By Bob Allen
The Missouri Baptist Convention’s 12-year-old legal battle with a breakaway entity may have ended, not with a bang but a whimper. On March 25 the Missouri Court of Appeals denied a jury trial to determine legal ownership of Windermere Baptist Conference Center because of an inadequate brief filed by the Southern Baptist Convention affiliate’s executive board.
A three-judge panel of the appellate court’s Southern District said procedural errors in the convention’s appeal made it impossible for the court to properly review a legal file exceeding 4,200 pages, divided into 34 separate non-word searchable PDF files. Because of that, the judges ruled, statements of fact presented by Windermere are legally unchallenged, and the state convention “has failed to persuade us as to the validity of its position.”
The state convention has 15 days to seek additional review or transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, according to the Missouri Baptist Convention newspaper The Pathway. If the executive board decides it has exhausted all legal remedies, it would effectively end the MBC’s effort to reclaim the 1,300-acre wooded conference center on the edge of the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri.
“We respect the court’s authority but are greatly disappointed by its decision,” said John Yeats, executive director of the MBC. “The judges’ decision to dispose of the case for procedural reasons leaves unresolved the core factual issues we feel a jury is better suited to decide.”
According to case history in the court’s opinion, the Missouri Baptist Convention voted in 2000 to authorize transfer of Windermere’s assets and liabilities to a separate nonprofit corporation “not managed or controlled” by the state convention. The transfer was part of a plan called New Directions to organize some of its ministries and assets into subsidiary nonprofit corporations while retaining oversight by selecting the agencies’ boards of trustees.
The Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Inc., board of trustees voted July 30, 2001, to amend articles of incorporation to no longer grant Missouri Baptists the privilege of nominating and selecting Windermere trustees and holding claim to assets, in effect becoming a self-perpetuating entity.
The Missouri Baptist executive board responded by filing a lawsuit Aug. 13, 2002, in Cole County, where the convention’s Jefferson City headquarters is located. The case was dismissed on March 11, 2004, and remanded on appeal. The second time around the trial court granted summary judgment in Windermere’s favor. The Western District Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment on Feb. 3, 2009.
In the meantime, the executive board filed a lawsuit Nov. 1, 2006, in Camden County, the jurisdiction in which Windermere is located, claiming ownership of the title. Unlike the Cole County lawsuits, the one in Camden County named individuals including Jim Hill, who resigned as executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention while losing support on the executive board effective Oct. 19, 2001.
Convention leaders claimed that Hill, now executive director of Churchnet, ministry arm of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, misled Missouri Baptists into believing they would keep jurisdiction over Windermere through the election of trustees.
The trial court granted summary judgment to Hill on March 19, 2013, citing a statute of limitations, and an Oct. 4, 2001, severance agreement discharging him from any known or unknown liability arising out of his employment with the executive board.
The Court of Appeals ruling does not affect lawsuits pending against the Missouri Baptist Foundation, Baptist Home and Missouri Baptist University, three other former agencies that changed charters to name their own trustees. Convention leaders originally filed five lawsuits, but dropped claims against the Word and Way newspaper in 2010.
The convention’s insurance carrier recently urged convention leaders to attempt mediation in those disputes, but after meetings convention officials said the parties could not agree.
After the ruling, Windermere trustees released a statement saying they were “very pleased” with the outcome.
“We continue to thank God for His blessings on Windermere and its ministry,” the trustees said. “After more than 12 years and millions of dollars spent on these various pieces of litigation, it is our hope and prayer that Baptists in Missouri can return to open and meaningful communication instead of speaking through attorneys.”
“While we are glad that the actions previously taken by Windermere have been affirmed in this litigation, we take no joy in where these cases have brought Baptists in this state,” they continued. “It is our sincere desire to put the past behind us and to sit down as brothers and sisters in Christ to find common ground and to work together to advance Kingdom work in Missouri.”