FBC Ocala is a church of about 4000 members in a city located about 30 miles south of Gainesville. Their pastor of many years retired last year, and the church hired Mark Cummins from a church in Hollywood, Florida. After a year at the helm the church is embroiled in a very public, heated controversy that spilled out of the pews in the middle of the Sunday service.
Here is a brief synopsis of events leading up to today. Notice the similarities at our church.
The pastor search committee stumbled upon Cummins in South Florida in 2007 while they were interviewing another pastor. The search committee and Cummins hit it off and Cummins was hired by FBC Ocala with a 99% vote. The congregation knew very little about Cummins. They trusted the search committee, heard Cummins preach, and he was hired. He is a very dynamic speaker, full of energy and vigor in his preaching. Here's the news story from the Ocala Star Banner newspaper announcing the new pastor.
The hallmark of Cummins' first year was one of rapid change. Much of it has been welcomed by the church after years of slow to no growth. He and his family are were introduced as "Team Cummins".
Firing of "The Ocala Six": Several associate pastors left the first year of Cummins' tenure, but not a big deal apparently. However things began to spiral out of control two weeks ago when six of the associate pastors of the church with a combined 80+ years service at FBC Ocala were fired. They were fired after they sought a meeting with the deacons and trustees of the church to air grievances against Cummins questioning his "integrity", "trustworthiness", "credibility", and "drive for power". While its not quite clear the chain of events, the 6 associate pastors ended up meeting with the personnel committee who deemed their grievances without merit, and after the "Ocala 6" failed to show up for another meeting they were dismissed by the committee.
When the church was notified by the deacons and trustees of the firing of these 6 associate pastors, and no detailed information was given other than "insubordination", "rufusal to work with Cummins", and "violation of God's word", the members went into an uproar demanding answers how these beloved and respected ministers could be sent packing so quickly. Parrishioners this past Sunday began to storm the pulpit, yelling and demanding answers from Cummins.
After the blow-up at the service this past Sunday and the events were reported in the local paper, news reached the church members of Cummins' previous church in Hollywood, Florida. A rather lengthy online discussion began (those pesky blogs!) in the Ocala Star Banner news discussion forums between FBC Ocala members and those of Cummins' previous church.
Guess what? The events at FBC Ocala didn't surprise the people in Hollywood, Florida that were WELL AWARE of how Cummins operates. In fact a blogger who was well aware of the M.O. of Cummins from Hollywood blogged his experience with Cummins, wrote an article here earlier this week. Most recently he shared some lessons to be learned from the Hollywood/Ocala fiascos under Cummins. Both of these links are worth reading.
Comments from the Hollywood church members about Cummins that the people in FBC Ocala wish they knew before they hired Cummins:
"He was a very charismatic guy. We thought this guy was a tremendous candidate We cut short our search thinking he was the one.""
"He inspired us. We loved him."
"Soon, however, some unsettling changes took place, laying the foundation for events that tore the congregation in two."
What did Cummins do in Hollywood that began the church to question his leadership? 1. Changed the name of the church; 2. Some arbitrary and cruel changes that weren't well explained; 3. Lied in the pulpit or said things not consistent with things said outside the pulpit; 4. Twisted scripture.
People began to see that Cummins wanted to centralize power to himself and got rid of staff members who might challenge his leadership, and he was willing to turn church members on each other.
Any of this sounding familiar FBC Jax?
According to the Hollywood people, when Mark Cummins stepped in, members said you were either "for Mark or against Mark".
Cummins also was questioned in Hollywood about why special collections, separate from regular giving, were lumped into one account with no accountability to ensure that money given for a special cause was spent on that cause. Are our special offerings being accounted for separately at FBC Jax? We aren't even told by our staff what the final numbers are of the special offerings, so who knows if the money just goes into the general fund or not.
Said one of the long term staffers at Hollywood who left shortly after Cummins was hired: "It was cultish, and I recognized it immediately. I work for people who take the high road, not for people who take the low road. I did not want any of Mark Cummins' words, or influences, or decision-making to penetrate my ears or distill itself inside me. I wanted to get away from Mark Cummins clean. I fired him from my life, and I'm proud of that. Everybody else he manipulated out." The joke among former church members who left was whether people still at the church "were still drinking the Kool-Aid."
