Power struggle could develop among Baptists

Saturday, October 27, 2001

When Missouri Baptists gather for their annual convention meeting in Cape Girardeau, discussion on ministry work overseas, in Wyoming and across the state could get lost in a political power struggle.

The Missouri Baptist Convention has been in the midst of a decade-long struggle between conservatives and moderates who want to control the state association of churches, some of which are Southern Baptist.

The Missouri convention is made up of members from 1,900 churches and is the state's largest Protestant denomination.

Conservative Baptists say the Bible is without error. They insist that anyone associated with Baptist colleges and agencies in Missouri must uphold that belief, that women shouldn't be ordained as deacons or pastors, and that churches should pledge loyalty to the 2000 "Baptist Faith and Message" statement.

Moderates allow more open biblical interpretation, accept autonomy in church decision-making and do not believe in imposed creeds.

Nearly 3,000 people are expected at the meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. Monday at the Show Me Center and runs through noon Wednesday. At issue is electing a new president, approving a budget and funding colleges and agencies, some of which have chosen to elect their own boards of trustees. Normally trustees are approved each year at the fall meeting, but four agencies recently decided to create self-perpetuating boards.

A missions celebration is planned Tuesday night to mark the end of a partnership with Wyoming Baptist churches.

Featured speakers include Dr. Bob Collins of Blue Springs, Mo., president of the Missouri Baptist Convention; Morris Chapman, president and chief executive officer of the executive committee for the Southern Baptist Convention; and the Rev. James Merritt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Snellville, Ga., and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The Rev. Terry Eades, pastor of First Baptist Church in Scott City, will deliver a sermon Tuesday morning.

All Baptists may attend the meetings, but only those registered as messengers are allowed to vote. Churches are allowed a specified number of messengers based on their memberships.

Battle hits home

A similar power struggle was waged in the Southern Baptist Convention, but Missouri hasn't been as intensely embroiled in the battle until now. Three consecutive years of electing a conservative president helped bring the battle home, since the president has the power to nominate members who serve on state committees and boards.

"This isn't an issue so much of theology as who is in control," said Larry Thomas, who, along with David Wagner serves as co-interim director for the state since the executive director resigned this month.

The convention is in the midst of a restructuring plan implemented by Jim Hill, who served as executive director until a week ago. Hill announced his resignation Oct. 4, after the executive board approved a 12-month severance package. Hill said he was grieved over the divisions in the convention and realized he wasn't suited for leadership.

During a convention address last year, Hill urged Missouri Baptists to find ways to work together and focus less on the political controversy. Even with factions like the Missouri Baptist Laymen's Association, which launched Project 1000 as a means of securing positions of power for conservatives in the state convention, and Mainstream Missouri, a group focused on finding compromise, Missouri Baptists have found ways to work together, Thomas said.

Mission projects in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, and starting churches in Wyoming have had positive effects on the convention. Baptists will conclude their partnership with the Wyoming congregations and announce new partnerships with Puerto Rico and a Colorado association of churches. The earlier partnerships sent Missouri Baptists to Wyoming churches to help with youth programs and building projects. Missouri Baptists also sent monetary support to pastors and churches there.

Thomas says the direction of the convention's future is uncertain. "We are much closer to a split today than we were a year ago," he said in a telephone interview from his Jefferson City, Mo., office.

The convention is in the midst of a restructuring plan implemented by Jim Hill, who served as executive director until he resigned Oct. 4, after the executive board approved a 12-month severance package. Hill said he was grieved over the divisions in the convention and realized he wasn't best suited for leadership.

Evaluating a split

Harold Phillips, coordinator for the state chapter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group formed 10 years ago after Baptists watched conservatives take over the Southern Baptist Convention, said a split might not be bad -- if it even happens. Rumors about an impending shut out of moderates have circulated for years.

"Because of this, some churches will have a better understanding of who they are," Phillips said. "There could be good that comes from this. If something happens, it's not the end of the world."

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is not a denomination, although it does support some missionaries and ministry programs around the country.

Just because churches understand scripture differently or choose different means of mission work doesn't mean one group or the other is wrong, Phillips said.

The power struggle is shameful behavior, he said. Still others believe it is necessary to keep a "liberal" faction from taking control.

If churches begin to feel they are shut out from leadership in the convention because their affiliations aren't acceptable, then it appears a division is imminent, Thomas said.

"This year it is obvious that Project 1000 has effectively taken control of the convention through the election of officers and appointments to committees," he said. "The issue isn't one of theology because, in my experience, I don't know any Baptists who don't believe the Bible."

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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