A Letter from a Wounded Congregation

When I wrote my letter to Bishop Willimon, I really didn’t expect it to receive the response it did. As a result, I’ve received several (many?) messages and e-mails thanking me for verbalizing what they would have liked to say to our United Methodist bishops, but were afraid to do so in fear of retaliation for their open critique. Trust and fear are deeply connected, and for a people who claim and believe that Christ’s love overcomes fear, it’s amazing how many folks walk in the worry that they will be harmed for speaking their mind.

However, one of the disheartening results of writing to Bishop Willimon has been the e-mails from folks who have experienced pain and attack in the course of their ministry. These are folks who believe they are trying to be faithful to Christ’s call, but whose vision differed with the denominational hierarchy, and they found themselves enmeshed in a political morass which made them question their commitment to our communion.

Yesterday, I received a note from a layperson at one of those churches, The Church of the Reconciler in Birmingham. They forwarded me a link to a website created to document some of what they have experienced in the past year, leading to an Open Letter to the Members of the North Alabama Annual Conference, a group which meets this week. I won’t go into all the details — they offer a timeline of their experiences — but if their allegations have any basis in truth it raises troubling questions about how church leaders fail to live according to the common rule of life we have set for ourselves — the Book of Discipline.

I recognize that I am getting one side of an issue — and that those on the other side may have perfectly valid reasons for acting as they have done. Unfortunately, the decision made far too often by cabinets and bishops to remain secretive and less than transparent about their decision making and actions makes it difficult if not impossible to adequately weight the arguments of both sides to come up with a rational conclusion as the problems at hand. All we can do is try to understand as best we can with the information we have as we try to make sense of the stories we here.

Check out the site for yourself and let me know what you think about what you read there. Or, if you know more about the situation, feel free to share it in the comments here.

28 thoughts on “A Letter from a Wounded Congregation

  1. All I can say is… what the h-e-doublehockeysticks… I sure hope there is another side of the story, because this seems outrageously unjust and makes me sick.

    1. Katie:
      You are right, of course. There is another side to this story. I have been working on this for the past ten months, very frustrated because we were unable to share the facts of what we found in our investigation of this ministry. Our conferene is the major funder and the creator of this ministry and we must be sure that our precious mission funding is well administered.

      I have processed a complaint against the DS involved. Then a complaint was brought to the bishops against me because of my processing. That complaint was investigated and dismissed. Now a small group of people has a website that Mr. Vorhees has used for his purposes. Additionally, even though we followed our processes carefully, they have brought a complaint against me to the Judicial Council. Now at last we are able to share what we were earlier reluctant to share in the interest of clergy confidentiality. I have had three elders who have attempted to minister in this situation but have been undercut in their ministry, one who has had to take a leave of absence because her experiences with this group at the Reconciler were so troubling. Now, because we will be defending our actions to the Judicial Council, I will be able to share what we have learned (and we have learned even more information because of this succession of pastors) about the situation of this congregation and the actions of this group.

      I have been so encouraged by the responses below from Tony, Jeremy, and others. Stephen, thanks for your prayers. Luke, you are right, it is a very strange situation.

      Will Willimon

      1. Did I share information for my own purposes? I suppose that anything that I choose to share on this site it for my own purposes, since it is a blog that I have used for personal commentary since 2003. Do I have an agenda to attack the Bishops as a whole, or Bishop Willimon individually? Nope. As I have said here I support our Bishops, and recognize that they face many difficult circumstances. In point of fact, I wrestled over whether to share the information in this post, and attempted to do some research to get a better sense of what was being shared. I also made pains to emphasize that this was indeed one side of the story, and encouraged folks with additional information to share what they could here.

        The reason that I shared this was that I found a resilience in the Open Letter that I was featuring that I found admirable. In a world in which people leave churches over the smallest of offenses, and where consumeristic church shopping is the norm, this group has committed themselves to staying and trying to remain a part of this congregation even though they perceive that they are being encouraged to leave. Bishop Willimon is right — we don’t know all the information — and it could be very likely that this is a small group of trouble makers who simply won’t embrace change, or who have a different ministry philosophy and paradigm from that of the bishop. And yet, when they could do what many churches and church members do — withhold their financial support — they instead not only state their commitment to supporting the congregation financially, but encourage others to join them in a fundraising event for the congregation.

