WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - "Give 'em an inch," said Don Partridge, "and they'll always take a mile. Give 'em even a quarter of an inch-and they'll still take that mile."
Mr. Partridge was munching on a danish at Jack's Donut Shop just a block down the street from East Waynesville Baptist Church-which last week was easily the most famous congregation in all of North Carolina, and maybe in the nation. Mr. Partridge had traveled north to play golf-as he does every spring and summer-from Fort Lauderdale.
But with a cup of black coffee in his left hand, he pointed disgustedly to the front-page headlines in a local paper, which reported that Rev. Chan Chandler had resigned the evening before from his embattled role as pastor of the East Waynesville church. "Check it out," said Mr. Partridge. "I'll tell you it's not as simple as the newspaper makes it out to be."
Newspaper accounts had indeed been pretty black and white for a whole week. So had the stories on TV-not only locally, but even those picked up by national outlets like ABC's Good Morning America, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. By those accounts, Mr. Chandler, a 33-year-old pastor still finishing his master's degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, had engineered the excommunication of nine of his faithful members for the "sin" (that was the dark word used by the local CBS station) of voting last November for John Kerry instead of George W. Bush. Some reports simplified it even further, claiming that the expulsions had been accomplished by a group of Republicans eager to kick Democrats out of the church.
But Mr. Partridge, who said he is "a Bible-believing Baptist" himself, and a deacon in his home church in Florida, was right when he said the mainstream media had badly garbled the story.
He may also have been astute when he talked about the danger of "giving 'em an inch." For even many of Mr. Chandler's friends and supporters say they might not have said things just the way their pastor did last October. After preaching bluntly about the sin of abortion, Mr. Chandler reportedly followed up by coming down from the pulpit and offering an invitation-a regular practice in his ministry. As part of that invitation, according to several who were there that day, he said that anyone who was supportive of the practice of abortion-or supportive of politicians who backed abortion-should either repent or leave the church.
Some say he specifically referenced John Kerry, while others don't remember Mr. Kerry's name being mentioned. Mr. Chandler says he has also mentioned the names of two Republicans whose views he says "are out of step with the Bible."
Details of what happened in the months since then are hotly disputed. Chandler critics say their pastor deliberately polarized the congregation, telling them, "This is going to be a political church." Chandler defenders back their pastor when he says simply that "the gospel of the Bible has implications for all of life-and that is a new thought to a lot of people, even those who have sat in the pews of our churches for many years. Too many Southern Baptists have been taught for decades that religion and politics should never mix."
By Sunday, May 1, the two sides of the 100-member congregation visibly entrenched, Mr. Chandler announced a meeting of the church deacons the following evening-and took the unusual step of inviting as many members as might like to come.
At that meeting, attended by 40 people or so, Mr. Chandler encouraged the adoption of a policy statement committing the church to a ministry featuring the gospel as affecting all of life-including public-policy issues. The pastor says the evening's ground rules were clear to all: If those who were unhappy with that emphasis in Mr. Chandler's ministry could garner a simple majority, Mr. Chandler would leave his post as pastor. Instead, a clear majority of the group rallied to his cause.
But to nine of the members, such support constituted a declaration of political partisanship. All nine walked out. "We could have gotten more to come if we had known how important it was," said Margaret Biddix, who has been a member for 26 years. She told WORLD: "We just didn't realize that when he said we were going to be a political church he meant we were going to be a Republican church."
"I don't know how these folks voted," Mr. Chandler told WORLD and Baptist Press. "And I never endorsed any candidate."
But for the mainstream media, a high-handed preacher made far better copy than a mere walkout by a disgruntled minority. "Bush foes told to leave church," read a Chicago Tribune headline.
Mr. Chandler tried to make things clear with a public statement: "This church fellowships with all who embrace the authority and application of the Bible regardless of political affiliation, including current members who align themselves with both major political parties, as well as those who affiliate with no political party. No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual's support or lack of support for a political party or candidate."
But headlines around the nation-and overseas in places like The London Telegraph-held to their oversimplified version. Americans United for Separation of Church and State director Barry Lynn sent a letter to the IRS-the day before the scheduled church meeting where Mr. Chandler resigned-asking the agency to review the church's tax-exempt status.
Some residents of Waynesville (population: 7,300) say they are embarrassed by Mr. Chandler's behavior. Others say they are angry at the media's misrepresentations of their town and what has happened there. Is it hard to be misunderstood in the small town where you grew up? "I wasn't misunderstood," the feisty pastor told WORLD. "I was deliberately misrepresented."
But precisely to show that he's not bitter about all that has happened-even after winning the vote last week-Mr. Chandler encouraged his supporters to walk away and leave the church and its property to their critics. Ironically, they're a group of people with little stomach for politics.
Hard times at Hollywood
First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood, long an influential evangelical powerhouse, has fallen on hard times. It is now under the temporary control of an administrative commission appointed by the Presbytery of the Pacific (Presbyterian Church U.S.A.). Its two main pastors-Alan Meenan and David Manock-have been placed on paid leave while the commission works at trying to fix finances and restore unity in the congregation.
In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood Presbyterian, as it is popularly known, counted some 8,000 members, many of whom drove long distances to attend. Then led by Pastor Louis Evans, it was the spiritual seedbed for Henrietta Mears, Gospel Light publishing house, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade, and a host of other luminaries and ministries. Lloyd Ogilvie served as pastor for years before taking up duties as U.S. Senate chaplain.
In time, however, many of the Sunday commuters chose to attend churches closer to home. The Hollywood neighborhood changed: Property deteriorated, and low-income non-Protestant immigrants settled into neighborhoods around the church. Sunday attendance dipped below 1,500 and income slumped, but church leaders were reluctant to trim programs and the large staff. Deficits piled up-$840,000 last year alone. Some congregational leaders complained of ongoing inept fiscal management. They differed with the pastors on which programs and staff members to cut, and whether part of the church campus should be sold.
The dissidents took their complaints to the presbytery last year. Remarkably, the vast majority of congregants remained unaware of the bickering by insiders and the severity of the crisis until things came to a head last month. That's when presbytery leaders recommended takeover of the church and demanded the ouster of Pastors Meenan and Manock. The full presbytery on May 3 concurred on the takeover but not the dismissals. In an obvious prearrangement, its administrative commission placed the pastors on paid leave and began working with Hollywood's governing body to right the boat. It also banned public comment by the pastors and other staff.
-Edward E. Plowman