Long-time Watchdog readers will recall the posts I made back in 2008 about the troubles of Two Rivers Baptist Church, a mega church that made headlines when their former pastor Jerry Sutton and other church leaders gave the boot to about 80 church members who used the courts to try to gain access to church financial records when they were denied by church leaders. Ultimately Sutton resigned and last I knew he was teaching at Liberty University. It was just two years prior to this fiasco that Sutton was nominated for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006 but lost in a close election to Frank Page.
When the story broke in July 2008 of Sutton's resignation and his $318,000 severance package after this very public battle between he and church members, I wrote the following on my blog July 29, 2008, months before the Watchdog blog became a front-page news story in Jacksonville, and even months before the FBC Jax detective opened his investigation into my blog:
"This story should send shockwaves through the SBC, particularly to those pastors at large to mega sized churches that operate with very little accountability and openness and transparency to their members - like Mac Brunson. I will not go into specific commentary in this article on what I believe these lessons are; I first want to just share information with the FBC Jax members to read to become more familiar with the chain of events that led to Sutton's inability to continue to lead his church. The story involves questions of financial accountability, pastor's salary, getting answers to financial questions, church discipline against those seeking the answers, and expelling of church members seeking those answers. Sutton won a few battles, but he lost the ultimate war - and so did his church. Sutton was not caught in open sin, had very high morals and integrity - but the manner in which information was shared or not shared, and how he treated those with legitimate questions and concerns, ultimately led to most everyone at the church agreeing his ability to lead the church was seriously eroded."My point was that a pastor doesn't have to fall into open sin to disgrace his church. Just the way that a pastor and his lay leaders respond to criticism and dissension in their own ranks can backfire right in their faces and drag their church through the mud. Back in 2008 I thought that the events at Two Rivers should be a wake-up call to the leaders of FBC Jax, that they should be more transparent with finances, that they should not seek to expel church members or threaten critics from the pulpit, but rather seek ways to answer legitimate questions that the congregation had.
I had no clue what was in store for me: investigation, trespass papers, and slander in the newspaper. The FBC Jax bylaw changes in December 2007 established a formal discipline committee that must run all potential discipline actions before the pastor to see if the "offense" rises to the level of scriptural discipline. The establishment of this committee, by men appointed by the pastor 's men and reporting to the pastor, led me to believe what they sought was to treat their blogger as a recalcitrant and to discipline him with their new committee. But first they had to "positively" identify me - one of the men placed on that committee certainly had the power to do that through subpoena power as I later found out.
But back to Two Rivers: it certainly was an absolute case study of how NOT to handle members in church who ask questions and want answers regarding financial data. Jerry Sutton actively opposed these church members' attempts to get the information they wanted, and they filed suit in court to get what they believed as members they had a right and an obligation to inspect. Sutton said that their suit violated church standards and he demanded that the members write letters of apology promising never to cause disharmony again. He sent a letter to his church members saying that the members' behavior was "not consistent with the word of God". When administrative pastor Scott Hutchings was asked why one of the trustees was removed from his position for asking questions: "there has to be submission and authority". Sutton even used his bully pulpit to call for a vote for the ouster of the members a second time, after the first one failed.
What a disaster it was, and apparently most mega churches didn't use it as an opportunity to learn from it.
I have long believed that one of the reasons the FBC Jax trustees changed the church bylaws in December 2007 - changes that formed the discipline committee that the detective was placed on prior to him opening the investigation into my blog - is that they saw what was happening at Two Rivers with members calling special business meetings and making motions. As I blogged here two years ago, one of the FBC Jax bylaw changes from 2007 that was never, ever explained to the congregation before the vote, was removal of the long-standing provision that allowed for members or deacons to call a special business meeting. Now only the pastor and his trustees can do it.
This weekend's article on the Two Rivers name change explains how the membership steadily declined after their public battle between the pastor and concerned members over financial records. Long time member Bob Marklein was quoted:
"People didn't want to be associated with a lawsuit....We've been through quite an ordeal in the last several years, and a lot of people now are looking at churches first through the Internet. If you Google 'Two Rivers,' you'll find our website and all the particulars about the lawsuit and all that's happened. I think the old name scares people off."Yes, in this day of the Internet age, the antics of pastors and their churches are now chronicled on blogs and websites and discussed openly on the Internet, as Wartburg Watch has blogged about recently. But a name change will not serve to mask the problems their congregation had in 2007-2008, and it certainly doesn't guarantee a fresh start or reboot.
What does matter is whether the Two Rivers church leaders learned their lessons from 2007-2008, and whether with their new pastor they have worked to change the culture of their church that 4 years ago allowed for a strong-armed pastor to actually seek the ouster of church members for simply demanding access to church financial records, creating a public relations disaster that dragged their church's name through the mud and cost him his job.
So who knows....they have a new pastor at Two Rivers, and now they have a new name. I wish them all the best, and maybe they can be an example of a church that in these days can recover from the public embarrassment brought about by failed leadership.