First Baptist Church Decatur pastor announces she is stepping down

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt April 29, 2015
Julie Pennington-Russell. Source: Facebook

Julie Pennington-Russell. Source: Facebook

Julie Pennington-Russell, the high-profile and at times controversial pastor of First Baptist Church Decatur, has announced she is stepping down.

In a letter to church members, Pennington-Russell said her last day as pastor will be May 31.

“There have been wonderful opportunities as we’ve traveled with God and each other through these years. Along with significant steps and milestones, there also have been persistent tensions and divisions within our fellowship that have led me to a difficult decision,” Pennington-Russell wrote. She pointed to the church’s budget restructuring in 2011-2012 as one source of friction. The reduction of staff also led to an exodus of church members, she said.

“During these difficult times, I have done my best to listen for God and to lead this congregation according to Holy Spirit’s guidance,” she wrote. “However, I’m afraid that today our church has become ‘stuck’. The sticking point for more than a few appears to be me, and my leadership.”

Pennington-Russell joined FBC Decatur in 2007. Her selection as the church’s pastor led to strained relations with the Georgia Baptist Convention, which objected to having a woman lead the church. In March of last year, she entered the debate over gun control when she wrote a letter to state senators concerning the testimony of Mike Griffin, a spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Convention. She said that while Griffin’s remarks weren’t reflective of the views of all the state’s Baptists.

Pennington-Russell recalled that her hiring was an attempt to reach out to Decatur’s “increasingly diverse and unchurched Decatur community.”

“The unique needs of FBC and the people of Decatur presented clear challenges and ministry opportunities for which I felt called and gifted to respond,” she wrote.

Here is the full text of Pennington-Russell’s letter …

Dear FBC Family:

Eight years ago, First Baptist Decatur invited me to share a spiritual journey with all of you. Though I’d not been looking for a new ministry setting, the invitation to serve as your pastor felt to Tim and me like a clear “Macedonian call”. I still remember the stirring in my chest as I listened to the search committee talk of First Baptist’s desire to make deeper connections with an increasingly diverse and unchurched Decatur community. The unique needs of FBC and the people of Decatur presented clear challenges and ministry opportunities for which I felt called and gifted to respond.

There have been wonderful opportunities as we’ve traveled with God and each other through these years. Along with significant steps and milestones, there also have been persistent tensions and divisions within our fellowship that have led me to a difficult decision.

After months of prayer and contemplation, Tim and I have discerned that for the sake of my own mental, physical and spiritual health, I must step away from First Baptist Decatur. My final Sunday will be May 31.

Change is never easy and often involves pain. The congregation’s decision in 2011-12 to restructure our annual budget, resulting in the departures of some staff and many church members, was the first of several challenging seasons we have faced together these past eight years. During these difficult times, I have done my best to listen for God and to lead this congregation according to Holy Spirit’s guidance. However, I’m afraid that today our church has become “stuck”. The sticking point for more than a few appears to be me, and my leadership.

I make this decision with sadness but without bitterness. In truth, my prevailing emotion is gratitude. Despite the challenges we’ve faced, I’m enormously grateful to have answered your call to serve as your pastor. These eight years have brought a wealth of ministry experiences and blessed my family with loving relationships that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. I have loved, loved worshiping with you—in the sanctuary, Carreker Hall and on the front lawn! I’ve served alongside creative, collaborative colleagues whom I regard today as friends as well as partners in ministry. Many of you have invited me into your personal places of grief and pain, celebration and joy. I’ve witnessed the birth of your children; celebrated as you claimed Jesus as Lord in the waters of baptism; blessed you as you were joined in marriage; ministered alongside you to people in need; prayed over you in hospitals; broken bread with you at communion tables and kitchen tables; and wept with you when death claimed those we loved.

Together as we’ve practiced radical hospitality, we’ve become a church that reflects the beautiful diversity of Decatur. We’ve mentored 30 seminarians for vocational ministry; welcomed thousands of people through our Conversations ministry; hammered nails at Habitat home sites; offered gospel ministry in Thailand, the Congo, Taiwan, Appalachia and Atlanta; befriended women and children at Hagar’s House; fed homeless men at Journey men’s shelter and provided help and hope for employment to dozens of folk through our Assistance Ministry. And most recently we’ve celebrated a new vision—KOG2DGA—that will carry this church into God’s future.

I ask you to pray for our family as we pray for guidance about our own future. The way forward is unclear at this moment, yet I feel at peace about that. I’ve been meditating on the words of Thomas Merton: “My life is a listening, God’s is a speaking. My salvation is to hear and respond.” What is clear to me is that, for now, I need to be still and quiet. For thirty years, with three extraordinary congregations, Tim and I have been (in the words of an FBC friend) “running errands” for God. We trust that God will reveal our next steps in due time.

I am a strengthened child of God from having shared these years with you. Know that I intend to be an enthusiastic observer and supporter of everything God is going to do in and through this gifted congregation in the years ahead. I’ll be cheering and praying for you as you make the Kingdom of God more and more evident to Decatur.

Friends, never doubt that the God who made you and redeemed you is the God who keeps you, still.

With gratitude and love,
Pastor Julie

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

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