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UCG grapples with church governance woes

By John Robinson and Linda Moll Smith

The honeymoon seems to be ending between a significant number of members of the United Church of God, an International Association, and the church's home office as some members, including elders, express concern that the church's leadership is moving away from the "spirit of Indianapolis."

That phrase refers to the course perceived to have been charted by the founding general conference of the church at Indianapolis, Ind., in May 1995.

The Arcadia, Calif.-based UCG is the largest Worldwide Church of God offshoot to date and has about 20,000 members worldwide, including children. It is roughly three times larger than the next-largest group, the Global Church of God, based in San Diego, Calif.

But for some months UCG members from congregations around the United States have been telling In Transition that they are chafing at what they perceive as tightening controls being exerted by the UCG home office and from paid elders of the UCG. Additionally, some UCG elders, both paid and unpaid, express concern about the scope of the home office's powers.

Elders and other members alike say that, simply put, the issue is control.

President fires Miami pastor

Although tension about control issues is evident in many congregations, one of the most volatile spots is south Florida.

The Miami congregation, concerned by the home office's recent handling of a situation involving the pastor, Ron Smith, unanimously called for a church fast. In doing so, the members wrote to the council of elders and home-office representatives: "We are setting aside tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 17, as a day of prayer and fasting for our entire congregation. We will beseech God to intervene on our behalf against the authoritarian hand that the home office is taking in our area."

The letter further expressed strong support for the pastor and asked for representatives of the home office to reconsider.

One week later UCG-AIA president David Hulme of Arcadia, accompanied by UCG council of elders member Jim Franks of Houston, Texas, personally fired the pastor.

Mr. Hulme's actions have sparked even more complaints about the situation.

In Transition made repeated efforts to speak with Mr. Hulme and Mr. Franks but were unable to reach them before press time.

Events in Florida and other parts of the United States are prompting questions from loyal UCG members about the authority assumed by individuals and departments at the home office and are raising questions about whether they are honoring what many perceive to be the essential "spirit of Indianapolis."

The UCG was formed in May 1995 by former Worldwide Church of God elders. Many who attended the founding conference left Indianapolis with the impression that the newly formed UCG, although clearly dedicated to an international effort of preaching the gospel, was nonetheless being built on the foundation of local-membership empowerment, including the development of local and regional evangelistic efforts and the freedom of any of the congregations and their members to collect tithes locally and participate in governance.

Efforts of the home office and many of its paid elders to downplay this founding vision have created tension in church areas across the country.

A significant number of UCG pastors are aggressively preaching about the supposed evils of brethren having too much say about the congregation and its activities. Many of the elders and other brethren who cite the nonauthoritarian, fraternal and collegial approach called for and approved at Indianapolis are branded as "congregationalists" and rebels and are said to threaten unity.

In the Spokane, Wash., congregation of the UCG, for example, all the unpaid elders have stopped attending as a result of issues they say grew out of a disagreement with the pastor over the development of local bylaws.

In January 1996 the Spokane congregation, which is locally incorporated, voted 85-3 to adopt bylaws. Elders in Spokane say the pastor had a change of heart on the bylaws shortly before they were passed and for almost a year since has worked to have the local corporation dissolved or the bylaws significantly amended.

Some boards are working

When the United Church of God was launched in 1995, locally organized and incorporated church-governance structures were held aloft as ideal. And some congregations have worked well with local boards.

The Kansas City, Mo., church is one of the UCG congregations that reports doing "just fine" (said a member there) with a board.

(Elders at the founding conference were advised that congregations could choose to incorporate or operate as unincorporated associations; both types of church structures could set up boards to represent their members.)

Richard Pinelli, director of the UCG's ministry under Mr. Hulme, said in a sermon delivered to the fledgling Kansas City UCG congregation the weekend after the Indianapolis conference, "The authority [in this church] to do anything will no longer rest with one man, one rule."

He emphasized "a different way of doing things," which he said included setting up locally governed congregations, in which church members, including leaders, would work in concert to begin doing the work from a local level.

Board member Rick Frazee of Independence, Mo., says: "We've tried to model what we thought the UCG was doing with the general conference. We aimed to legitimize the spirit of Indianapolis in working by consensus. Our town-meeting format, where any church member can attend the board meetings and speak their mind, is working well."

His wife, Paula, echoes her husband's sentiments. "It's responsible serving," she says. "It really gives everyone a sense of participation."

