10/22/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
When the capital began getting that born-again feeling back in 1977, no one could have been happier than the Rev. Charles Trentham. The new family at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. promptly enrolled in the First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., and Dr. Trentham became the nation's First Preacher. He dined with the Carters at the White House, baptized Amy, counseled the family when Chip separated from his wife—and even had the President and Rosalynn out to his Vienna, Va. home for an old-fashioned covered-dish supper. Almost forgotten was the fact that Trentham had been encouraged to leave his Knoxville, Tenn. pulpit in 1973 after divorcing his wife of 30 years and marrying a soloist in his church choir, who had herself been twice previously divorced. Washington's had been one of the few Baptist congregations liberal enough to hire a minister with that sort of history.
Now, unexpectedly, that liberalism is being tested. Next month his congregation will vote on a recommendation by its deacons that Trentham, 60, be dismissed. The reasons: a decline in baptisms, Trentham's divorce last year from his second wife and charges that he has been dating a congregant (a divorcée) who came to him for guidance. "This is not a public issue," insists Dr. William McBeth, chairman of the deacons. "It is a family matter within the church." But the Carter connection has brought it public exposure—and the President pointedly showed his support for the pastor by appearing in church the Sunday after the deacons' vote and by greeting him personally in the range of photographers.
The congregation, which will vote November 28 on whether to renew Trentham's contract, is as divided on the question as its elders. "Dr. Trentham is an outstanding speaker and well respected," says former church moderator Robin Clack. Adds another congregant: "There has been no evidence of illegality or immorality on his part." But the deacons—who opposed reappointment by a plurality of 27 to 11—have issued a written statement, arguing that Trentham's "credibility" has been damaged by his behavior. Why did some of the deacons go public? "Dr. Trentham is a smooth talker and there was a feeling that he could sway the congregation," explains one member. "Some of the deacons wanted the facts on the table."