My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June—nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.
A member of my church had told me the year before, "Don't die in this town." I knew what she meant. She didn't envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good—a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.
And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?
First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.
After I'd been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. "I have some people I want you to talk with," he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.
"We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church," he said. "There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand." He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.
I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.
My immediate predecessor had run afoul of this little group and after three tough years had moved to another church of his own accord. The pastor before him had stayed over 20 years.
"Those were the 20 most miserable years of my life," the retired pastor had said to me at a conference while I was preparing to move to Charlotte. "A small group organized against me and fought everything I did. When I proposed something, they would burn up the phone lines to get it killed." I heard his warning, but I was convinced that this was God's will for me.
Now I was looking them in the face. The future of the church—and my future with them—was riding on my response.
"I was told before I accepted the call," I said, "that this church had some very conservative people and some very liberal people. I took an informal survey at a recent meeting, and that assessment seems right. The church is divided theologically, about half and half. So the quickest way to tear it up is to go with a fundamentalist agenda or a liberal agenda."
The group decided to meet monthly to think through the issue. We reached no conclusions in the second meeting. There was no third meeting.
The drama backstage
I am convinced that there are no bad guys in this story, but it was evident from the beginning that we had different ways of doing church. The congregation had broken ground on a $5-million sanctuary just before I arrived. Preaching three times each Sunday morning, I was eager for the larger auditorium to be completed. But the church was hurting financially because of it. So I preached on stewardship and frequently mentioned the financial need. I started receiving anonymous letters. "We're not used to our pastor harping on money all the time," one said. "Would you please stop?!"