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Conference of Church Leaders convenes to talk about the diversity and defense of congregations
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Conference of Church Leaders convenes to talk
about the diversity and defense of congregations
By Dixon Cartwright

LEXINGTON, Ky.--The need for a "free" Church of God was high on the list of things to talk about at an invitation-only conference of COG leaders conducted by organizers of the Lexington Winter Family Tournament in late December.

During the publicly announced December event (see "Everybody Wins at Winter Family Tournament," beginning on this page), another get-together was going on, the Conference of Church Leaders, organized by Jim O'Brien of Liberty Township, Ohio, and Guy Swenson of Plainfield, Ind.

On Sunday and Monday, Dec. 24-25, about 50 people, many of them married couples, met in the Griffin Gate Resort Marriott Inn for lectures, question-and-answer periods and breakout sessions to come up with solutions to problems of the modern-day Sabbatarian Churches of God.

Conference subthemes told the story: "Diversity Without Division," "Defending the Congregation," "Congregational Hurdles" and "Congregational Health."

The four main speakers were Ron Dart of Whitehouse, Texas; Pam Dewey of Allegan, Mich.; Dave Havir of Big Sandy, Texas; and Mr. Swenson.

Mr. O'Brien introduced the conference Sunday morning by noting that "one of the biggest curses in the Church of God is not having a free ministry."

The history of the people of God is a history of going in and out of slavery, he said.

He introduced the first of the four main speakers, Pam Dewey.


Lost contact for years

Mrs. Dewey recounted her and her husband George's sojourn with the Worldwide Church of God beginning in 1968.

The Deweys joined the Church of God International in 1978 and by 1988 were "completely outside the Church of God movement."

They formally worshiped with a "small home fellowship in Michigan" for a while in 1988, but it "fell apart," Mrs. Dewey said. From 1988 to 1996 they had no contact at all with other Church of God members.

"I yearned for things that I missed the most, the Feast of Tabernacles and the Passover, because there was nobody on earth that I knew at the time who would allow me to wash their feet even," she said. "I was really discouraged."

The Internet changed things for Mrs. Dewey in 1996. Thanks to the information superhighway, she found people she had not seen since 1978, and "within weeks I was in contact with all sorts of folks, and by the summer we had a small congregation to meet with in our state."

The group of 16-20 people was "unified," she said, until its first Passover. At that point members of the group split four ways, along the lines of their preferred schedules and favorite methods for Passover observance.

Mrs. Dewey's remembrances of that era:

"One met this night. Another group said we can't meet then; we have to meet this night.

"One said we have to have a meal with the bread and wine. No, no, we can't possibly have a meal with bread and wine. Another couple decided our calendar was wrong."

Therefore, burned into Mrs. Dewey's consciousness is a question: How can Church of God Christians meet and fellowship together in diversity, yet "without division"?

Dual reasons to split

She noted two main reasons for Church of God splits.

   The first is disagreement about who is in command.

"There are groups now that divided over who's in charge of the button on the tape player for the sermon today."

   The second main reason is "doctrinal disagreements."

But, she said, the actual issue isn't authority or doctrine. It's really "spiritual maturity."

"I think the most significant answer to the problem of division in small and big congregations is developing spiritual maturity so they are dedicated to loving one another before loving debatable doctrines."

So how can church leaders help "inoculate" the brethren against division?

Issues of contentiousness

Before answering her own question, she listed some contentious issues the brethren have cozied up to:

   The "exclusive sacred-names position"; that is, the doctrine that everyone must use Hebrew or Hebrew-like terms to refer to the Father and Jesus or else lose out on salvation.

   Passover-timing issues.

   Calendar issues.

   The "dependability of the New Testament."

"There are gurus out there whose goal in life is to get you away from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and Jesus Christ," she said.

   Speaking in tongues.

"I'm not condemning any of these things, necessarily," she said, "but there are people who will use these to divide your church."

   False prophets. "There are a whole lot of them out there."

Inoculation kit

To inoculate the brethren, Mrs. Dewey invited Church of God leaders to make use of her "inoculation kit," which includes a DVD with a message on it with the title "Flea Powder for Itching Ears."

As part of her advice, she recommended especially taking care to avoid the teachings of David J. Smith and Darryl Condor.

One of her Web sites pertains to this discussion, she said. It's called The Nitpickers Guide to the Galaxy of Church of God Doctrinal Debates. (For links to all of the Deweys' sites, go to

Brookfield in 2005

The second of four speakers was Mr. Dart, who talked about the importance of education in protecting Church of God members from dangerous doctrines and division.

