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Dauphin Way full-time ministers, support staff resign; members leave, others returncomment (0)

February 6, 2003

By Jennifer Davis Rash

Dauphin Way Baptist Church, Mobile, may soon supply the foundational membership for a new church start. But the potential congregation stems from disagreement rather than outreach.

Steven J. Lawson, senior pastor of Dauphin Way since 1995, and the entire full-time ministerial staff, including their assistants, as well as the organist and the pianst, resigned Jan. 19. A difference in theological beliefs about predestination between the pastor and some church members was cited as the reason.

Lawson preached in a rented facility Jan. 26 to about 550 people, according to Rick Melson, who resigned as minister of music and worship at Dauphin Way.

Church administrator Benny Riley and minister of children Chuck Finster also resigned.

Bill Whitfield, part-time minister of senior adults and congregational care, said Lawson and some members of the church had disagreed for years. But it was when the group recently gathered more than 300 names on a petition calling for Lawson’s resignation that Lawson, who could not be reached for comment, decided to leave.

Melson, who currently serves as interim minister of music at First Baptist Church, Clanton, said, “[Lawson] came to a point where he wanted to be able to minister to a congregation who appreciated what he had to offer.”

However, Whitfield said, Lawson indicated that anyone differing from his beliefs “could not comprehend the gospel.”

At the core of concern was Lawson’s theological views as “a five-point Calvinist who believes in double predestination,” Whitfield explained. This belief holds that God has foreordained that certain people will experience salvation and others damnation.

Whitfield said he believed Lawson, an esteemed expository preacher, would have had more support “if he had a more compassionate spirit and related more to people. He was distant ... from everything in the church except preaching,” said Whitfield. “He felt he would build the church through preaching.”

And yet, the prominent Alabama Baptist church — which once led the state in baptisms and launched three former pastors into the position of Southern Baptist Convention president — attracted just more than 500 the Sunday before Christmas.

While Dauphin Way’s membership peaked at nearly 9,000 in the late ’80s under Darrell Robinson, membership had declined over the  years, teetering around 5,000 during Lawson’s stint as pastor.

Weekly attendance has slowly crept downward from about 1,600 to around 600 since Lawson came, Whitfield said. More than 100 active senior adult members have left in the last five years. And “30 or 40 families move away from Dauphin Way every quarter,” he added.

In 1997 another group of Dauphin Way members withdrew to form Dayspring Baptist Church in Mobile. Unhappiness with pastoral leadership was one of the reasons cited by some of Dayspring’s founders.

But the numbers did not matter to Lawson, Whitfield noted. In fact, “he said if he could get the church down to 500, then he thought he could build a church.”

And some speculate that the more than 500 gathering for an initial eight weeks as a “Christian fellowship” will become that church Lawson sought to build.

But Melson said, “It is not a church start at this point. They just wanted a place to meet together.” After eight weeks, the group will decide what is next, he said.

At Dauphin Way Craig Gault was called as church administrator and Larry Burden as interim minister of music Jan. 26. An administrative advisory committee had planned to announce nominees for committee slots Feb. 1.

“There’s a great spirit and a good foundation of people,” said Whitfield, who noted a normal attendance of about 600 the Sunday following the resignations. Ten people also joined the church that day.

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