When a small group of members at Hayes Barton Baptist Church claimed the Raleigh, N.C., congregation was sliding from its Baptist moorings into the arms of the “emergent church” movement, their agitation threatened the congregation’s stability and forced deep self-examination.
Hayes Barton has long been considered a “moderate Baptist church,” but that’s a moniker without meaning. One element of the surprising insurrection was a demand to define “moderate.” The church’s process to do that can be instructive, as other churches face similar identity issues each year.
It came by surprise, according to David Hailey, Hayes Barton’s pastor since 1996. On the December night in 2010 when the church ordained Hailey’s son, David Jr., a friend asked for a moment and told Hailey his family was likely leaving the church.
“You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Hailey says. The friend mentioned his issues and conceded that “if the church is headed that way, fine.” He didn’t want to be disruptive and would leave quietly. Church leaders hoped this was an isolated family. As often happens, leadership ignored it, assuming it would go away.
Hayes Barton was especially sensitive to potential conflict, because three decades earlier the church had suffered a schism over an entirely different matter. That rupture was in the back of everyone’s minds as deacons and staff resorted to their fall-back pattern, believing if they ignored the issue, it would work itself out.
“We thought it was much ado about nothing,” Hailey says. “Talk about a mistake, thinking it’s an outlier, acting like it never happened. Things began to pile up and it became whack-a-mole. Is this the concern? No, it’s this. Then, no, it’s that.”
Hailey was completely taken aback when complaints began to surface from other members. They pressed him about why he quoted certain people from the pulpit, and why he had books on his shelves by non-Baptist theologians.
For others the issue was flags in the sanctuary — or not — or fears that ministers didn’t believe in hell, or that they were adopting early church practices such as candles in worship or wearing robes.
After nearly a year of dissension, the church formed a communication and reconciliation committee co-chaired by Kate Hall and Ed Gaskins, who have been members long enough to recall an earlier identity issue at Hayes Barton in the 1970s when the church changed its constitution to include women as deacons.
It fell to Gaskins, Hall and the committee to listen to those who claimed the church was adopting non-traditional practices and to examine the church’s historical documents to see if the claims were true.
Forming the committee and wading through the process was a good move done “too late,” says Hall. By then positions were hardening.
The committee solicited input, listened to the concerns and found them “logically inconsistent.” The concerns seemed to be centered on fear that Hayes Barton might be moving toward emergent church practices, says John Cooke, chair of the denominational relations committee.
“Some of the principle leaders were clearly getting their theological awareness and understanding from particular media evangelists,” Hailey says. A brochure passed out at a deacons’ meeting said signs that there may be an “emergent” movement in a church would be hearing terms like “social justice” or “spiritual formation” or “contemplative prayer” or if the pastor quotes authors like Henry Nowen or Richard Foster.
The brochure suggested a methodology for response: pray, confront the ministers, begin asking questions, organize into groups that would oppose the shift, and finally leave if satisfaction wasn’t achieved.
Few people knew what “emergent church” even meant or why it should be scary.
The emerging, or emergent, movement asserts that as culture changes, a new kind of church should emerge in response. Critics say “emergent” churches soften the hard edges of biblical truth to be more palatable to a postmodern society.
Notable emergent church preachers and writers include Rob Bell, John Burke, Mark Driscoll, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, Brian McLaren and Dallas Willard.
Hayes Barton occupies an imposing edifice in a Raleigh neighborhood called Five Points. Its steeple and buildings loom over the crooked intersection in a high-end residential area that was at the edge of Raleigh when the church was chartered in 1926. Now it’s practically in the heart of the city.
Hayes Barton was always a strong financial supporter of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Conservative U.S. Senator Jesse Helms was a member and his funeral held there.
When the SBC shifted to the right, Hayes Barton considered cutting ties with the denomination and becoming exclusively a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church. The congregation decided instead “to keep it messy and keep a big tent.”
Hailey said his peers ridiculed him, saying Hayes Barton “took the easy way out.”
“I see it differently,” he says. “The coward’s way out would be to sever. You get everybody in lock step or you kick’em out. This is the harder way because it’s messier.
“We did not want a segment in our church to feel we had done to them what had been done to us by the SBC.”
Those sentiments laid the imprimatur of “moderate Baptist” across Hayes Barton’s shoulders. But those who worried that Hayes Barton was changing, said “moderate Baptist” is not a descriptor on the website. What makes it “moderate?”
As painful as the situation was — and Hailey says, “It shook us. It really shook us” — it prompted Hayes Barton to define itself.
