UPDATE: The Rome News-Tribune ran a story nine years ago which runs parallel to this one.
The motto that so many Shorter College students saw every day was Lux Veritas – Light and Truth. As Save Our Shorter grows, more and more individuals are sharing their stories with us – shining light into the dark places and telling the truth about what is happening on The Hill. We are humbled and grateful to Dr. Larry Burgess for his willingness to share Light and Truth with the Save Our Shorter community.
A SHORTER ALUM AND FORMER TRUSTEE SHARES HIS REFLECTIONS WITH HIS SHORTER ALUM DAUGHTER…
I graduated from Shorter College in 1970, in the same class as Dr. Wayne Dempsey, who was Vice President of the college during later years when I served as a trustee under the presidency of Dr. Edward Schrader. I was taught in seminary by Dr. Larry McSwain, who would become President of Shorter prior to Dr. Schrader. I have loved Shorter from the first day I set foot on the campus in the sixties. I was thrilled when our daughter, Joanna, chose Shorter! She graduated with highest honors in Theatre in 2006.
I have served on church staff and have been pastor of churches in Kentucky, Florida, and Georgia, including seven wonderful years [1978-1985] at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, Rome, GA. I have always seen myself as right of center politically and theologically. I held out hope through 42 years of ministry in Southern Baptist churches that the Baptist tent was large enough to include and welcome those who were left of me and right of me in theology and politics. I often warned churches in which I served that we must avoid being “more southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.” That is, loving Jesus and faithfully serving Him was our first and highest calling. We must not allow regional peculiarities or denominational distinctives to get in the way of faithfulness to Jesus. It is my conviction that words like “Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, etc.” are adjectives, not nouns. The noun is “Christian.” Some of us are “Baptist Christians” and some are “Presbyterian Christians” and so on. But first we are Christians—sold out to Jesus— and what we share in Jesus is more important than anything we differ about. The Apostle Paul risked his life to avoid there being two churches—“a Jewish Christian Church and a Gentile Christian Church.” He would cringe at what we have done since!
Dear friends whom I cherish and respect, including some with whom I studied at Shorter, decided years ago that the Southern Baptist tent was becoming an increasingly intolerant tent, a tent in which issues previously left up to local church autonomy would become issues on which churches and individuals would be forced to “toe the line” or be excluded. Those friends and many others chose to pursue alliance with the Moderate Movement in Southern Baptist life. I did not choose to go that route. I continued hopeful that a day would come when people who had nothing more in common than Jesus would be able to serve and thrive together under the Southern Baptist banner. That day has not come as yet, and I confess that I may be naïve to believe it ever will. However, I continue to pray for that day!
In life’s pilgrimage, one of the assignments that came my way was to serve as Trustee of Shorter. Only God knew what those years of trustee service would include. If I had known in advance, I may not have agreed to serve. Allow me to share some history which causes me to make such a statement: SACS examines each accredited school on a periodic basis, to reaffirm accreditation. In the SACS report prior to Dr. Schrader becoming President, a concern was expressed that the Trustees of Shorter were vulnerable to undue, excessive influence from an external body. The external body named was the Georgia Baptist Convention. SACS insists that a Board of Trustees be independent and autonomous, free to act in the best interest of the school. The SACS Report did not call for any action. It simply expressed the concern.
When Dr. Schrader became President, the time came for another SACS reaffirmation. Each time such a SACS review occurs, SACS appoints a different group of educators and administrators to thoroughly examine everything about the school which pertains to accreditation. That is, the group that expressed the earlier concern was NOT the same group who did the review under Dr. Schrader’s tenure. They did, however, read the earlier report, as is customary. After reading the earlier report, the team doing the review asked Dr. Schrader if anything had happened since the last review which would either affirm or deny the concern expressed. It so happens that a few weeks before Dr. Schrader was asked the question, he had met with a Douglasville pastor who had called him asking for an appointment. They shared a meal at a Cracker Barrel on I-75 on the north side of Atlanta. The pastor, quite prominent in the Georgia Baptist Convention, was very critical of Shorter. He said the whole religion faculty should be replaced. He criticized Shorter for being too liberal, too “Moderate.” He was quite confrontational and it was clear he intended to see radical changes made at Shorter. Admittedly, I was not in the meeting at Cracker Barrel. However, Dr. Schrader shared news of the meeting with the Trustees, and he and I had several conversations about the meeting. We even shared a meal at the same Cracker Barrel and talked about the earlier encounter. Events since those conversations have only served to prove to me the accuracy of Dr. Schrader’s reports.
