The Tennessee Baptist Convention has settled its lawsuit against Belmont University for $11 million, the school’s trustee chairman announced Tuesday.
“We believe that this resolution honors the many significant contributions that Tennessee Baptists have made to the university and upholds the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom we all seek to serve by ending litigation,” said Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont’s board of trustees.
The agreement terminates a 56-year relationship between the state’s Southern Baptists and the Nashville school. It also ends a leadership dispute over who elects the university’s trustees.
“The road that we have traveled to this point has been long and arduous. However, the journey has been worth it,” Belmont President Bob Fisher said in an e-mail to faculty announcing the settlement. “This resolution of the dispute with the Tennessee Baptist Convention is very good for Belmont.”
Under the agreement, Belmont will pay the Tennessee Baptist Convention $1 million next year followed by annual payments of $250,000 for the next 40 years. Those “gifts,” according to the university’s official statement, “are an expression of gratitude to Tennessee Baptists for the financial and spiritual support that they have provided to the University over the past five decades.”
Tennessee Baptists turned down a $5 million from Belmont to settle the dispute at a called convention session in May 2006, before suing the school that October for $58 million–the total amount contributed to Belmont by the TBC since taking over the school in 1951.
Prior to this week’s TBC annual convention in Kingsport, Belmont’s trustee chairman sent a letter to the state’s 3,000 Baptist churches expressing hope the lawsuit would be “discussed openly and honestly” in light of failure of an evaluation and mediation process initiated by the TBC.
To that end, Belmont trustees offered to pay $12.5 million in future endowment for scholarships, children’s ministry and partnerships with international missionaries.
Under the final agreement, funds paid by Belmont to the TBC will be added to an endowment at the Tennessee Baptist Foundation “to support Tennessee Baptist missions and ministries.” The foundation currently holds about $4.9 million for Belmont. Of that, $1.5 million will be subject to terms of the agreement, while remaining funds will be transferred to another trustee selected by Belmont.
“Though Belmont is parting ways with the TBC, we trust that our shared history has provided important groundwork to achieve common goals of the convention and the university, and that our futures will evidence this good work,” Dickens said. “Belmont is committed to its Christian mission and to cherishing its Baptist roots.”
Dickens said Belmont “will continue to be a student-focused, Christian community of learning and service with a rich Baptist heritage that we intend to foster and nurture through our ongoing relationships with local Baptist churches.”
The lawsuit, which was headed for court next May, centered on Belmont’s desire to elect non-Baptist trustees to diversity its fund-raising and have a trustee board that more resembles a student body that is predominantly Christian but no longer majority Baptist.
Belmont trustees amended the university’s charter allowing them to select their own successors, a step the Tennessee Baptist Convention said shouldn’t have been taken without the convention’s permission.
The main contention of the complaint originally filed by the convention was not the legality of the charter change, however, but whether a long-lost 1951 document that suddenly resurfaced entitled the TBC to recover all gifts to Belmont should the school ever be removed from the convention’s control.
Belmont officials maintained the historical document, if ever binding, was superseded by numerous covenant agreements over the years. While denying any legal obligation to pay the state convention anything, trustees said they still desired to settle the dispute in order to avoid litigation and work out a compromise relationship between the university and Tennessee Baptists.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.