Fourth general conference of UCG convenes in Louisville

(This article also includes UCG elder's statement about CGI-UCG merger rumors. Since this article was written, The Journal interviewed the chairman of the board of the Church of God International and Bob Dick, chairman of the council of elders of the UCG, about the rumors. Watch for an article here or in the March 26 print edition of The Journal.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Chairman and acting president Bob Dick of the United Church of God, an International Association, on March 7 defended recent decisions made by the 12-member council of elders in the wake of criticism and mass mailings by two other church-employee elders in the days and weeks before the conference.

The conference began here the evening of March 7 in the Galt House Hotel.

About 385 elders and wives--a total estimated attendance of 650--of the United Church of God, an International Association, came together beginning the Sabbath of March 7 for the church's fourth general conference of elders since its founding in the spring of 1995.

Addressing conference delegates were Mr. Dick, of Everett, Wash., and Roy Holladay of Fort Myers, Fla., in the first preliminary session of the conference. Mr. Dick and Mr. Holladay addressed concerns brought up by two other UCG elders--Steven Andrews of Arcadia, Calif., and Marc Masterson of New Jersey--in two mailings to ministers in the UCG shortly before the conference.

Mr. Dick defended the council's decisions that affect the approach the church makes toward preaching the gospel and doing "the work" and the decision to allow the presently configured council to name a new president (instead of waiting for a newly reconstituted council to name the president after the conference) and explained why the council had rejected several measures brought up by Mr. Andrews.

(Before the conference the council had reprimanded Mr. Andrews for allegedly "usurping" the power of the council and general conference. The council had instructed Mr. Andrews to apologize and retract certain statements; Mr. Andrews refused. The church and Mr. Andrews have agreed on a "separation" of him as treasurer of the church.)

Mr. Holladay defended the decision of the council to carry out the general conference's decision in March 1997 to move the home office from Arcadia to Cincinnati, Ohio, after Mr. Masterson had charged that the council had ignored pertinent information in its ongoing plans to move office operations to Ohio that would have weighed in favor of leaving the office in Southern California.

Sabbath services

The events of the day had begun several hours earlier at Sabbath services, which besides elders and wives included many of the brethren from miles around Louisville who heard a split sermon by another council member, Jim Franks of Houston, Texas, and Mr. Dick.

Mr. Franks spoke of the Body of Christ, quoting Matthew 16:18, noting that "the church cannot be destroyed, no matter our puny efforts."

"We are God's people," he said. "We are a part of His church. And have we ever thought deeply about what that really means? We refer to ourselves as Christians, as God's people. We talk about brethren. All of those are terms that should imply a much deeper meaning behind them."

He related an account of his research into early Sabbath-keepers in New England while he was pastoring churches in that part of the country in the early 1980s.

He used his research to make his point about "basic Christianity." He said his list of three points wasn't conclusive or exhaustive, but "I have three very simple points. I am a very simple person and capable of only very simple sermons. This is my list of what I call basic Christianity, my list of basic Christian principles. These are things I found in the people [the early Sabbatarians] in New England. This was my test to see if these were the people of God, and I concluded they were."

His points were that:

--God's people are humble.

--God's people have faith and conviction.

--God's people have hope.

To support point No. 1, that Christians should be humble people, he cited Isaiah 66 and other scriptures and noted that followers of God and Jesus Christ should be "contrite, meek, demur, honest, submissive and subservient."

"All these are synonyms," he said, "for the word humble or humility." Point No. 1 "identifies an attitude. But, more than that, humility is something you are; it's the way you act, much more than words."

He quoted verses from 1 Peter 5:

"Peter is speaking to elders in the church," Mr. Franks said. "Why does Peter direct it squarely to the elders? The theme of the first 11 verses is humility. Obviously it talks about feeding the flock, caring for people, not being lords but being examples."

But the apostle Peter was referring "not just to something that's inside; it's something that can be seen from the outside by the way you act."

On Point No. 2, the faith and conviction of a follower of God, he again referred to early New England Sabbath-keepers. Then he said:

"There's a hope that is so deeply within you, that it just has to come out. We have the greatest hope in the world, and yet we seem at times not to be willing to shout it from the rooftops."

Then he explained that by shouting from the rooftops he meant talking about the truth of God "among ourselves."

"How often do we talk about it?" he asked.

Point No. 3, the hope of the future, "drives you forward," Mr. Franks said.

Mr. Dick's sermon

In the second half of the Sabbath service, Chairman Dick said he wanted to take his listeners back to a "significant event in the ministry of Jesus Christ."

He referred to John the Baptist and the question John sent his disciples to ask Jesus: Was He the Messiah, or should they look for someone else?

"Look at how Christ chose to answer the question of John," said Mr. Dick. "He didn't stand on His reputation and say, 'John, you know who I am. John, you baptized me in the river.'"

Jesus had a simple message for John's disciples, Mr. Dick said. "Look at My works. Now, go tell John what you've seen."

Those comments led in to a discussion by Mr. Dick of whether the United Church of God, as judged by its fruits, is doing "the work." He cited the two-year record of the church's magazine, The Good News, noting that the current press run is 80,000 copies, up from 15,000 two years ago.

The magazine is advertised in Reader's Digest, in editions in the United States and other countries.

"Our literature is printed in five languages," he said. "The Good News is printed in English, Spanish, German, French and Italian. Other literature is also printed in Dutch. The Word is going out in the same fashion that the Word has gone out in days gone by."

By "days gone by" Mr. Dick meant the way the message was preached 30 years ago in the Worldwide Church of God. He compared the WCG's magazine The Plain Truth of 1968 with the UCG's magazine The Good News of 1998.

"All of us know," he said, "that the simple seeds that we plant in any given time fundamentally take two to three years to germinate, sprout and begin to come back to us in the way of people who have decided to have some degree of connection and affiliation with us. We have planted and, like the good husbandman, must demonstrate the patience for that planting to bear fruit."

The Good News "is and should continue to be one of the most valuable tools for reaching out to this world that this church has."

He noted that in 1968 members of the Worldwide Church of God were looking forward to 1972 and events that many in the WCG including founder Herbert W. Armstrong had predicted might take place in the 1970s.

He was referring to the widespread belief among some WCG members that the church would flee to a "place of safety" in 1972 and that Christ would return in 1975.

"Our focus was on 1972," said Mr. Dick; "1975 was in a sense irrelevant, but 1972 was highly relevant, and we were only four years away."

He noted that in 1968, although many were looking to 1972, others believed time would be "cut short" and the church's fleeing would take place before 1972.

His point was that, with the brethren believing the end of "the work" was so soon to come to pass, they had a zeal and urgency about being about spreading the gospel message that was lacking in latter years.

"I'd like to ask you simply, brethren, are we preaching the same message?"

He referred to specific articles in The Plain Truth in 1968 and The Good News in 1998 and noted similarities of subject matter.

Church youth

Later in his sermon he talked about the youth of the United Church of God and said that "our children are the responsibility of everyone in the congregation."

He drew an analogy between that statement and a book by Hillary Clinton, It Takes a Village. Just as raising a child takes a village (according to Mrs. Clinton), tending after children in the Church of God is the responsibility of all the brethren.

"In a sense," he said, "children should be seen as collective property. Anything any of us can do to help our children progress toward the Kingdom of God we should do."

He spoke of United's camping programs for young people, including summer camps.

In concluding his sermon, he said that the United Church of God "began with a shepherd's heart."

"And I pray that we will never lose a shepherd's heart. It doesn't matter what our commission is if we fulfill it heartlessly. Our first concern in order of time and immediacy was to care for the church. It was the natural immediate need. Congregations were formed in every location where it was physically possible to do so."

He noted that a few years ago in the WCG the elder-to-nonelder ratio was about 1 to 280. The United Church of God has a much greater proportion of elders to other members. He cited this difference as evidence that the UCG puts "caring for the brethren" above "numbers."

He returned to the question by John's disciples: "Are you the one?"

"I appreciated very much Jesus Christ's answer to John's disciples," he concluded: "no rhetoric, no scripture quoting. He simply said take the time to look at and consider what you see with your eyes and what you hear with your ears.

"I hope all you feel the same way I do, that the evidence speaks very loudly for itself: This body is doing God's work."

Selection of new president

After a break after Sabbath services in the afternoon, the elders and wives reconvened Saturday evening for the first session of the conference. The proceedings began about 7:50 with an announcement by Mr. Dick that the president-selection process was being moved to Sunday evening. The council of elders is meeting during the conference to select a new president from among the council after the removal of the first president, David Hulme, in January.

Mr. Dick noted that some elders had called for the council to wait until four new council members were selected by the general conference before selecting the new president. But Mr. Dick said that waiting until after the conference would not be feasible because of provisions in the constitution and bylaws.

He said that the new council, if the selection process were delayed, would have to wait an additional minimum of two months and a week before selecting the president, and that would be too long for the church to operate without a chief executive officer.

"So the council determined that the old council was the proper council to select the new president," he said, "because of those nuances and intentions."

The council planned to meet the evening of Sunday, March 8, to select the new president. Although the president could be an elder who is not on the present council, many have speculated that the new chief executive will be one of the council's current members.

Fewer executive sessions planned

Mr. Dick announced that he and other council members intend to meet less often behind closed doors in the future. The council has been criticized by some elders and other members for its secrecy in making certain decisions, even including the firing of Mr. Hulme as president.

Mr. Dick didn't specifically mention Mr. Hulme's removal in this context, but he said "we'd sure like to see a lot fewer executive sessions."

"I genuinely believe that with the exception of those items of business that appropriately must fall within the confines of executive session," meetings should be on the record and reports of them readily available to elders of the church, he said.

Clyde Kilough, a regional pastor from Northern California who acts as reporter for council meetings, could include more-comprehenvie reports to elders if the council met in fewer executive sessions.

"I hope that Clyde Kilough can give you far more reports on meetings and fewer of these little one-liners that indicate executive sessions," Mr. Dick said.

Simplistic answers

Mr. Dick said that elders in the United Church of God are accustomed to giving simplistic answers to complex questions, and that needs to change. The overuse of simplistic answers leads only to more problems, he said, and elders of the church must learn to do otherwise.

He spoke of the process of amending the constitution and bylaws of the UCG and said that proposed amendments that had been rejected by the council and not allowed to go before the general conference were not evidence of the council's manipulation but came about because some of the amendments were not properly formulated.

He pledged that he and other council members would assist elders in making sure their amendments were of the proper format and would successfully mesh with the other sections of the constitution and bylaws. Proposed amendments with problems of wording would not be summarily rejected; they would be sent back to their writers with suggestions on how they could successfully become part of the church governance.

November unity statement

Mr. Dick also spoke of the "unity statement" that was jointly signed and released by the 12 council members late in 1997. Some elders had complained that the firing of the president coming on the heels of the statement showed that the statement was "farcical."

After the statement's issuance and the president's removal, "we received a reasonable amount of mail," he said. "Some fairly asked, based upon the knowledge available to them, is the unity statement not somewhat farcical? Those were the kinder statements; they went downhill from there."

So he rehearsed the reasoning and evolution of the unity statement: that it was released as a reaction to earlier statements by other elders that a "split" was imminent in the United Church of God and that the sentiments enunciated by the statement were sincere and accurate.

"The unity statement published in November was in response to a specific issue," he said. It had nothing to do with the removal of the president; it was in reaction to rumors of a split."

The removal of the president, he seemed to be saying, was still necessary, whether there had been a unity statement or not.

Home-office explanation

Mr. Dick introduced Mr. Holladay, who besides also serving as a council member is chairman of the home-office-relocation committee and chairman of the strategic-planning committee of the council. Mr. Holladay is also involved in studies of "media," or how the church's message should be proclaimed.

He said the title of his address was "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Home Office and Media but Were Afraid to Ask."

He mentioned that other men on the office-relocation committee were Gary Antion of Ontario, Canada; Burk McNair of San Antonio, Texas; and Victor Kubik of Indianapolis.

Mr. Holladay explained, in an apparent effort to blunt criticism sparked by Mr. Masterson's mailing to the ministry, how the proposed move to Cincinnati (by the fall of 1998) came about. He said several studies were undertaken by outside firms and were seriously considered by the council in following the decision by the elders in Louisville last year to move the office.

He said that, based on the studies and based on the mandate from the other elders, the council decided the move should go forward, and the move should be to Cincinnati.

Regarding the church's policy on "media," Mr. Holladay said "breakout sessions" later in this conference would tackle media policy, but he assured the elders that the council is firmly supportive of a centralized approach to preaching the gospel.

"We realize," he said, "there is a desire to do more things locally, that that has to be coordinated so that we are all on the same page. We all recognize that Jesus Christ is the Head of this church. We know that Christ has given us a responsibility to take the gospel to the world. We want to do that, and Bob [Dick] addressed that today.

"Are we preaching the gospel as a witness? Yes, we are. Do we want to do it more? Yes, we do.

"We realize that in the church's preaching of the gospel to the world as a witness there's an element of a warning. We also realize that Christ charged the church, in Matthew 28 and the book of Mark, chapter 16, and Luke 24--you put all of these chapters together and you find as our mission statement says that we have a mission to take the gospel of the Kingdom of God and of Jesus Christ to the world, to make disciples and to care for the flock."

Mr. Holladay said he hadn't talked to any minister in the church "who doesn't want to do that. We all desire to do that."

"Let's stop and realize, brethren," he concluded, "that Satan would love to divide us as a church, as a group, to get us off into different approaches, to have one saying do this, and another saying do that.

"I don't see that. I see that all of us want to accomplish the same thing. We need to realize that our real enemy is not one another; our real enemy is Satan the devil."

Delegate comments

A Journal writer asked several of the elders attending the conference here their impressions of the proceedings so far. One was Mitch Knapp, a pastor serving in St. Paul, Minn.

Mr. Knapp noted "a little bit of nervousness in the air" but said he was optimistic about the conference so far. He said he remembered that last year in Louisville he had heard rumors of a "big fight" that didn't materialize, so he is "guardedly optimistic" about this conference proceeding without major disruption, even though some have predicted this conference could be a watershed that would later be looked on as the beginning of a major split in the three-year-old church.

But "there's really an awful lot of good will here," Mr. Knapp said. "It's overwhelming. Even some who have had differences of opinion that I was aware of have acted gentlemanly and had a Christian approach."

What did Mr. Knapp think was the most pressing issue conference delegates had to consider?

"That's hard to say," he said. "We have very few doctrinal issues. It seems to boil down to governance. How are we going to be organized? That means governance."

Another elder, Steve Myer of Austin, Minn., said "things are going great" at the conference. "There's nothing like being able to get together. You see people face to face, and you can look into their eyes and you can experience things that you can't when you're reading or you're just seeing notes. I think you can feel the presence of God's Spirit. I think things are going to be great.

"You get a thousand people in a room and you're singing all the same songs with the same words, and God's Word has a way of uniting people."

Mr. Myer said "unity" would eventually win out over "divisiveness."

"The question is when," he commented. "We have tremendous opportunity, and I think we have to seize the moment. Some people would say we're in a crisis, but someone told me that the Chinese character for crisis means an opportunity. I really think that we will be able to do that."

Gary Pifer, an elder from Bloomington, Ill., said he was "personally encouraged" by comments he had heard from his fellow elders.

"I think comments tonight by Mr. Dick and Mr. Holladay hopefully will ease the minds of some who have been polarized a little bit by some of the things that have been commented on by the elders on the elders' forum [a reference to discussions on the church's electronic-mail system] and other places. At this point in time I'm still optimistic."

Mr. Pifer said he had been one of the elders who questioned the usefulness of the November "unity statement" by the council of elders, but he felt that the explanation by Mr. Holladay "makes a little more sense."

Does Mr. Pifer think the form of government in the UCG is workable?

"I think it's working," he said. "I think perhaps our biggest problem is that there's been a learning curve, because it is something new. I think the council of elders has had to learn, and they've had certain roadblocks thrown in their way at times, but I think it's working."

What he likes about United's governance form is the biblical principle of "safety" in "a multitude of counselors."

Comments were heard at the conference here that at least some of the assembled elders would not cast ballots because they did not believe in voting. Did Mr. Pifer think many elders would not vote for or against some of the measures put before them?

"I don't know," Mr. Pifer said. "I do remember one elder making the comment at the Indianapolis conference [in 1995] that that was the first time in his life he'd ever voted on anything. Perhaps to some it's still an issue. I know recently on the elders' forum there's been some discussion on the casting of lots and whether we should look at God to inspire things through the lots. But as a whole I haven't perceived that as a major issue."

Operating under a "consensus" form of government is "slow," Mr. Pifer said, "but I think if it's properly done it can prevent a lot of backtracking. If you make a decision by one man and you find out it's the wrong one, that can take a lot longer to go back and straighten it out than if you had taken the time to do it by consensus and make that decision correctly in the first place."

How has this conference compared with the other three that Mr. Pifer has attended?

"The Indianapolis conference [in May 1995] was unique in that various ministers had just been terminated or had resigned," he said. "Others of us were still attending Worldwide who went to the conference not knowing what to expect.

"The next conference, in Cincinnati [in December 1995], was one of a great deal of excitement and so on. We had the entire ministry there, even from the international areas.

"Last year in Louisville [in March 1997] it was different in that it was at everyone's personal expense to get there, rather than being paid, so it was lacking a lot of wives and a lot of the ministers.

"I think at this conference there's obviously some larger, far-reaching issues to be dealt with than we've perceived at the other conferences. A lot of comments have been made that this may be a real turning point as far as United is concerned. It's going to be interesting in the next couple of days to see what plays out. But I'm still optimistic."

Rumors of a CGI-UCG merger

Before the conference, several people had asked The Journal about rumors of an impending merger of the United Church of God and the Church of God International. Although The Journal talked with a CGI spokesman last week about the merger rumors and was told that the CGI has no plans to try to merge with United, The Journal did speak with an elder here in Louisville who has been cited as a source for some of the rumors.

Attending the conference here is Dave Register, who serves as a pastor in San Diego. Some of the Internet postings about the church merger have included information purporting to be notes from a sermon or Bible study given by Mr. Register. Mr. Register's father, Ken, is a pastor in the Church of God International in Missouri.

The younger Mr. Register, a 1970 graduate of Ambassador College, Big Sandy, confirmed March 7 that the quotes attributed to him were accurate, that he had spoken of a possible merger of the UCG and CGI with his father and with acting president Charles Groce of the CGI and with Chairman Bob Dick of the UCG.

Mr. Register said he would like discussions, on a "council level," to take place between the two church organizations, and he would like to see an eventual coming together.

He said that Mr. Dick had agreed with him that such efforts would be something that should be considered, and Mr. Register had talked with Mr. Groce for 30 minutes last week. Mr. Groce, Mr. Register said, had said he would be interested in "exploring" the issue.

The Journal plans, before the March issue of The Journal, to speak with Mr. Dick and Mr. Groce about the discussion on the possible merger.

(Editor's note: After this article was written, but before he was ejected from the conference, publisher Dixon Cartwright interviewed Mr. Dick and Mr. Groce about the rumors. Please see the March 26 edition for more news.)

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