A Final But Hopeful Plea For the Healing of the Ergun Caner Family

Bucky Kennedy | Pastor
First Baptist Church, Vidalia, GA

I would like to offer a final address toward the current circumstances regarding Ergun Caner specifically and then another issue generally.

Ergun Caner had spoken with me several times after Braxton’s death about lacking the energy or the will to get beyond the grief of Braxton’s suicide. In early November, Ergun spent several days in ICU suffering from congestive heart failure and since then has been diagnosed with a heart condition that would have prevented him from continuing as the president of Brewton Parker College. I was in the room when Ergun decided to resign and can tell you that he was, as he stated in his resignation, a “broken man.” Ergun had been battling depression and grief along with the heart condition that was causing him to lose energy.

Ergun Caner is not a racist. In his tenure here, he promoted the first African-American Director of Recruiting & Admissions (Kimberly Bell), and hired the first African-American theology professor in the Georgia Baptist Convention (Jonathan McCorey). An African-American, Michael Pigg, was one of the individuals who investigated the validity of the allegations against Caner, an investigation which concluded that the charge of racism was unwarranted and unfounded. Ergun was not forced or coerced into resigning by a trustee but by his own desire.

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I don’t know the time frame on grief recovery when it comes to losing a child. Thankfully, I don’t know the emotional trauma or depth of despair that follows it. I don’t know how Jill Caner gets that sound and sight out of her mind or how Ergun erases the pictures he had to see of his son’s decision. I was with Ergun when the news of Braxton’s death came and I will never forget driving him and his son Drake to the airport or the days and weeks afterward watching him struggle. Ergun is a prideful man, so he did his best to hide his hurt. He chose to withdraw, to be seen only when he needed to be seen. Preaching wasn’t easy for him but he felt as though he could work his way out of the pain, and so that is what he did.

When someone has a broken leg we understand the limp; we see the cast. When someone has a broken spirit we often don’t see anything. Ergun’s greatest strength is his ability to keep going in the face of opposition and adversity; Ergun’s greatest weakness is that he refuses to stop when he has no business going forward. I should have insisted on a leave of absence, a sabbatical. Jill Caner is one of the sweetest ladies one would like to meet; she is shy but incredibly charming and smart but she struggled to leave where her memories of her son lived. From my perspective, the only problem in the Caners’ marriage was working through the grief of their son’s tragic death. And while I fully realize that not everything can be laid at the feet of grief and despair, it sometimes remains difficult to determine what actually belongs there.

Upon leaving, Ergun Caner donated his library and personal automobile to Brewton-Parker. He drove a 10 ft. U-Haul to Texas fairly convinced he’s done with ministry. I hope not. I hope that was raw emotion from a broken heart and not a reality that will happen. I do pray that he and his family are allowed the solitude and space of healing and restoration. There was no dishonesty in Ergun Caner’s resignation; no conspiracy or cover up. Ergun went home to Jill and Drake because it was the right thing to do because he is and has been a faithful husband and father; he knew that the only way they could heal was to be together. I can’t speak for Ergun, but maybe the allegations were just confirmations of the vulnerability about which he was already well aware, and he knew that if he didn’t have the strength to fight accusations, he was at an even greater risk to stronger attacks that he could not overcome.

For those who wanted Ergun Caner’s departure, you have it. He is battered, bruised, and broken. In the last 6 months, Ergun Caner has lost a son, resigned his job, and is now trying to heal with his family. He may find another job and his family may recover but he and Jill will not see Braxton this side of Heaven. I don’t know why anyone would find anything about this story fascinating or cause for celebration or see it as a reason to gloat. Surely it is not of God to rejoice over the pain of another; to find satisfaction in their sorrow would be sinful and grieving to the Holy Spirit. I ask you to let this man and his family heal; they have had enough!

I have often wondered what the exodus from Egypt would have been like with social media. Would Moses have been accused of being a fraud for not avoiding the Red Sea (#follownotamurderer)? Would Abraham have been berated and belittled for trying to pass his wife off as his sister to avoid being killed (#scaredycat)? How would Peter have been handled after his denial (#coward #heretic #fakeApostle)?

It is a consistent prayer of mine that I would be more like Christ on the cross saying, “Forgive them for they know not what they do” than Caiaphas in the court yelling “Crucify Him”. I must admit that I fail miserably at times. And I am ashamed when I do because it is often too late to correct. It seems as though accusation and judgment have become a sport on social media; anyone can say anything about anybody because people are now guilty until proven innocent. I watched as men like Johnny Hunt, Ronnie Floyd, Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, and Tim Lee, a decorated Marine who lost both his legs in service to our country, be criticized, belittled, accused of destroying the gospel. We do this to our shame and to the harm of fellow believers and the cause of Christ.

No revival has ever started as the result of name calling and heartless accusation. Ronnie Floyd has called our convention to prayer and repentance and some have responded by questioning his motive and mocking his effort. Johnny Hunt has worked to restore pastors and their families, giving generously of his own personal income, as well, as leading his church to be incredibly generous in the area of missions and evangelism, and he gets ridiculed and slandered. Tim Lee goes all around the country preaching the gospel and seeing souls saved. However, not only is the validity of his work is routinely questioned, he is also called “Benedict Arnold” because of his affiliations and friendships. And this is all done in the name of Christ! By all that is merciful and holy, can we not stop? Are we not better than this? I’m not calling for tolerance of sinful behavior but for the biblical response and attitude toward it. If the local church handles it wrongly, God will always handle it rightly and much more effectively than I can or ever will.

I do not feel that the greatest threat to the SBC is the attack on marriage, homosexuality, abortion, or the taking of our religious liberty. The greatest threat to the SBC is divisiveness, slander, rumor mongering, accusation, jealousy, busybodies, and covetousness. We rightly fought for inerrancy but we are failing miserably in the practice of biblical sufficiency and unity. We are beating ourselves into our own irrelevance, and I fear that we have sacrificed a generation to the wilderness of our own making.

May God forgive me for whatever part I have played in its making.

Know I intend this to be my final plea for common decency and Christian duty in dealing with the long public dispute concerning Ergun Caner. It’s time for us all to leave this man and his family to the loving graces of Jehovah-Rapha, The Lord Who heals. We can and must pray for them, support them, and encourage them. But God, through His Word and Spirit, and under the watchful care of their local church, must alone weave His healing miracles into the tapestry of their broken lives.