Congregation questions a new UCG pastor's
decision to abolish advisory council
By John Warren
The Journal has been aware for months of alleged events in Pennsylvania involving two UCG congregations. This newspaper chooses to report on the situation now because of its connection with the Jim O'Brien story (see the article elsewhere in this issue and "Church HQ Suspends Pastor From Speaking" in the print version of The Journal, April 30).
Because of health problems that caused Dale Schurter of Easton, Pa., to retire from the full-time ministry of the United Church of God, the UCG transferred in a new pastor in August to serve three congregations in Pennsylvania.
Soon the new pastor of Bethlehem, Harrisburg (which meets in the city of York) and Lewistown, Paul Luecke, began to make changes that local members say upset them.
Members at Harrisburg say they resisted Mr. Luecke's attempt to abolish their long-standing "advisory council," which had functioned successfully, they say, under previous pastors.
After a large group of Worldwide Church of God members bolted from the WCG over doctrinal changes in 1995, forming the United Church of God, based near Cincinnati, Ohio, several part-time and full-time pastors have served UCG members in Pennsylvania.
They have included Don Hornsby, David Baker, Jack Hendren, Mr. Schurter and the present pastor, Mr. Luecke.
No assistance required
Mr. Luecke, whom the UCG transferred to Pennsylvania from North Dakota in August, announced that he had decided he did not need the assistance of advisory councils in the congregations he pastors.
When word spread that he was planning to abolish Harrisburg's council, he apparently began to experience some resistance. That resistance reached a level that prompted the regional pastor for the UCG in the U.S. Northeast, Paul Suckling of Shrewsbury, Mass., to travel to Harrisburg in December to conduct a congregational meeting.
The Journal bases much of this article on information from an audiotape of the proceedings of that meeting, conducted on Dec. 20.
Members of the congregation said they could not comment to The Journal on the situation because, they say, UCG officials informed them any comments could nullify their formal appeal of Mr. Luecke's decision to abolish the advisory council.
Likewise, a member of the UCG's council of elders said any discussion of the situation by church members would invalidate any appeal.
Journal publisher Dixon Cartwright of Big Sandy, Texas, commented on the "ethics" of what some people call "gag orders" that are routinely placed on Church of God members of various denominations.
"When an order not to speak of a developing situation is invoked to prevent church members from discussing with anyone something that is said in a public forum, then that order is invalid," Mr. Cartwright said.
"Examples of public meetings are Sabbath services, Feast services and any meetings, including a question-and-answer session, that members of a congregation are invited to attend. Any such meeting does not include discussion that is privileged information. After any such order, members who do not promise to abide by it are ethically free to discuss the proceedings with anyone."
The congregation previously known as Harrisburg and now known as York meets in a rented hall in York, Pa.
The meeting opened with prayer and then a long opening statement by Mr. Suckling, the regional pastor, who spent much of his preliminary comments explaining what a congregation is according to the UCG's constitution and bylaws.
He explained point No. 188.8.131.52 of the constitution, which states: "An assembly of members, wherever located, pastored by a minister recognized by the United Church of God, an International Association (UCG), and governed by UCG's published rules of association, shall constitute a local congregation of the United Church of God, an International Association."
Mr. Suckling also briefly discussed some history of the congregations at Harrisburg and Lewistown. He referred to a debate that arose under the pastorate of Mr. Hornsby that resulted in the regional pastor (Mr. Suckling) meeting with the congregation to discuss church governance.
The pastor "looks after the spiritual," said Mr. Suckling. In contrast, he said, a "council, or a committee, whatever," could conceivably concern itself with "the physical things of the church."
Although Mr. Suckling apparently believed his comments at the time of the Hornsby controversy settled it, the Lewistown congregation decided to appoint all the members of the congregation's men, women and children to its advisory council, while Harrisburg decided to elect representatives to its council.
A church divided
Controversy is nothing new to the three Pennsylvania congregations. In 1998 the Harrisburg church was pastored by Mr. Hornsby, who eventually left the UCG when the council of elders terminated its first president, David Hulme.
Mr. Hornsby joined with Mr. Hulme in a new denomination, which is now known as the Church of God an International Community.
From the beginning?
As part of his opening statement, Regional Pastor Suckling posed a rhetorical question: "Can you as a church, as members, can you support what I just read to you from United's constitution as having been there from the beginning?"
