Church rift reduces two pastors to none

Resignations: Second Presbyterian's attempt at shared leadership backfires, leaving bitter feelings.

August 29, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Second Presbyterian Church, with its tall steeple, brick facade and white columns, stands as a bastion of godliness in the heart of Guilford.

But its walls belie the turmoil within. A bitter dispute over the leadership of the nearly 200-year-old church on St. Paul Street has split the congregation and resulted in the forced resignations of its co-pastors.

The Rev. Ernest Ross Duncan Smart, 62, a native of Scotland who has occupied the Second Presbyterian pulpit for 18 years, will deliver his last sermon today. He has been made to step down, despite the support of the majority of the approximately 1,000-member congregation.

The Rev. Christa Fuller Burns, 49, who was hired three years ago to assume the newly created co-pastor's post, is gone. She submitted her resignation in May.

It is a resolution that pleases no one in the Presbytery's third-largest congregation, which has some families that have worshiped there for four generations. Feelings are raw, friendships have been ruined, some members don't speak and others have vowed never again to darken the church's door.

"We're walking away. I'm ashamed to be called a Presbyterian," said Clauson Smoot, a member of the congregation's board of trustees who supports Smart. "After 18 years of service to this church and building up one of the most successful churches [in North Baltimore], it's a crime."

No one touched by the controversy has come away unscathed.

"This is probably the closest any of us will come to the cross of Christ," says a report issued this month by a commission of the Presbytery of Baltimore, the local ruling body of the Presbyterian Church, which intervened when the dispute could not be resolved. "All of the masks have been stripped away. Pious platitudes are of no use in situations like these. There is only the caldron of stark reality where all the defenses people normally depend upon are absolutely impotent to provide easy direction or resolution."

Concerns arose early

The trouble at Second Presbyterian apparently began in 1996 with the idea for a co-pastorate, an arrangement the Presbytery now concedes was ill-conceived.

"While hindsight may be clear, it is still appropriate to note that the Presbytery should have acted upon its concern at the time when the idea of the co-pastorate was considered and presented," the investigative report says.

The idea to seek new leadership at the church, those involved say, was born out of changes in the congregation.

Traditionally a church attended by the "old money" of Guilford, a significant number of members had joined in recent years who had moved into the area, were younger than the majority of the congregation and were raising children. A survey of the congregation indicated that some wanted more programs for youth and young adults, a more contemporary style of preaching and more visible leadership roles for women.

"The church has a lot of older members," said Raymond M. Atkins, an attorney who supports Smart and has been a congregation member since he was a child. "There have been a lot of younger people coming in, and I suppose the thought was to be supportive of this younger element."

A search committee looking for an associate pastor reported that it could not find a candidate with the sought-after qualifications.

Attention then focused on Burns, who had previously served at Second Presbyterian under Smart as an interim associate pastor. Burns was at the point of her career where she was ready to pastor a church, so to hire her, the committee conceived of the co-pastorate. She was elected to the position by the congregation in April 1996.

By fall 1997, the arrangement had become unworkable. The church staff informed the clerk of the Session, who is the leader of the congregation's governing body, that the co-pastors were not communicating well with each other.

Over the next year, first the clerk and then other members of the Session began meeting with Smart and Burns to mediate. But they could not resolve the dispute.

Finally, in February, the Session's personnel committee began to consider dissolving the co-pastorate. The Presbytery was asked to come in and offer its advice. A consultant specializing in conflict resolution was hired.

By May, the Session decided to bring the matter to the congregation. Members of the Session drafted a motion, calling on both Smart and Burns to resign, and put it before the congregation for a vote.

But a majority of the congregation had a different idea. A member introduced a substitute motion to accept Burns' resignation but to retain Smart as pastor. The motion was approved by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.

A second upheaval

Many in the congregation figured the matter was settled and things would go back to the way they were before Burns' arrival. But the Presbytery formed an administrative committee in June, which investigated the conflict at Second Presbyterian, and in its report, called for Smart's removal.

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