“It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence.” CS Lewis
Stay tuned: I hope to make an announcement next week about a positive change in the blog. Never fear. Nothing is really changing.
The summer I first started blogging, I became aware of the eye opening story of Tom Rich, FBC Jax Watchdog.Tom had started an anonymous blog in which he outlined the issues surrounding FBC Jacksonville and their recently hired pastor, Mac Brunson. Brunson and friends involved the local deputies, who involved the state of Florida attorney’s office in order to request that Rich’s internet server *out* his identity. In the end, Rich prevailed in a lawsuit against all involved in this unjust action.
Here I sit this evening, about to tell the story of Mac Brunson and Heath Lambert at FBC Jacksonville. Not much has changed. It’s still ugly over there. This is a confusing tale involving politics and tribalism. This will take several posts in order to help readers, not steeped in the culture of FBC Jacksonville, to understand what has happened. (If that describes you, dear reader, thank God you avoided being involved in such a church mess that has lasted well over a decade.
This church was wealthy and influential but whose fortunes have faded over the last decade. However, its infrastructure is quite impressive which has not gone unnoticed by those the Calvinista set. Enter Heath Lambert a couple of years ago. Hey, you say, he’s not a pastor. He’s one of those ACBC Biblical counseling dudes who was on faculty of SBTS. What’s the deal? How did he get rid of Mac Brunson and take possession of this real estate gem? And didn’t we hear that he is doesn’t believe in confidentiality in counseling because he wants people who are sinning™ to be disciplined by the church?
Well, yes. All of that is true. FBC Jacksonville is an incredibly *rich story (sorry, Tom)* which may help explain why the SBC is experiencing a serious decline in membership. Christianity Today just posted Southern Baptists See Biggest Drop in 100 Years: As baptisms and membership continue to decline, top SBC leader challenges the annual report process. (PS Most leaders will admit, behind closed doors that the actual membership of the SBC is much lower since Baptist churches rarely remove people who leave from their roles.)
The loss of 288,000 church members last year brings total SBC membership to 14.5 million, down from its peak of 16.3 million in 2006. Average worship attendance remained relatively stable at 5.2 million.
Total baptisms, a landmark metric for the denomination, fell by 4 percent to 235,748—the lowest number since World War II. Giving was down slightly to $11.6 billion, after two years of increases. SBC churches spent $1.1 billion on missions.
As you will see, I have a rather poor opinion of both opposing pastors: Lambert and Brunson.I fear the ones who have been let down the most are the long time members of FBC Jax as well as good folks like Tom Rich and Tiffany Thigpen.
I want to review what happened to Tom Rich first before going into what has happened with the advent of Lambert and the exit of Brunson. Thankfully, I wrote a synopsis of Tom Rich’s story in 2012: The Saga of Tom Rich Versus Mac Brunson and First Baptist Church, Jacksonville.
I still remember contacting Tom Rich back in the summer of 2009. he agreed to speak with me but was a tad suspicious when I told him I had started a blog and wanted to write his story. I can still hear his voice, somewhat hesitant. But, he took a deep breath and told me his story. We’ve been friends ever since. We still laugh about the day when the state attorney returned my phone call and I almost fell out of my chair.
The Dawg’s (His nickname) story is pretty incredible and a sad, proven example of abusive church leaders. It is my hope that this post will give you the background you will need to understand the rest of the story to come.
I know there is so much info in the following. If you want to get to the heart of the mess, Tom outlines the settlement at the end of this post.
“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.” Malcolm Forbes
Tom Rich won!!! This is a blog post that I have waited almost three years to write. Shortly after starting TWW, we became aware of a major church conflict between a blogger and First Baptist Church, Jacksonville. The more I read of the situation, the more convinced I was that there was a major story developing. It involved, in my opinion, highly questionable actions on the part of a church which used law enforcement agencies to “out” the identity of a blogger. Said pastor, Mac Brunson claimed he feared for his “safety.” This church went onto punish Tom Rich and his family. As we read Watchdog’s blog, link, we became convinced that, if this blogger was a threat, then the two of us should be reported to Homeland Security!
I got the now infamous “Wartburg Tingle.” This wasn’t just any story. This was a saga that had national implications for the right of free speech without the fear of government coercion. Dee, decided to attempt to contact Tom Rich, the now identified “anonymous” blogger.
