(RNS) — On Sunday, July 11, the Rev. Todd Elliott got up in front of his church to say goodbye.
The 50-something Elliott, dressed in an untucked short-sleeved button-down shirt and sneakers, stood next to a pair of gray-haired church elders dressed in slacks and navy blue sport coats on the stage at Beach Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“This is a sad day for our church,” one of the elders said before the other announced Elliott’s departure.
For several years, the church’s elders had clashed with Elliott over who should run the nondenominational church of about 1,600, which had been twice named one of the fastest-growing churches in the country.
The Beach Church bylaws and the Bible put most of the authority on the elders, David Dodge, chairman of the elder board, told worshipers. Elliott disagreed, believing the pastor should have more authority. Things had finally come to a head. Elliott resigned and would be receiving a year’s severance. And the church would begin the search for a new leader.
“I just want to thank you,” Elliott said to thunderous applause from the congregation. “Thank you for letting me serve and be your pastor and teacher over the last 14 years.”
He and the elders then prayed together and walked off stage, ready to part ways.
But Elliott would be back.
In what has been described as a coup or a revolt, a group of angry church members — organized on a Facebook page called Beach Church Together — rose up to defend Elliott. Within days, the Beach Church elders had resigned, the locks on the church had been changed and the doors opened for Elliott’s return.
He never even missed a Sunday.
“You people,” Elliott said, shaking his head and smiling, back in his pulpit just one week after his resignation — but now with a new message.
First, he laid out a bit of the church’s history, blaming the bylaws for holding the church back and causing previous pastors to leave.
Things would be different, he promised, if the church were to change bylaws to put the pastor in charge. If the church did that — and if the bylaws met with his approval — Elliott said he’d return as pastor and lead the church to its best days ever.
“You will not see a church that will be kicking down the gates of hell like Beach Church will be,” Elliott said, his voice rising to a crescendo. “Because I’m telling you, baby, you’re going to want to invite your neighbors, you’re going to want to invite your friends, you’re going to want to invite your co-workers and your family because we’re going see God move freely in this church like it’s never been seen before. I’m telling you that right now.”
The dispute between Elliott and the Beach Church elders has left chaos in its wake. After all the church’s leaders resigned, Beach Church staff and other supporters of the pastor organized an emergency meeting to suspend the bylaws and appoint a transition team so the church could operate. That team also began to pave the way for Elliott to officially return.
Meanwhile, the church’s elders say their resignations were invalid — claiming the church bylaws did not allow the entire board of elders to step down. The elders claim their resignations were rejected by the church’s president and other corporate officers and that any moves made by the transition team are invalid because they violate the church bylaws.
As a result, the church has two rival groups claiming to be in charge. It is unclear which group’s position is legal. The two sides had planned to meet the week of August 23 to discuss their differences, but that meeting has been postponed.
The Beach Church dispute also reflects larger conflicts in congregations big and small, where the presence of a charismatic and engaging preacher often draws newcomers and holds the keys to a church’s success.
Many of the nation’s largest churches are run by entrepreneurial pastors, who often operate more like CEOs than faith leaders. That can lead to great success but also often leaves churches with little control over their pastor, at times with disastrous results — as described in the popular “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, which details the spectacular failure of controversial megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, or in the fall of former Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald.
David Dodge, chairman of the elder board at Beach Church, said recent events took elders by surprise. They had been working for several years to find common ground with Elliott, he said.
“We felt like we were close to resolving the problem,” he said.
When negotiations over defining the roles for staff and elders failed, Elliott called a meeting with elders, where he announced his plans to resign. During the meeting, Dodge said, Elliott shared a document listing two options: He could move from being the senior pastor to being a teaching pastor and let the elders manage the day-to-day operations for a year while he looked for a job. Or, according to a copy of the document obtained by Religion News Service, the church could pay him a year’s salary and he’d leave after signing a non-compete and non-disparagement agreement.
The elders chose the latter.
Elliott’s resignation also caught the congregation by surprise. They were not aware of the details of the disagreements — as the elders had not discussed the nature of the conflict with the church, thinking it would soon be resolved.
Dodge now believes Elliott, who declined to be interviewed, has violated his severance agreement by trying to come back. But, he said, unless they are willing to sue the staff and transition team, there’s little he or other elders can do.
“The takeover of the church has proceeded quite quickly,” said Dodge.
Dodge added that elders at churches like Beach Church want to follow the Bible’s teachings, which he believes outline how a church is run. But they can’t compete with a popular pastor.
In a statement to Religion News Service, the Beach Church transition team defended Elliott, saying that the pastor had engaged in negotiations to create a work environment that would be respectful of both his role as pastor and the roles of elders and church members. The transition team also said that a spontaneous uprising occurred, with members forming a Facebook Group to “support one another and to seek, if possible, to find a way to remove the elders from their position and attempt to persuade Pastor Elliott to return as Pastor of Beach Church.”
