Clarksville, Tennessee - Christians often preach that all are welcome to come into their houses of prayer to hear the word of God. But those words don't extend to one Clarksville man after he was kicked out of his church of 30 years.
The pastor of St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Alvin Miller, said he asked the congregation to kick out John Hill because Hill was being disrespectful.
"We're a loving church. We're a very understanding church. We understand that people come with differences, but people can't be disruptive," Miller said.
Hill and his group of vocal supporters, who have over a hundred years of membership at St. John's between them, say Hill was kicked out for questioning Miller's authoritative control of the church. After Miller had thrown out the trustees and nullified the church's bylaws, Hill asked, at a November 2012 meeting, to have the old bylaws reinstated.
This incensed Miller, and "he said that the church is not a democracy," Hill said.
Miller then told the congregation that either Hill or Miller, the pastor himself, had to go. Someone made a motion, and Miller got the required votes. But Bessie Simms, a former trustee and the signatory on the church's 2012 tax deferral applications filed with Montgomery County, said it was because people were frightened of Miller.
"The majority of the people didn't vote one way or another because they seemed too scared of him," said Simms, who remains a member of the church she has attended since 1962. "A lot of people say that if you don't go along with him you have to deal with his wrath."
Hill – a church deacon, Vietnam veteran, former principal of Northeast High School and member of the church since 1976 – now stands outside during the service every Sunday, protesting his dismissal while inside a group of long-time members wonder where their church is headed.
Miller said the majority of the church approves of his leadership.
"The majority of the members rule – all of my actions of the church have been approved by the majority of the members," Miller said. "You've got people that are disgruntled because they can't have it their way, so they run to the media.
"I'm not going to air the church business in the public, that's not the right thing," Miller said. "And if (Hill) has done that, then we'll see what we're going to do about that."
Miller came to the church in 2008 after the Rev. Jerry Jerkins retired with 40 years of service to St. John's, including the expansion of the congregation's Tiny Town Road facility.
Miller's last church, Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Nashville, didn't bid him a fond farewell.
"We were overjoyed (when he left) because he tried to be a dictator and he wanted to do all the things that he wanted to get done," said Wanda Scott, Pleasant Green's office manager and a member for over 30 years.
Scott said Miller tried to have complete control over the church and dismissed longtime members from leadership positions.
"Miller ousted an 80-year-old woman that had been treasurer for the church for many years," Scott said.
It didn't take long for his new congregation to start asking questions after Miller, who was a chaplain in the military at the time, was hired by St. John's.
"When the pastor came, we were told that he would be discharged from the military in three months. Well, that was part of taking him on," said Lettie Kendall, a member of the church for more than 50 years and a former Montgomery County commissioner whose name is on a Clarksville city park. "But in three months, he re-enlisted in the military."
Kendall said it concerned her, and many other congregants, that Miller was a full-time military chaplain as well as being a full-time pastor at St. John's – getting two salaries, two housing allowances and two insurance policies at once.
Miller has since left the military.
Changing the rules
In a 2009 meeting, Miller asked that the congregation be governed by the rules of the Bible and not by the church's bylaws, according to William Johnson, a deacon at the church since 1976.
"Everyone said OK, we can't go wrong if we are using God's word," Johnson said. "But actually, he was using his own authority to do things.
"After we realized what was happening, we asked what was going on, and he stated that we are just going to use the Bible, and God sent him and his word. He represents God," Johnson said.
Miller instituted what he calls "standard operating procedures" and says that the rules are available to the membership. But every member spoken to said the operating rules are unclear and, according to Hill, Miller requires all official documents be returned to him.
Miller wouldn't comment on the specific rules governing the church but said his leadership has brought more congregants and community service to the church.
"My leadership style is a leadership style like Jesus, it is a leadership style like the military – military leaders are very compassionate," Miller said. "If my leadership style is so horrible, why has there been a significant growth going on?"
Investigation and dismissal
Miller appointed John Hill, the man he later kicked out, to be a deacon in 2012 and to investigate the Board of Trustees, according to Hill. Miller thought that the trustees were misappropriating funds, but Hill's investigation didn't find any evidence of misconduct.
When Hill came back to Miller and said that the books were in order, Miller became irate, according to Hill.
"He used a lot of inappropriate language, called them (the trustees) low-down dirty n-----s," Hill said. "I've never heard a pastor talking that way."
Miller then called the police on Hill during one Sunday school session in September 2012, the police arrived and, after Miller gave them a statement, they gave Hill a notice of criminal trespass.
Hill told his story to local attorney Gary Hodges, who hasn't taken any legal action against Miller but did write him a letter saying that Miller's behavior is "totally unacceptable and shocking and embarrassing to you and the church."
Then at a Nov. 18, 2012, meeting, Hill made the motion that led to Miller declaring either Hill or Miller had to leave. Enough people voted for Miller to be kicked out but only because most didn't vote.
At that same meeting, Miller got approval from the congregation to restructure the church's leadership, eventually leading to Simms' dismissal as trustee and Johnson's removal from the board.
Members kept asking questions, including Simms, one of the former trustee members that Miller wanted Hill to find guilty of malfeasance.
"He doesn't like anyone to question him, and he gets very upset when you do that. And he is constantly telling us that he is the pastor and he has the final say," Simms said.
"When I tried to talk to him and tried to reason with him, he told me he didn't have to compromise because he was the pastor and God had called him to preach. I told him that I don't follow a man, I follow God," she said.
Miller, who lives in Nashville, is still running the church and refuses to give the general congregation his phone number or address, according to Johnson.
The church members who don't support Miller aren't sure what to do.
"All the deacons seemingly are just blinded by whatever he says," Kendall said. "Whatever he says, they just go along with it. They don't question anything, they just do whatever he says, and we have no recourse. If you do, you are ostracized."
Kendall compared Miller's administration to a cult.
"I've never been into any situation where you couldn't discuss anything or where you weren't given some kind of consideration for discussion or give and take," Kendall said.
Simms said she is re-evaluating her membership with the church and has many members asking her to stay. But she says she wonders why more people don't speak up.
"People seem to be so afraid of him that they won't even speak up," Simms said. "If he could just get rid of those of us that have been longtime members, he would throw every one of us out of there."
For now, Hill still stands outside on Sundays protesting his dismissal and asking to just have a chance to go back to church.
"I plan to go back to my church. That's the only the church I know," Hill said. "I'm not going to let him run me away from my church – I haven't done anything."