The Pray’s Mill Disaster: A Lesson for America’s Evangelical Churches

We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. But mere time does nothing either to the faWct or to the guilt of a sin. –CS Lewis

 Jesus reserved his hardest words for the hidden sins of hypocrisy, pride, greed and legalism.–Philip Yancey

I am sitting here, shaking my head in dismay, as I continue to learn more and more about the incidents at Pray's Mill Baptist Church.  This is a story about some long time, second-generation members who were hurt by a church that they loved.  These were not pew sitters.  They worked with the youth, were involved in church leadership, gave lots of money, sang in the choir, and helped with evangelism.


Our vaulted leaders throw words around like pastoral authority, church discipline, and gossip.  Few rarely take the time to observe what happens when they are applied against our brothers and sisters in Christ in a haphazard fashion.  Unfortunately, we don't even question what these words mean.  We assume the recipients of such labels must be “troublemakers” because God’s "anointed" ones (the pastors) are following God’s will. 


Here are more assumptions that are often made by church members.  If these assertions are believed by anyone in your church leadership, beware…


1. A man is “called” to be a pastor; therefore, he must be in the center of God’s will. 


2. The pastor is “the authority” in the church and, therefore, must be followed without question.


3. Any question regarding the pastor’s actions is tantamount to questioning God Himself.


4. Anyone who has a disagreement with a pastor must be wrong.


5. Church discipline is always warranted.


6. Anyone who raises concerns about a leadership problem is the "real" problem because the pastor and deacons/elders always know what is good for their church.


7. Pastors are altruistic men of God who don't sin as much as the rest of us slugs.


Recently, I watched a documentary on the History Channel about the life of Caligula, the Roman Emperor known for his violent and debauched lifestyle.  He was told that he was a god, and to his detriment, he believed his own press.  The atrocities committed by this man are legendary.  Because he was a “god”, he could not be challenged.  Not surprisingly, a few men who opposed Caligula took matters into their own hands and assassinated him, sending this “god’ into eternity at the young age of 28. 


It appears there is a growing trend within evangelical churches, which we will call hyper-authoritarianism.  These "authoritarian" leaders believe that they more than anyone else are in the center of God's will and that they must be obeyed without question.  How do they position themselves to wield so much authority?  One of the primary ways is by changing church by-laws to centralize power within the pastorate and making sure that the deacons and/or elders who are appointed are “yes” men.  It's a clever idea…and it works!  


These pastors usually set their own hours, can receive excessive salaries, and have even been known to receive "fringe benefits" such as cars, vacations, houses, and/or golf course lots from their church members.  What's even scarier is that those pastors who fit this profile actually think they deserve these benefits.  Unfortunately, some of them have believed their own press as well.  Our sincere hope is that you aren't surprised to learn that pastors are no less prone to sin and self-aggrandizement than anyone else. 


To illustrate what can happen under the rule of a hyper-authoritarian pastor, we turn our focus to Pray's Mill Baptist Church, located in Douglasville, Georgia.  Neither of us lives in Georgia, and we had no knowledge of the anti-blogging action taken by Georgia Baptist Convention until recently.  Please see last Thursday’s post for the complete GBC resolution that was passed in 2007.  As we read the resolution, what caught our attention was a series of assumptions (often false) that are being made by the GBC   Essentially, the GBC accused certain bloggers of causing disunity within the body of Christ and hurting the “peace” of the brethren. 


Our first question was, “Is the blogger causing the problem or is the blogger merely illuminating the problem?”  We began to research the issue and came into contact with Doug Pittman, the blogger accused by the GBC of causing disunity.  The world is getting smaller all the time, especially with technology like the Internet.  It's a whole new world as localized church issues are now being discussed and scrutinized by Christians throughout blogosphere.  Much to the GBC's displeasure, there's no turning back…  The rules have changed, and we believe for the better. 


