Thursday, February 5, 2009

Bully Bylaws

Leaders at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville pushed through some bylaws that institute a process for any member who has a “grievance” against the church, its pastor or staff. As reported on a watchdog blog, the process involves (1) Matthew 18 reconciliation, followed by (2) arbitration with the Florida Baptist Convention.

But that’s not all. After setting up this process, the FBC-Jax leaders put on their steel-toe boots and delivered this kicker of a clause:
"By joining this Church, all members agree that biblical conciliation efforts shall provide the sole remedy for any dispute arising against the Church. All members waive the right to file any legal action against the Church in a civil court or agency."

I know bylaws are boring, but no one should snooze on this one. This bylaws clause is designed to cripple any who might attempt to bring church wrongdoing into the light of day.

These are bully bylaws.

No matter how egregious the conduct of the church’s leaders may be, members who seek to challenge them will find themselves paralyzed. Their backs were broken when these bylaws were adopted, and they didn’t even realize it.

Consider these hypothetical scenarios:

  • The pastor’s brother-in-law needs work, and so the pastor gives him a job driving the church bus, even though the pastor knows the man has 2 drunk-driving convictions. Predictably, tragedy strikes. When the church refuses payment on the kids’ mounting medical bills, parents seek to hold the church accountable in court.

  • A church secretary grows weary of a minister’s lewd jokes. When the jokes turn to butt-grabs, she complains to the senior pastor, who suggests that she shouldn’t talk about it if she values her job. The secretary wants to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

  • A church member, who’s an accountant, begins to suspect financial mismanagement and fraud. No one can give a straight answer on where the money’s going and no one will allow access to the church’s financial records. The only way the member can see the records is if she gets a court order.

  • Parents learn that their child was sexually molested by a staff-minister. Then they learn that the minister had a prior molestation conviction in another state. They’re devastated, but when they talk with the senior pastor, he minimizes the “mishap” and lectures them on forgiveness. The parents decide to file a lawsuit.

In all of these cases, the complaining church members would face an immediate roadblock. The church would pull forth this bully bylaw and contend that the member had voluntarily waived their right to any legal action.

“But surely a court wouldn’t enforce such a clause,” you say?

Maybe and maybe not. It would depend on the judge.

But in all likelihood, long before it’s ever put before a judge, the bully bylaw will have served its purpose of deterring people from bringing wrongs to light.

Many will find that they simply cannot muster the money, the time, or the will to litigate it. They may leave the church, but they won’t invest the energy it would take to get past the hurdle of having a court declare the bully bylaw unenforceable.

By squelching lawsuits, the bully bylaw also squelches the primary way that people have of getting ugly information into the public eye. The bully bylaw preserves secrecy.

Even if a church member chose to challenge the bully bylaw, it would still serve to at least stall the truth-seeking process. While waiting for a judge to decide the bylaw’s legal enforceability, the ugly factual issues -- the ones about sexual harassment, child molestation, drunk-driving, or financial mismanagement -- would take a back seat and remain out of the spotlight.

Not only would it take some time, but it would also take some money to litigate the enforceability of the bully bylaw. The issue may raise First Amendment constitutional questions; so it could get expensive. But of course, that’s not a problem for the church leaders. They’ve got all those offering plate dollars to pay their lawyers.

But ordinary church members aren’t likely to have such a ready pool of cash. They’ll probably need to find a lawyer who’s willing to front the costs and work on a percentage basis. Maybe they’ll find such a lawyer, but it will certainly be more difficult because any lawyer will readily see that the bully bylaw makes the case riskier and more expensive.

Now consider what FBC-Jax offers church members as a replacement for their right to bring civil lawsuits. The bully bylaws say that the Florida Baptist Convention can arbitrate a church member’s grievance against the church.

So here’s my question: Why doesn’t local church autonomy preclude the Florida Baptist Convention from interfering?

Baptist leaders have repeatedly insisted that local church autonomy precludes state and national conventions from creating a professionally-staffed clergy abuse review board. But if local church autonomy doesn’t preclude a statewide Baptist convention from offering churches the resource of an arbitration panel for members’ complaints, why does local church autonomy preclude a statewide Baptist convention from offering churches the resource of a review board to assess clergy abuse reports?

Don’t scratch your head too hard. There’s nothing logical about it.

First Baptist of Jacksonville is a Southern Baptist flagship mega-church. It’s hosting a 4-day Pastors’ Conference that starts tomorrow, and the church’s senior pastor, Mac Brunson, will be a featured speaker.

