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Dispute arises over dismissal of SBU trustee

BOLIVAR –  After voting earlier this year to “censure and exclude”  Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC)-elected trustee Kyle Lee, the Southwest Baptist University (SBU) board of trustees voted on Oct. 22 to “remove” Lee as trustee, followed by a request to the MBC for a replacement trustee.  The MBC Constitution says only the convention messengers can remove and replace trustees.

At least a majority of the board voted to remove Lee, despite a letter sent to SBU trustees and administration, Oct. 21, by Linda Welch, chairwoman of the MBC Executive Board’s Entity Relations Committee, in which she personally requested that Lee be immediately reinstated to the board. The complete text of her letter is posted at the end of this article.

Lee, a lay elder at Southern Hills Baptist Church, Bolivar, was elected to serve as an SBU trustee during the 2018 MBC annual meeting. His term was set to expire in 2023, at which time he would be eligible for re-election. However, the SBU trustee board voted, Jan. 22, to censure and exclude Lee for an indefinite period, claiming that Lee had a “conflict of interest” and that “trust had been violated by” Lee’s “actions.”

In her letter, Welch wrote that “the original exclusion of Mr. Lee was improper,” adding that she hoped the board would restore him at the beginning of their Oct. 22 trustee meeting so that Lee could “fully participate” in the meeting.

“We believe that MBC entities do not have the authority under our governing documents to exclude an MBC-elected trustee from performing his duties, and certainly not for an indefinite period of time, possibly years, subject only to the discretion of the entity board or its executive committee,” Welch wrote.

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Welch added that the MBC Entity Relations Committee felt the conditions for Lee’s reinstatement to the board, as described in a letter sent by trustees to Lee in May, “seemed unreasonable and punitive.” She also disputed their claim that Lee “had ignored the letter.”

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According to Lee, the board accused him of breaking confidentiality when he showed SBU documentation to the elders at Southern Hills Baptist Church. The documents related to the 2018 termination of Clint Bass from his position as associate professor in SBU’s Redford College of Theology and Ministry. Bass also served as a fellow elder at Southern Hills Baptist Church.

However, Lee disputes any claim that he broke confidentiality, arguing that he was instructed by SBU attorney Jay Kirksey to share these documents with the church’s elders during a Dec. 13th conversation with Kirksey and SBU President Eric Turner. “To this date, I have never shared those documents with anyone else, not even with the MBC leadership,” Lee told The Pathway.

SBU trustee Terry Delaney claims that he witnessed the interaction, first-hand, and testified to SBU trustees and administration about what he saw. He confirmed Lee’s account of the Dec. 13th interaction, and said that – to his knowledge – there has been no other particular instance of breach of confidentiality provided as a justification for Lee’s removal from the board. Delaney said that he doesn’t think there could have been a misunderstanding between Kirksey and Lee regarding this conversation.

“I honestly don’t think so,” Delaney told The Pathway. “I could see in retrospect how (SBU trustees and administration) could say there was a misunderstanding, but they’re not treating this as a misunderstanding by running him off the board.”

Mark Rains, chairman for the SBU board of trustees, disputed Lee’s interpretation of events.

“Confidentiality and trust are necessary for any relationship, especially for a trustee of any institution,” Rains told The Pathway in a written statement, Oct. 25. “Having been given extensive and strict instructions for confidentiality from both the Missouri Baptist Convention and SBU, Mr. Lee admitted to a breach of confidentiality that violated the trust of the rest of the board. He rejected the training he received, claiming that he was instructed to breach confidentiality immediately after the same meeting in which he received specific training about maintaining confidentiality as a trustee. Mr. Lee’s statement was contrary to the statements of several witnesses and the explicit training he had received. The board overwhelmingly did not accept his assertions of having received permission to violate his duties.

“In the interest of harmony and as acts of grace,” Rains added, “we offered Mr. Lee opportunities to be restored to his position of trust. Ultimately, Mr. Lee’s breach of confidentiality and refusal to engage in reconciliation caused an erosion of trust which could not be repaired.”

The SBU board of trustees voted to remove Lee permanently during an executive session at the end of their latest board meeting, Oct. 22.

“In an extension of grace, we censured Mr. Lee in January and gave him an opportunity to restore that confidence. He was invited to address the board and answer questions from the board,”  Rains said in an Oct. 22 press release from the university. “After much prayerful discussion, the board determined there was a breach of confidentiality that irreparably eroded our trust and ability to work together. The board voted, consistent with SBU’s charter and by-laws, to remove him from the SBU Board of Trustees.”

A representative from SBU told The Pathway that SBU’s charter contains the following in Article IV, Section 7: “Any officer or member of the Board of Trustees may be removed at any time for gross misconduct, neglect of duty, or for any cause in the wisdom of said Board, PROVIDED, that no such removal shall be made without the concurrence of a majority of the entire Board of Trustees.”

The Pathway asked MBC Executive Director John Yeats to respond to the language in the current SBU governing documents. He said, “The MBC governing documents task force recognized that the entities needed a mechanism to facilitate the discipline of a fellow board member. Consequently, they built language into the new governing documents that has a process for the respective boards to follow. All the entities except for SBU have completed the update of their documents, and some of what we’re experiencing now could have been arbitrated had SBU’s new documents been in place. We are hoping that, in 2020, SBU will complete this very important step.”

According to SBU, Rains has notified the MBC Nominating Committee of the removal and is working with the Committee to find a replacement.

