Attorney Jim Shoemake and I played a little game of phone tag last Friday. When we finally talked, he asked to read a court filing titled “Plaintiff’s Voluntary Dismissal of All Claims Against Defendant Word and Way Without Prejudice” to me. The plaintiffs were identified as Executive Board of the Missouri Baptist Convention, et al.
The content was a single sentence barely three typewritten lines long: “Come now plaintiffs by and through their attorneys, pursuant to Rule 67.02(a) of the Missouri Rules Civil Procedure, and hereby voluntarily dismiss without prejudice any and all claims in the Fifth Amended Petition against defendant Word&Way.”
Since May 5, 2009, we at Word&Way had anticipated this filing. But weeks of waiting turned to months. That date was when the convention’s Cole County case against Windermere Baptist Conference Center was finally officially over. Judge Richard Callahan had ruled in Windermere’s favor, a decision upheld by the Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City. Then, on May 5 last year, the Missouri Supreme Court declined the MBC’s request to re-hear the case. Judge Callahan’s decision became final.
The founding documents of Windermere and Word&Way mirrored each other. They were prepared at the same time in 2000 in anticipation of agency status for the two entities. The particulars of the MBC’s cases against both also mirrored each other. Once Windermere’s case was decided and convention appeals were exhausted, it was clear the MBC ceased to have a viable case against Word&Way.
Last week’s filing came 11 months and 18 days after the Supreme Court allowed the Windermere decision to stand. Perhaps because we had waited so long, Mr. Shoemake’s announcement did not really have the effect on me that I had imagined it would have. He dutifully read the order and noted that “without prejudice” meant the MBC reserved the right to re-file within a limited time frame should it decide to do so.
After nearly eight years of litigation and a significant time, financial and emotional investment, I had expected I might lift a cheer upon hearing such news. That is not what happened.
If I reacted audibly, it was little more than a sigh of relief. Surely most people on both sides of this legal conflict have grown weary of it all.
To be sure, I am pleased that this matter is over for us and long for the day when the final three cases (involving Missouri Baptist University, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and The Baptist Home) are behind us, too. No matter how any of these cases turns out, there will be no winners. When the dust finally settles, we all should shudder to think about the ultimate cost, not only in dollars but in damaged resources, relationships, influence and Christian witness.
Our trustees made a commitment early on that in the Baptist-divided state of Missouri, Word&Way would do its best to serve all Baptists in our state, just as it has done now for 114 years. That has remained our goal despite a few roadblocks and some outright opposition. Our staff has made me proud by treating detractors and friends alike with respect. As a group, our staff has continued to pray that God would bless every Missouri Baptist and ministry.
Our relief that this legal issue is behind us is tempered by an MBC Executive Board decision 10 days earlier.
In apparent anticipation of the convention’s filing to dismiss our case, the Executive Board acted on April 13 to continue its ban on Word&Way’s attendance at the board’s committee and plenary sessions. We have been denied access to those meetings for the past several years because we were litigants, objects of an MBC lawsuit. This time around, the board acted to close its meetings to us indefinitely without a stated reason or rationale.
This stance is unfortunate and shortsighted. Word&Way’s track record over the past eight years is clear. When we have reported on Missouri Baptist life, we have done so fairly and accurately, whether matters relating to the MBC itself, the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri, churches or individuals.
We hope the Executive Board reconsiders and rescinds its ban. By denying information and coverage to Word&Way, it in effect denies that information to what has been an important part of the convention’s constituency. Many will view this as a concerted effort by MBC leaders to keep them in the dark or to more tightly control convention news. Now should be a time when all of us move forward. With the continued prayers and help of subscribers, advertisers, churches and other contributors, that is exactly what Word&Way plans to do.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.