The next significant development was the election of Shorter Trustees at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Throughout the history of the college, the process had included suggestions being sent by the college to the Nominating Committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Each year, twice as many suggestions would be sent as there were vacancies to fill. That is, the Nominating Committee of the convention had a list twice as long as necessary, from which they chose the candidates whom they considered to be the best choices, and those candidates were then nominated to fill the vacancies on the board. For the first time in history, all the suggestions from the college were rejected and a slate of replacement Trustees was elected by the convention. Some of those rejected had a long relationship with Shorter and some had even served well as Trustees in the past. The replacement slate was obviously representative of the most conservative element of the convention, for whom the Douglasville pastor had been a spokesperson in the meeting with Dr. Schrader.
Then came the first meeting of the Trustees after the convention elected the replacement slate. One of the replacement trustees spoke eloquently of his embarrassment at the treatment our President received at the hands of the Douglasville pastor. He said that the pastor from Douglasville was only speaking for himself and did not speak for anyone at the convention. It was further claimed that he had “no constituency,” that he was a lone voice expressing only his one-man opinion. I was in the meeting. The replacement trustee promised that he and others would welcome steps to prevent such a threatening confrontation from happening again. He also insisted that the SACS concern was not valid and that we needed to do everything within our power to maintain relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention. I spoke against our taking any action in that meeting concerning Shorter’s relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention, as I thought it was too early to tell what shape that relationship would take in the new context in which we were serving. Action was delayed/tabled.
Then came shocking news! A few weeks after the meeting described in the previous paragraph, I and others received news that the Douglasville pastor had just been elected as the next Chairman of the Nominating Committee of the Georgia Baptist Convention. That is, the very man who had so crudely confronted Dr. Schrader had now been rewarded for what he had done, and he would lead the very group who decided who gets nominated for any trustee position in the future, not just of Shorter but of all Georgia Baptist institutions. He obviously was not acting and speaking only for himself. He obviously did “have a constituency,” a powerful and calculating constituency who was now putting him in an extremely influential and powerful position. He in fact was being recognized and rewarded for the confrontation with Dr. Schrader. I realized that the promises made in the previous Trustee meeting were either intentionally misleading or totally ignorant. I felt betrayed, because I had so wanted to believe what was said by the replacement trustee. I later shared a parable with the trustees at the meeting in which we voted to break with the Georgia Baptist Convention. The parable is original with me and was not shared with anyone before the meeting, not even with Dr. Schrader. THE PARABLE—Imagine that you are in your house and it is set afire by an arsonist. At the moment that your house is burning, well-dressed, articulate, convincing representatives from the fire department enter your house and tell you, “Do not worry about this arsonist. We know how to deal with his kind. He is acting alone, is an independent fire-brand, and we are embarrassed that you are going through this. We will handle this and it will not happen again.” However, some time passes and not only is your house still burning, but those same well-dressed, articulate representatives of the fire department return to your house to reveal to you that the arsonist has just been named Fire Chief. When you protest, they respond that upon further reflection, they are convinced that the arsonist is in fact a fair and just man, and he will certainly do a good job with his new assignment. As the old saying goes, “I was born at night, but not last night!” I see representatives who are still well-dressed and articulate, but THEY ARE NO LONGER CONVINCING!
Next, SACS gave the Trustees a deadline to take action, that the autonomy of the Board would be assured. If we did not take action, SACS threatened putting Shorter on probation, a step short of losing accreditation. Such a threat was quite sobering. I called Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which had lost accreditation in 2002, to ask them how serious the matter was. They had 2,500 students in 2002. When I called, they were down to 300 students. Enrollment figures from the internet for 2009— 240 students. It was obvious to me that if Shorter were put on probation or were to lose accreditation, Shorter would be in the same terrible predicament as Morris Brown. LET THE NUMBERS SINK IN—2,500 DOWN TO 300 AND THEN DOWN TO 240!
The Trustees proposed a compromise to the Georgia Baptist Convention, which SACS agreed to accept if approved by both bodies [i.e. the Shorter Board and the Georgia Baptist Convention]. The compromise called for a meeting each year of representatives from the college and from the convention. Before the meeting, each of the two bodies would come up with a list of proposed Trustees. In the meeting, the representatives would stay however long they had to stay in order to sort through the suggestions from both bodies and come up with an approved list, double the number needed for that year. Then that list would be presented to the Nominating Committee of the Convention, and they would choose the half to actually nominate for election at the annual meeting of the Convention. The Trustees approved the compromise. The Georgia Baptist Convention did NOT approve. They claimed the compromise would force them to surrender autonomy. I personally called the Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and I pointed out that we were dealing with three bodies, each of which claimed autonomy—Shorter Trustees, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and SACS. If we were to continue to have relationship with each other, some measure of autonomy had to be relinquished, as is true in any relationship of equals. To this day, I do not see how the compromise would have resulted in relinquishment of essential autonomy by the Convention. They would have still made the final election of all Trustees. But the compromise was rejected and thus we still faced the SACS threat.
