Among the troublesome trends in Baptist life is the growing use of the Internet as a tool for airing grievances arising from church conflict.
Church conflicts — especially those related to the congregation’s satisfaction with the pastor — are nothing new. The rising tide of “pastoral authority” in some circles has caused natural consternation for churches that are accustomed to congregational church government and a freedom of access to church records, especially finances.
What is new in the arena of church conflict is that dissident groups who are unable to gain a hearing within the church have begun using websites or blogs to ratchet up the pressure on the stonewalling pastor and those who enable him.
For some reason, this has been particularly true in the state of Tennessee. When Steve Gaines followed the long-tenured Adrian Rogers at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, near Memphis, it took less than a year for serious conflict to arise. Opponents charged that Gaines was being paid half-a-million dollars in salary per year (the actual numbers remain secret) and had intimidated church members. Unable to redress the issue within internal church channels, they contacted local media and started an opposition website. Even Baptist Press took notice, as did bloggers. Gaines remains in the saddle, though still under fire.
At Germantown Baptist Church in Germantown, pastor Steve Shaw’s determination to institute the rule of elders led to deep conflict. Opponents started a website (www.savegbc.com, now defunct) to air their concerns, and Shaw ultimately resigned.
The latest newsmaker is Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, home of the Southern Baptist Convention headquarters. Pastor Jerry Sutton, a prominent leader among conservative kingpins within the Convention, has come under fire for spending more than $4,000 of church funds on a wedding reception for his daughter, improperly meeting with representatives of a resort hotel who wanted to buy some of the church’s property, being autocratic in his leadership style and attempting to keep church members in the dark about his finances.
My purpose in writing this is not to pass judgment in any of the situations, though I have little sympathy for autocratic pastors.
I’m writing, I suppose, to bemoan the state of any church which has become so dysfunctional that its members and staff cannot work out their differences, but feel compelled to raise the conflict exponentially by broadcasting it on the Internet.
Traditional Baptist polity calls for transparency and integrity and congregational involvement. When secretive salaries and back-room deals and the election of a power-elite to run the church become the norm, conflict becomes inevitable and folks who once could ask questions at a monthly church business meeting now feel that they have to start a website.
Everything surrounding such conflicts, of course, brings harm to the cause of Christ, rather than advancing the kingdom of God. People on both sides of the issues, no doubt, will claim to have Christ on their side and accuse the other of doing the damage.
Ultimately, leadership must come from the pastor, but it must be servant leadership, leadership that comes from paying dues of love and care and concern for the church, rather than from position or precepts.
I’m convinced that we have too many “leadership” conferences for pastors, and not enough “servanthood” conferences.
Within the church, you can’t truly have one without the other.