2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission from the Dallas Morning News. Originally published in 1998.

EULESS - The message in black letters went up late last year on a sign in front of the low-slung brick church.

"Forgive us," it read.

What started 25 years ago with the first of many small disagreements had ended in a major conflict at North Euless Baptist Church. The nastiness had caused the pastor to leave, split the membership, fractured families, started vicious gossip and at one point nearly prompted a fistfight.

The congregation had dwindled to 50 members - 50 furious members on the brink of closing the church's doors.

Then things changed. Some members think it was the work of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe dawning maturity. Or desperation. Or the sign.

The members of North Euless Baptist Church confessed their sins to one another. They wrote letters to the more than 100 members they had driven out, asking each for forgiveness.

The church was reborn.

"I don't think I've ever in my experience seen a church do what they did, and go well beyond what they could have done," said the Rev. Tony Dyer, a specialist in conflict resolution who was brought in to help the congregation.

North Euless Baptist's troubles were more dramatic than most. But every day, congregations deal with conflicts that prompt clergy to leave under pressure. In the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1986 about 88 pastors per month were fired by their congregations; by 1996, the number had jumped to 140. Other denominations are seeing similar increases.

"All the conflict in our culture is running through our congregations," said Dr. James Wind, president of the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md., a think tank and consulting group for congregations of various faiths. "There's a huge collision of expectations, so congregations become very hospitable environments for conflict."

When Tony Dyer walked into North Euless Baptist Church on a Wednesday night last May, he could feel anger radiating from the members.

"They were ready to shoot each other," he said. "They had their guns out and their fingernails back, and they were ready to go to battle again."

North Euless began as a mission congregation in July 1962. On the church's first Sunday, 39 adults worshiped together. Despite some ups and downs in membership, by the early 1970s, about 300 people regularly came to worship.

Then came the ping-pong scandal.

Someone put a ping-pong table in the social hall, recalled Louise Walton, who, along with her husband and four children, was among the church's first members. Young families thought it was a great idea, but older folks thought it was ungodly. So some of them left in a huff.

Membership rebounded, but, looking back, members say, it was a sign of things to come.

Through the rest of the 1970s and '80s the church went through a three-step dance that became uncomfortably familiar. A loved and respected pastor would stay for several years, followed by a less popular pastor, followed by a transition figure who tried to mend whatever problems had surfaced.

At one point in the early 1980s, for instance, the congregation brought in a pastor who had come from a different denomination and who, members say, didn't clearly understand Baptists. To make matters worse, they say, he visited female members of the congregation in their homes, which led to charges that he was a womanizer.

After nine months, he left. But not before six of the congregation's 11 deacons and a large chunk of the congregation left, too.

In another case, this one during a time in 1993 when North Euless was thriving, Kent and Katie Hopkins found the church. But on the morning they were planning to join, the pastor took them aside and told them he was about to announce his resignation. The Hopkinses went ahead and joined anyway.

Such was the instability that punctuated the church's history.

The following year, North Euless called the Rev. Clark Stricklin to be its pastor. He was 30, a gifted evangelist with a wife and four small children. "He could give the best invitation to bring people to the Lord, but in a church you have to deal with administration and people, and Clark wasn't as good at that," Mr. Hopkins said.

Congregants concluded that their pastor didn't listen well. It didn't seem to matter that he was young. Or that they owed him a chance to work out the kinks in the relationship.

"Some of us weren't mature enough, and I'm guilty," Mrs. Walton said.

"And our fault was that we turned to gossip," said Mrs. Hopkins. "We didn't know how to confront him, and he didn't know how to deal with us."

By the fall of 1996, the whispered criticisms became so overwhelming and the bickering so intense that some of the deacons decided to work out a deal with Mr. Stricklin so he could leave peacefully. Others wanted him out immediately.

Then Mr. Stricklin dropped his own bombshell. On an October Sunday, he unexpectedly announced that he was quitting. At the end of the service, he marched down the aisle and out the front door. He got in his car and left, never to return.

