After 15 years of litigation, a state judge ruled Sept. 27 that trustees of two Missouri Baptist Convention entities violated their own articles of agreement when they acted unilaterally to choose their own successors instead of those nominated by the statewide affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As the doctrine-driven battle for control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in the 1980s and early 1990s trickled down to state conventions, trustees of five Missouri Baptist entities changed governing documents to distance their ministries from the controversy that was radically altering the image of Southern Baptists at the national level.
The new crop of conservative leaders in the Missouri Baptist Convention responded by filing lawsuits against the Missouri Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the newspaper Word & Way, Missouri Baptist University and The Baptist Home. The convention dropped its lawsuit against Word & Way, lost the case against Windermere and prevailed recently in the complaint against the Missouri Baptist Foundation.
Most recently Special Judge Karl DeMarce issued an 86-page ruling voiding changes to governing documents adopted by the Baptist Home in 2000 and by Missouri Baptist University the following year and restoring the convention’s right to nominate, remove and replace both entities’ board of trustees.
The judge denied the convention’s request to require the entities to pay attorney fees, finding that while the case “involves a very serious, unfortunate and costly civil dispute,” each party “appears to have believed, sincerely and upon advice of counsel, that it was acting within its lawful rights.”
The court rejected an argument by Missouri Baptist University that the convention failed to safeguard the school’s “best interests,” finding that secular courts lack the jurisdiction to decide whether a university’s interest in stability and continuity on its board of trustees outweighs a religious body’s interest in whether the institution is doctrinally sound.
The court stayed final judgment, pending possible appeals.
“Our issue over the last 15 years has been about governance,” Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Director John Yeats told The Pathway, a publication started by the convention after Word & Way declared its independence.
“The question always has been, ‘Who has the legal right and fiduciary responsibility to govern the entities?’ We have argued that it is a board of trustees duly elected by Missouri Baptists — and the courts have affirmed that position,” Yeats said. “We are glad this is finally settled law.”
Last year Missouri’s Supreme Court returned governance of the Missouri Baptist Foundation to the state convention. The Foundation’s board of trustees recently elected a new president, Neil Franks, former lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Branson, Mo., who served as president of the Missouri Baptist Convention in 2014-2015.
Windermere won its case in 2008, a decision upheld by a court of appeals in 2009.