How NOT to Issue a Press Release: Lies, Misleading Statements, and Coverup at Emmanuel Christian Seminary

The scandal at Emmanuel Christian Seminary involving the attempt to (wrongfully) terminate Professor Chris Rollston appears to be much uglier and more mishandled than we first thought.

Thomas Stark, who first broke much of this story on the Religion @ the Margins blog, has posted a new story that at first seems too unlikely to be true. But after reading the story, and more amazingly, viewing the screen shots, it unfortunately appears to be all too real.

Emmanuel President Michael Sweeney apparently asked Thomas Stark to issue a press release for Emmanuel that addressed the Chris Rollston disciplinary action presently underway at Emmanuel. This is, quite frankly, insane! (With all due respect to Thomas Stark and the Religion @ the Margins blog.) Since when does a university president ask a blogger to issue a press statement on the blogger’s blog?  Does the Emmanuel President not own a computer and a website? And how is it that we STILL haven’t heard a single thing from Emmanuel on this issue (outside of Paul Blowers divulging the confidential business of a disciplinary action to the public on Facebook, and then writing an entire article to the B&I website discussing the situation publicly)?

Who taught these guys to deal with press? And who taught them to do damage control? Silence from the Emmanuel administration only further exacerbates the perception that they have committed a grievous crime and STILL haven’t even figured out how to begin to address it. The Emmanuel administration’s complete failure at damage control (i.e., Blowers’ self-serving, and quite unhelpful article at B&I, and nothing else?) and their inability to communicate to the public even an acknowledgment that something is, in fact, going on at Emmanuel, belies just how bad things are there.

(Side note: screaming “mind your own business” and “cheap seats” is not considered effective damage control.)

Not only is Emmanuel missing opportunity after opportunity to address and settle this matter in an expedient manner, now they have apparently taken to attempting to convince bloggers to release “official” statements containing numerous falsehoods on their behalf. That is, they appear to be trying to get bloggers to lie to the public for them. This is absolutely shameful.

Stark’s latest post offers examples of four misleading, incorrect, or false statements in the Emmanuel statement. Here is an example of just one of them:

A fourth and final problem with Emmanuel’s statement is this: “nor is a disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article an issue in our discussions.” This statement is, in no uncertain terms, false. It is not simply a mischaracterization; it is a lie. It is a very troubling lie, and it is a lie that could not have been unintentional. As revealed last Monday in the Inside Higher Education article, President Sweeney’s letter to Rollston does in fact bring up the Huffington Post article as one of the causes justifying termination proceedings against Rollston. A whole paragraph is devoted to the subject of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article and his Facebook posts. In fact, the letter mentions the Huffington Post article more than once, and does in fact express disagreement with Dr. Rollston’s conclusions.

But of course, Sweeney’s letter resorts to obvious mischaracterization of Rollston’s conclusions in his Huffington Post article. Sweeney’s letter alleges Dr. Rollston’s article made the claim that “the Bible, as a whole, marginalized women,” and that its conclusion was, “we cannot put our trust in ‘biblical values.’” This is of course completely false. Rollston did not argue that the Bible “as a whole,” marginalized women. He argued that a majority of texts relevant to the question of women’s status in ancient Israel reflected patriarchy, while a minority of texts pushed back against this ideology in various ways. In the article, he identified eleven examples of such push backs. Moreover, he did not conclude that we cannot put our trust in “biblical values.” He concluded that patriarchy was one biblical value among many (and who in their right mind can deny this?), and that this specific biblical value is not something we ought to value. (Does President Sweeney wish to defend the patriarchal institutions established throughout much of the Bible, and argue that they should remain in force within modern Christianity?) Clearly Dr. Rollston’s article showed that he saw a clash of values within the Bible, and demonstrated that he found some of those values to be morally praiseworthy. President Sweeney and the experts in hermeneutics at Emmanuel should be defending him from those who have plainly misinterpreted his article, not engaging in the same careless and sweeping mischaracterizations themselves.

More to the point, clearly this displays that there was discussion of and disagreement over the contents of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article in connection to disciplinary proceedings. So when President Sweeney releases a statement in which he flatly denies that any “disagreement over the content of Dr. Rollston’s Huffington Post article” was “an issue in our discussions,” we know he is lying. I have spent a great deal of time trying to imagine a charitable interpretation of this claim that does not amount to an intentional lie, and I have been unable to do so.

Unbelievable! But there it is. Not only has Emmanuel apparently begun termination proceedings against a tenured professor (wrongfully, I might add), but they have yet even to address the matter publicly, because their one attempt to quell the growing outrage from other scholars and former students against them failed miserably when the blogger they asked to release an official statement refused to do so because the statement was utterly false – falsehoods that were immediately confirmed by the publication of the Inside Higher Ed article.

