Last Sunday morning, I went to church at a troubled congregation. Its conflict is not a standard-grade complaint about something the minister said from the pulpit or about the music not being considered reverent enough.
No, this congregation has all the markings of a family division, where one side knows the weaknesses of the other and has no problem exploiting them — which doesn’t make any member of the family look good. It’s so bad, the church is taking some members to court.
I was at Southern Missionary Baptist Church in Toledo. Perhaps you’ve read about it. As was reported in The Blade, the church has filed for a temporary restraining order against 13 members of the congregation. Among the allegations in the complaint to the court are that one member physically assaulted the pastor, the Rev. Lemuel Quinn III, during a church service; that an unauthorized meeting was held to remove Pastor Quinn (who was in the pulpit when I was there Feb. 10, after he was allegedly fired); and even, a court document says, “Circulating a malicious and false rumor that the pastor had died in order to diminish the attendance at the Church’s weekly services.”
The Blade reported that Lucas County Common Pleas Judge James Bates said he prefers that the church, not he, determine who is the pastor, so the two sides now have 10 more days, including today, to attempt to settle their differences outside of court.
What a mess. I don’t think this has much to do with one of the defendants’ allegations, that Pastor Quinn was deceitful about his criminal record. The Blade published a profile of Pastor Quinn in 2010 in which he spoke about a time before his conversion to Christianity, when he was arrested for murder and pled guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and served two years in prison. The church knew that.
My own observation is that it’s the present and future, not Pastor Quinn’s past, that is disturbing to the defendants. There is a psychological term called family systems theory that was applied specifically to religious institutions by Edwin Friedman. In essence, family systems theory says that family dynamics can be applied to an organization, that, like a little sister, say, some people, for example, get blamed for what others do, and sometimes the perception of who is ill doesn’t identify the actual patient. I studied family systems theory in my ministerial training. I see it in Southern’s struggles.
In addition, I’ve been through some of this — but not quite on the scale of Southern. I served on a church board when some members of the congregation were unhappy with the minister. This minister, like Pastor Quinn, was considered new even after a decade in that pulpit — because the previous minister had been there more than 40 years.
Soon after Pastor Robert Wormely came to Southern Missionary Baptist, he and the congregation moved into a new building. Pastor Wormely was the minister there for 27 years. He made it his own.
Even though Pastor Quinn was already at Southern as an associate pastor when Pastor Wormely died, and more than three-quarters of the congregation had voted to call him senior pastor, it looks like Pastor Quinn’s ongoing Southern connection turned out not to be enough reason for Pastor Wormely’s most loyal followers and family to be guided by Pastor Quinn.
Their opposition finally prompted the present church leaders to turn to the court for help. Rather than their looking to the law, I’d like to see Southern examine the church family system, not just those with ties to the late pastor, but how the entire congregation and leadership are a large family, and which roles they play. If it does, don’t get misled because the late Pastor Wormely’s daughter, Yolanda Peterson, and sister, Johnnie Feagin, are defendants in the court action. I think the underlying challenge is change at the church, amplified by the Wormely connection.
Almost three years after Pastor Wormely’s death, this is not the same Southern that he led. There can’t be a return to that church; the congregation has changed. Some people left, others joined. Does the discord come down to changes made at the church, changes that give Pastor Wormely a historical place rather than a continuing influence on the church’s direction?
From my observation and study, this is a situation that neither side can win. One will prevail either in court or thanks to the judge’s prompting. Those who want a return to church in the style of Pastor Wormely might eventually find another minister and then start to make adjustments as she or he asserts an individual, non-Wormely, style; or Pastor Quinn will have more evidence of this being his pulpit, but the differences could take something out of him, and he might end up looking for a congregation that expresses more appreciation for him and that carries less of a history.
“It grieves me,” Deacon L.G. Summers said during devotion time, “when I look around the church and I don’t see a Wormely.” The deacon observed, “God is not happy with us. We have to do better than we’re doing. We need to re-examine ourselves.”
“As Christians we should be able to reconcile,” Pastor Quinn said from the pulpit. I hope so.