The newly appointed pastor of First Baptist Church, West Palm Beach, Florida resigned in disgrace last week. He came to the church with a great deal of promise and high praise from key leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention. Only 40 years old, Steven Flockhart appeared to be riding the wave of popularity and status that comes with being pastor of a megachurch.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not happy about his demise or the pain that this church will be living through for some time. It’s going to be a while before the church is able to get back on track with its mission and ministry. Plus, living through the embarrassment this incident has caused not only locally but nationally will be difficult. What’s aggravating is how this situation chould have been avoided in the first place. A pastor search committee with the means of First Baptist Church should have been able to check the background of their prospective pastor. Even Kevin Mahoney, their Executive Pastor during the three year interim, showed dismay at the apparent lapse of the committee responsible for bringing Flockhart before the people.
Maybe the search committee got the “he sounds good so he must be good” syndrome. Flockhart had a good track record of increasing the membership rolls of churches. Folks liked his preaching. It wasn’t until the Palm Beach Post did a story on a $162,799 debt he racked up at a church in Georgia that folks began to get suspicious. The church had to sue him to get their money back. This incident led to a deeper investigation into Flockhart’s personal and professional background. Now it has been revealed that he fabricated his resume with misleading statements about his educational accomplishments.
The only problem is that he doesn’t have any educational accomplishments, unless you count a correspondence degree from an unaccredited seminary in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Apparently, some church folks don’t have a problem with that. Walter Woitowicz, member of FBC West Palm Beach, said “Who cares if he graduated from college? He had presence. Show me a perfect church. You won’t find one on this Earth.”
No one would have cared if Flockhart had been honest from the beginning.
The reason I’m chapped about this is that here we have another example of a church not doing its homework and getting burned. Pastor search committees, now more than ever, need to be wary of hiring pastors (and other staff) based solely on the recommendation of a prominent pastor. The whole situation, shameful as it is, provides some painful lessons about life and ministry.
First, all degrees are not equal. In other words, there are times when a “doctor isn’t a real doctor.” Using the medical field as a comparison, I’d want to make sure my physicians had an earned degree diploma hanging on their walls. There’s nothing wrong with honorary degrees, but ministers ought to be honest about their educational creditials. There are too many ministers with a “Dr.” in front of their name. Too many haven’t done the hard work necessary to earn the privilege. In many Baptist churches, ministers aren’t even required to have a certain educational background in order to be on staff. So, how hard is it to write down where you went to school, when you went there, and when you graduated?
Second, pastor search committees need to do their work. Unfortunately, many churches select the more popular members rather than the more competent ones. Plus, one hopes that you won’t have to activate a search committee that often. It’s hard to imagine FBC West Palm Beach searching for a pastor for three years and finding one with no real credentials other than he was friends with prominent pastors in the SBC. Call the schools on the resume. Find out graduate dates. Do the background checks. Assume nothing. There is too much at stake.
Third, local church autonomy has its privileges and responsibilities. No one tells a Baptist church what to do, and if they do, the church still has the right to make its own decisions. So, each church can call and ordain its own staff and conduct its own business freely. On the other hand, this means there is no one to blame other than the church for bringing a pastor in who has serious baggage. Our church folks need to educated that some ministers aren’t all they are hyped up to be.
Finally, integrity still counts. The FBC West Palm Beach scenario has been played out numerous times before. Still, this is a church with educated and professional people. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. Churches get caught up in the courtship of a new pastor and can overlook critical character flaws all because “he preaches good.” There are many ministers who work hard to get an honest education and serve in remote places without the attention a megachurch offers. We ought to recognize these men and women for their honesty and work ethic. Numbers 32:23 reminds us that “you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” Sounding good isn’t the same as being good. May God help us to be both.