On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, expelled four churches. Two were voted out for employing pastors convicted of sexual crimes involving minors. But the other two—Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, and St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky—were found to be out of step with the SBC for “affirming homosexual behavior.”
To understand what drove a small church to break with tradition, Slate spoke with Jim Conrad, the pastor of Towne View, the day after his church’s expulsion. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Olmstead: How did this all start?
Jim Conrad: In May of 2019, a man emailed me and said that he and his partner were gay, they were going to be moving to the area from out of state, and they were looking to provide for their three sons the kind of experiences in church that they’d had growing up. Our church had just not encountered that before.
So we talked, and he just point blank asked me the question: Will my family be welcome in your church? I’ve never had anybody ask me that question before, but I knew in my heart I couldn’t say no. So I said, “Why don’t we let you guys come and worship with us? See how that goes. Then we’ll get you involved in a small group Bible study and get the boys in Sunday school and let you get to know some other younger adults in a smaller setting. And then if you feel like this is right—to talk about membership—then I’m going to want to do my homework.”
There was nothing in our bylaws that would prohibit it; it just hadn’t been addressed. So we got to that point, and toward the end of the summer, I shared with our deacons, who also serve as our membership committee, my story of my evolution on the issue of the LGBT community and faith, and that I would be recommending to them that we adopt a policy that would explicitly state that we would welcome anybody as members who profess Jesus as Lord regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
What was the story of your personal evolution?
My earliest churches taught a traditional perspective that homosexuality is a sinful wrong. I grew up in South Florida during the time Anita Bryant was leading [anti-gay] protests, and I was a teenager just wondering why this one sin was garnering so much more attention than others. I got a little older and began encountering people whose lived experience was that it was not a choice; it was just who they were. And some of them were believers. And that really left me scratching my head.
Several years ago, the Pulse nightclub shooting jarred me as a pastor. And I addressed that in my Father’s Day sermon the next morning—that we’ve got to stop the hate and the violence against the gay community. And so all that came together to lead me to that point of saying, OK, this is where I am. And if the church goes with me on this, great. And if it doesn’t, then I’ll probably be looking for another job.
What happened after you approached the church with your position?
Over the next several weeks, we had congregational meetings, which very few of the folks who were opposed to it chose to participate in. We are a Baptist Church, so we vote on these sorts of things. And it was approved by about a 70 percent majority. About a third of our participants left. And the rest of those that stayed were excited about being in a church that had made clear their commitment to this issue. And so then we started rebuilding.
What did you hear from people who stayed?
That they were proud of their church. That if the vote had gone the other way, they would have left.
Were you at all surprised by how that vote went down?
No. Before we took the vote, I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome would be. And I also knew that there would be people who would leave. And that hurt, because some of them we had shared life with for 20, 25 years. And that wasn’t easy. That was a much more difficult time than this is. So we did most of our grieving then and are just excited about the future before us now.
Where did the third who left go?
To other Southern Baptist churches in the community. Churches that were solidly conservative and probably supportive of the more conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. I think certainly, of the 125 Southern Baptist churches in our local association, we’re the only one that would take this position. And we’re probably one of only two or three that would allow women to pray or preach or read scripture from the pulpit.
Have you seen that more conservative movement of the SBC play out in other ways?
In the seminary that my wife and I graduated from, faculty were forced out because they didn’t subscribe to a particular theory of biblical inspiration or because they affirmed women in pastoral leadership. We saw the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal statement of the SBC, amended to include statements on family life that were more traditional: that men and women have different roles, and they complement each other, but those roles don’t overlap. That the office of the senior pastor in a church is limited to men.
Over the years, that statement expanded to say that the national mission board would not endorse female chaplains because that was too close to being a pastor. And churches that ordained female associate pastors were ousted, because that was being too close to being a senior pastor. The seminaries would not hire females to teach biblical studies or theology or church history. Over the years, you couldn’t find much difference between resolutions adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention than you would in political platforms of a certain persuasion. And I think that was a dangerous shift.
What exactly does it mean for you to be “disfellowshipped” by the SBC?
We will lose a point of identity. But quite honestly, over the last several years, that identity has also been problematic at times. On a practical note, it means that they won’t accept our money anymore for the cooperative missions that we were a part of, and we will no longer be allowed to send messengers at annual meetings. Our church will continue to operate as it has. We own our buildings and land. We will find other groups to affiliate with that will not require that we be 100 percent in agreement on everything—that can unite to do good in our community.
Has a third of the church leaving had a major effect?
I would guess that when those folks left, they probably took about 40 percent of our financial base. People who leave a church over an issue tend to be high commitment people, so we lost leaders. We lost folks who supported us financially. And so we’ve had to do some budget adjusting.
Was it a surprise when your church was reported to the SBC?
Probably not. I still don’t know who did it. But you know, we’re not upset with the Southern Baptist Convention. They made the decision that they felt like they needed to make, and we will pray for them and wish them God’s best. And would hope that they would do the same for us.
What has the response been from outside the church to the news?
We have received emails and phone calls and checks and cards from people all over the country, expressing their support, their encouragement, their prayers. And many poignant and painful personal stories of rejection by the church from people who grew up in Southern Baptist churches and would eventually leave the church. That’s been hard to hear.
We had someone worship with us the Sunday after the news first broke who said, “I haven’t been able to go to church in a long time because my daughter is lesbian, and I couldn’t be open and honest about my family.” A couple came and at the end of the service tearfully said, “Thank you for welcoming us.” And they came back the next week and brought a friend with them. As a pastor, when you have a visitor bring visitors, that’s just pretty awesome. We’ve had our critics, but not many. Hopefully if folks can recognize that if our little church in Kennesaw can find a way to do this, then maybe that can offer some hope and encouragement for other pastors for their churches.