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Missouri Baptists Consider Borrowing $1 Million for Legal Fund

The Missouri Baptist Convention votes today on whether to borrow up to $1 million for legal fees mounting from its lawsuit against five convention agencies.

The convention’s executive board is seeking authority to open a $1 million bank line of credit, and to set up an “agency restoration fund” to enable churches and individuals to donate to legal costs over and above their regular missions gifts.

Also at the state convention’s annual meeting, which started Monday night in St. Louis and runs through Wednesday, messengers from Missouri Southern Baptist churches will vote on severing ties with William Jewell College over homosexuality and on changing the state convention’s constitution to discourage churches from “dual alignment” with more than the Southern Baptist and Missouri Baptist conventions.

The Missouri state convention has spent about $820,000 so far in its lawsuit over who controls the five agencies, according to www.missouribaptists.org, a Web site maintained by opponents to the legal effort.

The convention sued Missouri Baptist College, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation and the Word & Way newspaper last year, after each agency’s directors changed their charters to make their boards self-perpetuating, rather than elected by the convention.

More than 100 of the state convention’s 1,850 churches now fund the agencies directly, according to a story Saturday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Others fund them through the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, a breakaway group formed in 2002 by those weary of battles between conservatives and moderates for control of the Missouri Baptist Convention.

Financial support for the MBC has softened, meanwhile, prompting the elimination of 22 jobs in February due to a budget shortfall.

Messengers to this year’s convention will vote on a $16.2 million budget for 2004, about $3 million smaller than last year’s budget.

They will also decide whether to reallocate just over $1 million earmarked for William Jewell College, terminating a 154-year-old relationship with the Kansas City-area school.

Grievances against William Jewell by the state convention include “non-assertive direction” by college administrators on homosexuality and permitting a theater student to produce a sexually explicit play as a senior recital last February.

The proposal for funding the convention’s legal battles continues a pledge to not use funds received through the Cooperative Program unified budget for court expenses.

The $1 million line of credit would be used to kick-start the agency restoration fund. Principal and interest payments would be covered by designated gifts from churches and individuals, and any award for costs granted by the judge in the current litigation would be placed in the fund as well, according to Word & Way.

A judge could decide next week on a key question about whether the charter changes by agency trustees were legal. Cole County Circuit Judge Tom Brown has scheduled Nov. 10 to hear arguments on a motion filed by lawyers for Missouri Baptist College, on whether the state convention is “sole member” of the five breakaway agencies, and thereby has exclusive legal right to elect the trustees.

In another move related to the leadership dispute, the Missouri Baptist executive board announced Oct. 24 that it would ask messengers to the annual meeting to remove all trustees of the five breakaway agencies and replace them with a full slate of replacements. The five agencies will likely refuse the convention’s nominations.

The convention-filed lawsuit isn’t the only legal headache facing Missouri Baptists right now. In September the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lodged a formal complaint against the state convention on behalf of a former controller fired in April.

The former employee, Carol Kaylor, hasn’t said what her specific complaint is, but she has indicated previously that the charges involved sexual harassment.

Critics of a proposal to change the state convention’s constitution to limit membership to “Southern” Baptist churches that are “singly aligned” with the state group call it an effort to control local churches. But defenders say it just spells out what the membership article already means.

The convention in 2001 voted to unseat messengers from Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., saying the congregation no longer qualified to elect messengers because it severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention.

A credentials committee spokesman said the article defining member churches as “in sympathy with the objects of the convention and desiring to cooperate with the convention in her program of single alignment with the Southern Baptist Convention” means that “You have to be an SBC church to be an MBC church.”

A retired executive director of the state convention described that interpretation as “absolutely wrong,” and said it was intended to mean that the state convention would cooperate only with the SBC, even though some of its member churches also belonged historically to the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Bob Allen is managing editor at EthicsDaily.com.