Friday, August 26, 2011

The Sad and Nasty Business at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church

Well, I've received word that a group of reactionaries in my wife's church have ousted the pastor in a coup that will destroy a church that was already struggling to keep itself alive, but which was slowly showing some signs of a turnaround. That turnaround has been stopped in its tracks. Instead of building on this turnaround, these reactionaries have instead placed the final nail in the coffin. A significant chunk of the church congregation will be leaving the church, taking their checkbooks and their many other talents with them.

The reactionaries, who are mostly of the lawyerly persuasion and mostly of an older generation, simply could not abide the church's efforts, led principally by the pastor the church hired to do precisely that, to innovate in an effort to keep up with the changing social and cultural dynamics of the moment. Although they would say that their issues had to do more with their disappointment with the pastor's performance, I would not be fooled by that. It is an excuse to mask the fact that this pastor, a young man with a beautiful family, was transforming the church into a more welcoming and open place of worship. Of course, these folks are mostly conservative in their theological disposition (if not in their politics), and the resistance to change, even necessary change, is the achilles heel of the conservative inclination.

In any event, the younger generation that represented the future of the church is the contingent that is preparing for a mass exodus. Overnight, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church has gone from an average congregational membership age of about 40-yrs-old to one that is now, I would guess, about an average of 60-yrs-old. It is what it is.

But what amazes me, as someone who is mostly an outside observer, is the fact that these reactionaries are pretending to be shocked at the prospect of such an exodus and some are scrambling to try to stem the hemorrhaging. There is no small irony in the fact that now, after the coup, these people are reaching out desperately to other members of the congregration pretending to care about them and imploring them through an effort at dialogue (really mostly trying to guilt them) into reconsidering their decision to leave. Where was this interest in these congregants, and their thoughts and feelings, during the coup process? The time to engage my wife and others is over. They blew it, and it is too-little, too-late for the reactionaries to try to convince those resigning that they really do matter to the church, that their voices (and their pocketbooks!) will be missed. It is clear that such efforts are nothing more than the words of wily snake-oil salesmen and saleswomen. In other words, lies, lies, and more lies. It's actually rather insulting, not to mention infuriating. It beggars belief that you would have these folks tell members of the congregation in language dripping with condescension and spite that they have no right, nor business to express their views at a Congregational Council meeting, then trying to tell these very individuals that their presence is sorely needed and that they will be sorely missed in the congregation. It strikes as empty and insincere. One would think that what they wanted in going after the pastor on such flimsy pretenses was really to cleanse the church of those members who actually liked what the pastor was doing. I mean, really, what did they think would happen? That they could shut out people in the congregation like my wife and others, execute their coup, and then expect my wife and others to simply roll over, shrug their shoulders, and accept their coup as a "fait accompli"? They need to get real and at least have the courage the face the obvious consequences of their actions. Lies, lies, and more lies. Anyway ...

They need to know that their pleading won't work. And their myopia simply won't allow them to grasp the reason why their pleas won't work. But I'll try to explain to them why it won't work right now.

It has to do not with the fact that they expressed a critical viewpoint of the pastor and his failure in meeting their expectations, but rather the way in which they went about carrying out their coup and running off the pastor and his family. In short, this group of individuals was secretive, duplicitous, impulsive, and dismissive of others in the congregation. What my wife and others wanted was nothing more than a reasonable period of time to try to work out in a spirit of support, love, and sensitivity to the dignity of the pastor and his family, any of the concerns or issues that may have been raised about his performance as pastor. And what they also wanted was the involvement of the entire congregation in a debate and discussion about the issues surrounding the pastor's performance, not a "fait accompli" ousting of the pastor that was launched on an unsuspecting congregation. They wanted nothing more than the church family to act as such. But the reactionaries acted as autocrats who thought that they knew what was best for the congregation as a whole and simply shut out any member of the community who had a different take on things and who tried to reason with them.

Disagreements over church leadership are not uncommon, and many congregations survive such disagreements -- but only if they are handled in a spirit of respect for the value of the entire congregation in the decision-making process. What these reactionaries can't seem to understand, though I imagine they must know it because of the way they went about it, is that their "coup" violated the core and central spirit of the congregational community.

My wife, who has invested a significant amount of her time, energy, and love in this church community, is dumbstruck and very hurt at how cavalierly she and others have been treated in this whole sordid process. They were not only ignored, but were told repeatedly by small-minded people that their voices were irrelevant to decisions about the pastor's employment and tenure because they weren't in nominal positions of power -- because they didn't currently hold such "important" and "esteemed" positions as Chair of the Family Ministry Committee or Chair of the Student Ministry Committee. That my wife served as a deacon for at least 7 years before assuming a 3 year tenure on the Board of Trustees, with two of these three years serving as Chair of the Trustees, just didn't seem to matter. Really, all that should have mattered in a church that claims its authority lies within the whole congregation is that my wife was a member of the congregation. It's really as simple as that. But my wife's voice as a congregant not only meant nothing to this reactionary faction, but it was actively demeaned and arrogantly dismissed.

This group met in secret. It attempted to exclude members of the congregation from its meetings. It took unilateral actions and made unilateral decisions that the Church Constitution and By-Laws give exclusively to the authority of the congregation as a whole. This group did everything it could have done, even violating the tenets of its own governing documents, NOT to involve the larger congregation in such serious matters. Rather, even more insidiously, they actively sought to exclude people and marginalize any viewpoints that differed from their own. Well, in the end, this faction prevailed -- not because they exercised a majority opinion, but because they poisoned the well such that any pastor (hell, any human being with a modicum of self-respect and who values his dignity and his sanity) would be unable to continue to pastor a community in which some of its members would not only subject him and his family to such an inquisitorial, adversarial, and openly hostile process, but actually seek relish in it. Roast pastor instead of fish fry, indeed! Yes, one of the reactionaries, who now has the audacity to pretend that this whole process was difficult and painful for all, actually said that. I mean, really, who even jokes about such things? Nevertheless ...

The hemorraghing that is in process right now is because of how they managed the process of dealing with their grievances and issues with the pastor, not that their grievances and issues with the pastor were either right or wrong. And how they went about things would make anyone who values a loving and supportive faith family terrified of what could happen to them and their families should they get on the wrong side of these people. I will not subject my family to the predations of such people. Christians they are not.

It might take some time for this dying church to take its last gasp of oxygen; but there is no doubt as to the final outcome. St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church is finished. And that's too bad and so sad.

UPDATE: I'm sure some are wondering what it is that this pastor could have done to incite such a reaction. One would think that such drastic efforts, involving a coterie of lawyers brandishing their pathetic law degrees like some Don Quixote lance, must be in response to some egregious behavior on the part of the pastor. Could it be gambling away the Church's money? Could it be a sordid sex scandal? Could it be some pyramid scam of deceiving elderly congregants into turning over their money to the pastor's Swiss bank account? As if. No, the complaints that merited such drastic and immediate action had to do with a pastor whose egregious offenses involved: (1) missing some mid-week Wednesday services over the Spring and Summer months in order to coach his son's little league baseball team; (2) spending more time out and about recruiting members instead of parking himself in his stuffy office in the church every day from 7am to 7pm; (3) having an independent-minded wife who didn't act like a submissive co-pastor, and a family who developed an independent life outside of the church and who didn't place themselves at the immediate disposition of the church congregation at every church function; (4) chastising the pastor and his wife for not sending their kids to Sunday school every week to be "instructed" in matters of the Christian faith by, get this, some of the very people hostile to the pastor and critical of his performance. Some unforgivable and horrifying sins requiring the services of multiple lawyers, no? Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It's quite sad, really.