On Friday evening, Jan. 24, I was walking into Strickland Funeral Home in Springfield when I met my colleague Pastor Bob Rogers from First Baptist Church of Rincon walking out. We exchanged pleasantries, as we always did, and then parted. I remember thinking as I walked into Strickland’s, “Bob doesn’t look so great. I wonder if he’s OK.” I regret not turning back around and asking him exactly that.
I always liked Brother Bob. We may have differed on issues such as the alcohol referendum, but so what? If Brother Bob ever felt our differences meant we weren’t both working on the same team, he never expressed that to me. I certainly never felt that way. Pastor Rogers was always pleasant and friendly to me, and I tried to be likewise to him.
Less than 48 hours later, a statement from Pastor Rogers was read to his congregation. According to congregants who were present, in the statement, Brother Bob explained that he had committed a moral sin and must resign. Pastor Rogers was not there. He had left town suddenly, after 14 years of what clearly has been a successful ministry in Effingham, developing the first of what may be termed a mega-church in this county. I’m not sure I ever spoke to any congregant of First Baptist who didn’t love the guy.
Now, I can live my life perfectly well without knowing the specifics of Brother Bob’s sin. In fact, upon hearing this news I assumed he had truly repented of whatever he’d done, had realized the error of his actions, and was making a 180-degree turn back toward God (as opposed to admitting his sin simply because he was “caught”). After all, if Pastor Rogers is a repentant sinner, then he deserves the same forgiveness he has described to his congregation over the years, does he not?
We pastors are human. So, that Pastor Rogers has sinned only underscores how often we pastors miss the mark as well. While I feel terrible for the hurt feelings and sense of betrayal this may cause among congregants at First Baptist, the fact is that this kind of thing is not terribly uncommon, and pastors and congregations can often rise above it with humility, forthrightness, transparency, integrity, and some painful, hard work.
I have received countless calls, emails, and texts about this issue since Jan. 26, the date of “Statement-Gate.” I have refrained from commenting, because frankly, the leaders of First Baptist can address this issue themselves if they feel the need to do so. However, I am then asked, “OK, but what should be done in this situation?” That is something I feel I can address.
While I do not like saying this, it seems to me that the manner in which Brother Bob departed the church seems to betray any concept of humility, forthrightness, transparency, integrity, and painful, hard work. Again, I am not part of First Baptist, and perhaps some folks might see this somewhat critical view as inappropriate or even a cheap parting shot. I promise that is not where I am coming from.
I just think that in a situation like this, the congregation needs an explanation — from the pastor himself! And if the deacons insisted the pastor not address the congregation, then Brother Bob — as the pastor — should have insisted he speak to his flock. Fess up to the people you have harmed — directly and in person; isn’t that what we teach? Even our children know the importance of such an eye-to-eye, interpersonal confession.
And for a pastor, my goodness, I do not think this is optional; it is an obligation. I have no idea if that decision was the deacons’ or the pastor’s, but it was a bad call. No offense intended; that is simply the truth. I say that with respect for the fact that the deacons did not choose this problem and were simply trying to respond to it.
Now if the “it’s just the right thing to do” rationale does not sway you, there is another important reason for such a direct address.
You see, if we are doing our job, we pastors use the Word of God to not only comfort the disturbed but also disturb the comfortable. In our explanations of scripture we use words that will, we hope, pierce members’ souls and get them thinking about themselves and their relationship with God.
Congregants entrust that we have their best interest at heart when they allow us to hit them with no gloves, disturb them, shake them at their core, and have them take a hard, honest look in the mirror. We do that from the safety of the pulpit. We never know how much we pierce someone’s soul and bring about feelings and emotions they have to wrestle with.
Further, when we find that a member of our congregation is involved in destructive behavior (which all sin is), do we read them a statement? No. We go directly to them, look them in the eyes and get down to brass tacks. It’s very tough on the member, and trust me, it’s no fun for us. But it simply must be done — or a lot of people will end up being hurt.
And turnabout is fair play, isn’t it? When it’s time for us to confess our sins to those who have entrusted us with their spiritual care, we need to be transparent and humble enough to lay our souls bare, be truly repentant, look our congregants square in their eyes and say, from the bottom of our heart, “I’m sorry.” Never underestimate the healing power of a truly sincere, tear-filled, “I’m sorry” — person-to-person, live and in color.
I believe Brother Bob’s congregants may have been cheated out of the opportunity to get that heartfelt apology in person. (I might argue that Brother Bob was cheated out of that as well.) I hope none of them wonder if Pastor Rogers was a fraud all along. He was not.
Bob Rogers is a talented pastor; he is creative, a good preacher and teacher. Perhaps someday, after a good bit of painful, hard work, he will again share his gifts with a congregation. And if anyone in any church reads this and shudders, then they have not read the Bible. No one who is repentant and seeking God is beyond His love, care, and redemption — no matter what they have done. I leave that to God; I am simply incapable of making that call for Him.
My wish for Bother Bob is that he finds the forgiveness he has preached about for 14 years. With a sorrowful and repentant hear, I know he will receive it from God. I just wish he would have had the chance to have received it from the good folks at First Baptist Church of Rincon.
Rev. Dr. Bob LeFavi, is pastor at Bethel Lutheran Church, Springfield.