The pastor of a Southern Baptist church in suburban Atlanta is on administrative leave after being arrested on charges of simple assault and obstruction of a 911 call after an altercation last week with his wife.
Jeff Witcher, pastor of First Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Ga., was arrested last Monday after police went to his residence after a 911 call was suddenly disconnected about 1 a.m.
A statement on the FBC Alpharetta Web site said the church was entering a “season of prayer” about the incident.
“Church leadership has revealed to the church body the facts as they are known related to the events in this situation,” the statement said. “There have been numerous meetings this week where the facts have been shared with various leaders of our church body.” According to a police report quoted by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Shelley Witcher said she was asleep when her husband came into the bedroom and began yelling at her. She said Jeff Witcher pulled her hair, took off her wedding ring and told her to leave the house. Police said Witcher denied pulling her hair.
At one point Witcher picked up a shotgun and stood next to the bed, but never pointed the gun at his wife, the report said. Police found the shotgun was unloaded and a shell lying on the floor.
Shelley Witcher told police she called 911, but her husband unhooked the phone from the wall. When police arrived, Witcher, 39, was standing in the garage next to a vehicle with Shelley Witcher inside.
Jeff Witcher’s attorney, Michael Penn, told the Atlanta paper a judge did not prohibit Witcher from returning to his home, but he was staying with friends. “I would hope the public wouldn’t rush to judgment,” Penn said. “There are always more facts than what initially come out.”
The scandal follows recent high-profile cases involving allegations of domestic violence by clergy.
Bishop Thomas Weeks, the estranged husband of black televangelist Juanita Bynum, faces felony charges for allegedly choking, kicking and stomping his wife in August in a hotel parking lot near the Atlanta airport.
Weeks, who is out of jail on $40,000 bond and is not allowed to have any contact with his wife, claims he is innocent.
Mary Winkler, a Tennessee preacher’s wife who shot her husband dead in March 2006, received a sentence of 210 days in prison and three years probation after a jury convicted her of voluntary manslaughter based on her defense of abused spouse syndrome.
Winkler was initially charged with first degree murder after confessing to shooting her husband, Matthew Winkler, pulpit minister of Fourth Street Church of Christ in Selmer, Tenn.
Witcher, 39, has been pastor of the 1,800-member First Baptist Church of Alpharetta since 2003. He was a member of the Southern Baptist Convention Credentials Committee in 2003 and currently sits on the Georgia Baptist Convention executive committee.
Last year First Baptist ranked 25th in baptisms among Georgia Baptist churches. The Christian Index reported in 2004 that the church nearly tripled in size the first year after Witcher became its senior pastor.
Witcher is a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theologicla Seminary who served previously at churches in Madisonville, Texas; Fort Stockton, Texas; and Lillington, N.C.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.