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Park Street Divided: Congregation Asked to End Conflict with a Vote

A clash over leadership at the landmark evangelical church in Boston is testing the strength of democratic governance.
Park Street Divided: Congregation Asked to End Conflict with a Vote
Image: Demerzel21 / Getty
Park Street Church in Boston

A years-long fight over leadership styles and decision-making processes at historic Park Street Church in Boston has boiled over into accusations of abusing spiritual authority and authoritarianism.

There are petitions calling for a congregational review of the leadership’s decision to fire a popular former minister, an open letter defending the current senior minister, public statements about “escalating difficulties,” and overt campaigning for rival slates of elder candidates ahead of the church’s annual meeting. People on both sides of the division say the congregation is besieged by spiritual warfare.

The conflict will come to a head on Sunday with the regularly scheduled vote on elders and budgets, which has become a “referendum” on the current leadership, according to a letter that the chair of the board of elders sent to the congregation on February 11.

At the 220-year-old church, once led by a founding father of modern evangelicalism, members are being asked to end the turmoil by voting to affirm the calling of its current senior minister, Mark Booker.

“We are a church in conflict,” Booker said in a video message to the church. “A yes vote on this would not mean that somehow I am a perfect leader or that I am doing everything just right. … But it is a way to say, I believe this church will be better off, Park Street will be better off, with Mark in the role of senior minister in the future.”

CT spoke to 15 current and former church leaders and members about the turmoil at Park Street. Most spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were afraid of being fired or otherwise punished—even kicked out of the church—if their names appeared in print.

They described a conflict that started out as a fairly common clash in the life of a congregation. A new leader wanted to make changes. He butted heads with existing staff—partly because of what he wanted to do, but more because of how he led and made decisions.

The friction might have smoothed out with time. Instead, it grew worse. The senior minister made more decisions with less input, his critics say, and strong-armed people into agreeing with him or remaining silent. Factions formed, opposing and defending those decisions.

Many current and former ministers, elders, lay leaders, and longtime members do not believe the church is better off with Booker, who took the helm in 2020. They say he’s the source of the problem.

“Mark shows patterns of behavior revealing a heart that is not conforming to the role of pastor,” associate pastor Michael Balboni wrote in a letter to the elders before he was fired in August. “This has led to hurt, harm, and scattering of our flock (Ezekiel 34:1–6). The current term for this is ‘spiritual abuse,’ but the Scripture calls it ruling the flock ‘with force and harshness’ (Ezekiel 34:4) and spiritual ‘domination’ (1 Peter 5:3).”

One elder, John Knight, wrote that he thought Booker was “preoccupied with sole power and control,” demanding secrecy, deceiving those around him, and curtailing all possibility of disagreement, in a document obtained by CT.

“I have found him … to target anyone who disagrees with him,” Knight wrote. “I believe it is in the best interest of the [senior minister] and Park Street Church to place him on an immediate, indefinite leave of absence for a minimum of 12 months.”

Knight was placed on leave and not renominated for a second term.

Cindy Cutlip, another elder in the church, also resigned last year.

“I lost confidence in the leadership of Park Street Church,” she wrote in a letter explaining the decision. “I could no longer be complicit and stand with a group who collectively did not seek godly wisdom nor pursue accountability to the congregation.”

Park Street is not an especially big church. It currently has about 900 members, down from around 1,500 a decade ago. But it has played an outsized role in the history of American evangelicalism.

The Boston congregation defended Trinitarianism in the early 1800s, when many of the descendants of Puritans were rejecting orthodox Christianity. It helped launch the abolitionist movement and encouraged revivalist “brimstone” preaching. In the mid-20th century, senior minister Harold J. Ockenga worked closely with evangelist Billy Graham to build the institutions that would create and sustain a robust evangelical movement: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), World Relief, and Christianity Today.

Ockenga served on the board of CT from 1956 to 1981. Timothy Dalrymple, the current president of CT, attended Park Street when he lived in Boston. Walter Kim, head of the NAE, was previously a minister at Park Street. Clergy at the church have worked on the translation of the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the English Standard Version.