"From the beginning," as applied to the UCG, can mean different things to different UCG members. The UCG began in the spring of 1995 in Indianapolis, Ind., but the present constitution and bylaws of the church, which do not carry forth some of the ideals espoused at Indianapolis and indeed officially nullify some of those ideals, date only from the church's second general conference of elders (which some administrators in the UCG refer to as the first general conference of elders), which took place in Cincinnati in December 1995.
Readers of The Journal and a similar earlier newspaper, In Transition, will remember the debate dating to the original UCG conference at Indianapolis in which elders of the new church perceived a vision of local boards and separately incorporated congregations for the new Church of God.
Beginning that December the church administration apparently saw local boards in a much less favorable light than was the case at the founding conference.
Mr. Suckling noted "discussions and debates" about "what advisory councils are and how a church should operate."
He also mentioned the congregation in Big Sandy, Texas, that until 1998 was affiliated with the UCG. After the UCG's ministerial-services department wanted to transfer Big Sandy pastor Dave Havir and Mr. Havir declined the transfer, the local board at Big Sandy voted to disassociate the congregation from the UCG.
He referred to "the difficulty in Texas in the Big Sandy congregation."
As a result of the Big Sandy situation, he said, the UCG's 12-man council of elders, meeting in Tyler, Texas, in January 1999, discussed advisory councils and how they should be "organized."
Two kinds of entities
Mr. Suckling did not discuss the difference between an advisory council and an incorporated board of trustees, which is a legal entity that cannot be summarily abolished by itself, the church headquarters, the congregation or the pastor.
The UCG's constitution mentions that a "congregation" (it does not say "the congregation's pastor") may establish a local advisory council. It also does not mention how, if ever, a local advisory council might cease to exist. It makes no mention of anything like a pastor's right to unilaterally abolish an advisory council, just as it makes no mention that the pastor has anything to do with the establishment of the council in the first place. The constitution says the purpose of the local advisory council is "to assist the ministry" and "the Church as a whole," as well as "the local community."
(The congregations of the UCG pastored by Jim O'Brien in the Cincinnati, Ohio, and Lexington, Ky., areas have legally incorporated boards whereas the congregations in Pennsylvania do not.)
Clearly written procedure
Mr. Suckling said that, when "things go wrong in the church," a "clearly written appeals procedure" is in place. The procedure, he said, means that any church member who believes that "any minister" is treating church members incorrectly by "misusing his office," may--after talking with the minister one on one--call on the regional pastor, who will then carry the appeal to the "ministerial-services team" and Richard Pinelli, director of the team.
Mr. Suckling also stated, "If we can't resolve it within 30 days," then the matter "goes to the members' appeal committee, and they have to come down here and address it and resolve it within 45 days. If that cannot be solved, it goes to the whole council."
Mr. Suckling ended his opening statements by asking Mr. Luecke to hand out a copy of section 184.108.40.206 of the UCG's constitution for those who wanted their own copy.
Mr. Suckling asked Mr. Luecke to read from the bylaws. But first Mr. Luecke said: "Then also in our bylaws is No. 8.8.4, which describes member advisory committees. It says the council, and the context here is the council of elders, the council is authorized and encouraged to establish advisory committees comprised of baptized members of the church."
At this point in the proceedings, members of the congregation began to ask questions of Mr. Suckling and Mr. Luecke.
Jim Johns, a Harrisburg elder, questioned Mr. Luecke's interpretation of the bylaws.
"What he [Mr. Luecke] read [from bylaw 8.8.4] was referring to committees formed by the council of elders for a specific purpose and has nothing to do with the advisory councils of congregations," Dr. Johns, a dentist, said.
Mr. Luecke expressed his disagreement on that point with Dr. Johns, but Dr. Johns continued, "I don't read anywhere in the constitution where it says that the local congregation's advisory council is simply ad hoc or can be abolished under the constitution."
The paragraph from the bylaws, which plainly speaks of the council of elders allowing "ad hoc" "advisory committees" to exist to "provide input to the Council," on face value apparently has nothing to do with the local advisory councils allowed for in constitution section 220.127.116.11. That section obviously refers to locally established councils; it does not say they are "ad hoc"--that is, it does not say they are temporary in nature--and does not say a pastor may abolish them. That section also says they are begun by a "congregation," not by a pastor.
Some observers believe the proper implication of the wording is that only the congregation that established them has the authority to abolish them.
