INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley told alumni June 16 that seminary trustees plan on giving Southern Baptist Convention messengers two options on sole membership next year.
Speaking at a sold-out seminary alumni luncheon, Kelley said that seminary trustees will decide in October whether to follow a request by messengers to adopt the corporate organizational model known as sole membership.
Sole membership seeks to clarify — in legal language — that the convention owns all of its entities. New Orleans officials say they are committed to the convention but that they have polity and legal concerns with the model.
By a vote of 63.5 percent (3,579 votes) to 36.5 percent (2,059 votes), messengers in Indianapolis June 15 passed a recommendation asking New Orleans trustees to adopt sole membership. Specifically, the recommendation asks New Orleans Seminary trustees to adopt sole membership at their “October, 2004, meeting” by amending the seminary’s charter to “name the Southern Baptist Convention as the sole member … thereby assuring the messengers’ historic rights and giving the Convention legal immunity.” The recommendation came from the Executive Committee.
If the model were adopted, the Southern Baptist Convention — not the Executive Committee — would be named the “sole member” of the seminary in the NOBTS charter.
Answering a question from an alumnus, Kelley said the convention’s action does not prevent the seminary from giving messengers two alternatives next year.
“I do not think it precludes it,” he said. “… The motion was that a recommendation be made to the trustees and the trustees will determine their response to that recommendation.”
Kelley added that the decision on how to respond to the messengers’ request is “in the hands of our trustees.”
“But the plan they have, that we left together with, is that we will come before the Southern Baptist Convention next year and we will simply lay out before Southern Baptists: ‘Here’s sole membership,’ and we will provide an opportunity for the Executive Committee again to say this is why they think sole membership is a good thing to do,” Kelley said. “We’ll share what concerns we have about it and we’ll say, ‘Here’s an alternative to sole membership we think better suits Louisiana law and Southern Baptist polity,’ and then we will let Southern Baptists tell us which of those two options they want.”
The other five seminaries previously have adopted sole membership, as have the North American Mission Board, International Mission Board, LifeWay Christian Resources, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Annuity Board.
At the Executive Committee’s February meeting, Kelley said that if convention messengers ask for the adoption of sole membership, the “discussion’s over.”
Another alumnus asked Kelley if sole membership could result in changes in the faculty and curriculum at the seminary.
Kelley said that naming the SBC the sole member would not result in the Executive Committee or the Southern Baptist Convention directly controlling the day-to-day operation of the seminary, such as decisions about faculty members and curriculum. He reiterated that his concern is not with current Executive Committee leaders, but rather with future leaders who may want to take the convention in a different direction.
“There may be a day when the Southern Baptist Convention again needs a new reformation, a fresh flowing of the spirit of God,” Kelley said. Sole membership could keep a future grassroots reformation movement like the conservative resurgence from taking place if it is ever needed, he asserted.
Kelley gave two additional arguments for the need for an option to sole membership: to stem the tide toward a new direction in Southern Baptist polity and to guard Cooperative Program dollars from lawsuits with ascending liability.
New Orleans Seminary lawyers assert that sole membership would result in the school’s board of trustees having less power and in the Southern Baptist Convention having increased liability risks. SBC lawyers disagree on both counts.
A decision to make the SBC the sole member of its corporation would be irreversible unless the denomination were to return the charter to the seminary, although that would be unlikely, Kelley said.
“But I have no fear about the future of our seminary,” Kelley said. “I am more concerned about the future of Southern Baptists.”
Executive Committee chairman Gary Smith in February said the debate was amiable and that there was unanimity among both sides that the seminary should always be a part of the SBC.
“We’re all on the same page to do the right thing,” Smith said. “We have never felt like there are impure motivations out of anybody.”
At the seminary luncheon, Kelley responded to a question about the stated “seven years” the seminary has had to come up with an alternative to sole membership.
“That goes back to when they asked the North American Mission Board to make the Southern Baptist Convention the sole member of that newly-formed corporation,” Kelley said.
The seminary got a letter about the same time, he said, and the trustees committed themselves to study the issue.
“By this time some of the legal actions had been filed in the state conventions that had breakaway entities and we wanted to watch the outcomes of those legal actions,” Kelley said.
“So we just put it on the shelf, watching the legal cases unfold and seeing what was going to happen,” he said. “Then the [Executive Committee] came to us and said, ‘No, we don’t want you to wait until these cases are resolved. We want you to do something right now.'”
The trustees began working earnestly toward a resolution at that point, Kelley said. According to Kelley, over the next two years trustees and Executive Committee staff met on five separate occasions to discuss the issues, but after the meetings the trustees were not convinced that sole membership was necessary.
Kelley closed his remarks by expressing appreciation for the “equal, balanced treatment” he received from platform personnel at the meeting.
“I wasn’t favored but neither was I disfavored,” Kelley said. “I was treated fairly enough to express myself. Thank you.”
Earlier during the luncheon, Kelley told the gathering about several items not related to sole membership, noting in particular that his biggest joy comes in the fact that students are being trained for the Gospel ministry.
“If you pray for this School of Providence and Prayer, pray not simply that God gives us the things we need for our next project, pray not simply for a happy, healthy atmosphere at the seminary and great relations with the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “Pray most of all that now God has given us this great privilege of having this many students that we will be faithful stewards of that opportunity. Pray that we will raise up a generation of God-called men and women who will help Southern Baptist churches learn to grow again.”
Kelley also announced that John Marshall, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield, Mo., and William “Bill” Ichter, a retired international missionary, are the distinguished alumni of the year recipients.
“Dr. John Marshall has one of the greatest mission churches I’ve ever seen,” Kelley said. “It is a church totally mobilized for the mission enterprise. In 2003 alone, Second Baptist sent out over 708 people on mission trips around the world.”
Marshall earned his master and doctoral degrees at New Orleans Seminary. In 1975 at the age of 23, he became the youngest person at any SBC seminary to graduate with a doctor of ministry degree.
Since Marshall came to Second Baptist in 1995, the church has continued to grow and has become more and more mission-minded, Kelley said. The church is regularly one of the top Cooperative Program contributors in the state of Missouri.
Kelley commended the second recipient, Bill Ichter, for his work as a Southern Baptist music missionary. He served 35 years as a missionary in Brazil.
“I think there are few things that God prizes more than long obedience in the same direction with sustained holiness and faithfulness,” Kelley said to Ichter. “For our New Orleans Seminary family, you have embodied that.”
Ichter made several contributions in the field of church music in Brazil. He introduced many Brazilians to the Christian music of the rest of the world, Kelley said, but also helped Brazilians find their own expressions of musical worship. A prolific writer, Ichter authored several books on music in the Portuguese language. Among these are “If Hymns Could Speak” and “Giants of Brazilian Evangelical Music.”
“My heart overflows with gratitude for all that New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has contributed to my life and to my ministry,” Ichter said. “I am deeply honored to receive this award.”
Near the end of the gathering, Don Wilton, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, S.C., asked for a moment to speak words of encouragement to Kelley, who received a standing ovation.
“I would like to rise and put on record our deepest gratitude and appreciation to you, Dr. Kelley,” Wilton said. “We affirm you as our president and thank God for His call on your life, for your wonderful spirit and for the preciousness of your heart.”
Wilton encouraged all of the alumni and friends to pray for Kelley on a daily basis.
With reporting by Gary D. Myers & Karen L. Willoughby