The current conflict has deeply divided the congregation. Many fear it has irreparably damaged the church’s ability to proclaim the gospel in Boston and throughout New England.

The conflict has also strained the congregational model of governance long prized at Park Street—and may have actually broken it.

“I hope this is a warning to congregational churches: You are vulnerable,” said one current staff member who spoke to CT on the condition that he not be named for fear he would lose his job. “You trust the senior minister will not take advantage of the authority of the position. But what happens when they do? I don’t think there are adequate checks and balances.”

Park Street once listed “congregationalism” as one of its three essential characteristics, along with Trinitarianism and evangelicalism. Members must “covenant to continue … in the congregational form of church government” to join.

In a history of the church, former minister Gordon Hugenberger wrote he was proud Park Street had maintained this core commitment for more than 200 years. He said Park Street teaches that “Christ has vested the authority of His Church not in a hierarchy of professionals or bishops, who may live far away, or even in one or two local clergy, but in the members of the local congregation itself.”

In practice, this means the congregation votes to call the senior minister, approve annual budgets, and appoint elders. The day-to-day business of leading the church is run by the elders, but according to the bylaws, all their decisions are “subject to review and modification at any duly convened business meeting of the congregation.” Any 25 members may call a meeting with a written petition presented to the clerk, which is an elected position at Park Street.

Some members don’t care about the congregationalism at Park Street and don’t bother to vote. One woman who recently left the church told CT that she attended one business meeting in 20 years, though she now regrets that she wasn’t more involved.

For other members, congregationalism is very important. It was part of the reason they chose to join the church.

“That sounded like what we wanted,” said one lay leader who started attending Park Street in the 1990s. “Not authoritarian. Not top-down. But something where we were a church family—the people help with the decision-making process and have more ownership.”

When Booker was hired as the senior minister in 2020, however, he had no experience working in a congregationalist setting. He was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and had always submitted to a bishop.

According to people familiar with the discussions in the search committee, the question of congregationalism was not a focus. The church’s first search for a new minister failed, and the second committee, set up in 2019, was under a lot of pressure to succeed. Both put an emphasis on preaching—and hoped they might even be able to attract a star.

“That’s what we asked for. That’s what we prayed for,” a church member told CT. “I think perhaps because of Mark’s Anglican background, he’s more authoritarian and more used to top-down decisions. It’s a bad fit for us, but we didn’t screen it out.”

It wasn’t that unusual for Park Street to have a minister who wasn’t previously a congregationalist, though. Several previous pastors, including Ockenga, were Presbyterians. But some of those who worked closely with Booker say his approach to leadership was different.

“He came in and he had a need for control,” said one member of the church staff. “I think the accurate term is authoritarianism.”

Booker decided he would preach at all three weekly services. He marginalized the ministers with the most experience and pushed out associate minister Kris Perkins, who had worked for the church for 24 years. Booker presented the departure as Perkins’s idea, but it later came out he’d told Perkins he had to leave.

According to his critics, Booker made it clear that he could fire anyone who disagreed with him, creating a “culture of fear” as staff members worried about who might be next.

Not everyone who worked under Booker agrees with this assessment.

“I loved working with Mark Booker—as does the majority of the staff,” Caitlin Lubinski, former communications director, told CT. “He is grounded in the Word of God, has devoted his life to the ministry and sacrificial care of others, and is deeply thoughtful in how he goes about doing that.”

Booker’s supporters, inside and outside the church, say he’s done the best he could, faced with an impossible task. He had to take leadership of a historic church with deeply entrenched ways of doing things—not all of them healthy. Some senior staff members didn’t want Booker to be there, they say, and resisted him every step of the way.

Three different people who are not members of the church but are friends of Booker’s told CT that the problem at Park Street is a “dissident group” stirring up opposition to his leadership. Those people should have had the decency to step aside, they argue, and given the minister a chance to make changes and implement his vision for Park Street.

An open letter signed by more than 200 people echoes this sentiment. The letter blames “reactions by some in the congregation” for the “intense division and painful situation which we now face."

Booker, for his part, told the congregation that he has struggled with the opposition of “a sustained resistance movement.”

