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In Six-Hour Meeting, Park Street Votes to Affirm Current Leadership

Senior minister Mark Booker asks the historic evangelical congregation to commit to work of repair after “break of trust.”
In Six-Hour Meeting, Park Street Votes to Affirm Current Leadership
Image: tupungato / Getty
Park Street Church in Boston

Park Street Church voted to affirm senior minister Mark Booker on Sunday by a vote of 350 to 173, with 20 abstaining.

The prominent evangelical church in Boston has been roiled by controversy as ministers, elders, staff, and lay leaders disagreed over a series of decisions—as well as the process of making decisions—at the 220-year-old congregationalist church. Ultimately the entire congregation was thrown into the dispute. The conflict became public when a group of more than 75 members petitioned for a special meeting to review the firing of an associate minister who said he had “serious concerns” about Booker’s spiritual leadership, citing “patterns at variance with the biblical qualifications.”

The conflict raised questions about checks and balances and the durability of congregationalism amid escalating disagreements about leadership. Congregationalism is the preferred polity of many evangelicals, including those in Baptist, nondenominational, and Stone-Campbell churches.

Park Street’s regularly scheduled congregational meeting on Sunday was cast as a referendum on the leadership of the church. Critics proposed a set of amendments to the bylaws that they said would add much-needed limits on church leaders’ power and nominated an alternative slate of elder candidates.

Booker, who was called to lead the church in 2020, proposed a nonbinding vote to affirm his continued leadership at Park Street. The elders approved the ballot measure, adding it to the agenda, as CT reported last week.

“It is clear there has been a break of trust at the elder, minister, and staff level,” Booker told the congregation during the fractious six-hour meeting on Sunday. “This break of trust among the leaders of this church has spilled over into the congregation as well, causing deep pain for all of us, and all of us bear it in one way or another. The Christianity Today article revealed these breaks to a wider audience. And I understand that this is and has been unsettling for our community.”

Booker characterized CT’s reporting on the division at the church as an “oversimplified binary picture” and called it disappointing.

Twenty-one staff members also wrote an email saying they were frustrated with CT’s reporting and “upset with the way it characterizes our church.”

In his annual meeting speech, Booker said he and many others bore responsibility for the “fences” that had broken down in his community. But he asked the congregation to affirm his calling as senior minister despite his mistakes.

“The question I believe will be before you in a few minutes is whether you would like for me to grow as I shepherd among you,” Booker said.

Booker’s wife, Mandy Booker, was given a few minutes to speak in defense of her husband’s character. She said the allegations against him “paint an impressionistic picture” of “an insensitive and power-hungry man” but are based “almost entirely on imputations of motives and disagreements about leadership decisions.”

Those who know Booker best, she said, know this depiction is wrong.

“Mark is a pastor, through and through,” she told the congregation. “He lives and breathes Jesus.”

Other Park Street leaders also spoke up at the meeting to take responsibility for the division that has threatened to split the church. Elder Leslie Liu said that a few weeks ago she read Amos 6:12, which says “you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into bitterness,” and wept for Park Street.

“This is what I see in our church, bitterness and poison, where there should have been righteousness and justice,” Liu said. “Our congregation is divided. Small groups are divided. Committees are divided. Staff are divided. And I don’t think I need to tell you the board has been divided for some time now. You can tell by what you’re seeing here. When you see signs of sickness on the outside of the fruit, you know something’s not good on the inside.”

Liu said that after three or four other complaints about Booker, the elders should have asked for an independent investigation into whether he had misused his spiritual authority. She asked the congregation, however, to turn to God in this time of crisis.

“Have you ever been sick but you didn’t actually know what was making you sick?” Liu said. “We know that we are sinners, but now we are seeing it out in the open. Let’s go to the master physician for the surgery that we need.”

The extended meeting was contentious and occasionally chaotic. People shouted at the moderator to allow members more or less time and leeway to speak. There were conflicts over parliamentary procedure and the proper way to count standing votes.

