Religion

A feud over a coffeemaker and Christmas decor leads to another Southern Baptist lawsuit

(RNS) — A feud between a Southwestern Baptist seminary and its former president appears headed for federal court.

Lawyers for Adam Greenway, who resigned as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in September 2022, alleged in a complaint filed Wednesday (March 20) that the school and the chair of its trustee board defamed Greenway, violated the terms of a non-disparagement agreement and made him “unemployable.”

“The actions of Defendants have exposed Plaintiff to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule,” the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, alleges.

Greenway’s attorney had previously sent the school a demand letter for $5 million dollars to settle the dispute. The school denies any wrongdoing.

“We categorically deny the allegations contained in the lawsuit, will defend vigorously the institution, and are confident the outcome will demonstrate that these claims are entirely baseless,” the school said in a statement.


 


The complaint filed this week alleges that leaders at Southwestern — one of six Southern Baptist seminaries — released incomplete and misleading details about the school’s finances that painted Greenway in a negative light.

Among those details were the alleged purchase of an $11,000 espresso machine and more than $1.5 million in renovations to Pecan Manor, the school’s on-campus presidential residence, including $60,000 in Christmas decorations.

Those details were released in a report on Southwestern’s finances, which detailed $140 million in overspending across 20 years, much of it under the leadership of Greenway’s predecessor, Paige Patterson. That report, released by the school’s trustees, gave no details of why trustees allowed the overspending to go on for so long. 

“The compilation and overview demonstrate that the financial challenges at Southwestern are longstanding,” the trustees said in their report, adding that Greenway had failed to turn around the school’s finances.

However, outrage over the espresso machine and the repairs to the presidential home went viral on social media and overshadowed the school’s larger financial issues. Those expenses even became a joke at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting last summer in New Orleans.

Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, gives the NAMB report during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board, gives the NAMB report during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, La., on June 13, 2023. RNS photo by Emily Kask

“I own my own home, have a Keurig and go to Hobby Lobby for my Christmas decorations,” Kevin Ezell, head of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, said in a question-and-answer session about the agency he leads. Those comments were met with laughter from thousands of local church representatives at the meeting.

The complaint alleges that Texas megachurch pastor Jack Graham, longtime Southern Baptist leader O.S. Hawkins and Southwestern Trustee Board Chair Danny Roberts disagreed with Greenway and sought his removal as president.

Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Greenway’s attorneys also argue that the school’s on-campus presidential home — used for public events — was in ill repair when he arrived on campus and that Roberts was aware of the needed repairs.

“In February 2019, when Plaintiff began his tenure as President of SWBTS, the President’s Home was in a state of disrepair and unfit for habitation or use,” according to the complaint.

Greenway’s attorney declined a request for photos or other evidence of the condition of Pecan Manor. A spokesman for Southwestern declined to comment about the condition of the presidential home.

The trustee report about Southwestern’s finances did not address the condition of Pecan Manor and did not make it clear that the school owns the building, not Greenway. The trustees also claimed a task force looking into the school’s finances criticized Greenway’s management of the school’s resources.

“The task force concluded that Adam Greenway engaged in a pattern of spending that the task force believes did not reflect proper stewardship of seminary resources,” the board said in 2023. “This pattern of spending occurred without deference to financial controls and seminary financial policies.”

Southwestern’s trustees have not released the full task force report. Greenway’s lawyers say releasing incomplete details from that report damaged their client.

“The statements made by Defendants created a false and defamatory impression that Plaintiff, in secret, spent seminary funds for his own benefit in a manner akin to embezzlement,” the complaint alleges.

In February 2023, the school and Greenway signed a confidential settlement aimed at ending the conflict between the two parties. The school agreed to pay Greenway $229,500, to repost his sermons as president online and to return books and his missing recliner (if it could be found).

Adam Greenway addresses the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama. RNS photo by Butch Dill

Adam Greenway addresses the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama. RNS photo by Butch Dill

Greenway promised to return files from his time as president and gave up any future rights to legal action against the school. Leaders at Southwestern also gave up future rights to sue. Each side agreed not to make any “false and disparaging” statements about the other. They also agreed to issue a statement saying their disagreement was settled amicably.  

The complaint alleges that the statement was never issued publicly nor posted on the school’s website. A copy was reportedly sent to Baptist Press, an official publication of the SBC — but neither side responded to a request with follow-up questions.

“BP editors chose not to publish the statement or a story about it without context or comments,” Brandon Porter, an associate vice president for convention news, said in a story about the lawsuit.  

Lawyers for Greenway say Southwestern and its leaders violated the separation agreement — which was included in the court filings along with the complaint — by making what they argue are a series of false statements about the school’s former president.

A spokesman for the seminary said the school has not yet been served with the complaint. 

“It is regrettable that Adam Greenway is suing the seminary he has previously claimed to love in response to Southwestern’s refusal to agree to his demand of $5 million last fall,” the statement reads. “It is also disappointing that his lawyer turned down multiple invitations to inspect the evidence supporting the public statements previously made by the seminary.” 




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