The U.S. Federal Courthouse in downtown Hammond, Ind., is less than two blocks from the sprawling campus of First Baptist Church.
At that campus, former leader Rev. Jack Schaap spent a decade performing fiery sermons about morality to the mega-church’s 15-thousand members. The congregation has a reach that stretches into other parts of Northwest Indiana, Chicago, and even beyond U.S. borders.
Last July, the married Schaap’s bully pulpit was rocked by scandal. In September he pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl; the relationship involved crossing state lines, police say.
Today, instead of preparing his next sermon, Schaap awaits sentencing in the federal courthouse that just down the block.
Since the scandal broke, First Baptist has been the subject of media reports, magazine stories and ridicule.
Church members, however, are trying to put all that aside and they’re now in the process of selecting a new leader.
A principal candidate is Rev. John Wilkerson, a married father of nine children. Though he’s currently a pastor in Long Beach, Calif., Wilkerson is no stranger to Hammond or First Baptist Church, having graduated from the church’s pastor college, Hyles-Anderson in nearby Crown Point in 1990.
On Wednesday night about 4,000 church members gathered to hear Wilkerson speak for about 90 minutes. The sermon referred to morality and staying faithful in marriage, but didn’t directly address the scandal that’s led him to consider relocating to Hammond.
Instead, Wilkerson talked about a friend, a preacher, who strayed from his marriage and the effects that ensued.
“I’m still his friend, I still love him but now there’s not that admiration,” Wilkerson said. “The loving favor is not there because he did not avoid a sin.”
Wilkerson did not speak to the media following the service.
His words soothed some members, like John Condict of Griffith, Ind., who said Wilkerson could be the right choice to help the church move past Schaap.
“I don’t think we’re that crippled. I mean we’re always in need of God’s healing,” Condict said. “I think he’s God’s choice for us but we’ll see how it goes.”
Another member, Daryl Carter of Crown Point, said Wilkerson has all the necessary qualifications to be effective.
“I enjoyed the sermon and I think he would be the right fit,” Carter said. “I think he would do a wonderful job. I think he could take the best aspects of his church and continue with it. I think what’s going to help him is that he’s pastored somewhere else before.”
Church spokesman Eddie Wilson said church members will vote Sunday on whether to offer Wilkerson the job.