SBC Life Articles

NOBTS Asked to Adopt Sole Membership Model

Capping a two-hour discussion that focused on corporate law and Baptist polity, Executive Committee members asked New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary trustees February 17 to make the Southern Baptist Convention the "sole member" of the seminary.

The request, made through a resolution that had only two dissenting votes, asks New Orleans trustees to adopt the legal corporation organizational model known as sole membership at their board meeting this spring.

Every Southern Baptist entity with the exception of New Orleans has adopted the model since the late 1990s, when discussions began. Last October, New Orleans trustees unanimously chose not to adopt the model.

Although complicated in many ways, the issue could affect whether seminary trustees in the future could attempt to break away from the Convention. Both sides in the discussion say that the sole membership model would clear up any ambiguity, preventing such an effort.

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley told Executive Committee members that while he has concerns about the model, if the convention requests that sole membership be adopted, it will be.

Both Kelley and Southern Baptist Convention attorney Jim Guenther presented their case to Executive Committee members – Kelley arguing against sole membership, Guenther arguing for it.

While the discussion was civil, the two men differed on several key points. Among them:

• Whether sole membership violates Baptist polity.

• Whether sole membership would result in increased liability for the SBC.

• Whether Louisiana law is compatible with the sole membership model.

• Whether the Executive Committee would have any control under the model.

"We don't have concerns about anybody who is living right now," Kelley said. "We have concerns about the future. … [The concerns] are about what would happen if there were an Executive Committee that one day would be controlled by moderates and would have a desire to undo the conservative resurgence or to take Baptists in another direction."

Kelley added that "from time to time" in the history of the convention there has been a concern about "centralization of authority." He said the fear is "inevitable" because the Executive Committee controls the "purse strings."

Guenther, though, said the Executive Committee would not have any control under sole membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, not the Executive Committee, would be named the sole member of the seminary, he added. Executive Committee chairman Gary Smith added that the committee "absolutely has no authority over any entity."

"Any recommendation now or in the future must be approved by the Southern Baptist Convention," Smith said. "So there would be no way in our bylaws fifty years from now [that] we could ever approve anything that is not approved by the convention."

Guenther emphasized that the Convention's messengers are the ultimate authority.

"To express a fear of the messengers is to express a fear of the ultimate authority in this denomination," he said. "It is the messengers who constitute the annual meeting, who are the link between the churches, who make all this possible."

Kelley said there "is no way" that New Orleans Seminary would want to or could break away from the convention.

"It is impossible for us to leave the Southern Baptist Convention today if we wanted to," he said. "Number one, our trustees would absolutely refuse to do it. … Secondly, it's a fiscal impossibility — 50 percent of our operating budget comes from [the Cooperative Program]. … So what is the urgency that requires a response by June?"

At one point Executive Committee Bruce Martin stood up and said that any "walk-away" loophole needs to be closed.

"If you have an option to walk away fifty years from now, that means you have the option to walk away today," Martin said. "And that means that we as Southern Baptists have a responsibility to make sure that you don't have that option. We don't think, I don't think, that any entity has a walk-away option from Southern Baptists. If you do, that loophole needs to be closed."

Kelley responded by saying New Orleans officials "don't think we have walk-away control right now."

One Executive Committee member asked Kelley if sole membership would shut the door on such an unlikely possibility.

"Yes," Kelley said, before adding that Executive Committee members were "coming halfway into" the discussion. "It is a process that is not complete." Kelley said he would prefer to find "an alternative" that is acceptable to both sides.

Kelley said that if convention messengers ask for the adoption of sole membership, the "discussion's over."

"If the Southern Baptist Convention asks us to make this change, the discussion's over, because we're not doing anything at all to attempt to walk away or to preserve the ability of the institution one day when somebody else is here to walk away," he said. "That's not our intent at all."

Smith labeled the division a "disagreement" but added that the discussion over recent months has not been "done in a hateful way." He said there is unanimity among both sides that New Orleans Seminary will "always be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention."

"We're all on the same page to do the right thing," he said. "We have never felt like there are impure motivations out of anybody."

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust