Trustees vote to disband Cincinnati North congregation
By John Warren
The board of trustees of the Cincinnati (Ohio) North congregation of the United Church of God voted in a meeting June 17 to "dissolve the corporation," reported Rick Pratt, president of the board.
Mr. Pratt said the board planned one more meeting for June 30 before formally disbanding.
The board also decided in the meeting on the 17th to divvy up some of the assets of the local corporation between Cincinnati North and a new congregation, Church of God Cincinnati. The latter is pastored by Jim O'Brien of West Chester, Ohio, who pastored Cincinnati North before its recent split.
The UCG, based near Cincinnati, terminated Mr. O'Brien on May 5, the same day it rescinded his ministerial credentials. (See "Church Lets Elder Go When He Disregards Its Gag Order," The Journal, May 31.)
Mr. O'Brien pastored several congregations in the Worldwide Church of God before the UCG began, in 1995, and pastored UCG congregations in Lexington, Ky., and Cincinnati. The UCG is headquartered in Milford, a Cincinnati suburb.
Mr. O'Brien's termination reportedly was for "due cause," resulting from his refusal to abide by church-policy procedures including an order not to discuss with his congregations certain closed-door meetings with his UCG superiors.
The Journal reported last month that the Lexington board of trustees and congregation (which actually meets in nearby Georgetown, Ky.) decided to leave its UCG affiliation, along with Mr. O'Brien, and arranged with Mr. O'Brien to continue as its pastor.
Roy Holladay, president of the UCG, appointed Mark Winner as pastor of the members at Lexington who did not remain with the local corporation, and Matthew Fenchel, an elder and UCG home-office employee, replaced Mr. O'Brien in Cincinnati North.
The Journal asked Mr. Fenchel and Mr. Winner how many people worship in the new UCG congregation at Lexington. Mr. Fenchel told this writer that he could confirm that such a congregation exists but he had no other information.
At press time Mr. Winner had not responded to The Journal's query.
A house divided
June turned out to be an awkward month of separation for the Cincinnati North congregation.
Its board of trustees, after deliberations over several days, decided in principle to disband its board and divided the congregation's physical assets between the pro-UCG and pro-Jim O'Brien factions.
In a message to church members dated June 2, Mr. Pratt, president of the board of the locally incorporated group, wrote that the board had met the previous night for three and one-half hours to "discuss the future of the UCG-CN [United Church of God Cincinnati North] corporation" and "proposed changes in the Code of Regulations and associations or relationships with other groups."
Reportedly, although board members did agree on how to divide up audio and other equipment, so far it had not been able to agree how to divide the congregation's bank account. Until all assets are divided and dispersed, the nonprofit corporation must continue to exist, even though the board has agreed to disband it.
Mr. Pratt also commented in a letter sent to church members that "the board knows this has been a trying time for members in Cincinnati North and that there is a desire for some finality from the board."
He said the board "wants to do what is right before God and what is in the best interests of the members in the Cincinnati North area. This may take a little more time than we first anticipated."
He thanked board members Todd O'Brien, Stacey Shoemaker, Brian Smith and Bill Veeneman "for their hard work and detailed proposals." (Todd O'Brien is the 28-year-old son of Mr. O'Brien and his wife, Donna.)
Dissolving a corporation
Perhaps because the dissolution of the bank account is uncertain, Mr. Pratt asked church members to "discontinue sending tithes and offerings to the local post-office box." He said the board would return to donors any funds received after June 21.
"For those wishing to send tithes locally [to the new Cincinnati congregation pastored by Mr. O'Brien], we ask that you be patient with us until accounts and post-office boxes are established. This should be completed in the next week or two."
Mr. Pratt, a member of the Cincinnati North board even though he attends church with Mr. O'Brien's new congregation, announced that both Cincinnati congregations are meeting in the same location, Northern Hills Unitarian Church Fellowship Hall, at 406 Fleming Rd.
The Church of God Cincinnati, pastored by Mr. O'Brien, meets at 10:30 a.m. each Sabbath. The United Church of God Cincinnati North, pastored by Mr. Fenchel, meets at 2:30 p.m.
"Please feel free to attend either or both services," Mr. Pratt said. "There is no pressure for you to decide who you will meet with."
In a statement to The Journal, Mr. Fenchel acknowledged that the board of the evolving Cincinnati North congregation (he, as the congregation's pastor, automatically became a board member, as provided by the local bylaws) had voted to dissolve the corporation.
"On June 17," he said, "the board passed a motion to dissolve the corporation. The vote was 5-3-1. I voted against this motion to disband the board and corporation."
Mr. Fenchel said he voted against dissolving the corporation because "I heard no valid reason to dissolve the board," and "the board is still in the process of deciding how the congregational assets should be divided. The UCG-CN corporation still has some obligations that need to be met during the next month, so this process is not yet complete.
