Belmont and Tennessee Baptists reach settlement, ending lawsuit

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (ABP) -- Belmont University and Tennessee Baptists have reached an agreement that will end a crucial lawsuit, messengers at the Tennessee Baptist Convention annual meeting were told Nov. 13.

The agreement means that Belmont will provide the Tennessee Baptist Convention a total of $11 million toward a ministry-endowment fund and Tennessee Baptists will drop their lawsuit attempting to regain control of the school, lost in 2004 when the school moved to become independent.

Messengers, meeting in Kingsport, Tenn., received the news from a negotiating committee with applause. The agreement ends the convention's 56-year-old relationship with the school and also likely marks the end of a sometimes-bitter three-year dispute.

“One of the things that we must learn from this is that relationships are extremely valuable and that they are sometimes fragile, and I hope that we have learned that, as we have worked together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we will not always agree,” said Clay Austin in announcing the settlement to convention messengers. Austin is pastor of First Baptist Church of Blountville, Tenn., and chairman of a special convention committee charged with negotiating with Belmont officials.

Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont's trustees, released a statement Nov. 13 saying the settlement “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.”

Under the agreement's terms, Belmont will provide an initial $1 million gift, followed by annual gifts of $250,000 for the next 40 years. The funds will be added to an endowment that will support Tennessee ministries.

The convention initially sued to regain the approximately $58 million in funds it has donated to Belmont since buying the school. The suit asked a judge to enforce an obscure 1951 document -- whose existence was discovered on the eve of the convention's annual meeting in 2005 -- that appears to require Belmont to reimburse the convention for contributions should the school "pass from Baptist control."

But attorneys for Belmont argued that later agreements between the school and the convention superseded that document.

The conflict between Belmont and the convention dates to 2004, when convention officials asked all ministry partners to craft proposals for covenant documents describing their relationship with the convention.

Belmont trustees proposed that they begin electing their own successors, that the school be allowed to draw up to 40 percent of its trustees from Christians of non-Baptist traditions, and that all TBC-contributed funds would go exclusively to fund scholarships for students from Tennessee Baptist churches.

While the TBC executive board's education committee approved the covenant, a divided board rejected it. Officials from the convention and the university jointly crafted a new document agreeable to both groups.

In May 2006, at a rare special meeting of the convention, messengers voted 923-791 to reject a $5 million offer from Belmont to settle the case. They then voted to declare the school's entire trustee board vacant and established Austin's committee to negotiate with Belmont officials.

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Read more:

Tennessee Baptist Convention files lawsuit against Belmont (10/5/2006)