Officials from Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention have agreed to a plan to sever ties amicably, allowing the college to govern itself while retaining a Baptist identity.
The plan allows the college to elect its own trustees, which currently are approved by the state convention. It awaits approval by Georgetown’s board of trustees and will be presented to messengers at the KBC annual meeting next month.
It also, for the first time, allows non-Baptist alumni to serve as Georgetown trustees, creating new avenues for fund raising. It also ensures that trustees who serve are motivated by commitment to the institution instead of imposing a fundamentalist theology.
“Our focus can now switch from denominational political concerns to that of becoming the best college we can be,” Georgetown President William Crouch said at a press conference Tuesday.
While Crouch said it is erroneous to view the announcement as a “divorce,” tensions between the two groups have increased in recent years as the state convention’s leadership has become more conservative.
The college has been criticized for inviting liberal speakers and for not teaching “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution. Hershael York, president of the state convention and a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he had urged the school to add a religion professor who holds that the Bible is inerrant, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The Lexington Herald-Leader added that Georgetown officials were alarmed when, for the first time, a convention nominating committee vetoed a trustee recommended by the college. While the official explanation was that too many people from the candidate’s part of the state were already on the board, Crouch told the Lexington paper that Georgetown took it as a sign that trustee selection was going to become more difficult for both the convention and college.
Hoping to avoid controversy that has occurred when Baptist schools in other states removed themselves from convention control, a 14-member workgroup comprised of Georgetown trustees and KBC leaders began meeting in August to discuss the relationship.
Early on, Georgetown indicated that it desired to move to a self-perpetuating board of trustees and that a certain percentage of the board would need to be non-Baptist for the college to reach its long-term goals.
While KBC messengers will vote on the proposal when they meet Nov. 15-16 in Frankfort, Georgetown College has the legal right to walk away with or without convention approval.
A 1987 covenant agreement between the college and state convention allows either party to end the partnership with four year’s notice.
The new proposal would replace that covenant with a “memorandum of understanding” indicating that the KBC will not elect Georgetown trustees fter 2005.
The agreement calls for funding for the college to be phased out of the KBC’s Cooperative Program budget over four years, but churches will still be allowed to designate funds for the college through the state convention. Georgetown currently receives $1.3 million a year from the KBC, about 3 percent of its operating budget.
The convention and college will jointly hire a fund a campus minister, and the college will continue to be allowed exhibit space at the state convention’s annual meeting. Students at Georgetown will be eligible for the state convention’s existing scholarship program.
Leaders on both sides said they were grateful the two groups could come to terms. Similar disputes over Shorter College in Georgia and Missouri Baptist University wound up in court.
“While I regret the decision of Georgetown College’s board of trustees to withdraw from the covenant agreement and become a self-perpetuating board, I appreciate their congenial spirit and Christian attitude in all of our discussions,” York said.
Crouch called the announcement “a tremendously important day” for Georgetown College.
“Georgetown College will remain a Baptist college,” he said. “We will continue in a working relationship with the Kentucky Baptist Convention and assist in every way we can in the ministry of the convention. We will also continue to relate to many other Baptist groups, including our recent working relationships with the four national black Baptist conventions. We will be intentional in our commitment to being a superior educational institution with a faith based character.”
Founded in 1829, Georgetown was the first Baptist college west of the Allegheny Mountains. What eventually became known as the Kentucky Baptist Convention formed eight years later.
The relationship between the two organizations evolved over the years. In 1942 the college changed its charter to allow Kentucky Baptists to elect its trustees.
The new ministry partnership acknowledges the “long historical relationship” between the two groups and pledges to continue “relationships of mutual purpose.”
Under the new agreement, three fourths of Georgetown 24 trustees will be Kentucky Baptists. The old agreement said only active members of “cooperating Baptist” congregations were allowed to serve as trustees, which the joint committee took to mean Southern Baptist churches.
Two trustee nominees were withdrawn this year over questions whether the Baptist churches they attend qualify as “cooperating” churches. Crouch said the new agreement would solve the problem, and the college would now be free to bring them on without controversy, according to the Herald-Leader.
The new agreement also removes a requirement that the remaining eight trustees be Baptists from other states, opening the door for non-Baptist trustees. More than half of the school’s alumni are not Baptists, and the current student population is about 45 percent Baptist. Last year the KBC overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to allow Georgetown and two other KBC schools to appoint some non-Baptists to their boards.
Belmont University in Nashville is considering ending ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, in part to allow non-Baptists to serve on its board of trustees.
Crouch said the agreement would allow Georgetown to consider controversial decisions like teaching intelligent design on their educational merit, instead of reacting to political pressure. He also said it would help the college pursue its multi-year goal of qualifying for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a symbol of high academic quality.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.