After both Elliott and the elders left, church staff acted to fill the leadership void, the transition team said. This included changing the bylaws at an emergency meeting to allow the church to function.
Elliot had “no voice or vote in this process,” the team said.
Russell Johnson, a former church staffer who became an elder several years ago, said he and other elders were trying to do the right thing in their dealings with Elliott. Church members, known as partners, had affirmed them in their roles and asked them to safeguard the church and make sure the church operated in accordance with the Bible and the bylaws.
When elders did just that, he said, church partners turned on them, taking what he and other elders described as “a torches and pitchforks” approach. Johnson, who has been part of Beach Church since the mid-1990s, said he and other elders decided to resign at first, hoping to keep the church from splintering.
“The last thing we wanted to do was divide the church,” he said.
Once he and other elders realized the church could not function or have an orderly transition without them, they rescinded their resignations. They don’t want to stay long term, but they do want to set things right before they leave.
“We want to make sure the church can move forward in a way that’s biblical,” he said.
Sarah Merkle, who is an attorney specializing in governance and is a professional parliamentarian and a senior editorial adviser for “Church Law & Tax,” a publication for church leaders, said churches are required to follow their bylaws when making decisions.
Once adopted, she said, those bylaws can’t, in most cases, be suspended or ignored. If churches do ignore them, especially on major decisions, they can wind up in court.
She urges churches to pay attention to their bylaws and evaluate them on a regular basis to make sure they still meet the church’s needs. By the time a conflict or problem arises, she said, it’s often too late.
Merkle is also wary of churches that give too much authority to one person. She pointed to the example of the now-defunct Mars Hill Church and the trouble it ran into by giving its pastor too much power.
A popular and influential pastor doesn’t have a more direct line to God than other people in the church, she said. And pastors, like anyone else, are still susceptible to human foibles.
“We can’t assume that giving all the power to one person who has a charismatic personality is a wise choice,” she said.
Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, said most larger churches have an internal board of elders that governs the church and provides checks and balances to the senior pastor. Even so, he said, for the most part, the senior pastor, especially at megachurches, is in charge. The pastor’s authority can be tempered in some ways, he said, but they still have the final word.
“In the end, it’s the decision of that one person,” he said.
The transition team at Beach Church is moving forward with plans for the church’s future as a pastor-led church. They reject the idea that the elders can rescind the resignations and refer to them as “former elders.” In an email to church partners, they claim that in recent years, church elders amended bylaws to consolidate their power “to the detriment and dismay of both Pastor Elliott, the staff members and Partners of the church.”
But they do say some of the behavior of Elliott’s supporters was inappropriate.
“We have heard of some ugly things being said to the former elders in those early days, and those things were clearly uncalled for, unchristian and unwise, and we hope all who reacted in anger toward the elders have since repented and sought their forgiveness,” the transition team said in its email to church partners.
The church’s proposed new bylaws, according to a copy obtained by RNS, put most of the authority in the hands of the senior pastor, who would be “ultimately responsible for both the spiritual and the corporate health of the Church,” assisted by a Lead Team of other staff.
The elders would be replaced by a board of trustees dealing mainly with finances, policies and procedures, with no direct oversight of the pastor or staff. Oversight of the pastor would be placed into the hands of a group of outside pastors, known as overseers. The pastor of Beach Church, under the proposed bylaws, would be allowed to nominate the overseers, who would be confirmed by trustees.
“The Hallmarks of this bylaw structure is that it is multifaceted, balanced and self-correcting in case of moral, financial, theological or other abuses,” the transition team said in an email to church partners. “It grants a Biblically designated level of authority to the Pastor and Lead Team, with solid oversight and peer level observation and transparency.”
The new structure and bylaws have been approved by Elliott, transition team chair Darman Weaver told worshipers at a recent service. A vote on the new bylaws is scheduled for early September.
“We’ve sent the bylaws to pastor Todd,” Weaver told worshipers. “We’ve had Pastor Todd look over them. Pastor Todd is real good with the bylaws we’ve got in place.”
The elders who opposed Elliott’s return are considering legal action to stop the changes at Beach Church. But that would be a long and difficult process, said Dodge.
He sees what has happened at Beach Church as a warning to other churches. A church’s elders, he said, can never win a popularity contest with a pastor, especially one with a vocal group of followers.
Johnson said he wants the church to do the right thing, both legally and in the eyes of God. The conflict with Elliott and the fallout from the pastor’s resignation he said, has left the elders “broken.”
“And by that, I mean heartbroken.”