To the elders of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, there are lots of ways to describe their roles in the church: spiritual leader, mentor in faith, servant to those in need. But in 2001, the church elders faced a new description.
In 2001, Mississippi Boulevard was on a roll. There were 10,000 people in Memphis who described themselves as members. On an average Sunday, 4,000-6,000 would attend worship. So, when the congregation’s longtime pastor left, it was no problem for Mississippi Boulevard to find an interim minister. The problem arose when the interim minister began expressing interest in the permanent position, but the church’s search committee went in another direction. Eventually, Mississippi Boulevard called Dr. Frank Anthony Thomas to the pulpit, but for 14 members of the congregation still grieving over the loss of their longtime spiritual leader, that change was unacceptable and they filed a lawsuit to have the new pastor ousted.
This week at the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Elders conference, members of the congregation’s board of elders took part in a panel discussion about how they relied on God to help them through the crisis, a crisis which included pickets and leafleting in front of the church, a court-mandated confidence vote on the new minister and sheriff’s deputies on the church grounds monitoring the vote, complete with voting machines rented from the county election commission. The 2002 church vote re-affirmed Thomas, and the two sides signed an 2003 agreement barring all parties from harassment or retaliation.
Church elder Deborah DeWitt told a gathering of elders from across the country that members of the congregation started asking the Mississippi Boulevard elders pointed questions about how they were going to handle this adversity. Members of the church, she says, were fed up with the elders.
“We did some soul searching and asking ourselves what the role of an elder really is,” says DeWitt. “We started asking God what we needed to do to be more like Him?”
The elders turned to Bible study and three days of fasting and prayer. They tried to mediate with the 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but were rebuffed. After much prayer, they wrote a letter to the congregation asking that the plaintiffs be separated from the body of the church and the issue was put to a vote.
“I’ve never heard a congregationso quiet as it was during that meeting,” says one elder. “It was as if there was a still, small voice saying ‘let God be God.’”
“We always tried to take a conciliatory approach,” says another. “We made it clear that we would welcome anyone back into the congregation if they asked for forgiveness.”
But forgiveness was not on everyone’s minds. Saying the vote to remove the plaintiffs violated the 2003 agreement, a local judge threatened Pastor Thomas and four other church leaders with jail, but that order was stayed. The case ultimately went before the Tennessee Supreme Court which sided with Mississippi Boulevard in the case.
Returning to the pulpit in August 2004, Thomas received a standing ovation from 2,100 members of the congregation following his sermon. “With all due respect to the judge and the plaintiffs, it makes no difference what they do. I work for God. I cannot leave and let someone force me out, run me out, or embarrass me out,” he said, according to an Aug. 16 report in The Commercial Appeal.
The entire controversy prompted prayerful discussion among the elders about their role in the church. Eventually, the elders drafted and adopted a church restoration plan and a covenant was drawn between the elders and the congregation’s pastor. Today, Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church has a handbook for elders which clearly defines their roles.
Dr. Thomas, who also attended the Elders’ Conference, but spoke little during the panel discussion did close the meeting with one word of advice to the gathering.
“The men and women you see before you saved my ministry in this church,” he said. “I was not allowed to take part in any discussion during the crisis, not even to be in the room. Without the support of mature, spiritual leaders, ministry cannot survive.”
He added. “You elders in this room have the power to do the same for your pastor.”