He denies the charges of authoritarianism. While he wasn’t previously congregational, Booker says he has chosen to embrace the congregationalist polity. He told CT he discerned a call from God to serve at the church and was happy to accept the governance structure.

“I embraced this new context and was received as an ordained minister in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (of which Park Street is a member church),” he said in an email. “We are committed to discerning God’s will together as a congregation through the means prescribed by our polity.”

Booker’s critics point out, however, that he started making changes to the church’s decision-making process almost as soon as he took charge. One of his first moves was to end a senior leadership team. Under the interim minister before Booker, longtime staff members including Michael Balboni, Kris Perkins, and Julian Linnell had worked together with the senior minister to navigate major ministry issues and the regular weekly schedule of events. Booker discontinued these meetings.

He replaced them with a larger meeting, including all ministers, and dubbed it the Ministry Leadership Team. But the Ministry Leadership Team did not actually have any leadership responsibilities, according to multiple people who participated. The staff did not make major decisions, nor were they asked for more than minor input. Mostly, Booker gave them updates on decisions he had already made.

Ministers on staff were also told to stop attending elder meetings. Booker disinvited them, according to several people on staff, saying all communication would flow through him.

This became an issue in late 2022, when the senior minister told the staff he planned to recommend to the elders that the church discontinue a Sunday afternoon service held at 4 p.m. Booker said it would improve the unity of the church, bringing these very different services together, and make better use of Park Street’s resources. He did not ask for the input of any ministers involved with that service or any church leaders who attended.

A number of the staff objected. The 4 p.m. service served a congregation that wouldn’t likely attend a more traditional service in the morning. The afternoon worship attracted students, immigrants, and people coming into the church through the homeless ministry—about 150 to 200 people on average. The staff said there was no good reason to shut it down.

Booker didn’t accept the pushback. He pulled staff into four successive meetings, lasting a total of 10 to 12 hours, pressuring them to agree to cancel the service, according to several people who were in the meeting.

One described it as getting “pummeled” for hours. The staff say they were also told they couldn’t get input or advice from anyone who attended the afternoon service or the elders because the discussion was confidential.

“He made us throw away the handouts he gave us,” one staff member told CT. “He taped up the windows so people couldn’t see slides on the screen as they walked by. He told us, ‘You can’t tell anybody.’”

Booker disputes this. He said the windows were not covered.

When staff members raised specific objections, Booker insisted they supported his plan but just wanted to make tweaks, according to staff members.

“You know me,” one of them said sarcastically, according to someone who was there, “Mr. Tweaky.”

Another told Booker, “I don’t know about this proposal, but I’m supportive of you.”

The senior minister then took the plan to the board of elders for approval. When the elders asked how the staff felt about the change, Booker said the staff supported it but wanted to make a few changes—“tweaks.”

“He didn’t accurately represent the views in the room,” a church leader said. “He has a vision for the church, and any discussion is opposition and any opposition is neutralized.”

The elders voted to approve the cancellation of the 4 p.m. service in May 2023. The decision caused an uproar—and raised heated questions about the process. About a month later, in June 2023, the elders reversed the decision.

“We realize that this process caused unnecessary pain,” the elders wrote to the congregation. “We apologize to you for the process we followed, and we understand that the church would have benefited from us seeking wider input.”

The elders, however, did not invite ministers back to their meetings. Nor did they object to Booker’s new rule that they not attend staff meetings either.

Nor did they intervene when Booker adjusted the hiring process for a new city engagement minister in a way that gave Booker more control and limited congregational involvement.

The city engagement minister at Park Street reports to the missions minister and is paid out of the missions budget. In June 2023, however, Booker decided that the missions committee wouldn’t be involved in interviewing prospective candidates.

Instead, according to documents obtained by CT, a smaller search committee would do preliminary interviews and send the best candidates to Booker. He would then do interviews and pick two candidates to visit the church.

The candidates would meet with several groups during their visit, which might include members of the missions committee, but might not. Those groups would send their assessments of gifting, qualifications, and fit to the search committee—who would give them to the senior minister.

Booker would then make his recommendation to the personnel committee for approval and, finally, to the elders. The missions committee, as a committee, had no vote in the revised process. They would never get to interview candidates. The senior minister, on the other hand, controlled several critical steps.

