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When Jesus spoke of the narrow gate and hard road that lead to life (Matt. 7:13-14), he was talking about the highway to heaven rather rather than the path of doctrinal conformity or denominational accountability. During the 2007 annual meeting of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina Nov. 12-14, the consequences of the Convention’s continuing shift to a narrower, more conservative stance came to the fore.

Like an overloaded truck that has to shed part of its load to get through a tight place, the BSCNC left the annual session in Greensboro with a much lighter load. By meeting’s end, one church had been voted out of fellowship, the five affiliated higher education institutions had taken another step toward a severing of accountability ties, the departure of Baptist Retirement Homes reached a closure of sorts, and North Carolina Woman’s Missionary Union was effectively removed from the Convention’s budget process.

Despite pre-convention predictions of a larger than usual attendance, the number of registered messengers continued a steady decline. The messenger total was 2,549, with 54 percent of those being pastors or church staff employees and their spouses.

Myers Park Baptist Church disfellowshipped

During a pre-convention meeting of the BSCNC Executive Committee on Nov. 12, Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte sent a delegation to ask for a ruling on its membership status. Pastor Steve Shoemaker acknowledged that the church welcomes gays and lesbians into both membership and leadership, which puts it at odds with bylaw changes adopted by the BSCNC in 2006. The bylaw changes declared any church that condones or endorses practicing homosexuals to be out of “friendly cooperation” with the Convention. Both Shoemaker and deacon Nancy Walker, an attorney who identified herself as being lesbian in orientation, asked that the church be allowed to remain in fellowship with the BSCNC.

The Executive Committee ruled against them, but allowed church representatives to appeal to the Convention. That appeal took place on Nov. 13, when messengers voted overwhelmingly to hear their appeal, then just as strongly to deny it, despite appeals from Shoemaker and Walker. “Open your hearts to all who seek to worship God,” Walker asked messengers. “Reach out to people who have experienced pain and spiritual isolation.”

“No matter your vote today I will be a witness in the world for love, compassion and reconciliation,” Walker said.

Board of directors president Allan Blume said the Convention had no choice but to abide by its bylaws, and opponents pointed to biblical passages that condemn homosexual acts. The Convention’s vote served to officially “disfellowship” the historic Myers Park church from the BSCNC (see stories from the Biblical Recorder and the Charlotte Observer).

Although the church had “self-reported” its policies last spring and invited Convention officials to visit, there had been no response from the BSCNC, which does not consider ousting a church unless at least two people file a formal complaint. For Myers Park, the church’s appeal forced the issue.

Colleges and Convention step toward severance

A measure designed to officially sever relationships with the five Baptist colleges that still have BSCNC ties passed the first stage of its journey: it must be approved again at the 2008 annual meeting. If the motion is given final approval at next year’s annual session, the five institutions (Campbell University, Chowan University, Gardner-Webb University, Mars Hill College, and Wingate University) will officially sever ties with the BSCNC and enter a less formal relationship through which the schools will elect their own trustees and forgo funding over a four-year period.

Funds now received are used for student scholarships. If any BSCNC scholarship funding remains available after 2008, students will have to apply directly to the Convention to receive it (see stories from the Greensboro News-Record and the Biblical Recorder).

Appeal made to Baptist Retirement Homes

In a final-morning session that was much better attended than usual, a committee appointed to study the Convention’s relationship with BRH made its report. BRH asked in August 2005 for a new relationship in which it would begin electing its trustees and surrendering BSCNC funding over a four-year period. The Executive Committee approved the motion at that meeting, but later rescinded it after the Convention attorney said the change amounted to a severance and violated the bylaws. Rather than continue negotiations, BRH trustees voted in December 2005 to become self-perpetuating.

Joan Mitchell, a Durham attorney who chaired the committee, said the committee had heard much sentiment calling for legal action against BRH, but recommended that no legal action be taken, with the parties seekig to work out their relationship as Christians who want to present a good witness in the world.

The committee’s findings were released in a 29-page report that made three recommendations (the full report can be downloaded from this page). In short, the proposals called for BSCNC to: (1) Encourage BRH to reverse course and go through the BSCNC bylaw-approved process for severing its relationship to the BSCNC and ask for a new one, (2) Provide some pro-rated funds from escrow to BRH, assuming that it complied with the first recommendation, and (3) Study other options for ministries to the aging beyond those provided by BRH.

An amendment designed to make the release of funds more clearly contingent upon BRH’s willingness to go through the process was approved.

BRH was given an opportunity to respond, but neither BRH president Bill Stillerman nor any other BRH representative appeared to speak to the proposals, indicating an apparent lack of interest in further negotiations.

The action appears to bring some closure to the matter, with the BSCNC having made an effort to reach a more amicable resolution, and BRH apparently set on pressing forward with its current course.

WMU-NC removed from budget

Most pre-convention tension had related to an anticipated showdown over WMU-NC’s exclusion from the North Carolina Missions Offering, approved by the Convention’s Board of Directors at a special meeting October 29.

When the budget was presented, committee chair Larry Burns said WMU-NC had been eliminated from the proposed North Carolina Missions Offering budget for 2008-2009 because all WMU-NC staffers had announced plans to resign or retire as BSCNC employees by Dec. 31. That meant WMU-NC would have no further direct connection to the BSCNC, Burns said, though he acknowledged WMU-NC’s professed intention to remain supportive of
the BSCNC and to continue working with BSCNC churches.

“In the past, NCMO has only funded things with direct connections” to the BSCNC, Burns said. Continuing to include WMU-NC would set a dangerous precedent, he said, as any independent ministry could ask to be included in the NCMO.

But, Burns said, because of the Convention’s appreciation for WMU-NC, the Board of Directors had “agreed to support a special offering for WMU as an autonomous and independent missions organization.”

Former executive director Roy Smith said WMU-NC would need additional funding during its transition to financial independence, and made a motion that the NCMO goal for 2008 be increased by $500,000 to $2.5 million, with the additional funds to be allocated to WMU-NC (WMU-NC is slated to receive more than $850,000 from the 2007 NCMO).

The motion generated considerable debate, with all speakers agreeing that WMU is a beloved and cherished organization in BSCNC life. Several speakers who opposed to the motion criticized WMU-NC’s leadership and its Executive Board, which one said had “messed up.” After a number of speakers pro and con, the motion was defeated by a substantial but not overwhelming margin, leaving WMU-NC to rely entirely on its reserves and a revival of its “Heck-Jones” offering, beginning in 2008.

Convention seeks “Great and Wondrous Things”

Despite the appearance that the BSCNC might be fragmenting in some ways, business went on. Rick Speas (pstor of Old Town Baptist in Winston-Salem) was elected president, Leland Kerr (Director of Missions for the Wilmington Association) was elected first vice president, and Phil Ortego (pastor of Scotts Hill Baptist in Wilmington) was elected first vice president.

A series of speakers promoted various aspects of the convention theme, “Great and Wondrous Things.” Executive director Milton Hollifield recalled difficulties early Baptists faced, and how they reached out to each other to build associations and conventions. Guest preacher Jim Henry, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called for unity. Outgoing president Stan Welch called for the Convention to have higher expections, and Mark Harris, in the convention sermon, called for messengers to “rebuild the walls” of the BSCNC even as Nehemiah had led returning exiles to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Harris, hoarse from his exhortations, extended an altar call Tuesday evening, and hundreds responded.

The BSCNC is somewhat lighter and walking a narrower road, but gave every indication that it intends to march onward on with high hopes for a more cohesive future.

As moderates continue their gradual disengagement with the Convention, those hopes may well be realized.

[Photo courtesy of BSCNC. More BSCNC photos from the annual session available here].

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