"The actual vote to dissolve a corporation and the ceasing of operations are two different things, usually with two different dates. It usually takes some time to finalize all necessary details before a corporation can cease operations."
Division of assets
Mr. Fenchel confirmed that the board had discussed the division of equipment assets rather than monetary assets. When asked how much money the corporation has, he said: "I would not want to disclose that information without the approval of the UCG-CN board."
(Mr. Fenchel asked The Journal to note that he is not an official spokesman for either the United Church of God or the Cincinnati North board.)
Mr. O'Brien, who, as former pastor at Cincinnati North is also a former Cincinnati North board member, said: "Since I am no longer on the board I don't know the current amount. When I was on the board we had $15,000. We kept that as a base amount. Our teen magazine and the Winter Tournament came out of that."
Mr. Fenchel noted that whenever the board's "obligations are satisfied and assets are divided," the board can then file with the State of Ohio to dissolve the corporation.
"Only after the filing with the state is a corporation officially dissolved."
Dueling winter tournaments
Mr. O'Brien, who as mentioned above, pastors an independent congregation near Lexington, Ky., that until last month had been affiliated with the UCG since its beginning in 1995, wrote a letter to Lexington and Cincinnati members dated June 22 in which he talked about the future of the two groups. He wrote that "some exciting opportunities have begun to emerge."
The "exciting opportunities" are the Winter Family Tournament, which Mr. O'Brien's congregations sponsored for seven consecutive years alternately in Lexington and Cincinnati.
His congregations plan to continue the Winter Family Tournament, but complicating the situation is that the UCG also plans to continue the same event. Both sponsors, now split from each other, plan to conduct competing tournaments. Both lay claim to the tournament's history and to the right to continue it.
Both tournaments will take place in Kentucky, the UCG's in Louisville and the one sponsored by Mr. O'Brien's congregations in Lexington.
Mr. O'Brien announced that the "Lexington Winter Family Tournament" will gather in the Kentucky Basketball Academy facility. The "tournament," as usual, is more than a tournament. Besides sports competition, it will feature fellowship activities including Sabbath services over the winter holiday Dec. 22-25.
For information about the Lexington weekend, see www.cogcincinnati.com or phone Mr. O'Brien at (513) 755-0040.
For hotel reservations call the Mobil Four Star Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel, Interstate 64 and Newtown Pike, at (859) 231-5100, or dial Marriott's national reservations number, (800) 228-9290.
UCG tournament details
In an announcement said to have shocked some members in the Lexington and Cincinnati areas, UCG president Roy Holladay, in a letter to U.S. church members dated June 30, also announced the continuation of the Winter Family Tournament.
Mr. Holladay noted that "numerous pastors, parents and young people" had expressed an interest in a winter family weekend "sponsored by either United Church of God congregations or the Home Office."
Mr. Holladay also wrote: "After discussing the matter with the pastors of Cincinnati North [Mr. Fenchel] and Lexington [Mr. Winner] (who discussed the matter with members in those congregations) this year's event will take place in Louisville, Kentucky."
Mr. Holladay, who lives in the Cincinnati area, formally announced the "Eighth Annual Winter Family Weekend 2004 Sponsored by the United Church of God" to take place Dec. 22-25 at Mid-America Sports Center.
For more information visit the UCG's Web site at www.ucg.org. For hotel reservations call the Clarion at (866) 246-2021 or (502) 491-4830 and mention the United Church of God.
The Journal asked Mr. O'Brien how the competing UCG tournament would affect his tournament.
"Not at all," he responded. "We may lose a few people, but we will host the same events as we have in the past."
He also said that, because of donations from individuals and groups in and out of the UCG, the Winter Tournament in its seven-year history was always "self-supporting."
"The very first year only between $100 and $150 had to come out of the local church account."
Magazine and conference
Mr. O'Brien also announced plans for a magazine for young people.
"I am genuinely excited as imagination develops into concrete realization," he said. "To be honest, the name expressing the right concept had just not come along until a friend spent the weekend with us and suggested exactly the right name."
The name: Challenge.
The first issue is scheduled for just before the 2004 Feast of Tabernacles.
Mr. O'Brien also mentioned his desire for members of his congregations to attend the Conference on Evangelism beginning July 31 sponsored by two elders who helped found the UCG, Guy Swenson of Plainfield, Ill., and Bill Jacobs of Albuquerque, N.M. (See "Two Elders Say Their Planned July 31 Evangelism Conference Results From Their Sense of Frustration," beginning on page 1 of this issue.)
Noting that invitations to Mr. Swenson's and Mr. Jacobs' conference have gone out to "all congregations, including lay members," Mr. O'Brien said he plans to attend and hopes "to see many of you."
Mr. O'Brien talked about governance of the two congregations he pastors: the Lexington congregation he has pastored for eight years and his new independent congregation in Cincinnati.
