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Belmont names 7 non-Baptists to join trustee board

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Belmont University, continuing its break from the Tennessee Baptist Convention, named eight new trustees Dec. 20, only one of whom is a member of a convention-affiliated church.

The seven other trustees include three Presbyterians, two Disciples of Christ church members and one who is a Missionary Baptist. Also among the new trustees: C.C. Winans, a Grammy-winning contemporary Christian singer and member of a nondenominational church.

Nashville business community leaders named as non-Baptist trustees include Robert Johnson (Disciples of Christ), executive vice president and CFO of HCA Inc., a healthcare conglomerate, and Joe Scarlett (Presbyterian), chairman of Tractor Supply Co.

Belmont’s trustee board amended its charter last year to remove the Tennessee Baptist Convention from appointing new trustees, thus making the board self-perpetuating.

That action triggered a repayment clause in a 1951 agreement signed by officials of both Belmont and the TBC, and the convention has filed a lawsuit seeking to reclaim TBC allocations to Belmont since its founding. In 1951, the TBC launched Belmont College as a co-educational institution after purchasing the financially troubled Ward-Belmont College, a school for women. “Tennessee Baptists established Belmont College to give youth a complete education of mind, body, and soul,” a Belmont school catalog noted. Since 1951, combined direct contributions by the TBC from Cooperative Program monies (i.e programmed unified giving by Tennessee Southern Baptists) exceed $55 million, amounting to nearly $110 million in 2005 dollars. The university is valued at $350 million.

Ron Stewart, president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told The Tennessean newspaper, “Having non-Baptists on the board is something I personally would not be willing to accept and I believe most Tennessee Baptists would not accept.”

“For 50 years, it has been a Baptist school, and now they’re moving away from that Baptist foundation,” Stewart, a Knoxville pastor, told the Nashville paper.

Stewart said the state convention and Belmont had been negotiating over the selection of a mediator in an attempt to settle the lawsuit through a nonbinding process.

“This does not technically close the door [to a TBC-Belmont relationship],” Stewart said, “but it just reveals they’re moving forward without any visible signs they would ever want to renew the relationship.”

The Tennessean quoted a statement by Belmont President Robert Fisher: “We are honored to welcome these influential and highly respected members of the Nashville community.” A statement by the university noted that the new trustees reflect “Belmont’s plan to broaden the representation on its board to include persons who are members of a diversity of Christian churches.” Several of the new trustees are longtime Belmont supports, the university said.

Stewart, meanwhile, told The Tennesseean that Belmont’s reason “for doing this is financial.”

“It’s for the financial benefit they feel can be gained” from influential non-Baptist trustees, Stewart told the paper.

During the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in mid-November, Clay Austin, TBC executive board president, explained the convention’s decision to take legal action against Belmont in Davidson County Chancery Court.

“First, both sides have discussed mediation and indicated a desire to pursue that course,” Austin, a Blountsville pastor, said. He noted that in most cases a “complaint” is filed before mediation begins. “It is still our hope that this issue will be settled out of court,” Austin told messengers.

The second reason for filing suit, Austin continued, was to “seek to honor the faithful Tennessee Baptists who foresaw such a time as this as they wisely sought to protect the interests and investment of Tennessee Baptists across the years.”

Third, Austin said the committee filed suit to “seek to honor our current convention membership.” The convention, which held a special called meeting in May, expressed itself clearly in support of the TBC’s trustee appointments, Austin noted. “Tennessee Baptists have contributed more than $23 million to Belmont in the past decade alone. That financial support demonstrated that you viewed Belmont as a valid Kingdom enterprise. We honor your commitment to protect this investment.”

Fourth, Austin emphasized, the filing of the complaint or lawsuit was not done vindictively.

And, finally, Austin said, Belmont’s change of charter “pulled the legal trigger.”

“As the convention has instructed us to seek all remedies in the best interests of the convention, we came to the decision to move forward in a legal process with the continued desire to settle at any time. No avenues of resolution are closed,” Austin said.

“Private negotiation and/or mediation are still the desired route,” he said. “We are now in a time of discovery that hopefully helps both sides to move more quickly to settlement.”

The TBC budget for the coming year will allocate $750,000 of the approximately $2.3 million in funding escrowed from Belmont toward possible legal fees, with the remaining funds to be distributed according to percentages in the 2005-06 budget for Southern Baptist Convention and Tennessee convention causes.
Compiled by Art Toalston.

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