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Georgia convention underscores proposed compromise with Mercer

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP)–The Georgia Baptist Convention affirmed a nine-point report that seeks to bring healing and reconciliation between the convention and its flagship school, Mercer University.
Messengers also re-elected Atlanta-area pastor Frank Cox as president during their annual meeting Nov. 10-11 at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Marietta.
The recommendation concerning the Mercer relationship was adopted in September by the GBC executive committee and Mercer trustees’ executive committee. It calls for more direct convention involvement in the selection of some Mercer trustees and stipulates that the next president of Mercer should be a Baptist who can affirm the theology of the Baptist Faith and Message statement adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1963.
While controversy has surrounded the GBC-Mercer relationship for many years, it escalated last year with the publication of President Kirby Godsey’s book, “When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest.” Some of Godsey’s theological views have been labeled as heresy by a special committee formed by the GBC executive committee to interview Godsey concerning his beliefs.
Some critics have called for Godsey’s immediate resignation or dismissal. The nine points adopted by the GBC executive committee and, now, the convention stopped short of that demand.
A further resolution, adopted at the GBC annual meeting, however, stated if the full board of Mercer trustees, meeting Dec. 4, fails to adopt the resolution and show good faith in accepting the conciliatory compromise, then the convention would begin the process of cutting funds to the university.
Such cuts would be made over a period of several years so as to fulfill all existing scholarship commitments. All convention monies currently going to Mercer (except capital improvements money) are designated for scholarships for Baptist students.
Other resolutions passed by the convention recognized Shorter College, a Georgia Baptist school, on its 125th anniversary; called for the General Assembly to amend the Georgia lottery law to prohibit the state from running any casino gambling game or any other game that does not constitute a lottery; opposed all efforts to legalize pari-mutual betting and casino gambling; expressed appreciation to the state legislature for banning partial-birth abortion in Georgia; and expressed support for Christians around the world without religious freedom who are being persecuted for their faith.
Adopting its largest Cooperative Program budget ever, of $40.2 million, the convention approved a 1998 increase of 5.78 percent increase over ’97, reflecting healthy giving patterns to date toward reaching this year’s budget goal. Southern Baptist Convention missions and ministries will receive 43.94 percent of the budget, or $17,665,100 in ’98. Georgia Baptist initiatives will receive the same amount. The other 12.12 percent of the budget goes for a category of expenses referred to as “Shared Responsibilities,” ministries that support both Georgia Baptist and Southern Baptist causes.
The ’96 percentages were 44.69 each for SBC and GBC causes, with 10.62 in Shared Responsibilities.
Cox, pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, faced no opposition for the presidency. Nor did the four pastors nominated for vice presidents: first vice president, Jim Austin, Blackshear Place Baptist Church, Flowery Branch; second, Lee Mabry, Fortified Hills Church, Smyrna; third, John Bryan, Curtis Baptist Church, Augusta; and Rusty Newman, Union Baptist Church, Winder.
Messenger registration reached 3,217 among the state’s 1.25 million Southern Baptists in 3,341 churches.
Next year’s annual meeting will be Nov. 16-17 in Columbus.
The convention’s Mercer resolution, in a Nov. 11 news release from the university, was called a “strong-arm” tactic. David Hudson of Augusta, chairman of the trustees’ executive committee, said, “I find it unnecessary for this type of resolution to be brought up in the last hour,” in light of convention and Mercer leaders having “participated in constant and open dialogue” over the past year.
Godsey, meanwhile, also voiced disappointment in the resolution but was quoted in the news release as saying “in everything we do, we need to be people of reason and grace” and noting Mercer trustees retain “full authority over the university and that nothing in the Mercer University Relationship Study Committee document negates this full authority.”
The resolution calls for a funding freeze if Mercer trustees fail to “ratify and comply with the spirit of” the nine-point agreement, with the convention action to begin at 1998 funding levels and to end all funding June 30, 2001.
The GBC executive committee’s 77-7 vote for the nine- point document came during its regular meeting Sept. 9 at the Georgia Baptist Convention building in Atlanta. Following the meeting, the proposal was also narrowly endorsed by the executive committee of Mercer’s board of trustees during a closed session on a 5-4 vote.
For the proposal to take effect, Mercer officials said it would have to be approved by the 45-member board of trustees during its December meeting. Hudson said at the time the trustee group had voted 9-0 to reaffirm Mercer’s commitment to academic freedom, Godsey’s leadership and his right to publish the book.
The provisions of the agreement include:
— agreement by present Mercer trustees to have three conservative ministers and two conservative laypersons nominated as trustees by the 1997 convention nominating committee.
— creation of a joint liaison committee consisting of Mercer and convention officials to annually nominate six trustees — three of whom would be ministers — for the Mercer board, beginning in 1998. The liaison committee also would discuss any issues that arise in the relationship between the convention and the school.
— commitment by the board of trustees to “convey to its successors” that the Baptist Faith and Message should be a part of the criteria in selecting future university presidents.
— an invitation for the executive director of the convention to attend and participate in Mercer trustee meetings, assist in the orientation of new Mercer trustees and take part in any future searches for a university president.
At the time, GBC Executive Director J. Robert White described the work of the executive committee-appointed Mercer Relationship Study Committee as a unique opportunity.
“For the first time, a channel had been developed whereby the convention could have some positive influence on who would be placed as trustees,” White said. “This was a tremendous breakthrough and something that had never happened before in Georgia Baptist Convention life.”

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