SEE FRONT PAGE OF FLORIDA TIMES UNION
I realize that many of you reading this are first time visitors to this blog, perhaps directed here by the Jeff Brumley article in the Florida Times Union. This blog post will share a more expanded story - how this blog came into existence, and what the concerns were at FBC Jax that led to its inception.
My initial comment on the article: how sad to read the depths that Mac Brunson has sunk to. A pastor, a man supposedly called by God Himself to love and shepherd Christians, that he would unequivocally declare to a news reporter that I, one of his sheep until just recently, am "obsessive compulsive", and that I am "not stable at all", and the real humdinger that "What you're dealing with here is sociopath". Mac suddenly knows my mental state, when he has never met me, my wife, or my kids. Not one single conversation with the man and he declares me to be a sociopath. People who know me at FBC Jax and my new church and elsewhere know this is not true and just a pathetic attempt by Mac to attack the credibility of one of his critics. The sad truth is that Mac telling a news reporter this lie about one of his sheep speaks more to Mac's lack of character and lack of a pastor's heart than it does my mental state. Thank you, pastor, who never met me or my wife or my kids - for lying about me to Jeff Brumley - but I do forgive you, brother.
Here is the story of this blog, Part 1:
What Were the Concerns?
Back in the spring and summer of 2007 I saw Mac Brunson, the new pastor hired in spring 2006, begin to exhibit actions that raised some concerns with me and several other members. Some did express these concerns in person, some via e-mail, and others with anonymous emails. When those concerns we felt were being ignored, and some members were intimidated by deacons to stop discussing these concerns, and others were asked to outright leave if we couldn't fully support the pastor, I decided to try to effect change at FBC Jax through a blog.
I saw possible abuses at our church shortly after our new pastor arrived, regarding acceptance of a $307,000 land gift just three weeks after he arrived - even though his own Pastor's Guidebook cautions pastors against accepting large gifts! I watched as we spent $100,000 to renovate 3600+ square feet of our newly constructed children's building to provide the pastor and his wife and secretary luxury office suites. I saw the preacher vacate the pulpit unannounced, I heard him say he took several Sunday nights off because he had to finish a book manuscript. I saw us spending money on the A-Group, a church marketing consultant and promotions firms. The head of this firm, Maurilio Amorim, came to be involved in personnel decisions at FBC Jax the first year of Mac's tenure, at a church and city that he knew nothing about. I saw us develop promotions plans to "raise revenue" at our pastors conference through charging for advertising and selling "promotions packages".
I saw long-term pastors leave while we were told that "God called" them somewhere else…only to find that actually they were fired and some were treated very disrespectfully in their departure after decades of faithful service. I saw nepotism on full display, with family members put on staff without the congregation being told their ministry titles or responsibilities.
I saw a video testimony featuring the business owned by the sons of the man who gave the $307,000 land gift be played smack dab in the middle of the preacher's sermon. It looked like quid-pro-quo, pay-for-play, of the worst kind.
I then began to watch the preacher begin to display an attitude toward his congregation of condescension and anger, saying abusive things to his congregation as standard fare in his sermons. I heard of large salaries totaling near $500,000 per year total compensation for Team Brunson. I watched the church sponsor a non-Christian event called "Time to Stand For Israel" that had ties to bio-medical research firms, raising money for an Israeli hospital at which abortions were performed. My wife and I were even in the service on a Sunday night in 2008 when Brunson spoke a very hurtful, bald-faced lie about a seminary professor named Sheri Klouda.
I watched as our trustees made very significant changes to our bylaws in December 2007 without one word of explanation to the congregation.
As I saw these abuses pile up, I couldn't stay silent any longer.
I thought that someone needed to speak up against these abuses and demand the leadership explain them, and stop them. Unfortunately, no one did or no one could.
I knew that if I asked questions, as a mere layman with no power or influence or stature, they would not be answered completely, or worse that I would be singled out as a troublemaker and that not only would I not be able to make a difference, but I and my family might suffer ridicule or bannishment. I did send a few anonymous emails to the pastor that went unanswered. Then Brunson and even Jerry Vines preached about how wrong anonymous emails were. I in no way wanted to leave my church. We loved the church and its ministers and ministries. So, rightly or wrongly, I wasn't about to leave, and decided not to remain silent.
So I started a blog to get some of my concerns considered by others in the church and to provide a place where others could share their concerns.
The Blog Begins
The blog began August 2007. No marketing. No advertising. No strategy. No live streaming. Just a guy who started writing about abuses he had seen at his church. Slowly traffic began to come to the blog.
I thought someone in leadership would wake up and take the mantel and stop the abusive practices, and a blog would no longer be necessary.
I thought the pastor might become aware of the blog, and himself be convicted by a layperson's view of what was wrong at the church and stop his verbal abuse, and would even begin to answer important questions to his congregation.
Boy, was I wrong.
Why anonymous blogging? I preferred to blog anonymously so as not to draw attention to myself, or make the discussion about me personally. I decided to focus on what I saw and heard, and to give a voice to those things I considered abusive. I never wanted the blog to be distracted by who I was, or make myself the issue. And of course self-preservation played a role - some who criticize my anonymity have anonymously called that "cowardice" - but if not wanting my wife and kids to feel the pain of having their husband and dad ridiculed as a troublemaker at their beloved church is cowardice, then so be it.
