Thursday, May 22, 2008

Church Hopes For Healing Following Law Suit

It's not clear if a recent vote by members of a prominent Nashville-area Southern Baptist church will end a controversy over the pastor's leadership style.

Last summer, 71 members of Two Rivers Baptist Church began raising concerns over alleged mishandling of church finance by senior pastor Jerry Sutton and other church leaders. A church trustee, who was part of the "dissident group," as it was called, was removed from membership. The group sought access to financial records, such as air travel, personal expenses that were allegedly paid for with church credit cards, and other information. In September, a lawsuit was filed against the church, seeking access to the financial records, along with the removal of Sutton and other directors and officers in the church. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, Pastor Sutton received a vote of confidence by the congregation. And early this year, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying she did not have jurisdiction in the case.

This month, during a hastily called business meeting, the church voted to remove the 71 dissident members from the congregation's rolls. Larry Crain, an attorney for the church, says the main issue was never financial records. In fact, he says thousands of pages of financial records were made available. The attorney believes the root cause of the dispute stems from a decision by Two Rivers last year to go to a contemporary worship service while also offering a traditional service. "It was a service called the 'eleVen:01' service that offered a different style of worship," Crain explains. "The music was more contemporary -- and virtually every one of the members who filed this lawsuit was upset [about that decision]. All of these were members who had attended the church over a number of years and felt that this change in the service, this going to a contemporary style of worship, was a wrong move."

But a spokesman for the plaintiffs sees things differently. Dennis Shipp, who has been a Two Rivers member since the early 1980s, says legal action was the only way to uncover the truth about the alleged financial improprieties. Shipp says the biblical admonition against believers taking each other to court is taken out of context by the other side. "That's what they keep using against us -- but First Peter also says that you obey the governor of your country, or whatever," he shares. "You can't just take one scripture out of the Bible and use that; that's not right." Continuing, Shipp says, "I think God's told us to stand up. Every time we've needed money for the lawsuit, and say we ask for a thousand dollars, we get two thousand dollars. You think God's not in that? People have given about $50,000 so far, and have no regrets about it." Shipp, who still considers himself a member of Two Rivers, believes there is only one way for Pastor Sutton to settle the matter. "I don't think the issue is going to be over until he steps down -- I really don't," he states. "Because I think he has lied from our pulpit time and time again, and that's just not what a pastor's supposed to do. He's supposed to be above reproach. And if he's violated one of the Ten Commandments, I think he needs to step down."

Two Rivers is one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Nashville, which is also home to the denomination's headquarters. In fact, a number of high-profile Southern Baptist officials are members of the church.

As for church leaders, attorney Larry Crain says they can now put behind them what he says has been a major distraction. "This is an exciting time for the church," says the attorney. "They're now in a position, having put this behind them, to move forward and do what they were called to do." And there are signs that may be happening. In a letter dated May 12 and posted on the church's website, Pastor Sutton said his church would accept the 71 members back who were recently ousted. In the letter, Sutton said the dissidents must agree not to sue the church anymore, admit their behavior was wrong, and handle any concerns in an appropriate, Christ-like manner.

[Things are seldom about what people say they are about. Deeper issues are usually the case. Frequently pastors must deal with dissenting members who disagree with leadership style, worship style, or power/control issues. A balance must be found between overbearing leadership and members refusing to submit. A church split breaks a pastor's heart. The easiest thing to do in most cases is for the pastor to step down to save the church any further hardship. However, in the long run, members who sow discord will find another axe to grind. They live from one complaint to another. This same type of church disruption has happened in at least 52 other churches this year. What does it say about a group of people who would rather spend $50,000 on legal action than in the Harvest? Pastors need to be accountable. But when a faction of dissenting members disrupt the church, they must be dealt with.]

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