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The Tennessee Baptist Convention meets Tuesday in an historic special session to deal with a dispute over trustee selection at Belmont University.

Belmont receives about 3 percent of its funding from the state convention. Over the years the Nashville school has earned a reputation for its music and academic programs, drawing increasing numbers of students and teachers from diverse Christian backgrounds. Today about one Belmont student in four identifies as a Baptist.

For several years the university has discussed adding non-Baptist Christian trustees as a way to develop a board more in line with the student population and to broaden donor appeal.

The proposal was never taken seriously by the Tennessee Baptist Convention until two years ago, when the state convention executive board asked all convention-related institutions to rewrite their program statements in the form of a covenant.

Looking both at the school’s historic affiliation with Tennessee Baptists and the desire to diversity, Belmont trustees proposed a new relationship. Any future funds donated by the Tennessee Baptist Convention would be used exclusively for scholarships of students from Tennessee Baptist churches. Belmont trustees would elect their own successors, and up to 40 percent of trustees could be drawn from non-Baptist Christians.

The convention’s education committee approved the proposal and recommended it to the TBC executive board, which rejected the plan last September by a vote of 44-29.

After negotiation, the two sides worked out a compromise: Belmont would no longer receive funding from the state convention budget, would establish a scholarship for Baptist students from its own endowment funds and would 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 last fall, 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–estimated at $50 million.

Belmont trustees, meanwhile, moved forward with the plan, filing an amended and restated charter for the university last Nov. 10, a week prior to the Nov. 15-16 TBC annual meeting in Clarksville. Convention messengers suspended the vote on the agreement with Belmont. Even though the “resolution on relationship” was tabled, the convention went ahead and reallocated funding previously earmarked for the school. The largest recipient was the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Tennessee Baptist Convention executive board met in a called meeting March 28, much of it in executive session, and called for a rare special convention to be held May 9 at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. The meeting’s main purpose is to deal with the Belmont matter, which could include a motion to vacate Belmont’s current trustee board and elect a new one–a move that Belmont would ignore.

Convention leaders said the new charter, filed without permission from the convention, left them with no choice but to act to protect the convention’s interests.

Belmont says it has no interest in severing ties with the state convention but wants to redefine the relationship. Trustees say they have acted within their authority and expect to prevail if they are taken to court.

Belmont says the 1951 document is a “historical artifact” superseded by other agreements and has no bearing on the current debate. Belmont says state law vests all authority for governing the school in the board of trustees. The state convention at one time had the right to approve changes in the university’s charter concerning trustee selection but relinquished the right in 1974.

The convention voted in 2000 to change previous language that it “owned and operated” Belmont to safeguard against ascending liability. Current TBC bylaws declare affiliated institutions “autonomous nonprofit corporations, neither owned nor operated by the convention” and declares, “Governance of the institutions is vested in their respective boards of trustees or directors in all matters.”

The debate has spilled beyond Baptists. The Nashville Tennessean sided with Belmont on April 7, editorializing the trustee plan would “make Belmont more accepting of others–a quality that should be shared by all Christian faiths.”

Ten days later Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist & Reflector responded with an op-ed piece complaining the editorial portrayed the Tennessee Baptist Convention as the “bad guy” in the debate.

“The issue is much more than the TBC being opposed to non-Baptist trustees at Belmont University,” Wilkey wrote. “The real issue is: Has Belmont violated an agreement that was signed in good faith in 1951.”

“In calling for a special meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, the executive board of the convention is not being a ‘bad guy,'” he continued. “The board is trying to live up to the trust placed in it by the nearly 3,000 churches and 1 million Tennessee Baptists in the state. The convention board is simply following the process set in motion by actions of Belmont’s board of trustees. If the TBC executive board ignored the existence of the agreement signed in 1951, the board would be guilty of not representing the best interests of the convention.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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