The story swirled around social media and online news outlets the first week of August, capturing attention well beyond its rural southwest Alabama city limits near the Mississippi line.
Mount Sterling Baptist Church, Butler, and its recently terminated 26-year-old pastor, Jonathan Greer, ended their relationship harshly July 31 — for all the world to see, literally.
Most church conflicts in Baptist life are handled privately because of the local church autonomy polity followed by Baptists, but with social media and the new era of citizen journalism, Mount Sterling Baptist’s congregation won’t get that luxury.
The Alabama Baptisthas confirmed there was conflict between the pastor and at least one of the church leaders prior to the 31–0 vote to terminate him.
The 162-year-old church reports a membership of 132 with an average Sunday attendance of 40. Greer had been pastor for 18 months when he and church leadership allegedly disagreed over Greer’s invitation of area black children to the church’s Vacation Bible School (VBS).
And while many immediately drew a line and forced a standoff between Greer and Mount Sterling, the situation could have ended differently if the main players had slowed down, removed emotions and talked through the disagreement calmly, said several Alabama Baptist leaders.
“This young pastor took a courageous stand in his sermon on racism, but some of the members took offense at his tone and demeanor as he preached,” said Terry Long, director of missions (DOM) for Choctaw Baptist Association. Others described it as “doing the right thing in the wrong way.”
Mount Sterling is a longtime member of Choctaw Association and as a DOM, Long works to build relationships with all the pastors and to be a resource for them.
Both sides made mistakes but “nothing the pastor did was worthy of dismissal,” Long said. “In fact, he stood valiantly for the truth.”
It basically boils down to one or possibly a few church leaders who took issue with the pastor over several concerns (not visiting church members enough, not working with the deacons and allegedly going against a request not to invite black children to VBS).
But when Greer chose to preach about racism and the need for everyone to repent during his July 24 sermon, he came across as overly harsh and angry, Long said, noting Greer is a young pastor at his first church.
Before taking some private time away with his family, Greer told Baptist Press he apologized publically and privately for broadly classifying the congregation as racist in his sermon.
“I didn’t realize that there were more people in the church … that were OK with people [of all races] coming,” Greer said. “And in my sermon, I didn’t account for that. I kind of lumped everyone together.”
Whether Greer can reconcile with individual church members remains to be seen.
And how Choctaw County will weather a media-influenced stereotype that racism is prevalent in the area will be part of Long’s challenge going forward as he attempts to prove the blanket assumption wrong.
“This recent situation is atypical of our county and its churches,” Long said. “Choctaw County Baptist Association stands with the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention on deploring racism of all forms and welcomes everyone.
“At our annual meeting in October 2015 the churches in this association voted unanimously to accept its first African American church — Christian Fellowship into the association,” Long noted.
During the past couple of decades numerous local Baptist associations have increasingly received predominantly African-American congregations into membership, said Alabama Baptist state leader Rick Lance.
The overwhelming majority of Alabama Baptist and Southern Baptist churches receive people of all races, he said. “They recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for ‘whosoever will may come.’
“Although we do not know the details of [the Mount Sterling] situation, we are praying for all involved, including the former pastor and the church family,” Lance said.
“We affirm the ministry of the Choctaw Baptist Association and pray for their leaders as they seek healing and reconciliation.” (Debbie Campbell contributed)