"Both churches are up and running," he said. "We will be congregationalists. We will have a board."
Since questions on governance usually lead to discussions of elders and whether they are automatically part of a local hierarchy, he commented on the institution of ordination by saying his congregations "are not really concerned with that. We have not sat down to check people's credentials. We want everyone to roll up their sleeves and pitch in."
The Journal asked Mr. Fenchel if the UCG-affiliated Cincinnati congregation will reincorporate after abandoning its present locally focused founding documents.
"The UCG Cincinnati North congregation is still considering whether it will incorporate or not," he said. "I have informed the members on numerous occasions that if the congregation wishes to incorporate I will support that desire and participate fully.
"If the congregation does not wish to incorporate but rather desires a different organization and structure, I will support that desire and participate fully."
Mr. O'Brien says, regarding the incorporating of congregations, he has learned a few lessons from his experiences. He thinks that some who left the WCG in the mid-1990s made important decisions too hastily. He does not want to rush the process of organizing and reorganizing in his congregations now that they are not affiliated with a parent organization.
Some of those decisions, he said, concern who can serve as a board member, how and by whom a board is selected and if the congregations will participate in direct elections.
In the UCG, as outlined in the bylaws and constitution, only ordained elders are considered members of the parent corporation and can vote in the corporate decision-making process.
Elders' wives, deacons, deaconesses and other members in the UCG in this country are not members of the corporation and have no voting rights on the national level.
Even though many questions remain, said Mr. O'Brien, it is clear that unordained church members will have a say in the governing process.
One decision Cincinnati North and Lexington made too hastily back in 1995, Mr. O'Brien said, was for local corporations to specify that the United Church of God an International Association would be the congregations' "parent church." That detail in the local founding documents complicates the situation when a local group decides to separate from the parent administration.
The Journal asked Mr. O'Brien if he has been formally hired as a paid employee by his two congregations.
He said that to date he is not on salary in Cincinnati but receives "some help" from the Lexington congregation.
One of the UCG's accusations against Mr. O'Brien was that he was improperly receiving financial support above and beyond a normal salary and expense account.
Web and Feast sites
Mr. O'Brien informed this writer that the new Cincinnati congregation has a Web site at www.COGCincinnati.com.
The Journal asked about sponsorship of Feast of Tabernacles sites.
"No," responded Mr. O'Brien. "We think there are other excellent sites sponsored by other groups. We will support some of those."
The Journal asked Mr. Fenchel, pastor of Cincinnati North, if he is happy with the ways things have played out in the church split.
"I am not at all pleased with the outcome," Mr. Fenchel said.
"Once again brethren are separated from each other. No matter where a person wants to lay blame, the outcome is still contrary to what the Bible reveals as God's desire for His children.
"To my knowledge, there is not one example in the Bible where God initiates division as a proactive blessing upon and among a righteous people."
Mr. Fenchel said he could cite "plenty of examples" in the Bible of "division" proving to be "a curse" or "the automatic result of unrighteousness."
"If one follows the approach of separation whenever someone makes a mistake to its logical conclusion, the eventual outcome is that everyone will be an isolated Christian, because humans will always make mistakes.
"Many believe that separation of brethren is not the solution to this or many other situations."
Mr. Fenchel said he was "not pleased" with people's actions and deeds on "numerous occasions."
"On the other hand, I was most impressed with the integrity and character of various individuals on and off of the UCG-CN board, both in UCG-CN and in COGC [Church of God Cincinnati, the new congregation pastored by Mr. O'Brien].
"It is always refreshing to see such fine examples in times of stress."
The Journal asked Mr. Fenchel if his members would be free to attend both congregations and whether a person who attended Mr. O'Brien's congregation would be allowed to speak and serve in other ways in the UCG group.
Mr. Fenchel said everyone who wants to attend UCG services and activities is welcome if he "comes in peace."
"We don't ask people where they might be attending before welcoming them in," he said. "There are individuals right now who are attending both congregations."
Concerning speaking privileges, he said that "the opportunity to speak in Sabbath services has always been a selective process based on a number of factors which include, but are not limited to, the following: knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures, ability to speak publicly, how a person will be received by the congregation in a teaching role, reputation and involvement of the person in the congregation, etc.
"These and other factors will continue to be used in deciding speaking assignments."
In a final note about the church separation, Mr. Fenchel said:
"The UCG-CN corporation never disassociated from UCGIA [United Church of God an International Association].
"That motion was defeated by a vote of the board. In accordance with the UCG-CN code of regulations and articles of incorporation, the UCG-CN congregation is a congregation of UCGIA. That has not changed.
"While individuals have left the UCG-CN congregation, the UCG-CN congregation continues with weekly Sabbath services and regular activities with many of the people who have always attended with UCG-CN."
The situation in Lexington is just the opposite.
The original congregation, along with its pastor, Mr. O'Brien, severed its UCG affiliation.
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