Opinion: Church politics and hoping against a zero-sum game

SDN Editor Ryan Phillips


The recent lawsuit filed in July by members of Second Baptist Church of Starkville against the company whose owner defrauded the church of hundreds of thousands of dollars could represent the last possibility of closure in a situation that has spiraled out of control.

When I say a storyline can give you headaches, there’s not enough aspirin in the world to make this one go away quietly.

Long Beach-based TCM Companies, LLC, is now the defendant in the civil suit, after Donald Crowther, who was the owner of the company at the time, admitted to his misdeeds in the construction of what was supposed to be the church’s new sanctuary.

Once in custody, it became clear Crowther would not be able to pay back the money siphoned off from the building fund. Despite a judge ruling in the spring of 2016 that up to $250,000 in

Crowther’s funds would be held in sequestration, Crowther insisted that he had less than $10,000 to his name.

And nearly three years later, the small congregation is still trying to get its money back - to the tune of nearly half a million dollars.

So, in essence, the lawsuit against the company itself represents a justified Hail Mary on the part of church members to resolve the situation and move forward.

What’s made this situation so volatile, though, are the politics of governing a church body. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Muslim, Buddhist or a space alien, if you participate in organized religion, eventually you are going to encounter church politics.

I was raised Southern Baptist, so I understand better than most what happens when faithful people put their trust in church leaders who, in turn, use their positions to their own advantage. The pulpit is an attractive place for megalomaniacs and the board of governors or deacon committees for some churches are viewed as a way to get a foot in the political door.

For so many, not all, it’s about much more than Bibles and Jesus - it’s about status, power and control.

But for Second Baptist, it’s become abundantly clear that different competing factions have formed in the church and the structure of what is supposed to be a house of God is coming apart at the seams due to infighting.

While the dirt plot to the side of the church might be an eyesore, the most unattractive aspect of the scandal is that it has brought out the absolute worst in otherwise good people.

I’ve heard church members curse the names of other church members and I’ve even been personally accosted for the newspaper’s objective reporting on the issue, with some simply getting mad at the very story they created and are helping feed into. As one church member told me, I’ve “joined the club,” of people who have taken lumps on account of the ongoing feud.

We don’t have a single member of Second Baptist on our editorial staff, so we have no skin in the game and no reason to pick sides.

I tell our reporters all the time to beware of “competing realities,” and few instances can have that concept applied like the Second Baptist controversy. When both sides are so convinced that they are right, they will lash out at anything that works against the narrative they have crafted.

On one side, you have certain members of a church body who are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that their church leaders are crooks and simply want their money back so a new sanctuary can be built. But in doing so, they have ostracized the opposing segment of the church body for good.

On the other side are church administrators who can’t help but telegraph that they have something to hide, even if they don’t.

Pride, which is one of the seven deadly sins, factors into the actions of all factions involved in this sad affair. And who is the victim here? The church body, first and foremost, along with the perception of how a church is supposed to operate.

After all, those same administrators, with the trust of the congregation, hired Crowther, who was previously convicted in a federal court of doling out $150,000 in bribes on a federal project in Minnesota. This was known, or should have been, before the first shovel broke ground on the property.

So, where was the oversight? It depends on who you ask, naturally.

To me, the hiring of Crowther in the first place represents only one of two possibilities: (1) It was gross negligence on the part of the church officials who hired him or (2) the officials knew about his past and possibly had something to gain by giving TCM the contract to build. Some church members insist whole-heartedly that Crowther’s criminal past was not only known by the people that hired him, but was an attractive aspect in that certain leaders could start grabbing once the money started flowing.

Either way, church leaders on both sides don’t come out smelling like roses, no matter how much they deny it and by no fault of their own, the church members suing fellow church members are made to look foolish after everyone was swindled out of so much money. It is my guess that in being the victim of a scam, certain church members want full retribution. I can’t say I blame them, but it’s all in the approach. 

These are folks that otherwise would treat each other as family.

Should they have taken the matter to court? Absolutely. 

Rather, it’s the way they are treating each other that turns my stomach.

People who aren’t even listed in the lawsuits now detest one another, and for what? Some misplaced sense of loyalty to one side or the other?

Had an honest contractor been properly vetted before being hired, would we even be having this conversation? I highly doubt it. Loyalty is important, though, and much more so in a small church body. If you’re notwith somebody, you must be against them.

Legal expenses aren’t cheap, though, and if hopes of recouping the lost funds don’t come to fruition, the costs alone could represent the nail in the coffin for a church body that deserves better. There is still a likelihood for a financial settlement, but no amount of money will heal the divisions now that this has gone on for as long as it has. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there’s no closing it.

To accomplish this feat and bring the church back together, in my opinion, would take a literal act of God.

And in my short time in Starkville, I admit I’ve only attended one service at Second Baptist. But for that one visit, I was met with love and felt welcomed by folks who had every right to be skeptical of me. 

That’s what I believe this church body is capable of, and I am disappointed beyond measure at the way so many “Godly” people have treated each other when times got tough.

It is my solemn hope that the church body will recoup the lost funds and will one day get to sit in the new sanctuary they so dearly reserve. Also, I hope the divisions in the church can heal so members can worship together without a cloud of scandal hanging over their heads.

Be that with a new pastor, deacons, trustees, what have you, that decision is ultimately left up to the church. And if you’re a God-fearing person, the decision on how these attitudes and actions will be judged is ultimately left to whoever is watching from on high.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of either newspaper or their staffs.