“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” CS Lewis
The Wartburg Watch spent two weeks looking at the conflict surrounding Mac Brunson and FBC Jacksonville. When we finished our series, we became concerned about freedom of speech issues as they apply to anonymous religious bloggers. Some commenters criticized our blog for "interfering" with a church in which we do not hold membership. Ironically, FBC Jax and Mac Brunson interfered with religious bloggers when they obtained subpoenas to discover the identities of Tom Rich, the author of FBC Jax Watchdog, as well as two other unrelated bloggers.
We believe the reasons given for the subpoena are shaky, at best. We further believe the bold action of FBC Jax sends a chilling message to those of us who might openly criticize a church or group. We contacted Ralph Cooper, an excellent attorney who hails from Waco, Texas. Ralph is highly skilled in church conflict and mediation. He is also a frequent commenter on The Wartburg Watch, which is how we have gotten to know him.
We contacted Tom Rich after discussing the FBC Jax matter by phone with Ralph Cooper. We then urged Tom to speak with Ralph, which he did. In response, Attorney Cooper submitted the following article to be posted on The Wartburg Watch. We believe that Wonderland, Two Rivers, Pray's Mill, FBC Jax and Bellevue Baptist should take note of the following post. We thank Attorney Ralph Cooper for the privilege of publishing his thoughts on this matter.
Guest post by:
Ralph E. Cooper, Ph.D., Attorney and Mediator, lifelong Baptist
The following is my suggestion for resolving the dispute between First Baptist Church Jacksonville, FL, and Tom and Yvette Rich; Mr. Rich is the blogger and host of the FBC Jax Watchdog blog. This suggestion is made by one with both a Ph.D. in Psychology with graduate study in conflict resolution, and a law degree. I have been involved in mediation or similar conflict resolution work for approximately 40 years.
I believe that onus to resolve and settle the lawsuits is on Rev. Mac Brunson and the leadership of FBC Jacksonville. My reasoning is as follows: First, the actions complained of in the lawsuit were initiated by Rev. Brunson and the church. Second, the approach taken by the church and Rev. Brunson has not worked. The blog is still active; it is getting national attention; and Rev. Brunson is gaining a negative national reputation, except among other authoritarian pastors and denominational leaders. Third, without resolution, the longer the suit is active, the more adverse the consequences for Rev. Brunson and the church, and could include the church losing membership and donations and Rev. Brunson losing his pastorate.
Given that continuing in the present approach is not being effective and is costly, as Paul suggested, let me show you a better way, the way of love and not the way of law and retribution.
First, initiate settlement discussions. Rev. Brunson and church leaders should ask their attorney to set up a mediation through Mr. Rich’s attorney, and offer to pay for the mediation. Allow Mr. Rich’s attorney to suggest the mediator, subject to approval by the church’s attorney, and offer to pay the mediation fee.
Second, at the mediation, the church, represented by a lay representative and by Rev. Brunson, should seize the initiative by:
Apologizing for statements about Mr. Rich and for the actions against him and Yvette.
Suggested language: “I am sorry. It was wrong for us to do that and it was a wrong-headed approach to your efforts to hold a Christian brother accountable to his own teaching.”
3. Offering, as a part of an agreement for Mr. Rich to drop the suit against Rev. Brunson and the church, to do the following:
a. Admit that there was and is no evidence of anything criminal by Mr. Rich such as stalking Mrs. Brunson or stealing mail, and no evidence of any sin against you or the church in the portions of the blog written by Mr. Rich.
b. Pay Mr. Rich’s legal fees and expenses as it relates to the suit against Rev. Brunson, from Rev. Brunson’s personal resources.
c. Pay for counseling for Mr. Rich and his family, by a counselor of their choice, due to the pressure your attacks on him have caused.
d. Remove the trespass warnings against Mr. and Mrs. Rich, so that they may visit their friends or attend an event at the church without retribution.
e. Insist that the deacons and church rescind the infamous resolution.
f. Repeat the apology before the congregation on Sunday morning., including a statement that Mr. Rich’s blog was not gossip, nor slander, nor cowardly, but an attempt to hold Rev. Brunson accountable to his own teaching and to the Biblical witness. This apology should be made by Rev. Brunson, personally.
g. Ask the lay leadership to restore the bylaws to what they were before and to find ways to make the business of the church more transparent and accountable to the membership.
h. Pledge to being more available and open to the members of the congregation as their pastor and to listen humbly to their comments on your pastoring and preaching, such as by holding a weekly or bimonthly “town hall” type meeting to hear their comments. An alternative would be a pastor-church relations committee that could take comments and forward them to you while protecting the identity of members offering comments. Of course, such comments must be answered publicly to the extent that respect for privacy allows.
Third, carry out any agreement in good faith as if you were trying to outdo yourself in reaching out in love to a Christian friend.
Fourth, abjure any church discipline process in the future against those who comment or raise questions in a civil manner, whether anonymously or otherwise, and be responsive to them, at least by answering gently.
The above suggestions do not deal with all of the issues that the blog has addressed, and it is unlikely that some issues can be resolved at this time without great expense and disruption. However, the spirit of reconciliation must be shown. It may also be wise to review the unresolved issues to see whether some of them, such as family members on the church payroll, could not be resolved over time.
I believe that once such an offer is on the table, it will be incumbent upon Mr. Rich to similarly apologize for some of the blog entries or for some of the words and tone in the blog entries, and to offer, after publishing the agreement (without any crowing), to suspend the blog, except perhaps to occasionally post an entry about how the agreement is being carried out, hopefully well, and about other actions consistent with the spirit of the agreement.
Such is the more excellent way to respond to a lawsuit, the way of love. Usually, it is also the least disruptive and least expensive way to resolve a lawsuit, and it can result in restoration instead of resentment.
Ralph E. Cooper, Ph.D.
Attorney and Mediator