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Senior citizens’ home in spotlight in state convention’s election race

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–Missouri Baptist leaders seeking to distance the state’s churches from the Southern Baptist Convention have included scare tactics and misinformation in their efforts, a Missouri laymen’s group has countered.

The issue was kindled when 20 trustees of a Missouri Baptist nursing home voted unanimously to make themselves a self-perpetuating board, thus ending decades in which Missouri Baptists have elected the trustees. In the process, the trustees took control of The Baptist Home’s $40 million endowment.

The trustee action comes amid a white-hot election campaign for the presidency of the Missouri Baptist Convention during the Oct. 30-Nov. 1 annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A Resort at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Much of the campaign has turned toward The Baptist Home trustee action and rhetoric — similar to the “MediScare” language used by Democrats to frighten senior citizens into voting against Republicans — by Harlan Spurgeon, the anti-SBC state convention presidential candidate.

“Baptist Home applicants could be denied access to the Baptist Homes if they don’t give [to the] right [ministries and] if we allow the present conservatives to advance their agenda,” Spurgeon told about 40 attendees at a rally earlier this year at Black Jack Baptist Church in St. Louis.

Spurgeon’s comments have made their way around the state and when The Baptist Home trustees made the move to make the board self-perpetuating, pro-SBC supporters decried both the trustee action and Spurgeon’s claims as proof that the Mainstream Missouri Baptist organization has tapped The Baptist Home as a political pawn in the upcoming elections.

“We’re concerned because they are using this to scare Southern Baptist senior citizens into thinking that they won’t be able to go there if needed,” said Jeff Purvis, pastor of Craig Road Baptist Church in St. Louis and a regional director of the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association multi-year, Project 1000 effort to get likeminded, pro-SBC supporters elected to state offices. Purvis was in attendance at Black Jack Baptist Church the night Spurgeon made his controversial remark.

“If you say it enough,” Purvis said, referring to Spurgeon’s rhetoric, “people will start believing it and I think that’s what happened with the trustees.

“This makes us sick because that $40 million endowment has been built by conservative Southern Baptists throughout the decades,” he said.

Spurgeon’s comments were made during one of two statewide campaign tours made by leaders earlier this year in a state where conservative Southern Baptists have mustered convincing presidential victories in the last two elections. This year’s conservative presidential candidate is Bob Collins, pastor of Plaza Heights Baptist Church, Blue Springs.

“If they [conservatives] win, we [moderates] won’t be able to win it [the state convention] back,” Spurgeon told the attendees at the Black Jack meeting.

Conservatives regard MMB as a political front-type group in Missouri for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a denomination-like organization formed in 1991 in protest of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership.

MMB, although a separate organization from the CBF or the Missouri CBF, has members who maintain relationships with all three entities in their quest to move the state convention away from the SBC.

While many Missouri Baptists decried the trustee action, Baptist Home President Larry Johnson told the Word & Way state Baptist newsjournal, that the action was taken to protect the $40 million in financial resources from what he called an escalating risk to liability.

Ascending liability is an issue because the state convention elects MBC trustees and The Baptist Home trustees, placing either entity at risk if the other were successfully sued.

“It will not change anything but a legal relationship; it will not change anything else,” Johnson told the Word & Way. “It all started to try to assure that nothing will happen to our relationship with Missouri Baptist churches and Missouri Baptist individuals. We want to protect this ministry for elderly Missouri Baptists.”

The action came at the recommendation of St. Louis attorney Jim Shoemake, whose firm represents The Baptist Home, which is actually three nursing homes located in Ironton, Ozark and Chillicothe.

Suing nursing homes is “the primary wave of litigation,” an attorney from the firm told trustees. “We are a not-for-profit corporation. Let’s face it, we are a deep pocket. We have $40 million out there. Forty million dollars is worth going after.”

But Jay Scribner, the Missouri convention’s current president and pastor of First Baptist Church, Branson, questioned the ascending liability argument.

“If trustees can act autonomously — as they obviously have, then the question of ascending liability is not an issue. How can it be ascending liability [to protect the convention] when they act autonomously?”

