MACON, Ga. (BP)–Mercer University’s board of trustees voted overwhelmingly at their Dec. 4 meeting to support a nine-point reconciliation plan drafted by a subcommittee of the Georgia Baptist Convention executive committee in consultation with university leaders and approved by messengers to the GBC’s annual meeting in November.
While affirming their autonomy in matters of directing the university now and in the future, trustees voted 38-5 in favor of the recommendations designed to restore healing to a sometimes-strained 165- year relationship between the convention and its flagship university.
“We’re not offended at all by the fact that Baptists want more communication with Mercer University,” said David Hudson, trustee chairman. “We are doing something historic,” continued Hudson, an attorney from Augusta, noting when faced with similar crises Baptist universities and Baptist conventions in some neighboring states have officially severed ties.
Such divisions would apply to Stetson University in Florida, Furman University in South Carolina and Wake Forest University in
The strong possibility of a similar division involving Mercer became apparent when messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in Marietta in November voted to withdraw financial support from the university should the trustees fail to approve the reconciliation plan. But the convention study committee report suggested a positive solution that would result in “establishing in this study process a living partnership (between Baptist institutions and) its Baptist constituency that will serve as a model for Baptist higher education across the nation.”
President R. Kirby Godsey spoke of the university’s “eagerness to cooperate and improve methods of cooperation such as the liaison committee” called for in the reconciliation plan. “Every trustee expressed their commitment to their relationship with the Georgia Baptist Convention,” Godsey added.
J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, expressed appreciation for the university’s willingness to work through the liaison committee to better represent the diversity of Baptists in Georgia.
“I’m really grateful that we are going to be able to move on with greater communication,” said White, expressing appreciation to Godsey and Hudson for their efforts at creating a vehicle for better communication.
“We can be independent and autonomous, and at the same time be true to our Baptist heritage,” said Hudson. The closed trustee meeting Dec. 4 lasted several hours, which some members said allowed for venting before the voting. Some trustees were unhappy that convention messengers adopted a plan to remove funding from the university should the reconciliation plan be rejected by the trustees.
“I voted in protest to the methodology,” said Lee Burge, chairman emeritus of Equifax in Atlanta, and one of only five trustees voting against the action. Burge said he was not particularly opposed to the nine-point plan, but felt the convention should not have presented it in “punitive and mandatory terms” considering that the trustees were already showing good faith in dealing with the concerns.
Though previously the university and convention have experienced conflict, the most recent concerns were tied to the book, “When We Talk About God … Let’s Be Honest” by Godsey which another GBC executive committee special committee deemed as “heretical.”
The reconciliation plan, drafted by the Mercer University relationship study committee and approved now by both the GBC and Mercer trustees, calls for improving communications between the two bodies through the creation of a joint liaison committee to suggest nominations for trustees from within Georgia Baptist life. The plan also calls for the GBC executive director to attend trustee meetings to share issues of concern to Georgia Baptists as well as participate in orientation of newly elected trustees. The plan also affirms the historic practice of including the executive director on future presidential search committees and calls for future presidents to adhere to the doctrinal principles comprising the 1963 confessional statement, The Baptist Faith and Message.
Finally, the plan calls for verification that the annual funds given to Mercer through the GBC Cooperative Program, now at $2.8 million, support scholarship programs for Baptist students.
Both university and convention leaders affirmed that the historic relationship between the two bodies is built on more than monetary contributions however.
Frank Cox, pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church and current GBC president, did not attend the closed meeting but called the vote “a good sign that the trustees value the relationship (with the convention). While it does not mean that all the problems are solved, it does mean that both the convention and the trustees have a desire to work together for a living partnership.”