This story first appeared in the Florida Baptist Witness & The Illinois Baptist
NASHVILLE, Tenn.?The news operation of the Southern Baptist Convention will be left in the “capable” hands of veteran journalist Art Toalston, SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page said in an interview about changes at the convention’s administrative agency.
Now in his 18th year as Baptist Press editor, Toalston served three newspapers in Ohio before becoming religion editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, now the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. He was a staff writer for the International Mission Board for seven years before being hired by former Convention News Vice President Herb Hollinger in 1992. Will Hall served as vice president for convention news for the past decade until his position was eliminated last month.
On Nov. 30, Page announced structural changes that combine the functions of news and public relations under an office of convention communications and relations, merging two vice presidential-level positions. While Roger S. (Sing) Oldham’s duties expanded to include oversight of communications, Page said the new arrangement is in no way an attempt to change the nature of Baptist Press into a public relations vehicle.
“We will continue to do what our bylaws call for?to both interpret and publicize the overall Southern Baptist ministry and program,” Page said in a Dec. 3 interview.
While declining to comment specifically on a motion at the 2010 SBC annual meeting to grant BP greater independence by moving it out from under EC supervision, Page made it clear that neither he nor Oldham will have a hands-on role in the newsgathering process.
“I want to be very clear to say that no one, either the vice president or president, will be micromanaging the work of the editor or Baptist Press,” Page stated. “It’s important to say that the day-to-day operation will be run by Art and I have great confidence in his ability,” he added, calling the BP editor a well-respected, Christ-like journalist.
“For many years the two functions were operated out of one office, then separated in 1992, but still under the Executive Committee,” Oldham said. He anticipates no substantive changes in the news operation. “I think BP has maintained and proven to be a news service of integrity.”
Martin King, editor of The Illinois Baptist who offered the motion about BP, expressed disappointment with the new structure, while affirming Toalston.
“I’m disappointed the structural changes at the SBC Executive Committee move Baptist Press further away from more direct accountability to the convention, and place it under what is essentially the public relations function of the EC. This is a structure the new conservative leadership abandoned nearly 20 years ago,” King said in a statement.
King said he understands the “economic pressures that precipitated the change” and is “encouraged at Dr. Page’s assurances the day-to-day operations of BP will be left to Art Toalston and his staff of talented, committed Christian journalists, and that the new structure is ‘for the immediate future,’ leaving open the possibility of re-considering the change.”
Toalston, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has well-established relationships with the network of state Baptist papers and communications offices of SBC entities. “I’m relying on good journalism as my first measure of things being published,” he said. “It’s a great network and I feel mutual respect toward them and what we’re trying to do at Baptist Press.”
With the likelihood of continued budgetary shortfalls, Page said serious decisions had to be made. “This was an immediate, perhaps an intermediate, stage due to serious economic issues and perhaps we will review this in the future. All options will be on the table at that time,” he said.
The Executive Committee is operating with half million dollars less than it had in the previous year’s budget and stands to take a more severe hit with a recommendation that nearly one-third of the 3.4 percent of Cooperative Program funds that SBC operations currently receive be transferred to the International Mission Board.
SBC messengers endorsing the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force proposals expected part of that cost savings to come by shifting primary responsibility for CP promotion to state conventions. The Cooperative Program vice presidential-level position begun in 2006 was also eliminated in the structural changes announced by Page.
Page said he will take far more responsibility for CP promotion and expects the three remaining vice presidents to do likewise, including Oldham, D. August (Augie) Boto in the renamed office of convention policy and operations, and the newly appointed William (Bill) Townes in the office of convention finance.
“Our goal is to really follow the advice and recommendation of our messengers to work more with our state partners in promotion and development of CP materials,” Page said. He is meeting regularly with state partners to enhance that relationship and take personal responsibility for the assignment.
Any further cuts will be announced by the next Executive Committee meeting in February, said Page, explaining his determination to do everything he can to remake the EC staff into a “historically appropriate level” while also honoring the convention’s recommendation to maximize CP funding for international ministry.
Asked about two EC-funded strategist positions occupied by Kenneth Hemphill (Empowering Kingdom Growth) and Bobby Welch (Global Evangelical Relations), Page expressed confidence in both men, stating, “I’m working with both of them and we are being deliberate in how we deal with those important ministries. I expect we’ll hear some news in Dr. Hemphill’s area soon.”
Page said the subsidy for the Southern Baptist Foundation would be phased out over the course of three to five years, a plan begun under his predecessor’s administration. The foundation is a subsidiary of the Executive Committee.