Booker told an elder that Park Street needed to learn that there was only one person who makes decisions, according to several people.

Booker said he was only speaking about staffing decisions, not making a larger statement about leadership philosophy.

When some members of the missions committee objected to the new process, the search was put on pause. The position remains vacant today.

That same summer, associate pastor Michael Balboni wrote a 17-page memo to the elders outlining “serious concerns I have regarding Mark’s spiritual leadership due to patterns at variance with the biblical qualifications” for the senior minister role.

Balboni told the elders he was especially concerned with the way Booker tried to get information out of him and other ministers, without apparent concern for pastoral confidentiality.

At the same time, Balboni charged, Booker was increasingly declaring things “confidential” and warning staff not to share information or discuss things with others in the church—even elders.

“This gagging of speech has suffocated staff morale,” Balboni wrote, “and made it clear that alternative voices are not just unwelcome, but can cause the person to be labeled ‘disloyal’ and can result in negative repercussions (loss of one’s position being a major concern).”

Some of the conflicts Balboni outlined were small. He noted one time when Booker “rebuked” him for not putting candles on the Communion table at the 4 p.m. service. But those small things added up, Balboni said.

“Mark shows basic lack of empathy toward his fellow ministers,” the associate minister wrote. “Leadership that leads through fear, control, and suppression of others’ ideas not only destroys staff morale, it impacts the entire church community.”

The memo was reviewed by a subcommittee of five elders. They interviewed Balboni and Booker. After two weeks, the subcommittee gave the memo to the rest of the elders, and then the board voted to affirm Booker. They said they found “no evidence of disqualifying sins.”

In October 2023, Booker informed Park Street that Balboni had been removed from ministry and was no longer working for the church. Ministry together was “no longer feasible,” Booker said, because Balboni did not accept the elders’ decision about his qualifications for ministry.

Some members of the church have been pushing for a congregational meeting to review Balboni’s charges against Booker and his subsequent dismissal. According to the bylaws, 25 members can call a special meeting if they put the request in writing “specifying the purpose of the meeting.”

The first petition was deemed improper, however, because its stated purpose was to require members of the personnel committee, elders, and ministers to answer questions.

“Members have no authority to demand to hear from or to interrogate any particular members, employees, or staff of the Church,” wrote the Park Street parliamentarian, a church officer who interprets the bylaws for the clerk. “Accordingly, the stated purpose of the Special Meeting called for in the Petition is invalid.”

A second petition was submitted. Fifty Park Street members signed it, asking for a meeting “to seek a vote modifying the Board of Elders’ decision” not to do any further investigation into the charges against Booker and to commission an independent investigation.

That petition was also rejected. “The Members do not have such powers under the Church’s governing documents,” the parliamentarian wrote.

That same month, the church held a meeting to discuss Balboni’s departure. At the meeting, an elder explained there was a change happening in the leadership style at Park Street. That the church was moving away from consensus seeking, the elder said. Park Street was, instead, going to adopt a “guidance giving” model of leadership under Booker.

The announced change upset some Park Street members, who pointed out they had covenanted to a congregationalist form of church government when they joined. “Guidance giving” leadership didn’t sound congregational to them.

“This style does not include the input of the congregation as these decisions are being made. This practice, as one can see, is then completely antithetical to the principle of congregational consent,” wrote Ruth and Joel Luna, longtime members and former deacons, in a letter of protest they sent to the elders.

People are supposed to submit to church leaders, but in a congregationalist church, the Lunas explained, submission is predicated on consent.

“The church has turned away from such practices,” they wrote, “with leadership expecting submission without providing for the real opportunity to first obtain consent.”

A third petition for a meeting “to review and possibly modify and/or rescind” the “decision of the Board of Elders who ‘rejected as unsubstantiated’ the allegations” against Booker and “decisions of the Board of Elders arising from that rejection” was submitted with signatures from more than 60 members.

They were told that it too was improper, since “it is not valid to call a meeting to review and seek to modify unspecified decisions of the Board.”

