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Missouri Baptist Leaders Trying to Harm Conference Center, Trustees Say

While suing to determine who legally owns Windermere Baptist Conference Center, leaders of the Missouri Baptist Convention have tried to harm the camp by dissuading groups and speakers from attending, interfering in development of facilities and spreading false rumors, Windermere trustees have charged.

Windermere is one of five former convention entities to file legal documents in 2001 to remove themselves from convention control, thereby allowing them to select their own trustees. The convention responded by withdrawing $2.1 million in annual funding earmarked for the five entities and filed a lawsuit in August 2002 seeking to restore the five agencies, with combined assets worth and estimated $200 million, to their former relationship with the MBC.

The Pathway, started by the Missouri Convention in 2002 to replace another of the five breakaway entities, Word & Way, a 110-year-old Baptist newspaper, has written several stories reporting that Windermere was having financial troubles, which began when funding for nearly $20 million expansion fell through after construction had already begun.

In November Windermere trustees restructured their loan, selling 941 acres of undeveloped surplus Lake of the Ozarks property to National City Bank in St. Louis, reducing the size of the debt from $21 million to a more manageable $14 million.

This week the bank completed the loan restructuring by selling the property to Resource Development Inc., a real-estate development and construction company. Based in Springfield, Mo., RDI is owned by William Jester, a benefactor for Baptist causes who has given $1 million to his alma mater, Southwest Baptist University.

Jester, described in a press release as having a “long-standing interest in the work and ministry of Windermere,” plans to develop the property with townhouses, condominiums, commercial areas and possibly a retirement home “in a manner that would complement Windermere’s master plan.”

Articles in The Pathway and Baptist Press alleged a conflict of interest for Jim Hill, who went to work for a consulting firm owned by Jester when he resigned as executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention in 2001.

Hill now works part time as executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, a breakaway group that left the MBC in part over disagreement with the decision to sue the five entities.

Hill says he subsequently purchased RDI Consulting, a company that works with Christian ministries and non-profit organizations in areas of strategy planning, fund raising and management services. Despite their similar names, Hill says, his company is not part of any company owned by Jester and denies his company has ever attempted to purchase any part of Windermere-owned real estate.

Windermere leaders say financial challenges experienced by the encampment the last couple of years have been primarily due to actions of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Not only did the MBC cease financial support for Windermere but also canceled all future events there.

Beyond that, convention leaders, they say, have a number of times contacted speakers or organizations urging them to cancel contracts or avoid scheduling events at Windermere.

In 2003 the MBC canceled four weekends of Girls in Action retreats, normally attended by about 2,500 girls and leaders. About half that many attended a Windermere-sponsored “Girls on Missions” camp held that year, now an annual event.

A vice president of Focus on the Family canceled a speaking engagement at Windermere in November 2004 after being contacted and urged to cancel his trip. The individual withdrew from the commitment, saying he wished to remain neutral, but he later spoke at the annual meeting of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

LifeWay Christian Resources pulled out of three conferences at Windermere in 2005 because of conflict among Baptists in Missouri. The Southern Baptist Convention publisher also uninvited Windermere, the Baptist Home, Word and Way and the Missouri Baptist Foundation to a senior adult conference in St. Louis one week before they were each supposed to have a booth on display.

Windermere leaders allude to coverage in The Pathway, describing it not by name but a “Missouri Baptist publication,” as including “many false comments” that “are so off-the-wall and inaccurate that it is amazing they were ever printed.”

The MBC has also sought to interfere in Windermere’s construction and banking business. In 2003 MBC leaders wrote a letter warning a construction company heading the Windermere expansion against doing business with the conference center’s board of trustees, because of the lawsuit.

In November, after Windermere trustees adopted a debt-restructuring plan, which included the sale of bonds, MBC Executive Director David Clippard wrote every pastor, director of missions, WMU leader and deacon chairman in the state convention, as well as executive directors of other Baptist state conventions and SBC leaders. Clippard said in his letter that if the Missouri Baptist Convention wins its court case it would not be obliged to honor the bonds, and individual investors might lose their money.

Windermere leaders called the letter “inaccurate,” “grossly misstated” and “unethical.”

Another of the five entities being sued, Word & Way, previously issued a similar complaint. In November lawyers for the newspaper threatened to sue the MBC executive board for “tortuous interference with a contract or business relationships” by discouraging Baptist entities to stop advertising in Word & Way.

MBC Attorney Michael Whitehead countered that the state convention “has every right to ask these sister agencies not to patronize the breakaways” and, “The prodigal paper has no reason to expect the Baptist family to patronize it, until it comes back home.”

In March 2005 a Pathway editorial criticized Wanda Lee, executive director of Woman’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, for refusing to back out of a commitment to speak at a Baptist General Convention of Missouri meeting.

The editorial called the fact that the meeting was being held at Windermere–an institution involved in the legal battle–“a slap in the fact to every Missouri Baptist” and accused her of “aiding and abetting an entity that would do harm to the MBC.”

“Do them harm?” the statement by Windermere leaders asked. “It is actually those making this accusation that are attempting to do harm to Windermere.”

Windermere leaders urged Missouri Baptists to “please ignore the attacks and distractions put forth by those who have lost [Windermere’s] simple and biblical missions focus.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.