SBC Becomes Sole Member of New Orleans Seminary

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolved the sole membership issue with the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) Tuesday at its annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn.

SBC messengers, those attending the meeting, approved a charter change for the only remaining SBC entity not to adopt the corporate model, according to the Associated Baptist Press (ABP).

They ratified the measure by a vote of 5,627 to 1,528, making the SBC the “sole member” of the seminary after five years of dispute over the convention’s legal relationship with the school.

"The issue is one of ownership,” said Morris Chapman, president of Executive Committee, as he presented the case on June 21. “Do you or do you not believe the SBC should own the entities that receive Cooperative Program [unified budget] funds?”

If yes, Chapman said, approving the seminary’s charter change and making the convention the seminary’s sole member is the right step.

Following Chapman’s introduction, the convention gave seminary President Chuck Kelley six minutes to explain the school’s reservations for holding out on the convention.

The issue of sole membership first surfaced in 1997, when the SBC Executive Committee asked the convention’s 12 agencies and institutions to make the SBC the sole member of their corporations. All, but New Orleans Seminary, amended their charters, with the exception of the Executive Committee, which pledged to do so once this issue was resolved.

Kelley, who claimed the “seminary is and always will be an entity of the SBC,” said the seminary needs to be exempted from the sole membership requirement because “Louisiana law differs significantly from [laws in] other states.”

The full implications of sole membership have not been developed in Louisiana. If the SBC is the sole member of the seminary corporation, that liability could extend to the convention, he said.

In The Baptist Way: A personal Perspective, where Kelley illustrates his concerns about the "sole membership" strategy, he states, “Sole membership, particularly as it is defined by the state of Louisiana, introduces connectionalism to the denominational structure in the place of the organizational autonomy which we have historically practiced and so beautifully illustrated during the Conservative Resurgence. It starts a movement away from the decisive influence of the SBC and towards direct control by the SBC. It is a small step away from duly elected SBC Trustees governing the institution in accordance with duly established SBC parameters, and a small step toward increasing the role of the denomination in direct entity governance.”

The problem is not the size of the step, he continued, but the “direction” of the step.

“Where will this new path stop? Human nature being what it is, it is quite intentionally or unintentionally, to attempt to exercise a higher level of central control over the entities,” said Kelly in his 2003 convocation address.

In regards to the “step toward centralization of control and authority” exerted by the Executive Committee, Kelly told the messengers, “Southern Baptists always have resisted centralization,” noting that Baptist polity emphasizes influence through trustees rather than the Executive Committee.

Meanwhile, SBC attorney Jim Guenther presented before the messengers the arguments for the sole membership on behalf of the convention leaders.

First, the measure prevents the organizations from breaking away from the convention without consent of SBC messengers.

Second, SBC leaders have claimed sole membership actually protects the convention from legal liability if an affiliated organization, such as the seminary, is sued.

The issue is not whether Louisiana law is different than other states’ corporate statues, “but whether the difference is of any consequence,” he said, asserting, “Louisiana law is no impediment to sole membership.”

Guenther also disputed Kelley’s claims that the seminary had sought to provide a viable alternative to sole membership and that the change in institutional governance is a power grab by the Executive Committee, reported ABP.

“This charter has nothing to do with centralized control. … It simply is not true. It is a myth,” he said. “The SBC, not the Executive Committee will be the [sole] member.”

That said, six messengers took the proposal onto the convention floor for a debate.

After the debate, SBC President Bobby Welch, who first asked messengers to vote by raising their ballots, called for a tabulated vote. Exactly 5,627 ballots, comprising 78.6 percent of the total, were cast in favor of the charter change, making the convention the sole member of the Executive Committee’s corporation.