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Tennessee Baptists Reject Covenant with University

The Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Board on Tuesday rejected a proposal by Belmont University trustees to include non-Baptist Christians on their board.

Trustees of the Nashville-based school in August submitted a proposed covenant to allow up to 40 percent of its board members to be non-Baptists, while retaining a “super-majority” of trustees from Tennessee Baptist churches.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“Belmont University shall continue to fulfill the mission of being a Christ-centered, student-focused Christian community providing an academically challenging education that enables men and women of diverse backgrounds to engage and transform the world with disciplined intelligence, compassion, courage and faith and endeavoring diligently to present to each student the claims and gospel of Jesus Christ,” the proposed covenant resolved.
 
Stated reasons for the change included growing diversity in the student body and increased fund-raising opportunities. One side benefit reportedly not discussed by trustees would be to insulate the university from Baptist politics.
 
With 4,300 students this fall, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Belmont is one of the fastest growing Christian universities in the nation.
 
The trustee proposal, drafted in response to a request last year for all Tennessee Baptist Convention institutions to rewrite their program statements in the form of a covenant, also would have earmarked all funding from the state convention for scholarships for Tennessee Baptist students, increasing the amount from $1.4 million to $2.3 million.
 
Belmont receives less than 3 percent of its total budget from the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
 
The proposal called for a minimum of 60 percent of trustees to be members of churches in cooperation with the state convention and to be presented each year to the convention for “affirmation.” It would also have stipulated that the board of trustees would nominate and elect its trustees, which are currently elected by the convention.
 
An education committee of the convention Executive Board recommended approval of the change, but the full board rejected it Tuesday afternoon by a vote of 44-29, despite a plea by university President Bob Fisher to avoid creating a “lose-lose outcome” for the university and state convention.
 
The Executive Board declined to take further action addressing the relationship between the university and the convention, allowing trustees time to respond before the next Executive Board meeting Nov. 14.
 
The Executive Board unanimously approved covenant documents from two other TBC-related schools, Union University in Jackson and Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City.
 
Last fall the state convention passed a motion calling for investigation of teaching at the three colleges, in conjunction with trustees, after a 90-minute discussion about allegations that religion professors at Carson-Newman teach the Bible has errors and contradictions. Carson-Newman’s president denied the charge.
 
A trustee source told EthicsDaily.com the Belmont proposal was unrelated to the investigation.
 
Belmont became affiliated with the state convention when Tennessee Baptists purchased Ward-Belmont College in 1951. The convention sold the campus to trustees in 1969.
 
As the university has grown and the convention pursued multiple priorities, state convention funding has declined from 8.5 percent of Belmont’s total revenue in 1995 to 2.79 percent in 2004. Students come from 49 states and 27 foreign countries.
 
The dispute comes after several years of wrangling over ownership and control of the state’s Baptist-related schools.
 
In 1998, Tennessee Baptists temporarily defunded Carson-Newman College after trustees changed the school’s charter to allow them to elect their own board of trustees. The convention released $2.4 million held in escrow after a compromise.
 
In 1999, the convention voted down a bylaw change that would have required all trustees be acceptable to both the state convention and the individual school. The proposal fell 70 votes short of a needed two-thirds majority.
 
The following year, a bylaw revision gave institutions the right to nominate who they wanted as trustees, with the convention giving final approval. Trustees rejected by the convention, however, can be replaced only by another person nominated by the institution, meaning the schools essentially hand-pick their nominees.
 
Traditionally moderate schools in others states, such as Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, have in the past managed to avoid takeover by conservative majorities by changing their charters to exclude sponsoring conventions from electing trustees, instead making their boards self-perpetuating.
 
The practice had a setback last year, however, when courts in Georgia ruled that trustee boards could not assume control of university assets without approval from the state convention.
 
In a letter to about 200 pastors a few months ago, Larry Reagan, vice president of Concerned Tennessee Baptists, said conservatives should pray that the court decisions would stand and take steps to retain ownership of all three schools.
 
Reagan, pastor of Adams Chapel Baptist Church in Dresden, Tenn., told EthicsDaily.com that conservatives were considering whether to defund Belmont entirely, thereby ending the relationship, or try to amend the process to give the state’s Baptists more direct control of who is elected to boards of trustees.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.