Unilateral actions

But in some other areas a significant number of UCG members seem increasingly annoyed with the unilateral actions of the home office when it comes to transferring pastors. Pastors are assigned or reassigned with no input from the brethren.

Some members of the UCG's Garden Grove, Calif., congregation, which formed before the UCG, were disappointed when pastor Dennis Luker was replaced without any effort to communicate with the local board about his replacement.

More recently a locally incorporated congregation saw its pastor resign in a career change. One of the two congregations he pastored, Fort Wayne, Ind., passed a unanimous resolution that it sent to regional pastor Victor Kubik.

The resolution requested that Mr. Kubik visit the congregation so members could discuss with him the preferences of the congregation and learn more about the type of pastor it would be assigned.

Mr. Kubik visited the church and conducted what he termed a "very productive, cordial" meeting with the board and other brethren.

Some weeks later, while Mr. Kubik was out of town, a representative of the home office directly assigned a new pastor, with no attempt to inform or seek input from the members.

Local incorporations discouraged

The home office has openly tried to discourage the incorporation of local UCG congregations. Steve Andrews, an attorney and UCG treasurer, last summer wrote an article in New Beginnings, a UCG member newsletter, titled "Sorting Out the 'Private Sins.' " Mr. Andrews presented his vision of the potential legal ramifications and consequences of "inurement"; i.e., members providing benefits to themselves from tax-deductible tithes, a situation that Mr. Andrews said could arise if members make donations and pay tithes to the local congregation.

He used as an example the purchase of snacks by the congregations. In the judgment of many UCG elders and other brethren, Mr. Andrews' presentation was so overstated that many elders privately began calling the incident Cookiegate, a takeoff on President Richard Nixon's downfall over the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Turmoil in Miami

In Transition has received copies of dozens of communications relating to the crisis in Miami and West Palm Beach and has talked with people on both sides of the issue.

Sharon K. Sloat, a member at West Palm Beach, was among those who wrote the council. Mrs. Sloat said she has known Mr. Smith and his family for 15 years, from the time he was a WCG associate pastor in Wheeling, W.Va.

Mrs. Sloat, who moved to Florida in June, in a Dec. 1 letter to the council, wrote:

"Many of us here in the Miami/West Palm area feel like we have been going through a nightmare but almost wonder if this is a sign of the future. As you must know by now, 100 percent of the Miami congregation respectfully and unanimously seek Mr. Smith as their spiritual leader . . .

"Mr. Smith was not fired for adultery, stealing, or murder. Exactly one week prior [to his termination] his [regional pastor, Roy Holladay] and Mr. [Richard] Thompson [a member of the ministerial-services team that supervises the field ministers under ministerial head Mr. Pinelli and Mr. Hulme] told Mrs. Smith that she could tell the congregation that the meeting went well and that her husband was a minister in good standing with United."

On Dec. 7, in a question-and-answer session at services in Miami, Mr. Holladay declined to discuss the details of Mr. Smith's firing. Several Miami members reported that Mr. Holladay gave as his reason for silence the biblical concept that love covers sin, although noting that Mr. Smith had "not sinned."

In an effort to clear the way for an open discussion of his firing, Mr. Smith told In Transition Dec. 8 that he was willing to sign a legal document agreeing not to sue the UCG for wrongful termination.

"In fact, I've already signed a termination contract," Mr. Smith said. "I received a gratuitous payment equal to one month's pay, plus payment for unused vacation."

He said he thinks language was included in the legal document saying that he agreed not to pursue legal recourse, but he's not sure.

"I was so rattled by the events of the day of my firing that I didn't think to get a copy."

Blown out of proportion

Mr. Holladay said Dec.11 of the situation in Florida:

"I am concerned that a local incident such as this will get blown out of proportion. Mr. Smith was terminated because of job performance. Because [the situation] is a question of ethics, privacy and employment laws, I cannot discuss this.

"The fundamental question comes down to contradictory sets of information coming from church members. The perception in this case that a couple of people stirred up trouble is simply not true. The fact-gathering here involved the church membership.

"The ministerial-service team investigated this for several months, trying to work it out. In my opinion, they bent over backwards.

"I can't really say if we've lost members over this. I know of a couple who have stopped attending, but there's been a gradual attrition over a period of time for various reasons."

Mr. Holladay said he hopes the churches in south Florida will stabilize and another pastor will be brought in.