        So is it self serving to share this information with others and ask to get their opinions about what I was reading? I suppose so — just like it’s self serving to publish ANY thought or opinion in the marketplace of ideas for folks to evaluate. My media of choice is a personal journal of what I’m thinking at a particular moment — this blog. For some reason that I don’t fully understand, a few folks like to check in with those thoughts. I certainly don’t share these thoughts for any financial or personal gain.

      2. Jay,
        I don’t think that there isn’t a person who has responded who misunderstood why you put this up or why any one of us responded. We have all been in a situation where the information that we were given was incomplete.

        I took an assignment several years ago where the assigned pastor abruptly quit five weeks into the assignment and I was asked to step in. As it happened, the person who I was to contact for information about the church was one of the individuals whose behavior/attitude lead to the pastor’s leaving. It took me several months before I was able to discern the internal politics of that church and determine what was the truth and what was not.

        We now know that there are more details to the situation with the Church of the Reconciler. And it may be that when those details are brought forth, we might find that the story is something entirely different.

        But what are the details? We still don’t know what they are and we are being asked to trust that resolution of this problem will be for the good of the United Methodist Church and the people who are in ministry and those who receive the benefits of the ministry.

        And that is the problem that you originally addressed – the trust of the people in its leadership. I hope that I understand what Bishop Willimon is saying – there is a process in place but it takes time.

        Unfortunately, with the speed of communication what it is in today’s world, the speed of the process is far too slow when compared to the speed of communication.

        People are not likely to respond favorably to 20th century (or even a 19th century) response to a 21st century problem, even if it is the correct response. It isn’t that they don’t believe the response is valid but that it is out of step and the responder doesn’t understand those seeking the response.

        When Wesley was banned from preaching in the church, he went into the field. The message didn’t change; only the method. And the people responded because Wesley’s actions (along with the other Methodists of that day) showed that they cared for the people.

        I once wrote (“Seeing the Forest for the Trees” http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/seeing-the-trees-for-the-forest/) that I felt Wesley would be quick to accept the computer and the cell phone because it would increase the ways one could spread the Gospel.

        But what the United Methodist Church found out at General Conference; in fact, what the whole world has found out since the Arab Spring of 2011 is that while the world is a bigger place, what happens in one part of the world becomes known throughout the world very quickly.

        That is the case here – you put up something you felt was important and people responded. Many people responded that we weren’t getting the whole picture. And, though perhaps not openly stated, I would suspect that we were sort of hoping that someone would post something that would complete the picture.

        Now, with Bishop’s Willimon’s response, we have a picture that is almost 3/4 complete. Is Bishop Willimon angry at what has transpired. He probably is, because it pushed him to do things that maybe he didn’t want to do. When Jairus came to Jesus seeking aid for his daughter, people told Jairus not to bother the Teacher with the news. But Jesus responded immediately. And even when Jesus didn’t want to heal someone, such as the Syro-Phoenician woman, he was reminded of why He came to this earth.

        I realize that there is a process that must be followed. But somewhere in the process, people have to know what is transpiring.

        Would it have made it a difference if this blog had not been posted? No, it wouldn’t have. But what it did was show the challenges that the United Methodist Church faces in responding to the needs of the people.

      3. Bishop Willimon, I am shocked by your lack of understanding about the facts of this case, even when they involve you. We filed a complaint against you and Ron Schultz in October. When we were told that the Southeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops could not hear the complaint against the District Superintendent, we then filed that complaint in February with you, as the resident bishop, although the irony of having you rule on a case you were complicit in was not lost on us. At any rate, the order of events you list above is incorrect.

        You state that you have had three elders who were undercut in their ministry. The first senior pastor assigned at the 2011 Annual Conference was an interim who had always planned to leave at the end of that summer. The second senior pastor, the one who had to take a leave of absence, is not an elder, but a licensed local pastor. The third pastor left because she was not a good fit as pastor of this unique ministry, but in her short time with us, we came to admire her and love her, and we gave her all the support we could in a difficult situation.

