NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) -- The Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee will eliminate two vice presidents and merge its news and public-relations functions, Baptist Press reported Nov. 30.
Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page announced consolidations and staff reductions in memos dated Nov. 17 and Nov. 29, the news service reported.
The restructuring streamlines the staff of the Executive Committee -- an elected board charged with major duties like planning an annual meeting, proposing a budget, disbursing funds throughout the year and acting on behalf of the convention in decisions made between annual meetings -- from five divisions to three.
It includes merging Baptist Press and the office of convention relations into a new office called the office of convention communications and relations. Roger (Sing) Oldham, current vice president of convention relations since 2007, assumes leadership of the office.
The Baptist Press release announcing the restructuring cited "unprecedented economic challenges" facing the Executive Committee. This year the Executive Committee is preparing an SBC operating budget $500,000 smaller than the current spending plan.
That is before the committee takes action to respond to a motion referred by this summer's convention proposing reduction of the committee's share of the Cooperative Program by 1 percent as way to get more dollars to international missions.
For many years the convention's communications and news functions were handled in a single office. Wilmer C. Fields served as vice president for public relations and director of Baptist Press from 1959 until his retirement in 1987. His successor, Al Shackleford, was fired in 1990, along with news director Dan Martin, over a clash with Executive Committee officers over story selection. That action prompted formation of Associated Baptist Press.
The Executive Committee then separated news and convention relations into two offices and in 1991 hired Herb Hollinger, a Baptist state newspaper editor from California, as director of Baptist Press. After Hollinger retired, Morris Chapman, executive committee president from 1992 until his retirement this year, tapped Will Hall, a military veteran with no previous professional journalism experience, to the VP post now being eliminated, in 2000. His last day on the job is Dec. 3.
Art Toalston, a veteran Baptist journalist who came to work for Hollinger at Baptist Press in 1992, will oversee daily production as editor of Baptist Press.
Bob Simpson, immediate past president of the Association of State Baptist papers, said Dec. 1 he understands the rationale expressed for the downsizing but that he was "shocked" to hear that Hall no longer fits into the Executive Committee's plans.
Simpson, editor of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware news journal Baptist Life, termed Hall "a man of integrity" and "a gifted leader who has done an excellent job for Southern Baptists during his tenure."
Simpson said Hall "has communicated fairly and skillfully to both Southern Baptists and non-Southern Baptists" and "will be sorely missed."
Hall's leadership became an issue for some Baptist state paper editors this year, when an editorial accused Baptist Press of biased coverage of a Great Commission Task Force that proposed a major reshuffling of the convention's priorities.
At this summer's SBC annual meeting, Marty King, editor of the Illinois Baptist, made a motion that Baptist Press be separated from the Executive Committee altogether and function as an SBC entity with trustees elected by the convention in order to increase both its editorial freedom and accountability to Southern Baptists.
Citing previous studies on similar proposals in years past, the Executive Committee voted in September to decline to recommend the change, expressing desire that Baptist Press "continue to operate as an integral part of the ministry assignment of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention rather than a separate entity."
The other Executive Committee position being eliminated is a vice president responsible for promoting the Cooperative Program, the convention's unified budget. Created in 1997, the position has been held since 2005 by Bob Rodgers, a layman. After Rodgers' last day Dec. 10, Page, who took over as head of the Executive Committee Oct. 1, will oversee that responsibility directly.
Page commended both Hall and Rogers for their service and said it is never easy to lay people off from their jobs. "This has been an agonizing set of decisions for me to make," he said in the release. He added the cuts "will not be the only ones we will need to make in the days ahead."
In addition to the restructuring, Page also announced hiring of Bill Townes as interim vice president of convention finance. Currently director of development at the North American Mission Board, Townes will be recommended for permanent election to the post when the Executive Committee meets in February.
The finance VP president position has been vacant since July 1, 2009, when Clark Logan was asked to resign after less than two years on the job for unspecified reasons.