Ironically, the advertised theme of the Jacksonville conference is “Healthy Pastors, Healthy Churches.”

I wonder whether Mac Brunson will be teaching other pastors how to build “healthy churches” through the use of bully bylaws.


Information about the FBC-Jax bylaws was derived from
FBC-Jax Watchdog.


FBC Watchdog said...

Great analysis Christa. Your scenarios are dead on...perfect examples of why such a clause is utterly ridiculous.

Our church is undergoing a transformation called "Theology Driven Ministry" by Brunson and Smyrl, and they don't have a problem with any policy or bylaw change so long as they can tie it somehow, no matter how loosely, to a scripture - their interpretation of scripture of course. So anything they do they will say it is justifed by scripture, and thus it is "theology driven" - and therefore any challengers to their policy are unregenerate (Smyrl's favorite word) and divisive.

It would be one thing if the church was explained about this change in the bylaws before the vote was taken...or AT LEAST if the members were notified by the pastor from the pulpit or in writing after the vote so they could be informed that they have forfeited their right to sue the church. But the people were not notified before or after the vote.

They don't know, and sadly, most of them probably don't care.

I get emails on a weekly basis from lay leaders at the church who question my salvation, and tell me to shut down the blog...and they usually will tell me that they KNOW OF the blog, but do NOT READ THE they won't even bother to read what is on it. Even though many of the lay leaders keep their blinders on and won't read it, at least we know thousands around the country ARE reading it and they are seeing what is being done at FBC Jax so perhaps, perhaps...other churches and their lay leaders can keep these same tactics from being used in THEIR churches.

BaptistPlanet said...

Do you think the bullying provision is retroactive, Christa?

Christa Brown said...

Interesting question about retroactivity. On the one hand, the clause suggests that "by joining this church," members agree to the process. So, arguably, it's the act of "joining" that creates the agreement, in which case, it seems as though it wouldn't be retroactive to members who are already joined. On the other hand, the next sentence says "all members waive...." So, I expect they would argue that the clause applies to "all members" regardless of when they joined.

Of course, whatever the legal arguments may be (and I can certainly imagine others just off the top of my head), it sure speaks poorly of any church leaders who would impose such a stealthy bullying tactic on their own congregants, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

Might a reason to keep from joining such churches. Then you can keep your legal rights.

Christa Brown said...

FBC Watchdog said: "So anything they do they will say it is justifed by scripture...."

Yeah. That's what makes it all the worse, isn't it? It's bad enough that they use such bullying tactics at all, but the fact that they twist scripture into a bat for breaking people's kneecaps is just blasphemous and abominable.

darkness2light said...

This type of legal language in by-laws should raise our awareness to ask about these policies and forms before asking for membership in the Church. Each prospective member should be given a copy of the by-laws and an ample time to read over them before making a final decision.

gmommy said...

A church wouldn't have a by law worded that way if they didn't think they had cause to guard themselves.
If Mac's team came up with this one...sure makes them look suspicious to me.

Christa Brown said...

I agree, gmommy.
And if nothing else, I also think it shows that Brunson and FBC-Jax leaders have a terrible lack of respect for the people in the pews.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the new SBC cult of today. Now clailming perfection they do not want to be bothered by the inperfect court system. They say, "Come, you can tust us! See all of us agree to agree even when we do not agree." But, the church is now your redeemer so if you do not agree you are wrong. Praise the pastor and staff!!! We have taken the place of the world's need fro a god and a court! [I wonder what type of Kool-aid they will serve?

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the new SBC cult of today. Now clailming perfection they do not want to be bothered by the inperfect court system. They say, "Come, you can tust us! See all of us agree to agree even when we do not agree." But, the church is now your redeemer so if you do not agree you are wrong. Praise the pastor and staff!!! We have taken the place of the world's need fro a god and a court! [I wonder what type of Kool-aid they will serve?

gmommy said...

On Wade Burleson's blog the SBC good ol boys have totally been caught doing what they do best...lying, deceiving,deflecting, and major cover up. People are cheering thinking they have finally exposed them.

The sad reality is that there has been PROOF...human proof...of their lies, deceit, and cover up of clergy sexual abuse for years. It hasn't mattered before.
But those who oppose the PP good ol boys believe now they have them.

At first I was excited but then I thought...what the heck does it matter that PP wants to get rid of the Calvinist and he got caught.

I know everyone has their own platform or calling but if they can cover the ugly deeds of predators for years....they will get away with covering for PP and his minor little power plays.

