Samford University in Birmingham – described by many as Alabama Baptists’ “crown jewel” – will no longer receive annual budget allocations from the Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC) after 2017.
As of Jan. 1, 2018, the $3-plus million Cooperative Program (CP) allotment for Samford will be reduced from Alabama’s CP budget, assuming the request to eliminate funding for Samford is approved by the State Board of Missions (SBOM) and convention messengers. This was a voluntary action taken by the school, Samford officials announced July 7.
The school’s board of trustees executive committee approved the decision June 27 as a result of an ongoing dialogue among the senior leaders of Samford and ABSC.
The dialogue revolved around tensions concerning a proposed student organization – Samford Together – whose stated purpose was to facilitate discussion of topics related to human sexuality.
The Samford Relationship Study Group was appointed to work out concerns between the state convention and its 175-year-old educational institution. The group consists of the three state convention officers and the immediate past president, the SBOM chairman and vice chairman, and the SBOM executive director.
ABSC and SBOM leadership see the student group as more than a discussion group and are concerned it is an LGBT-oriented organization, officials noted.
Concerns were publicly expressed through a joint statement from ABSC President John Thweatt and SBOM Executive Director Rick Lance and later affirmed and approved by State Board trustees. Those concerns were the basis for A Call to Prayer by Thweatt.
Samford President Andrew Westmoreland said in a news release that the intent and purposes of the proposed student organization were widely misunderstood.
But even before being notified by convention officials that there could be financial consequences if the group was officially recognized by Samford, Westmoreland confirmed he had determined not to seek formal recognition of the proposed student organization by trustees. Instead his plan was to work to address topics related to human sexuality and “other important issues at the intersection of Christian understanding and cultural reality.”
“I will involve (the students requesting official recognition for Samford Together) and others across campus in taking essential steps to create new and ongoing opportunities for robustly engaging these and other important issues,” he said. “Our actions at Samford, irrespective of financial considerations, must demonstrate fidelity to God’s truth, abiding compassion and respect for all people and solidarity with the timeless ideals of a strong university.”
Thweatt, chair of the Samford Relationship Study Group, released the following statement from the group in response to the Samford announcement: “The matter of recognition of the student organization is in the hands of the leadership of Samford University. They know our concerns about the organization as expressed in person and in print.”
He also acknowledged that the SBOM was prepared to recommend Samford’s CP allotment be cut entirely starting in 2018 if the student group was given official recognition.
“In the coming days, the leaders of Alabama Baptists and Samford University hope to ascertain what areas of ministry cooperation – that do not involve Cooperative Program allocations – could be developed for the future which will honor our 175 years of ministry together,” the study group said.
“As always, we will pray for Samford, its leadership and its students as they work together in a university community in these challenging times.”
Westmoreland said, “I believe the action taken by our trustees is something that both parties have been anticipating for some time and will serve the best interests of both Samford and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. Our longstanding educational and ministry relationships with Alabama Baptists have always been more significant than money, and these relationships will continue and flourish.”
This will be the third time since 2008 that Samford has voluntarily reduced the annual funding it receives from the ABSC. The original plan was for Samford’s CP allocation to be reduced by $300,000 to $400,000 per year for five to seven years beginning in 2015 until the amount was down from its then $4-plus million to around $2 million.
Westmoreland told Alabama Baptists at the 2014 annual meeting, “This is a step of faith that in some measure God will help us replenish that which we are relinquishing.”
And with Samford’s recent step, he said, “Although Samford is immensely grateful for the financial support of the convention, which we have carefully stewarded, we are also mindful of the valuable ministries that are dependent upon funds allocated through the Alabama Baptist Convention’s annual budget.”
The university’s financial strength depends heavily on financial contributions from alumni and others, he said. “We acknowledge that reducing reliance on financial support from the Alabama Baptist State Convention will require careful stewardship of the university’s resources, but I am confident of Samford’s ability to maintain financial integrity.”
Samford is among those colleges and universities affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention through their state conventions and is the largest of the three Alabama Baptist schools. It operated under a $163 million budget for the July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017, school year.
Both convention leaders and Samford leaders maintain the relationship is not one of true separation and will remain friendly, cooperative and vital.
Samford houses the historical documents for Alabama Baptist life and serves as host to a variety of events sponsored by ABSC-affiliated groups. These and other connections will be part of the ongoing discussions for how to work together going forward.
“The relationship between Alabama Baptists and Samford remains crucial to the mission of Samford and the ongoing work of Baptists in Alabama and Christians throughout the world,” Westmoreland said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jennifer Davis Rash is editor-elect of The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist State Convention. Maggie Walsh of The Alabama Baptist contributed to this article.)