Ga. Baptist leaders warn of further action against church with female pastor
By John Pierce
Baptists Today

DECATUR, Ga. — In her church newsletter column dated Jan. 23, pastor Julie Pennington-Russell of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., reported on a Jan. 7 visit by representatives of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) who warned her that some unidentified individuals within the convention are seeking a formal “withdrawal of fellowship” from the congregation.

Pennington-Russell reported that Executive Director Robert White — accompanied by GBC Church-Ministers Relations director Danny Watters and Christian Index editor Gerald Harris — informed her and two other church representatives that, while the church is free to call the pastor of their own choosing, the convention is also free to decide with whom they will relate.

It was the first direct communication since the convention drafted and passed a somewhat-veiled motion in November 2008 permitting GBC leaders to reject mission funds from the congregation and to prohibit First Baptist members from having representation in the convention. The action was in response to the church calling a female pastor — Pennington-Russell — in August 2007.

She told church members that the GBC representatives explained that a formal “withdrawal of fellowship” would mean that the church could not receive materials or services from the GBC such as training in Vacation Bible School, Sunday school or evangelism.

“Not sure I’d heard correctly, I pressed a little,” she wrote in the column. “Do you mean that if I called you up one day and said—‘The Spirit is doing something amazing at First Baptist Decatur! Waves of men, women and teenagers are responding to God and are being baptized and we could use some additional help in giving them a good foundation. Could you send a team over to meet with our folks?’—are you telling me that the GBC wouldn’t want to help us with that?”

White said he would be willing to help “personally” in such a situation, but not as an official representative of the GBC, Pennington-Russell reported.

“Friends, in that hour-long conversation it became crystal clear to me why people are abandoning denominational structures in droves and why denominationalism as it exists today is doomed: It is largely missing the point,” she wrote. “The denominational leaders in my office that day love people and care deeply about the gospel — I’m certain about that. But the sad reality is, most denominational organizations are stuck in bureaucratic systems that have forgotten why they exist in the first place.”

She said the congregation must be on guard against “missing the point” as well.

“May God save us from the deadly notion that this church exists to provide goods and services for eligible ‘members,’” she continued. “…We exist to follow Jesus into gospel adventures of all kinds in collaboration with all God’s people, whatever their denominational preferences or doctrinal stances.”

Pennington-Russell acknowledged that the church has “kingdom-focused” relationships with other organizations such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Willow Creek Association, the Baptist World Alliance and the Atlanta Metro Baptist Association.

Pennington-Russell told Baptists Today that she has received “an overwhelmingly positive response” to the column from church members. Though the GBC’s action last November received much media attention, she said, it was “barely a blip on the radar at Decatur First Baptist.”

In meeting with convention leaders and in writing the column, Pennington-Russell said her goal was “to be kind and to be honest.” She expects the church will take no formal action in response to the convention: “That’s not what we are all about.”

The pastor and congregation are giving their attention to the church’s growing ministries, she said, aimed at reaching persons in the community with no church connections. Last year, largely through a growing second worship service, the congregation added dozens of new members including the baptism of 21 persons, nine of whom were adults.

Pennington-Russell said she envisions the church reaching many more in the days ahead.

“It certainly indicates the direction we are going,” she said. “And that is a high priority for us.”

Any additional GBC action against the church would have very little impact on the congregation, she predicted. Most, she said, “already consider ourselves disfellowshipped” by the earlier decision to reject mission funds from the church.

Only about 13 members — some with relatives serving as Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) missionaries — direct their mission gifts to SBC causes through the church, she said. The church will find a way for them to continue that support if they wish, she added.

Pennington-Russell described the meeting with GBC representatives as friendly — but late in the decision-making process.

“It just seemed so odd to me that all of this would happen without [convention leaders and church leaders] looking eye-to-eye,” she said.

White, the GBC executive director, was asked by Baptists Today about the convention’s intentions regarding further action against the Decatur church, the public relations impact of the decision and the result of refusing mission gifts during an economic downturn.

“I have no comment for you on these matters,” he responded.

(Baptists Today is an independent, national news journal based in Macon, Ga.)

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