I (Dee) travelled to Georgia last month to meet with Doug Pittman and Doug and Tracey Pirkle.  Here are the basic facts of what happened through their eyes.  They had very warm feelings for Mike Everson, the senior pastor, when he first came to Pray's Mill Baptist Church.  Over time, those feeling began to change due to a number of specific circumstances.  


According to Doug Pittman, Jarrod Everson (Mike's son) was hired as a pastor at Pray's Mill.  The tipping point for Doug Pittman and the Pirkles came when it was discovered that Jarrod had pornography on his computer.  This discovery was reported to Mike Everson, who demanded that the matter be kept confidential.  For the small group who already knew about it, keeping such a grievous problem confidential caused internal conflict because all church members were expected to confess their sins before the congregation.  Why were some sins shared with the congregation while the sin of Pastor Everson's son was kept private?  Another pastor was later fired because pornography was found on his computer as well.


Pastor Everson held a church meeting and, without warning, asked for a vote to disfellowship a widow.  The reason — "gossip".  Prior to that meeting, Mike Everson knew about the Internet pornography.  By enlightening her brothers and sisters in Christ about illicit material on church-owned property (i.e. computers), this widow courageously expressed a legitimate concern.  Too bad the church leadership didn't see it that way.  Also, there had apparently been some stern actions taken against a member who “skipped” a sermon (GASP!!!!!!!!) because of a family commitment.  We will share her testimony at length in the coming days.


Doug Pirkle, the church treasurer, along with a few others, opposed the action against the widow.  After the vote, Pastor Everson declared that those who stood opposed to the disfellowship motion should leave the church.  Doug Pirkle, along with his wife Tracey, who was at home on bed rest due to a high-risk pregnancy, became persona non grata at their beloved church.


Further conflicts ensued.  There was even concern about financial accountability with regard to the use of church funds and complaints of a breach of pastoral confidentiality regarding private conversations.  Doug Pittman remained a member of the church and tried to resolve the conflict using Matthew 18.  He even asked the Georgia Baptist Convention for help in resolving the conflict with his pastor; however, Doug said the GBC refused to get involved.  After exhausting all means of conflict resolution with regard to these extremely serious problems, Doug Pittman believed his only recourse was to begin blogging.  He saw no other way to get his side of the Pray's Mill story out. 


Finally, the GBC decided to get involved in the Pray's Mill situation.  How?  They passed the anti-blogging resolution, which was aimed squarely at Doug Pittman’s blog.  It's unlikely that most Georgia Baptists knew/know what led to this resolution.  Doug Pittman did not receive any contact from the GBC prior to the passing of the resolution.  Mike Everson told me that he (Mike) had no foreknowledge of this resolution.  I have been in contact with the GBC and have not yet been able to obtain a statement regarding the time line and impetus for this resolution.  The whole matter seems rather "odd" to me, and I believe there may have been some “shenanigans” involved in this action.  If the GBC did not contact Doug Pittman, then I believe this drastic action was not justified.  They certainly didn't follow Matthew 18!!!  In fact, it could be perceived that those in GBC leadership were far more interested in protecting pastors than in assisting the membership, which supports the GBC through their tithes and offerings. 


For clarification in this matter, we would appreciate the GBC sharing the names of those individuals who had a hand in bringing about this resolution.  Does the GBC exist to serve all of its members or only those “in leadership"?  Why didn’t the GBC contact Doug Pittman prior to the passing of the resolution?   I live in another state and drove to meet with him.  Why didn’t someone in the GBC do the same?  The reasons for this resolution are highly suspect, and the assumptions found within the resolution are poorly researched and downright false!  We call for the GBC and other Baptists within the state of Georgia to investigate the manner in which this resolution was handled. 


