Baptist Pastor Under Scrutiny

Associated Press/August 14, 2007

The Rev. Jerry Sutton, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor who lost a bid to become president of the denomination, is now facing an upheaval in the megachurch he leads, including complaints that he spent church money on his daughter's wedding.

For nearly 21 years, Sutton has served as leader of Nashville's Two Rivers Baptist Church, which sits just across the highway from the Grand Ole Opry. The church hosted the "Justice Sunday II" rally in 2005, where then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others criticized judicial activism via satellite to a national audience of evangelical Christians.

But now, some Two Rivers members are accusing Sutton of failing to abide by church rules and punishing those who question his authority.

"We have a fractured fellowship. Somehow, with the Lord's help, we need to put this church back together," Harry Jester, who's been in the congregation for 32 years, said at a church meeting July 28.

One of Sutton's former administrative assistants has also said Sutton looked at pornography on his church computer and had an affair with a church staff member _ charges that the church denies. The church's executive pastor, Scott Hutchings, said human resource officials at the church investigated those charges and found no evidence that Sutton had looked at porn or had an affair.

The Associated Press left a message at the church asking to speak with Sutton, but Hutchings, who runs the day-to-day business of the church, returned the call and said he was speaking on behalf of Sutton.

About 600 members attended the July 28 meeting, which was organized by the church so that rumors and allegations could be addressed publicly. Sutton also attended, but did not respond to the allegations.

At the meeting, Hutchings relayed the accusations brought against Sutton, including charges that Sutton used church money to pay for his daughter's wedding reception and has kept members in the dark on church spending.

Hutchings defended the church budget and acknowledged that the church paid about $4,300 for a reception for Sutton's daughter that was open to all church members. He said Sutton personally paid for another separate reception outside the church.

"When you're pastor, we feel like you have to invite the whole church," to avoid the appearance of favoritism, Hutchings said.

Church trustee Frank Harris has been leading the campaign against Sutton. Two Rivers "appears to have been manipulated from a people-led church to a staff-run church," Harris said.

"Anyone who voiced opposition to leadership was alienated and lost any ministries they may have had in the church," Harris said.

A majority of Two Rivers members voted July 8 to exclude Harris from the church because he was causing strife and division. But some members said leaders didn't follow church rules allowing for absentee votes and not all members at the service were able to cast ballots.

"It was a tough decision," Hutchings said. "There has to be submission and authority. It's OK to have disagreements. But Frank started taking his disagreements to and causing division in the (church) body."

A key member of the SBC's conservative leadership, Sutton last year was nominated for president along with Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., and Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., but lost to Page.

But Sutton, who recently held the No. 2 spot in the SBC, remains an important figure within the 16.3 million-member denomination, said David Key, director of Baptist Studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

Two Rivers is the home church for many Southern Baptist bureaucrats, and Sutton is the "pastor to the people who do the day-to-day decision-making of the Southern Baptist Convention," Key said.

Nashville is home to the SBC's executive committee; LifeWay Christian Resources, which publishes Bibles, books and music for the SBC; and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the denomination.

Key said lay people in many Southern Baptist churches are starting to push back against the authority of pastors, who have gained more power since a conservative takeover of SBC leadership in the late 1970s.

"When there's a high level of trust in the leadership, there's less questioning," said Phill Martin, deputy CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration. "When trust begins to be broken, and you begin to wonder what's going on with leadership, a lot of times what will surface first is a questioning of financial responsibility. So many times money becomes the lightning rod for the trust issue."

Sunday morning worship attendance at Two Rivers Baptist Church last year was 1,573 and has decreased steadily since 2003 when the church reported 1,932, according to the Nashville Baptist Association.

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