A very interesting vignette occurred about this time. Those of us who were perceived to not be supportive of the Convention received a letter from the Convention’s lawyers asking for a list of all our assets [bank accounts, investments, houses, retirement accounts, etc.] The letter said we may be held financially accountable if the Convention lost Shorter. The threat was also spoken in a Trustee Meeting by one of the Convention-friendly Trustees. This scenario was a breach of ethics in at least two ways— As soon as a person or entity secures legal representation in a dispute, it is considered a breach of legal ethics for the lawyers to try to contact the litigants directly. The contacts must be made through the lawyers. Thankfully, to my knowledge, no Trustee submitted to the request for financial info. Again, remember, the Convention CLAIMED that they always left Trustees free to carry out their jobs as they felt led. No undue influence, no threats, no pressure.  Trustees are legally empowered to lead and represent a college as they feel led, and they are protected from liability and reprisal unless they are guilty of serious dereliction of duty. The threat from the Convention lawyers was totally inappropriate. I know of no Trustee who sided with the Convention who has suffered reprisal. My family personally suffered reprisal, including my wife being fired from her position with the Georgia Baptist Convention, though all involved admitted that she had done a remarkable job in her assignment. She was fired due to a “conflict of interest,” identified as her being married to a Trustee who had not sided with the Convention. She was then replaced by the wife of one of the men who voted to fire her, and that was not considered a “conflict of interest.”
SACS gave the Trustees a final deadline of December 31 of that year to take satisfactory action to assure autonomy of the Trustees. Thus, we were led to the fateful vote to break ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention, which was actually two votes. The Executive Committee of the Trustees made two recommendations to the Trustees— To remain a Baptist school but to break ties with the Georgia Baptist Convention;  To take all legal action necessary to gain access to funds held in the Georgia Baptist Foundation which had been given specifically for Shorter College [i.e. to take the Georgia Baptist Convention to court to recover the designated funds]. I voted YES with a heavy heart on the first recommendation, as I was convicted that my first responsibility as a Trustee was not to the Convention but to Shorter, to protect the integrity/strength of the school [and to prevent the repeat of the Morris Brown experience]. I voted with a heavy heart as I had hoped for a resolution which would maintain the relationship between the school and the convention, and I felt that I had done everything I could to accomplish that but had been unsuccessful. I voted NO on the second recommendation, due to my conviction that I Corinthians 6:1-8 prohibits lawsuits between Christians. I knew Shorter needed the money in question, but I was convicted that my greater responsibility was to honor the Scripture and trust God to provide the necessary funding for the college. THE FIRST VOTE PASSED BY A MARGIN OF ABOUT 19 TO 11. I CANNOT REMEMBER THE EXACT NUMBERS. WHAT SHOCKED ME IS THAT THE SECOND VOTE PASSED BY A CONSIDERABLY LARGER MARGIN, ABOUT 24 TO 6. I WAS ESPECIALLY CONFUSED AFTER THE MEETING WHEN I DISCOVERED THAT FIVE OF US VOTED THE SAME WAY I DID, “YES” ON THE FIRST VOTE AND “NO” ON THE SECOND VOTE. THAT SAID TO ME THAT THE SECOND VOTE SHOULD HAVE FAILED. THE 19 “YES” WOULD HAVE BECOME 14, AND THE 11 “NO” WOULD HAVE BECOME 16—A VOTE OF 14 YES AND 16 NO. THE EXACT NUMBERS MAY BE WRONG, BUT THE POINT REMAINS—HOW COULD THE SECOND VOTE EXCEED THE FIRST VOTE, WHEN I KNOW OF FIVE WHO VOTED NO ON THE SECOND RECOMMENDATION BUT WHO HAD VOTED YES ON THE FIRST ONE? I REMAINED PUZZLED UNTIL A FEW WEEKS LATER.
During those weeks, the now independent Board of Trustees had elected a new slate of Trustees, including some who were not Baptist but in my judgment were excellent choices. By a large majority, the Board was still predominantly Baptist. The Georgia Baptist Convention rejected the validity of the election of the new Trustees, and they selected their own slate of Trustees [who were not recognized by Shorter]. We were at a predictable impasse!
