By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
JACKSON — When Samuel W. “Dub” Oliver learned that Union University here was looking for a new president he had no interest in the position.
Oliver was perfectly content as the president of East Texas Baptist University in Marshall.
Besides, he said, “Who would be dumb enough to follow David Dockery?”
More than a year later, Oliver had the answer to his own question.
But it was a series of events he feels was orchestrated by the Lord that led him to leave his native state of Texas to come to Tennessee.
First, he saw some connections between Union and ETBU. Former Union president Robert Craig served as president of ETBU from 1986-92. “Had he not left Union to go to East Texas Baptist University, the school would not exist today,” Oliver said. “He (Craig) saved that university. In addition, another former ETBU president (Howard C. Bennett) was a Union graduate and other ties began to be revealed to Oliver.
“The Lord kept bringing Union to my mind,” he said.
Last June Oliver looked at the Union website and noticed a prayer calendar which asked people to sign up for a day to fast and pray for the presidential search.
Oliver signed up for July 5 and fasted and prayed for Union that day. “I did what I was supposed to do,” he recalled.
Two weeks later Oliver received a letter from Norm Hill, chairman of the Union search committee, informing him that his name had come up in connection to the search. Hill invited Oliver to apply for the job.
Oliver set the letter aside even though his administrative assistant encouraged him to pray about it.
He ignored the letter for several weeks, along with some phone calls he received from Tommy Thompson, a search consultant employed by Union.
Oliver finally connected with Thompson in September and stressed that he was happy at ETBU and was not looking to leave. He agreed, however, to have dinner with Thompson and Hill who were willing to travel to Marshall to meet with him. “We had a great conversation and it became very clear people were praying for the search and it was making a difference in my life.”
In a subsequent conversation with Union’s search committee, it became clear they were very committed to Union’s core values and commitment to be a Christ-centered, Baptist institution, Oliver continued. “All that resonated with me. The Lord was opening me up to the possibility of a move.”
Finally in late October last year, Oliver told the committee that he would be willing to be considered and he agreed to meet with them in December. He and his wife were again impressed by Union’s commitment to excellence and they left the meeting with the feeling that they would meet with the entire board if invited by the search committee.
The invitation came and on Feb. 10 Oliver was elected unanimously as Union’s 16th president.
“The Lord led and we came,” Oliver said.
He admitted that accepting the position was a challenge because “I didn’t know anyone in Tennessee.”
He noted he felt a little bit like Abraham in the Old Testament who was told by the Lord, “Go to the land I’m going to show you.”
“We are trying to be faithful,” Oliver said. So far, he has been very impressed with his new school.
“We have been warmly welcomed,” Oliver said, noting that he has met many Tennessee Baptists already and is looking forward to meeting others at The Summit in November at Brentwood Baptist Church.
An ordained minister and former pastor in Crawford, Texas, Oliver has spoken or is scheduled to speak at several Tennessee churches and is willing to speak to congregations across the state.
Goals and challenges
Oliver is well aware of Union’s national reputation as an institution of excellence and he is grateful for the foundation that was laid for him by Dockery and his predecessors.
He is committed to working toward building upon that foundation. “Sustained excellence over time is the hardest thing to do. That’s our calling and challenge,” Oliver said.
“God is not finished at Union,” the new president continued.
Oliver wants Union’s enrollment to continue to increase after years of record enrollments.
“Every student who has come to Union is better because of it,” he affirmed. “Because of our Christ-centered mission, we want more and more students to have that experience so that they can be influencers in Tennessee and around the world.”
He is grateful and appreciative of inheriting a faculty that is known both nationally and internationally.
In a short time Oliver has discovered that the Union campus also is filled with people who love and care for each other as well. “It’s great to be in a place so strong academically yet that is also so filled with love.”
He noted that Union is a “head and heart” institution. “A lot of universities separate those things. Union does not,” he affirmed.
During his brief tenure Oliver is beginning to get a grasp of what Tennessee Baptists think about their university in West Tennessee.
He acknowledged that he knows Calvinism is a hot topic issue in Tennessee, though it was not at East Texas Baptist University.
Oliver noted he does not consider himself a Calvinist nor is he seminary trained.
His goal is to keep Union focused on God’s Word.
“When we focus on systematic theologies is when we tend to have our tense moments,” he observed.
“I want to be accountable in my own life of living the truth of the gospel. Union is not mine. It is the Lord’s,’ ” he stressed.
“I want to lead it in a way that brings people to the Lord and not to any one person’s ideology or man’s theology.”
Oliver acknowledges that he is a Baptist “by choice.” Raised in the Catholic faith, Oliver was a student at Baylor University in Waco when he realized that he “had religion but did not have a relationship.”
While at Baylor he noted he saw “people whose faith was alive and who were clearly different.”
Oliver accepted Christ as his Savior and was baptized at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth. He began to study the Bible and what Baptists believe. “One thing I love about Baptists is that we are a people of the Book. The Bible is authoritative.”
The Bible is vitally important to Oliver who served as a bivocational pastor in Crawford, Texas, when he was vice president for student life at Baylor University.
People would ask how he had the time to preach and serve on Baylor’s staff. The answer was simple, Oliver said. He found time for both by making sure he immersed himself in God’s Word every day.
“The blessing of preaching every Sunday was that it developed in me the discipline of being in the Word every day,” Oliver said.
And, he pledged, that discipline will continue in his new role at Union. “Being in God’s Word and prayer will be part of my daily life at Union.
“The most foundational thing you can do is read God’s Word every single day,” he stressed.