After his removal from the board, Lee sent the following statement to The Pathway on Oct. 24:

“I have tried to serve Missouri Baptists as their elected trustee,” he wrote. “In the meeting that led to my dismissal, I was asked to agree to a blanket confidentiality agreement. Of course, I would keep SBU’s confidential information from the public, as a faithful steward. In my current occupation serving the public trust, as a pastor and as a former Marine, I have been trusted with vital secrets, and I know how to keep them.

“But as a fiduciary for the MBC, I could not agree to never communicate with MBC officers or committees.  Trustees must be free to ask questions and communicate to the MBC’s officers and boards. This is especially true on matters of theological integrity and honesty.

“I believe it is clearly a Biblical and Baptist distinctive that if we feel something is improper that we take it to the next higher authority.  And, when necessary, we take it to God’s people and allow the churches to shine the light of day on the issues of doctrine and practice. I cannot agree to a process that says the Institutions or Executive Committees can hide wrongdoing from Missouri Baptists. This makes trustees their own authorities, unaccountable to the MBC. With this view in mind I am confident that you will find no evidence of my having violated confidentiality. I trust the Missouri Baptist churches who elected me to decide.”

 

Welch’s letter to SBU trustees, administration

The following is Welch’s complete letter requesting Lee’s reinstatement to the board, sent on the morning of Oct. 21 to SBU trustees and administration: 

 

Board of Trustees

c/o Dr. Eric Turner, President

Southwest Baptist University

Bolivar, MO 65612

SUBECT:  SBU Trustee Kyle Lee

Dear Friends:

As chairman of the Entity Relations Committee of the MBC Executive Board, I was copied on recent letters to Mr. Kyle Lee from Mr. Mark Rains on behalf of the SBU executive committee, regarding the actions taken by SBU trustees to censure and exclude Mr. Lee from serving as a trustee until he satisfies conditions set out in an undated letter he received in May this year.  Several other MBC leaders were also copied, so I am copying them below on my response. 

I have just received notice that Mr. Lee has been invited to speak to the full Board on October 22.  I am encouraged by this news and am praying for your meeting.  I wanted your full Board to be aware of the strong desire by many, including myself, that Mr. Lee be restored promptly, without further conditions, so he can fully participate as an MBC-elected trustee for SBU. 

As you may know, after Mr. Rains sent the conditions letter to Mr. Lee back in May,  Mr. Lee responded and asked to share the letter with Dr. Yeats and MBC officials, to get their counsel.  Mr. Rains refused, noting that the letter was labeled “Privileged and Confidential.”   Later, Rev. Ryan Kunce wrote to Mr. Rains and asked to see the May letter and was similarly refused.   We believe that this information was not “privileged” or “confidential” when it comes to MBC’s right to know about SBU’s actions regarding an MBC-elected trustee.)  

On August 19, 2019, the Entity Relations Committee held its regular meeting to hear reports from MBC entity heads, including SBU.  We also heard from Kyle Lee.  We were glad to welcome Dr. Turner at his regular reporting time, but were surprised to see with him your chairman, Mr. Rains;  your vice chairman, Rev. Ryan Palmer; and Ms. Rebecca Randles, the chairman of your academic committee. (If I had known these guests were attending, I might have arranged the schedule to allow more time, but we were glad to hear from them.)

In any event, during this meeting, Dr. Turner read the May letter to our committee, and we discussed it. (We are glad he “waived” the “privilege.”) 

The SBU leaders seemed to believe Mr. Lee had ignored the May letter, but he did not.  Several ERC committee members expressed the opinion that the proposed conditions seemed unreasonable and punitive, so that Mr. Lee’s response was proper.  After the meeting, our committee discussed among ourselves that the more fundamental problem was that the May conditions were improper because the original exclusion of Mr. Lee was improper.

We believe that MBC entities do not have the authority under our governing documents to exclude an MBC-elected trustee from performing his duties, and certainly not for an indefinite period of time, possibly years, subject only to the discretion of the entity board or its executive committee.  To prolong the exclusion from all trustee service indefinitely plainly becomes a constructive removal, which then falls under the Convention’s authority to either restore the trustee or replace him.  The new governing documents for the other MBC entities being presented at the 2019 annual meeting have a precise provision for this particular issue, so that the entity board works with the Executive Board to address any trustee problems. 

Our committee has not yet taken formal action on the issue, so this is my letter, not theirs.  But I wanted you to know that there is a strong consensus that the exclusion of Mr. Lee was improper and should be rescinded without further discussion of the May conditions.   I appreciated the affirmations of Dr. Turner and his guests on August 19, that you want to strengthen relations with the MBC, and we want that, too.  In that spirit, I write to request that Kyle Lee be restored to serve as an MBC-elected trustee on the SBU board, effective immediately.   I hope the full board will take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish this at the start of your next board meeting on October 22, so that Mr. Lee can fully participate.  

The Entity Relations Committee will remain available to help the parties address any differences or difficulties that may arise.  We pray fervently that the parties will be able to move forward with mutual courtesy and respect.

Sincerely, 

Linda Welch, Chairman

Entity Relations Committee

Executive Board of the MBC

 

cc:        Dr. John Yeats, MBC Executive Director

            Dr. Jeremy Muniz, MBC President

            Rev. Ryan Kunce, Nominating Committee

            Mr. Kyle Lee



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