Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Kenneth Starr, New President of Baylor University.

It has not been a quiet week in the world of American Baptism. Monday's announcement that Kenneth Starr - yes that Kenneth Starr - will be the new president of the largest Baptist University in America has been met with resounding disapproval by Baptists high and low in the church hierarchy.

David Wilkinson writes exaperatedly today at Associated Baptist Press, where he is executive director:

Last year Baptists worldwide celebrated their 400th birthday. Now, a few months later, the board of the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning has elected the first not-now, never-been-a-Baptist president in Baylor’s 165-year history.

Whatever your opinion about the regents’ latest choice, it’s at least ironic. Out of 105 million Baptists worldwide, Baylor’s presidential search committee and board of regents could not find a solitary soul deemed worthy of occupying the chief executive’s office in Waco. Assuming the search was limited to the United States, nowhere among thousands of Baptist pastors -- even among those with a Ph.D. and previous leadership experience in higher education -- could a qualified candidate be found. Nowhere among Baylor’s 14,000 alumni or among the tens of thousands of alumni of other Baptist colleges and universities did a Baptist with the right leadership qualities and the right portfolio of experience rise to the top of the resume stack. Upon no one among the chief academic and executive officers of 48 Southern Baptist-affiliated colleges and universities -- the presidents, the deans and provosts, and all the vice presidents of this and that -- did the light of God’s chosen fall. Not even in the broader arena of all American higher education could a lone Baptist employed by a non-Baptist university be found -- not a member of a non-Baptist church or a church of Baptist heritage that has opted not to use “Baptist” in its name; not a current non-Baptist but the product of a Baptist education; not even a former Baptist (as was the case with Starr’s immediate predecessor) or a wannabe or wouldabeen Baptist with a strong, self-proclaimed affinity for the Baptist heritage. None was found worthy. No not one.

The state of Baptist leadership in America must be sadder than I thought.

Find Baylor's selection somewhat ironic? Wilkinson tells us that the whole story is even more so. Starr and his wife have decide to convert from their long-time membership in the Churches of Christ (baptism is necessary for salvation) to Baptism (baptism not necessary for salvation) before he is sworn in as the university's new president. Yes, Starr's not even Baptist. Couldn't the university simply "welcome his commitment to embrace the university’s distinctive heritage as a Baptist institution while remaining true to his own faith tradition, and move on?" Apparently not. Instead his timely conversion seem manipulated and showy.

As to the other meaningful tasks ahead of him, Starr explains in a recent interview:

“Our great mediator is Christ Jesus, our Lord,” he added, affirming the individual’s right and responsibility to relate directly to God, as well as Baptists’ non-hierarchical view of divine relationship that reflects those principles.

“We have been given gifts of reason to seek to discern biblical truth and then to exercise our conscience,” he said. And this manifestation of soul competency results in “the precious, almost quintessentially American but deeply Baptist, commitment to the separation of church and state.”

Asked about his feelings for Baylor’s J.M. Dawson Institute, which historically has championed church-state separation, Starr said Baylor should be a leader in affecting culture. “Baylor is particularly situated to reflect on the growth of the central government” and to grapple with questions regarding the role and relationship of religious institutions to the state and to individuals within the state, he said.

Acknowledging he will have a lot to learn from his fellow Texas Baptists, Starr affirmed his commitment to Baylor’s strong, historic relationship to the BGCT.

For its part, Baylor can contribute to the strength of Texas Baptists by training young people to be strong people of faith throughout their lifetimes.

This should begin with freshman orientation, with a lesson on the Baptist principles that led Texas Baptists to found the university 165 years ago, he explained. Baylor should teach students to develop a “moral sense of connection to this cloud of witnesses who have gone before, to what led them to found this Baptist university that has had a global impact.”

Starr also affirmed Baptists for their historic commitment to establish institutions that minister to “the least” of society. That commitment continually manifests itself in “current, active, purposeful engagement ... through all avenues of Baptist life, pouring themselves into kingdom service.” During the administrations of Starr’s two immediate predecessors -- Robert Sloan and John Lilley -- the “Baylor family” sharply divided over the university’s nature and future.

The president can make an impact on the future and the relationships of Baylor’s constituencies through his style of leadership, Starr said.

“It’s the duty of a servant leader to take seriously the Baylor mission of the creation and fostering of a caring community,” he said. “We are in fellowship with one another in common cause, and each voice needs to be listened to with dignity and respect.”

That he's exactly the right person to espouse separation of church and state, end division and exercise dignity and respect is hard to believe. At least Pepperdine Law School, where Starr has been employed, won't get kicked around any more.

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