In a way, church leadership disputes are like car wrecks — ugly but impossible to ignore.
I still recall a piece my wife, Tamie Ross, then religion editor for The Oklahoman, wrote 15 years ago concerning a church where an internal squabble had resulted in police calls, changed locks and offers of more than $250,000 for the pastor to resign.
This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch grabbed my attention with a front-page story on "The battle for First Christian Church of Florissant":
The lede sets the scene:
FLORISSANT — A nine-piece band plays inside a church auditorium, and three projection screens hang overhead, including one in the center that flashes lyrics. The band’s repertoire consists of Christian songs that could easily be mistaken for mainstream pop music. First Christian Church of Florissant members stand, clap and sway in response.
Yet, as he prepares to deliver his sermon, Pastor Steve Wingfield apologizes for the small crowd at the long-standing megachurch.
Wingfield has strawberry blond hair and is dressed in a black, long-sleeved, buttoned shirt and gray khakis as he digs into the current series of sermons focusing on the “Path to Restoration.” Today’s message is about broken relationships, a hardship afflicting even the closest knit families, including church families.
“If you want to be part of an imperfect church family, where flawed people are trying to figure this thing out together, you’re welcome here,” Wingfield tells a half-filled auditorium, while revealing details about his home life, including his role as a grandfather.
Members of the church are trying to figure things out, though whether the congregation has managed to do that in any kind of unified way is up for debate.
Keep reading, and the Post-Dispatch explains the circumstances behind the turmoil:
The church is still reeling from the recent conviction of Brandon Milburn, a former youth minister at the church who in March was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys.
Many members accuse Wingfield of mishandling the sexual abuse crisis at the church. They claim the pastor failed to report Milburn even after members brought the youth minister’s questionable behavior to his attention, that he has done little to reach out to victims or seek out other potential victims, and that church leadership has done a poor job of communicating with members.
“I am beyond frustrated at the way this has been managed and heartbroken that the church I once called home and love deeply has mishandled this situation so severely,” Titus Benton, a former student minister at the church, said in a recent letter to church leadership. “First Christian has invited suspicion.”
Congregants further claim that the mismanagement of the situation is part of a larger pattern: Wingfield’s authoritarian style leaves little room for discussion, and key staff members and dozens of families have fled.
Go ahead and read the whole story. You'll discover that there's some excellent reporting here. You'll think: Isn't it great that the Post-Dispatch — unlike so many major metro dailies — still has a full-time religion writer who can devote time and expertise to such a story?
And if you're like me, you'll have a few questions.
1. What is the denominational affiliation, if any, of the First Christian Church of Florissant? Could it be the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church)? Or perhaps the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (not to be confused with the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, another branch of the American Restoration Movement)? The story never says, although my own quick Googling leads me to believe it's associated with the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.
An earlier report in the Riverfront Times cited the Florissant church's ties to the Restoration Movement and described it as "an evangelical, nondenominational center of religious and communal life":
2. Who controls the church? Is Wingfield his own boss? Or is there a church board that oversees him and has the power to fire him?
The newspaper quotes a church deacon but doesn't elaborate on the role of deacon in this church. In reviewing the church website, it appears the congregation has seven elders, including Wingfield, who serve as the church's officers. But the story refers only to "church leadership" — and in a vague way.
3. What makes a "megachurch?" According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, a megachurch has specific distinctive characteristics, including "2,000 or more persons in attendance at weekly worship."
Yet the Post-Dispatch says that the Missouri church had only 1,200 members at its height. Unless that's a typo, it doesn't sound like a megachurch. (The earlier Riverfront Times piece put membership at 2,500 and weekly attendance at 1,000.)
Meanwhile, the Post-Dispatch refers to a "small crowd" and a "half-filled auditorium" but provides no actual numbers. After citing "many members" as disgruntled early in the story, the newspaper does — to its credit — provide this concrete detail later:
More than 300 members of the church have joined a public Facebook group dedicated to restoring the mission of the church, which they believe has been lost with Wingfield at the helm. They’ve also established a website that details the Milburn saga.
Kudos on that specificity. It would have been helpful elsewhere.
Again, it's wonderful that the Post-Dispatch devoted space and resources to this story. I just wish the newspaper had answered a few more questions.