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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) -- The Jacksonville Baptist Association is seeking a member church's resignation after the church hired a convicted sex-offender to provide pulpit ministry in January.
According to a statement by JBA lead missional strategist Rick Wheeler and moderator David Tarkington on March 2, the "pastoral staffing decision" of Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville has caused the Florida association to initiate conversations with the congregation resulting in a "mutual understanding that it is necessary for CTMBC to leave" the association.
The person at the center of the controversy is Darrell Gilyard, a once-prominent and former Southern Baptist preacher who completed a three-year prison sentence in December for sex crimes against minors, according to the Florida Times-Union.
In a March 7 interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Wheeler said the Jacksonville Baptist Association has not yet received a letter from the church's leadership confirming its desire to withdraw from the association.
Not having received a response to a registered letter sent to the church, Wheeler said he was finally able to reach by telephone a deacon in the congregation, Elliot Chatman, who told him the church has decided to withdraw from the association.
As of March 8, Chatman had not returned a voice message left on his phone March 7 by the Witness.
Wheeler emphasized that the association has taken no formal action, but he wanted to begin a "conversation" with the church to confirm the facts, rather than rely upon news reports.
If the promised letter is not sent, "then I think the responsibility is back on us to take the next step in that conversation," Wheeler said.
The basis for possible action against CTMBC is a "leadership practice and behavior" of hiring a convicted sex-offender as a church leader who is "highly objectionable" to associational leaders, he said.
"We hold conferences and we actually train churches that they ought to protect their children by not allowing people who have a criminal record for crimes against children, particularly sexual crimes, to be in supervision over them," Wheeler explained.
"This is a sad situation," he said, adding that it's "tragic" that the association did not assist the congregation better.
"Why weren't we more actively engaged as an association with this congregation before this leadership decision happened so that we could have been more help and assistance and input?" he asked. "That's something we have to own as an association. We have to do a better job of reaching out to churches that have not been active and encouraging their participation to a level that we might be more help and assistance to them."
Christ Tabernacle, although a JBA member, has not financially supported the association since 2003 and has not provided statistical information to the association, Wheeler said, while emphasizing it was not on that basis the association was acting.
The congregation also has not contributed to the Florida Baptist Convention Cooperative Program in the past six years, FBC spokesman Don Hepburn said in a March 2 statement. CTMBC has been affiliated with the state convention since 1998.
The congregation is not in compliance with the Bylaw 2, which defines cooperation of churches with the Florida Baptist State Convention, because of the lack of CP contributions and the church's neglect in providing statistical information to the FBC, Hepburn said.
According to the bylaw, congregations that fail for three consecutive years either to contribute at least $250 annually to the Convention or to report annually statistical information are to be "counseled" by the State Board of Missions. A detailed procedure stipulates how that is to occur, Hepburn told the Witness.
Hepburn also told the Witness that should the congregation withdraw or be removed from the Jacksonville association, the church will no longer have affiliation with the Florida Baptist Convention.
Churches that are not part of local associations can be in fellowship with the Florida convention via "at-large" status, which requires approval of the State Board of Missions and the Florida Baptist State Convention.
In the March 2 statement, Hepburn said the Florida Baptist Convention "affirms the role of the local association as the theological guardian of theology, faith, practice and polity."
As part of a review of non-cooperating churches, Hepburn said convention staff members had attempted to make contact with Christ Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church concerning its lack of cooperation "even before the appointment of Darrell Gilyard as preacher."
Hepburn said FBC staff was able to contact CTMBC's chairman of deacons on March 1 to "express our concern about the ongoing relationship with the congregation."
He added, "The Florida Baptist Convention has taken a proactive stance to encourage all churches to run background checks on employees and volunteers -- as we do with every volunteer who works with children and teens in convention-sponsored events and programs."
Gilyard told the Times-Union he accepted the offer to preach at the church because he needed money and as a registered sex-offender it was difficult to find work.
Under terms of his three-year probation, Gilyard is required to avoid contact with minors, according to the Times-Union, which the church is accommodating by holding a separate worship service for minors.
The Florida Department of Corrections confirmed to the Times-Union that Gilyard's probation officer has approved the arrangement.
Wheeler told the Witness, while the arrangement may comply with Gilyard's probation, "it's a terrible church practice" to permit a registered sex-offender to be a congregational leader.
The Times-Union reported Feb. 10 that Gilyard's attorney filed a court motion seeking a change in his probation status to permit minors to attend worship services in which he preaches.
The motion was withdrawn after Judge Kevin Blazs said it was "premature" because a licensed therapist has not yet determined the appropriateness of the request, the Times-Union reported.
Gilyard was convicted in 2009 of sex crimes against two girls while he was pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville. That congregation, which Gilyard pastored for 15 years, was not a member of the Jacksonville Baptist Association at the time Gilyard was pastor but was recently granted "watch-care" membership and likely will be given full associational membership in November, Wheeler told the Witness.
"The only person God cannot call is the person who refuses to acknowledge, abhor and abandon his or her own sin," Gilyard told the Times-Union.
Gilyard gained national prominence in the late 1980s through his appearances on the late Jerry Falwell's "Old Time Gospel Hour." He also spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention and in many Southern Baptist churches.
According to various news accounts, Gilyard has resigned or been dismissed from at least five churches over the years for various sexual improprieties, some of which he has admitted and some he has denied.
In 2009, Gilyard admitted to fathering a child to a woman who claimed he raped her during a 2004 counseling session, according to the Times-Union.
James A. Smith Sr. is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.goFBW.com.