As it turns out, as I have learned in very recent days and as reported by Jeff Brumley, the lengths to which the church has gone to identify me and intimidate me and silence me confirmed my fears! The church leadership did indeed seek to silent a vocal dissent - a man who saw questionable things going on at the church and demanded accountability and demanded answers on a blog caused all of the power and influence that was at the disposal of the big church downtown - the wealthy pastor, the retired and respected circuit judge, even a few long-time staffers and even JSO officials who go to the church - they all rose to action to find out who this blogger was. It was well known in the congregation that Mac wanted to know my identity so the blog could be shut down, and they had finally had enough and wanted to shut it down.
Did I effect change through this? Yes, there was change. But not the kind I envisioned. The plan to effect change backfired and it resulted in the wrong kind of change.
The Response to the Blog
Instead of the pastor becoming more open and honest, less abusive in his statements and attitudes from the pulpit, it only got worse. He began to talk about church discipline in threatening, certainly less than loving ways.
Instead of lay leaders requiring the pastor to explain some of the issues raised on the blog, and maybe making some small changes in church governance that would be more open and transparent, that would be more inviting of people like me who had legitimate questions, they changed the bylaws to create a discipline committee, retracted a key provision in the bylaws to take away a key component of congregational authority, and they declared all members to have forfeited their rights to ever take legal action against the church for any reason.
Not the kind of change we can believe in.
And they - the pastor and trustees - did this without explaining it to the congregation.
Apparently they were so infatuated with shutting down this ONE LONE voice, a man who had a blog - no budget, no staff, no marketing consultants - he had to be silenced at all costs.
Unbelievably, the leadership decided they could not ignore one single, solitary voice of dissent. The blog had to be shut down. Posters supporting the pastor claimed it was nothing more than lies and gossip and innuendo. I was slandering the pastor and the people of FBC Jax, they said. I was harming the church they said - while the pastor maintained it was harmless "beauty shop gossip" and that he never reads it. It was not the pastor's own words and actions that were harming the church, it was the Watchdog's highlighting of these words and actions that was the problem.
But the Watchdog had to be found. And the blog needed to be shut down. One voice of dissent was apparently one too many for the church leadership to stand.
The JSO was involved, State's attorney was involved, and apparently some sort of mail stealing or picture taking of the pastor's wife was alleged. This allowed the authorities to obtain subpoenas to force Google and Comcast to reveal my identity, as well as a few other bloggers critical of baptist preachers.
Now they knew who I was. Now what would they do with this information?
The new bylaws had created a discipline committee. Would the committee approach me in accordance with Matthew 18 as the preacher had preached about multiple times during the life of the blog? Would they ask him to stop blogging? Would they go and lovingly confront me with the evidence against me and offer to answer my questions and ask me to shut the blog down for the good of the church, maybe admit some of my concerns were valid and they would address those?
Not a chance.
Mac's sermon references to "biblical church discipline" according to Matthew 18 apparently were just a bunch of malarkey.
It was now they decided to do what Mac had preached about church discipline - they decided to "put the fear of God in me". They said they wanted "reconciliation and restoration." Their actions spoke just the opposite. Instead of biblical church discipline, they decided to intimidate and "shut him down". They said the matter was eccliastical, when they themselves used the public servants at JSO and SAO to find my identity.
The Discipline Letter and Trespass Warnings
On the eve of Thanksgiving, my friend John Blount - a man I have respected and loved ever since I was at FBC Jax - the man who was a wonderful Sunday School teacher to me in the men's department for 5 years - he called me and hung up before showing up at my door along with Kevin King to hand me a sealed envelope and quickly departed, refusing my invitation to come in. When he and Kevin King were at my door, I assumed these two men would inform me I had been identified, might ask me to stop blogging, or may be discuss some of my concerns, and maybe pray with me or for me.
Again, I was wrong.
Their letter said I had been identified to them as the blog owner, and it demanded that I meet with their discipline committee. It also contained trespass warnings for both me and my wife immediately banning us from the church under threat of arrest. I knew I would never meet with these men until they first told me the basis of their accusations and would allow me to bring representation. I wanted to know how I had been "positively identified" by these men. I suspected they had somehow gained access to my Internet records, had invaded my privacy. As I said before, it was my desire, and my right, to blog anonymously. As the popularity of the blog increased, as more and more people became aware of it, my anonymity was now more focused on self-preservation. I knew that I had a first amendment right to blog, and that I also had a right to stay anonymous. I believed I had done nothing wrong, and that they had no right to pry into my private Internet records to find what blog sites I did or did not own.
The committee seemed very afraid to allow any of my requests, so the meeting never occurred. On December 3rd they wouldn't even let me and my wife come to the church to watch our daughter sing a solo with her ensemble because we FIRST had to meet the 6 members of the discipline committee. So we dropped her off and hurried home to watch her sing on the Internet broadcast.
The following Sunday, December 7th, 2008, at 10:00 am the during the Sunday School hour, the church administration executed official trespass warnings with an officer of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office for both me and my wife - the reason for the trespass warning says "church misconduct". I have copies of these officially executed trespass warnings that are on file with JSO. Yes, my wife who did nothing but faithfully serve in that church for many years has a trespass warning on file downtown with the JSO for "church misconduct".
I suspected their deliverance of a 3 page letter, a list of 16 sins, and 2 trespass warnings was more of an attempt to intimidate me to shut the blog down, than it was at an honest attempt at their reported "restoration and reconciliation". I knew also that it was not in accordance with Matthew 18.
So I decided I would not be intimidated by these unbiblical tactics to try to get my blog to shut down. I was not going to be a coward and be bullied by these men because they didn't like what I was writing.
Next - Part 2: The Church Discipline Process