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Report on Polk Memorial at St. Paul’s Augusta

Report on Polk Memorial at St. Paul’s Augusta

We reported in April that St. Paul’s Augusta was experiencing conflict over the vestry’s decision to move a memorial to Confederate General and Episcopal bishop Leonidas Polk. A consultants report on the conflict has now been issued. The time and place for the move of the memorial remains to be determined. See the senior warden’s announcement here and the report here (or below).

The event which triggered the conflict, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, occurred one year ago tomorrow. Soon after, now former rector George Muir asked the Polk memorial be moved from behind the altar.

In January, the senior warden, Ashley Wright, in a blog post to the congregation announced a process to address conflict around the Polk memorial.

The Vestry unanimously voted to avail ourselves of diocesan resources to address the Parish conflict surrounding the Polk cenotaph. The Revs. Becky Rowell (Associate Rector, Christ Church St. Simons Island) and Melanie Lemburg (Rector, St. Thomas Savannah) work with churches on transforming conflict by determining the sources of the conflict and developing best methods for moving forward. …

Their work will begin next week with interviews of a cross-section of the Parish identified by the Parish. …. Their report to the Vestry and Parish following the interviews will reflect comments with no attribution to any one individual. They will work with the Vestry and interim Rector to develop a plan for moving forward in anticipation of the call of a new Rector. The cost is anticipated to be approximately $5,000.

The Revs. Rowell and Lemburg recommend that moving the cenotaph be paused until the listening sessions are completed and a report made to the Parish. It is anticipated that the interviews and subsequent report can be completed in 120 days or less. Work will then recommence on a proper placement of the memorial.

The Rowell-Lemburg Report to St. Paul’s Augusta concerning the Polk Memorial

What Brought Us Here
Almost one year ago, former Rector George Muir said that the Polk Memorial should be moved from the altar area. In a letter to the parish, he described the proposed action as removing “one of the seen and unseen stumbling blocks for people of color that sustain a narrative of inequality.”
In November, the Vestry voted to move the plaque to a “different position within the church buildings.”
This Vestry action proved contentious with parishioners expressing support for or displeasure with
moving the memorial.

What Saint Paul’s Said
Love the people, history, traditions, liturgy, music, and outreach. A welcoming church with parishioners whose families have multigenerational roots as well as people new to the parish. Exciting time to be
The Polk issue arose during a time of high anxiety when the nation was embroiled in a divisive election, socially challenging issues, and a pandemic. Parishioners were experiencing grief and insecurity due to social isolation and loss of jobs, security and loved ones. The congregation could not gather to fully
explore the issues. The Polk issue compounded feelings of anxiety, anger, grief and isolation and became another distraction. Mistrust developed.
Some began to take sides, others signed a petition, and some withheld financial support. People on both sides of the issue were disparaged. As the conflict simmered, underlying issues arose, some of which have arisen in previous conflicts.
Underlying issues include: a few vocal lay leaders dominate leadership, “Finance Committee decides priorities and funding,” lack of transparency about committee composition and financial issues, lack of broad membership on committees, resistance to change, clergy is scapegoated, history of conflict that has been addressed only once, financial support was withdrawn in this and previous conflicts and concern this conflict will affect the search for new rector.

What We Heard
Genuine desire to begin gathering in person, transform this conflict, and move forward.
Develop a complete plan for the Polk memorial so that all sides feel heard and have an understanding of the issues
Continue to be “a church where all are welcome”
Develop shared leadership between older and younger leaders
Expand communication beyond email while parishioners commit to engaging with church communications
Transparency in all aspects of operations
Review of committee structure to include term limits
Use your history as a foundation for moving forward
Develop a vibrant children, youth and family program and senior program
Expand adult education offerings
Offer solace, comfort and prayer to hurting people, in the church and beyond

This is a high-level conflict which has resulted in the church being divided and polarized, a reduction in giving and participation, and early departure of clergy
Focus has turned inward to the conflict and away from your work in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ
Saint Paul’s can be vibrant and healthy again if the conflict and underlying issues are addressed

Use your strong history as a foundation for moving the kingdom of God forward in downtown Augusta
Build on what you do best – worship, Tuesday Live Music, Wednesday Suppers, Ironman, hospitality
Value relationships above issues
Honor the deliberative process of the Vestry and acknowledge that Vestry decisions have been prayerfully considered and made through God’s grace
Vestry appoints a representative task force to develop a complete plan to carryout the Vestry action to move the Polk memorial
The task force offers a variety of ways for parishioners to comment on the plan and fully informs the parish on all steps. All actions are transparent
Develop a policy addressing memorials in the church, including flags and windows
Conflict transformation skills training for the Vestry, committee chairs and any interested parishioners
Train the Vestry and lay leaders on best leadership and stewardship practices. Extend stewardship training to the parish.
Continue participation in Church Development Institute
Develop programming for children, youth and families and seniors and expand educational activities for adults
Develop policies and term limits around the committee structure
Complete and implement strategic planning
Filter all leadership decisions through the mission statement, not through the budget


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W. T. Sherman

It is almost laughable to me that some people are upset over this issues. It’s not like they’re destroying the memorial, they just want to move it to a more appropriate location. You can still acknowledge the church’s role in history, in an informed context, without alienating potential new parishioners. Now is the time to make these changes or else this church, like many great old churches before it, will die a slow death.

John Chilton

If I were bishop I would tell the parish you’re having an interim rector who specializes in interim work. A new rector should not be caught up in decisions over the move of the memorial. Give them a clean break from the immediate conflict.

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