Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (BTSR) is now closed.
Final graduation exercises were last weekend. We have had a long, tumultuous 30-year run.
BTSR’s existence was marked by financial struggle, even before the first day of class in the fall of 1991.
Dubbed in its early days by founding President Tom Graves as the “little engine that could,” the school chugged along until it literally ran out of steam and money.
Bit by bit, over the last two decades, property and buildings were sold, over half of the faculty laid off, full-time staff released, endowment consistently eroded, enrollment on a steep decline, and assets slowly decreasing until finally a point of no return.
No, we were not “throwing in the towel,” as some surmised, when our trustees announced on Dec. 12, 2018, that we must close on Jan. 31, 2019.
The financial position of BTSR was so weak that ceasing operations was the only way to remain somewhat financially solvent until we could pay our creditors and shepherd as many students as possible to their rightful place at graduation at the end of May. And we did.
With five part-time, faithful staff members, we worked overtime to make it to May 25, the date of our final commencement. But it was this image – the image of a servant’s towel – that guided our work.
The picture of the towel, the basin, the pitcher met us every morning as we began our work. We wanted to serve the seminary in the way the seminary had taught us to serve.
This simple image of a hand towel, a simple piece of cloth, has become an endearing, familiar icon of this seminary through the years.
Since the first seminary graduation in 1993, every BTSR graduate has been given a towel.
Some students have even stated that the personal value of this simple towel exceeds that of their own academic diploma.
As I have visited churches and BTSR alums, I have seen the BTSR towel placed lovingly on bookshelves, in family living rooms, framed and placed on the wall, on study desks in church offices.
This simple towel has received iconic status with wide brand recognition.
No predetermined plan or grandiose marketing strategy. The towel just happened.
President Graves, who introduced the idea of a servant’s towel to the seminary in our first convocation in the fall of 1991, shared the genesis story of the towel with the 2019 graduating class at the banquet last Friday night.
Graves clearly stated, “We did not mean this to be a tradition or to set a precedent. Sometimes, events take on meaning far beyond that which is envisioned.”
This slogan that ministry is “finding a towel with your name on it” was a phrase from the creative mind of Nancy Hastings Sehested in a sermon overheard by Randall Lolley, then president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in the mid-1980s.
Randall and wife, Lou, were on their way in the car to preach the installation service of Graves, then the newly called pastor of St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
They pulled off Interstate 85 and found a store where they purchased a hand towel and a black magic marker, which Lou used to write “Tom Graves” on the bottom of the just-purchased towel.
As Lolley concluded his sermon on servant leadership, he presented the towel to Tom stating, “Ministry is finding a towel with your name on it.”
And so, in the very first BTSR opening convocation held in 1991 at the Northminster Baptist Church, founding president Graves introduced the towel to the larger community.
Everyone knows that a formal academic event requires a processional. And most processions are led by someone like the president holding a symbol of the authority of the institution.
Those symbols of authority are mighty impressive – a large shiny, brass mace only brought out from the vault on special occasions or a heavy, jewel-encrusted medallion encircling the neck of the president.
What would the president of the newly formed BTSR wear? Graves chose not to lead with an ostentatious mace or impressive medallion.
Rather, he walked down the long aisle of that large assembly with his humble servant’s towel wrapped around his arm, the one purchased on the interstate inked with a magic marker.
The message began to be coded into the very life of this young, fragile seminary, namely, that the symbol of ministry is service and the goal of theological preparation for that service is to find a towel with your name on it.
BTSR gave that preparation and a towel to all 800 graduates that came through the doors.
We remember the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of John (13:3), he “knew that God had given all things into his hands, and that he had come forth from God, and was going back to God … he took up a towel.”
This is a powerful thought. Jesus, who has all of the authority given to him from the Creator of the Universe, “after supper, laid aside his garments and took a towel.” And he performs the lowliest of all servant tasks; he washes feet.
As we close these doors of our beloved seminary, we understand that this symbol now has more meaning than ever.
The buildings have been sold on 3400 Brook Road, the lease on the Villa will soon be over, the faculty desks and bookshelves have been removed; the chapel preaching desk has been sold in auction.
All that remains is the towel – and those almost 800 towel-bearers who hold them because they have belonged to the beloved community of BTSR over these 30 years.
Our world needs towel-bearers more than ever. People who understand that service is for the common good, not for personal gain – service that creates goodness and kindness in the world not chaos and confusion; service that repeatedly says, “Not I, but you, you go first.”
We need leaders who understand that service calls for bold and firm accountability and generous grace in the very same breath.
We need leaders who understand that failure can mean success, that defeat can signal growth and that suffering can serve for gain.
May BTSR leave this legacy for the world to see as our students go forth into this world as Bearers of the Towel.
Linda McKinnish Bridges was a founding faculty member of Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (1991-2001) and the seminary’s president (2017-19).