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United Church of God congregation in San Salvador, El Salvador splits
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Then there were two:
The United Church of God divides in San Salvador, El Salvador
By Dixon Cartwright

BIG SANDY, Texas--The United Church of God an International Association (UCG), based in Milford, Ohio, lost about half the members of a congregation in Central America in October and November, according to reports from elders and other members who are no longer a part of the congregation.

The affected congregation--which is now two congregations--met in San Salvador, capital of El Salvador.

Leon Walker of Big Sandy, director of the UCG's Spanish department and regional director of the church's activities in Spanish-speaking regions of the world, announced during a visit to the congregation the removal of 30-year pastor Herberth Cisneros at Sabbath services Oct. 28.

The church members in attendance greeted Mr. Walker's announcement with apparent consternation as several dozen of the brethren jumped to their feet to ask questions.

According to reports, Mr. Walker seemed unable to restore order or to continue the service and therefore walked out of the room.

Unsubstantiated rumors

Events leading to the church split included Mr. Cisneros' wife, Conchita, contacting Mr. Walker with concerns about a possible inappropriate relationship between her husband and a woman in another UCG congregation.

According to The Journal's sources, Mr. Walker had looked into the rumors and found no substantiation for them.

In the meantime, however, the rumors had spread, and some members had decided to stop attending church because of them.

Mr. Cisneros denounced these actions in statements to the congregation. Mr. Walker was reportedly unhappy that the pastor had referred to some of the rumormongers by name and had accused them of involvement in his alleged defamation.

As a result, Mr. Walker is said to have insisted that Mr. Cisneros apologize to the congregation.

Mr. Cisneros' apology during a church service did not satisfy Mr. Walker, who insisted that it did not go far enough, and directed him to apologize further the next week.

The revised apology still did not satisfy the regional director, who then directed that a statement he had written highlighting Mr. Cisneros' inadequate apologies be read.

In response, 69 members of the congregation signed a letter of support for Mr. Cisneros and of protest to Mr. Walker.

Cuts in expenditures

Those who believed the rumors continued to stay away from services, and, as a result, the church's income fell.

Mr. Walker directed Mr. Cisneros to make major cuts in expenditures, including a significant cut in the pastor's salary, with a warning about additional cuts to come if necessary.

On Oct. 24 Mr. Walker wrote a letter to Mr. Cisneros telling him he was removing him as pastor and offering him a discretionary retirement package contingent on his continued loyalty to the UCG.

Mr. Cisneros, who says he was in shock over his dismissal, told Mr. Walker he would prefer a lump-sum settlement and would seek legal advice before making a decision.

Then came the turbulent Sabbath service of Oct. 28.

Not an employee

A short while later, in his official message disfellowshipping Mr. Cisneros, Mr. Walker informed the pastor that he had never been an employee of the United Church of God an International Association and that therefore the church did not owe him anything and he would not be receiving anything.

The Journal contacted Mr. Walker for his perspective on the events leading to the split, asking him to confirm or refute the version of the events as described by Mr. Cisneros and Mr. Santos, both of San Salvador, and Reg Killingley of Big Sandy.

Mr. Killingley is a member of the Church of God Big Sandy and a former elder in the Worldwide Church of God. Mr. Killingley had served as a WCG employee in Peru and Venezuela under Mr. Walker's supervision in the 1980s.

Why disfellowshipped?

The Journal asked Mr. Cisneros why he was disfellowshipped, and he replied that he did not know, although Mr. Santos speculated that it was because Mr. Walker didn't like Mr. Cisneros' sermons and believed he was preaching unsound doctrine.

The Journal asked Mr. Walker for the reason for the disfellowshipping. He declined to answer, apart from saying that the situation was "extremely complex."

Mr. Walker did acknowledge that he had disfellowshipped Mr. Cisneros. He informed Mr. Cisneros of his disfellowshipping in an E-mailed message with the subject line "Division" dated Oct. 31.

The following is a translation from the Spanish of Mr. Walker's E-mail (note that, although Mr. Cisneros spells his given name Herberth, UCG publications and Web pages have consistently spelled it Herbert):

"Hello, Herbert,

"The purpose of this message is to inform you that you are disfellowshipped from the United Church of God, for spiritual reasons, according to Romans 16:17.

"At the same time, you are suspended as a minister of the United Church of God. Therefore, you are not authorized to carry out any ministerial responsibility in the name of the United Church of God."

The E-mail ended with the words "Leon Walker, Regional Director, United Church of God."

Discussion of severance pay

Two hours earlier Mr. Cisneros had E-mailed Mr. Walker to follow up on their previous conversation concerning the possibility of some kind of severance payment.

Mr. Cisneros wrote (again, this is translated from the Spanish):

"Good day, Mr. Walker,

"As I told you during the conversation we had on Friday, Oct. 27, in your hotel room, I was going to check with an attorney into the legal aspects of my employment relationship, regarding my severance payment, which I asked you for instead of a retirement pension which you offered me.