Mind you, this blog was new and we had just a few readers. I was concerned that Tom might think I was nuts. So, I emailed him and agave him my phone number and said I wanted to do a story on him. I was sure he would fall down laughing when he saw the size of the blog’s audience at the time.
My cell phone rang and a hesitant voice asked for Dee Parsons. Tom had not heard of the blog but slowly started to warm up to me.( To my critics-I can be charming). We then planned some time to talk for an extended period, via phone, along with his wife, Yvette. And we did, for hours. I still have my original notes.
Thus began a friendship that has stood the test of time. Although we have never met face to face, a failing I intend to remedy this year, we began to email and talk on the phone. I was incensed as I became convinced that FBC Jacksonville, Mac and Debbie Brunson and the sheriff’s office had violated the rights of Tom Rich.
At that time, I, too, was an anonymous blogger. It angered me to think that an irritated church could so profoundly interfere with the civil rights of individuals. If a church could so easily convince law enforcement to interfere with Tom’s legal right of privacy, can you imagine how rampant such requests could become?
I have believed for close to three years that Tom was in the right. I offered to do anything in my power to publicize this travesty. There are also two other people who rose to the occasion to help Tom. Their input and support were essential to the outcome of this case. Both “Arce,” a TWW commenter, and Wade Burleson provided advice and support to Tom during these past years. Although I am not at liberty to reveal the specifics, we want to thank them. You have shown the grace of God towards Tom when he was under serious attack.
Today is just a review of some of the articles that we wrote. Tomorrow, I will discuss our thoughts on this matter. I predicted that this situation would be resolved in Tom’s favor. I was right. The first post is the longest since it provides a summary of the situation.A lso, if you link to the earlier posts, please forgive the format. I used to use an obscure Mac format and it did not translate well when I converted. Also, I did not carry over the comments for these posts.
Today, we honor our fellow blogger, Tom Rich. We thank God for giving Tom the strength to persevere.
First Baptist Church, Jacksonville: Another Same Old, Same Old Link
Mac Brunson was called to pastor FBC Jacksonville in 2006. Within three weeks of his arrival, he was reportedly given a land gift estimated at $250,000 by a member of FBC Jax. Pastor Brunson built a large home on the lot which is purportedly worth around $900,000. We will outline other expenditures in our next post. A member of FBC Jax, Tom Rich, became troubled by what he was seeing in his church. After realizing that some members were being asked to leave the church, Tom wrote an anonymous letter to Pastor Brunson outlining his concerns. However, Pastor Brunson wanted the anonymous letter writer to identify himself, and Tom declined because he did not wish to be “thrown” out of the church.
Tom hoped that much needed changes at FBC Jax would be made. In August 2007 he began blogging anonymously as “FBC Jax Watchdog” about the issues he had with his pastor and his church. In December 2007 the “Watchdog” criticized the by-law changes that were made at First Baptist Jacksonville. This seems to be a trend within Southern Baptist churches, so if it hasn’t yet happened at your church you might want to do a little research into why they are being altered. Here’s a clue: the changes to the by-laws appear to be giving pastors all the control. Then in May and June of 2008 Tom addressed Mac Brunson’s erroneous comments about Sheri Klouda. Remember that Brunson and Patterson are very close friends. Tom published Klouda’s response on his blog.
When Pastor Brunson began to solicit large sums of money from his congregation to benefit the church infrastructure, Tom expressed his deep concerns on his blog. Apparently, the pastor requested that the congregation “give a million in two weeks”. Can you imagine the pressure that must have been applied to motivate congregants to give over and above their regular contributions? At the same time, Florida was experiencing a precipitous decline in property values. The real estate bubble was beginning to burst during this time.
On September 28, 2008, during the Chest of Joash Service (aka commitment Sunday), commitment cards for 2009 were collected, and the total pledges were only half of the church’s budget. Furthermore, the “give a million in two weeks” campaign was terribly unsuccessful. Not that much money went into the church coffers. Haven’t we discussed something similar on The Wartburg Watch recently? We hope you are reminded of Martin Luther who caused great trouble for the indulgence preachers.