During the Reformation, Martin Luther challenged the view of leadership.  Until that time, the Pope, the priests, and the aristocracy were the “important” ones in the faith.  However, the Reformation stressed the dignity and worth of the common believer.  Today, we see resurgence within the seminaries of the elevation of pastoral authority and position.  At the same time, submission of the church members to this authority is being stressed.  We think that men, who believe that they are far more important in the kingdom of God than the average believer (you know, the ones who tithe and staff the programs of the church), are stressing authority to strengthen their own power.  History does indeed repeat itself.  Church leaders spend a whole lot of time defending other church leaders.  We believe that this may be the impetus behind the GBC resolution.


Instead of glorifying church leaders, we are going to elevate the church members in the Pray's Mill saga whose voices have been silenced by the GBC resolution.  You will hear from the blogger, the mother and soloist, the church treasurer, and others.  Jesus spent more time with the “folks” than with the “leaders".  In fact, He often had some pretty harsh things to say about the religious leaders.  “Snakes” is one descriptive term that comes to mind.


Before I reveal their stories, I would like to share what Mike Everson told me in our phone conversation last Friday evening.  I give him props for returning my call, unlike the “leaders” at the GBC.  By the way, I'm still waiting to hear from them…  I told Mike that I would quote him to the best of my ability.  I asked him to respond to the allegations on Doug Pittman’s original blog, and I allowed him to speak freely.  He explained that Doug Pittman and the others are not telling the truth.  He claimed that “they” from the blog (we were talking about Doug Pittman’s blog at that time) slashed his wife’s tires.  Then Mike revealed that the youth pastor caught Doug Pittman looking in Mike’s car and that the local sheriff investigated the incident.  According to Mike, a warning had been issued to Doug Pittman, but he wasn’t sure of the exact details.


Mike claimed that there were problems in the church when he came and that he tripled the attendance during his tenure.  He said everything at the church was fine for a number of years.  However, he refused to discuss what he believed caused the initial conflict, stating that his lawyers will not allow him to comment.  Mike claimed he would welcome a lawsuit.  He also said that in a secret ballot, the people of the church wanted him to stay on as their pastor.  When I asked him why there appears to be a rise in pastor/congregation conflict in the United States in recent years, he explained that in the book of Jeremiah it says that everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes.  By referencing this verse in Jeremiah, it seemed to me that Mike was saying that it's the people coming into the church that are causing the trouble, not the pastors.


After speaking at length with Mike Everson, I phoned the Pirkles and Doug Pittman for comment on Mike's allegations.  They sounded flabbergasted!  They said they had never heard of the tire-slashing incident before my call.  There should be evidence of this crime, like pictures and a police report.  Throughout my investigation, I have never heard of this conflict taking a violent turn until now…  I am requesting that Mike Everson provide documentation to the Pirkles, Doug Pittman, and The Wartburg Watch regarding these allegations.


I met for hours over dinner with these kind folks at a Cracker Barrel in Georgia.  Furthermore, I have spent hours on the phone with them as they have recounted for me the events of this conflict and answered all of my questions.  What has impressed me the most is their concern for following the Bible through their actions, not just their words.


 Clearly, they have been deeply hurt by the events that transpired.  They were thrown out of their church, shunned by their former brothers and sisters in Christ, scorned by their former pastor who wrote a letter to a current pastor telling him that they were not in good standing at their former church (hmmm, that happened to me as well), the Georgia Baptist Convention refused to help them, then kicked them in the teeth with an ill-researched resolution.  Now they have another allegation leveled at them…  Yet, through it all, they talk about their faith. Doug Pittman signs all of his e-mails to me with, “Serving Christ, Not Man.”  I am not sure I could be as controlled as they have appeared to be to me.


Mike Everson said that they had clearly pulled at my heartstrings.  He's right!  They have, and for good reason.  In fact, I believe their story and am looking forward to telling the rest of it in the coming posts.  I only wish that the Georgia Baptist leadership had done their job in this situation.  They say that Doug’s blog is hurting their witness.  They are wrong.  I say that their actions have caused a blot on their convention and they need to rectify a grave injustice.



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