It came as no great surprise that Georgia pastor Johnny Hunt was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention this week. Hunt had been favored as the anointed one two years ago, but declined to run, inadvertently opening the door for non-establishment candidate Frank Page to take the top spot.
Hunt, a successful evangelist, popular preacher, and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., agreed to put his name in the pot this year, and brought the office home to the tightly knit party that led the conservative insurgence that captured leadership of the SBC more than two decades ago.
What many people don’t know about Hunt — who goes by “Dr.” Johnny Hunt and is regularly introduced as such — is that his two “doctorate degrees” both appear to be honorary tokens from diploma mills that are not accredited by any respected accrediting organization.
I first became aware of Hunt’s tie to the sketchy schools and noted it in August 2006 when Steven Flockhart, a protege of Hunt’s, was forced to resign his Florida church when it was discovered that he had fudged on his resume. While Flockhart claimed degrees from two rather legitimate schools, his “credentials” actually came from Covington Theological Seminary, which operates out of Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga. The school confirmed to the the Palm Beach Post that it awarded bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees to Flockhart in 2003, 2004, and 2005.
Do you know any legitimate school where you can earn degrees so quickly, including a “doctoral” program that apparently took just one year?
It turns out that the church had not done due diligence in researching “Dr.” Flockhart’s background (which included other skeletons that are beside the point at the moment). Apparently, the church had given undue consideration to the strong endorsement given to Flockhart by “Dr.” Hunt himself, whose credentials include an honorary “Doctor of Divinity” from Immanuel Baptist Theological Seminary of Sharpsburg, Georgia, and also a “Doctor of Sacred Laws and Letters” from Covington Theological Seminary, Flockhart’s online alma mater.
Do you think an honorary degree from a marginal school provides an adequate credential to call someone “Dr.”? Do you think it is honest or ethical to accept the title when it carries so little academic weight? Do you think it is appropriate to thus give tacit credibility to unaccredited schools?
To his credit (I guess), on his personal website where he sells sermons and books, Hunt (a North Carolina native) lists only degrees from Gardner-Webb University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (though he still posts a picture with pre-gray hair). His biographical sketch on sermonsearch.com, however, lists both of the “doctorates,” and both regularly appear in the program bio attributed to him at frequent speaking engagements, as pointed out by Robert Parham at EthicsDaily.com. Whether Hunt is responsible for sending out biographical information that lists those degrees, he has apparently done nothing to discourage its use.
There is no question that Hunt is a gifted preacher, for those who like his style of preaching, and an effective evangelist. He has successfully grown First Baptist Church of Woodstock from medium to mega-sized. He has been a faithful soldier in the conservative movement. He has more than enough credentials to be a leader among today’s Southern Baptists without claiming dubious doctorates.
As Southeastern Seminary president Danny Akin warned in a column for Baptist Press following the Flockhart fiasco, pastors who seek to be above reproach don’t pad their resumes.
Integrity matters — especially at the top.
[Disclaimer: in the interest of disclosure, the author spent more than five years earning his Ph.D. at Duke University (completed 1989), and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Campbell University in 2005. He may rightly be considered a bit of a purist on the subject, but still doesn’t expect to be called “Dr.”]