Pastor Brunson and the church trustees must have believed that the “Watchdog” alone was to blame for the tremendous shortfall, not the failing economy. The very next day, September 29, 2008, John Blount, FBC Jax church administrator, called the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to report “an Internet incident with possible criminal overtones.” At that point the church leaders sought to discover the Watchdog’s real name. Tom Rich didn’t even find out about this investigation until recently.
Robbie Hinson, a sheriff’s detective attending FBC Jax, reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the Watchdog’s identity by obtaining subpoenas from the State of Florida Attorney General’s office. By the way, Detective Hinson has served as Mac Brunson’s personal bodyguard. Since when do pastors (besides Mark Driscoll) need body guards? These subpoenas forced Google and Comcast to reveal Tom Rich’s name. The case was closed on November 13, 2008, with a report that simply stated: “Investigation closed, no crime found”. Incredibly, there was no record of any investigations or interviews done by Detective Hinson in the file.
Tom, and his wife, Yvette, were visited by two church leaders on November 28, 2008, and given a letter outlining Tom’s 16 (!) sins, along with letters prohibiting Tom and his wife from “trespassing” on church property. He was accused of “church misconduct”. Ladies, please read the following very carefully… Yvette, Tom’s wife, was accused of associating with a church member who was guilty of church misconduct. Here’s a warning for wives at FBC: Be careful, if your husband loses his temper, you are also in sin for associating with him! EGADS!!!
On February 10, 2009, Tom was contacted by John Blount (church administrator) who informed him that they were taking the matter before the board of deacons. Tom requested fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time to defend himself against the allegations. Blount responded by saying that Tom could only discuss two things: whether he is the owner of the blog and whether the blog is sinful. Nothing else, period! If you haven’t watched the movie Luther, please be sure to do so. Again, the similarities are uncanny. Luther couldn’t discuss his concerns about heretical Catholic teachings with Cardinal Cajetan or address them before the Diet of Worms — he would only be allowed to recant. Martin Luther’s refusal to cower before the Pope and his henchmen changed Christendom forever. Since Tom would not be given the opportunity to defend himself fully before the deacons, he told John Blount he would not attend.
Tom was reportedly told that he could not come back to FBC Jax unless he met with the trustees. There was a bit of a problem. Tom had left the church and joined another fellowship by this time. However, he graciously agreed to do so if he could bring legal representation and/or make a recording. According to Tom, they informed him he COULD NOT. Such a staunch position begs the question — Why not? What were the trustees afraid of since they were following Biblical principles closely… Didn’t Jesus allow for witnesses?
Tom and his wife had to join their current church by statement of faith since FBC Jax reportedly would not give them a letter of transfer. (Yawn…been there, had that happen, too).
Here are a few of the questions we will be addressing:
1. Is it ethical for a pastor to accept lucrative gifts from church members? Does “living large” help or harm a pastor’s witness?
2. Why did FBC Jax believe it was entitled to know the identity of anonymous bloggers when the church leaders did not follow all of the Biblical mandates in dealing with controversy?
3. Why was “potential criminal behavior” cited as the reason for the subpoenas when there was no concrete evidence of the criminal behavior described?
4. Why did “Mac Brunson’s “bodyguard” become the investigative officer involved in obtaining the subpoenas and submitting the charges? Is there a conflict of interest here?
5. If FBC Jax professes to preach the whole Gospel, why is it afraid to be a light on the hill so that the whole world will see Jesus and praise Him? If FBC is truly following God, they should be delighted that Tom Rich is talking about the senior pastor and his lifestyle because Mac Brunson is the shepherd of FBC Jax and, as such, is an example of godly behavior.
6. Is there a program in place at FBC Jax that would allow the less affluent church members to receive gifts of lots in gated communities from fellow members, as their pastor did?
Finally, our hearts go out to Tom and Yvette Rich. I (Dee) have had the opportunity to speak with them at length. They are delightful people who answered my questions candidly. There is no doubt in my mind that they are a brother and sister in Christ. Too bad no one in the “so-called” leadership of FBC Jax ever met with Tom over a cup of coffee to hear his concerns and hash this out. Too busy filling out subpoenas, we suppose….
The Way of Love Versus Hypocrisy link
In this post, we addressed the incredible outpouring of “gifts” given to Brunson upon his arrival. We listed quite a few of them. At the same time he wrote a book expressing admiration that Billy Graham did not accept gifts.
