Every message has at least two parts: content and delivery. Delivery becomes especially important when the content of a message is not what the recipient is hoping for, or when previous interactions have been difficult.
So while the Board of Trustees of Erskine College & Theological Seminary voted last week that it would not alter its charter or bylaws to provide a mechanism for its sponsoring denomination to remove trustees, Board Chairman Joe Patrick, the trustees and Erskine President Dr. David Norman are working hard to ensure that message is delivered with the same respect and genuine hope for continued peaceful dialogue with which the request was made.
The request originated with the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church last June. Norman, Patrick, and several other Erskine trustees were present at that meeting to receive the request and supported the tone of it. “I support both the tone of the request and the tone of the response,” Norman noted, “because this is a conversation. We need to keep a productive conversation going.”
Erskine Board Chairman Joe Patrick then formed an ad hoc committee in August to study the relevant background and formulate a recommended response. Greenville attorney David Conner, who was appointed to the Erskine board by the ARP Synod in June of 2010, chaired the committee. Other trustees serving on the committee included Vice Chair Bill Cain; Ray Cameron, a 1985 seminary graduate; Andy Lewis, a 1997 college graduate and a 2002 graduate of the seminary; current ARP Moderator Andy Putnam, a 1991 seminary graduate; Moderator-elect Steve Suits; and Ann Marie Tribble, a 1985 graduate of the college.
Rather than being seen as a repudiation of the ARP Synod’s request, Erskine’s trustees instead hope to demonstrate the lengths to which they have gone to ensure this was a thoughtful, well-studied and respectful response to a sincere request by the ARP church. Patrick and others have emphasized that the response is based on extensive research, much prayer and a genuine concern for the long-term best interests of both Erskine and the ARP Synod.
Bill Cain, one of the trustees who served on the committee, noted the humility with which the entire process was conducted, saying, “never was there an anti-Synod mentality by anyone.”
Crosland Stuart, who serves on the board’s Advancement Committee emphasized, “this [response] does not represent an agenda to separate Erskine from the denomination. Rather, this reflects a Board of Trustees who have wrestled with what is in the best interest of the institution. [This decision] was made precisely because this kind of separation is necessary to safeguard Erskine’s mission, the primary responsibility with which the Synod has charged the Trustees.”
The content of the response is an 18-page paper provided to the trustees last week in advance of their meetings February 16-17. Trustees were encouraged to share their questions and concerns with one another during the week prior to the meetings. While there were differing opinions expressed in emails and discussions, no official minority report was requested from or presented to either the ad hoc committee or the full board. The full response was then presented in detail, discussed, and ultimately affirmed as the board’s formal response to Synod by more than a two-thirds majority of the trustees on Friday.
The way in which the response was researched, presented and deliberated was given as much care as the content itself. According to one trustee, “The thoughtful, deliberative, and thorough process that governed this ad hoc committee was inescapable and credible for all of us who read the report and were a part of the Board discussions on Thursday evening and Friday morning.”
The Thursday evening session began with comments from Board Chairman Joe Patrick, who reminded the board, “Erskine and the ARP have been woven together in a strong strand for almost 175 years, which can continue to be woven into a beautiful tapestry of God’s work if Erskine and the ARP will not fight each other and continue listening, loving and serving each other.”
Patrick also expressed his desire that the generally quiet environment of the months since Synod 2011 continue, allowing Erskine and Synod time to “work together to fully understand each other’s concerns as we seek to clarify and settle questions about the relationship between Erskine and the ARP.”
He further encouraged all those involved in leading and caring for Erskine to turn away from man-centered tactics to gain control, and seek Gospel-centered approaches to loving and serving. “At the same time,” Patrick told board members, “Erskine must continue to find biblically and academically excellent ways to uphold its high calling as expressed in its mission statement.”
(Read more of Joe Patrick’s comments here.)
After Patrick’s devotional, David Conner gave a presentation on the work of the committee, which had begun immediately after its formation in August 2011. Shortly after their first meeting they publicly expressed their intention to seek God’s guidance as they “pursued a thorough review of the issues, including gathering input from constituency groups and authorities.” Those groups would come to include representatives from Synod, the alumni association board, faculty, and student leaders among others.
During the fall of 2011, the committee reviewed documentation regarding Erskine’s charter, General Synod documents including its “Statement of the Philosophy of Christian Higher Education”, and other relevant historical documents. Conner notes that of particular interest to the committee were past Charter changes made by both Erskine and Synod specifically to ensure Erskine’s continued accreditation.
The committee, either as a whole or members of it, met with consultants from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) as well as the school’s two primary accrediting bodies, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS) and the Association for Theological Schools (ATS).
In discussions prior to the committee’s review, some who advocated a process whereby Synod could remove trustees referenced colleges that were thought to allow trustee removal by their sponsoring denomination. The committee’s in-depth study of the bylaws of those schools revealed that was not the case.
Additionally, both CCCU and ATS representatives confirmed they were aware of no other accredited schools at which a sponsoring denomination is allowed to remove board members.
There were also significant discussions regarding the potential impact on academic freedom and trustee independence, according to Conner. The committee identified these areas as crucial to the board’s responsibility and authority to accomplish the institution’s purposes.
One other concern for the committee as it studied the implications of changing its charter and bylaws in the manner requested was the issue of ascending liability that could potentially expose Synod to additional legal or financial obligations.
When it came to defining the desired relationship between Erskine and the ARP, Conner notes the emphasis was on maintaining that historic and extremely important relationship while exercising the board’s fiduciary obligations to the school.
“Perhaps the most important discussions,” said Conner, “involved making certain the message of deep gratitude to the General Synod for its care and concern for Erskine was accurately and sincerely conveyed, while at the same time conveying that the request made by the General Synod was not in Erskine’s (or the General Synod’s) best interests.”
Stuart addressed the tension some trustees felt in dealing with such a sensitive issue, acknowledging the risk that the response “may seem disloyal to the denomination that we all love. The reality is that this vote does represent our loyalty to the ARP because we are fulfilling our responsibilities the Synod has given us, namely to do what is best to preserve the mission of the institution. What is in the best interest of keeping the mission intact has to be what is best for the Synod as well.”
Conner’s presentation of the report Thursday evening was followed by significant informal discussion. The session concluded late in the evening with what he and others have described as a powerful and meaningful season of prayer among the board members.
Stuart summarized the discussions both on Thursday evening and in the formal meeting Friday prior to the vote as “healthy, long, and civil dialogue about these matters.”
After the board meeting, Conner noted, several board members indicated appreciation for the better understanding they had gained of the historical and unique relationship between the Institution and the denomination, and particularly of the trustees’ fiduciary obligations to the fulfillment of the mission of the institution and other legal and necessary distinctions.
As one member of the committee reflected, he left Synod in 2011 thinking that he had to figure out a way to make an official procedure by which Synod could remove trustees happen. But after studying all of the evidence, considering the consequences to both Synod and Erskine, and gaining a better understanding of the terminology of the documents, he was in agreement that this response was best for Erskine and the ARP Church.
In an email this week, Joe Patrick sent a copy of the response document to the elders and ministers of the ARP Church, from which delegates will be present at Synod. Erskine plans to release the response later this week.
The ARP Synod will be able to formally receive the response when it meets in June. Between now and then, says Conner, “the board is committed to making every effort to help members of the General Synod better understand its action. To every extent possible, presentations regarding the details of the response will be made to presbyteries and other interested groups prior to the General Synod meeting.”