RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) — Virginia Baptists have taken action that may end their 144-year-old tie to Averett University unless a conflict over homosexuality and biblical authority is resolved.
Meeting Nov. 13-14 in Richmond, Va., messengers to the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia escrowed more than $350,000 they would have contributed to the Danville, Va., school next year.
But messengers enhanced their relationship with the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, a five-year-old seminary based in Falls Church, Va., increasing their allocation by 300 percent and moving it from a world-missions budget to the Virginia portion of the budget.
Messengers also cut by 40 percent funds to the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, created four years ago when the BGAV ended its ties to the University of Richmond.
The $14.3 million BGAV budget adopted for 2004 is $700,000 less than the current $15 million budget.
For the first time in more than a decade, messengers elected as president a pastor whose church contributes to national mission causes primarily through the Southern Baptist Convention. Don Davidson, pastor of Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Danville, was elected without opposition.
Since BGAV officers have been successfully nominated for many years by a network of moderate pastors, the election was widely seen as a signal that churches sympathetic to the SBC are welcome in BGAV life.
The vote to escrow Averett's allocation was recommended by the BGAV budget committee and passed decisively.
In the proposed 2004 budget unveiled Oct. 7, Averett would have received between $321,513 and $350,741. According to the Virginia Baptist Annual, during the 2002-2003 fiscal year the school received $449,804 from Virginia Baptists, much of it used for scholarships for students from BGAV churches.
But the university attracted the ire of some Virginia Baptists last August when John Laughlin, chair of its religion department, wrote an article in a Danville newspaper endorsing the recent action of the Episcopal Church to ordain an openly homosexual bishop and criticizing a literal method of interpreting the Bible.
Also, in September, John Shelby Spong, a controversial retired Episcopal bishop, lectured on Averett's campus, reportedly saying that the God who is revealed in a literal reading of Scripture is “immoral” and “unbelievable.”
In response, the Virginia Baptist Mission Board's executive committee on Sept. 9 expressed its “strong dismay and disagreement.”
In early November the budget committee recommended withholding Averett's allocation in the 2004 proposed budget “until such time as the [BGAV] covenant committee … can reach an agreement with the university as to its future relationship” with the BGAV. If no agreement is reached, the budget committee would propose at the BGAV annual meeting in November 2004 a reallocation of the money.
While the escrow vote passed overwhelmingly, there was some dissent from messengers, who dealt with the Averett recommendation before considering the entire budget.
“This will initiate a process which historically we have rejected,” said Don Retzer of Community of Grace Church in Richmond. “I think we can resolve this conflict without escrowing funds.”
One student from Averett warned the action will “hurt the university” and “punish its students.”
Averett president Richard Pfau read portions of a resolution adopted Oct. 24 by the school's board of trustees, expressing regret at “any perception that Averett University has diverged from its commitment to being Virginia's flagship Christian university,” and adding, “The board continues to feel strongly that the individual views of any single member of the academic community are the views of that individual alone and neither speak for nor reflect the views and values of the faculty, administration, board of trustees or Averett University.”
John Hamrick, pastor of Fishersville Baptist Church in Fishersville, who frequently articulates conservative views, said, “If we're voting on this based on principle, then we're acting unfairly to Averett by singling them out. But if we're reacting because we're worried about losing churches, then shame on the BGAV.”
During discussion on the budget, several attempts were made to reduce the proposed allocation to the John Leland Center, which increased from $30,000 to $132,000. The budget committee also moved the school's line item from the World Mission 2 giving track to the Virginia portion of the budget.
Cecil Sherman of River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, proposed that Leland's allocation remain at the 2003 level, that it be left in the Virginia portion, that the incoming BGAV president name a study committee to recommend how the school should relate to Virginia Baptists and that the additional money be held in escrow until the recommendation is approved.
Sherman, who is an adjunctive professor at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, said the issue was one of fairness and proportionality. Most seminaries use a widely accepted formula referred to as “full-time equivalences,” or FTEs, to determine the number of students for funding purposes. Since student class loads vary from school to school, FTEs offer a way of comparison that simple enrollment figures do not.
Sherman said that according to the Association of Theological Schools, Leland has 23 FTEs, while the Richmond seminary, which also receives BGAV funding, has 163. The 2004 budget would fund Leland at $6,190 per FTE, but BTSR at only $920, he said. “There must be some reason for such an enormous discrimination,” he said.
But budget committee chair Walter Harrow of Zoar, Va., said it's unfair to compare the costs of a new school like Leland with a more established institution like BTSR. “Start-up costs are much higher,” he said.
Harrow also said the budget committee took into account Leland's strategy, which he said is to offer theological education to ministers who are unable to travel long distances for classes. Leland is opening centers around the state.
“We have a crisis of pastoral leadership,” he said, referring to the number of BGAV churches with ministerial staff vacancies. “What we need is help with the crisis.”
In response to a messenger who asked why Leland was being moved to the Virginia portion of the budget, while BTSR remained in the World Mission 2 giving track, John Compton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., and a budget committee member, said Leland did not receive funding from a national denominational body. BTSR receives money from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the SBC funds the six traditional seminaries.
“Leland is in Virginia and funded exclusively by Virginia,” said Compton.
Other efforts to amend the budget would have restored some of the recommended reduction to the allocation for the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, which shrank from $240,000 to $141,000.
Four years ago, in a dispute with the University of Richmond over including homosexuality in its nondiscrimination policy, the BGAV redirected money traditionally allocated to the university to create the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies. The BGAV agreed to transfer the funds in increasing amounts over a four-year period until the center received the full amount previously given to the university.
In this final year of the arrangement, the budget committee recommended a 40 percent reduction in the center's funding. Several messengers claimed that violated the BGAV's commitment. But budget committee chair Harrow said since the BGAV had reached the end of a four-year commitment, “we had to make some hard choices.”
Harrow described the 2004 budget of $14.3 million, which is 4.9 percent less than the current year's, as a “reality budget.” As in previous years, the churches may contribute to the budget through three world mission tracks or may create their own.
Don Davidson, who had been serving as BGAV first vice president, was elected president without opposition. His election follows a well-established but unwritten precedent: that the one-term presidency alternate between a layperson and a minister. It also confirms a more recent, but also unwritten, practice: that the first vice president be elected president.
Other officers, also elected without opposition, are Richard Smith, an attorney and member of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, as first vice president; Virginia Carroll, a business owner and member of Louisa Baptist Church in Louisa, as second vice president; and Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, as clerk.