        You speak of the investigation in relation to the complaint against you as well as the investigation into our ministry. The fact is, as you well know, there were no investigations. Members of our congregation called the office of Ron Schultz and begged to be heard during the time when the investigation was supposed to be held. They were refused an audience with the DS, because he didn’t have time to speak with them. I would challenge you or Bishop Gwinn in the SE Jurisdiction to publish a list of people you talked to in the “investigations.” You will not do so, because no interviews and no investigations were held in either matter.

        You may be held to confidentiality in the instance of our pastors, but as the former chair of the board and a founding member of the church, I hold you to no such confidentiality. You speak of what you have learned about “the actions of this group.” Please tell me, what do you have against me that required my removal from office? Several members of “the group” were approached about serving on the appointed board until we filed the complaint against you. You simply have no reason to consider us unsuitable to serve, except that we dared to challenge you and your tactics.

        Jay mentioned that our group continues to serve and encourage others to give to our ministry. This is true. Just today, for instance, I helped prepare the PowerPoint for our worship service, ran the PowerPoint during the worship celebration, supplied and set up Communion elements, arranged for someone to light the candle for worship, cleaned up the Communion table afterward, and helped the pastor count the offering. And I participated in worship, as I do most Sundays, by offering the welcome to first time visitors. If I wished to undercut this ministry, I could have a much calmer Sunday worship experience, to be sure. I also plan and lead our Wednesday night program, which takes some amount of my time each week. In what way are these the actions of someone who wishes to undercut the minister or the ministry?

        I look forward to the day when you share what you have ‘learned’ about us. I know with every fiber of my being that those ‘facts’ will prove to be as untrue as those you have stated above.

      4. Bishop Willimon, you seem incapable of telling the truth.
        You didn’t disclose any facts from your investigation because the facts are the Higgs didn’t do anything wrong. The complaints against them weren’t even charges; they were complaints from a “small group of disgruntled people”. The complaints were dismissed and no charges were ever made against them. These are the facts that you haven’t disclosed. You and Ron Shultz hide behind clergy confidentiality in order to disregard the Discipline and work your own self serving agenda. You and Ron are embarrassed that what you have both done in secret is being brought out and judged in the light. You threatened our former pastors and church members by bullying us and lying to us and we have called your bluff. It is easy to manipulate people by threatening to hurt the ones we love and care about. God help you both.

      5. I have always viewed the role of Bishop as, at least in great part a pastoral
        one. In fact, the Book of Discipline describes in Paragraph 414, page 309 the role of Bishop as: “To strengthen the local church, giving spiritual leadership to both laity and clergy; and to build relationships with people of local congregations of the area.”

        Yet in this case:
        1. Bishop Willimon, despite repeated requests, did not meet with any lay
        member of Church of the Reconciler.
        2. Bishop Willimon did not meet with any of the clergy who are or have been
        previously appointed to Church of the Reconciler.
        3. The only information Bishop Willimon has received about Church of the
        Reconciler has been filtered through the perspective/interpretation of D.S. Ron Schultz.
        Indeed it seems that Bishop Willimon has apparently been unable to take time from his busy schedule to hear from those members of the Church of the Reconciler who have been deeply hurt by recent events. Strangely enough, however, he has taken time to comments and blog posts about the issue. Clearly, he has found time to invest in this case.

        Would not the congregation of CotR be better served by the good Bp taking time away from his pontificating via keyboard to actually sit down and listen to the concerns, as a pastor (or a Bishop) would or should?

        Is there a valid reason, then why the concerns of CoTR have not been given a true hearing?

        While I do recognize that the public matter in which this is now playing out is an unusual one, it seems to me that this whole airing of laundry could have been avoided if the DS and Bp. Willimon had actually acted in pastoral fashion. It is unconscionable that the response to a clearly and self-identified “wounded congregation” has taken the form it has; as the bishop, rather than actually meeting with this wounded congregation has instead accused groups within said congregation of acting to bring dissent, without ever taking time from his busy schedule to listen to those pains.

        CotR has a long history of following the teachings of Jesus by literally feeding his sheep. Their Bishop, however cannot seem to even take time to listen to those who are being the hands and feet of Jesus to the homeless and marginalized people of Birmingham.