Wade Paris of Kirksville, chairman of The Baptist Home trustee admissions committee appointed last year to study the change, admitted that the committee initially was created because of concern over the conflict between moderates and conservatives in Missouri. The committee, in turn, asked the law firm to study the home’s bylaws. It is not known how many of the home’s 21 trustees are pro-CBF, but at least one, Guy Sayles of St. Louis, has served on the national CBF Coordinating Council.

“If conservatives ever did something like this, it would be called stealing,” lamented Roger Moran, research director for the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association. “It was a unilateral effort by the trustees to take away from Missouri Baptists their right to any input in an institution that belongs to Missouri Baptists.”

Purvis said the trustee action appears to be “a violation of trust. Even though we don’t have a contract, there is an implied contract that has existed through the years. Their charter states that anything they do will not be inconsistent with the MBC constitution. Any charter change has to be approved by the state convention.”

Scribner and several members of the administrative committee of the MBC’s executive board met with Johnson and three trustees in early October to discuss the trustees’ action. No progress was made.

“I asked Mr. Johnson if the trustees were aware that in taking this step, they were in blatant violation of the MBC constitution and bylaws,” Scribner said. “He acknowledged that they were. That is of grave concern to me and I’m sure to all Missouri Baptists. I definitely believe it is politically motivated. …

“There has been decades of financial support and encouragement and in one vote that is totally wiped out. It is contradictory to the boundaries established by the MBC convention. If The Baptist Home goes unchecked, it wouldn’t surprise me to see every agency in the state follow suit.”

Conservatives are concerned that trustees at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar will take similar action.

Scribner said the MBC executive committee’s administrative committee adopted a recommendation that will be sent to the executive board, asking MBC Executive Director Jim Hill to work with the trustees to see if there is a way to salvage this relationship in light of their action.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in what has transpired up to this point and I anticipate things getting more intense,” Scribner said. “Obviously Mr. Johnson and the trustees have a lot of questions to answer to the state convention.”

The presidential election will be just one of several key votes taken at the convention.

Scribner expects some type of resolution to be introduced calling for the MBC to endorse the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. Similar votes are already scheduled for state conventions in Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina.

In late September, the state convention’s Christian Life Commission passed a motion expressing “the profound support by this Missouri Baptist Convention Commission for the Cooperative Program and all of the many ministries that it sustains in the Southern Baptist Convention,” according to a commission news release. “We are proud to be Southern Baptist,” the commission chairman, Michael Knight, said.

Various associations around Missouri also are adopting resolutions in support of the Baptist Faith and Message as well. In addition to a resolution supporting the SBC, the Pulaski Baptist Association also passed a resolution affirming the Baptist Faith and Message “for its faithfulness to the teachings of God’s Word, and as a guide to our ‘faith and practice’ in the churches of our Association.”

The Pulaski association, expressing support for the SBC, referred to the CBF and MMB’ as “wolves in sheep skin.” It criticized the CBF for being “sympathetic to practices (abortion, homosexuality, woman pastors and deacons, and opposing prayer in school and the family article in the Baptist Faith and Message, etc.) that are strictly forbidden in the Bible and inconsistent with our Baptist heritage.” It also criticized the MMB and CBF for undermining the SBC, noting, “the CBF (to which the MMB is very sympathetic) has their own missionary sending board drawing support away from the SBC’s International Mission Board.”

The convention’s presidency in Missouri is important because the president appoints members to the state nominating committee, one-third of whom rotate off every year. Presently one-third of the committee consists of conservatives, but another presidential win at this year’s convention and conservatives will be assured of having a two-thirds majority. That would clear the way for the appointment of conservative, pro-SBC supporters to the trustees of at least two Missouri Baptists’ colleges (Hannibal-LaGrange, Missouri Baptist College and perhaps Southwest Missouri Baptist College), the Missouri Baptist Children’s Homes and other ministries.

In all likelihood it would also end any hope of moderates regaining control of the MBC.

The presidential race features all the trappings of a statewide political campaign. Pro-CBF moderates, fearful they are about to lose control of state convention leadership positions, have been in a $250,000 fund-raising campaign to finance their effort which includes a paid executive director, newspaper ads, newsletters mailed to the homes of Baptists throughout the state and statewide meetings featuring moderate leaders with rhetoric befitting any secular race. Far less funded conservatives have responded with church organizational meetings and a newsletter published by the MBLA.

    About the Author

  • Don Hinkle