By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
On Dec. 8, 1995 I had the opportunity and privilege to report on the election of David S. Dockery as president of Union University in Jackson.
He was elected unanimously by trustees that day to become the university’s 15th president.
Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Dockery found time for an interview with me and the Baptist and Reflector.
We talked about the varied background he had and how he felt it prepared him to lead a Baptist university.
At the time of his election he had been a pastor, a professor, a dean, and an academic vice president. What’s more, he had been involved at all levels of Southern Baptist life — from a small church in New York to a large megachurch in Texas to seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He told me that day, “I want to use those shaping influences to help Union relate constructively to the Tennessee Baptist Convention in particular and to the Southern Baptist Convention in general.”
David Dockery has done that and much, much more during his 18-plus year tenure at the Jackson university.
Though he is officially president through the end of this month, his last “main event” at Union will be Saturday, May 17, as he presides over his last graduation ceremony at Union.
Union was a very good school when Dockery took over the leadership role in 1995. He took it to the next level and today Union is recognized as one of the top Christian colleges in the United States, especially in the South.
When Dockery arrived at Union, the school had 1,972 students with an annual non-duplicating enrollment of 2,183. At the beginning of the fall semester in 2013, 4,288 students were enrolled (the 16th straight year of fall semester enrollment increase) and the non-duplicating annual enrollment exceeded 5,000 students for the third consecutive year.
In 1995 Union had an annual budget of $18 million and net assets of $36 million. In 2013, Union trustees approved a $90 million budget with net assets of more than $117 million.
The number of new buildings and improvements in facilities skyrocketed over his tenure. He led in establishing an extension campus in Hendersonville complete with state-of-the art facilities.
He provided incredible leadership to the Union family in 2008 when tornadoes struck the campus, leaving behind millions of dollars in damages. But within just a few short years, he led an effort which replaced those dormitory buildings that had been destroyed with new facilities for students.
The list of Dockery’s achievements and accomplishments at Union could go on and on, but his legacy goes far beyond the tangibles of enrollment, funds, and facilities.
David Dockery gave the university (and the Tennessee Baptist Convention) an undeniable presence in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dockery has been a key figure in SBC life for several years. He was an integral part of the denomination’s Great Commission Resurgence Task Team that was appointed in 2009 to help shape the direction of the convention in the next few years. He also was asked to chair the SBC’s Advisory Committee on Calvinism and served on the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s Vision 2021 Team.
The Union president has received just about every honor that can be received including the Herschel Hobbs Distinguished Denominational Service Award given by Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla.
Dockery earned the respect of his colleagues all across the state.
TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis wrote the following for a Union publication which highlighted Dockery’s ministry at Union.
“When you see someone who is so respected at home, it speaks to their character, it speaks to their integrity, and it speaks to their compassion. And I think that’s what Dr. Dockery has meant to Tennessee Baptists,” Davis wrote.
TBC President Larry Robertson of Hilldale Baptist Church, Clarksville, observes that while Union “seemingly has long been a strong school, God used David Dockery to put it on the map. The recognition for academic excellence granted Union on a national scale is impressive; such achievement without compromising core Christian beliefs is even more remarkable. Tennessee Baptists are blessed to have Dr. Dockery and Union University in our family.”
Randall O’Brien, president of Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, noted that “our Tennessee Baptist Convention has always appreciated and respected President Dockery’s faithful life and witness. There is no doubt we will miss his strong servant leadership and I will miss my friend.”
I didn’t know it at the time but that first interview in 1995 was the start of a friendship with David Dockery that has grown over the years. Whenever I had a question about something going on at Union or in the denomination as a whole, all I had to do was give him a call. He was always willing to talk with me and to be interviewed. He never failed to treat me with respect and he truly valued the importance of the Baptist state paper.
In my first interview, Dockery said he was coming to Union “because of the challenges and opportunities here.”
David Dockery made the most of those opportunities and met every challenge head on.
Now, he and his wife, Lanese, are ready for a new experience. Even before his time at Union was complete, Dockery accepted a new challenge in January when he was named president of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., near Chicago.
Tennessee Baptists are indebted to Dr. Dockery for his leadership and service to our Tennessee Baptist Convention for nearly 19 years.
Pray for him and Lanese as they enter this new phase of their lives.
Knowing Dr. Dockery as I do, he will hit the ground running on June 1.
May the Lord bless him greatly in the days ahead.