At last year's General Assembly, three overtures--from Mississippi Valley, Covenant, and Southeast Alabama Presbyteries--asked that the denomination's Reformed University Ministries (RUM) be made into its own permanent committee of the General Assembly rather than continue under the Mission to North America (MNA) Committee as is presently the case. The Assembly answered the overtures by noting that the MNA Committee "has appointed a study committee to study the relationship of Reformed University Ministries and GA/MNA, and awaits the report of its findings and recommendations to the 25th General Assembly."
Mentioned in the overtures from Mississippi Valley and Southeast Alabama, which were identical, were such factors as: the unique ministry of RUM as distinct from MNA (which focuses on church planting); the fact that "the overall budget for Reformed University Ministries comprises nearly one-half of the entire budget of Mission to North America"; and that "certain administrative changes" are needed "for the future growth and expansion of [RUM] in the late 1990s and even into the next century."
Not stated explicitly in the overtures were concerns which have been voiced about the centralization of power in Atlanta. At least part of the impetus behind the overtures was a desire that the Southern Presbyterian ("Thornwellian") model of ministry, in contrast to a "management" style, be continued in the PCA's campus work.
These overtures came out of a December 1995 meeting of the Mississippi Joint Committee for Reformed University Ministries (MJC), which consists of twelve members--four from each of the three presbyteries in the Magnolia State (Covenant, Mississippi Valley, and Grace). At that meeting, a motion was passed which requested the constituent presbyteries to overture the Assembly for separate committee status. According to informed sources, in January 1996, Cortez Cooper (MNA Coordinator) and Marvin Padgett (whom Dr. Cooper had appointed as RUM Coordinator) came over to Mississippi for a meeting with the Joint Committee. Dr. Cooper at that time stated that he was not in opposition to the proposal. In April 1996, at a called meeting, the Campus Subcommittee of MNA-Atlanta appointed a study committee to begin to evaluate this proposal.
At the Assembly itself, the Administrative Committee decided to get in on the act; and, through its report, had RE William Joseph, TE Bill Fox, and the Stated Clerk (ex officio) added to this ad hoc committee.
The outcome desired by these three Deep South presbyteries for a separate committee and for the continuation of the same model of ministry that has always characterized RUM from its inception has, however, run into stiff opposition. So alarming to some have been the proposals generated from this study committee that RE Bebo Elkin, long-time Mississippi Coordinator for RUM (and the interim coordinator after TE Mark Lowery resigned in 1995), resigned in protest. Further, the campus ministers have been united in their opposition to the new schemas being set forth.
In a recent interview, Mr. Elkin, who has served as Mississippi Coordinator for fourteen years, indicated that he had resigned on March 3rd. "The operative phrase concerning my resignation was that I'm not in accord with some philosophical changes." He mentioned the "desire expressed by some to bring about restructure of RUM," particularly with regard to the Area Coordinator positions. Mr. Elkin is presently the only one to be affected by the proposed changes, which would include having these area men being appointed by the RUM Coordinator in Atlanta. "One of the key phrases," according to Elkin, was that the regional committees would exercise "advice and consent over the [Area] Coordinator but not the selection of the Coordinator." This would mark a radical shift in the locus of power, as the regional man's call would in the future come through the MNA Committee in Atlanta, rather than through the local committees, which answer to one or more presbyteries. Elkin notes, "The way I am being handled [presently] is the way Mark Lowery was being hired in '74"-i.e., through the Mississippi Joint Committee (MJC) for Reformed University Ministries.
