Immanuel considers 1 service on Sunday

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette [Little Rock AR]

March 10, 2024

By Frank E. Lockwood

Falling numbers lead to discussion

With hundreds of members leaving and scores of volunteers severing ties amid criticism of the pastor’s handling of sexual abuse cases, Little Rock’s Immanuel Baptist Church is considering eliminating one of its two Sunday morning services, the pastor announced last week during what was billed as a “Family Gathering.” Asked how he planned to bring a divided congregation together, Lead Pastor Steven Smith suggested the move.

“The staff’s already been talking about that. I think that’s a good idea,” he said, noting that the combined choir would be larger and that it would be easier for people to see one another if they worshipped at the same time.

In addition, Immanuel needs “a vision that is bigger than just ourselves,” Smith said.

“We really honestly don’t have a way forward unless we have hearts for reconciliation,” he later said at the meeting.

Smith on Dec. 10 apologized to the congregations for failing to tell them earlier about an accusation that a former ministry staffer had sexually abused a child.

Originally charged with second-degree sexual assault, Patrick Stephen Miller, the former assistant director of children’s ministry from May 2014 to January 2016, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment in January 2022 and was given a one-year suspended sentence, with 19 days’ credit for time served.

Smith’s apology came about three months after the church’s discipleship content director resigned over Smith’s handling of a different case, involving a former music ministry volunteer and a high school student.

Since then, Smith, who became pastor in January 2017, has faced calls from deacons for him to resign, culminating in a confidence vote by the deacons last month that he survived.

Two church members have filed complaints with the credentials committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, saying Immanuel has departed from traditional Southern Baptist principles.

Even before the recent turmoil, average Sunday attendance had been falling, going from 1,365 during the 2018 reporting period to 925 in 2022, according to data published by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

The number of baptisms dropped from 51 in 2018 to 27 in 2022, state convention records show.

On Sunday mornings, a majority of the seats in Immanuel’s worship center, built in 2003 with a capacity of around 2,500 people, are empty.

At a meeting on Feb. 18, deacons heard an estimate that 300 to 400 people had recently left.

The church has also lost about 120 volunteers working with children ages preschool through fifth grade, members were told during last week’s meeting.

To deal with departures, the church has already combined some classes.

The middle school and high school programs are also experiencing losses, church officials acknowledged.

At least nine deacons have resigned since Feb. 4, one of the former deacons said.

Of the 61 deacons listed on the rolls at the start of the year, 42.6% cast a vote of confidence in Smith’s leadership during the Feb. 18 board meeting, and 29.5% said they have no confidence. The remaining 27.9% either skipped the meeting, declined to vote or had already resigned in protest of Smith’s leadership.

While Smith supporters highlighted the 26 votes of confidence — 59% of those present and voting — others have emphasized the 35 deacons who opted not to support him — either by voting no confidence (18), by resigning prior to the Feb. 18 vote (seven according to Smith supporters; eight according to Smith opponents), or by opting not to attend.

Giving in January was down sharply from what was budgeted.

In addition, key staff positions remain unfilled.

The church is searching for an executive pastor, a missions pastor and a youth pastor, a representative of the personnel committee said at the meeting with members on March 3.

During the three-hour meeting, a recording of which was provided by a member to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Smith again said it had been wrong to withhold information about child sexual abuse from Immanuel members.

But he believes it is God’s will, he assured them, that he remain at Immanuel.

People who wish to discuss Smith’s removal will have the opportunity to broach the topic when the congregation holds its next quarterly business meeting in April.

At next month’s meeting, “anybody can speak to anything,” Smith said.

“My assumption is that wouldn’t be a vote [on removal]. It would be a vote on whether we have the vote,” he said.

“If it were a vote, we’d have to do it, you know, obviously there would be a formal process that would be announced and things like this, but at the quarterly business meeting, anybody can bring up anything,” he said.

The congregation has no bylaws, Smith has acknowledged, so there isn’t a rulebook laying out the process for attempting to dismiss a pastor.

Until now, Immanuel has relied on what Smith called “oral tradition” as it conducts its business.

Deacons have said they lack the authority to call a special meeting of the congregation. Smith has not called one himself for that purpose.

During last week’s meeting, several church members discussed the need for bylaws.

“This is a large project but it is one that I think everyone feels is necessary,” interim executive pastor Mark Carter said.

In recent months, Smith has acknowledged divisions within the church.

He has also expressed regret for the way he handled past accusations of sexual abuse.

His disclosure of the case involving Miller came hours after the Democrat-Gazette published an article about it and the lack of disclosure by church leaders.

Miller filed a petition in July to seal the court record in the case, but he withdrew the request earlier this year, three days before a hearing on the matter had been scheduled to take place.

In the summer of 2022, a second young Immanuel churchgoer stepped forward and accused Miller of abuse.

Afterward, phone lists were created so that Canaan Chapman, the lead student pastor at the time, and Smith could contact parents with children who might have come into contact with Miller.

While Chapman made the calls he was assigned, Smith acknowledged March 3 that he had failed to complete his own portion of the task.

“I know some people that I was intending to call did not get called,” Smith said, later adding, “Since it was so many years ago, I don’t remember all the people that I called.” In the case involving the former music ministry volunteer and the high school student, the former discipleship content director, Courtney Reissig, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in December that Smith had been reluctant to notify congregants of abuse said to have occurred in 2020, maintaining that the family didn’t want the incident disclosed and claiming the teenager had reached Arkansas’ age of consent for sexual activity before physical contact had been initiated.

Reissig said she argued that, regardless of the boy’s age, mistreatment of a minor should be swiftly disclosed to the members.

Fearing that law enforcement officials might not have been fully informed about what had transpired, Reissig said she contacted the state’s child abuse hotline herself and alerted it to the “inappropriate photos.” In a Sept. 14 resignation letter, Reissig said the “lack of transparency, accountability, and handling” of the “abuse situation makes my position here untenable.” “I cannot violate my conscience and conviction about how serious issues (like abuse) are disclosed and responded to in the church,” she wrote.

The Little Rock Police Department is investigating the accusations against the former volunteer, according to police records.

One of the complaints filed with the Southern Baptist Convention’s credentials committee alleges that the church’s response to sexual abuse is inconsistent with Baptist principles. The other says Immanuel fails to use “democratic processes.” Rank-and-file members aren’t allowed to vote for trustees, deacons or members of the finance, personnel and nominating committees as well as a dozen or so other committees.

Trustees serve for life, if they so choose, and there are also no limits to how long deacons can serve.

Information for this article was contributed by John Lynch of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.