That Baptist shoe drops in Palm Beach

pod1The other shoe has dropped in West Palm Beach.

As I noted the other day, the leaders of the First Baptist Church of Palm Beach elected to try to stonewall reporter Jane Musgrave of the Palm Beach Post. Why? She was checking into rumors, reports and documents that suggested that the Rev. Steven Flockhart — the congregation’s new minister and a nationally known pulpit star — had some financial skeletons in his closet. That led to a lengthy report that, to my amazement, did a good job of quoting the young minister’s many admirers, as well as his critics.

However, I also predicted that this lock-it-down approach to media relations would backfire.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious.

Thus, Musgrave went back to the well and there was plenty to write about. As it turns out, Flockhart — whose evangelism website has now gone offline — seems to have done preliminary studies at the Pat Robertson School of Resume Writing. Actually, that may not be fair. The resume (the Post put in online as a PDF) is tiny and vague, as opposed to packed and padded.

Thus, the news from Palm Beach County is that Flockhart has resigned. There is no need to review all of the details in the newspaper’s lengthy second investigative piece that focused on Flockhart’s educational background. The bottom line is that the evangelist’s degrees came from the online Covington Seminary, a school that does not have much going for it on formal accreditation.

“This is one of those schools I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to,” said Rick Walston, author of Walston’s Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally.

Covington’s Web site says it is accredited by Accrediting Commission International. Once known as the International Accrediting Commission, it changed its name and moved to Beebee, Ark., after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to an article by John Bear, who has collaborated with Walston and has served as an expert witness on diploma mills and fake degrees.

The school’s downfall proved to be a sting operation in which it accredited a school set up by a Missouri assistant attorney general. To make his fake school as outrageous as possible, the state lawyer listed the Three Stooges and other TV characters as faculty members. The school motto, when translated from Latin, was: “Education is only for the birds.”

2005best 01So what happens now? This is certainly a tragic story for Flockhart and his family, although it seems that he has powerful friends who may be able to help him earn a real seminary degree and then return to the pulpit in one of the thousands of independent or almost independent Baptist churches in America.

But what happens now at the newspaper? Do not be surprised if Musgrave and her editors are already digging again, looking for more information about people with ties to Covington Seminary.

Why? There is a hint in the story, a hint about Flockhart’s powerful mentor — the Rev. Johnny M. Hunt, a leader on the Southern Baptist Convention’s right flank. The Post notes that Hunt recently withdrew from the race to be the next president of America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

That leads to this section of the story:

Flockhart said he was “licensed to preach” in 1986 by Rev. Hunt and ordained by Hunt in 1990. Hunt appeared via videotape at Flockhart’s first service at First Baptist last month and gave a ringing endorsement of his protege. Like Flockhart, he also lists a degree from Covington on his resume. It says he holds an honorary doctorate from the school.

An honorary degree means little or nothing. But stay tuned anyway, because this story may not be over yet.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    What a tragedy. I’m glad the reporter stayed on it. We don’t need [any more] phonies in the pulpit. I hope this teaches pulpit committees all over the denomination a lesson about checking credentials.

    This guy reminds me, in more ways than one, of a very popular local preacher who insisted on being addressed as “Dr. So-and-So” despite the fact that he’d never been to seminary and his only doctoral degrees were honorary. He moved on courtesy of the “build a massive church building, get a better call” program that (in part) drove me out of the denomination in disgust. (I do note, however, that his new megachurch’s website does not refer to him as “Dr.”)

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    “America’s largest non-Catholic flock,” eh. You mean, like “Protestant?” heh. Yes, I get the e-mails from Baptists assuring me that they aren’t Protestant. But as a matter of history (rather than theology) I remain unconvinced…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Deborah:

    I find it hard to leap straight to the phony label.

    Many churches these days want a lights-out preacher/evangelist. Well, those guys are not always produced by cookie-cutter seminary and college classrooms. Pulpit gifts are often not pastor gifts. Does that make sense?

    It seems that First Baptist got what it wanted, but wanted the appearance of someone who had trained for a totally different type of ministry.

