Sunday, August 20, 2006

Reflections...(Part 3)

This is the third in the series of my reflections on my first year in divinity school. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the recent events at my home church may want to skip reading this post.

Shortly after I announced my call into ministry to my home church, Bayshore Baptist in Tampa, Gay and I started hearing from some church members and former ministers (Bayshore has more than 20 former ministers) about how well the church would treat us during our time in school.

I attended Bayshore from the time I was three until I was twelve and my family moved too far north for us to continue attending a church in South Tampa. However, I returned to Bayshore in 1998 after I moved back to south Tampa. My wife and I were married at Bayshore in 2000. I was ordained as a deacon there in 2002, and Gay and I were ordained into ministry in 2005. So, this church has played an important role in my life, and Gay and I love many of the current and former members of Bayshore. The former minister of congregational life, Nancy Burke, helped both Gay and me answer God's call into ministry. The former minister of youth, Dr. Sam Hestorff, has shown me that the church of the future can adapt to meet the the needs of a changing world, and Dr. Tom Pinner has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. So, it is with great sadness that I write this entry, but I felt that any reflection on my first year in Seminary had to include my disappointment with the support, or more specifically the lack of support, I have received from the leadership of my home church.

I decided to write this post in response to some questions that I and my parents have received asking about the status of scholarship funding from Bayshore. I wanted to give the members of Bayshore who read this blog the chance to hear the truth straight from me. So, here it is.

Before we left Bayshore last year, I was awarded some funding from a Bayshore endowment. The sole purpose of this endowment is to provide funding to seminary students. Before I received the award, I was told that this was my funding for this year, and I could receive it however I wanted, one payment, two payments, etc. I was also told that the minimum balance specified in the endowment would have to be changed for me to receive further awards, but that the change was possible, and a church business meeting would be held sometime during the next year to address that issue.

So, when I decided to take Hebrew over the summer, I wrote a request to the Bayshore Scholarship committee requesting financial assistance to pay for the classes. I received a call a month or so later saying that there was no money available, so Bayshore was going to be unable to help me. However, I found out a few days later that the committee never met to discuss my request. Rather, the pastor simply told a committee member to call me and tell me that no money was available. It is important to understand that this money would have come from a designated account and would not have affected Bayshore's finances. I would also have no issue if the Pastor had actually called a meeting of the committee to discuss the matter, rather than making the decision on his own. Contrary to some reports I have received, I was never told that the initial reward was the only reward I would be able to receive. If that was the case, I would never have taken the time to write the request, and would not have been encouraged to write the request by a member of the committee at Bayshore. Before writing this post, I also took the time to verify my own memories with others at Bayshore, and my memories proved to be accurate. So, the long and the short of it is, I do not expect to receive additional support from Bayshore.

But, I feel it is also important for me to point out that there are additional ways to support seminary students. Since we left Bayshore, we have not received a single call, letter or e-mail from the pastor. I firmly believe that it is part of the staff's job to keep our names in front of the church and remind them to be in prayer for us. Bayshore currently has four students in seminary. In addition to me, there is one at Duke, one at BTSR, and one at Emory. Bayshore should be proud of these students and celebrate our successes. If that has happened, I have not heard about it.

When we moved here, I joined Statesville under watchcare, because I wanted to keep my membership at Bayshore. Even though I am not a member, they have supported Gay and me one-hundred percent. I can remember being at a Wednesday night dinner after I finished the Spring semester, and the Minister of Education congratulated me on finishing the semester with all A's during the announcements. I have started teaching a wonderful Sunday School class that gives me the freedom to explore different ways to apply what I am learning at school to real-world ministry. Their willingness to discuss the difficult issues and share their opinions with me has been a real blessing, and I know they are praying for Gay and me on a regular basis. When Gay mentioned the fact that I was seeking money to pay for Hebrew over the summer as a prayer request in staff meeting, a staff member encouraged me to make a request to Statesville's education endowment for the necessary funding. They readily agreed to pay the tuition and books for my summer classes. A few weeks ago, the chair of the committee came to Gay and asked her how they could help me this semester, and they have agreed to buy my books. They have no idea how much I appreciate the fact that offered to help me before I even asked for it. They are supporting me, both spiritually and financially, even though I am not a full member of the church. I believe that is the way the church should work.

I would also like to thank Florida CBF for their support. They have supported me through a scholarship which has been renewed for this year, and they also keep up with Gay and I on a regular basis. Tommy Deal and Carolyn Anderson have been wonderful, and I was honored to be able to speak to Florida CBF during the general assembly in Atlanta.

Finally, I would also like to thank the individuals that have supported us at Bayshore over the past year. Your prayers, letters and e-mails have been appreciated. My disappointment is with the pastor at Bayshore, not with the members.

Feel free to e-mail me, or leave a comment if you have any questions. In order to filter out comment spam, I review all comments before they are posted, so if you want your comment kept private, just mention it, and I will honor that request. There is an e-mail address listed in the column on the right if you don't have one for me.


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I'm sorry. I had a similar experience going to seminary in the '80s. In my case it was because my home church changed pastors and the new pastor was fundamentalist and would not support me at SBTS because I would not agree to record professors and send tapes to fundamentalist leaders to be edited and used as weapons in the SBC wars. (That kind of spying on professors by conservative students was common then.)

Many churches, however, seem to believe their duty is done once they endorse a member for seminary admission or give some kind of initial financial support. Sad.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gil, I am sorry this happened to you, and I believe it is most unethical of the pastor to take it upon himself to make that decision. I am familiar with the designated funds setup at Bayshore and you are correct in that it SHOULD not have affected the operation of the church, but it would seem that they have brought down the church and are now using the designated funds for something they were not intended for. Again, unethical at best. It is very sad for me to think how far the church has fallen. It is also discouraging that people that I respect in the congregation allow it to happen. I have moved from Tampa, but it still saddens me.