Feb. 3 marked a pair of significant new developments among Baptists in Missouri: (1) the election of interim David Tolliver as the Missouri Baptist Convention’s new executive director and (2) an appeals court decision in favor of Windermere Baptist Conference Center and against the MBC.
Admittedly, it is a little early to judge the significance of either of these events.
The new executive director
Tolliver was elected 44-4 by the MBC Executive Board during a called meeting at the Baptist Building in downtown Jefferson City, about 22 months after he was tabbed as the interim leader. Tolliver succeeds David Clippard, whom the Executive Board dismissed on April 10, minutes before Tolliver — an associate executive director at the time — was named interim.
Tolliver took the interim role during a time when divisions were running deep among so-called conservatives, both across the state and within the Executive Board itself.
Nearly two years ago, an ad hoc investigative committee of the Board laid out a litany of complaints against Clippard before dismissing him 44-7. Conservative leaders had picked sides much earlier when a simmering feud developed between Clippard and Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association organizer Roger Moran.
Clippard’s termination prompted some leaders in the state to scrutinize the influence of Moran and his followers in securing key leadership positions for themselves on boards and commissions in Missouri and in the Southern Baptist Convention.
These leaders launched a Save Our Convention (SOC) campaign, driven by examples of what they described as undue influence by Moran, his followers and his family members. They called for an end to “king-making” in the MBC nomination and election process. During the past two MBC annual meetings, SOC adherents have prevailed in officer elections.
Tolliver certainly has conservative credentials. He was one of the earliest organizers of annual Southern Baptist Conservatives of Missouri rallies to strategize on how to gain influence for conservatives and votes for conservative candidates for MBC officer positions.
In the wake of Clippard’s departure, Tolliver has been praised for improving morale within the MBC and especially within the Executive Board staff. Search committee chair James Freeman said of him: “In the midst of turmoil, Dr. Tolliver reaches out to others....”
Tolliver inherits other challenges, including a steady decline in Cooperative Program gifts from churches, made more challenging by a struggling economy.
Finally, Tolliver inherits legal action the MBC initiated against five institutions six and a half years ago and the indebtedness that goes with it.
The Windermere decision
That decision came more than six years after the convention filed its initial request for summary judgment the institutions and five amended petitions (legal do-overs), millions of dollars in court costs and attorneys’ fees, and considerable negative press about Baptist infighting. The appellate panel rejected every argument raised by the MBC legal team in affirming Callahan’s decision.
The appellate court decision may effectively end the MBC’s legal action against Windermere. MBC attorneys may still ask the Appeals Court to reconsider its decision or file an appeal with the Missouri Supreme Court. But during the report of the Legal Task Force at the MBC annual meeting last fall, MBC lead attorney Michael Whitehead underscored the significance of the decision of the appeals court.
“Either side can ask the Missouri Supreme Court to hear the case but it’s very unlikely the court will do so,” Whitehead told messengers. However, in the wake of last week’s decision, the attorney suggested the state Supreme Court actually might be interested in reviewing the appellate justice’s interpretation of sections of the non-profit code.
Whitehead also has told messengers in the past that the first decision could well produce a “domino effect” that might quickly end the legal action against the other four entities — Missouri Baptist University, Missouri Baptist Foundation, The Baptist Home and Word&Way — particularly if the MBC prevailed in the first case.
If the decision for Windermere stands, the Executive Board and perhaps messengers to the MBC annual meeting will want to evaluate exactly what actions they plan to take regarding the other four lawsuits, including how much additional money they still are willing to expend in legal fees and costs.
Will MBC leaders actively discourage churches and speakers from utilizing Windermere facilities or participating in its programs? Or will Windermere and MBC leaders be willing to sit down and discuss ways they might work together in the future? Some rank-and-file Missouri Baptists certainly hope so. Will the new executive director be of a mind to encourage some form of reconciliation and future relationship?
Indeed, Feb. 3 produced two very significant developments for Baptists in Missouri. Now the question is, what will Missouri Baptists do with them?
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way, one of the defendants in the MBC legal action against five entities.