(WW) — As the Missouri Baptist Convention met for its annual meeting in Branson, Missouri, earlier this week, messengers were met with anonymous attack fliers, public airing of disagreements in convention speeches, and implicit legal threats. Amid a nearly-yearlong controversy regarding a professor fired by Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, leaders of the MBC and SBU also expressed disagreements over trustee selection process and governance.
While MBC leaders attempted to celebrate the end of nearly 17 years of lawsuits they initiated in 2002 against various Baptist ministries, some in the MBC appeared to threaten potential legal actions against SBU. In contrast, SBU President Eric Turner lamented from the microphone that “for some reason when we disagree with one another, we default to a legal perspective rather than a biblical one.”
In 2002, the MBC filed lawsuits against five Baptist entities — including Word&Way — and later sued several financial institutions and individuals. All of that litigation ended earlier this year with the MBC losing its claims against most of the defendants they sued.
Controversy surrounding SBU started last November after SBU fired Clint Bass, a theology professor, for violating SBU’s faculty handbook. Bass had met secretly with MBC leaders in an effort to allegedly drive out other theology professors. A trustee committee upheld his dismissal. And the trustees voted on Oct. 22 to remove Kyle Lee as a member of the board for violating the board’s conflict of interest policy in the handling of Bass’s case. The MBC disputes SBU’s right to remove a trustee.
Debate Over New Trustees
In an Oct. 22 statement by SBU, the school’s trustees expressed concern about the MBC’s nominating process for new trustees ahead of the MBC’s annual meeting the next week.
“The board expressed concern that, to date, the University has not been notified of nominees to be put forth at the MBC annual meeting next week,” the statement explained. “This is an unprecedented action on the part of the nominating committee, and the SBU board of trustees desires for this to change in the future.”
Turner said in his remarks a week later at the MBC meeting that SBU finally heard from the nominating committee on Oct. 23, just six days before the meeting. Turner said they learned their “entire proposed trustee slate was rejected.” He then shared that SBU and MBC leaders worked “to develop a compromise slate.” However, the nominating committee rejected that compromise and pushed the committee’s five nominees.
During his remarks shortly before the vote on the nominees, Turner said they would not be challenging the vote, such as with a floor amendment of substitute names. SBU had previously hinted they might push a vote at the meeting, sending an Oct. 24 email to alumni urging them to “pray for unity and cooperation between SBU and Missouri Baptists.” And in addition to inviting people to visit SBU’s booth and alumni reception at the MBC annual meeting, the email also encouraged messengers to back SBU.
“Wear purple on Tuesday at the MBC annual meeting to show your support of SBU,” the email urged. “Be prepared to support SBU with your vote. “
But on the day of the vote, Turner instead voiced his complaint and urged a better path forward.
“Candidly, I’m disappointed in the process,” he said. “You may be expecting the University to fight this. You might even say it’s foolish not to. But the story we’re shaping together will not be, nor should it, be rooted in conflict. Rather, our story will be rooted in unity, collaboration, and love.”
Turner urged Baptists to follow the principles of loving each other as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 and find ways to “work together in harmony with one another.”
A few minutes later, however, the chair of the MBC’s nominating committee set a different tone while introducing the committee’s report. Ryan Kunce, who also serves as senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Bethany, did not refer to SBU but clearly alluded to Turner’s complaint about the process. He claimed they followed their rules, including consulting with heads of institutions. He added they then voted for those they “believe will best serve Missouri Baptists and will hold our entities accountable.”
As Kunce explained why his committee does not “rubber-stamp” names submitted by institutions, he referred to the MBC’s nearly 17 years of lawsuits. He argued the MBC does not use a system where institutions elect their own trustees and mentioned that the MBC “spent years in court” fighting such a model. That model, however, differs from what Turner desired, as SBU did not attempt to elect its own trustees. Kunce also claimed the courts “affirmed the right of the [nominating] committee to nominate,” but that was only true in some of the MBC’s cases.
SBU’s board also set up a working group of trustees at its October meeting to study changes demanded by the MBC to SBU’s charter and bylaws. The MBC previously instructed six Baptist institutions to make two changes to governing documents: adopt the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and name the MBC as the “sole member” of the corporation.
The other five institutions — Hannibal-LaGrange University, Missouri Baptist Children’s Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist University, and The Baptist Home — all adopted the two changes prior to the MBC’s Executive Board meeting in August. At that meeting, MBC board members granted SBU an extension to adopt the two changes.
MBC messengers voted at the annual meeting to approve a recommendation from the MBC Executive Board that the MBC “directs” SBU’s trustees to approve the “sole member” change before June. Some messengers questioned why SBU was given more time and had not yet complied. If SBU does not comply, the MBC might cut funding or initiate litigation.
Anonymous Fliers Attack SBU
The topic of Bass’s dismissal continues to bring criticism by his supporters. While speaking briefly during the MBC Pastors’ Conference before the start of the MBC meeting, Turner addressed the ongoing attacks. He argued that SBU had been falsely “maligned and criticized with the suggestion that we’re not serious about our Kingdom work.”
The next day, after he gave his official SBU report, he faced questions from three messengers critical of his firing of Bass and upset at other professors deemed by the questioners to be teaching unbiblical positions. All three questioners were messengers from Southern Hill Baptist Church in Bolivar, which sits just across the street from SBU. Bass served as an elder there, and one of the questioners was Bass’s wife who asked if Turner had regrets about firing Bass. After replying “respectfully no,” Turner explained that Bass violated the faculty handbook and “violated principles of scriptures.”
Supporters of Bass also put an anonymous flier on car windshields and passed out a four-page booklet supposedly from “concerned SBU alumni and friends.” The booklet used, without permission, an official SBU logo and claimed its creators were “Bible believing, God fearing, Christ honoring Baptists.” The two documents largely rehashed previous attacks on various SBU professors that Bass targeted, including allegations already denied by those professors or debunked by Word&Way.
Turner condemned the anonymous attacks in his official SBU report at the meeting.
“There are those more concerned about retaliating against the past than working toward the future,” Turner said. “Handbills being handed out, fliers on windshields, social media attacks, and whisper campaigns — uninformed and anonymous propaganda — this hinders unity and is not constructive to move the university, our convention, or the Kingdom forward.”