Had Thomas Stark published the Emmanuel statement from President Sweeney as-is (like he was asked to do), Stark would have been roped into lying on behalf of Emmanuel, which based on the evidence, Emmanuel asked him to do!

Stark describes how he felt when he finally realized that he had been asked to lie for Emmanuel:

Then, when I was sent a deeply problematic “statement” described as “officially” from President Sweeney, to be published on my website, I had come firsthand into solid confirmation of my suspicions of incompetence. No matter whose idea it may have been, how incompetent would President Sweeney have to be to approve the publication of an official statement from Emmanuel, with his name on it, on my blog! Does this evoke a sense of direction? Does this communicate a sense of properly handling a potentially damaging scandal? What is more, to include in that statement a number of mischaracterizations, evasions, and an outright lie—a lie he should have known full well could be proved false at any time—I ultimately concluded that President Sweeney appears to be in over his head, and is having a great deal of trouble managing the combination of this financial crisis, this ideological controversy over the direction of the seminary, and now what appears to be the wrongful termination of Professor Rollston, in anything remotely resembling a competent manner. It seems to me that President Sweeney has made mistake after mistake after mistake, and in doing so, has put Emmanuel’s reputation and its viability in serious jeopardy.

IMHO, Emmanuel should settle this case ASAP. They should either drop this farce of a “disciplinary action” against Professor Rollston immediately, apologize, and perhaps open an inquiry into Professor Blowers’ activity in this whole mess, OR, Emmanuel should pay Professor Rollston his salary for the next bunch of years, apologize, part ways (I can’t imagine Dr. Rollston (or any other faculty member for that matter) wanting to stay at Emmanuel after this), and end this absolute nightmare before they end up in court and the national press picks this up. It’s only a matter of time. Emmanuel should go to their “six-figure donor”, ask him for the money to buy out Dr. Rollston (and avoid court), and then at least Emmanuel can claim a partial victory (the departure of Prof. Rollston). Professor Rollston can go to a school that will actually appreciate him, and the remainder of the faculty can watch their backs as the Paul Blowers thought police plays hall monitor in Johnson City.

Only time will tell if Emmanuel’s credibility and reputation are too damaged to recover from this inexplicable mess, brought upon their own heads by their own mismanagement.


20 Responses

  1. i’m not certain that naming a school ‘christian’ makes it so. especially when the school in question is willing to act this way.

  2. “Only time will tell if Emmanuel’s credibility and reputation are too damaged to recover from this inexplicable mess, brought upon their own heads by their own mismanagement.” Probably not, which will be brought about not just from their own incompetence, but by the joint effort of different bloggers and social networking sites. Which in itself is an interesting development of how academics and academic institutions can be affected by online communities.

  3. I am certain Dr. Blowers can tell you all about the power of Facebook when it comes to discussing confidential, internal institutional matters. You are correct: social media changes everything. (Which is probably why Dr. Sweeney was trying to issue a press release on someone else’s blog.)

  4. […] and what it does and does not prove, on the Gospel of Thomas discussion group list-serv. Bob Cargill discussed the way Emmanuel Christian Seminary apparently first tried to release a statement about […]


  6. Truly sad. Not only has this tarnished ECS, this has done irreparable damage to Blowers credibility. His bullying rants about the “cheap seats” is appalling. The more he talks (or writes) the worse it gets.

    As for ECS, you are correct, their ability to do damage control is laughable. I keep coming back to the story to see what asinine thing they do next!

    I agree. Rollston can find a much better environment to do his work in.

  7. It is asking too much of religious people (NOTE: the “brand” is irrelevant) that they tell the truth.

    In sum, they seem to think that because they self-promote as “religious” and “doing God’s Will” … they are somehow entitled to be believed, no matter what they say.

  8. Paul Blowers has more of a right to play “thought police” than any of you dim wits. Keep your nose out of where it doesn’t belong, and find something better to do with your time than continuing to knock down people who are none of your business. You are only encouraging people who think badly of seminaries.

  9. Joe,
    1) At least we are in agreement that Dr. Blowers is “playing thought police”.
    2) That would be nice, wouldn’t it? If the rest of the academy just looked the other way while an accredited seminary fired a tenured prof?
    3) Dr. Blowers made this a public issue when he divulges confidential information about disciplinary actions publicly online. Dr. Blowers took this public, not anyone else.
    4) People will think badly of seminaries when seminaries act badly.

    Cheers, bc


  11. Tenure is never a 100% cemented deal. Things can still go wrong, and one article published by Rollston is not going to get him “fired.” However, repeated issues (which you obviously have no idea the history of) are problematic for anyone, including tenured professors. At some point there has to be action.
    All of you in the “blogging world” are what have exacerbated this situation; you have pushed and pushed to the limit and only caused more ruckus in what should have been a private situation. No, Blowers should not have made that information public, but nonetheless that is a matter to be handled by and within ECS rather than the condemnations and accusations of many bloggers who have never met any of the parties involved or set foot on the school’s campus. If you all spent a quarter of the time actually telling people truth about JESUS and choosing to be silent on matters that don’t concern you, then this could actually be handled by those who have the authority and knowledge that you don’t. You are smearing reputations when you don’t have all the facts, and it has to stop.

