Greensboro church will vote on pastor's fate

(Greensboro) News & RecordJune 21, 2009 

— The Rev. F. Willis Johnson may have preached his last sermon at the divided Shiloh Baptist Church.

The historic church's governing council met Thursday night and has called for a vote next Sunday to decide whether to fire the beleaguered Johnson, who was hired in 2007 and is serving a 90-day suspension.

"The most important thing is that he has become a divisive figure," said Camille Payton, an attorney, church trustee and council member, and one plaintiff in a lawsuit that removed Johnson from the pulpit. Payton also made the recommendation Thursday to hold a vote. "He is so much the subject of debate that his return threatens to split the church."

In recent votes involving Johnson, 34, the membership has given mixed signals. Last September, the membership voted to keep him. But this past spring, a majority of the members voted to take out a restraining order to keep him out of the pulpit until at least Aug. 10.

A major sticking point between Johnson and the council has been plans to build a family life center. Before he was hired, Johnson told the pastoral search committee that he would seek grants to help build it. Now he says the church cannot afford it -- something members such as Payton dispute.

"The church members at this point should be given the opportunity to decide whether they want to keep Reverend Johnson or whether they feel he can no longer lead," Payton said. "... They certainly have the right to make that decision."

Some members say the church and Johnson need time to work on healing and that the coming vote is premature.

"They just want him gone. This is not right." said Mary DeGraffenriedt, a church deaconess who sat in on Thursday night's meeting.

Shiloh, once the seat of the civil rights movement in Greensboro, is known for battles with pastors. Johnson is the fourth leader in a little more than a decade. He doesn't want to go.

"I didn't ask to leave; I never stopped loving them," said Johnson, who hadn't been officially notified Friday of the upcoming vote. "I have to believe the Lord's will will prevail."

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