"The lawyer explained to me that it is a very simple matter to take care of, since all you have to do is to multiply my monthly salary by the number of years of service as noted on my certificate of ordination as a minister of the church. In addition, one month's vacation should be included in the severance payment, and medical insurance, which has not been given to me for the last three years.

"I trust that this information is sufficiently clear for you and I look forward to your response."

It was signed "Herberth Cisneros."

Discretionary payments

Here is Mr. Walker's response:

"Hello, Herbert,

"I cannot believe what you wrote [above].

"United Church of God, an International Association, is under no obligation to give you a pension or a settlement. You were never an employee of said entity. What I offered you as a pension was entirely out of courtesy. You rejected that pension. Then you asked for a severance payment, but there is no legal obligation on our part to give that to you either. I was going to consider the possibility of giving you a sum of money, but, again, out of courtesy.

"But now, after what happened during the scandalous demonstration on the Sabbath and your participation in it, I will not consider giving you a sum of money out of courtesy."

This time Mr. Walker affixed no closing or signature.

Analyzing what happened

By saying that Mr. Cisneros was not a UCG employee, The Journal assumes Mr. Walker meant that, even though Mr. Cisneros was an employee of a UCG affiliate in Central America, he was not an employee of the United Church of God an International Association, the corporation based in Ohio.

In examining what happened, Mr. Santos, Mr. Cisneros' son-in-law, said he thinks the situation highlights a "dangerous and chronic deficiency in the hierarchical organization of the church in general."

According to Mr. Santos, one person, in this case Mr. Walker, has "all the authority as a plenipotentiary whose decisions cannot be appealed over an area as large as all of Latin America. This is dangerous, because it easily degenerates into an abuse of authority."

The Journal talked with Mr. Killingley, who had worked under Mr. Walker in the Worldwide Church of God's Spanish department for 14 years, principally as a church pastor in Peru and Venezuela.

Mr. Killingley said he was disappointed that Mr. Walker was not willing to give Mr. Cisneros a severance payment or payments after his 10 years of service to the UCG (and 20 years before that with the WCG).

"To tell Mr. Cisneros that he was never an employee of the UCG-AIA [United Church of God an International Association] sounds like equivocation of the most legalistic order," Mr. Killingley said. "Mr. Walker's letter removing Mr. Cisneros as pastor was written on a UCG-AIA letterhead. What was the point of that if he wasn't even an employee of the organization?

"Mr. Walker's words give the appearance of being concerned about protecting himself and UCG-AIA legally, but what about concern for the congregation and their longtime pastor?

"How can such a response, even if technically accurate, be considered morally truthful and ethically correct? If even the unjust judge in Luke 18 did what was right in the end, then surely a leading member of the UCG's council of elders should do no less."

Mr. Killingley acknowledged that Mr. Walker no doubt sincerely believes Mr. Cisneros erred during and after Mr. Walker's announcement of the pastor's removal at Sabbath services Oct. 28.

But Mr. Killingley thinks that Mr. Cisneros' and the other members' reactions--the hurt and upset--to the announcement of the removal of the pastor after three decades were something Mr. Walker should have anticipated.

"After all," Mr. Killingley said, "Leon had received a letter two months earlier, signed by 69 members of the congregation, expressing their support for their pastor. Was it then reasonable to suppose that they would just take everything in stride and not be upset?"

Mr. Killingley said he believes Mr. Walker's actions served to "publicly humiliate" Mr. Cisneros, "not only by requiring him to apologize to the congregation but critiquing the apology and forcing him to apologize some more the next week and then, still dissatisfied, requiring the reading of a statement essentially communicating the clear message of no confidence in his ability to carry out his duties."

Clashing culture

"This may not be a problem in the U.S., but it is a weakness for someone in his role, supervising and working closely with people from Latin American cultures.

"And to top it off, having himself gone through the farce of disfellowshipment from WCG some 10 years ago, Mr. Walker turns around and metes out similar treatment to another. Could he not see the tragic irony?"

Mr. Killingley said he is optimistic that Mr. Walker will change his mind about Mr. Cisneros' severance settlement:

"I am hopeful that at the end of the process, Mr. Walker will forget legalisms and remember the Golden Rule and make amends by doing the right thing: providing Mr. Cisneros with as generous and equitable a settlement as he might wish to receive were he in a similar predicament."

Mr. Walker told The Journal that Mr. Santos' and Mr. Killingley's statements contained "many inaccurate and distorted 'facts,'" but "I have no desire to air my rebuttal in a public forum."


A month after Mr. Cisneros' firing, the former UCG pastor reported that an average of 70-75 people were meeting with him in San Salvador for services every week.

"We have about 86 people, but not everyone is able to attend regularly," Mr. Cisneros said.

Before the split, the UCG had about 165 regular attendees, most of whom met in the capital city.

"Now," Mr. Cisneros said, "United has about 70 people, and there are three families who are staying home for now until things settle down."

Mr. Cisneros said his congregation plans to stay independent and that "we hope and trust that God will take care of us and protect us and provide for our needs."

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