It's pastor vs. parishioner in a struggle between the Bible and the bottom line

August 24, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

SPENCERVILLE -- If their pastor has his way, members of Round Oak Missionary Baptist Church will come to church Wednesday evening carrying not Bibles but more worldly texts: W-2 forms, tax returns and pay stubs.

The historic Montgomery County church off Route 198, just south of the Howard County line, is marking its 125th anniversary this year. But there hasn't been much room for rejoicing.

Round Oak is more than $153,000 in arrears on its debt payments; a group of dissidents has twice voted to oust the pastor to no avail; the pastor has retaliated by drumming critics out of the choir; and the whole mess has landed in Montgomery County Circuit Court.

At issue is the stewardship of the Rev. Lionel P. Pointer Jr., 44, Round Oak's pastor since 1976. Mr. Pointer, by all accounts a gifted preacher, has built a small rural congregation into a substantial parish that is home to affluent suburban professionals.

But disgruntled parishioners who are suing Mr. Pointer say that the pastor has assumed near-dictatorial powers, mismanaged church funds and led Round Oak to the brink of financial disaster.

The pastor's defenders contend that the church wouldn't be in financial difficulties if members gave generously -- a tithe, or 10 percent of their incomes.

And Mr. Pointer's partisans say one more thing: The devil is at work at Round Oak church.

"Satan is a conniving spirit and, if he can cause havoc within a church, then he's riding high," says Brenda Davis, who volunteers as church clerk.

Wednesday's meeting is a showdown between pro- and anti-Pointer forces. The congregation is set to take a vote of confidence in the pastor, who would not comment on the dispute.

But first, the crucial question of who is eligible to vote must be decided. And that is where W-2 forms, tax returns and pay stubs come in.

Only members in good standing will be allowed to vote. To be such a member, one must document that he gives 10 percent of personal income to Round Oak church, under new church bylaws approved Aug. 8 by the pastor and his loyal board of directors.

Treasurer defends rule

Archie S. Israel Sr., the church treasurer and a director, says that most members of the congregation are prosperous enough to tithe and, moreover, are obliged by Scripture to do so. Demanding proof of income is simply a way of ascertaining that members tithe, he says.

"God said bring ye the tithes and offerings into my house," agrees Brenda Davis. "That's not Pastor Pointer or Round Oak Missionary Baptist Church speaking. That's God's word."

But Members of Round Oak for Meaningful and Positive Change, the dissident group that took Mr. Pointer to court to demand a financial accounting, says that being forced to bring W-2 forms to church is more cult-like than Christian.

"I think it's pretty far afield, quite lunatic-fringe behavior," says Arnold Jackson, a federal government executive and former member of Round Oak's finance committee. "There's nothing farther away from what you would expect of a spiritual-based institution than that."

Yes, it is unusual

Louise McClellan, administrative director of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., the Nashville-based denomination to which Round Oak belongs, says that demanding proof of income is clearly unusual.

"Nationally, there is not a standard [for giving]. We try to teach and preach tithing. Every church is self-governing, but I've never heard of that [demanding W-2s] before," she says. But, citing the church's autonomy, Ms. McClellan says that officials of the 7.8 million-member denomination would not intervene in the Round Oak dispute unless invited to mediate.

The split in the congregation has grown more bitter as the summer has progressed.

The dissidents filed suit in May, but the Montgomery County judges who have ruled on motions in the case have been reluctant to intervene in church affairs. Then the critics twice voted Mr. Pointer out, first in June and then in July, but the pastor refused to recognize the result of either action.

"This church has divided," laments Rita Dennis, a bank employee who joined Round Oak eight years ago after hearing Mr. Pointer preach. "The love that was there is no longer there. Certain members won't talk to you now. I go every Sunday, I sit there, and when I've had enough of his belittling people [in sermons], I get up and I leave. He wants us to leave."

The pastor retaliated last month with a letter barring dissidents from ushering, singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school or cooking in the church kitchen because of "the grievous damage done to the name of Jesus as manifested in acts against this body of believers."

"It is my prayer," Mr. Pointer wrote, "that you will repent and seek forgiveness of those whom you have wounded greatly."

To which Jean Proctor, a real estate agent who got one of the letters, says: "That's the stuff that cults are made of."

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