A modified petition for a special meeting—the right of the members, according to the bylaws—was resubmitted in early February. A special meeting for part of the petition has been scheduled for April.

The church’s clerk, Debbie Gallagher, told CT that despite the bylaws about special meetings, there had never been a petition to have one until this group filed theirs last year.

“In my experience, Park Street has always been a church promoting healthy dialogue,” Gallagher wrote in an email. “We frequently hold town halls and have other forums where the congregation can discuss and ask questions. … A special meeting should not and will not be held if the stated purpose is for the congregation to do something that is either unlawful or is not permitted by our bylaws.”

Others, however, say the failure of the petitions is clear evidence that congregational governance at Park Street is broken. There is no real possibility for congregational review, despite what the bylaws say. The democratic promise of the polity was just a mirage.

“In order for the congregational system to work, you’ve got to follow the bylaws,” said one former minister. “You can’t change the bylaws. You can’t have a parliamentarian, who is not mentioned in the bylaws, come up with new conditions. The bylaws of the church have checks and balances, but what good are they?”

A current member of the church recalled how excited he was when he first read about Park Street’s congregationalist model.

“I was really enthusiastic,” he told CT. “I thought it meant the congregation ruled, that the congregation did what the Lord was calling them to do by majority vote. But that’s not how it turned out.”

In the meantime, the clerk and the church leadership have planned the annual meeting, where the congregation votes to approve a budget and select officers and elders.

This year, there are seven proposed amendments to the bylaws. Several would change the way meetings are held and what the congregation can do in meetings. Another would give the congregation more access to records, including minutes of meetings and church policies. One proposal would limit the senior minister’s ability to make staffing decisions.

There are also two opposed slates of candidates going to the congregation for a vote on Sunday. One slate was chosen, in the normal fashion, by the nominating committee, with input from the elders and the senior minister. A second slate has been nominated by petition.

On the official list of candidates provided to the congregation by the nominating committee, there’s an asterisk after the name of each candidate-by-petition. Five different footnotes say the candidates have not been vetted and cannot be endorsed by the committee. Two say the nominating committee “found this person did not best exemplify the qualities” required for the position.

Some church leaders have also spoken out to condemn the alternative candidates.

“We cannot let our church turn into a two-party system each year,” family minister Adam Herndon wrote in a church newsletter. “I would ask that you please trust the work of the Nominating Committee.”

The chair of the elders, Jason Abraham, said the alternative slate was a “referendum on Mark and current leadership,” though only indirectly. The elders approved the nonbinding vote to affirm Booker’s leadership to force the issue.

Abraham told CT he is confident the congregation will vote decisively.

“I believe Mark Booker, our senior pastor, enjoys the trust and support of the vast majority of our congregation, staff, and leadership,” Abraham said in an email. “It is important to note for your story that our commitment to congregationalism remains unwavering.”

The week before the vote, staff members at the church were asked to sign a letter of support affirming Booker’s leadership. Five refused.

“We feel it important that we communicate clearly and honestly,” Julian Linnell, Raymond Kam, Damian Long, Tim Leary, and Tammy McLeod wrote in an email they sent to church staff, deacons, and elders. “We as ministers of this congregation are deeply distressed by the direction that the church has taken, and by the leadership style that has been adopted, under which we are also subject.”

Two elders also released a video on behalf of the board, telling the congregation about the meeting on Sunday, expressing regret over the divisions, confessing they had fallen short of their shepherding responsibilities, and promising that the elders and the senior minister would grow.

“We encourage each of you to do your own self reflection, especially in this season of Lent,” said elder John Liu. “All our annual meetings are important, but this one will have an extraordinary impact on the future of our church.”

Park Street’s annual business meeting will be held on Sunday in the sanctuary at 12:45 p.m.

This article has been updated to include several specific objections from Mark Booker and to clarify John Knight’s departure from the board of elders, the creation of the senior leadership team, and the framing of an elder’s comments about the shift from consensus-seeking to guidance-giving leadership.

This article has been corrected to say the ministry leadership team included ministers, not all staff; remove a reference to a dispute over credit taken for a church devotional; and state that a special meeting for part of the revised petition has been scheduled for April 7.

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