, please don’t make the mistake I made. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied into silence. Now is the time to tell the Board of Trustees and the Southern Baptist Convention that their action on May 23 was too little, too late. We await their repentance.