More about appeals
Another member of the congregation, Brian Drawbaugh, wanted to talk more about the appeal process.
"I asked somebody on the members' appeal committee if that was to hear any issues [that might come up], and the reply I got was that it was to hear appeals of members' disfellowships."
Mr. Suckling again explained the appeal process and added a little more information:
"And then the members' appeal committee has 60 days. If it's not resolved at step three, and the members' appeal committee feels it's wrong, then they can write to the secretary of the council of elders and the council takes it up."
This writer contacted Mr. Suckling to see where the appeal process stood. When he learned that the information would appear in an article for The Journal, Mr. Suckling said, "I don't take The Journal, and I'd rather not make any comments."
The Journal contacted Mr. Luecke and asked him several questions. At press time he had not responded.
Appeal through the pastor
When this writer for The Journal asked Mr. Pinelli about the appeal process, he said:
"Concerning the appeal from York, our policy shows appeals must begin with the pastor, then the regional pastor and then on to ministerial services. We asked the pastor and the regional pastor to sit down with those who had concerns and try to work through them at the congregational level. I understand they did that."
The Journal also contacted Clyde Kilough, chairman of the council of elders, to see if an appeal had been made to the council.
Mr. Kilough wrote: "We received a request for the council to 'intervene in our situation,' signed anonymously by 'all the concerned members' of the York and Lewistown congregations."
When asked about the appeal process for congregations, Mr. Kilough stated: "We do not have an established formal appeals process for a congregation. What we do have is an appeals process for individual members. That process requires that the appealing member, if appealing mistreatment or improper disciplinary action, etc., by the pastor, that he/she bring the matter to the regional pastor and the ministerial services team.
"If not resolved at that level, the appealing member may appeal to the Member Appeal Committee. If there is still no resolution, a final appeal to the Council of Elders is available."
When asked if he had seen a transcript or listened to a tape of the December meeting in Harrisburg, the chairman responded, "Yes."
Power to the pastor
Many of the questions in the Harrisburg Q&A posed to the pastor concerned his reasons for wanting to abolish the advisory council.
One man commented to Mr. Luecke: "Now you have just come in and destroyed it [the advisory council], saying we don't need it anymore; I will take care of it all." But "the way it was done hurts; it hurts a lot, when people have done a lot of work."
Mr. Luecke responded, "Well, I want you all to know that I certainly did not come here to create whiplash in anybody."
The pastor went on to say he had been "naive" about his new church area. He had purposed to come to Harrisburg and simply "change to a different method of administering the congregational details." Such a change, he believed, would not and should not be "a major thing."
In all his years of pastoring congregations--in Kansas, Alabama, California, Arizona, Kentucky and North Dakota and in Manitoba, Canada--all such changes he has made have been routine and caused nary a ripple in the contentment of the congregations.
Mr. Luecke related his belief that a pastor has the right to make administrative moves and place deacons or other people in positions of the pastor's choosing.
Dale Schurter, the previous pastor, now retired, also in attendance at the Q&A, said he was happy to hear that it was not Mr. Luecke's desire to foment turmoil in the congregation.
"I am really glad to hear you say, Mr. Luecke, that it was not your intent," although "the reality is it did [interrupt the congregation's equanimity]. Whatever caused the change, it did cause a lot of upset and hurt in the people."
Mr. Schurter explained that the congregation, which had grown accustomed to "hands on" involvement in the congregation's affairs, feels as if the new pastor has asked it to become uninvolved.
Corporate or congregational
Mr. Schurter offered his evaluation of Mr. Luecke's pastoral philosophy compared with his own.
"I feel Mr. Luecke has more of a corporate approach, in a sense, and that I have more of a congregational approach."
Later in his comments Mr. Schurter stated that he was nevertheless sure Mr. Luecke had the congregation's best interests at heart.
"I know it is not Mr. Luecke's intent to devalue the congregation," Mr. Schurter said, "but I know that many have felt devalued, from elders to deacons to deaconesses and members individually, in feeling unneeded and unwanted, that a work that has been done has no value or little value now, all of a sudden."
Mr. Suckling thanked the ex-pastor for his comments and told the audience that in spite of the offenses of the past it is time to accept the new administration and move on.
"It's a new administration," the regional pastor said. "It's a slightly different approach, but we've got to find a way to move on."
At this point in the meeting Mr. Luecke offered a long explanation in an effort to clear up perceived misunderstandings.
