By Vicki Brown
Word&Way News Writer
Raytown — On the same day it opened its 170th annual session, the Missouri Baptist Convention filed another legal action against five related agencies.
Meeting at First Baptist Church, Raytown, on Oct. 25, messengers learned that MBC attorneys that day filed a declaratory judgment action against The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist University, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and Word&Way in an effort to void new charters the institutions filed in 2000 and 2001. Charter changes allow the five entities to elect their own trustees rather than to allow the convention to continue to do so.
The convention first filed a declaratory judgment action in 19th Judicial District Circuit Court in Cole County against the five entities on Aug. 13, 2002. The Executive Board and six MBC-related churches were plaintiffs in that lawsuit. The six churches included Oakwood Baptist Church, Kansas City; Springhill Baptist Church, Springfield; Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City; and First Baptist churches of Bethany, Arnold and Branson.
Earlier this year, Judge Thomas Brown dismissed the action on the grounds that the Executive Board and the six churches did not have standing — the legal right — to file the action. Currently, the convention is appealing that ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri in Kansas City.
The new legal action, filed in the same circuit court, names the MBC and individual messengers, rather than churches, as plaintiffs. Messengers include Robert Curtis, pastor of Ballwin Baptist Church; Mitchell Jackson, pastor of Miner Baptist Church, Sikeston, and 2005 MBC president; James Plymale, messenger from First Baptist Church, Villa Ridge; Lyn Heying, messenger from New Oakland Baptist Church, Ralls County; and James Moore, messenger from Concord Baptist Church, St. Louis.
In a video report for the MBC legal task force, chairman Gary Taylor briefly outlined steps he says the MBC has taken since the agencies changed their charters. He noted that messengers to the 2001 annual session directed the MBC to "take all steps necessary" to bring the five back into the same relationship each had with the convention before their charters were changed.
"We have sought to pursue the cause you have commissioned us to do," Taylor said. He mentioned that MBC attorneys had filed the new legal action, but did not provide details in the video.
According to court documents, the convention asks the court to declare that the convention and the five individuals have standing to bring the action. The MBC also asks the court to declare the convention's right to elect trustees, that current convention-elected trustees are each agency's only authorized trustees, and that the convention has the right to approve amendments to the institutions' charters. The MBC seeks to have the court declare the amendments to each charter as unlawful and void and the authorized charters as legally enforceable by the convention.
The court also is being asked to rescind or cancel the lease the Foundation currently has with the convention for space in the Baptist Building in Jefferson City and to rescind or cancel the promissory note and deed of trust Windermere has with Allegiant Bank in St. Louis and any other creditor.
Windermere borrowed approximately $18 million to pay contractors for work done on its Wilderness Creek project and to complete the project's first phase.
If the court rules in the institutions' favor, the MBC asks the court to rescind or cancel the charter and covenant agreement with each entity. It also asks the court to cancel the corporation deed and assignment of property that transferred real estate and other assets to Windermere when it was incorporated as a separate agency.
Although return of assets from the other three agencies is not mentioned in the relief section of the legal action, it is mentioned in the body of the argument. Court documents note that the convention seeks return of any property and assets turned over to the three in the year each filed an amended charter and in following years.
The MBC seeks a monetary award to cover its court costs and attorneys' fees.
In the court documents, the MBC charges conspiracy among the five entity heads — The Baptist Home president Larry Johnson, Windermere president Frank Shock, MBU president Alton Lacey, Foundation president James Smith and Word&Way editor Bill Webb — and former MBC executive director Jim Hill, former MBC legal counsel W.B. "Bart" Tichenor, Windermere trustee chairman Arthur Mallory, former MBU trustee chairman Randy Fullerton, former The Home trustee Wade Paris, other entity trustees and staffers and "other persons who will be identified in discovery." The MBC also may name "lawyers purporting to represent" the entities in the alleged conspiracy.
According to court documents, the convention later may seek to add the "conspirators" as defendants.
In the video, Taylor noted that in addition to attorneys Michael Whitehead, Stan Masters and James Freeman, the MBC legal team also includes John Holstein, a former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Judge. Charles W. Hatfield, a former assistant state attorney general, joined the team in March. He currently practices law with the firm Stinson Morrison Hecker in Jefferson City.
Holstein, a member of Second Baptist Church, Springfield, told messengers via video that their "cause is just" and the case "is winnable."
Dee Wampler, a Springfield attorney, has agreed to consult on legal fees, and the MBC will consult Randy Singer, a legal consultant to the North American Mission Board, an offer extended by NAMB president Bob Reccord.
Taylor asked messengers to consider time and cost when trying to decide whether continuing legal action against the five entities is worth the effort. When questioning the time required, messengers should compare two years of litigation and the possibility of two more years against how long it had taken to build the five institutions originally, he said.
Taylor also compared the institutions' assets on the dates the charters were changed to the amount the convention has paid in legal fees so far. The MBC estimates, based on audits and information supplied in depositions, that the five entities managed assets worth a combined $231 million in 2001. The convention estimates The Home's assets at $32 million, Windermere at $50 million, MBU at $19 million, the Foundation at $130 million and Word&Way at less than a tenth of a million dollars.
Taylor noted the Agency Restoration Fund established by messengers to the 2003 annual meeting continues to receive gifts. He said members of the legal task force believe legal fees can be covered "without dipping into the Executive Board budget."
"This year's budget assumes the Agency Relief Fund will pay for legal fees," Taylor said.
He said the task force believes the convention must continue to pursue a legal remedy. "If we do not win, it will set a dangerous precedent…," he said, adding that the MBC is "seeking to regain family property."
Messengers to the Oct. 25-27 meeting turned down a motion by Ron Mackey, pastor of and messenger from Windsor Baptist Church, Imperial, to drop all lawsuits against the five institutions.
The five individuals were included as plaintiffs in the convention's latest legal action because each has served as a messenger to annual meetings since 1999 and each has been or is an MBC-elected trustee for one of the five institutions.
Curtis served as MBC first vice president in 2001 and as president for 2002. As president, he was an ex officio trustee for Windermere.
In addition to his election as 2005 MBC president, Jackson was elected as an convention "legal trustee" to The Baptist Home for a three-year term to expire in 2007.
Plymale served as a messenger from First Baptist Church, Villa Ridge, from 2001-2004. For 1999-2001, he was a messenger from First Baptist Church, Washington. He was a convention-elected trustee for MBU and voted against the charter change in 2001. The MBC continues to consider him an MBU "legal trustee."
The convention elected Heying as a "legal trustee" for Word&Way and elected Moore as a "legal trustee" for the Foundation in 2003.
(See the Nov. 4 edition of Word&Way for more annual meeting coverage.)