    People simply need to be more honest. Especially when reporters start knocking on the door.

  • Robin

    I am very grateful that I have been forgiven by a God of second and third chances. We should remember Matthew 18:21-22. I am a member of the church that Pastor just recently left. I was saddened by the departure of the Flockhart family. They were a blessing. I have found that it is truly easy to judge without all the facts. It is always best to have all the facts – not just a few! Has he made mistakes – yes. Will he made more – probably. After all, he is a human man. My prayers are with them and I will consider myself fortunate if I get to hear him preach again.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    Deborah: I find it hard to leap straight to the phony label.

    Clearly, I don’t have that same difficulty. ;-

    I would say that oratorical giftedness is a different qualification than exegetical skills (a word which implies the necessity of deliberate acquisition). Both are “pulpit gifts,” as you put it, and both are necessary, the latter (in my view) somewhat more than the former. Flockhart clearly possessed the former; judging from this investigation, it appears he glossed over his acquisition of the latter. This is what I mean by “phony.” Not everyone would agree. That’s fine.

    This whole thing makes me wonder: is there something in the “system” under which pulpit calls are made by search committees in this denomination that encourages this kind of behavior (like a “can’t a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job” conundrum)? I’d be the first to agree that formal education does not always produce the desired skill set, but why go the diploma mill route?

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  • rene

    I am a member of the church he was at in Millington, TN. He is an awesome deliver of the word. I think it is a shame that this has happened. I will not judge him because that is not my job. It is very disapointing to hear this but I will try to remember the good things he did for our church. I believe that he is a good person
    and I also believe that we get second chances and more. I think that these problems probably go back
    to things that have happened in his life. He didn’t just decide one day to do all the things he has been accused of. I think we need to pray for him and his family. They mean a lot to a lot of people. Also please pray for the churches. We
    need prayers for forgiveness so that we can move on.

  • Andy

    Perhaps this points to a bigger issue with Baptist and Independent churches: The ease of ordination. My own denomination (Presbyterian Church of America) has a very lengthy and thorough process of ordination — one that assures there will certainly be no educational skeletons in the closet.

    On the other hand, in a Baptist church, ordination is by the will of a congregation. A close friend was ordained without so much as a bachelors degree, nor any formalized theological training. Unfortunately, three years later, his career ended spectacularly when he revealed an affair that had occurred six months prior to his ordination. His ordination “exam” didn’t include the kinds of personal probing that might have revealed this unconfessed sin in his life. In fact, his “exam” was coffee with two other pastors for an hour or two.

    It’s why, ultimately, I could never worship in any church that didn’t have the kind of well-developed church governance that the Presbyterian church is blessed with.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    I believe that he is a good person and I also believe that we get second chances and more. I think that these problems probably go back to things that have happened in his life. He didn’t just decide one day to do all the things he has been accused of.

    I think this points to an important point, one that “rene” may not have intended. Think back to Jimmy Swaggart. Did he confess his sin, publicly and profusely? Yes. Was he sincere? I prefer to believe he was. Did he submit himself to the denomination’s restoration process (which required he attend counseling before having his license to preach restored)? NO. The Assemblies of God, quite rightly, removed him from the denomination for such refusal. And the results speak for themselves.

    The “Jesus forgave it, I believe it, that settles it” school of sanctification ignores the fact that people don’t “just decide one day to do [wrong things].” Repentance is not a “quick escape from a surface struggle,” to quote Dallas Willard. Sanctification takes time. It takes work. And it takes “fear and trembling, [knowing] it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

    Now, to circle back to something more appropriate to this blog — I’d like to see some coverage of what denominational discipline was proposed/effected during Flockhart’s earlier failures, or perhaps a compare/contrast exercise about denominational ordination (thank you, Andy!) or disciplinary procedures. Not for the sake of gossip, but a serious examination of what, if any, screening and accountability processes are in place. These kinds of events can be instructive – to those inside and outside the Christian Church – if reported accurately and sensitively.

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