Shenanigans and Subpoenas link
In this episode we discuss the claims of Debbie and Mac Brunson. For example, “Mac and Debbie say they were being stalked and their mail was stolen.” Frankly, this has to be one of the most bizarre claims in this ordeal. you see, the Brunson’s live in a gated community in a very, very expensive house. Mrs. Brunson claimed someone was stalking who when he went on her run. In other words, someone had to jump over the wall to find the Mrs. Why? She went to church each Sunday, dressed to the nines. Anyone could snap a photo then.
Here is what we wrote back then..
“So, is there an ongoing investigation of the supposed mail theft and the alleged stalking of Debbie Brunson? Dare I raise this question, why in the world would anyone need to “surreptitiously” take photos of the Mrs.? Does this sounds a bit narcissistic? What steps have been taken to prevent further mail theft and stalking? How many times since the Brunsons learned the identity of our intrepid blogger, Tom, has Debbie been surreptitiously photographed and the mail stolen? “
Poor Pastor Mac: Getting Killed For The Lord link
“We have some pretty compelling evidence that Mac Brunson lives quite well in his McMansion with a handsome salary, a wife and son under his employ, and what appears to be a recession proof gig at First Baptist in Jacksonville. However, Mac was apparently whining about how poorly he was being treated by the church.”
The Pastor Or The Model: Who Demonstrate a More Christlike Attitude? link
This post was to demonstrate how a NY model, hounded by a blogger, showed more class than Mac Brunson.
FBC Jacksonville: Selling It and Selling Out link
In this we explore the fundraising events at FBC Jacksonville.
Jimmy Smryl, Redneck Theologian link
Jimmy worked under Brunson. You might be interested in seeing what he says about Catholics. We invented one of our first TWWisms-Redneck theology.
“These are the guys who confuse patriotism with Christianity and are convinced that even major religions are “cults”. They call each other by their first names with brother inserted (e.g. Brother Bob). They come up with new Biblical mandates such as “God wants us to have a quiverfull.” “Jesus created nonalcoholic wine.” “It is heresy to believe the world is older than 6000 years”.
Dissenting Opinions Are Not Allowed! link
In this we focus on how the subpoenas were obtained. It is not a pretty story.
Subpoena This Blog link
In this episode, Dee recounts her conversation with Angela Corey, one of Florida’s State attorneys.This post was brought up during some depositions and Dee was ready to go to Jacksonville and stand by her interview.
FBC Jacksonville Blogger Wins Round One! link
Rich prevailed in his lawsuit against the authorities. TWW predicted that this would bode ill for the FBC Jacksonville. If only they had backed off at that point. Think of how much money could have been saved by the church!
“My lawyers and I have reached a settlement in the 1 ½ year long lawsuit against the city of Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) detective and Assistant State Attorney involved in issuance of subpoenas on my blog back in October 2008.” The monetary settlement was for $50,000 representing the damages we have incurred from the actions of the JSO officer and Assistant State Attorney in unmasking my identity as the Watchdog blogger through subpoena power, and the ensuing banishment from our church – but much more important than the financial settlement is that the settlement agreement includes a commitment on the part of the city, specifically Sheriff John Rutherford, to make positive changes at the JSO stemming from the circumstances that led to this lawsuit.
In our agreement with the city, the Sheriff has agreed to a meeting with myself, my lawyers, and the city’s legal counsel to discuss important ethical issues that have arisen from this case, and to consider our input on changes that can be made in the JSO’s conflict of interest code for its detectives. Additionally, the Sheriff and the Office of General Counsel have agreed to develop and implement a training program for JSO detectives specifically on constitutional First Amendment issues and legal ramifications that must be considered when issuing investigative subpoenas.
We have given you way too much to read. We will discuss the ramifications of this settlement tomorrow. Meantime, Dee continues to dance around her kitchen, celebrating the end to Tom and Yvette’s trial. And I am going to say something I have wanted to say for a long time.
SHAME ON YOU-MAC AND DEBBIE BRUNSON! SHAME ON THE LEADERS OF FBC JACKSONVILLE. AND SHAME ON ALL OF THE CHRISTIAN LEADERS WHO PROPPED UP THESE MEN.