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Lay-led Church Conflicts Erupt in Baptist Churches

Two prominent Baptist ministers have come under fire in the last two weeks at large meetings of congregants upset over leadership style and financial management. Both pastors–one a conservative Southern Baptist Convention leader and the other a progressive minister highly involved with the Baptist World Alliance–have faced criticism from some church members for months.

Former SBC first vice president Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., faces opposition from members of the congregation seeking to remove him as pastor. And Wallace Charles Smith, an African-American pastor and BWA vice president, has been targeted by members of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

These two church conflicts come after several other pastors of large Baptist churches have been attacked by laity movements. First Baptist Church of Daytona, Fla., pastor David Cox resigned in January 2007 after only five months as senior pastor. The successor to former SBC president Bobby Welch had been attacked for an expensive sanctuary renovation.

In June 2006, Sam Shaw resigned as pastor of Germantown Baptist Church in Germantown, Tenn. The primary area of contention raised by members of the congregation dealt with Shaw’s unsuccessful proposal to shift the church’s governance to elder-led instead of congregation-led.

Frank Harber resigned in August 2006 as pastor of First Baptist Church of Colleyville, Texas. Controversy centered around real estate deals that some claimed were unethical. During the conflict, four members were kicked out of the church and a Sunday School class was locked out of the building.

Over the past few years, lay-led conflicts have also erupted at several other Baptist churches, including Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn.; First Baptist Church of Raytown, Missouri; Riverside Church in New York City; and Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. In many of the conflicts, dissident members have established Web sites to explain concerns and garner support, which has often led to coverage from local and national media.

Todd Rhoades, who writes about conflict and other church leadership issues at www.mondaymorninginsight.com, argued that although such church conflicts are not new, technology has changed the nature of the fights.

“It used to happen over the phone and in secretly called meetings,” Rhoades wrote in an e-mail to EthicDaily.com. “But the internet makes the process much quicker and totally public. Add to that the possibility for anonymity, and you’ve got a real problem that is sure to plague a lot of churches in the future.”

Concerns listed by the Two Rivers group include the decline in membership, lack of financial accountability, authoritarian leadership style, staff turnover, communication problems and lavish lifestyles. The group charges that Sutton used church funds for an overseas trip and the wedding reception of one of his daughters, and attempted to sell church property.

“Pastor Sutton has ignored the cry of the sheep and while we desire to see him used for the glory of God, we know that because he has ignored his flock for so long it is time for him to pursue his true gift and calling,” the group argued on its Web site, www.trbinfo.com (the site has been down after numerous hits following media stories). “We believe the truth concerning many of the numerous allegations and the way that he has handled them disqualifies him from a Pastoral position.”

About 300 members met Aug. 15 at a senior center to discuss the allegations. The group hopes to collect about 700 signatures–or 10 percent of the membership–in order to call a meeting to vote on dismissing Sutton.

Sutton argued that the group’s decision to talk with the press “hurt the reputation of the church,” adding that “there’s no biblical reason to take church conflict to the public.”

The concerns of the Shiloh group center around the management of funds and property. Additionally, the District of Columbia condemned several vacant properties owned by the church. Some members are also upset that Smith accepted a full-time position as president of Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia–in addition to his role as pastor–without prior notice to the church.

More than 140 members of the church met Aug. 11 and overwhelming voted to remove Smith as pastor. Since the sanctuary was locked, the group held the meeting outside. However, the chairmen of the deacon and trustee boards declared the vote invalid and scheduled a meeting in September to address Smith’s leadership.

An attorney for the dissident group said it might take the issue to court if the vote is not accepted. Smith dismissed the group as less than five percent of the membership.

Regardless of these conflicts’ outcomes, Rhoades argued that similar internal struggles are likely to continue and become publicized.

“I would stress that this is a trend that is not going to go away,” Rhoades contended. “My fear is that this could happen to any church or pastor regardless of the situation.”

Rhoades noted that since online dissent can be picked up by the public media, news of the conflict can reach a much larger audience.

“Such things,” added Rhoades, “do no good for the cause of Christ or His Kingdom.”

Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.

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