A church riven by dissent casts out five of its malcontents
By GARY SOULSMANThe News Journal
BRANDYWINE HUNDRED — Church members often invest so much hope in a congregation that they’re heartbroken when conflict tears it apart.
That was apparent Monday as darkness descended on Wilson Road and close to two dozen people gathered under a street light. They came with candles to pray for unity as Bethel Baptist Church prepared to settle the fate of five longtime members. “People were sad because they felt it was the end of Bethel Baptist as many had known it,” said worshipper Joan Wagner.
And, despite the prayers, unity could not be achieved.
At the end of 3 1/2 hours of discussion in the fellowship hall, members voted 60 to 33 to remove the five from the church, stripping them of membership and the right to worship at Bethel, unless the five repent and ask forgiveness.
The members — John and Margaret Martin, Bob and Naomi Ellis and Irma Taylor — say they will abide by the decision and not come back.
“It’s OK,” said Taylor. “Most of our friends have already left.”
The five are octogenarians, among the oldest in the 55-year-old church.
“Doing without Bethel will be tough,” Margaret Martin said. “We’ve had it our whole married life. At 81 and 86 it’s hard to find another church.”
Because of such ties, worshippers feel great loss when a church excludes them, said Kenneth C. Newberger, a church conflict analyst from Gaithersburg, Md.
“This is very common,” he said. “I would say conflict in churches is as intense as you will find in any situation, because people’s identities are so connected to a church.”
At the meeting, the five critics defended their effort to return the church to the type of community they helped to create. They said many of their friends had already left because the evangelical congregation had ceased to feel like home. (Many former members have started to attend Bible Baptist Church and Brandywine Valley Baptist.)
As for the elders, they defended their effort to have the critics removed, saying the five would not stop creating strife. Specifically, elders said the five had sinned by stating their unhappiness in six letters that were filled with falsehood, slander and innuendo. These letters had been mailed since December to church members and others in the community, doing damage to all sorts of people, the elders said.
Though elders had asked the five to stop, they refused.
Instead, the letter writers complained that the church was hemorrhaging members and money. They also claimed that few in leadership showed concern. In their view, the church forged a rigid orthodoxy and a harsh disciplinary process so that it was unrecognizable from the church of old.
In addition, they said Pastor Clay Miller was forcibly changing the leadership model so that appointed elders would make decisions rather than the congregation, as in many Baptist churches.
“The fruits of the pastor’s labors have been truly appalling,” Bob Ellis said after the meeting.
But elder Bill Hughes said the pastor made it clear when he accepted the call to Bethel in 2003 that he intended to change the church. He said that change has been happening in good order, with the elders giving Miller’s ideas a lot of study.
Even before this conflict, there was fractiousness that the pastor sought to repair, Hughes said. And he maintained there has never been a hostile takeover as the critics have claimed.
In their letters the five critics set much of the blame on the 42-year-old Miller, who came to Bethel from Grace Community Church in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.
Miller’s critics said that he was more concerned with law than love, creating what felt to them like a “totalitarian regime.”
Ellis said that there was a 32 percent loss in membership during Miller’s first 10 months. As a result, Ellis added, attendance fell well below the 300-plus people who attended Sunday services when Miller arrived.
In a later interview, Miller said there were many challenges at the start of his ministry. He replaced interim pastors, as well as the popular Rev. Gayle Ryle, who led Bethel Baptist for 37 years. “Anytime you have a pastor as faithful as Gayle, the transition is going to be difficult,” Miller said.
When he came, he said, the church was in conflict, declining in members and money. Even as a candidate, Miller said he rebuked the congregation for unhealthy communication.
Since then, he said, many people had put more reliance in the church constitution than the Bible. But rather than move too quickly to restore Biblical authority, he sought to take his time.
Still, people objected and in December of 2004 a group within the church tried to have him removed, though they were unsuccessful.
Overall, he said, coming to Bethel was the hardest thing he’s ever done. But it’s also been the most rewarding challenge.
“God is knitting together a fantastic church of excited people whose authority is the word of God and loving one another,” Miller said. “At the same time, my heart is broken whenever people leave.”
It’s also sad for people, such as Taylor and the Martins, to be voted out of the church, Miller said. They were among charter members who nurtured the new congregation in 1951 as a handful of folks branched off from Immanuel Baptist Church.
Initially, people met in the home of the Martins and later a VFW Hall. Eventually, they were able to find four acres on Wilson Road and build a sanctuary in 1975. They also grew the church to more than 400 members and gave support to missions.
It was this connection to church history that led the five to write their letters, they said. John Martin said he also felt led by God.
“We wanted to get people’s attention,” he said. “Those letters were never intended to hurt.”
Yet they did. Eduardo Gomez was among those who spoke to say that the letters had hurt because of their anger and injudicious words.
The elders said they’d held meetings with the dissenters to hear their concerns. Each side said they had tried to be patient and do the right thing. But nothing could be settled.
Grieved by the letters’ damage, Miller said elders were left with no choice but to discipline the five and call for their removal. “We wish there were some other way, but there isn’t,” Miller said.
And the five were unrepentant at the meetings, saying that they were seeking to save the church, not destroy it.
Miller said he would love to see the five reconciled to Bethel, but it would require true confession and repentance.
It’s not likely. The five said they have no plans to ask for forgiveness. “There’s nothing to repent,” John Martin said.
Imagine being a part of that. But also…..imagine being in a country where your church’s dirty laundry was part of the daily paper.