(RNS) — Not long after he’d been named president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the flagship seminary of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, R. Albert Mohler Jr. stood in front of the student body in the school’s chapel to take questions.
The room was tense. More than a few students, not least the women who had come to the seminary to train to be pastors — were unhappy that the board had elected Mohler, the 33-year-old editor of a Georgia Baptist paper, with no experience in running any institution, never mind a school with nearly 2,000 students.
During the Q&A session, one of the students asked how Mohler would supervise faculty members who were much older and presumably wiser than he was.
“I intend to age,” he said, provoking laughter and cutting some of the tension.
Thirty years later, Mohler has kept his promise. “That’s one of the most faithfully fulfilled pledges ever made by a human being,” said Mohler, 63, in a recent interview.
For three decades, Mohler has been one of the most influential leaders among Southern Baptists and the broader evangelical movement, explaining their theology to the outside world and promoting conservative values often at odds with societal trends. Mohler runs an op-ed section at World Magazine’s website, helping to shape evangelical views on morals, faith and above all politics. (A never-Trumper in 2016, he supported Donald Trump four years later.)
When Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in California and a legend among Southern Baptist Convention megachurch pastors, challenged the denomination’s ban against women pastors at this summer’s annual meeting in New Orleans, it was Mohler who was selected to go toe-to-toe with Warren. Mohler won the day.
Yet Mohler’s outspoken views and penchant for controversy can overshadow another truth about the longtime leader. His seminary is thriving at a time when Christian higher education is in turmoil and many other seminaries are selling off their campuses or consolidating and the number of students pursuing Master of Divinity degrees plummets.
“He is one of the most-omnicompetent people I know,” said longtime friend Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Akin, who worked at Southern in the early years of Mohler’s tenure, attributes his former boss’s staying power to a combination of a relentless work ethic and a very thick skin. Mohler has also proved himself capable, Akin said, of digesting theological tomes while managing the often complex finances and egos of a major educational institution.
It’s these skills, rather than the mere passage of time, that have made Mohler the second-longest-serving president in Southern’s history, outdone only by Duke K. McCall, who led Southern from 1951 to 1982— a record Mohler plans to surpass.
Mohler is also one of the longest-serving seminary presidents in the country, according to 2020 data from the Association of Theological Schools. Only 2% of seminary leaders have been in their roles for more than 20 years, while half have been in their roles for less than five years.
Mohler’s longevity is “highly unusual,” said Chris Meinzer, a senior director and chief operating officer for ATS.
And Mohler’s school is extraordinarily successful. Southern had 3,348 students in the fall of 2022, making it the second largest in the country, according to ATS, after Liberty University’s John W. Rawlings School of Divinity.
In the mid-1990s, however, things were not so rosy.
Mohler had been one of the lieutenants of the so-called Conservative Resurgence, a theological and political revolt in the SBC that wrested control of the denomination from its formerly moderate leadership. That included installing conservative leaders in the SBC’s institutions, including Southern, which before Mohler’s tenure had championed women pastors and allowed space for professors to question doctrines such as Young Earth creationism.
As a student in the 1980s, Mohler supported women pastors, and in 1984, he and other students placed a full-page ad in the local newspaper claiming that God was “an equal opportunity employer.” But a meeting with legendary Christianity Today editor Carl Henry led Mohler to change his mind, he later recalled.
At that meeting, Henry told Mohler that he’d regret his support for women in ministry — which sent Mohler off to the seminary library to research the issues.
“I ended up staying up until I could figure this out,” he said during a 2010 chapel service. “Somewhere between Carl Henry saying what he said to me and the dawn of the next day, my position had completely changed.”
But his change of heart toward women pastors cost him students. Three years after he became president, attendance had dropped by some 700 students and took nearly a decade to recover.
Mohler said that when he took office, he expected pushback.
The school, he said, had strayed from its theological foundations and was out of touch with what most Southern Baptists believed. “We are talking about the reorientation of an institution that was already, you know, more than 100 years old,” he said. “It was not a small course correction.”
If Southern has regained its momentum under Mohler, the politics have not necessarily gotten easier. Historian Bill Leonard, the founding dean of Wake Forest Divinity School and a former professor at Southern, said that the conservative takeover narrowed the room for differing opinions in the denomination. Then, once the more moderate Southern Baptists left, the conservatives turned on each other.
“There may come a time when there are only two Southern Baptists left, and each will think the other one is a liberal,” said Leonard.
Making Leonard’s point, Mohler played a role in the high-profile departure of Warren this summer and, two years ago, in the exit of the prominent Bible study teacher Beth Moore, who dissented from the SBC’s support of Trump. Yet Mohler has come under fire himself in recent years from the denomination’s extreme right, whose members claim Southern promotes “woke ideology” by talking about issues of race.
Leonard, who has known Mohler since the 1980s, when the future seminary president was his student, said Mohler’s conversion to the conservative viewpoint was genuine, but it was also a pragmatic decision.
“When he got nominated for the presidency, it appears he decided which way the wind was blowing for him,” said Leonard.
But the real key to Mohler, his former teacher said, is his personal ethical streak, which has made him equal parts a reformer and a company man. “He’s not a flamethrower,” said Leonard. “He believes in institutions.”
Leonard said Mohler’s personal ethics have helped him to persevere when many other Southern Baptist leaders have fallen in recent years.
During a recent interview, Mohler agreed with that assessment, saying he was an unapologetic institutionalist. As if to illustrate the point, he said that while he and Leonard have very different understandings of what it means to be a Baptist and even of how to interpret the Bible, he called his former professor one of the “best classroom teachers” he ever met. “I still respect and appreciate those who taught me, even when we disagree,” he said.
Mohler also paid tribute to his predecessors, including McCall and Roy Honeycutt, whom he succeeded. Honeycutt, he said, disapproved of the direction Mohler planned to take the seminary — and yet was gracious to Mohler during the handover. “He was unfailingly a man of character and graciousness and I am thankful for that,” Mohler said.
Despite his longevity, Mohler said he knows that both the denomination and the seminary face challenges as organized religion declines and institutions fall out of favor.
“It’s a humbling moment for the Southern Baptist Convention and for evangelicalism,” he said. “A denomination that found an awful lot of confidence in constantly growing is now going to have to explain what faithfulness looks like when we are not.”
Mohler said he has no plans to retire in the short term.
“I want to continue to be useful to the kingdom and to this institution,” he said. “And I want to be at some point a cheerleader for whoever follows me.”
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