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Blogger Shines Light on Baptist ‘ValleyGate’

David Montoya made a name for himself in the 1980s for secretly tape recording a private meeting to expose a fundamentalist political machine intent on influencing the election of a Baptist state convention president in Arkansas.

No longer a fundamentalist and now a pastor in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Texas, Montoya, 51, is at it again, this time with updated technology. Last November he started a Weblog to draw attention to evidence of a potentially large-scale misuse of funds budgeted for starting churches in the lower Rio Grande Valley.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board in May authorized spending up to $100,000 to pay a lawyer conducting an investigation into an alleged scandal that one of Montoya’s readers dubbed “ValleyGate.”
 
“The BGCT has always been committed to integrity and openness in the handling of financial resources,” Ferrell Foster, director of communications for the state convention, said in a statement to EthicsDaily.com. “Since questions have surfaced in relation to how church starting funds are used in the Rio GrandeValley we have hired an attorney to do a thorough, independent investigation of the matter and then report back to the BGCT Executive Board. Until that investigation is complete it would not be appropriate to comment further on this situation.”
 
But Montoya claims no one in authority paid attention to questions he has been asking since 2001 until he started posting them in a blog. In recent months Spiritual Samurai–a nod to Montoya’s avocation as a martial-arts instructor–has expanded into a nearly daily journal of sweeping allegations of corruption and scandal.
 
Montoya has critics, who say his reports hopelessly intertwine fact, rumor, half-truth and outright error and that he is motivated by a personal or political agenda. But even they are paying heed.
 
The Baptist Standard recently published a news story countering rumors of a “financial crisis” and impending Baptist Building cutbacks first reported by Montoya. Montoya corrected the information when told it was wrong. Montoya also credits questions in his blog for an early decision to hire an attorney for a full investigation instead of an accountant who has a personal relationship with the executive director.
 
Montoya’s blog is but one example of how technology is altering public discourse in religion. There has always been a grapevine in Baptist life, but with implementation of the blogosphere information once privy only to insider elites can now be readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
 
Bloggers are widely credited with starting a conversation that ended up with a relatively unknown political outsider being elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in June. Outgoing SBC president Bobby Welch expressed his disdain in a parting shot, “Do you think if we spent less time blogging we might have more time to do some baptizing?”
 
The phenomenon isn’t peculiar to non-hierarchical denominations like the SBC. The Virginian-Pilot carried a story this week about blogs critical of a Catholic bishop in the Diocese of Richmond, Va.
 
Fans of the blogs hail them as one of the best things to come along since moveable type, but there is a downside. Most bloggers aren’t journalists, and they aren’t bound by established practices and ethics of the profession. It isn’t uncommon for bloggers like Montoya to rush along a false rumor only to come back later with a “never mind.”
 
“There is no system of accountability for bloggers,” Ed Hogan, pastor of JerseyVillageBaptistChurch in Houston, writes in a companion column to this article for EthicsDaily.com.
 
“Media outlets have editors, and boards, and clearly accepted codes of ethics and behaviors. Bloggers do not,” Hogan observed. “Is there a way to establish an ethical standard for bloggers?”
 
“Right now bloggers can say whatever they wish, whenever they wish, however they wish, and no one can hold them accountable,” Hogan said.
 
Montoya is now pastor of CalvaryBaptistChurch in Mineral Wells, in north Texas, but before that was at FirstBaptistChurch in Donna, Texas, in the Rio GrandeValley. That is where he says he first heard reports that a particular Hispanic church planter was taking money for churches that didn’t exist.
 
For years, Montoya told EthicsDaily.com in an interview, he thought the issue was handled internally until he was told the same church planter was forming a new Baptist association with blessings from the state office. When Montoya tried to alert state convention officials to a potential problem, he says, they stonewalled until he threatened to go public with information he had collected.
 
At Montoya’s prompting, the executive board of Palo Pinto Baptist Association unanimously passed a resolution April 17 asking the BGCT executive committee to investigate if there was a misuse of Cooperative Program church-planting funds in the Rio GrandeValley.
 
The next day, the BGCT issued a news release announcing the convention had secured an independent accountant to investigate possible mishandling of church-starting funds.
 
“Allegations came to our attention, and we began an internal probe,” Charles Wade, executive director of the BGCT said in the release. “That effort has indicated a need to bring in an outside financial expert to evaluate the situation.”
 
Later convention leaders abandoned the accountant–who knew Wade from the church where he was formerly pastor, FirstBaptistChurch in Arlington, and had offered to work for free–and employed Brownsville attorney Diane Dillard to investigate.
 
In remarks to the BGCT Executive Board in April, Wade stressed the importance of finding out the truth.
 
“If there has been wrongdoing, we will identify it and hold accountable any who participated in it,” Wade said, according to the Baptist Standard. “If there are ways to make amends to those who have felt hurt or misunderstood in these matters, we will do so. If there are lessons to be learned about how we can improve our church-starting strategies, we will learn them and implement corrective procedures.”
 
Wade told board members he had heard concerns expressed on-and-off for a number of years about use of church-starting funds in the Rio GrandeValley, but every time he inquired he was satisfied by explanations that proper procedures and policies were followed.
 
But Montoya doesn’t mince words in his assessment that Wade and others were negligent in waiting so long to bring the scandal to light.
 
“I’m not trying to bring down the BGCT, but it does need to be purified,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “When you’re talking about using other people’s money, you can’t afford to be duped.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.