PADUCAH, Ky. (BP) — Messengers to the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s annual meeting voted overwhelmingly Nov. 12 to convey a vote of no confidence in the president of Sunrise Children’s Services to the agency’s board of directors.
Tommy Tapscott, KBC second vice president and associate pastor of East Bernstadt Baptist Church, brought the “no confidence” motion in Bill Smithwick, Sunrise’s president. The vote follows weeks of controversy stemming from Smithwick’s recommendation to allow homosexual employees at the Baptist-affiliated child care agency.
Although Tapscott said he was “very pleased” with the Nov. 8 decision by Sunrise’s trustees against changing the agency’s hiring practices and commended them for standing up for “biblical and Baptist principles,” he added that “the disturbing part” for him was that the recommendation had been advanced by Sunrise’s president.
Tapscott said he was “very disappointed, very let down” and left “wondering if this leadership will stand for biblical convictions” shared by Baptists across Kentucky. “I have no confidence of that to be the case,” he stated.
And while a vote of no confidence may not have any bearing on Sunrise’s current board, Tapscott said he hopes it would serve as “a strong wakeup call.” The convention’s no confidence vote is non-binding in the sense that only Sunrise’s board of trustees can dismiss its CEO and president.
Robert Franklin, pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, and Luke Bray, pastor of Jeffersontown Baptist Church in Louisville, both opposed Tapscott’s motion.
Pointing to Sunrise trustees’ decision to sustain its hiring practices, Franklin maintained Kentucky Baptists could trust Sunrise’s board to guide Smithwick and requested that grace be extended. Meanwhile, Bray observed that, according to the book of James, the testament to true religion is not necessarily “toeing the line” on homosexual employment, but caring for widows and orphans.
Ron Shaw, pastor of Community Baptist Church in Somerset, spoke in favor of the no-confidence motion, reminding messengers that while caring for children is important, the main goal is to uphold the Gospel because that is what will deliver them. He challenged Kentucky Baptists to be personally involved in helping children who are hurting because of abuse and neglect and to share the Gospel with them.
Stan Spees, a member of the Sunrise board from Lone Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, told messengers that Smithwick’s recommendation had divided Sunrise’s trustees more than any other issue raised during his six years on its board.
Spees, one of two trustees who first brought the board’s discussions of Sunrise’s hiring practices to light, recounted events over the past four months, emphasizing opportunities when Smithwick could have changed his course but, instead, persisted. Smithwick refused to meet with the KBC’s executive director and president, sought to remove a trustee who held dissenting views and removed the trustees’ contact information from the agency’s website, preventing Kentucky Baptists from communicating further with them, Spees charged.
“If all Smithwick wants to do is care for the children’s food, clothes, housing and medical care, that can be done by a secular agency,” Spees said, implying that what differentiates Sunrise from other child care agencies is its mission of sharing the Gospel with children and operating with biblical principles.
Smithwick, in his report to the convention earlier that day, told messengers, “I’m the same man that I was who stood before you the first convention [16 years ago] and the same man that stood before you the last convention.
“My scriptural beliefs about homosexuality … and about our command to take care of orphans and to love kids and to love one another have not changed,” Smithwick stated. “I remain the same.”
Explaining that a part of his responsibilities as president is to look “down the road” to see opportunities and threats that could help or hinder Sunrise in fulfilling its mission, Smithwick recounted how he had made Sunrise’s executive board aware of how an issue with the agency’s hiring practices, he believed, could pose “a substantial threat” to its ongoing ministry.
“The full board has voted on what to do,” Smithwick said. “We will continue to do things just like we’ve done them.”
What saddens him the most, Smithwick said, is the ministry that he’s devoted 16 years of his life to could one day soon close. “And that kills me,” he said.
Following his report, Smithwick was barraged with questions from the floor.
Hershael York, pastor of Frankfort’s Buck Run Baptist Church and a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, sought assurance from Smithwick that the issue of hiring practices was settled and would not be raised again.
Smithwick replied that he could not promise that Sunrise’s board would not discuss it again, noting a possibility of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act being passed by Congress or an executive order from the president.
“When that happens … the Commonwealth would not do business [with Sunrise],” Smithwick said. “At that point, I would have to say, are we going to continue, or are we going to change?”
Smithwick acknowledged that four of Sunrise’s employees had resigned recently over the hiring issue, but he would not divulge the count of the trustees’ secret ballot vote on the change he had proposed.
Smithwick reiterated his belief that it would be possible for Sunrise to employ homosexuals and still continue to care for children. When pressed, though, he said that someone who is “openly (homosexual), persuasive and pushy” would not be allowed to be part of Sunrise’s ministry.
Asked by Jonathan Carl, pastor of South Fork Baptist Church in Hodgenville, if there was anything for which he would apologize or if he now felt he had made any missteps in his handling of the issue, Smithwick responded, “Yeah, perhaps. [But] I have to say to you I felt compelled I had to bring this to the board. As a matter of fact, we had said in board meetings [that] it is not a matter of if, but when, we would be forced to face this issue.
“I know there is not a way that is palatable to this body,” Smithwick said, “but I see these kids, I see their pain and their hurt, and I just felt like we have got to do what we can do to keep serving them.”
Daryl Cornett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Hazard, inquired about ways Kentucky Baptists could come alongside Sunrise to help minister to kids if it should have to chart a course without state funding.
“You are going to, in essence, close,” Smithwick replied, explaining that a state license is required to provide congregate or foster care.
“We could still maybe have a little something” without state funding — possibly a group home that cares for six or fewer children, he said. “But the kids with the big hurts and the big pain, we wouldn’t be touching.”
Unswayed by Smithwick’s responses, convention messengers later approved a recommendation from the KBC’s committee on nominations to replace a slate of six nominees for Sunrise’s 24-member trustee board along with filling five other vacancies due to resignations from the board.
In all, messengers approved 11 new trustees to the board, including — in an unprecedented move — KBC Executive Director Paul Chitwood. The KBC Mission Board, however, has encouraged all affiliated agencies and institutions to include Chitwood on their boards.
The other new trustees are Tom James, Eastwood Baptist Church, Bowling Green; Buddy Slaughter, Means Avenue Baptist Church, Hopkinsville; Rodney Cude, First Baptist Church, Smithland; William Price, First Baptist Church, Owensboro; Jenny Oldham, Severns Valley Baptist Church, Elizabethtown; Corey Abney, Florence Baptist Church, Florence; Wesley Noss, New Hope Baptist Church, Versailles; Dale Rose, First Baptist Church, Monticello; Lange Patrick, Highview Baptist Church, Louisville; and Nathan Young, Mercy Hill Baptist Church, Shepherdsville.
Smithwick was informed of the proposed nominee changes Nov. 12 immediately prior to the start of the annual meeting.
Replaced as Sunrise trustees were Thomas Adkisson, Shelbyville; Thomas Christopher, Danville; Paul Daughtery, Taylorsville; Timothy Hatfield, Belfry; Patricia Howard, Bowling Green; and Charlotte Whittaker, Beaver Dam.
Todd Deaton is editor of the Western Recorder (www.westernrecorder.org), newsjournal of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.