Editor's note: This is the introduction of a seven-part series in which Word&Way will examine aspects of the ongoing conflict between the Missouri Baptist Convention and five related institutions.
"Everyone around here is kind of befuddled. I used to ask my pastor about what is going on, but now he's gone," a middle-aged member of a rural Missouri Baptist church said. "But one thing we do know -- we don't like the conflict and split."
"Quite frankly, I try to keep the conflict away from my people," a Missouri Baptist pastor acknowledged. "God gave us a task to do here. Let the convention and the agencies fight it out. It has nothing to do with us."
As the legal battle between the Missouri Baptist Convention and five affiliated entities -- Word&Way, the Missouri Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Missouri Baptist University and The Baptist Home - nears its third year, Missouri Baptists have grown weary of the conflict. Many church members just want the lawsuit ended, and many don't care how.
The legal tug-of-war -- which legal fine point has delayed proceedings or who won which round -- has overshadowed the deeper, underlying conflict among Missouri Baptist brothers and sisters. Rhetoric has clouded issues, such as accountability, control and fiscal responsibility. Over the next few weeks, Word&Way will examine some of those issues.
The move toward a legal solution to MBC turmoil began when trustees for The Baptist Home changed their charter in 2000 to allow The Home to elect its own board members. In the past, the MBC nominating committee nominated trustees, and messengers to each MBC annual meeting elected them. With the charter change, The Home's own nominating committee recommends replacements for expiring terms or other vacancies. Trustees then elect them.
Trustees made the change at the recommendation of attorney Jim Shoemake of Guilfoil, Petzall and Shoemake of St. Louis. The lawyer recommended the change to protect The Home and the MBC from the risk of ascending and descending liability. Board members studied issues for a year before opting to rework the charter.
At a Sept. 11-12 board meeting, Dwight Cole, who represented the firm, told trustees that suing nursing homes is "the primary wave of litigation. We are a not-for-profit corporation. Let's face it. We are a deep pocket. We have $40 million out there. Forty million dollars is worth going after."
The move would protect the MBC from ascending liability -- someone who sued The Home would be unable to tap MBC resources -- and The Home would be protected from descending liability -- someone suing the MBC could not go after The Home's resources as well. Trustees passed the action 20-0, with one board member absent.
The Home's trustees formulated a covenant agreement that both the MBC Interagency Relations Committee, which deals with the convention's institutions, and the executive board adopted. But messengers to the 2001 annual meeting at Cape Girardeau turned it down.
In 2001, boards of each of the other four entities also decided to become self-electing. With a 6-0 vote and three members absent, Windermere trustees changed their charter on July 30, 2001. Although trustees acknowledged the "political climate" in the convention, liability was listed as the board's primary concern.
An MBC committee had oversight responsibility for Windermere until Jan. 1, 2001. Messengers to the 1999 MBC annual meeting approved making the conference center and Word&Way separate agencies. Messengers approved articles of incorporation for both entities at the 2000 annual meeting.
University trustees made the move on Aug. 23, 2001, by a 16-10 vote. Trustee David Sheppard immediately resigned. Board members also revised the university's covenant statement with the MBC.
Two reasons for the change were given at the time -- liability issues and "uncertainty of political activity" in the convention.
Foundation board members amended the entity's charter on Oct. 10, 2001, by secret ballot. According to a report in the Oct. 18, 2001, issue of Word&Way, the action passed by a "significant majority."
"Fiduciary obligations and duties to Foundation clients" were reasons cited for the change, although the board did acknowledge that the political atmosphere was seen as "at least a perceived threat."
Word&Way board members met in special session on Oct. 9, 2001, and voted via telephone on Oct. 19. Political concerns, rather than liability, guided the decision. "The trustees came to believe that the mission of providing a free press for all Missouri Baptists was in jeopardy," then-president Robert Johnston said at the time.
The possibility of legal action against the five surfaced in 2001 when then-MBC president Bob Curtis appointed a legal task force at the direction of messengers to the 2001 annual meeting. Curtis named the task force on Dec. 11 that year. Messengers also voted to escrow funds budgeted for the five agencies in 2002.
Presented on April 18, 2002, the task force report called for the five institutions to rescind the new charters and to reinstate the previous ones.
At a called meeting on June 2 that year, executive board members voted 33-9 "to take all legal steps necessary to restore the five agencies to their former legal relationship" with the convention.
On Aug. 13, 2002, the MBC and six representative churches filed legal action against the five agencies and Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt in Cole County Circuit Court. The six churches included First Baptist churches of Arnold, Bethany and Branson; Concord Baptist, Jefferson City; Oakwood Baptist, Kansas City; and Springhill Baptist, Springfield.
Messengers to the 2002 annual meeting removed the five institutions from the 2003 budget.
After a series of court filings and appearances, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brown ruled that the executive board and six churches did not have legal standing to file the action and dismissed the case. MBC attorneys are appealing the decision.
Even as the conflict has unfolded, Missouri Baptists continue to ask questions raised by the underlying issues.
Theological concerns have been cited throughout the conflict. What role, if any, has theology played in the controversy? Does it have a continuing role?
Many Missouri Baptists believe theological differences opened the door to using political means to steer the convention into a more conservative or moderate direction. Some Missouri Baptists divided into political camps based on their theological approach.
While four of the five entities listed liability and fiduciary issues as the primary reason for changing their charters, all five at least acknowledged that the convention's political climate played a part in their decision.
What was the political climate in the late 1990s, 2000 and 2001? Do political issues continue to play a role in the ongoing conflict?
How much did the five entities rely on Cooperative Program funding from the convention? How were those funds used in the past? How are the entities surviving financially today? Are fundraising efforts different than approaches they used in the past? How much in assets do the five agencies have? How much has the legal action cost Missouri Baptists?
Insurance coverage is helping all five entities cover some of their legal expenses. The executive board is currently trying to convince its carrier to cover its costs. How do the agency and MBC claims differ? What are the policies designed to cover?
Are the five institutions no longer accountable to Missouri Baptists as some have charged? If not, to whom are they accountable? To whom is the MBC accountable?
What efforts have been made to solve the conflict? How did the MBC and the institutions respond to suggestions made in those efforts? Are there other approaches?
Next week, Word&Way will examine the role theology may have played in the current conflict.
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