UCG Minneapolitans say farewell, organizing again

By Dixon Cartwright

As in many other churches of late, the issue of church governance has fueled many a discussion in the Minneapolis, Minn., congregation of the United Church of God.

Two church members from the Minneapolis area, Tony and Elizabeth Stith, who until earlier this month were part of the UCG, said that over the past four to six months they and several other present and former UCG families have become embroiled, in Mr. Stith's words, in "growing turmoil" over the administration of the local church "and other issues involving United's direction and philosophy."

"We know that some of these issues and concerns are also being addressed by many members of the UCG's council on the national level," he said, "but we have been given notice that these views are not welcome in the Minneapolis congregation, and several families have been asked to stop attending."

Mr. Stith, 31, said that, because they have not been as outspoken as others, he and his wife were not among the brethren who were asked not to come back to United services.

"But our feelings very much match those of the others," Mr. Stith told THE JOURNAL.

Mrs. Stith, the former Elizabeth Dickerson (whose uncle, John, appeared in a photo with his family on the front page of the May 30 issue of THE JOURNAL), said that "close to 50 people" from the Minneapolis­St. Paul area, including several small children, are involved in organizing an independent Church of God congregation.

Projects Mrs. Stith would like to see the new congregation tackle include experimenting with new Sabbath-service formats to attract visitors and involve children more in services.

"We feel like the first people we should preach the gospel to are our kids," she said. "That's kind of been neglected over the years. I'd also like to try an interactive church format because, well, I have a mind."

When money is available, Mrs. Stith would also like to see a church building for the congregation "so that we can have an actual presence in our community. We could even set up a food shelf."

A food shelf?

"Yes, up here it's what people call a place to collect and store food to give to needy people."

A church building would allow for classes, clubs, seminars, weddings, a place for, for example, an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter to meet.

"Not only that," she said, "we could get a yellow-pages listing. That's something that I think has never been done. But, if you look for any other church, it's there in the yellow pages.

"Some of these things would also help us shed the cult image. Most cults are somewhat hidden. Also, it would make it easier if people wanted to contact us."

Mrs. Stith said she foresees considerably more involvement with people outside the Church of God.

"Around here we had a whole lot of flooding this past year. We could actually help with sandbagging, any kind of disaster relief or even meals on wheels for the elderly, serving-the-community types of things."

Regrets and an explanation

Mr. and Mrs. Stith, who have two children, Jordan, 4, and Courtney, 21 months, sent THE JOURNAL a letter Mr. Stith had sent to their pastor, Jim Servidio. The following is the text of the letter, dated June 17:

"Dear Mr. Servidio:

"I am writing to you on behalf of Elizabeth and myself to express our regrets that we will no longer be affiliated with the United Church of God, Minneapolis, and to offer an explanation as to why.

"It is our hope that you do not take what we say personally or as attacking, although I'm sure some of what we say here may be construed as such. Rather, please view it as a sincere attempt to aid you in understanding our frustrations and convictions.

"We respect your and Judy's dedication to the truth and your office as a pastor. By no means do we wish to disparage that office or cause division among the membership that you pastor.

"For this reason, after much thought and prayer, we feel we must make a decision, and that decision is to depart.

"The last three years have seen a great deal of upheaval for all of us. Our previous assumptions were turned upside down, and we were forced to put the pieces back together again, to prove again what we had taken for granted and to reset our roots firmly in the truth.

The brethren on the bus

"I know that I personally had been asleep, content in my Sabbath chair watching the work that others were doing preaching the gospel and waiting for the Kingdom to come. It had been a comfortable bus ride, heading toward the Kingdom, so comfortable that I, along with many others, had drifted off to sleep.

"Until, that is, the bus sharply veered 180 degrees and began speeding off in the wrong direction. Thankfully, many of us were jostled awake by the violence of that turn and jumped off.

"Jumping off that bus caused us to examine a great number of our previous assumptions and to see God's plan and our part in it in a different light.

"We came to the realization that the Body of Christ was not an organization, a company or a name, but a living body of people called by God; that membership in a particular organization was not a prerequisite of salvation; that God could be working with others outside of our own affiliation; that our salvation is to be worked out individually; and that our loyalty must be to God first and foremost and to His people wherever they may be, not to an organization.

"We realized that we individually now had the opportunity, even the responsibility, to preach the gospel, to do a work in whatever way we could, much as the disciples did after the martyrdom of Stephen. They didn't cower in a corner and wait for a minister or an organization to somehow rescue them, pick up the pieces and do a work; they 'went everywhere preaching the gospel.'

"Maybe that was one of the lessons God intended us to learn from all of this. Is it possible that we unintentionally relied on the organization too much to do it all for us, thus abdicating our personal responsibility?

"After everything began to fall apart, many of us began to realize that, hey, maybe we could and should be doing something individually, locally. Maybe we don't need a massive organizational effort to get the gospel out to the world.

"Maybe we could, through radio, television, the Internet, community involvement and other means, preach the gospel in our local areas as effectively or even more effectively because of our familiarity with and our unique understanding of our own community. And, for many, myself included, this new realization was exciting, energizing, a kind of rebirth, a chance to take more personal responsibility for our calling and God's work, to foster personal ownership, not just sit back and let someone else do the driving.

"There was excitement, an opportunity to try something new, something different, because obviously something about the old method had gone terribly and tragically wrong. There was talk of local efforts to preach the gospel, building local church buildings and reaching out to other Sabbath-keepers as brothers in Christ.

Someone to watch over you

"In Transition [which ceased publication in January] and other publications emerged, tying brethren of like faith together, regardless of former or current affiliation, and we devoured it.

"For a while, it seemed, we were a community. What held us together was not a name, not organizational walls or boundaries, but basic, fundamental beliefs, convictions and a love for this way of life.