"If anyone has the impression that I felt or I've thought the congregation would try to usurp, or could usurp, the pastor's authority or overrule me," he said, ". . . I never said that."
The principle of the thing
Mr. Luecke's main concern, he said, was to "bring the administration of the congregation in harmony with our UCG governing documents."
He expounded on his understanding of the principles of church government.
"Even if in practical application the pastor is not to be, let's say, overruled once per meeting or every other meeting, or whatever," by an advisory council, "it's just simply the principle of bringing the administration in harmony with our governing documents.
"I never felt the congregation would try to overrule the pastor or usurp the authority of the pastor, so, if that has been mentioned, I'm sorry, but I'm not sure where that may have come from."
Mr. Luecke described his style of governing: "I feel that the approach that I have in my mind is what I think most would consider the traditional, normal, traditional approach. That is, personally [in spite of Mr. Schurter's comments], I would not call it a corporate approach.
"Maybe that is the term being used, I don't know, but I call it the normal, traditional approach."
The meeting returned to perceived past abuses of church authority when one man wanted to discuss Mr. Suckling's comments about "getting over it" and "moving on."
Much of that part of the discussion centered on the administration of a previous pastor, Don Hornsby.
"I don't want to make Mr. Hornsby a whipping board," said Dr. Johns, "because I think the biggest concern of most of the people in here is the fact that for eight long years we went through the most wretched things you can imagine, and he didn't lead anybody out of the church. He put a lot of people out of the church, but that's the main reason why we don't have any young people in the church anymore.
"A lot of us have scars that we will have for the rest of our human lives."
Mr. Luecke responded to Dr. Johns: "I'll be the first to agree there is no room for abuse, but I'm just telling you, from my heart, in my intent, I had no motives, no reason, no designs to abuse anyone."
The discussion returned to the pastor's desire to abolish the council.
"I'd asked if the advisory council would be allowed to continue or if it would be abolished," Dr. Johns said. "You [Mr. Luecke] said that would be one of the things that would come out in the meeting, but I didn't hear the answer."
"Well," responded Mr. Luecke, "I guess in one sense we are trying to make clear we are going to switch to a different administrative structure, which obviously means discontinuing the advisory council."
After Mr. Suckling and Mr. Luecke explained there would be "a phasing" or "transition" period between the two methods of local governance, Mr. Luecke asked Dr. Johns, "Does that seem fair?"
Dr. Johns responded: "I'm just speechless. Sorry."
The moderators asked if anyone wanted to say anything else.
Mona Schurter, wife of the former pastor, commented on what she saw as bad timing.
"What I don't understand is . . . why we couldn't have just held off until everyone got to know you better and understand the things you said tonight" before announcing the abolition of the council. "When you began to see the unrest in people and pain, that's why I don't see why everything has to be done now. We've got to do it now. We can't wait?"
Mr. Luecke acknowledged that his timing was not ideal but the matter took on a life of its own that caused him to make the necessary administrative changes sooner rather than later.
Series of events
"I would agree that ideally what you described would be the best way to do it," he said, "but I guess the only answer I can give to that kind of goes back to what I mentioned before: that there was just simply a rapid series of events and circumstances that really it just began to take on a life of its own and some of the things were beyond me, bigger than me."
Sue Johns, wife of Dr. Johns, asked Mr. Luecke to elaborate on his reasons for his decision.
"Can you explain to us what that series of events were?"
Mr. Luecke said he could but doing so would take a long time.
Mrs. Johns requested that the pastor name just one event.
"Well, if I named one," Mr. Luecke said, "in fairness I should continue and name them all, so I'm not going to name even one."
Don't pick at sores
At this point the moderators--Mr. Suckling and Mr. Luecke--called an end to the meeting because the congregation had use of the hall only until 6 o'clock.
Mr. Suckling then called on church members to "come to Mr. Luecke privately, one on one," to "sort out any differences."
Mr. Suckling admonished the congregation to stop picking at old sores.
"You've got to let things heal, become a scar, and then become a memory," he said. "It's all part of our training to be servants in the Kingdom to serve thousands of people, thousands of them. Who knows if God gives you five cities how big they'll be?"
Even though Mr. Suckling seemed to lay out a clear-cut procedure and timeline for appeals, at press time it does not seem that the appeal by the congregation has been heard by or officially acknowledged by ministerial services, the member-appeal committee or the council of elders.
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