July 24, 2002
JEFFERSON CITY – Two phone calls.
That has been the extent of reaction by Missouri Baptists to the president of the Missouri Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) after the organization’s board voted unanimously July 12 to cancel next year’s Girls in Action (GA) Retreats at Windermere Baptist Conference Center.
"I have received only two phone calls, one wondering why we didn’t go ahead with the retreats at Windermere and the other asking why we would even consider having it at Windermere," said Debbie Miller, a member of Southridge Baptist Church who serves in the Missouri WMU’s top leadership post.
The WMU board mailed letters July 13 to church GA leaders, WMU workers, associational WMU directors and directors of missions, the MBC Executive Board, denominational news media, and to everyone on their GA mailing list. The letter has appeared on Internet message boards in recent days as well.
The decision by the WMU board to cancel the retreats is the latest development in the continuing battle over five Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) agencies where trustees have seized control by giving themselves sole authority in picking their successors rather than accepting those elected by Missouri Baptist churches.
The cancellation of the retreats was prompted by the MBC Executive Board directing MBC staff to stop signing contracts with the five renegade agencies until their trustees rescind their actions to become self-perpetuating. Windermere is one of those institutions along with The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist College, Word & Way and the Missouri Baptist Foundation. Frank Shock, president of Windermere, told the executive board July 9 that Windermere has no intention of returning to the MBC.
The executive board directive is in keeping with the wishes of MBC messengers who voted by more than 3-1 at October’s state convention in Cape Girardeau authorizing the executive board to "take any and all means necessary to remedy the improper actions (of the trustees)."
The executive board reasoned that any funds paid to Windermere would be interpreted as funding the agency, a move that would violate the wishes of MBC messengers who voted (also by more than 3-1) to escrow approximately $2 million in 2002 funding for Windermere and the other four agencies.
Missouri WMU is a separate, not-for-profit corporation, but its leaders chose to follow the MBC executive board directive because WMU receives Cooperative Program funding for staff and programming.
However, Miller and WMU children’s specialist Teri Broeker appeared before the executive board’s administrative committee July 8 to ask for an exception to the executive board directive so that the 2003 retreats could be held at Windermere. They cited safety concerns, the familiarity with Windermere, and increased expenses if the retreats are held somewhere else. They also said it would be difficult to find an acceptable alternative site this late in the year, noting that planning for the next year’s event begins immediately after the conclusion of each year’s retreats.
That prompted Jay Scribner, administrative committee chairman, to direct the executive board’s interagency committee to help the WMU find an alternative site for the retreats.
Scribner said July 25 that he thought the WMU’s decision to cancel the retreats for 2003 was "a premature reaction.
"I regret they have reacted so quickly even though I understand that it takes a lot of time and planning for the retreats," he said. "I am confident the interagency committee will do good work in helping to determine alternative sites so that the GA retreats can continue."
Miller said the WMU "will gladly receive their suggestions."
She said WMU board members considered hosting retreats by region, but timing and programming issues could not be resolved. When asked by administrative committee members if the WMU board had tried to find alternative sites so the retreats could continue in their present form, she replied, "no."
Stephanie Petty, a GA director at Pisgah Baptist Church, Excelsior Springs, was asked to speak to the committee by her pastor, David Tolliver, who is also a committee member and recording secretary for the MBC.
Petty expressed concern, given the aggressive action initiated by the Windermere trustees, that a climate exists in which there might be an attempt to pull the GA Retreat Program out from "the umbrella" of the MBC. She also said she was among a growing number of Missouri Baptists unhappy with Windermere being managed more like a business rather than a ministry.
"I have attended the GA retreats for the past six years and I have heard frustrations voiced in the way Windermere was handling things," she said. "I began to see changes and would voice my concerns to committee members and I was hearing that they, too, had the same concerns.
"It seemed a common theme on both our parts that we saw Windermere running more like a business than for the purpose it was established. Could Windermere become just another Tan-Tar-a as the business-marketing approach to running it continues? When the Windermere board is under the direction of the MBC it is accountable to even me – a Missouri Baptist."
Adding to the controversy are questions about Miller’s attendance at the Baptist General Convention of Missouri’s inaugural meeting in April. Miller said she was not a messenger, but only "a guest" and that the WMU had a booth at the event at Fee Fee Baptist Church in St. Louis.
"The WMU wants to serve all Missouri Baptists," Miller said. "We will be at the MBC meeting, too."
MBC President Bob Curtis, pastor of Ballwin Baptist Church, Ballwin, left little doubt as to who he blames for the GA controversy.
"[The cancellation] is due to Windermere’s refusal to rescind its action," he told the moderate newspaper Word & Way, July 22. "We have said we want to continue going to Windermere," he said. "It saddens me that they [WMU] had to do that [cancel retreats]. I lay the responsibility at the feet of Windermere’s trustees."
When asked if she agreed with Curtis’ assessment, Miller replied: "I just know it’s not the GA’s fault."
When asked if public pressure – real or perceived – could cause the WMU to change its mind should Windermere invite them next year, Miller replied: "Our board made a decision to cancel in 2003.
"It’s sad. I regret that the situation in Missouri Baptist life is what it is. It grieved us to make the decision to cancel. But it was unanimous and it came after much thought and prayer."
The retreats began in 1985 and have grown from a one weekend event with approximately 900 girls to four weekends in March with about 2,500 attending.
Miller said members of the WMU GA retreat committee plans for the retreats to resume in 2004. The state organization also hopes to offer a GA emphasis at its annual meeting, April 25-26, at William Jewell College, but acknowledged it will be nothing like the retreats.