One member objected to the nonbinding vote, calling it “meaningless,” citing a guide to parliamentary procedure.

“If we want to take a vote, we can take a vote,” Karolyn Park said, “but let it be binding, because we are the congregation with final human authority. We deserve our voices to be heard.”

The congregation voted by paper ballot, passing their votes down the rows to place in a collection basket.

When the ballots were counted and the results announced—67 percent for Booker, 33 percent opposed—the church was silent, except for the shifting of a few bodies and the shuffling of a few feet.

The affirmed senior minister said that no one took joy in the result and that moving forward would require “a lot of grace.” He asked the congregation to commit themselves, in the coming months and years, to the work of repair. He promised he would be a shepherd to the whole church, even those who voted against him.

“I’ve had the sense for some time that we—the staff, the elders, and the congregation—are on the cusp of God’s deeper work,” Booker said. “We cannot do this as we fight each other. We can do this as we heal together.”

Not everyone was satisfied with the result. Michael Balboni, the former associate minister who brought charges against Booker, accused the leadership of choosing power over love.

“The 60 or 65 percent who have won today, you haven’t won. You haven’t won. Because love has not won, and when love is overcome by power, we all lose and Jesus is defamed and our church has reproach upon us,” Balboni said at the meeting. “We’re all going home having been proven broken.”

Some in the congregation complained that Balboni was off topic and asked the moderator to stop him, while others shouted, “Let him speak!”

The former minister said the glory of God was not present in the congregation, “unless we choose the path of love” instead of power.

“This is my last word. I will not give up. And I will not give in. Until there is a fair process that hears what has happened to me, what has happened to other ministers, I will not stop,” Balboni said.

The Park Street clerk has approved a petition to call a special meeting in April to review the elder’s decisions to dismiss the charges Balboni brought against Booker.

On Sunday, however, the congregation affirmed Booker and elected the five officers and six elders chosen by the nominating committee. The alternative slate of candidates put up by petition all lost. The congregation also rejected all five proposed amendments to the bylaws.

Some Park Street members who spoke to CT after the meeting said the meeting was disheartening and they wished there had never been a vote on Booker’s leadership.

“I personally feel it was unfortunate that that vote took place. It drew a line in the sand,” said Victor Sheen, who has been a member for more than 20 years. “He does not have the mandate, even though he has the majority. But I am hopeful there can be healing.”

Others said they were glad the congregation got the chance to vote and Booker was affirmed. They believe it will help the congregation be able to put all of this controversy behind them soon.

“The congregation affirmed their belief that Mark will continue the work of reconciliation and repair,” said Elizabeth Lohnes, the church’s former director of communications, in an email to CT. “I am eager to see a move towards a thriving work environment for everyone.”

One member who joined in 2022 said he was impressed by Booker’s leadership during the sometimes painful meeting.

Booker “did his part in leading the whole congregation in a posture of love and grace,” Hanno van der Bijl said in an email. “He listened well as he sought to bring everyone together. He is a broken and sinful person like the rest of us, and he acknowledged and apologized for his mistakes.”

Members hope the affirmation vote can mark the beginning of a new chapter for the historic evangelical church.

“While really difficult, allowing space in the meeting for both sides to be heard was an important step in resolving conflict and moving forward as a congregation united in our love for Jesus,” wrote Laurel Sweeney, who also joined the church in 2022. “I’ve greatly appreciated and benefited from Mark’s gifted preaching. I’m thankful that the majority of the congregation affirmed his leadership and that we can begin a process of healing.”

Correction: In a previous version of this article, a paraphrase of a statement from former associate minister Michael Balboni mischaracterized his remarks. He did not say that the glory of God had “departed” from Park Street Church, but that it is not there “unless we choose the path of love.” According to Balboni, he was not referencing 1 Samuel 4:21.

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