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UCG churches struggle with differences in approach

By Mac Overton and Linda Moll Smith

SAN ANTONIO, Texas--San Antonio is the United Church of God congregation to receive the most recent visit by UCG president David Hulme or other church officials to speak with and answer questions from church members.

During services here Jan. 25, Mr. Hulme gave the sermonette and sermon and for more than an hour afterward answered written and oral questions from some of the nearly 200 members from San Antonio, Austin and other areas who attended.

Mr. Hulme fielded queries on church finances, his role as president, the UCG's plans for evangelism and the proposed home-office move.

When asked about cities being considered for the home office, Mr. Hulme replied, "Ask In Transition." He said that six cities are on the list and advised church members to "be patient. All will be revealed." He said the list should be compared with that published Dec. 16 by In Transition, implying there may be some differences.

Although it has not been openly acknowledged, the San Antonio congregation has lost members and struggled with governance issues over the past few months.

Membersand all of those contacted by In Transition chose to remain anonymous say that 125 to 140 regularly attend here, after about 40 left in early January over issues of local governance.

Disagreement over governance issues has also emerged in at least five other United church areas in the United States, although In Transition was unable to confirm those reports before press time.

Ron Smith update

As reported in In Transition's Dec. 16 issue, members in Miami and West Palm Beach, Fla., were concerned over what they viewed as the arbitrary termination of local pastor Ron Smith by Mr. Hulme and the home office.

On Jan. 11 Richard Pinelli, UCG director of ministerial services, flew to Florida at the request of at least one member there for a follow-up visit with the two congregations.

After his visit Phil Garland, an elder in the Miami congregation, said: "The church here has been through question-and-answer sessions [like the one Mr. Pinelli conducted] a number of times already. We still don't have the answers. Everybody stands behind legal issues and confidentiality."

Mr. Garland said that "Ron Smith has been beaten to death. As a pastor he had a unique way of allowing people to grow spiritually. We had freedom of expression. He never put himself on a pedestal. He was never bossy or authoritarian. I think the UCG has a box a minister has to fit into. Ron is not in that box, and that's a shame for us."

Mr. Garland observed that, even if the home office would now tell the reasons for Mr. Smith's termination, "in Miami and West Palm Beach the damage has been done. It's too late to salvage much."

He said 55 to 60 members had been attending in Miami, but the week after Mr. Pinelli's Jan. 11 visit only 16 people came to church.

John Rodberg of West Palm Beach said the congregation there lost "25 or 30" members out of about 105 from April to October. "The Smith situation is over and done with," he said. "I don't wish to comment further."

Another member with ties to the area who did not wish to be identified talked of "a spiritual battle" taking place. "Ron is a pawn. United is doing their best to handle it and doesn't know how. We are hoping for a Matthew 18 thing to handle this situation."

The former pastor, Mr. Smith, said in a mid-January interview: "I've basically been eliminated from the loop [of information supplied to UCG ministers], but I am still an elder."

Mr. Smith said he had "verbally resigned" around April 1 last year when he was told he would receive only a $278-per-month raise to to go full time from part-time status.

"I needed $800 a month to pay my bills," he said.

"Around May 1 I resigned [after they made a second offer]. For three weeks they searched for a replacement but couldn't find someone who wanted to move to South Florida.

"I resigned, not because I didn't want to be in the ministry, but because I couldn't accept their offer and pay my bills. After [another elder] gave a strong recommendation to rehire me, I was granted five months to work at my own [side] business and pay off my indebtedness."

Mr. Smith said was grossing $1,000 per week from the UCG at the time of his termination. He said he still worked for the church more than 40 hours a week and worked at his own business a total of five or six days a month.

He said he had been asked to speak by some independent groups, by the Friends of the Sabbath for a conference in Florida Feb. 21-22 and by members who no longer attend the two UCG congregations.

Mr. Smith summed up the situation in South Florida: "Many people are hanging in there to see what happens at the UCG's conference of elders in March. I still want to work with United, and I'm not against United. I just will not work for them."

Ron Weinland's letters

Also Ron Weinland, pastor of United Church of God congregations in Toledo, Ohio, and Detroit, Mich., has reported wide-scale reaction, both positive and negative, to a letter he sent to the entire UCG conference of elders Dec. 27 about his concerns regarding due-process procedures, open communication and governance issues within the United Church of God, an International Association.

When asked about the letter Jan. 14, UCG council member Jim Franks said: "I'm not saying that some of his concerns aren't legitimate, but I don't agree with the manner in which they were expressed. I don't think Mr. Weinland should have sent his letter to all elders. He should have gone directly to those involved."

In his letter, sent to the elders via the church's private E-mail network, Mr. Weinland wrote:

"What I as a pastor am concerned about at this time, is not doctrine. What I am concerned about is the lack of evidence of God's Spirit at work in people's lives. Are people being consistently treated in a Godly way? Is all the ministry, Council of Elders, and H.O. [the home office] reflecting the fruit of the weightier matters of the lawjudgment, mercy, and faith?"

He continued: "Too many people have been deeply hurt because of an intolerance to different ideas, programs, and plans of local congregations. There is the distinct feeling from many in the church that [the home office] is pushing and pulling for more control over everything. This discourages and limits personal opportunities for growth, training, and education within the membership."

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