The Tennessee Baptist Convention has settled its lawsuit against Belmont University for $11 million, the school’s trustee chairman announced Tuesday.
“We believe that this resolution honors the many significant contributions that Tennessee Baptists have made to the university and upholds the teachings of Jesus Christ, whom we all seek to serve by ending litigation,” said Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont’s board of trustees.
The agreement terminates a 56-year relationship between the state’s Southern Baptists and the Nashville school. It also ends a leadership dispute over who elects the university’s trustees.
Announcing the agreement during the opening session of the Tennessee Baptist Convention Tuesday in Kingsport, Clay Austin, chairman of a Belmont study committee called it a “long process,” but said the committee’s “fervent heart’s desire” was to “settle out of a courtroom.”
“God began to do a great work,” Austin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bloutville, Tenn., told messengers, according to the Baptist & Reflector.
According to Baptist Press, following months of failed negotiation and legal wrangling, two representatives from each side met last week and reached a tentative agreement. The TBC executive board unanimously endorsed the settlement Nov. 12.
Messengers at the state convention were not required to vote on the measure, since they had previously authorized the study committee to resolve the conflict, but convention messengers nevertheless adopted a motion expressing support.
“The road that we have traveled to this point has been long and arduous. However, the journey has been worth it,” Belmont President Bob Fisher said in an e-mail to faculty announcing the settlement. “This resolution of the dispute with the Tennessee Baptist Convention is very good for Belmont.”
Under the agreement, Belmont will pay the Tennessee Baptist Convention $1 million next year followed by annual payments of $250,000 for the next 40 years. Those “gifts,” according to the university’s official statement, “are an expression of gratitude to Tennessee Baptists for the financial and spiritual support that they have provided to the university over the past five decades.”
Tennessee Baptists turned down a $5 million offer from Belmont to settle the dispute at a called convention session in May 2006, before suing the school that October for $58 million–the total amount contributed to Belmont by the TBC since taking over the school in 1951.
Prior to this week’s TBC annual convention in Kingsport, Dickens sent a letter to the state’s 3,000 Baptist churches expressing hope the lawsuit would be “discussed openly and honestly” in light of failure of an evaluation and mediation process initiated by the TBC.
To that end, Belmont trustees offered to pay $12.5 million in future endowment for scholarships, children’s ministry and partnerships with international missionaries.
Baptist Press said Tennessee Baptists objected to Belmont controlling how the endowment would be used. Under the final agreement, funds paid by Belmont to the TBC will be added to an endowment at the Tennessee Baptist Foundation “to support Tennessee Baptist missions and ministries.” The foundation currently holds about $4.9 million for Belmont. Of that, $1.5 million will be subject to terms of the agreement, while remaining funds will be transferred to another trustee selected by Belmont.
“We came to the realization that settlement outside of court was best for the convention,” TBC Executive Director James Porch said in the Baptist & Reflector. “No one in the convention wanted to go to court.”
That contrasted with language at a special called convention meeting Oct. 9, 2006, at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, when Tennessee Baptists rejected Belmont’s initial $5 million offer and authorized the Belmont Study Committee to “carry out all rights, powers, actions and remedies,” including “arbitration and/or litigation” to protect the convention’s rights.
During initial discussions, the study committee asked Belmont to reverse its decision and allow the convention to once again elect trustees. Belmont refused, and the convention committee filed suit Sept. 29, 2006, in Davidson County Chancery Court.
Following an eight-month “elaborate mediation process” suggested by the TBC, convention leaders refused Belmont’s final offer to continue a relationship, Dickens reported in September, making it appear the dispute was headed to court. A trial was scheduled for the week of May 19, 2008.
The lawsuit centered on Belmont’s desire to elect non-Baptist trustees to diversity its fund-raising and have a trustee board that more resembles a student body that is predominantly Christian but no longer majority Baptist.
Belmont trustees amended the university’s charter allowing them to select their own successors, a step the Tennessee Baptist Convention said shouldn’t have been taken without the convention’s permission.
The main contention of the complaint originally filed by the convention was not the legality of the charter change, however, but whether a long-lost 1951 document that suddenly resurfaced entitled the TBC to recover all gifts to Belmont should the school ever be removed from the convention’s control.
Belmont officials maintained the historical document, if ever binding, was superseded by numerous covenant agreements over the years. While denying any legal obligation to pay the state convention anything, trustees said they still desired to settle the dispute in order to avoid litigation and work out a compromise relationship between the university and Tennessee Baptists.
“Though Belmont is parting ways with the TBC, we trust that our shared history has provided important groundwork to achieve common goals of the convention and the university, and that our futures will evidence this good work,” Dickens said Tuesday. “Belmont is committed to its Christian mission and to cherishing its Baptist roots.”
Dickens said Belmont “will continue to be a student-focused, Christian community of learning and service with a rich Baptist heritage that we intend to foster and nurture through our ongoing relationships with local Baptist churches.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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