Beyond Rhetoric Part 7 - Too few real attempts at reconciliation - Word&Way

Beyond Rhetoric Part 7 – Too few real attempts at reconciliation

Editor’s Note: This final installment of Word&Way’s seven-part series on conflict between the Missouri Baptist Convention and five of its related institutions examines some attempts at reconciliation.

Few real attempts at reconciliation have been made between messengers’ mandate in October 2001 to “take all necessary steps” to “restore” five Missouri Baptist Convention-related entities to the MBC fold and the convention’s filing legal action against the five on Aug. 13, 2002. MBC leaders and institution heads face an impasse whose solution now seems to rest in Missouri’s civil court system.

Each side has said the other is at fault. The MBC blames The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist University, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and Word&Way because the five changed their charters in 2000 and 2001 to allow each to elect its own board members. In the past, the convention elected them.

At least four of the five institutions cite liability and fiscal responsibilities for choosing to become self-electing (see part 1 on this site or in the Sept. 23 issue of Word&Way). All five fault what they perceived as politicizing the process of electing board and committee members (see part 3 on this site or in the Oct. 7 issue of Word&Way).

As all parties have stood their ground, the possibilities for finding a mutually acceptable compromise have all but faded in the past three years.

How have the parties tried to reconcile with one another, to find possible solutions to bridging the rift between them?

Appeal for new direction

Division among Missouri Baptists seemed to deepen in 1998 with the formation of Project 1000, an effort to get more conservative candidates elected to state leadership posts, and Mainstream Missouri Baptists, a group that opposed Project 1000 (see part 3).

Frustrated with the infighting, then-MBC executive director Jim Hill appealed to Missouri Baptists to focus on the convention’s strategic plan, New Directions, for reaching the state and revitalizing churches.

“We must find a way to join hands in partnership and cooperation for the sake of our Savior and His kingdom work,” Hill said in his address to the 1999 annual meeting. “The truth is, friends, until our love for the lost in Missouri outweighs our contempt and our jealousy among our own family, we will never head [in] a new direction.”

Talk and a prayer

Apparently sometime after the 1999 annual meeting, Hill approached 1999 MBC president Jay Scribner and newly elected president for 2000 Gary Taylor to discuss the possibility of getting the factions to talk.

Taylor pulled together Project 1000 representatives, and Doyle Sager coordinated a Mainstream group. The then-executive director asked Milton Baumgartner, one of several people not affiliated with either Project 1000 or Mainstream who had contacted Hill about building unity, to form what was dubbed the “undeclared group.”

In 2000, Hill, Taylor and Scribner met with each group separately — with Project 1000 and the undeclared group in March and with Mainstream in April. The three groups met jointly on Sept. 21, with each given an opportunity to clarify where it stood on issues. The press was not present.

In an open letter to Missouri Baptists that appeared in Word&Way on Oct. 5, 2000, Hill emphasized the undeclared group’s desire for unity. The undeclared group wanted to know “what it would take to bring real peace and cooperation,” Hill wrote, and that its representatives believed “reconciliation can only happen when we are willing to talk and pray together.”

Unfortunately, little movement toward reconciliation seemed to take place, Hill acknowledged. “While concerns have been clarified, we are no nearer to peace and cooperation,” he wrote.

The Baptist Home trustees’ move to become a self-electing board in September 2000 seemed to galvanize positions. Noting that he disagreed with The Home’s “unilateral” decision, Hill asked for and got a recommendation accepted at the 2000 annual meeting to allow MBC leaders to work with The Home for a year.

Representatives for each met several times throughout the year. Leaders developed a covenant that passed the MBC Executive Board’s inter-agency relations and administrative committees — and the Executive Committee itself — but was turned down at the 2001 annual session.

Some individuals emphasized prayer. Members of First Baptist Church, Oak Grove, led by pastor Randy Messer, prayer-walked from Kansas City to Tan-Tar-A for the 2000 annual meeting.

Shared responsibility

In the past, Missouri Baptist institutions gave the MBC nominating committee a list of names to fill trustee slots. Generally, the nominating committee approved those individuals and messengers to the subsequent annual meeting elected them.

But changes in nominating committee guidelines in 2001 modified qualifications for individuals to serve. Some entities viewed the guidelines as too restrictive, and as the committee rejected trustee nominees, began to explore the possibility of electing their own (see part 3).

As the other four entities changed their charters in 2001, some individuals suggested discovering a way for the MBC and the institutions to share in trustee selection.

In an interview with Word&Way in October 2000 and before MBU changed its charter, university president Alton Lacey suggested the institutions and the convention’s nominating committee cooperate to select trustees. At some point, someone proposed a “mutual veto” that would give institution heads the option to refuse individuals suggested by the MBC nominating committee.

In an Aug. 30, 2001, letter to the editor to Word&Way, James Plymale offered a four-step proposal to reconciliation. He asked for a moratorium on the nominating committee changes, suggested allowing the boards to elect up to a third of their own members, requested that no other institutions change their charters, and encouraged the convention and the agencies that had made charter changes to pray for forgiveness and to work to reestablish trust.

Escalated tension

Attempts at reconciliation seemed to fade as the search for a solution to the impasse turned to the legal arena. Messengers to the 2001 annual meeting approved formation of a legal task force with the authority to “take all steps necessary” to restore the five entities to their “former relationship.”

