JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–Missouri Baptist Convention leaders are challenging the veracity of an open letter from leaders of five Missouri Baptist institutions where trustee boards have voted to become self-perpetuating rather than seating trustees elected by MBC churches.
The open letter, printed in the May 2 Word & Way newsjournal and distributed to Baptists statewide, attempts to debunk the legal opinions of three law firms hired by the convention to determine if the trustee actions were in violation of Missouri corporate law.
In separate opinions, the three firms reported that the five trustee boards acted illegally in amending their institutions’ charters so the trustees could elect their own successors. The disputed trustee actions eliminated input from MBC churches that have given millions of dollars to the entities — now said to be worth nearly $100 million combined.
With an attorney representing trustees of one entity threatening legal action over $400,000 in escrowed funds previously earmarked for the entity, the legal maneuvering could be a precursor to a test case in the courts, a development that would likely raise eyebrows in other state conventions that have seen trustee boards, particularly at Southern Baptist colleges, become self-perpetuating as well.
Michael Whitehead, legal adviser to the MBC executive board’s legal opinion task force, in a written summary in April of the three law firms’ findings, concluded, “The [Missouri trustee boards’ charter] amendments contained false statements …” and “individual trustees and agency officials may have personal liability for actual and punitive damages. Legal theories could include breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, misrepresentation, civil conspiracy, misappropriation or conversion of assets.”
Whitehead is among those in the MBC expressing dismay recently over statements made in the open letter from the heads of Missouri Baptist College, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation, The Baptist Home and Word & Way. He took particular exception to the letter’s claim that MBC leaders “chose not to meet with any of the institutions prior to making their report (the legal opinions) public.”
Whitehead, in a May 17 press release to Baptist Press, called the statement “simply untrue.”
“We sent the agencies the report the last week of March, before the executive board had even seen it. The report was released to the Baptist public after the executive board received the report on April 9,” Whitehead said.
Bob Curtis, MBC president and pastor of Ballwin Baptist Church, Ballwin, noted that the institutions’ presidents and their chairmen canceled meetings to discuss convention concerns, scheduled for April 1-2.
Randy Fullerton, chairman of the board of trustees for Missouri Baptist College, acknowledged in the May 16 edition of Word & Way that entity heads and board chairmen canceled because they did not have time to meet with trustees and their attorneys between the time they received the MBC legal opinion (March 27) and the dates set for the meeting. Both sides reiterated a willingness to meet while attending the MBC executive board meeting April 8-9.
Meanwhile, David Tolliver, MBC recording secretary, a member of the MBC legal task force, and senior pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church in Excelsior Springs, said in a letter to the editor submitted to the Word & Way but not published that he was “appalled” that the institutions’ heads claimed to have sought to work with officers of the MBC in an effort to find a solution to the controversy. The leaders also claim to have held “numerous” meetings with convention leadership over the last 18 months to discuss the issues involved, according to their open letter.
“Let me state for the record,” Tolliver writes in his letter, “that I am a convention officer, as well as a member of the legal issues subcommittee, and therefore a part of convention leadership — yet, I have never met with anyone from any of the renegade institutions and they are not trying to work with me. Let me also state that I am willing to meet with them, at any time and anywhere, to try to bring about biblical restoration.”
Tolliver also challenged the institutions’ claims that the MBC executive board refused to meet with them prior to publishing and distributing the legal opinion.
“The truth is that meetings with all five institutions were set up (for April 1-2),” he wrote. “But, at the last minute, the institutions canceled those meetings.”
Curtis affirmed Whitehead’s and Tolliver’s views in an interview published May 16 in Word & Way.
“The truth of the matter is that Dr. Gary Taylor, chairman of the legal opinion task force, and I wrote to each agency president in early March requesting a time to sit down together with them, brother to brother, without legal counsel present, to discuss the issues before us. They all agreed to meet,” Curtis said, noting that they later canceled and have yet to confirm a new date.