        From my perspective as a contributor to and volunteer for CotR, it seems that the good bishop is far more concerned with maintaining the institution that is the North Alabama Conference of the UMC than in actually supporting those ministries that the institution was created to support. One truly wonders why membership in the UMC is declining, as such clearly self-preserving and gospel-ignoring actions take place within the institution.

      6. I must say a bit more. There seems to be some troubling obfuscation in Bishop Willimon’s response earlier in this thread:

        From above comment: “There is another side to this story. I have been working on this for the past ten months, very frustrated because we were unable to share the facts of what we found in our investigation of this ministry. ”
        From a story in the Birmingham News from last June: “Neither Higgs Sr. nor his son Kevin will be on staff after an investigation into allegations about administration problems at the church, although the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church found no grounds for discipline, Bishop William Willimon said.”

        From Bp Willimon, above “I have processed a complaint against the DS involved. ”
        Yet my friends at Reconciler state they were never given a hearing regarding the complaint about the DS.
        From Bp Willimon, above “Then a complaint was brought to the bishops against me because of my processing. That complaint was investigated and dismissed. ”

        Yet Reconciler reports that “We filed our complaint about the disenfranchisement of our church in October. Four months later, Bishop Gwinn dismissed our complaint against Bishop Willimon. There had been no investigation. Although Bishop Willimon was permitted to answer our complaints, we were not provided a copy of that response until we requested it following the dismissal. Not one person who signed our letter of complaint was interviewed. We did not have an opportunity to respond to Bishop Willimon’s statement. As had been the case throughout this entire ordeal, we were not heard. The Discipline was not followed. Justice was still denied.”

        Tis’ surely a thorough investigation when neither members of the congregation or those bringing the complaint are allowed a hearing, yes?

  2. Jay
    I agree with your thoughts that we only have the one side of this issue. The sad thing is that there is a lot missing. The question arises as to who knows what is happening and why is it not being told.

    When I started being active in the church, it was suggested that I understand the Discipline as the failure to do so was the crux of many problems.

    My internal reaction to a quick reading of what was posted suggests that the Discipline is either not being followed. If there is a justification for the process that is being followed, again, that needs to be stated.

    I hope that more information will come out and that whatever is the cause for what has transpired is resolved. Internal matters can only fester and will, like a cancer that has gone undetected and untreated, destroy the system.


  3. Jay,
    This is a real mess. I have read everything on their website. If there is not another side to this or something more complex related to the charges than this is very disturbing. I would assume that Cabinet is relying on their missional status as the reason for not having to follow the discipline. If that is the case and that is allowable than there are serious flaws in the missional status…There is so much going on here like changing the locks that it seems we are missing key parts of the story that perhaps even the congregational leadership does not know but should.

    1. The only time that I have heard of a UM Church changing the locks is when the congregation wants to leave the denomination and is unaware of who owns the property. But there was nothing in the notes that suggested such a move on the part of the congregation.

  4. I wonder if the alleged secrecy could be explained by the simple notion that people who have come to power tend to cling to power? Add to this thought the suspicion that there may be church leaders who believe that they are infallible (and that they certainly cannot be held accountable to commoners) and suddenly it is not so hard to side with the congregations’ side of the story.
    Unfortunately, the sick, the homeless, the addicts that have been helped by Church of the Reconciler have also been the ones that had to pick up the tab for these occurrences.

  5. I have never heard of a united methodist church that has a Board of Directors. It is fascinating because their website makes only the smallest indication at all that they are even methodist related in one sentence in the about us section. If I didn’t know better I would assume that the church is a non-denominational.

    I also find it interesting that their official website makes no mention of issues or problems at the church. All issues and problems are posted on a non-official source. That being said I have no idea what is true.

    My guess is that there is two sides of this issue and then there is the truth somewhere in the middle. I will pray for this church and their ministries in birmingham.


  6. This is pretty bizarre. Changing the locks on the clothing closet?

    The two pastors who had the complaints filed against them (the emeritus pastor and then-current pastor) are father and son. I don’t know how/if that is relevant, but it wasn’t obvious to me in the website (not that it was concealed).

