Former SBC megachurch sold to Catholics

The Fellowship at Two Rivers has sold the former campus of Two Rivers Baptist Church to the Catholic Diocese of Nashville for $12.5 million.

By Bob Allen

A once-prominent Southern Baptist church in Nashville, Tenn., downsized and rebranded after controversy over finances, lawsuits and excommunications, has voted to sell its 220,000-square-foot building and 37.5-acre grounds to the Catholic Diocese of Nashville for $12.5 million.

The Fellowship at Two Rivers, formerly known as Two Rivers Baptist Church, decided two years ago to list the property across the road from Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center for sale as part of an effort to “reboot” a church culture marred by conflict in 2007-2008 reported in media and by grievances aired in a whistleblower blog.

two riversIn 2007, Two Rivers Baptist Church reported 6,900 total members and average worship attendance of 1,621. Today about 575 worshippers gather weekly in one of two sites — the old campus and an elementary school in nearby Mount Juliet, Tenn. Church leaders said the sale, expected to close in about 90 days, will not affect the multisite-church status.

“Our church has been convinced that it was the Lord’s will for us to sell the property so that we might minister more effectively,” Len Taylor, executive pastor at The Fellowship, said in a press release. “We see this opportunity as a direct answer to prayer and are excited to move forward in ministry as a church family.”

At the same time, Catholic officials say the diocese has outgrown the 38,000-square-foot Catholic Center built in 1956 by Presbyterians and sold to the Diocese of Nashville in Sept. 1974 for $750,000.

“We have been considering options and preparing a sound financial plan to address the growing needs of the people of Middle Tennessee,” said Bishop David Choby. “This exciting opportunity will meet our immediate needs and allow us to better integrate and enhance the Church’s work in Middle Tennessee. It also enables us to prudently allocate our resources to accommodate the tremendous growth that we anticipate will continue in the years to come.”

At 4 percent of the population, Catholics are still a small minority in Middle Tennessee, but over the last 50 years the biggest area of growth for Catholicism has been the South.

The Catholic population of the Nashville diocese has more than doubled in the last several decades and is expected to continue to expand with projections that the 10-county region will add about 1 million people by 2035, making it the size of the Denver region today.

Once one of Nashville’s most prominent Baptist churches, Two Rivers fell on hard times when several dozen church members began questioning expenditures of church money by then-pastor Jerry Sutton, who had been active in Southern Baptist Convention leadership including running unsuccessfully for president in 2006.

The disgruntled members filed a lawsuit in September 2007 asking a judge to open records they claimed Sutton illegally concealed.

After Sutton survived an ouster vote and the lawsuit was dismissed, the pastor asked the church to expel 71 members for refusing to repent of causing strife. A May 6, 2008, vote for their dismissal fell four votes short of a needed super-majority, but a second vote the following week removed them from the membership rolls.

Sutton eventually took early retirement at age 57 with a severance package paying out $314,000 over the course of several years. Sutton went on to teach at Liberty University and to serve as a vice president at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Today he is a self-employed author and academic living in Kansas City, Mo.

Remaining church members sought to put the past behind and move forward in 2011, renaming the church The Fellowship of Two Rivers and trading their traditional service for a more contemporary style.