We moved away from the ranch when my mother married my step-father. For ten years, I lived in Largo, an exploding suburb of St. Petersburg. It was at the First Baptist Church of Largo that I made my profession of faith and was baptized.
Because Baptists believe in the priesthood of believers, at that time baptized church members no matter their age could attend church conference and vote. At eight years old, my vote carried the same weight as my parents.
I was a weird kid; church conference fascinated me. Normally calm men would get red in the face as they struggled to hold back words. I think I knew what words they wanted to say; I’d heard them in the cowpens. Timid women would forget Paul’s injunction to keep silent in church and would stand up to lambast Deacons, Music Directors, and the Preacher’s wife. If you didn’t have a dog in the fight, a Baptist business meeting in late 60’s was better than anything on television for raw entertainment value.
I must have been about eleven when I sat with Mama at a church conference one Wednesday night. Pop was there too, which was unusual; that should have been my first clue that something was up. Roy Attaway, a good friend of my parents went forward to make a motion declaring “no-confidence” in the preacher. I’d never heard this phrase before. I wasn’t sure what “no-confidence” meant, but I could tell by Mr. Roy’s tone, he didn’t like the preacher.
I leaned over to ask Mama what “no-confidence” meant and she shushed me. When Mama shushed, she meant it. So, I leaned over to my friend Charles Brown and whispered my question to him. Before he could answer me, Mama grabbed my ear and yanked me back to her side (which is why to this day, my left ear lobe is longer than my right).
People got up and said nice things about the preacher, followed by people who got up and said not so nice things about the preacher. As best I could follow, some folks were upset that the preacher always insisting on his way, and they didn’t like his way. I looked at my parents and could tell by their nodding, they were on the side of people who didn’t like the way the Preacher was doing things.
When Baptists get up a head of steam, a church conference can last a long, long time. The meeting had started at 6:30; it was drawing close to 9:30, way past my bedtime. Still the entertainment value was high. The drama was better than “The NBC Mystery Theater” on TV that night.
Someone finally called for the vote. It was carefully explained by the Preacher (who was the moderator – awkward) that a “yes” vote meant a vote of “no-confidence,” and a “no” vote meant you approved of the preacher (Baptists would later go on to write many parts of the IRS tax code). My parents raised their hands to vote “yes.” It was then I realized I could vote too.
I didn’t particularly like the preacher, but I didn’t dislike him either. To my eleven-year old mind, I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t think he ought to be fired. It wasn’t like he was caught sniffing glue, or sneaking a peek at a Playboy. It was just that he and the other grownups didn’t agree. I understood that. I didn’t agree with grownups very much either.
My mother reached over and tried to raise my hand for me. I snatched it away. When the vote for the “no’s” occurred, I raised my hand. My mother gave a me look that said, “Wait till we get home, young man.”
As I recall the vote ended up failing by five votes. On the way home, my mother said, “Why did you vote the same way Charles Brown voted? Don’t you think I know more than he does?” I recognized the danger in those questions, and wisely left them unanswered. Then I spoke the truth, “I voted the way I voted because it seemed right to me.”
I mark that night as the first time I learned some people think church is about winning and losing. Maybe my parents had a point; maybe the Preacher was a little hard-headed. Still, I wondered then, and wonder now, why didn’t they just get together and talk about it? Maybe even pray about it? Why did it have to come down to winning and losing?
Too many churches make dumb decisions because they think every decision must have winners and losers. Funny, I don’t remember Jesus talking much about winning and losing in the church. I remember a lot of stuff about love, and serving, and making sure we follow Jesus. Maybe if we stuck to that, we’d be a lot better off.
My parents are gone now; the Preacher in question is still alive and is my friend on Facebook; and First Baptist Largo no longer exists. I myself narrowly escaped a group that wanted to fire me at a church in Kentucky for some reason or other.
Still, I think back to the night they wanted to fire the Preacher. The biggest lesson I learned? You can be all grown up and still not really do what Jesus wants you to do.