"Except for this, of the approximately 20 churches in this region things are going very well."

The situation remains tense and is far from resolved, according to other brethren in Florida. Mr. Smith remains popular, and many brethren say they believe he was the victim of a smear campaign on the part of a handful of members, especially in the West Palm Beach congregation. Many brethren say they are upset.

On the other hand

John Rodberg, a deacon in the West Palm Beach congregation, and his wife, Carol, were mentioned by members of both the West Palm Beach and Miami congregations as detractors of Mr. Smith.

Mr. Rodberg, who was ordained a deacon in the WCG about 1976, said he wasn't "trying to get Mr. Smith fired." He did say that he did not agree philosophically with how Mr. Smith proposed spending some locally collected funds.

Mrs. Rodberg contacted In Transition to say she wasn't out to get Mr. Smith, either. "We weren't against him. We were against his thinking and against his management of our first tithe.

"The UCG's downfall is that it permits local congregations to collect tithes. I've gone to Global. They do know about leadership. They are the original people. They are on the right track. Our thing was that we didn't want to be like Worldwide."

None of those contacted concerning the events in southern Florida, including his detractors, suggested that Mr. Smith misappropriated church funds and acknowledged that Mr. Smith cannot sign checks drawn on the local account.

Spokane bylaw battle

Across the country in the Pacific Northwest, in Spokane, Wash., another situation is simmering, and some UCG brethren say they are upset. In this case, the pastor is perceived by some as being kept in place by the home office in spite of the recommendations of the board and the regional pastor that he be transferred.

The Spokane congregation of the UCG started May 6, 1995, the Sabbath after the Indianapolis organizational conference.

In a June 15, 1995, letter to In Transition, Rod Hall, chairman of the board of the Spokane congregation, wrote that well over half of the WCG's Spokane congregation left to join the UCG.

He said the brethren were relieved to meet again with those of like mind, without contention and stress.

"The atmosphere is reminiscent of the Feasts in the 1960s," he wrote at that time. "Each Sabbath seems like a holy day."

Mr. Hall wrote that at first he was "not in favor" of establishing a board, "because I was uncomfortable with the pastor sharing the decision-making process with others who have the power to override his wishes. We all had gotten comfortable with government from the top down.

"However, Mr. Treybig was excited about trying the board system. Now that we are about six weeks into its operation, I can see that a board system can be a very effective tool in handling the administrative needs of the church. This, of course, must be made up of converted individuals interested in letting God lead and guide them."

In November 1995, In Transition contacted Mr. Treybig about how things were working with the board. He expressed enthusiasm for the process that seemed to be working well in in his area.

"As far as I know, Spokane is the only Pacific Northwest congregation with an elected board," he said, noting that all but one of the board members was ordained and all had been long-time WCG members.

"I've been pastor in Spokane for nine years. It's one of those rare instances where the church and pastor made the move together."

He added that about 175 of the 300-member WCG congregation had joined the UCG.

Mr. Treybig said that Mr. Hall, elder Perry Miller and he had traveled to Indianapolis for the conference that produced the UCG. He said they were excitedly establishing a locally controlled congregation, based on the concepts outlined during the Indiana conference.

Change of heart

The seven-person board, which included all the elders (Mr. Treybig, Mr. Miller, Steven Wineinger and Robert Gentry), prepared a set of bylaws for the congregation's consideration.

Mr. Gentry recalled recently that the board requested assistance from the UCG home office on some occasions but was told, in effect, "you are on your own," he said. "We believed the finished document was imperfect, [but] in fact one of the most relied-upon features of the bylaws was that they could be amended."

A draft copy of the bylaws was distributed to the members in November. A Jan. 13, 1996, meeting was eventually scheduled for adoption of the bylaws and the election of a regular slate of board members to replace the interim board. Mr. Wineinger said that in December the board continued to refine the bylaws and believed it had a better document in January than the draft it had provided the congregation in November.

But, shortly before the bylaws were presented to the congregation for ratification, Mr. Treybig said he had changed his mind about them.

All three elders say that, to their amazement, during the Jan. 7 board meeting Mr. Treybig distributed a letter he had received challenging UCG Spokane's governance on the basis that it included a woman on the board and allowed women in the congregation to vote.

"Mr. Treybig proposed for the first time that elders should be the governing body in the church, thus avoiding the issue of women voting," Mr. Gentry said recently.

