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Former Reorganized Latter-Day Saint returns as a Baptist campus minister

LAMONI, Iowa (BP)–Twenty years ago a young man played football and studied for exams at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. He was a devout member of the Reorganized Latter-Day Saints church (RLDS), now called the Community of Christ. He was doing what every good RLDS son was supposed to do — stay in the church and propagate the RLDS version of the Joseph Smith story.

Today, Woodie Ladnier, 41, son of an RLDS elder, has returned to Lamoni as a Baptist collegiate minister. Serving as a part of First Baptist Church’s staff, the focus of his ministry is Graceland University (formerly Graceland College). Ladnier moved there with his wife, Marta, and son Joey, on Feb. 10.

The RLDS broke off from the Utah branch of the Mormon church because their followers refused to accept the teachings of Brigham Young following the death of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Most of the RLDS stayed in the Midwest and settled around the Kansas City, Mo., and southern Iowa areas initially. Their headquarters is in Independence, Mo., and their college — Graceland — is in southern Iowa along the famed “Mormon trail.”

RLDS beliefs are hardly consistent with Baptist theology, being more in line with the Utah-based Latter-day Saints with some notable exceptions. They do not accept Joseph Smith as a prophet equal to Jesus Christ and their church is ruled by Smith’s descendents.

Ladnier began to question the historical record of Joseph Smith’s legacy during his college history class. He said a professor was open to his questions and let him doubt the authenticity of some of the claims of the church. This “rocked my boat,” Ladnier said. He wondered how true to history the rest of the RLDS and LDS claims really were.

Ladnier dropped out of Graceland at the end of his sophomore year. He transferred to a school near his hometown on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His father owned several shrimp boats, so he began pursuing a degree in marketing from the University of Southern Mississippi to head into the seafood and commercial shipping business.

While at the university, Ladnier heard the gospel preached in an open-air forum led by a Christian group on campus. “It was then I realized Jesus did die for me,” he said.

“I prayed to receive Jesus. I wept. I thanked God. It was like pouring water on dry sand.” There was a radical change in his life. He began to search out a Christian church. Having attended a Baptist academy during some of his elementary school years due to some difficulties he was having in the public schools, Ladnier said he remembered the Baptists “had a handle on the Bible.” He recalled memorizing Scripture during the academy chapel services.

“So I went out to find one.”

Ladnier joined a Baptist church and got involved in the Navigators campus ministry at his university. He began to teach Sunday school, got involved in leadership at the church and later attended Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn.

This led to a bivocational ministry position as minister of youth in a suburban Memphis Baptist church. But God’s call was taking him further.

“I felt God was calling me to go back to Lamoni and present the truth to the students at Graceland.”

Some initial inquiries led to nothing. The first time Ladnier called, the Baptist associational missionary for the area had resigned and the e-mail he sent was returned. He tried again a few years later and actually made contact with a Baptist church, but sensed no enthusiasm for a Baptist college ministry to an RLDS university.

However, persistence won out, and now Ladnier is connected with First Baptist Church in Lamoni. Pastor Scott Kallem led the church to bring Ladnier on as a volunteer staff member under the Mission Service Corps of the North American Mission Board, raising his salary through the gifts of friends and partners who believe in his mission.

Ladnier and his wife, Marta, live near the university campus. Marta, a native of Brazil, and Woodie met while he was on a mission trip to Brazil as part of the Tennessee Baptist partnership with Brazil.

The new collegiate ministry will focus on making disciples and helping the students find a relationship with God and a Bible-believing church. Ladnier said 51 percent of Graceland University’s students are non-RLDS. Many are open to the new college ministry group, which meets off-campus. Ladnier is free to visit on the campus and has renewed relationships with many of his former professors. “Some give me some interesting looks — their faces are like, ‘What is it that you do now?'”

Asked about his goals, he said it is not to “slam the Book of Mormon but to present the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The First Baptist group is seeking recognition as an official campus organization. The Ladniers are making good headway toward raising a full salary and program funding for the group.

It’s a long way from a college history class questioning the RLDS version of church history to a ministry position with an evangelical church near the campus, teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Woodie Ladnier has made it this far.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: BACK WITH NEW BIRTH and WOODIE LADNIER.

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  • Richard Nations