He goes on: "He turned friend against friend, brother against brother, sister against sister. People who were friends for years became adversaries. That is the biggest problem, because Mark Cummins destroys relationships. I hurt for the people of the First Baptist Church of Ocala, because I know what those people are going through. Unless they do something, it's going to get worse."
Here is a link to the lengthy online discussion at the Ocala Star Banner.
Here is a link to the story this morning in the Ocala Star Banner, and another story about Mark Cummins' view of events.
There is always Cummins' side of the story. And more will come out in the coming weeks. Will Mark Cummins' perhaps humble himself and admit that he handled things wrongly? That he should have provided leadership to prevent the firing of these men and give them a fair hearing?
A few comments:
FBC Jax readers, make no mistake: Mac is doing many of these same things at our church. He has gone just a bit slower...he has made sure to make alliances with the trustees and key people in leadership. What you see is at Ocala might have erupted at Jax, except we have the money to pay large severance packages to departing ministers, and we're paying big bucks for marketing and promotions consultants. This advice Mac has received has allowed Mac to change the bylaws to be in his favor so pesky church members or staff members can't make a public scene calling for his dismissal. Pastors like Mac and Mark Cummins view themselves as dictators, men put into the position of "pastor" to be the deliverer of God's one Holy plan for the church, which MUST be implemented. This is quite dangerous, because these pastors then view those who question them or express dissenting views daring to oppose the Holy plan as faithless, those who go along as faithful. Mac in fact views himself as "baptized in the holiness of God" with a vision straight from God, and he is willing to divide our church to implement it, as we'll see in the new $20 million capital program. You're either for Mac's plan, or you're against God. You question Mac's plan, if a deacon voices concern, they're "not trusting Jesus." Express concern about "Theology Driven Ministry"? Please leave. Sitting in the pew? You're "sinning against the Holy Spirit". Mac threatens us that he may make members sign pledges of our responsibilities to serve and to tithe and behaves as a bully in the pulpit. His disparaging remarks about us when he is out of the pulpit and willingness to slander women when preaching are hurtful. And now his willingness to pervert our pastor's conference into an advertising and marketing bonanza is almost too much to bear.
But you have to hand it to Mac: not only is Mac doing similar things to Cummins, but he has gone the extra mile and enriched himself and his family at the same time and still has the people giving him standing ovations. Can you imagine if in addition to all of these things about Cummins, it was found out that Cummins had taken large gifts from wealthy members when he arrived? What if he had put his wife and son on staff in newly created positions? What if they had found he slandered a SWBTS professor from the pulpit or aired commercials in the middle of his sermons for the family that gave him a large gift? What if he arrived and began selling Holy Land trips to the wealthiest members and took trips to Europe with the finance committee chairman?
And about bylaws: when these kinds of problems arise, its good for the members to know the bylaws. And any pastor that comes to a church to make changes and in the process changes the bylaws in the most secretive manner that he possibly can - that speaks of his trustworthiness and should cause members to be very suspicious of just what was changed in the bylaws and why.
Lastly I'll say this: if someone at the Hollywood church had written a blog about Cummins, perhaps the Ocala folks might have been warned and not hired Cummins, or at least they would have set up an employment agreement, some structure to the position of pastor to ensure that the same problems he had there were NOT repeated. As I've said over and over...pastoral abuse comes in many types...but when the abuser is not held accountable and called out, he will repeat his behavior. And note that these two men, Mac and Mark, likely are men of high moral integrity, wonderful fathers and husbands - but their one flaw is the abuse of their churches and the disdain they show for the people of God in the house of God.
And as Kev McCord said: it is dangerous for a church these days to elevate to senior pastor a man that we don't know inside and out and know his positives and negatives. The mistake FBC Jacksonville has made and FBC Ocala has made is they handed the reigns fully and completely to a man they didn't know.
And we're both paying the price.