The elders say Mr. Treybig restated his opposition to the bylaws he helped create, but were adamant that the congregation had been promised what they called a "town meeting" and an opportunity to accept or reject the bylaws.

Bylaws approved 85-3

Before the vote, Mr. Treybig delivered a sermon condemning "congregationalism" and supporting "presbyterianism" (rule of the ministry). After the sermon, the congregation voted 85-3 to ratify the bylaws.

"The congregation was just as mystified as the board by the sudden turn of events," Mr. Gentry said, "and couldn't imagine the sermon's purpose was to oppose the document the pastor had helped develop."

The elders say the pastor was surprised and angered by the vote as well as the fact that the interim board (with one exception because of medical problems) was reelected to become the permanent board.

In Transition asked Mr. Treybig Dec. 9 to comment, but he declined to speak on the record. He did fax a statement Dec. 10:

"The bylaw process has been difficult for us and we are saddened by the fact that some have chosen this time to leave. We are encouraged though by the progress we have made in the past few weeks while revising our bylaws. We are finding common ground to insure that our local members will be involved in doing the work and that we will remain part of the United Church of God."

He further offered to review In Transition's article before publication and to "comment on sections that I feel need clarification."

Rather than provide the article, In Transition faxed Mr. Treybig a summary of notes compiled during hours of telephone interviews that chronicled events of the past year.

Elder says Sabbath services tense

Mr. Treybig, in a written reply, said: "Your notes from interviews with the three elders and one former elder (by his own choice) appear to be consistent with what they have told me. The debate over whether to be entirely locally autonomous or part of a worldwide work has indeed been divisive."

The former elder referred to by Mr. Treybig is Dave Crabtree of Coeur d' Alene, Idaho, who was a WCG elder for about 10 years and who became a UCG elder but attended in Spokane rather than Coeur d' Alene.

Mr. Crabtree, who did not serve on the board and did not work on the bylaws, said he stopped attending the Spokane congregation before this year's Feast.

"I haven't stopped fellowshipping, but I don't assemble on the Sabbath with the UCG. I have no ill will toward anyone."

Mr. Crabtee said his decision to stop attending the Spokane congregation was because of the uneasy ambience he perceived on the Sabbath.

"The Sabbath atmosphere was not one of rejuvenation. So many of their sermons dealt with government. We felt it wasn't profitable to put ourselves in that situation. I just don't have time for the quibbling and politicking. We now meet with other brethren in a private fellowship.

"Our UCG congregation started out with high enthusiasm. We considered having our own building, but the pastor pulled back from that approach, and it left a lot of us feeling it was not the organization that we thought we were joining."

He said he still considers the Treybigs friends of his.

Local vs. worldwide work?

Although Mr.Treybig characterized the debate as between autonomy and doing a worldwide work, Mr. Wineinger said the central issue is control.

"The conflict ripping the Spokane church apart is the result of the pastor fighting to keep control: control of what the membership will believe, something most of us are still sensitive to; control of how the money will be spent; control of whether or not a local work can be done in the area and how; and so on."

Mr. Wineinger said he believes that "we, those God has called and in whom He has placed His Holy Spirit, are all part of the royal priesthood." (The concept of a royal priesthood [1 Peter 2:9] has a flashpoint for many within the ranks of the UCG ministry in recent months. Some say it is a code word for those who reject the concept of the authority of the ordained ministry).

But Mr. Wineinger said he believes in structure in the church.

"There should be bishops, elders, overseers, deacons, etc., within the church functioning as servants within the Body. There is the need for some full-time [paid] ministers. The ministry and the home office exist for the purpose of empowering and supporting the membership."

But United is at a crossroads, he says.

"Arcadia has the chance to do something really different. We are waiting to see. It isn't what we believe so much that would make us a cult but how we believe."

Mr. Wineinger said he belongs where he can "best be a Christian. I hope this can be in the United Church of God, an International Association."

UCG releases conference transcript

Differing opinions on the role of UCG congregations date to the Indianapolis conference (In Transition, May 5, 1995).

Since then it has become obvious to some that UCG elders do not agree in their recollection of what happened in Indianapolis. Last June In Transition reported that the home office had prepared a transcript of the conference (In Transition, June 24).

In early November the home office released a partial transcript of the Indianapolis meetings.

In a cover letter Nov. 8 from Mr. Hulme, the president said his memory of the meetings had "proven less than perfect. The transcript may demonstrate the same to you [elders]."

