Tennessee Baptist Convention leaders defended their decision to sue Belmont University for removing itself from convention control in a letter delivered this week to nearly 3,000 churches.
The letter, signed by the chairman of a Belmont study committee and TBC Executive Director James Porch, followed by one week a letter from the university’s board of trustees announcing that 100 of the state’s Baptist churches would be subpoenaed for their giving records to the state convention between 1951 and 2005.
In the first letter, Belmont board chairman Marty Dickens said university lawyers need the information to defend their client in the convention’s lawsuit, and the state convention’s Executive Board would not provide it. Dickens apologized for inconvenience, adding regret that the state convention decided to take the matter to court in the first place.
In the TBC letter, Porch and Clay Austin called the information requested by Belmont “irrelevant” and burdensome, while disputing some of the facts as presented by Dickens.
The “most troubling” element of Dickens’ letter, they said, is where “Belmont seems to imply that your Executive Board has acted in an un-Christian manner by resorting to a secular court or that your Executive Board has not been true to the faith.”
“The ultimate decision to instigate legal proceedings was not made lightly or in contradiction to Scripture,” the letter said. “Dr. Clay Austin, chairman of the Belmont Study Committee, addressed this issue in his report to the convention in May as follows:
“Two concepts have dominated thoughts and prayers of the Belmont Study Committee. First, what is right? Not what does conventional wisdom view as right, but before our Lord and Savior and the word of God, what is right? No meeting has been concluded without this consideration. Each member of the committee was asked to present their understanding of what the ‘high road’ means.”
At a called meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention May 9, the Belmont Study Committee made two recommendations. One, that Tennessee Baptists accept a $5 million settlement offered by Belmont, failed 923-791. The second, authorizing the committee “to carry out all rights, powers, actions and remedies” with respect to Belmont, passed 1,383-103.
The motion authorized the committee to protect the state convention’s interest through means including private negotiation, mediation, arbitration or litigation. The Executive Board filed suit against Belmont Sept. 29 for $58 million, the amount the convention has contributed to Belmont over the years under a “repayment agreement” signed in 1951 saying if the school should ever pass from under convention control that Belmont would repay all monies given to the school by the Executive Board.
Belmont officials say the document, discovered after being forgotten for many years as talks for an amicable partnership agreement broke down, is a historical artifact that either was never binding or has been superseded by later covenants.
Belmont officials say they have long discussed expanding their board to include non-Baptist Christians as trustees, because the school’s student body is no longer predominantly Baptist. The state convention took the university seriously when, after being asked to rewrite their program statement in form of a covenant, trustees came back with a proposal to allow them to draw up to 40 percent of their trustee board from non-Baptist Christians, while retaining a super-majority 60 percent of members of TBC churches.
That measure won approval from an education committee, but the Executive Board rejected it in 2005. After further negotiation, the Executive Board accepted a compromise that Belmont would no longer receive funding from the state convention budget, establish a scholarship for Baptist students from its own endowment funds and allow three trustee positions to be filled by the TBC executive director, chair of the executive board and chair of the education committee.
The recommendation was scheduled for vote at the TBC annual meeting in 2005, but at the last minute convention officials said they had discovered a 1951 document stating that if Belmont should ever pass from control by the Tennessee Baptist Convention, that the convention reserved the right to ask for return of all contributions it has ever made to the university.
Belmont trustees moved ahead with plans to file their amended charter with the state prior to the annual meeting. In a court document, Belmont officials said that is what Porch had told them to do. Porch denied it in a press release.
The TBC Executive Board responded with a called meeting March 29, mostly in executive session, before convening a rare called meeting of the state convention May 9, setting up the decision to file suit.
In this week’s letter to churches, Porch and Austin denied the legal proceedings were about a desire for money–despite pointing out that a “revised offer” by Belmont was “less than the offer rejected by the convention.”
“The legal action initiated by the Executive Board is about integrity and honoring one’s word,” they said. “For 55-plus years, Tennessee Baptists have been true to their word as set forth in the written Repayment Agreement signed in 1951. Belmont unfortunately cannot make such an assertion. In November 2005, Belmont chose to leave our Baptist family. Belmont was not kicked out, forced out or put out of our family! Belmont chose to follow its own vision and forsake the path paved by Tennessee Baptists for the last 55-plus years. Now Belmont does not want to be true to its word as set forth in writing in the Repayment Agreement. Accordingly, the most accurate part of Mr. Dickens’ entire letter is his statement in the fourth paragraph that ‘we (Belmont) regret the decision of the Executive Board to take this matter to court.'”
At the time of the impasse, the TBC was providing about 3 percent of Belmont’s annual budget, and fewer than one in four Belmont students identified themselves as a Baptist of any kind.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.