And WHAT IF Wade's more moderate group eventually takes over the SBC???? I think victims will still be ignored. The focus will still be to keep the SBC matter the cost. I hope I'm wrong.

Christa Brown said...

I agree, Gmommy: If moderates take control of the SBC, I think clergy abuse survivors "will still be ignored."

It would be a mistake for anyone to blame "fundamentalists" for how clergy abuse survivors are treated, and to imagine that "moderates" will automatically do better. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is considered a "moderate" statewide Southern Baptist convention (one of only about 3 in the country). Texas is one of the few states that has 2 statewide Southern Baptist conventions because the more conservative group split off and started their own convention. Nevertheless, even though it lost a lot of churches to the other Texas convention, the "moderate" BGCT still remains the largest of all the statewide Southern Baptist conventions... and for a lot of years, there have been a lot of Baptist abuse survivors who have tried to get help from them. They have had every opportunity to become better educated, and they still handle clergy abuse abysmally. Just like the SBC leaders, the moderate BGCT leaders are also oriented toward institutional protection rather than kid protection.

As best I can tell, the biggest difference between SBC "fundamentalist" leaders and BGCT "moderate" leaders is that the BGCT guys have more skillful public relations people -- or perhaps they simply pour more money into their media department to spew forth propaganda about how much they care (money that comes from the offering plate dollars of hard-working people, I might add). But in the simple, truth-well-spoken words of Debbie Vasquez, "What good does it do for BGCT people to say they care about my suffering if they won't do anything to prevent someone else from suffering?"

The self-described "moderates" may speak more "nicely," but those nice words can be deceptive. If you look to their deeds, they too are full of blind-eyed do-nothingness.

In my mind, speaking metaphorically, the difference for a clergy abuse survivor is akin to the difference between those who bludgeon with baseball bats (the fundamentalists) and those who will quietly stick a shiv in your side and twist it (the moderates). Either way, the clergy abuse survivor who has to deal with them comes away from it greatly retraumatized and re-wounded.

Oh... and let's not forget that the recent past-president of the SBC, Frank Page, was considered a "moderate," and he got elected with the enormous assistance of blogging "moderate" pastors such as Wade Burleson and others. Frank Page is the "moderate" SBC president who publicly castigated clergy abuse survivors as "nothing more than opportunistic persons."

So... no... I wouldn't place hope for change on the "moderates."

The dreadful do-nothing way of dealing with clergy sex abuse is, quite tragically, an area in which the fundamentalists and moderates share common ground. And all that other stuff they argue so vigorously about... the Calvinists, the Arminians, private prayer language, etc. etc. etc...... to me it seems as though they're wasting precious time arguing about how many angels are on the head of a pin when, all the while, they have this huge and very real problem of ministers who molest and rape kids, and they're doing nothing to systematically address it.

gmommy said...

I'm sure you are right. It's just so stinking sad.
And now that Oprah thinks Ted Haggard is more qualified than ever to be a pastor...well we still have the internet.

Christa Brown said...

You're right, gmommy, it's "stinking sad." But I don't mean to suggest that there are no pockets of hope. What I'm suggesting is simply that the fundamentalist/moderate schism in Baptist life doesn't have much to do with how they're addressing clergy sex abuse.

What will bring about change is true courageous leadership. And that sort of leadership could conceivably come from either side of the schism or from somewhere in between. It will, however, require someone with open eyes and an open heart -- someone who is willing to actually see the horror of clergy abuse and understand the dynamics of it rather than simply spouting the tired old maxims of the past.

Unknown said...

A few things do strike me, though.

The "moderates" are more likely to think of women as equals than the "fundamentalists"

The "fundamentalists" are totally stuck with doing things the way they have always been done.

It was Wade Burleson who supported the idea of an SBC database of sexual predators in the ministry.

Because of these things, I do think there is more of an open door for things to get done with the moderates. I don't see anything getting done with the fundamentalists.

However, I am a moderate, so I'm probably a little biased. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Fundamentalists tend to be so afraid of the term libreal or even moderate that until one of the power-leaders says it is okay to want a list of perps that are forced to see the as another attempt to liberalize the bible and allow women to leave "their place".

Anonymous said...

There may be an escape clause in the bylaws: "... members waive the right to file any legal action against the Church in a civil court..." Obviously, they can't force you to sign away your rights in a criminal case. If a child has been molested--if funds have been embezzled--if any other laws have been broken--then in my opinion the church member has not just the right, but the duty, to go to the prosecutor.

For the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of the victims, criminals mustn't be allowed to hide behind their church affiliation. Keep the church clean and safe: press charges against the criminals.