New Orleans trustees to weigh options, chairman tells paper

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary trustees apparently will weigh alternatives to sole membership during their October meeting, according to comments by the trustee chairman reported in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

Messengers to the SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis voted June 15 to ask NOBTS trustees to adopt sole membership. Sole membership seeks to clarify -- in legal language -- that the convention owns all of its entities.

The other five seminaries previously have adopted sole membership, as have the North American Mission Board, International Mission Board, LifeWay Christian Resources, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Annuity Board. But New Orleans Seminary representatives have held out, saying they support the convention but that sole membership violates Baptist polity and also is incompatible with Louisiana law.

In a Times-Picayune article July 3, trustee chairman Tommy French, pastor of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, was quoted as describing the messengers' vote at the SBC annual meeting as a "request."

"They didn't say we had to do it.... They requested, they didn't demand," French said, according to the newspaper.

"We'll come back and say we heard the request, and this is what we recommend," the pastor told the newspaper, setting forth two options alongside sole membership:

-- The seminary could reincorporate in Georgia, where it has an Atlanta-area extension center, in order to give the SBC sole membership under Georgia law rather than Louisiana law, which NOBTS leaders have described as uniquely unfavorable toward sole membership in the state.

-- Both the SBC and the seminary could revise their charters in a way that would bind the two together without using sole membership language.

"We're not a bunch of renegade trustees," French was quoted as saying. "We're trying to protect both the [seminary] and the convention."

French was not available July 12 to confirm his comments to the newspaper.

The recommendation adopted by messengers to the SBC meeting in June, specifically asks trustees of New Orleans Seminary to adopt sole membership at their "October, 2004, meeting" by amending the seminary's charter to "name the Southern Baptist Convention as the sole member ... thereby assuring the messengers' historic rights and giving the Convention legal immunity" and specify the convention's right to:

-- "elect and remove the seminary's trustees;

-- "approve any amendment of the charter adopted by the board of trustees;

-- "approve any merger, consolidation or dissolution, the creation of a subsidiary, or any change in the corporation's charter; and

-- "approve the sale, lease or other disposition of all, or substantially all, of the corporation's assets."

The recommendation also asks that the new charter "confirm the seminary board's right to otherwise govern the institution; and be in language which the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, in its February 2005 meeting, will recommend to the 2005 Convention for approval, and in a form ready to be filed with the Louisiana Secretary of State."

In February 2004, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said that if convention messengers ask for the adoption of sole membership, "the discussion's over."

However, June 16, in response to the messengers' vote, Kelley stated, "The messengers did not vote on sole membership. They voted on a request for our trustees to consider sole membership and our trustees will consider it very carefully. However, next year will be the actual vote on a charter change. The messengers heard this before they voted. The result of that vote will be implemented immediately as I promised."

Responding, June 18, to Kelley, Gary Smith, pastor of Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas and outgoing chairman of the Executive Committee, disagreed. "There is no ambiguity. The messengers asked NOBTS trustees to name the convention as sole member in the seminary charter and Dr. Kelley has repeatedly given assurances that if the convention made that request he would respond accordingly."