    Here is a local news article from June of last year: http://blog.al.com/living-news/2011/06/birmingham_church_of_the_recon.html. Bishop Willimon was quoted in it. Some stuff that I am tempted to try to read between the lines on.

    Here is a UMTV video clip of their ministry: http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=10675.

    The chair of the new Board of Directors might be a staff person at another large UMC in the area (if the website mispelled his name).

    It doesn’t sound like they are treating Reconciler like a church; it sounds like they’re treating them like an outreach ministry or homeless service organization.

    The fact that many members are homeless folks or formerly homeless folks makes this somewhat more troubling.

  7. Well, it appears the Church of the Reconciler was not assigned any apportionment payments according to the 2011 Conference Journal. http://na.brickriver.com/files/oFiles_Library_XZXLCZ/Statistics_C8HPBNCG.pdf That might be a part of being a mission charge.

    It also looks like it paid its pastors about $10,000 and no health benefits.

    It had about half a million in debt and $228,000 in total church expenditures.

    I don’t know what any of these numbers mean, but there they are.

  8. The d.s. in question just spoke to the A/c. He indicated that the SpRC was not properly formed, I.e., it consisted of members (including the chair) who were not members of the UMC at all (some of them) nor properly affiliate/assoc. members. The cabinet determined that they had no right/authority to speak with the “sprc” in matters concerning the complaints levied against a former pastor (Higgs) nor the appointment processes related to the other more recent pastors. So yes, apparently there is a lot that hasn’t been shared. However, the secrecy/confidentiality of this kind of thing ends up wounding almost as often as it protects (a point made by the d.s. involved).

    We took a ballot to refer the bishop’s dismissal of the complaints against the d.s. to the judicial council. Will know results of that tomorrow. Meanwhile, the pastor currently there is doing a phenomenal job in the mods of what is already a challenging appointment, but which is all the more so amidst this controversy.

    1. The North Alabama Conference D.S.’ comments on the SPRC of Church of the Reconciler were not fully truthful. The majority of the members of the SPRC of Church of the Reconciler were full members of the congregation. It is my opinion that the D. S. was just looking for a techicality to justify his lack of consultation Further, the abuse goes much deper than just this. Look on the “Documents” page of the website. You will see in George Likis’ comments how the D. S. recruited people to make complaints against these pastors. This is an abuse of power.

      1. I need to say more:
        The D. S. of the North Alabama Conference not only recruited people to make complaints against these pastors; the D.S. recruited them to make FALSE allegations against these men. These false allegations were never investigated. None of the leadership of Church of the Reconciler were interviewed about ANY of these allegations. These allegations were then dropped by the D.S., then used as an excuse to move them away from the congregation. Then the congregation was totally disenfranchised. This is a textbook case of how to destroy the career of two pastors who faithfully served the poor, preached the Gospel, and celebrated the sacraments in a street ministry devoted to advocacy for the poor and marginalized. If you want to destroy a ministry that challenges the powers that produce homelessness, this D.S. is showing you how. I wonder who pressured this D.S. to behave like this?

  9. If you want to know why Church of the Reconciler and its former pastors were targeted, just read Rev. Dr. Kevin Higgs’ book (He was one of the pastors removed). It includes a history of the church: Hospitality to Strangers: Theology & Homosexuality.

    The title might give you a clue as to why this happened?

    1. But surely the issue of homosexuality and Christianity are not so inflammatory as to warrant this sort of divisiveness.

      Oh, wait a minute.
      Never mind…

  10. Fact: The majority of the members of the SPRC at CoR were full members.
    Fact: The Discipline says in P227 that Affiliate Members can hold office.
    If they want to argue about the meaning of “Affiliate Member” OK, but that is no excuse for not speaking with the rest of the SPRC of CoR.
    Fact: CoR NEVER hired a lawyer as Schultz claims. The lawyer was/is a long time supporter, contributer who was advising CoR about the Discipline. He was not CoR’s lawyer; and, wrote a letter to Schultz/Willimon to that effect. I guess Ron forgot about that letter….

