Co-founder could siphon off flock, start new congregation
Bellevue Community Church has a casual, inviting air that attracts 2,500 worshippers a weekend — a so-called megachurch where many come wearing jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops.
They sip Starbucks coffee in the food court-style church lobby and listen to a service with rock and popular music accompanying a down-to-earth Christian message of hope. Call it Christianity for the Ipod generation.
But behind the scenes of this contemporary, laid-back house of worship a timeless power struggle has been playing out for the past 13 months. It awkwardly burst into public view over the weekend as news spread that a seven-member board of church elders had fired the charismatic founding pastor David Foster, along with his wife, Paula, the head of youth ministries.
The relationships are so frayed between the sides that Foster and a close ally, Craig Barber, a church member, say they were told by Metro police, acting on behalf of church leadership, that they could not enter the church for services this weekend.
Foster’s key card to the church has been voided and his e-mail shut down, and he was left Sunday with the option of gathering with scores of congregants at the Red Caboose Park in Bellevue to tell his side of the story.
Foster said the conflict had embarrassed everybody involved and done a disservice to the church. He and his supporters want a vote taken by the entire congregation on his future. Up, he stays. Down, he’ll go and determine his next move. If those among the flock want him to, he may start another church. Such a move was one of the things church elders wanted to prevent by including a one-year non-compete clause in the severance package they offered him, he said.
Foster wants a chance to have both sides stand before the congregation and tell their stories.
“Let(the elders) make their statements and say this is why we think Dave needed to go,” Foster said. “Then let me have a chance to tell my side. Then trust the heart of the people.”
Left in the breach is a stunned congregation that is confused, angry and looking for answers as to why their popular preacher was fired without more public debate. The church’s four weekend services were used by elders to announce their decision, but many congregants said they had been unaware of a problem.
“Unfortunately, I think the elders have gotten caught up in power and politics,” said Love Lea Woodard, who has been attending the megachurch since 1999. “I really think they should stand up and tell the church what their problems were with David. I want to hear both sides. We want to hear David Foster’s side and the elders’ side. I still hope this can be mended.”
Elder Richard McKinney was the chief spokesman for the board. The elders used the brief service to speak generally about problems with Foster’s leadership, but the explanation was short on specifics.
McKinney told the congregation that concerns over Foster had started in June 2005. He said that when the Fosters were confronted with a relatively minor operational issue by one of the elders, the couple threatened to quit the church.
Foster said he never made a direct threat to leave.
McKinney said he was not aware of Foster’s having been barred from the church.
Some elders interpreted an e-mail that Barber sent telling them to be careful about what they said about Foster as a threat of litigation. Barber said that wasn’t his intent.
McKinney said there were “personal, relationship and leadership issues” that had become “a grave concern to all of us.” It centered on Foster’s style and interpersonal dealings with staff, McKinney said.
McKinney, flanked on the church stage by current and past elders, said the decision was unanimous. He said the current elders met Thursday with the eight past elders still with the church and that they all agreed this was the best course for the church. “We were concerned about some personal issues around his leadership that had undermined his moral authority,” he said.
The church got its start in 1989 after Foster, a former Baptist preacher, and his wife were eating breakfast in a restaurant in Johnson City in East Tennessee and listed five cities on the back of a napkin where they could start a church. They chose Nashville and launched the church with nine other adults. For years, the group met at Bellevue Middle School before moving into a 280-acre church campus called Hope Park.
Over the past year, the elders had been trying to work out a scenario in which a head pastor would be hired to lead and handle day-to-day management, while Foster would stay on as founding pastor, McKinney said.
Foster said he was willing to work with the elders. He had sought counseling to address any concerns over his management style and dealings with staff. He said he wanted to remain the head pastor while hiring an executive pastor to work under him and manage the day-to-day administration of the church.
He said that when those talks broke down, the two sides had discussed a severance package. It would have included, Foster said, the one-year non-compete clause in which he could not preach in Nashville and an agreement that he would state that he was leaving the church willingly.
He said that stating such would have been a lie and that he couldn’t do it. He said he would continue to lead a church somewhere if the people want him to.
“I came here with a dream and a calling,” Foster said. “The elders can’t turn that on or off.”
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