The Rev. Leslie Braxton, the embattled senior pastor of one of Seattle's most prominent churches, Mount Zion Baptist Church, told his congregation...

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The Rev. Leslie Braxton, the embattled senior pastor of one of Seattle’s most prominent churches, Mount Zion Baptist Church, told his congregation yesterday that he is resigning.


Braxton, who had been facing an effort by some members of the congregation to remove him, made his announcement during yesterday’s morning service.


A congregational vote over whether Braxton should be removed from the pulpit was scheduled for yesterday. But the vote was canceled since Braxton resigned.


Braxton said yesterday he believed he would have had the votes to remain as senior pastor, but “if I stayed, the congregational dynamics would not change … the fighting, the division, the besmirching of the name of the church would continue.”


His last sermon from Mount Zion’s pulpit is scheduled for July 23. He said he intends to remain in the Seattle area and start a new church.


Braxton’s resignation was the culmination of months of internal conflict, which came to a head early last month when some Mount Zion members sent a letter to about 1,700 of the church’s 2,700 members calling for Braxton’s removal. The mailing utilized the membership list they had at the time.


That letter was signed by two groups bearing similar names — Members United to Save Mount Zion and Members to Save Mount Zion — but was not signed by individuals. The groups took issue with the 43-year-old Braxton on a range of issues, from how he’s managed church finances and personnel matters to changes he’s made in church programs, the nature of his sermons and his performance of pastoral duties.



Putting it to a vote



Then in mid-June, five church members signed a letter formally calling for Braxton’s removal. Under church rules, any five members can make a written request for a pastor’s removal.


The request then must be announced from the pulpit on two consecutive Sundays, after which church members vote. A simple majority is needed to remove the pastor. A minimum of 50 voters is required.


The first of two scheduled votes on the matter took place last Thursday. John Capps, a spokesman for Braxton’s critics, said 92 percent of the members present on Thursday voted for Braxton’s removal. He would not be specific, however, about how many people were there, saying only that it was “several hundred.”


Vinson Latimore, church business administrator, said that vote was unofficial because church procedures were not followed correctly. Braxton’s critics disagree vehemently.


Now, with Braxton’s resignation, the vote appears to be a moot point.


“We appreciate Rev. Braxton’s gracious departure today,” said Capps. “We believe he resigned in the best interest of the church, its parishioners and the greater church community of the Seattle metropolitan area.”


Shirley Johnson of Seattle, one of the five members who signed the letter calling for Braxton’s removal, said yesterday that the pastor’s resignation “was good for the church. But I don’t know what his motives are. I feel it was not as sincere as I’d hoped it would be.”


Braxton’s resignation came as a surprise to some who had supported him, including the chairman of the church’s board of trustees, Robert Nellams, who said Braxton told him at 8:30 a.m. yesterday that he was resigning.


“It’s a sad day for Mount Zion,” said Nellams, who had touted membership and tithing increases to the church since Braxton arrived. “It’s a hopeful day for the body of Christ. He resigned because he felt, for the greater good of the body of Mount Zion, it’s better for him to move on and for the church to start a healing process.”


Nellams added that “it’s way too early to start talking about what’s next for the church. We need to process what’s already happened.”


According to a press release, others who supported Braxton spoke on his behalf at yesterday’s service, including the Rev. Anthony Robinson, former pastor of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church, and William Mayes, chairman of the board of deacons at First Shiloh Baptist Church in Buffalo, N.Y., where Braxton was previously pastor.


Although the conflict is internal, the influence of Mount Zion lends whoever heads the congregation a significant voice in the region.


Braxton’s predecessor, the Rev. Samuel McKinney, led the predominantly African-American church for 40 years, during which it became as much a social and political force as a spiritual one. During the civil-rights movement, McKinney’s strong voice from the pulpit galvanized activists in the city.


McKinney could not be reached for comment yesterday.


Under Braxton, who was called to the Mount Zion pulpit in 1999, the church has continued speaking out on civic issues. Braxton helped lead a march on Interstate 5 three years ago to protest police shootings of black people, spoke out against expanding slot machines beyond tribal casinos, and took part in a campaign to address violence by and against blacks.


But under his tenure, the church also became divided.


Internal tensions became more public last August when The Seattle Medium, a community newspaper, carried advertisements from a third group opposed to Braxton.


In its initial advertisements, the group, calling itself The Concerned Citizens of Mount Zion, said a “vision plan” for the future of the church, proposed by Braxton, was a move to consolidate control in the pastor’s hands.


The Concerned Citizens, who did not sign their names, maintained that the plan would shift power from entities such as the church’s advisory council, composed of about 100 leaders, to a small steering board headed by the pastor.


It wasn’t clear how many people were involved in the groups critical of Braxton.


In advertisements of his own, Braxton responded that the congregation, not the pastor, holds final authority over all matters brought before it. He said the vision plan was intended to guide the church into the future, in part by finding the most effective ways to minister, to serve the needs of seniors and children, and to win souls for Christ.



Moving forward



In an interview yesterday, Braxton said he believed he would have won the votes of a majority of the 1,800 people present at yesterday’s service.


But “the damage to the name of Mount Zion and the personal injury was just not worth it,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t unscramble an egg. It’s time to move forward.”


He said earlier that his wife and mother could not sleep and his children were getting into conflicts in school because of media reports.


Braxton, a native of Tacoma, said the new church he plans to start probably will be in the South Seattle/Renton/Tukwila area. He doesn’t have an exact location yet but intends to start preaching somewhere locally on July 30. He believes a “quite significant” number of Mount Zion members will attend his new church.


Meanwhile, Mount Zion members yesterday expressed a range of emotions, said Nellams, the trustee-board chairman.


“No matter what this may look like to people outside Mount Zion, Mount Zion is a family,” Nellams said. “The family is dealing with … one of its own leaving.”


Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com