GARDENDALE — A congregation which has been rocked by a worship musician charged with online-sex crimes, followed closely by the murder of the senior pastor's wife, has left Gardendale-Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church parishioners in a state of shock.
The denomination's presiding bishop sought to reassure members Sunday morning, as she addressed all three worship services just three days after the church pastor was charged in the shooting of his wife and daughter.
"You are not alone. We are not alone. God is in the boat with us," said The Rev. Debra Wallace-Padgett, who presides over the North Alabama Conference.
Wallace-Padgett derived the analogy with a boat from the word "nave," the portion of a church sanctuary in which worshippers sit, and which is also the Latin word for a boat. That tied into her Scripture passage from Mark 4:35-40, where Jesus is said to have calmed a storm with the words, "Peace, be still," in a boat while crossing the Sea of Galilee.
"He's in that boat, and we're with Him. What a difference that makes!" Wallace-Padgett said.
Wallace-Padgett, who was promoted to bishop and appointed to her post in September after pastoring a church in Lexington, Ky., was the leader of a contingent from the North Alabama Conference. The group included a team of counselors put in place to help church members deal with the shooting tragedy.
The mood of two of the three Sunday services was somber, but different. The contemporary-worship service, which is held in the church family-life center, stayed with downbeat but uplifting music. Attendees came to the altar during that time for prayer and to comfort one another. Near the end of the service, one member called aloud, "God is good!" Others instantly responded, "All the time."
In the traditional service, members again came to the sanctuary altar toward the end, many in tears as they hugged each other.
Meanwhile, in the youth service, teens improvised a show of faith by wearing sticky notes, on which they had hand-written a simple message: “Our God is Bigger.”
In a press conference after the third service, Wallace-Padgett told reporters that the conference was providing a team of counselors to the church to assist congregants with any grief or anger issues brought on by the shooting.
“There are a whole range of emotions that are being experienced,” she said. “It ranges from everything you would expect from this kind of circumstance.”
When asked twice if there were any issues with improprieties in Terry Greer's background, either in Gardendale or at his previous appointment in Decatur, the bishop demurred, saying, "Terry was in good standing as a United Methodist pastor.”
Wallace-Padgett also said there was nothing unusual, aside from the denomination’s historic practice of moving pastors to different churches regularly, in the reason Terry Greer was transferred from First United Methodist in Decatur at the most recent annual conference meeting last summer. Wallace-Padgett was not yet in office in Alabama at the time and had no part of the transfer. Terry Greer switched appointments with longtime Gardendale-Mt. Vernon pastor Dr. Rudy Guess.
Rev. Sherry Ferguson, who is in charge of the conference’s counseling team, had her counselors at the church Friday morning and worked with several dozen people. She said that her team will be providing services to members for as long as a year.
“We have a community of faith that is in shock,” Ferguson said. “We are just beginning to understand some of these emotions.”
Though tragedies like this are rare, the conference has a quick-response spiritual care team ready to deal with such situations — partly as a result of the April 2011 tornadoes, Ferguson said.
The conference also is working on a scholarship fund being established for Suzanna Greer, the pastor’s daughter, who is in her freshman year at college.
Rev. Greer is charged with one count of murder and another of attempted murder in Thursday afternoon’s shooting in the church parsonage near the Mt. Olive Road exit off Interstate 65. Lisa Greer, the pastor’s wife, died from gunshot wounds just after midnight Friday morning. Suzanna is said by police to have wrestled the gun away from her father, suffering wounds in the process.
Terry and Suzanna Greer remain at UAB Hospital. Terry Greer will be turned over to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office once he is released form the hospital, where he faces a total bond of $135,000.
Two weeks before the shooting, the church’s contemporary worship leader was arrested for unlawful solicitation of a child and traveling to meet a child for a sex act. Joel Kent Hodges was dismissed immediately by the church, and is free on $90,000 bond.
Lisa Greer’s funeral service will be held Tuesday at 2 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Scottsboro. Visitation will take place Monday, 6-8 p.m. at Scottsboro Funeral Home.
[Edited at 2:35 p.m. 114-13 to correct the arrest date for the former worship leader.]