A main point of his letter was to explain "difficulties" springing from comments made by Ray Wooten, a member of the original board who was not reelected at the December 1995 general conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mr. Hulme said Mr. Wooten's remarks were out of line and had distressed Mr. Luker.

"As a result, Mr. Luker spoke out plainly about his desire to be part of a national and international work," Mr. Hulme wrote.

Mr. Hulme said he talked with Mr. Wooten and "mentioned that his address had not followed the broad outline [Mr. Wooten] had agreed on with the conference planning team. I noted that he seemed to have rather fallen back on an earlier 'script' about autonomous congregations."

On Dec. 11 In Transition asked Mr. Wooten about Mr. Hulme's remarks:

"The transcript itself absolutely refutes the paragraph about difficulties being experienced as a result of comments made by me in my address on setting up the church. If Mr. Luker was caused distress, it was because he was being pressured by others.

"I know the truth of the matter. I went to Indianapolis knowing that a number of those men did not want local autonomy from the beginning. That was especially clear from the time David Hulme was installed.

"I was the main one to argue for local involvement of brethren in doing the work. Had I not been there, the UCG would have been established from the start as another headquarters-type operation.

"I also did not apologize as is stated or acquiesce to David Hulme's viewpoint. He came to me and said, 'But, Ray, we need to do a work,' and I merely agreed, 'Yes, that's right. We do need to do a work, but a work to actively involve every member and the gifts God has given him or her.'"

Grappling with preaching the gospel

The United Church of God as a whole continues to grapple with governance and its role in preaching the gospel.

Ministers and other members have expressed to In Transition positive reactions to the UCG's progress, including the publishing of The Good News magazine, even while personally wanting to do more.

The broad base of UCG's grassroots constituency regards the work of preaching the gospel as a cooperative, not competitive, effort between the Arcadia management team, the ordained ministry and all other members of the church.

Many in the church who are poised to take increasing personal responsibility for and involvement in evangelism say they are discouraged by the home office's negative reactions to, or shutdowns of, such member-guided efforts as the production of public-access cable television programs.

They report they are dismayed by a return to what they regard as politics as usual: the WCG-influenced mind-set that the real work of the church can be properly performed only by one anointed leader or by a handful of ordained men.

The argument used by the home office to bolster this viewpoint is that Indianapolis was then, but this is now: an attitude expressed in a recent letter mailed with transcripts from the Indiana conference.

In that letter dated, Nov. 8, the UCG's President Hulme writes: "The United Church of God, an International Association, has grown and developed a great deal since May 1995. Some of the decisions taken at that first conference have been superceded. The actual practice of organizing the Church and the experience of its development has caused us to learn and modify as we go. I hope we can all recognize the leadership of our Father and His Son in the direction the Church is traveling under their guidance."

Finally a forum

A significant number of UCG elders have expressed a need for an electronic elders' forum. They say the general conference has little opportunity to discuss important issues.

Dan Deininger, a UCG elder in Helena, Mont., tried to set up a semiofficial forum last summer, with limited success. Some UCG elders said they desired to participate but were concerned that they would be damaged politically if they contributed to a forum that was not approved by the home office.

Mr. Deininger said he backed off on his efforts because of limited time and because Mr. Hulme promised elders in the Northwest in August that the home office would set up an E-mail forum.

Mr. Holladay told In Transition Dec. 11 that the forum "should be online almost immediately."

"All those presently on the [Lotus Developments] cc:Mail [electronic-mail] system will be notified when that happens, provided a copy of the guidelines for its use and given a chance to sign up," he said.

"We think it's a really positive move and something we've all been wanting to do."

Scott Ashley, an elder in the United Church of God's Denver, Colo., congregation, believes the governance-debate situation is "tragic."

"I wouldn't want to go back to the blind faith once delivered," Mr. Ashley, managing editor of The Good News magazine, said, "and the UCG does have growing pains, even though at last report our income is doing very well and Feast attendance exceeded our expectations.

"I've heard of many diverse reasons why we've lost members all across the country. Every conceivable doctrinal difference has cropped up as old heresies emerge and brand-new ones surface.

"But I've seen this affecting all groups. It is not a corporate problem; people are being swayed in their faith by all manner of organizational, doctrinal and personal problems.

"What we need to remember is who the true enemy of all of us is. It is Satan the devil, whose motivation has always been to destroy, distract, disrupt and divide."

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