NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—-An early retirement package for Jerry Sutton as pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., was approved by the congregation July 27.
The package will include one month’s salary for each of Sutton’s 22 years as the church’s pastor, to be paid over a five and a half-year period.
Church members who voted July 27 approved the retirement package by a 78.8 percent margin, according to a news release from the church later in the day.
The package also includes medical and long-time disability insurance until Sutton, 56, starts a new job or reaches the age of 62.
Sutton, in a July 24 letter to the congregation posted on the church website, told Two Rivers members he hoped they would approve the package.
“Over the last 14 months, we have been involved in a conflict which does not appear will go away,” Sutton said in the letter. “An incredible amount of energy has been expended and consumed handling the conflict. Although we have won court cases and church votes, the conflict continues. Our people are weary, leaders are tired, and those who love Two Rivers honestly want it to end. I do not believe that will happen as long as I am pastor at Two Rivers….
“I hoped it would never have come to this, but it has….
“I am fearful that if you fail to support the motion,” Sutton wrote, “it will simply prolong the conflict and further damage the church’s future. Your voting ‘yes’ does not mean that you do not love me or that I do not love you…. It simply means that a good faith attempt is being made to end this awful situation.”
Andy Dunning, Two Rivers deacon chairman, said in church news releases July 17 and 27, “Church leadership agreed with Dr. Sutton’s view that it is time for the next phase in the life of this church, and in his life as well.”
Dunning said Sutton will preach both morning services on Aug. 3 and a reception will be held that afternoon to honor the Sutton family.
The church has been embroiled in controversy over Sutton’s leadership since July 2007, when a church trustee was removed from membership. A group of about 50 current or former church members filed suit in September, seeking access to detailed financial records and launched a website listing their grievances against the pastor.
In October, church members voted 1,101 to 286 to affirm Sutton as pastor and in January 2008 a judge dismissed the lawsuit but gave the plaintiffs access to records, including meeting minutes and financial documents. On May 4 of this year, a vote to dismiss 71 church members fell four votes shy of passage but that vote was reversed May 11 when the congregation voted to disallow ballots cast by the members who were the subject of that ouster motion.
The church’s human resources committee, budget and finance committee and trustees formulated the retirement package that was presented to the congregation after discussions between Sutton and the church’s lay leadership, according to a July 17 statement released by John N. Levesque, chairman of the congregation’s human resources team.
Statistics provided by the congregation as part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual church profile show that in 1997 Two Rivers’ total membership was 6,406, with average worship attendance of 1,963 and 167 baptisms. Total receipts were just over $5 million. In 2007, total membership was 6,900, average worship attendance 1,621 with baptisms of 106. Total receipts stood at nearly $4.4 million in 2007.
Two Rivers’ 2007-08 budget is running more than $400,000 short and the proposed $3.4 million budget for the upcoming year is $600,000 less than last year, The Tennesseean newspaper reported from information available in the church lobby July 27.
Levesque told The Tennessean the church provided severance pay to three staff members recently laid off. “We know where we are financially,” Leversque told the paper. “That’s why the retirement plan will be paid out over five years.”
Sutton, who has served the 45-year-old congregation church since 1986, is a former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention (2005-06) and has written three books: “The Baptist Reformation,” “The Way Back Home” and “A Matter of Conviction: A History of Southern Baptist Engagement with the Culture.”
Compiled by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston & assistant editor Mark Kelly.