Curtis voiced a concern that the Word & Way has been unfair in its coverage of the controversy. His dismay with the paper stems from an open letter he wrote for Missouri Southern Baptists that was not published. The letter was written as a response to the open letter by the five entity heads. Rather than publish the letter, Word & Way used portions of it in a front-page news article.
“I called Bill Webb (Word & Way editor) and asked why an open letter from the president of the MBC, elected by the people, was not published in full. I told him Missouri Baptists have a right to hear from their president.”
Curtis said Webb cited the length of the letter and the possibility of some of the meetings discussed in the letter being subject to interpretation as reasons for not publishing it in full. Webb, on May 17, told Baptist Press that, with the ongoing exchange of opinions, “a better way, from our perspective, was to do a news story” to bring together both sides of the issue and “to certainly give him an opportunity to state his concerns.”
“So,” Curtis told Baptist Press, “you have the editor of this paper deciding what Southern Baptists in Missouri should and should not hear from their president. He had no problem publishing the open letter from the heads of the five entities in its entirety, but of course, he’s one of them.”
Curtis said Word & Way’s article on his open letter made it appear that “all we did was make legal demands.” He said the portion of his letter that makes that clear was not published.
“Both Gary [Taylor] and I spent the Easter weekend making calls to the presidents of each agency, sharing with them that, as the letter said, ‘We want to hear from you about what you believe is necessary in order for the parties to reconcile.’ When it became apparent that the agency leaders were not going to meet, we then sent another letter dated April 2, with the following first paragraph, ‘Due to our inability to meet April 1 and 2, and apologizing for any offense and misunderstandings concerning the letter dated March 26, we are making another attempt to meet with you as Christian brothers.'”
Curtis, in his open letter, noted, “I want to assure Missouri Baptists that we are committed to biblical reconciliation and restoration. I also want to assure Missouri Baptists that we will continue to move this process along in order to bring closure to this issue.”
Curtis’ entire letter is being mailed to churches and directors of missions throughout the state and to members of the MBC executive board. It also is to be posted at the MBC’s website, www.mobaptist.org.
The dispute over coverage of the ongoing controversy in Missouri is the latest in a series of rifts between MBC leaders and Word & Way. The MBC executive board voted 25-20 in April to no longer recognize it as the MBC’s official newspaper. The board announced it would begin a new, official MBC newsjournal soon, starting with an Internet version, then ultimately a print publication. More details on the new newsjournal could be announced as early as the week of May 20.
“The action to create a new journal that will be the official news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention hits close to home,” Webb wrote in a Word & Way opinion column April 18. “Word & Way has never been granted that title officially in 106 years of service, but the newspaper has consistently been the Missouri Baptist’s source for honest, dependable information and inspiration.”
MBC messengers at the 2001 state convention overwhelmingly voted to escrow approximately $475,000 in funds earmarked for the Word & Way in 2002 following the vote by its trustees to become self-perpetuating. Word & Way also sells subscriptions, mostly to the same Southern Baptists in the state who have supported it through Cooperative Program gifts.
Despite the legal uncertainties, the Word & Way continues to operate from offices in the MBC state headquarters building in Jefferson City.
“We have been Christ-like in not evicting them, even though they have no lease and seemingly a bias against us by continuing to facilitate a splinter convention (the new Baptist General Convention of Missouri) whose objective is not to build, but further divide the Missouri Baptist Convention,” Curtis said.
Indeed as recently as May 16 Word & Way published a story headlined “BGCM launches search for first executive director.” It also has run stories concerning the activities of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri as recently as May 2. CBF Missouri is the state organization affiliated with the national CBF, a breakaway group unhappy with the conservative direction of the SBC. Conservatives in Missouri are concerned that the self-perpetuating trustee boards could be the first step toward the five entities affiliating with the CBF.
Webb said in his April 18 editorial that the Word & Way had “run two news stories” about the new convention and “a lot more” about the concerns of conservatives in recent years.