According to Elkin, TE David Gordon, who had been Area Coordinator for Florida, was called through MNA Atlanta. But when Elkin became Interim Coordinator of RUM in 1995, he had the Campus Subcommittee of MNA approve the Mississippi model in the proposed hiring of TE Carl Derk to be RUM's Northeast Coordinator. That is to say, Mr. Derk would be "owned and operated by presbytery, and rented to Atlanta." In Elkin's words, "The move is afoot to say that all area coordinators" must come under Atlanta's direct supervision. The historic way that Mississippi's RUM has worked is that the "Atlanta office is to facilitate, not supervise." In Elkin's eyes, the philosophical question is, Do people appoint people or do courts appoint people? "We're right now at the will of one man, Cortie Cooper. We'd rather be at the will of the General Assembly. . . . Courts make decisions, individuals don't," says Elkin, adding, "I happen to be a Presbyterian, not an Episcopalian, nor a Methodist." He later commented, "I put little trust in an individual, because I have a high regard for depravity."
Elkin's comments about depravity are not intended to be a personal attack on any of the principals involved in the current dispute. He believes that Dr. Cortez Cooper, Dr. Wilson Benton (Chairman of the study committee), and Marvin Padgett are all operating with the best of intentions. "I don't detect any malice." Referring to his long-time friend, Wilson Benton, he says, "I think Wilson's trying to keep us out of the political fracas at General Assembly" by having a chain of command, rather than adopting the proposal of the presbyteries for a separate permanent committee at the Assembly level. Regarding Mr. Padgett, Elkin states, "I don't see a bad bone in Marvin's body. There's no malice in him, period."
Besides the restructuring proposal, the other major cause for concern among RUM folks has been the ability of Mr. Padgett to function effectively in his post. The Florida Committee has already called for a meeting of the Campus Subcommittee in order to solicit his resignation (see box on p. 2).
Many of the campus ministers and area committees are apparently frustrated with the way in which Mr. Padgett has been handling affairs, including recruiting and fund raising. One of the examples has to do with the Atlanta office sending a man who is slated to work on a campus in the Northeast to a large church in Memphis and seeking to solicit funds. A veteran RUM staffer commented, "We don't let the whole gang line up" at the same trough. "Once an area's stable, then it can help other areas. . . . But guys competing for the same funds causes bad morale."
In the midst of the uproar, Covenant Presbytery called a special meeting specifically because of the situation. With only one dissenting vote, the court on April 8th sent an overture to this year's Assembly. A similarly-worded overture was adopted by Grace Presbytery at its stated meeting on May 13th, and presumably will be presented to the Assembly by way of personal resolution (see box on p. 2). The major difference between the two overtures is that, while Covenant's proposal calls for the establishment of RUM as either a permanent committee or agency, Grace's proposal asks particularly for agency status for RUM.
Meanwhile, Bebo Elkin has come back as Mississippi Coordinator on an interim basis. According to TE Wayne Herring, who serves on the Mississippi Joint Committee, "we don't know what the future holds. We have thought all along that our committee is the prototype committee and we were surprised that not everyone in the church thought that. It isn't broke, so why are you trying to fix it?" Concerning his committee's historic way of doing things, Mr. Herring said, "we thought it was the right way, the Biblical way, the Presbyterian way."
Action by the Florida Joint Committee on Campus Ministry
At its April 24, 1997, meeting, the Florida RUM area committee unanimously adopted the following:
1. Request a called meeting of the GA Campus Subcommittee on or before adjournment of the 25th General Assembly.
2. While Marvin Padgett is recognized as a man of integrity and Christian character, we believe he has demonstrated a lack of leadership ability necessary to be coordinator of RUM, and therefore we request the GA Campus Subcommittee to request Marvin Padgett's resignation.
3. Request the Task Force (which conducted the last search for a coordinator) to reassemble and present, as soon as possible, a recommendation to be interim coordinator.
4. Ask for the Task Force to recommend a list of three top choices to present to the Campus Subcommittee from which to select an RUM coordinator.
It was also moved, seconded, and carried "That Chairman David Gordon personally convey the above action to RUM coordinator, TE Marvin Padgett; Campus Subcommittee chairman, TE Wilson Benton; and MNA chairman, TE Cortez Cooper prior to officially sending it in writing."