"We were the Body of Christ, which knew no organizational boundaries. We were all walking along on the same road, awake, alert and, finally, actively engaged and involved.

"But then a new bus appeared, with new drivers urging us to get on board. 'Let's get together, form an association,' they said, 'and together we can do a great work. After all, it's faster than walking, and you helpless, wounded sheep need someone to guide you in the right direction.'

"It looked good, it looked promising, it looked like an opportunity to build something new, to try new ideas and methods of doing a work.

"I, and many others, envisioned many possibilities, among them the possibility of a work driven by local efforts to preach the gospel, perhaps supported by literature, technical expertise and taped radio and television messages produced and sent from the national office.

"So we got on the bus and we eagerly went to work, everyone, minister and member alike, pulling out road maps, making plans, charting our course.

Leave the driving to us

"Then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, we as members began to be encouraged and admonished to sit back, get comfortable. 'Just trust us. Give us control. Let us do the driving.'

"Gradually the bus, for all its shiny new paint and new crew of drivers, organizationally began to look a lot like the old bus we had left behind. In fact, it had just been rebuilt.

"Oh, yes, there were some changes, especially for the ministry. They are now much more comfortable, free to express themselves openly, much more involved, their physical and spiritual needs nurtured and fulfilled.

"But, for the membership, at least in our experience, it has become clear that it is business as usual, that our role is to once again be a passive one, sitting back and letting others do the work, using the same methods, the same top-heavy, centralized structure we had used before.

"So much for local efforts. So much for real, meaningful, personal involvement. It is as if someone handed us a lollipop, let us lick it a couple of times and then ripped it out of our hands.

"Why is it so hard to comprehend that what occurred in the Worldwide Church of God was not simply the result of a centralized, one-man governmental structure gone awry? It was more than that. Something happened to the people. Why did so many turn so quickly and accept doctrines diametrically in opposition to their formerly held beliefs? Why were they so simply led astray?

"Could it be that the centralized system we had built was in large part responsible? A system that, although not purposely intending to do so, by nature of its structure encouraged members to sit back, be lethargic and let others do the work for them?

Don't make waves

"Lack of personal involvement and ownership, I believe, caused the downfall of the WCG more than anything else. And here we go again, rebuilding the same failed structure.

"Invariably, some of the old familiar mantras have resurfaced, like the hum of bus tires on the pavement, lulling us to sleep:

" 'Be loyal to the organization.'

" 'Don't read other literature.'

" 'Depend only on us for your spiritual food because this is the only bus to be on.'

" 'Don't disagree. Don't challenge. Don't criticize. Don't make waves. Just be passive.'

"We went from emphasizing the Body of Christ to a sometimes not-so-subtle implication that this organization was the only body of Christ. We once again are beginning to build walls, rather than the bridges that we should be building between ourselves and other Christians of like faith.

"In fact, in our local area we meet next door to the Global Church of God at the same time of day, but barely acknowledge their existence, let alone reach out a hand of fellowship.

"We are transitioning from loyalty to the faith to a demand of loyalty to the organization. We began to hear the familiar 'Send us your money so we can pay our ministers, and maybe, just maybe, we'll have enough left over so that we, not you, can do a work. Don't worry. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the ride. Support us and we'll do it for you. And sleep. Sleep. Sleep.'

"Many, it seems, are doing just that.

"But not all. Not us.

"We refuse to go back to sleep. We refuse to let ourselves become passive Christians again. We have tried enthusiastically to suggest new ideas, new methods, to promote greater individual participation and involvement, to promote the building of bridges between others of like faith.

"But many, if not most, of those ideas have been met with criticism, judgment and ridicule. And for what?

"For questioning the status quo, the organization, the authority, the direction the bus was traveling.

"We, along with others, have tried to speak up. We have tried, admittedly not always in the proper manner and not always subtly-sometimes in frustration, sometimes in desperation and, regrettably, sometimes in anger-to express our concerns, worries, convictions.

The bus stops here

"But, whether Christian or not, whether valid or not, most of those concerns, opinions and ideas were met with suspicion, labeled as disloyal, liberal, heretical, rebellious, power-seeking. Not because of the merit or lack of those ideas, not because of any biblical prohibition or doctrinal inconsistency inherent in them, but because they flew in the face of the status quo, because they challenged the established method, and because we refused to remain passive and yield to the 'greater' wisdom of the organization.

"So, rather than stay on the bus, rather than allow ourselves to be driven by a philosophy in a direction that didn't work then and we feel won't work now, rather than let ourselves be gradually lulled into submission and slumber, we choose to get off the bus.

"We wish you no ill, but best wishes. Thanks for the ride, but I think we'd just as soon walk."

The letter is signed "In Christian love, Tony and Elizabeth Stith," with notice of copies sent to Lonnie Gjesvold, Cory Erickson and Don Erickson.

'We wish them success'

T HE JOURNAL asked Minneapolis pastor Jim Servidio to comment on the Stiths' letter and the situation in his church area. Here is Mr. Servidio's statement:

"Judy and I regret when anyone sees the necessity to leave the United Church of God a.i.a. [United Church of God, an International Association]. However, we do understand the need for individuals to be comfortable with the philosophy and direction of the fellowship with which they are involved.

"The elders, advisory council and overall membership of the Minneapolis congregation strive for consistency with Council of Elders directives and Ministerial Services oversight. It is not our intent to be restrictive in preaching the gospel. We were a part of the waiting-room pilot program for The Good News, we have a member-driven community-outreach program, and individuals have been letting their light shine since we began.

"We regret any disappointment Tony and Elizabeth may have with the church corporately or locally. We do wish them success in their individual desire and effort to preach the gospel and share the truth of God."

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