The court case began, with the Convention claiming that they were only in court because Shorter had fired the first volley with our vote to take them to court. I read an article in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution which made that very claim. The claim was also made in “The Christian Index,” the newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Technically, they were right, but I still knew something was strange, perhaps even wrong, about the second vote. I again called the Executive Director of the Convention and suggested that if we honored the Scriptures we both said we believed, we would not be in court. I had talked with Dr. Schrader before I made the call. He gave me permission to suggest a “solution” to the litigation over the money. The suggestion was to have the college and the convention appoint representatives, give them the power of binding arbitration, and then those two groups would meet until they came up with an agreement as to what would be done with the funds in question. My suggestion was summarily rejected by the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director, with a reminder that “the convention was only in court because Shorter forced the issue.”
It was also during those first weeks after the Trustee vote to separate from the Georgia Baptist Convention that I discovered from multiple sources, including one Trustee who sided with the Convention, that there had been separate meetings going on for some time of the Trustees who sided with the Convention. They were meeting regularly and were sworn to absolute secrecy about the existence and content of those meetings. FINALLY, MY PUZZLEMENT MENTIONED ABOVE, BEGAN TO CLEAR UP. Remember, the Convention claimed all along that they NEVER sought to control how Trustees functioned. They claimed to have NEVER done anything to make SACS question the independence and autonomy of the Trustees. They said they simply elected them and let them do their job. I WONDER NOW HOW THEY MADE AND CONTINUE TO MAKE THAT CLAIM WITH A STRAIGHT FACE!
During this period, I spoke with a pastor who strongly sided with the Convention. I had been told that he was offended by me, and I called seeking understanding and reconciliation. However, I found him to be the most unreasonable person with whom I have ever spoken. He told me that my only role as a Trustee was to support the Convention. My guess is that SACS would disagree. He also asked if my daughter had received any scholarship money from Shorter. I told him she had, as she had a 4.0 average in high school and very deservedly received a scholarship. He accused me of selling my vote for a scholarship. That conversation did not go well! I concluded the conversation by saying, “I have one God to Whom I answer, and his name is not Fred! This conversation is done!”
BUT BACK TO THE MAIN ISSUE. I REALIZED, AS I REFLECTED ON ALL THIS, WHAT HAD HAPPENED IN THE CRUCIAL TRUSTEE VOTE. THE CONVENTION-FRIENDLY TRUSTEES HAD BEEN INSTRUCTED IN PRIVATE MEETINGS IN ATLANTA THAT IF THEY LOST THE FIRST VOTE, THEN VOTE “YES” ON THE SECOND VOTE, SO AS TO ASSURE THAT THE CONVENTION COULD CLAIM THEY WERE ONLY IN COURT BECAUSE “SHORTER HAD FORCED THE ISSUE. WE DID NOT TAKE SHORTER TO COURT. THEY TOOK US TO COURT.” I HAD THIS CONVERSATION WITH THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CONVENTION. HE DID NOT DENY WHAT I HAD CONCLUDED. HE, OF COURSE, DID NOT ADMIT IT. BUT HE NEVER DENIED IT. I HAVE MADE THE SAME CLAIM TO SEVERAL PEOPLE WHO SIDED WITH THE CONVENTION AND ARE IN THE KNOW. NOT ONE HAS DENIED MY CLAIM.
One clarification. I was close to Dr. Schrader. We met fairly often. He asked me for advice on a variety of issues. He NEVER EVEN ONCE told me how to vote on anything, and he NEVER EVEN ONCE asked me to consider voting in any particular way. I know that my “NO” vote on the second issue was not what he would have preferred. I voted out of personal conviction, nothing more and nothing less, which is what I understand the role of a Trustee to be. Furthermore, there were no separate meetings of Trustees favorable to the college’s position. We NEVER met separately and we were NEVER instructed in anyway how to vote on anything.
Several years have passed. And there is much more to a long story, much of which I do not claim to understand. I do know more than I wish I knew about retribution toward those of us who did not side with the Convention. The convention won in court, by one vote in the Georgia Supreme Court. If just one justice had voted differently, Shorter would have won. But we lost, and now you who are presently fighting for your convictions know the contemporary story better than do I. I am no longer “in the loop,” but I certainly understand something of what you who are “in the loop” feel. My prayers go with you!!!
Rev. Larry T. Burgess
Shorter College, Class of 1970
Former Trustee, Shorter College