Bellevue conflict bleeds onto Internet, into public square
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)--Several members of the Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church have begun to air disagreements with the church’s pastor on the Internet and on local television and print media outlets. The actions, according to some, have opened up a needed avenue of dissent in the church but, according to others, have served only to distract the congregation from its mission.
Controversy at the 30,000-member church began less than a year after the arrival of Steve Gaines as successor to longtime pastor Adrian Rogers, who retired in poor health and later died of complications from cancer. Opponents of Gaines’ leadership, led by former Bellevue deacon Mark Sharpe, have accused the pastor of forcing out a popular music director, of needless and improper spending on his church credit card and of pushing the church toward an elder-led model of leadership.
Those at odds with Gaines also claim that the pastor’s salary has been set at nearly $500,000 -- though they say the actual figure remains hidden from church members -- and that Gaines has intimidated members of the Cordova, Tenn., congregation.
Gaines previously served as pastor of First Baptist Church in Gardendale, Ala., and was president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual Pastors’ Conference in 2005.
Several articles in the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis have drawn attention to two websites (see URLs below) on which opponents of the church’s leadership have waged their complaints. Both websites have guest counters and combined they have tallied more than 200,000 visitors since the controversy became heated in August.
The newspaper itself also has become a forum for dissent. In the Commercial Appeal Sept. 20, Sharpe said that addressing the concerns of some church members in public forums was regrettable, but necessary since the church seemed to have lost its system of “checks and balances” against pastoral authority and power. In an article in the paper Oct. 5, Sharpe publicly called for Gaines’ resignation as pastor because he claimed the pastor had further attempted to cover up his alleged misdeeds. A poll on the newspaper’s website showed little support for Gaines in the community.
The church’s director of communications, however, described the level of discontent with Gaines’ leadership as overestimated because of the use of the Internet sites and other non-traditional forums. Jim Barnwell told Baptist Press that this was evidenced by the fact “not one” former or current staff member, past deacon chairman or member of what Bellevue calls its board of directors had “broken ranks and joined the opposition because the allegations are simply not true.”
“Nothing can be substantiated,” Barnwell said, specifically addressing claims about pastoral expenditures. “The allegations of financial misconduct are patently false, as are all the claims that the pastor used his credit card for personal expenses. All the charges have been totally vetted by the finance committee.
“Unfortunately for us we have to spend time answering these charges, which distracts us from ministry,” Barnwell said, claiming that the rancor brought by the charges has given the world a picture of a divided church body.
Barnwell said the church has formed a new ad hoc communications committee to answer questions for church members regarding facts, policies and procedures. "This is an internal family matter," he said.
As with the charges of financial misconduct, church staffers claim that most of the remaining charges made by Sharpe are not true.
On the opposition website, Sharpe said in an interview that Gaines had orchestrated a plan to oust longtime Bellevue staffer James Whitmire, the music minister who pioneered the church’s presentations of the “Singing Christmas Tree,” and install a new music minister with whom he had a “covenant partnership.” The new minister, Sharpe said, was directed to move the church toward a contemporary style of worship.
Barnwell said that Gaines had made some changes, but that many of them were “already in place when he came.” Whitmire retired from Bellevue and now serves at a “sister church” in Germantown, Tenn., Gaines said at a church-wide meeting about the current controversy Sept. 24.
Sharpe also charged that Gaines and three other men, including associate pastor Mark Dougharty and deacon chairman Chuck Taylor, had “trespassed” on his property by climbing a privacy fence unannounced. The visit, Sharpe said on the website, was an effort to intimidate, as was a phone call from Gaines in which the pastor reportedly told Sharpe he was “Hezbollah.”
Barnwell said that Gaines and other church staff members had attempted to respond to Sharpe and others privately and had answered questions from deacons about the accusations at a meeting early in September, but that the Bellevue leadership team was forced to devote the Sunday evening service on Sept. 24 to clearing the air. Gaines told the congregation that the session was not a “business meeting,” but a time for church members to receive information “from this pulpit from the leaders of this church.”
Gaines, Taylor, Harry Smith, a longtime member of the church’s finance committee, and Chip Freeman, the church’s chief administrator, addressed point by point allegations of financial misconduct, insisting that nothing improper had occurred. Taylor and Gaines, however, admitted to climbing the privacy fence in Sharpe’s gated community. Gaines said it was an attempt to reconcile with a “brother.”
“This was a mistake obviously, and we shouldn’t have done it,” Gaines told members of the congregation during the meeting. “There was no intimidation at all. We just wanted to be reconciled, and we’re sorry. I want to tell you as a church we are sorry. It was poor judgment on our part, and I want to tell you this: It did not come out of a bad heart. It was a mistake. It was a mistake of the head and not the heart.”
But Gaines’ explanation -- as well as those from Taylor, Smith and Freeman -- have done little to soften the criticism. In addition to publicly calling for Gaines’ resignation in the Commercial Appeal and on the savingbellevue.com website, Sharpe wrote a lengthy open letter to church members in which he described the Sept. 24 meeting as a “one-sided hearing” and a “Perry Mason episode gone bad.” He said that neither Gaines, nor Taylor, nor Dougharty had contacted him to apologize about jumping the fence and trespassing in his neighborhood. He also claimed that the “church meeting” format did not allow for members to ask questions of the pastor and deacons.
Sharpe, who said he was saddened at having to write the letter to the church, claimed that Gaines and the others only “made the church body believe” they had apologized.
“I am also saddened that what could have been addressed inside the walls of Bellevue has now been addressed publicly for the world to see,” Sharpe wrote in the letter. “Since no opportunity has ever been granted for others to speak to the deacons or church body, it is necessary to inform the church in other means. There are many who desire the truth to be dealt with.”
Sharpe also expressed in the letter his discontent with the fact that Gaines does not preach to the Bellevue congregation on Wednesday nights. Gaines said at the church-wide meeting Sept. 24 that he dedicates his time Wednesday evenings to his family, but regularly attends committee meetings and youth events.
Gaines said he believes that Bellevue’s time of trial will make the church stronger, and that in such times the congregation will focus on prayer and reconciliation. In his address to the church, he said he wanted the church to pray that “God will not let us get distracted from the main thing.”
“We’re more focused on what really matters, and what really matters is not all of these little accusations, fault-findings and all that stuff,” Gaines said. “What really matters is there are people going to hell right out there, and it’s our job to love each other and to win people to Jesus.
“I want you to pray that God will put a hedge of protection around everybody, even those who have some differences. I want you to pray that all of us will walk in wisdom, that we’ll walk in forgiveness, that we’ll walk in Christ.”
“As far as I am concerned, let’s move on,” Gaines said. “Let’s move on.”
Baptist Press made repeated attempts to contact Sharpe for an interview, but calls were not returned.
Websites opposing Gaines’ leadership:
An audio recording of the Sept. 24 church information meeting at Bellevue Baptist Church is available online at: