United Church of God Big Sandy members meet during Bible study time
for Question and Answer about local church situation

BIG SANDY, Texas--For this third in a series of updates about the recent disruption in Big Sandy United congregation prompted by a letter from the United Church of God -AIA's ministerial-services director to pastor Dave Havir, The Journal reports on the regular Wednesday-night Bible study the evening of May 6.

Mr. Havir spent most of the time during the meeting conducting a question-and-answer session, with several of the 60 or so in attendance asking questions of the pastor.

None of the 15 United Church of God elders who live in this area (except for Mr. Havir) was present at the Bible study. Three members of the local board were present: Mr. Havir, Bernie Monsalvo and Don Walls.

The first question was from Pat Creech, who asked: "Do you know what is happening?"

Mr. Havir brought Mrs. Creech and others up to date with his account of receiving a faxed letter dated April 30 from United Church of God -AIA ministerial-services director Richard Pinelli informing him that another elder, Roy Holladay of Fort Myers, Fla., would take over the pastoral duties here the Sabbath of May 9.

"Because of the way it was handled," said Mr. Havir, "the way the letter was sent, the fact that it was faxed to me, the tone of the letter, etc., it was troublesome to individuals on the council of elders and other ministers and has had a reaction among the congregation here as well. There was a flood of calls and E-mail. So Mr. Pinelli talked to me Monday and offered an apology for the way it was handled.

"Then Mr. [Les] McCullough [United Church of God -AIA president] called me yesterday and offered an apology and told me he was planning to rescind the letter and not make any move.

"I would consider this [the rescinding of the decision] a temporary thing. I don't think they [United Church of God -AIA officials] necessarily feel that the case is closed. But they have backed off."

The "case" apparently consists of unannounced allegations against Mr. Havir. See the May 5 update on the home page of this Web site for more details.

Regional pastor Ken Giese and ministerial-services staffer Doug Horchak had been scheduled to arrive in Big Sandy May 6, "but they were held back," Mr. Havir said, because of circumstances surrounding the reaction to the letters.

David Fisher, from the audience, commented: "I have a pretty direct question about what could happen this week. If something happens that you are no longer in the employment of AIA [the United Church of God -AIA], I want to attend where you are preaching. So are we going to have church as usual?"

Mr. Havir: "Yes, there will be a service at 1 o'clock [at Hawkins High School], and either I'll be preaching or I'll ask someone to preach, just like normal. This will still be a joint venture with AIA, just as it has been for three years."

Nancy Sharp asked about the Big Sandy congregation's building, which is under construction and whose concrete-slab foundation was being poured the week of the controversy.

"The building is deeded to the United Church of God Big Sandy," said Mr. Havir. "It's owned locally. If something did happen in the area, that would all be taken care of. I don't see any great challenge over that. I think there's been enough discussion that people know who owns the building. There might even be people who would be relieved not to be a part of the building, because whoever has the building has the mortgage payments."

Never say never

Mr. Havir elaborated on his plans in the event that ministerial services wanted him to transfer to another area.

"In December," he said, "I told Mr. Giese and Mr. Horchak that the Havirs are not predisposed to moving. I didn't say never. I never said the word never. You have to analyze situations as they come. But what I told the gentlemen was: For your planning purposes I want you to realize that I'm not predisposed to moving. So they're aware of that."

The United Church of God -AIA's home office mails Mr. Havir his paycheck, "but you pay my salary," he told his audience. "But it goes through the AIA storehouse. But, because I work for AIA, they could say I was being transferred. They could say if you don't want to move you no longer work for us.

"To me, there's no reason to do that [implement the transfer]. Obviously, from their point of view, ministerial services said I should be transferred. They did not talk to me in advance, and they did not talk to the congregation in advance."

Mr. Havir recalled a question-and-answer session with the United Church of God -AIA's council members and the Big Sandy congregation in Gladewater in January 1997. He said that church members in the audience on that Sabbath asked five questions of council members that pertained to whether a congregation of the United Church of God would have any input before a new pastor was sent in by ministerial services.

"It was said that the [local] church would be involved," Mr. Havir said. "Mr. Hulme made some of the comments, Mr. Dick made some of the comments, Mr. Nathan made some of the comments."

Mr. Havir said he thinks the United Church of God -AIA's council of elders "now realizes it would have been better to talk to me before they took this action [deciding on the transfer]. I don't know if they realize it still would be good to talk to the congregation."

The reasons

Someone from the audience asked Mr. Havir what precipitated the present situation.

"No one's officially told me the reasons why," Mr. Havir said. "I have opinions. The opinions are not very flattering."

"Let's hear them," Mr. Fisher said.

"I'm trying to educate without inflaming," Mr. Havir said. "I'll say this, I'll say this kindly: I believe the reasons are political reasons. In other words, there has been no evidence dictating what should be done."

Mrs. Creech commented: "I was told that a group of people came to you to ask you to minister to the church, and I would like to know who they were."

Mrs. Creech was referring to the beginnings of the United Church of God Big Sandy in April 1995.

"There were 128 of them," replied Mr. Havir.

Mr. Havir was referring to the 128 people who had just left the Worldwide Church of God and asked Mr. Havir to conduct Passover services for them in the spring of 1995. The Worldwide Church of God had fired and disfellowshipped Mr. Havir April 1 of that year.

"I've been pastoring Big Sandy because I was asked by the people before United was started," he said. "We have associated with the United Church of God -AIA even though there are no rules of association. We're contributed a lot of money through these years. The AIA is the storehouse for my salary. But I have more allegiance to the congregation than I do to the corporation. That is not a secret.

"I appreciate the benefits of working for the corporation, and I've worked very hard to help the corporation become better. The first year I was one of two people to propose an amendment to try to improve the corporation. I've tried to do a lot of things. I feel like I've contributed to the corporation financially.

"I think I've been a good spokesman for Almighty God and Jesus Christ for members who associate with the corporation."

Dora Rumpel asked: "Mr. McCullough said something about some preliminary rules of association. How will that affect us, and could we get a copy?"

"I have a copy in the car," said Mr. Havir. "They are preliminary. The process is supposed to be done in August. It is my perception that the rules of association could easily cause what I hope would be a peaceful separation in this congregation. There will be some people who will say, yes, we'd like to do that and some who would not want to do that."

A split, prompted by the imposition of "rules of association" three years after the church's beginnings could prompt more than one congregation to secede from the United Church of God -AIA, Mr. Havir believes. But, if such separations could be "peaceful," then people could part "like brothers and sisters. Your kids could still fellowship together, your kids could still play together. Those are the biblical ways.

"Or it could be done with the attitude that these are the Korahs; they've been doing bad things. They're not team players. They're mavericks. We're better off without them. Get lost.

"There are two ways some of those things can be done, and our church culture--unfortunately--encourages us to do them the second way."

Mr. Havir said that certain elders--he mentioned Mark Gully of Texas, Ron Weinland of Michigan and David Hulme of California--were portrayed to the membership as bad people because they left the United fold.

"Why can't we say hurray for Ron Weinland? Why do we have to say he's a bad person? Why do we have to say, 'Boo, Mark Gully," because he became a tentmaker?

"Or David Hulme? He said he didn't feel comfortable with what the AIA stood for."

(Mr. Havir announced during the Bible study that a total of four families from United Church of God Big Sandy have chosen to affiliate with Mr. Hulme's new church organization.)

"The key to our attitude toward any of these people should be how they conduct themselves--in a good way or not in a good way--not the fact that they left."

What would God want?

Karen Pierce commented: "You're talking about a peaceful separation and rules of association. Would you explain what you're talking about? I assume we all want to do what God would have us do, and I think that's true of other congregations as well.

"A lot of us are going to try to form our opinion of what we're going to do ahead of time, but we need to leave room for God to act, and we should beseech Him to act. I've heard from several different people around the United States about the differences we have separating us from the rest of the United Church of God . I'm gathering that you're saying we're not really the United Church of God, that we're a separate thing already."

"We're independent and interdependent," Mr. Havir replied. "Anyone who has a separate corporation has a certain amount of independence, just by the laws of the land. We have a measure of independence, but we want to be interdependent.

"And, yes, there has to be room to let God work."

Bernie Monsalvo, a local-board member, spoke to Mrs. Pierce's concerns, comparing a congregation to a restaurant franchise. The parent company makes certain rules that apply to all the restaurants in the chain; the individual restaurants are free to make certain decisions on their own. There are certain advantages to belonging to a franchise or, in the case of a church, to a central organization.

"We wanted to be associated," Mr. Monsalvo said. "We wanted to have certain rules and certain parameters.

"Frankly, in Indianapolis the discussion concerning church revenues was basically like this: Out of all the money a congregation generated, the Worldwide Church of God sent back between 7 and 14 percent. So, if a congregation produced $100,000, they only got back $7,000.

"When we were in Indianapolis, the discussion was that we were going to have a 40-60 split. In other words, 40 percent was going to remain local, and 60 percent would be sent to the home office to support the centralized effort.

"In Big Sandy we have done a lot better than that: 75 percent has gone to California; 25 percent has stayed here. In 1997 it was 33 percent and 66 percent. Thirty-three percent stayed here, and 66 percent went to the home office."

Mr. Havir said that, in an attempt to deflect criticism because many Big Sandy members pay their tithes to the local church, he has rarely mentioned to the brethren the subject of local tithes and donations.

"Even recently," he said, "someone said to me, 'You mean we can send tithes locally? How come you haven't made that more clear?' Because I've worked very hard not even to give the appearance of hoarding money locally."

X number of people

Danny Francis commented: "I have to wonder what ministerial services was thinking when they pulled this. We just got the Hulme situation behind us a few weeks ago, and that pulled X number of people away. And now they're pulling this off, and it's obviously going to alienate their largest congregation. It's not good business tactics, for one thing.

"My biggest concern is that our children will grow up and see this. It happened in Worldwide, now it's going on here. What are they thinking?"

"I don't know the official reason," Mr. Havir said. "I have some opinions, but those are only opinions. We lost the 20-year-olds when Worldwide split. I keep telling people we're about ready to lose our teenagers. My kids are really tired of church politics, but I'm keeping them plugged in to God.

"We have a lot of good young people in their 20s and in their teens who really won't stay with the Church of God groups because they're just tired of all the stupidity. When I got the fax on Sunday, my son was the one who got the fax off the machine because he was getting faxes for the church dance we're sponsoring."

Mr. Havir said that the last time he was disfellowshipped, in 1995, he took his two sons out to celebrate, to try to put a positive face on a sad situation.

"We went out to a Mexican restaurant in Longview to show the boys that you get some tough knocks in life: This is not fair, this is not Christian, this is not righteousness. But, boys, let's go out and eat some good food and be a family together. This is not the end of the world. There were people in the Bible who were disfellowshipped incorrectly.

"I didn't get a chance to do that this time because they pulled it off the fax."

Big Sandy's building

Mrs. Rumpel asked: "If we were incorporated before the United Church of God -AIA formed, why do they think that we didn't do the proper thing about our building?"

Mr. Havir commented: "We come from a system where we didn't encourage a lot of initiative or creativity. Ministers checked out everything. You just didn't want to get in trouble. If you were loyal, that was the highest thing. If you pointed people to headquarters, you were a good minister. You didn't have to know much about Hebrew or Greek. You just pointed people back to headquarters. That's a generalization, I'll grant you."

Even though Big Sandy has been supporting the central work of the United Church of God -AIA with "loads of money," said Mr. Havir, "we took the initiative as a local independent [congregation] that seeks to be interdependent, to serve the needs of our local brethren. That is viewed as rebellion because we didn't get technical permission. We are therefore unsubmissive mavericks.

"I can put myself in their shoes because I've lived in that system. I think I do a better job of putting myself in their shoes to understand why they're upset than they are doing putting themselves in our shoes."

Mr. Havir said that some people have asked why didn't the Big Sandy congregation just get permission for the building anyway?

"I'm speaking very openly," said Mr. Havir. "Back in January of 1997, when it was revealed that our council of elders overspent the budget by $3 million, that kind of hurt the credibility factor. People are supposed to live within budgets. I think that influenced us greatly. It influenced me greatly, I'll say that."

Faulty communication

John Warren, another board member, commented on the building project:

"I believe some of the problems that are going on as far as the building and what people think are concerned are because of poor communication. I don't think that a lot of people around the world understand that we began this process long before the council of elders started discussing the policy on local buildings. Then, once they did make that policy, I don't think they understood that we were so far into the process of building that it would have made us look silly to go back to the bank and all.

"I think we're accused of being congregationalists, but they don't understand that we have a pastor who has his role; we have elders who have their functions; and we have the local board. We're all working together. It's not like every time we do something we take a vote from the congregation. But we are doing things differently, and I think that's hard for people to understand in other congregations if their pastor is still making all their decisions for them."

Once the United Church of God -AIA's council passed a resolution on buildings, council members expected instantaneous response from local boards, Mr. Warren said.

"But it had to come back to the board, and it probably didn't go back to them [the council] as quickly as they would have liked. But, whenever you deal with a local board that meets only once a month, some of those things take time."

Two factors to blame

Roger Daniels commented: "As far as the building is concerned, I think it just gets down to two things: control and money. That's the main problems with the building. The home office wants the control and the money.

"I've always wanted to be a part of something bigger, but we've been waiting three years now. How do we go forward in doing what's right as opposed to always wanting to be a part of this something bigger?"

"I do think control is a factor," said Mr. Havir. "I don't think these people are bad people. Some may be. But a person who's a control freak can't control himself."

Sitting here fighting

Eleanor Roberts commented: "It's really upsetting. The world is caving in around us, and we're sitting here fighting."

Mrs. Roberts began to cry.

"When are we going to get busy doing God's work? It's so upsetting . . . The world is caving in. If we have to go independent, fine. But let's get on with God's work."

Paula Monsalvo said: "I really do believe that, once United Big Sandy gets away from United AIA, there will be peace."

Mrs. Roberts said: "I had great hopes when Mr. McCullough got to be president. But that's gone, the confidence and everything. I don't think we're going to have peace."

"This incident is not affecting just Big Sandy," said Mr. Havir, "but this incident is really troublesome to a lot of people. One man wrote me and said, 'The eyes of the whole earth are watching Big Sandy.' "

"I will take responsibility for what I do," Mr. Havir said. "I did not send the letter. I did not call the council meeting Friday. I was not in the council meetings. I was not the person who signed off on this deal. I was not the council members who signed off on this deal. In other words, I will take responsibility for me, but I will not take responsibility for ministerial services.

"People try to place responsibility. But I have learned throughout the years not to accept responsibility that's not mine."

Local incorporation

Mr. Frances asked a question concerning local incorporation:

"Since we are locally incorporated, and we were incorporated before AIA, does not that put us in a different camp?"

"I think there might be about 12 [United Church of God congregations] that are locally incorporated," said Mr. Havir. "There have been others dissolved on their own initiative and others who were pressured to do so."

It is possible, he said, that the Big Sandy board would decide to disband if ordered to do so by ministerial services.

"I think that's a very slim chance," he said. "I basically think that if it came to that there might be a peaceful separation. I doubt that the congregation wants the board to disband, and I doubt if the board wants to disband."

Mr. Frances: "I would think they [United Church of God -AIA officials] don't have a clue about the support locally."

"I think they underestimated the situation," Mr. Havir agreed. "But again they probably had factors that influenced them. All around the country they're hearing people say, 'When are you going to solve the problem in Big Sandy?'

"To me my question would be: 'What is the problem in Big Sandy? Could you explain it, please?' And, if there is a problem in Big Sandy, can we find a win-win solution? If the problem is that we have a separate board, is there a way that we could have a peaceful separation that doesn't have to tear us apart?"

He said that, if the "peaceful separation" took place in Big Sandy, he would hope the local church would still support wide-reaching gospel-preaching efforts, such as United's Good News magazine and Global's telecast.

"Let's send some money down to United Church of God Germany," he said. "Let's send some money down to CGI in Alabama. Local doesn't mean selfish, but again this is just not what people are used to thinking."

Warren Foster commented about people in and out of the Church of God who sow discord among other people.

"They don't face a matter," he said. "They sow discord instead of going to the minister and saying let's get this straightened out."

Mr. Havir agreed that the sowing of discord is one of the biggest problems in the Churches of God.

"Because we've not given people the freedom to speak more directly with each other, we have encouraged people to gossip. It has been part of our system and culture."

Satan is the "real enemy in all of this," he said.

Money and finances

Mr. Havir said some people had accused him of starting the Big Sandy congregation for monetary and financial reasons.

"When we started in 1995, a lot of you were still in Worldwide. We observed the first and seventh days of Unleavened Bread. Some people have started their corporations around the holy days so they could get a kick start to get going.

"But do you remember what we did on the holy days? We did not collect an offering. I recommended that you send an offering to a Church of God that was preaching the gospel.

"So, when people want to tell their lies about what my motives are, I will go back to my track record."

Lou Enos asked if the congregation would have a say in whether United Church of God Big Sandy separated from the United Church of God -AIA.

"I think so," said Mr. Havir. "I would say this: It would squawk a lot. I think we'd try to find some ways. There'd have to be fairness in it. In one sense, the board is supposed to represent your wishes, so to speak. But we are not a true congregationalist form of governance."

Ron McCollum asked: "Do you have an opinion as to what the members of the congregation could do to resolve this situation?"

"You can certainly pray about it," said Mr. Havir. "You could talk to the council members, talk to Mr. McCullough. Certainly whatever happens, if something has to happen, be peaceful. I mentioned a long time ago in a sermon that if there were ever a split down the road I want to be on the side that's being slandered, not the side doing the slandering."

Mrs. Monsalvo commented that "on the board situation I used to think it was absolutely ridiculous to have a board. But after what I saw last Monday night [at the board meeting] I'm sold on boards. That was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life."

"When we started the local board," said Mr. Havir, "we were looking at four different options as to how do to it. Some wanted no board. Some, like Mr. [Dixon] Cartwright, if I can mention his name, were in favor of the people in the congregation actually voting on who was in office. We decided to take a more middle-of-the-road approach. We stuck ourselves in the middle where we could get the pulse of the congregation as we go."

Mr. Havir said he did not want to be on the board, much less its chairman.

"I'm not saying they forced me to be on the board, but the board members will tell you that I was whining like a little baby trying to talk them into my not being on the board.

"The pastor doesn't have to be on the board. One advantage of me not being on the board would be that I'd be more strong in what I say [in board meetings]." As a sitting board member, he said he must be more moderate and diplomatic in his communications with other board members.

"We know there's a lot of ways we can tweak it [the operation of the board]. A lot of people have asked us to fax them our bylaws, but we always say this is not perfect; this is just what works for us."

What about the Feast?

Mr. Fisher asked if the Big Sandy congregation planned once again to sponsor a Feast of Tabernacles site this fall.

"Yes," said Mr. Havir, "that is a decision that the United Church of God Big Sandy has made. I might add that that decision was made independently. I did take some criticism last year for that [the Feast site in Big Sandy], but the critics backed off because it's hard to criticize something for widows . . . There will be a Feast, and hopefully it's going to be in our new building. If we're going to have a new building, we're going to use it."

Joanne Woodring asked: "Besides paying your salary from the AIA, what does the AIA pay?"

"AIA pays the regular assistance to the widows," said Mr. Havir. "They give about $5,000 per month for widows in the area."

At 9 p.m. Mr. Havir apologized that he had not begun the Bible study on prayer he had planned. Mr. Fisher asked him, however, if he could read a scripture in closing.

"I sure will," he replied. "I'll read a poem, then I'll read a scripture."

After reading a poem, Mr. Havir closed by quoting John 15:15: "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you."

Hope to avoid a split?

After the meeting, the brethren stood around in little groups and talked about church splits, peaceful separations, wrongheaded decisions, disillusioned church youth, Internet postings, and the perception that the United Church of God's handling of the Big Sandy situation could affect United Church of God congregations around the world.

Some said that, if the council and ministerial services would apologize and change their ways, there might still be hope of avoiding a split. Many discussing the situation held out little hope of that happening.

Some spoke of the frustration of not being understood. Joanne Woodring commented just minutes after Mr. Havir's closing scripture:

"The council and home office just don't get it that we are a local congregation that chose to associate with AIA. They just can't come in here and fire our pastor. We asked him to be here in the first place."

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