  11. Bishop Willimon’s actions and words in this instance mirror his unhelpful critique of General Conference. He comes across as someone who rules with an “Of course I am right, because I said so ” approach. Removing Church leadership, refusing to meet with the SPRC, bringing in an outside Board of Directors may have been what the DS did, but it is evident it was done with the Bishop’s full approval. There is an old adage but true about needing to avoid the “appearance of impropriety.” What happened seems underhanded, and devious and in no way respects the right of the Charge Conference to elect leaders or make decisions. No matter what the “other side is”; the manner in which decisions have been made and the level of determination to keep key leaders out of the process is inexcusable. If Bishop Willimon wonders why people don’t just trust the Bishops to make important decisions on behalf of the whole church; then he really doesn’t understand the concepts of integrity transparency or trust which must be earned. I suspect several folk would have trouble trusting him or being willing to follow his leadership.

  12. Since several people who claim insider knowledge of this are posting comments, could someone please describe in plain terms the issues at the church that gave rise to the actions?

    There are hints that it had to do with money. There are hints that it had to do with homosexuality.

    What is the actual story here?

    Lots of hints and claims of injustice but not a lot of facts, especially for those who are not on the ground and already in the know.

    1. I would love to “describe in plain terms” what the issues were, if we only knew them. That is part of the problem with all the secrecy (couched behind claims of confidentiality) that shrouds this entire ordeal.

      We were told that the original complaints against our pastors had to do with mismanagement of money, and with using the pulpit to promote a personal political agenda.

      Pastor Kevin preached political sermons in the way Jesus did…challenging those in power and calling for peace. He did not promote a political agenda; he promoted the gospel.

      As for the money issue, in the 18 years before this began, our church never missed a payment for payroll, mortgage, insurance, or any other kind. We only started ministries after the money for them had been raised, and never were we delinquent for any bill.

      According to one of the people who brought the original complaint, he accused the Higgses of spending money designated for a particular project on other things. The money, $70,000 for showers and washing machines for the homeless, was safe and warm in a separate bank account, and none of it had been spent. Had anyone bothered to truly investigate or (shudder) speak to the chair of the finance committee about it, they would have quickly discovered that money had not been spent at all, much less mis-spent. We still have the documentation about those funds.

      When Bishop Willimon responded to our complaint to the Southeastern Jurisdiction, he made no mention of the designated funds, but accused the pastor of using a church credit card to purchase sound equipment that was not used at the church. If this weren’t such a serious situation, it would be laughable. Kevin is a member of a band and used his band equipment and personal equipment at the church, not the other way around. I’ve known him for 20 years, and he is a man of utmost integrity.

      Here is one speculation about what really prompted this. Fact: we paid $250,000 for the old warehouse we worship in. At the time it was a part of town that was abandoned and unwanted. We paid $250,000 to fix the place up and make it a church. Fact: in the time since we bought that church, the property across the street was renovated and made into a business incubator that is connected to UAB. A formerly blighted area a few blocks away was made into Railroad Park, an award-winning, beautiful park that is a source of pride for all of us who love Birmingham. Land was purchased within a few blocks of us to build a new baseball stadium for the Birmingham Barons. Land in the area has skyrocketed in worth. Now to the speculation: we have heard estimates that our property is now worth $2 to $3 miliion. We have heard that the city wants us to move, because of the homeless who frequent our property. We know that if the church folds, that money for the building would go the conference instead of to the church. Many believe the timing of this assault is a little too much of a coincidence. Please note that I am putting this speculation out there without claiming the truth of some of these rumors. If we could prove it, I reckon we could bring an end to this mess.

      I don’t know if any of this helps. It is confusing, even for us in the middle of it.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective on the issues. It does sound quite complicated. I hope the full story from both sides gets an open airing at some point. Closed doors and secrecy breed problems.

  13. In this and many instances the Church (Denomination) needs to find a way to balance the need for confidentiality with the need to respect the leadership of a local congregation.While some details should not and can not be share;d refusing to meet with certain leaders just because they question the process being used to evaluate their Pastor only breeds contempt and mistrust. Especially when one known outcome of the investigation is that all complaints and charges were dropped. Removing certain leaders and replacing them with an outside “Board of Directors” smacks of getting even with those congregational leaders who would “dare” to question the actions of the DS and Bishop, Even if the decisions are legitimate, the apparent process is not what one should expect from a Christian Church, To put it bluntly: This is no way to treat people.

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