Fla. Baptist Witness to merge with state convention

by Barbara Denman & David Roach, posted Wednesday, August 02, 2017 (one year ago)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) -- The Florida Baptist Witness' board of directors has voted to cease functioning as a cooperating ministry of the state's convention and become a ministry within the Florida Baptist Convention organization.

The Florida Baptist Witness' August issue.
 
The action -- approved by the board during a special called meeting Tuesday (Aug. 1) conducted via conference call -- calls for the Witness' board to dissolve its corporation at the end of the year and turn over operation of the Witness publication and online presence to the state convention.

Messengers to the Florida Baptist State Convention in November will be given an opportunity to "affirm" the board's decision, Florida Baptist Convention executive director Tommy Green said in an online video released today (Aug. 2).

The Witness' articles of incorporation specify in Article XII that the Witness corporation can be "dissolved" by "a two-thirds vote of the Corporation's voting members."

"In 1984," Green said, "the governing documents established that upon dissolution, the Witness would return to the care of the Florida Baptist Convention under the direction of the State Board of Missions. At our November meeting of the Florida Baptist State Convention, messengers will hear from Shelly Chandler, the chairman of the Witness board, about their chosen direction.

"During our business session, messengers will have the opportunity to affirm them in their decision. In the meantime, I remain committed to providing the story of Florida Baptists during this time of transition through the publication of the Witness," Green said.

Micah Ferguson, the Florida convention's director of strategic initiatives, said messengers also will need to amend the state convention's constitution and bylaws to reflect the Witness corporation's dissolution if they wish to affirm the board's decision.

Transitioning the publication to a convention ministry, said Chandler, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bonifay, Fla., was determined as the best strategy moving forward. The new direction was adopted "unanimously and enthusiastically" by the board, he said.

Following the recent announcement that executive editor Kevin Bumgarner planned to resign effective Aug. 14, the Witness Board discussed several options for continuing the publication, Chandler said.

"In a day when Cooperative Program dollars are limited, we need to find creative ways to do more with less. This new strategy will accomplish this task while also moving the Witness into the digital age to reach more people," Chandler added.

Bringing the Witness under the convention's umbrella organization is "both efficient and effective" use of CP dollars, Chandler said. "Change has taken place throughout the state of Florida. Therefore, changes to our convention and our cooperating ministries must happen for Florida Baptists to reach the state with the Gospel.

"Dr. Tommy Green and his staff have a vision for the Florida Baptist Witness to reach Florida with an online presence. The Witness board has full confidence in their leadership moving forward," he said.

The board's last official act, Chandler said, will be to determine a way to preserve all the paper's print editions since its inception in 1884.

"Now the responsibility of the board is to preserve the story of Florida Baptists over the past 133 years," Chandler said.

Since the late 19th century, the Witness has served as the official news source of the Florida Baptist State Convention, tasked with keeping Florida Baptists informed about what God is doing through the missions and ministry efforts of His people in Florida and around the world.

In recent years, the Witness was challenged by decreasing subscriptions and paid advertisements, rising production costs and the task of communicating in an evolving digital age. Its circulation of 42,000 in 1997 had decreased to 15,000 by 2017, according to data published in Southern Baptist Convention Annuals. Since January, the once weekly and then biweekly publication has been published monthly.

The Florida Baptist State Convention is the largest contributor to the Witness' operating budget, providing nearly 50 percent of its annual budget. In 2017 the Witness is earmarked to receive $284,000 from the Florida Baptist Convention CP budget.

The Witness faced the same challenges as other state Baptist papers. Georgia's Christian Index and the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Baptist Standard both have phased out print editions and moved entirely online, and other publications have decreased the frequency of their print editions. Overall, state paper circulation has declined from 1.2 million in 1997 to 593,500 in 2017, according to data from SBC Annuals.

The convention is committed to continue the Witness as a free digital publication available to all Florida Baptists, Green said.

Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention. David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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