By Bill Webb
Indianapolis (ABP) – Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting voted by a 2-1 margin to "respectfully request" that trustees of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary amend the school's charter, naming the Southern Baptist Convention as the seminary's "sole member."
The recommendation was presented by the SBC Executive Committee and debated by the full convention June 15.
Messengers denied pleas by New Orleans president Chuck Kelley and seminary trustees to delay the matter to allow them to bring to the 2005 convention both a sole-member proposal and a yet-to-be-determined alternative the seminary board believes would ensure convention ownership of the seminary but take into account the unique nature of Louisiana non-profit law and better protect Baptist polity.
Kelley previously said seminary trustees would honor a request to make the charter change granting sole membership to the SBC only if the request came as a result of convention action such as that taken in Indianapolis.
Executive Committee chairman Gary Smith said the Executive Committee made the sole-member request of New Orleans' trustees seven years ago and that the seminary had long been the sole holdout of the 11 SBC institutions.
Executive Committee leaders said the convention action is intended to ensure the right of the convention to continue to elect seminary trustees, to guarantee that ownership of the seminary remains with the convention and to protect the Southern Baptist Convention from ascending liability.
Convention attorney James Guenther told messengers that the charter change to name the SBC as the sole member board ensures both entities will continue to enjoy their historic roles.
"The convention would clearly own the seminary and elect its board of trustees," he said. "The board would then, as it does now, operate and manage the seminary.
"It's not about changing the historic covenant between the convention and the seminary," he said. "It is about sealing that covenant to make sure that a Baylor-like event does not occur in this convention."
The governing board of Baylor University voted in 1990 to make the board self-perpetuating. Later an agreement was reached to share those elective powers with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which had held that authority. The BGCT now elects one fourth of the board and the board members themselves elect three fourths.
"This recommendation is not rooted in suspicion," Guenther said of the New Orleans proposal.
"The Executive Committee members do not believe this seminary board would ever flee the convention. I personally believe, and the Executive [Committee] members believe, that the present trustees of that seminary are honorable, loyal Southern Baptists. But the time to close the barn door is before there are any horses wanting to get out."
Kelley pleaded with messengers to defeat the recommendation so seminary trustees could bring their own to the 2005 annual meeting in Nashville.
"You have not yet been given all the facts and the other side of the sole membership story," he noted. "The bottom line is that Louisiana law is different than that of other entity states, and that difference makes sole membership more harmful than helpful for the SBC."
Kelley said some SBC agency heads have told him privately that they are having second thoughts about sole membership and wish they could reconsider their agency's acceptance of it.
He promised that – if messengers held off until 2005 – trustees would bring both a sole-member proposal and an alternative charter change "consistent with Louisiana law and Baptist polity" to next year's annual meeting. "Whichever one you choose, we will immediately implement next year," he said.
The recommendation approved by messengers last week calls for the seminary board to specify the SBC's right to:
— Elect and remove the seminary's trustees.
— Approve any amendment of the charter adopted by the board of trustees.
— Approve any merger, consolidation, dissolution or other change in the entity's charter.
— Approve the sale, lease or other disposition of the corporation's assets.
The convention expects the charter changes to be submitted for consideration by the Executive Committee in its February 2005 meeting, then presented to messengers at next year's annual meeting for approval before the new charter is filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State.
In October 2003, seminary trustees voted unanimously not to change the articles of incorporation naming the SBC as its sole member. That prompted the Executive Committee to decline to give the seminary until 2005 to bring its proposal and instead to bring the issue to 2004 messengers.
Messengers heard from two Missouri Baptists, including Don Johnson, pastor and messenger from First Baptist Church in Fredericktown, a New Orleans trustee who said he was in the minority on the board.
Describing the Executive Committee's presentation of its motion "one-sided," Johnson pleaded with messengers to give the seminary a year to work on its solution.
"I believe the motion needs to be defeated because it sets a very dangerous precedent of micro-managing each of our entities," he explained. "If any time a Southern Baptist entity doesn't agree with the SBC, are we going to have a motion to instruct that entity to do what it's told?
"…give us a chance to do our job," he said.
Jeff Purvis, pastor and messenger from Wesport Community Church in St. Louis, urged passage of the recommendation.
"All we have to do is look at Missouri," he said, noting that five instutions there had voted to become self-perpetuating.
"If each of the charters of these agencies had the sole member as the Missouri Baptist Convention, we wouldn't have already had to spend one million dollars on a legal lawsuit.
"As far as Baptist polity, these are not normal times that we are living in," he added.
(See the 6-24-04 print edition of Word&Way for more SBC coverage.)