The legal task force released its initial report at the Executive Board’s April 2002 meeting, after consulting three law firms. Calling for the entities to rescind their revised charters, to recognize only MBC-elected trustees and to rescind any actions that did not have MBC approval, the report left little room for any compromise with the five institutions.

Entity heads charged that the legal task force failed to discuss the report with them before it was brought to the Executive Board.

Task force members countercharged that they had made several attempts to arrange meetings, and that agency administrators canceled a session set for April 1-2. However, institutional leaders noted that the task force asked for the meeting too late for entity heads to discuss it with their trustees and attorneys, and that the date fell just before Easter.

A glimmer of hope

The parties agreed to meet in St. Louis on May 28, 2002. Called “candid but cordial,” the meeting included Taylor as task force chairman, then-MBC president Bob Curtis and the five entity heads — The Baptist Home president Larry Johnson, Windermere chief executive officer Frank Shock, Foundation president Jim Smith, Word&Way editor Bill Webb and Lacey.

Although no compromise was reached, participants talked about possible solutions, including conciliation, mediation and binding Christian arbitration. Guidelines distributed at the meeting defined conciliation as an attempt by parties to reach an agreement privately. Mediation involves calling in an outsider to help mediate differences. If conflicting parties cannot reach a solution, they sometimes turn to binding Christian arbitration in which parties are legally bound to a third-party ruling.

Most participants in the May 28 meeting said they left with a feeling that the doors to further discussion had been opened to continue to seek a solution.

But those hopes were dashed at a called Executive Board meeting on June 6. With a 33-9 split vote, the board moved a step closer to turning to the courts by authorizing the task force to take “all legal steps necessary” to restore the institutions to their “former legal relationship” to the convention.

The Executive Board and six MBC-affiliated churches filed legal action against the five entities on Aug. 13, 2002. Cole County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brown dismissed the case in March this year.

Further attempts

In January 2003, Springfield attorney Darrell Moore proposed a solution. He called on the institutions to rescind their revised charters. The proposal also asked the MBC to return monies it had escrowed during 2002 and to restore the five entities to the convention’s 2003 budget. Under the proposal, the convention would elect a number of trustees for each entity based on the percentage the MBC contributed to each budget. For example, if the convention’s contribution to an agency equaled 10 percent of that institution’s budget, the MBC could appoint 10 percent of the entity’s trustees.

There was no official action taken on Moore’s solution.

While members of Windsor Baptist Church, Imperial, did not propose a solution to the conflict, they called on Missouri Baptists to stop fighting. In an August letter to 2004 MBC officers and the Executive Board, Windsor members asked for an end to legal action and to the “harsh rhetoric” on both sides. They also sent copies of the letter to every Missouri Baptist church.

In an interview on Sept. 26, Windsor member Gordon Bess explained that the church’s concern grew out of discussions among its deacons. Divided over the issues, the congregation had “agreed to disagree” and realized that “discussion is healthy.”

“We don’t all agree, but we get along and work together. What we do through that is advance God’s kingdom,” member Charles Davis added.

Windsor members also wondered if other churches were discussing the problems but were letting their pastors “do the talking” for them. Windsor decided to “speak as a church.”

Many in the church felt that the institutions “broke a longstanding trust” and that the convention was wrong to seek a legal solution. And they felt that “nothing is irreversible in God’s provision.”

About 125 churches responded to the letter — some 75 percent positively. Some said they appreciated the congregation’s speaking out.

But messengers to the 2004 annual meeting voted down a motion presented by pastor Ron Mackey to end all lawsuits against the entities. Mackey currently is a trustee for The Baptist Home.

While still awaiting an appeal on Judge Brown’s ruling, the convention and five individuals filed new legal action in the Cole County court on Oct. 25.

Any hope?

Speed B. Leas, author of “Leadership and Conflict,” has identified five levels of conflict — a problem to solve, disagreement that leads to mixing personalities and issues, a contest that becomes a win-or-lose proposition, fight or flight in which the focus shifts from winning to getting rid of individuals, and finally, intractableness. Generally at level five, the conflict is unmanageable and issues have become clouded.

According to Leas, collaborative solutions are possible at levels one and two, and compromise is possible at level three. The probability of an amiable solution is highly unlikely by the time a conflict has escalated to level four.

Levels four and five are characterized by factions, name-calling, self-righteousness and a call to “stand on principles” rather than to deal with issues.

People on both sides of the Missouri Baptist conflict have been called “unchristian,” “rebellious,” “untrustworthy,” “morally impure” and “heretical.”

There has been no real attempt at compromise. Each call for binding Christian arbitration required the institutions to rescind their revised charters first, which each believed left no bargaining room.

The MBC also has refused to discuss any compromise approach to naming trustee boards. “The convention would still have very little representation on these boards that would represent MBC interests,” then-convention president Monte Shinkle said after examining Moore’s proposal.

“We will not consider any proposal which doesn’t allow the convention final say in naming trustees. The convention has to be the one to name the trustees. That’s what the whole legal issue is about.”

Missouri Baptists have left it to the legal system to decide who’s right. 

Additional links to the entire series:

Beyond Rhetoric, Part 1: Overview
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 2: Theology
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 3: Politics
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 4: Accountability
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 5: Assets
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 6: Insurance
Beyond Rhetoric, Part 7: Reconciliation

You can find a link to the ongoing legal timeline here.