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Missouri president challenges Word & Way trustee action

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The president of the Missouri Baptist Convention said he believes a group of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Mainstream Missourians is behind a plan to take over a number of state agencies and institutions, including the state’s Baptist newsjournal, Word & Way.

“It is now obvious that a small, but convincing, group of liberal-moderate CBF/Mainstream Missourians have been hard at work behind the scenes orchestrating the unethical, unchristian [and possibly illegal] takeover of a number of our agencies and institutions,” Robert Collins, the convention’s president, said Oct. 24, referencing the CBF/Mainstream groups that are critical of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Word & Way joins four other MBC agencies that have moved to self-perpetuating boards, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist College and Windermere Baptist Conference Center.

Collins’ comments came five days after Word & Way trustees, in a step that may be unprecedented among state convention newspapers, voted to elect their own successors, claiming that the political battle between conservatives and moderates jeopardized the paper’s commitment for a free and responsible press.

Word & Way’s 12 trustees submitted their votes by telephone on Oct. 19 to trustee chairman Bob Johnston, pastor of First Baptist Church, Rolla. The restated articles of incorporation and bylaws were filed the same day with the Missouri Secretary of State’s office.

“I think there is tremendous anxiety across our state about the level of division and to some degree the unnecessary level of it,” said Bill Webb, Word & Way editor. “I think we all lament that. Our trustees lament it and most Missouri Baptists do. This was not an in-your-face action. It was not anti-MBC or anti-SBC action. This was a pro-trustee responsibility toward Word & Way.”

Webb said the action was taken for two reasons.

“First,” Webb said, “there was concern that Word & Way remain a publication that would be a publication for all Missouri Baptists. There was concern that the newspaper not necessarily be the property of any particular group. The paper has a history of trying to treat even controversial and unfortunate kinds of news with fairness.”

Second, Webb said, was the commitment toward a “free, open and responsible press, and a free, open and responsible Word & Way.”

“While there is no way of predicting how anyone else might handle Word & Way, the one way the trustees could ensure it remained the way it is was to take the action they did,” Webb said.

Collins said Webb’s arguments are unfounded.

“That statement almost presupposes there hasn’t been a free press in Missouri,” said Collins, pastor of Plaza Heights Baptist Church in Blue Springs. “Bill [Webb] has never stated to me his hands were tied on reporting the news. I think if you’ll ask Bill Webb there are already limits as to what he will put in the newspaper, including advertisements. He is using that argument to his advantage without telling the whole truth. For a journalist, that is a problem.

“I would ask what evidence they have that they won’t have freedom of the press in the future,” Collins said. “There is none.”

Collins said there is a strong probability that $450,000 in MBC funding for Word & Way could be in jeopardy as a result of the trustee’s action. The newsjournal has a 2002 budget of $932,000.

“I still consider them a vital link to Missouri Baptists as an entity, but they have forfeited their right to be included within the funding of Missouri Baptists,” Collins said. “It’s yet to be seen whether the entire body of Missouri Baptists will agree with that but it will be prudent for us to decide.”

Collins suggested the most appropriate response would be to escrow Word & Way’s funding. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend we defund the paper,” he said. “But the convention needs to allow itself time to determine the next step.”

As of now, Webb said the trustees do not have a plan to deal with the possible loss of funding.

“If the convention determines to escrow those funds, which is one proposal coming, then obviously we would need to try to make up the difference,” Webb said. “I think there is an anticipation that there are folks who would want to bridge that gap for us. We will also discuss plans for cost-cutting and ways to reduce printing bills.”

He also said a vacant staff position may remain unfilled.

“The board recognizes there is great risk from a financial standpoint,” Webb said. “They struggled with that issue.”

Also in question is Word & Way’s office space. The newsjournal currently occupies space in the Baptist Building in Jefferson City.

Regardless, Webb said Word & Way desires to maintain a close relationship with the state convention. “And we hope there would not be limitations from the state convention side in any way,” Webb said. “We recognize that people are going to have different opinions about the specific decision. They [trustees] lamented that they felt they even had to have a discussion about this, but they acknowledged significant concerns about the level of political division in our state and were concerned about implications for the newspaper.”

Collins said he believes the trustee actions are CBF-related and questioned whether Missouri Baptists will accept the transfer of control for the agency from all Missouri Baptists and into the hands of a small, self-governing group.

“Even those Missouri Baptists who have been uninvolved can now connect the dots,” Collins said. “This clandestine network of people, some of whom are disgruntled [Missouri Baptist] executive board members, need to know that by their actions they have created a firestorm among Bible-believing Missouri Baptists.

“These faithful Missouri Baptists, who for decades have sacrificed to keep these agencies and institutions afloat, will come ready to see justice accomplished, beginning with their votes as messengers.”

A spokesperson for the CBF’s national office in Atlanta refused to comment to Baptist Press, citing a directive forbidding CBF employees to speak with representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.

“I don’t know what leadership on a national level has been involved,” Collins said. “But on the state level there are those with CBF leanings and loyalties who have helped orchestrate the removal of Missouri Baptist College and The Baptist Home from our convention.”

Webb told Baptist Press that no Word & Way trustees were affiliated with the CBF.

“I think our concern was the Project 1000 movement and the actions of this year’s nominating committee,” Webb said.

Project 1000 is a movement of conservative Baptists working to elect likeminded individuals to convention leadership positions.

The agency defections are expected to be at the center of debate during the convention’s Oct. 29-31 annual meeting in Cape Girardeau.

“It will be a heated discussion,” Collins said. “But I expect to conduct this in a Christlike way. There need to be some answers and the heads of these agencies need to be accountable to Missouri Baptists.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes