Woman’s Missionary Union of North Carolina (WMU NC) is looking for a new place to live following an August 16 vote by its executive board that was made public August 21 after a meeting between WMU NC executive director Ruby Fulbright and Baptist State Convention executive director Milton Hollifield.
Neither of the parties really wanted to see WMU NC leave the BSC offices in Cary — a move that adds another crack to fracturing relationships among BSC entities, and will require WMU NC to shoulder a heavier financial burden.
But, times are changing among North Carolina Baptists, particularly in the area of trust. For the past two decades, at least, WMU NC, though an autonomous organization, has lived within the BSC structure and had offices in the Baptist Building. While salary funds have come through the North Carolina Missions Offering (NCMO), WMU employees have received their paychecks and benefits through the same system as other employees, with the BSC footing the bill for health insurance, retirement benefits, and fleet cars.
Through the years, however, WMU NC maintained a level of independence, including the right to hire and manage its own employees. Via both tacit agreement and a written letter of understanding, past BSC executive directors “signed off” on WMU employees to get them into the payroll system, but trusted WMU leaders to make good choices and voluntarily excused themselves from active involvement in the selection or management of WMU employees.
That system worked smoothly until the spring of 2006, when WMU NC members approved changes to its governing documents, opting to be known as a “cooperative partner” rather than an “auxiliary,” and moving employment policies from the bylaws to the WMU NC employee handbook to allow for greater flexibility.
Newly elected executive director Milton Hollifield took exception to the changes, believing that they created new liability concerns for the BSC. As negotiations proceeded, Hollifield also staked out a position that WMU NC employees are really BSC employees, and therefore must be subject to approval by the executive director.
A stalemate ensued, with WMU NC determined to maintain control of its staff hiring and management, and BSC administrators equally adamant that the Convention’s executive director must have ultimate authority over WMU NC employees so long as they technically remain BSC employees, too.
WMU offered to compromise in some areas, though not in the area of responsibility for its own staff, but the BSC Executive Committee rejected the offer.
Having reached an impasse with little hope that either side would budge, WMU NC’s executive board decided that the only way to retain meaningful autonomy was to move out of the Baptist building and assume responsibility for its own finances. That could burden WMU NC with a heavy financial load, but its leaders evidently believe that freedom is worth the pain and the price required by the move.
This unhappy turn of events leads to a number of questions.
First, when will this happen? WMU NC has asked BSC administrators for a nine month transition period for financial matters, according to a press release, though Fulbright said it would not necessarily take that long to leave the building. Whether the transition period will be granted remains an open question.
Where will WMU NC go? The organization has received a preliminary offer of adequate office space in the Raleigh area at a very reasonable cost, Fulbright said.
Will there be any change in what WMU does or how it relates to the churches? Not according to Fulbright. “We intend to continue working with the churches. We intend to keep praying for, promoting, and supporting the offerings, as well as providing missions education resources and training,” she said. “We also plan to continue participating and cooperating with North Carolina Baptist Men, church planting efforts, and other groups in doing missions.”
How will WMU NC obtain needed finances? The organization hopes to continue receiving funds through the North Carolina Missions Offering (NCMO), an annual state-wide offering that provides funds for WMU NC, North Carolina Baptist Men, church planting, and a few other projects. If the 2007 NCMO reaches its goal of about $2.5 million, WMU NC would receive around $850,000 (33.6 percent) of the total.
For many years, WMU NC received all of its funding through an annual “Heck-Jones Offering.” In 1977, however, the BSC voted to combine the offerings received by various entities into a single campaign, and WMU NC agreed to join the combined effort, which became effective in 1979. The social service agencies received less money and later reinstituted their individual offerings, but WMU NC has remained a supportive participant in the combined offering.
If worse comes to worst, WMU NC could resurrect the Heck Jones Offering. My guess is that many churches and individuals will be unhappy with the circumstances leading to WMU NC’s impending move and almost certain loss of some BSC funding, and will contribute directly to the organization. Some churches are already asking if they can designate their gifts through NCMO.
Will WMU NC continue to support and work with the BSC? Fulbright says yes: “It has been our purpose and our joy to use our gifts and skills to be a resource for, a support of, and a helper to the Baptist State Convention in the cause of missions,” indicating that WMU NC has no plans to change that. “Each entity gave to the other. Through the years, the relationship worked like it was supposed to work with an organization (WMU) that wanted to help the cause of missions and was allowed to do so.” Fulbright said WMU NC wants to be perceived as an asset to the BSC, not as a liability.
How much cooperation WMU NC will have from the BSC is unclear. In a statement posted on the BSC website shortly after the meeting with Fulbright, Hollifield spoke of WMU NC’s decision to move its offices as a “desire to separate” and of its interest in providing missions assistance to other Baptist groups (like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or other denominations affiliated with the Baptist World Alliance) to be “a clear departure from the historic focus of the mission and ministry of WMU of NC.”
e Fulbright has made it clear that WMU NC wants to remain in partnership with the BSC, Hollifield implied an uncertain future, saying “rest assured there will be missions education ministries and women’s ministries provided through BSCNC with or without WMU of NC’s cooperation.”
We may rest assured that if there is a lack of cooperation, it won’t be on the part of WMU NC, unless “cooperation” is defined as “under BSC-mandated conditions.”
Both Fulbright and Hollifield expressed mutual appreciation for the organizations they represent. “We wish to affirm an ongoing relationship,” Fulbright said. “WMU NC is appreciative of the history and heritage of our relationship with the BSCNC. We are very grateful for the benefits that have been provided for us through the years.”
For his part, Hollifield said “WMU of NC has taught generations of young people in BSCNC churches about missions and inspired many to answer the call to missionary service and to support and participate in missionary endeavors. … WMU of NC has my deepest respect and appreciation for their past labors, and my commitment to pray for their future.”
Let’s hope and pray that common commitments to Christ’s call will win out, and all that mutual appreciation will lead to continued cooperation, without regard to WMU NC’s mailing address.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.