Editorial: Big Sandy split shows leadership crisis

The writer, who lives in Gladewater, Texas, with his wife, Fredonia, is a long-time member of the Church of God. As a former member of the board of trustees of the United Church of God Big Sandy, Mr. Spears, a retired college instructor, comments on recent events in the Big Sandy area that resulted in an abrupt split in the UCG's largest congregation beginning the Sabbath of May 16. Mr. Spears resigned as a member of the board of the UCG Big Sandy May 13 and as of press time had attended with neither the UCG Big Sandy nor the UCG-AIA since the split.

By Floyd Spears

BIG SANDY, Texas--The efforts of the United Church of God, an International Association, have culminated in disrupting congregations and separating friends and families who are choosing up sides and going several separate, wandering ways. How sad.

When the wrecking crew landed in Big Sandy the first week in May, the UCG congregation in this area had an average weekly attendance of about 360. The crew landed in force with apparently no intention of coming to a common understanding. It seemed only to want it clearly understood that the UCG-AIA was in charge, local church boards notwithstanding.

On May 2 Les McCullough, UCG-AIA president, had stood in the pulpit of the Big Sandy congregation in the high-school auditorium in Hawkins and given the people a good report on the progress made by his new administration with regard to relocating the home office, the makeup of the new council of elders, budget-balancing, etc. Everything was just peachy.

Pastor Dave Havir followed him with his sermon, and the congregation sang, had a closing prayer, visited in fellowship for a while and departed in peace, with no hint that this was to be the last sermon for their pastor-in peace, that is.

Faxed message

That next Monday, May 4, the seven members of the local board received a facsimile message from Richard Pinelli, operations manager of ministerial services at the UCG-AIA's home office, informing us that on the following Sabbath, May 9, Roy Holladay would be introduced to the Big Sandy congregation as its new pastor, with no reference made as to the future of the present pastor, Mr. Havir.

As a member of the Big Sandy board of trustees, a position I had held since the beginning of the organization in 1995 (at 79 I'm also the oldest of the seven and the only great-grandfather among them), I commenced immediately to call the people I believed to be responsible.

First I called Mr. Holladay down in Florida and pleaded with him to reconsider his plan to come here and set us all straight as to who was in charge.

I tried to make it clear to him that it was not going to be a Sunday picnic and that I was reasonably sure that he was not going to enjoy the assignment. I assured him that without a doubt he would be a contributor to the biggest split in the brief history of the UCG-AIA.

He made an effort to convince me that the move was the best for all concerned. I felt my effort was spent on deaf ears.

When I gained no ground with Mr. Holladay, my next call was to Mr. McCullough in Cincinnati. He had gone there to check on the progress of the preparation for the new home office. He was staying at the Holiday Inn and was easy to contact.

Again my plea was for him to use his considerable influence in stopping or at least slowing the action taken by Mr. Pinelli.

Mr. McCullough seemed to think that the matter was mostly out of his hands since Mr. Pinelli was the manager of ministerial services.

The Big Sandy problem

Again I assured him that if the home office proceeded with that particular pattern the Big Sandy church would be split and someone was going to be responsible for the divisiveness that as Christians, possessing (to some extent) the mind of Christ, we should be striving within the Body not to be a part of.

I was informed that Big Sandy was a problem that the council had been wrestling with for a considerable time. There was no indication that he would rescind the letter written by Mr. Pinelli. He did, however, give me Mr. Pinelli's phone number and suggested that I was free to discuss the matter with him.

I immediately called Mr. Pinelli's office and was informed that he was out and would not be back until Wednesday, whereupon I informed the person on the phone of my name and that I was a member of the board of trustees of the Big Sandy church and that I had received an impressive-looking DHL Worldwide Express message from him for which I was required to sign.

I further explained to her that I was somewhat disturbed by the content of the impressive envelope and that it was "extremely urgent," as it said on the envelope, that I speak with Mr. Pinelli, especially since Mr. McCullough had said that I should call him.

You have to understand that I was a bit shaken up seeing as how I've been on the local church's board ever since there was one, and this was the first time I had received any sort of communication from anyone in the home office.

Then the lady said, "Well, let me check and see," so in just a moment she came back on the line and said that Mr. Pinelli was on the other line and I should give her my number and he would return my call as soon as possible.

It was no time till my phone rang, and sure enough it was Mr. Pinelli.

Administrative purposes

I explained to Mr. Pinelli that I really didn't even know what his position was, whereupon he offered to fax me a copy of his job description. I politely declined the offer and went on to explain to him that it had appeared to be the plan of former president David Hulme and his assistant, Steven Andrews, to gain total control of every facet of the ministry. So we had Mr. Pinelli and immediately under him three lieutenants and under them 12 regional pastors.

And what for? I never really understood. Maybe they were to go around putting out fires that I suspect never existed anyway. I referred to this kind of activity as "administration overload for control purposes."

Mr. Pinelli did tell me that the decision to remove Mr. Havir as pastor was primarily that of the council of elders, and, as director of ministerial services, he was the operations person.