Gaskins, an attorney, says his committee would study the written history of the 90-year-old church “and let history speak and that would kind of be the answer.”
They discovered that issues like robes and candles were practices of many years. “I didn’t realize there was some great secret message to all this,” Cooke says.
Hall says the church has evolved in its 90 years. It didn’t always have women deacons, or female ministers. “I want the big tent. When you’re a moderate church you embrace new things.”
That may be so, says Cooke. But the burden for any big tent church is to have in place a methodology to deal with differences. That raises its own issues.
With a couple of years of perspective behind them, Hayes Barton leaders offer several points of advice to other churches dealing with a bubble of controversy rising in their midst.
First, deal with it quickly. Bring it into the open. Or, as Gaskins says, “The elephant is here. You have to deal with it.”
There is a dilemma with that, says Cooke, because the pastor often learns of an issue when it is shared “in confidence” by a concerned member.
That’s why Hayes Barton would say, secondly, that there needs to be a safe place, a committee, a process to which people with a concern can go — even if it never is used.
Hall admits the process is still not crystal clear. Who invites which people around the table to discuss what concern? How do you inform people there is an issue without making more of the issue than it merits?
Third, deal directly with the issue. While Hayes Barton initially dealt with controversy by saying, “Let’s wait for it to work itself out,” that will not do.
“However you handle it, you have to be early and be proactive,” says Cooke.
Fourth, Hayes Barton established a listening committee, but also turned doctrinal questions over to the denominational relations committee.
Fifth, deacon leaders like Gaskins and Cooke were adamant that they take the weight of dealing with dissenters and ferreting out the issue off the ministerial staff. They recognized staff is ultimately affected but they were relieved of responsibility to research and resolve the issue.
Sixth, it’s more important how things are said than what precisely is being said. The means and mode are more important than the substance of whether you’re right or wrong. Emphasizing that makes reconciliation easier.
Deacon leadership rallying to keep staff out of the conflict “reinvigorated my courage,” Hailey says.
One of the results of the self-study was instituting a new “Membership Matters” class. Hailey’s wife, Susan, leads the class and during the final session of each cycle, invites Hailey in for a “stump the chump” question and answer dialogue.
Invariably, someone will ask the church’s stance on homosexuality.
“I take a breath and say, ‘Would it surprise you if I were to say this church doesn’t have a position on homosexuality?’” he says. “But this church has never taken a stance on divorce, or any of the social issues that you might think are the principal, biblical, moral issues of the day. We believe in soul freedom, the conscience of every believer, that every person has the right to read the Bible for himself or herself. For that reason we have people come down on both sides of that issue.
“Now, if you were to ask me what is the majority opinion of the people in this church, I could tell you the majority would not see homosexuality as an appropriate lifestyle. I can also tell you there are people who love the Lord and read their Bible just as devotedly who would come on the other side of the issue.
“I’m not sure I would have said the same thing before this.”
Hall says the crisis prompted members to want to understand their church more deeply. “The church learned something through this and we more clearly understand who we are,” she says. “I don’t think we have a lot of people with strong Southern Baptist ties anymore.”
“’Moderate’ sounds like we don’t believe anything. We have to define it so it’s clear we stand for things.”
Hailey offers the following succinct definition of “moderate” as embraced at Hayes Barton: “Being ‘Moderate Baptist’ we hold very firmly to our belief in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in the belief that the Bible is inspired of God. But we hold just as firmly to our belief that because we all are free Baptists, we have the opportunity to read the Bible under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that sometimes we have alternative interpretations and that’s OK. We can disagree on certain things and we don’t have to be in lockstep uniformity. We affirm that diversity.”
This is what moderate means, at least at Hayes Barton Baptist Church.
Although committee members are reluctant to declare the potential schism was a “moderate vs. fundamentalist” contest, Hailey says every person who moved his or her membership from Hayes Barton to another Baptist church joined an exclusively SBC church and none had any women ministers on their staff.
Hailey estimates 40 people moved their membership and another 20 stopped coming, but have not joined elsewhere. The number of those who left included several former deacon chairs.
After the self-examination and resettling, 420 people joined Hayes Barton over the next six years, and it has never been stronger financially. And new members are coming with a clear understanding of the kind of church they are joining.
“Conflict is rarely resolved by avoiding and denying it,” says Hailey, who admitted he avoids conflict “at all costs.”
At the same time, he says the situation in his church “was made far worse because I avoided the conflict. I’m learning that when you sense there is conflict, address it. Don’t be afraid to bring it up at a deacon’s meeting or elsewhere. Get it out on the floor and address it.”