  12. Mr. Smith,

    If you read everything I’ve written VERY CAREFULLY, everything I’ve said publicly has either been in response to something Dr. Blowers has said, or has been true. You can claim “cheap seats” or “it’s not my business,” but it’s all been all too true. And truth is always a defense.

    I’m certain this will all stop when the disciplinary action (that Dr. Blowers made public) comes to a satisfactory resolution.

    As for your comment: “If you all spent a quarter of the time actually telling people truth about JESUS and choosing to be silent on matters that don’t concern you,” I’ll remind you that Jesus made a career – an entire ministry – on concerning himself with people and issues that didn’t ‘concern’ other people. And he usually did so by shining a little light on matters people wanted to hide in the darkness. He certainly didn’t stand idly by and hold the coats of those stoning the righteous in exchange for 30 shekels of silver.


  13. and seriously, you can’t hide behind a better alias than ‘joe smith’ and ‘hotmail’ with an ip address from johnson city?
    i’ve never been a fan of anonymity.

  14. I have written more blog posts on Rollston’s situation than any other single blogger, and I am a former student of Emmanuel who is currently very well acquainted with the details surrounding Rollston’s pending termination—details past, recent, and present. Those who think I don’t know the details are simply projecting their own ignorance onto me. Allowing ECS to resolve the matter privately would have been perfectly fine if they hadn’t mishandled the matter with dishonesty, abuse, and incompetence from the get go. So allowing them to “resolve the matter” privately is precisely what we should not do. You claim to be a follower of Jesus. As Bob pointed out, Jesus wasn’t exactly the kind of fellow to allow injustices to go unexposed to the light of day.

  15. BC, you are entitled to your own opinions and responses, but as I said you don’t have all the facts either – so fine, join in the conversation regarding the initial HuffPo article – I think good points, thoughts, and questions have come out of that – but when it comes down to personnel decisions for a school you have no involvement with, it’s time to stay out. You don’t have to be a fan of anonymity, but I am choosing so anyway.
    BC and TS, no, Jesus didn’t allow injustices to go unexposed, but he also said there would be consequences to wrongdoings. (As I said before, Rollston is not going to be “fired” over one article.)
    TS, when you join the board or ECS administration then I will care whatever details you do or don’t know. Your statement about “mishandling the matter” is a personal opinion and regardless of human mistakes or mishandlings, the Lord’s purpose will prevail – for ECS, for Rollston, for Blowers – and though pain and difficulty will be involved for each, it will ultimately be for good.
    And now I’m done joining in this blogosphere that I now have even more reason NOT to desire to be a part of.

  16. So even though I’ve shown demonstrably that I know more details than some people on the ECS administration, and that I am more honest about those details than other people on the ECS administration, their “opinion” counts while mine doesn’t, because they get a paycheck and I don’t. Got it.

    I am sorry you had to venture down here into the nethersphere where claims are actually scrutinized. I know it’s uncomfortable. I hope you’ve found your way back to the surface.

  17. Joe,

    I know, it’s just that Mr. Stark and myself, and all of these other scholars have publicly defended Prof. Rollston, in our own names, and have stood behind the facts, while those who have rallied to ECS’ defense are either known fundamentalist internet trolls, right-wing religious politicos spamming individuals to pay attention to their blogs, or nameless, faceless aliases slithering around in the shrouded darkness of anonymity.

    I guess I really don’t like anonymity when it comes to issues of ‘truth’ and people’s jobs. And I like defending folks who others are trying to railroad, hoping that they can do so in secret, in darkness, where no one will find out.

    I also like tracking IP addresses to expose anonymous folks. It’s kind of my thing (here and here and here and here.)

    Keep in mind that it also looks very, very bad for you to be a defender of ECS from behind an alias. Can you see that? Blowers and ECS have spent a month now shouting at people to ‘mind their own business’ while they try to fire a tenured professor, and you’re hiding behind an alias while trying to defend them. Named, professional scholars are lining up from Johnson City to Los Angeles to defend Professor Rollston, and those few of you defending ECS are wearing the online equivalent of black masks and hoods.


  18. […] Inside Higher Ed article that was published last month, or read my previous blog entries here and here and […]

  19. […] two items that I’ve mentioned on this blog over the past month (here and here), Emmanuel Christian Seminary President, Dr. Michael Sweeney, confirmed via two separate emails […]

  20. […] Sweeney – From attempting to fire a tenured professor, to not knowing how do handle a simple press release, this was an abject failure for President Sweeney and the Emmanuel administration. Dr. Sweeney […]

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