By Bill Webb
Unless the Missouri Baptist Convention's Executive Board changes its mind, messengers to the MBC annual meeting this fall will be asked to budget Cooperative Program funds to pay attorneys' fees and other legal charges in 2005 in its ongoing suit against five Missouri Baptist institutions - including Word&Way.
The Cooperative Program is the unified giving plan whereby local Southern Baptist churches fund missions and ministries within each state and through various SBC entities. Until now, elected MBC leaders and annual meeting messengers have been adamantly opposed to the use of CP gifts to pursue the legal action filed in August 2002 by the Executive Board and six churches.
Reservations about using mission money on legal fees on the part of the members of the Executive Board have mostly evaporated, especially since the special fund created by messengers to last year's annual meeting - the Agency Restoration Fund (ARF) -- has failed to catch on. The fund -- to be made up of designated gifts from individuals and churches - was supposed to pay legal expenses so CP funds would not be used.
A companion measure, a $1 million line of credit to cover legal fees, was approved as a backup. Messengers to last year's annual meeting overwhelmingly approved both recommendations when the Executive Board presented them for a vote.
In the case of ARF, messengers voted with uplifted hands but not with their pocketbooks. The fund's income for the first quarter of 2004 was less than $4,000. That's a little less that $2 for each messenger who voted in favor of ARF.
Meanwhile, the Executive Board saw its debt total reach more than half a million dollars in legal fees in the five months since the line of credit was approved.
Shortly after the Executive Board voted on April 13 to place the five institutions back in their 2005 CP budget - stipulating that the money will go into ARF for legal fees and not to the institutions - MBC leaders launched a massive letter campaign to convince grassroots Missouri Baptists to "join the battle" and begin pouring money into ARF to both fund the lawsuit and avoid having to spend CP money for that purpose.
That may be a hard sell. The grassroots tends to follow the example of leaders. First-quarter receipts suggest that neither Executive Board members nor their churches have gotten behind the ARF effort. That absence of commitment will likely not be lost on people in the pews, no matter how urgent the appeal or how much pressure is applied.
The significance of giving large amounts of money through ARF or the Cooperative Program is being downplayed as some leaders suggest the convention can fully expect insurance or the five defendant institutions to pay back all that has been expended once the court action is over. Missouri Baptists have reason to be skeptical of absolute assurances.
Ultimately, it will be the rank-and-file who decide what to do with the Executive Board recommendation and the appeals to give to ARF. They might be convinced to vote with their ballots, but the real vote will always come with their hearts and their wallets. To go from "No CP for legal fees!" to "Maybe it's okay" just a year later suggests some may be leading others down a slippery slope that will continue to erode the wonderful ministries that we have undergirded in Missouri, our nation and the world.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.