Mr. Stricklin remembers that period with much pain.

"When I first walked into the church, of course I thought it was a great opportunity," he said. "I guess conflict arose within the first few months. I felt the congregation was divided."

Some members, he said, wanted to reach the community and help the church grow; others wanted to remain small and insular. Because his gift was evangelism, his biggest clashes came with those who had a hard time with change.

When Mr. Stricklin left, the turmoil worsened. Now, there was no scapegoat - only one another to turn against.

"Clark may have been the catalyst, but the problem was lack of trust and poor communication skills," Mrs. Hopkins said. "You didn't know what to say to anybody. I had family on both sides of the issue."

By April 1997, the music minister - bright, competent, dedicated and well-loved - offered to act as interim pastor. But the fight was so entrenched that when members voted, they split down the middle, 33-33.

"The turmoil developed a life of its own," Mr. Hopkins said. At one meeting, he said, the treasurer rose to accuse members of not giving enough money to the church. "I told him to sit down and he told me to sit down," Mr. Hopkins said. They had to quickly adjourn.

Seven of the 11 deacons quit.

The Hopkinses considered leaving the church but stayed because their granddaughter, whom they are rearing, loved the day-care center.

Mrs. Walton considered quitting but didn't because she had spent her entire adult life there.

Then Mr. Dyer arrived last spring. As he walked them through the stepsof reconciliation, members began to see a new vision for their congregation.

He started slowly, preaching about peacemaking and reconciliation, teaching Sunday school classes on conflict, dealing with people's anger during counseling. He rebuilt relationships among members, who gradually grew to trust him.

He also helped them build a 50-foot time line of the church's history, stretching back to its start 36 years ago. They pasted the time line along the main hallway, just inside the front door for all to see. Members brought in magazine clippings depicting world events that had occurred since the church was formed, including the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King's funeral, the Challenger explosion and Princess Diana's death. They added newspaper stories about the comings and goings of the church's pastors, of missionaries, of a live Nativity scene that North Euless had put on. Also included were photographs of the various pastors and members.

Mr. Dyer asked members for index cards recalling memories of the church's past. He also wanted them to write the three most important things they each needed to do to get the church back on track.

What emerged was the realization that the latest controversy at North Euless rested on a foundation of shorter, less-intense conflicts from which the church had seemingly been able to rebound.

By late October, Mr. Dyer decided they were ready to spend time together in a retreat. "They were pretty nervous," he said. "They were afraid I'd put out all the gory details again."

During the three-day retreat, 54 adults came together. At the end of the gathering, Mr. Dyer stood before them to talk about apologies and forgiveness.

Suddenly, Don Hazard, a deacon who'd quit earlier in the year, rose and started talking. "I apologized to the entire congregation," he said.

He told them he had been too blunt and opinionated. That he'd said things that hurt a lot of people.

Then he apologized to Mr. Hopkins, and the two embraced, crying. "At that point, I don't really know what happened," Mr. Hazard said.

Soon, people were walking up to one another, weeping and hugging and saying "I'm sorry."

Mr. Dyer was dumbfounded. "I just sat down, and for the next two hours it had a life of its own," he said. "That is God. ... You don't have those experiences without a moving of the Holy Spirit."

The next morning, he said, members came to Sunday services almost giddy with excitement. Their happiness and sense of purpose haven't yet faded. But they also continue to hold one another accountable.

"I'd like to say we don't have any dissension right now, but that would probably be a false statement," said Mr. Hazard, who has returned to the deacons' board. "For the most part, though, everyone is ready to move forward. I don't think it's all going to be a bed of roses, but I think you'll start to see positive activity coming from that church."

These days, Mr. Stricklin, the former pastor, is starting a mission church near Cedar Hill and working with his brother at their carpet-cleaning business. He worries that the experience at North Euless will make it hard for him to find another church.

But recently, one of the deacons called.

The members of North Euless Baptist Church finally wanted to talk with their former pastor.

They got together this week.

And the members said, "We're sorry."

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