He said that Doug Horchak (also of ministerial services) and Ken Giese (regional pastor) would be up to visit with the board, and I suggested to him, as I had to Mr. McCullough, that I would really appreciate it if the boys would stay home.

If they didn't stay home, then more people would have to shoulder the responsibility for the Big Sandy split.

I did not sense a lot of compassion in the voice of Mr. Pinelli. It was more or less just matter of fact; that's the way things operate.

The local board had a meeting the evening of May 4. Including the observers from the congregation, we had 40 or more people there, and the meeting was open to questions. Mr. Havir was the moderator. There was a lot of give and take. Quite a few commented, but nothing was determined as to what action would be taken if the UCG-AIA council carried through with its stated purpose, that of removing Mr. Havir.

I did also call another council member, Don Ward, to see if I could prevail upon him to throw a chunk under the wheel of division. But once more it seemed that it was a matter that the council had discussed at length and that the removal of Mr. Havir was the only solution that everyone could agree upon.

There were so many things that took place in such a short time that I did not keep notes, and the actual sequence of events is no longer clear, if it ever was.

Mr. Havir to resign?

At any rate, there was a telephone conference among the council members, and they decided to meet on the Sabbath day after services in Hawkins on May 9.

That Friday night, May 8, John Warren, another member of the local board, called me and told me that Mr. Havir was going to resign. Whether John said so or not, I got the impression that Mr. Havir was going to give the sermon the next day and resign forthwith.

This was upsetting to me. For him to resign in that manner would have the same effect as his being terminated by the board. There would be a split.

We convened for an emergency meeting of the local board that Sabbath morning at 11:30 to discuss whether to have the question-and-answer session with the council immediately after services or wait, as some wished to do, until after sundown.

The board decided to go ahead and have it immediately after services.

It was at this board meeting that I told Mr. Havir that if he resigned under these conditions I would not follow him anywhere because he would be personally as guilty of splitting the church as would be the council.

The wrecking crew was there for the Q&A session-for what reason I do not know. Absolutely nothing was accomplished. There were muddled questions and unclear responses. There was some garbled verbiage and some verbal garbage. Compassion and love went out the window; tolerance was nowhere to be found; honesty and truth were seemingly, at times, shaded.

It was a traumatic day. It was a tiring day of rest. As far as I could see, there was nothing good about it.

Unhappy with home office

I wish I could say that Mr. Havir was completely without fault and squeaky clean in this matter, but such is not the case. From day one, the day we left Indianapolis in 1995, Mr. Havir was unhappy with the home office. It seems that with him there was no reconciliation possible.

He did, however, receive his ministerial credentials from the home office. He did take the money for his salary from the home office and was reimbursed for at least part of his expenses and was covered by the UCG-AIA's insurance.

It seems to me it would have been a better course for Mr. Havir to have honestly stated his feelings and his reasons for his dislike of the home office and then to have started his own church then and there if any wanted him as their pastor.

Going back still farther, it would have been good if Mr. Hulme would have been straightforward with the men at Indianapolis. Immediately after Ray Wooten gave his instructions on how to organize and start a local church board, Mr. Hulme should have countered with the limitations of the local board and stated what he perceived to be the full authority reserved to the council.

But he apparently didn't want to take any chances on limiting the income or the home office's ability to rapidly employ as many ministers as it could as soon as it could, thus enhancing the chief organizers' position as the chosen ones to restart the powerful old machine that had afforded them such a luxurious life for all their working lives.

Furthermore, they convinced themselves and others that they could and would soon return the stalled old machine to its former glory and continue with the great harvest, powered by the government of God on earth in embryo.

But here we are, more than three years into the effort, and where are we? What results have we seen?

For the most part it has been a fruitless effort. We have had members of the council dickering among themselves over matters of minor significance. There has been no concentrated effort to meet on common ground. They have not agreed and declared that the UCG-AIA is going to move in a specific direction. Indeed, the direction, since the church's founding three years ago, has changed.

It is my belief that there was something wrong with what was going on in the Worldwide Church of God for at least two decades before its breakup three years ago. It was my prayer that the men of leadership in the UCG-AIA after the conference in '95 would fast and pray and ask God to show them the problems that existed in the WCG and to inspire them with the vision of the direction that He wanted efforts to be directed to serve the thousands of people whose lives had been shattered and scattered by what had happened.

Such happened and is still happening with many members of the Church of God, but such was apparently not to be with many of the leaders and organizers of the UCG-AIA. They were desperate to recreate a work under the "government of God on earth" directed by a headquarters-type system with one man or, as it turned out, 12 men in control-no questions asked.

We negate the work that was done in the church under Mr. Armstrong during the first 30 years of the Radio Church of God if we contend that the only message and messenger who is allowed to perform in any manner in teaching or preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God must come from the home office. Mr. Armstrong himself set the example when he broke away from his "former association." He saw a need; he did his best to fulfill it. That, my friends, was an example of personal evangelism.

The Word of God shall go forth to a lost and dying world wallowing in the blood of dying high-school students felled by their own demented classmates. Are we going to be part of the solution to this world's appalling problems or not?

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