Mr. Dart began by discussing the events of Brookfield, Wis., on the Sabbath of March 12, 2005, when a member of a Living Church of God congregation during the church service shot and killed seven fellow church members and then himself.

"To me, I still to this day can't understand why three guys didn't just tackle him [murderer-suicide Terry Ratzmann] all at once," Mr. Dart said.

Men of the Churches of God, Mr. Dart said, need to protect their women and children, yet, "to me, it almost seems like sometimes we've been spiritually castrated."

Mr. Dart drew an analogy between a literally pacifist stance--traditional in the old Worldwide Church of God and its derivatives--and a metaphorically pacifist stance that keeps people from taking active steps to protect brethren from dangerous doctrines and leaders.

"We have inherited spiritual pacifism unthinkingly," he said. "I have a 12-gauge and a 9-mm handgun in my house, and, if some guy breaks into our home and threatens my wife and me, he will go back down those stairs head over heels. I'm not a pacifist. I believe I have every right to protect myself and my family."

Similarly, Mr. Dart believes he has the right to "protect the church," albeit "without a gun."

"But there's a problem," he acknowledged, "a major problem that lies right there. It's not my job to protect your church. Whose job is it?"

Someone in the audience called out, "Ours."

The one-man problem

Mr. Dart criticized the concept of "one man" as leader of a church.

"Now, maybe he'll be a good guy, a benign despot," he said, "but the fact of the matter is that, when you leave the task of protecting the church to one man, you are taking a risk on autocracy and authoritarianism."

Mr. Dart praised Mr. O'Brien's mention, in the introduction to the conference, of a "free church."

"The idea of a free church is so powerful, so meaningful," the CEM leader said, "but we haven't gotten down to understanding what it means to be free."

Later, after engaging commenters from the audience, Mr. Dart noted that "it should be obvious that before we get anywhere in this discussion" someone should determine "what we are talking about when we use the words discipline and church discipline."

Just what do you mean discipline?

It is obvious, he opined, that a church cannot have any kind of structure without discipline of some kind.

A discussion ensued about kinds of discipline: imposed discipline and self-discipline.

Mr. Dart talked about doctrine as if it were a football.

"Doctrine has been kicked around this church for too long," he said. "I don't know why it's such a big problem. We tend to use the word in a sense of the word dogma. Now, does a church have the right to establish what we teach?"

Both Mr. Dart and Mrs. Dewey seemed to be saying they see room for diversity of belief and doctrine in the Churches of God, but only up to a point. Beyond that point, somebody--leaders, followers, someone--must protect the brethren against treacherous teachings and menacing teachers.

One way to do that, said Mr. Dart, is to take seriously the need for structure and discipline.

He brought up the principles and procedures mentioned in Matthew 18, about going to one's brother when one perceives a problem with him.

"Why doesn't Matthew 18 work?" Mr. Dart asked.

Dan Girouard, a participant from Cedar Park, Texas, answered from the audience: "Because people don't use it."

Mr. Dart: "Why don't they use it? . . . What is the final step in Matthew 18? Take it to the church. Does your church have a procedure for hearing disciplinary matters on conduct?"

Someone from the audience noted that a problem with discipline in the Churches of God has been a lack of due process for people who are accused of wrongdoing.

"Absolutely," Mr. Dart said. "Due process is fundamental to the law of Moses. You can't go stone somebody; they've got to be judged."

Mr. Havir, from the audience, also talked about Matthew 18, comparing it with Galatians 6.

What about Galatians 6?

Here are the two verses according to the New King James Version:

   "Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother" (Matthew 18:15).

   "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Galatians 6:1).

"There is a difference between Matthew 18:15 and Galatians 6:1," Mr. Havir said. "Although they're similar in approach, many apply Matthew 18:15 when they really shouldn't. I'm rarely offended by anything, but I do see a lot of faults."

"The important thing," said Mr. Dart, "is that you go to your brother."

Imposing power

Mr. Dart talked about "imperialism," which a dictionary notes is the imposing of power, authority or influence.

"For the record," he said, "I'm not a believer in the imperial pastor. I do not believe the office of pastor as practiced far and wide is biblical. Sorry. Elders? Yes. Pastor? Not really. Maybe there is one pastor who is first among equals, but I don't see it as a biblical office."

Someone from the audience commented to Mr. Dart about the need to take into consideration the origins of any particular Church of God group.

Was the congregation or ministry started by a group of individuals who wanted it to be democratically operated? Or was it a personal ministry that grew large?

"Herbert W. Armstrong's Radio and Worldwide Church of God, in my opinion," said the man from the audience, "was one man's personal ministry that that man began to take too seriously.

"A personal ministry, strictly speaking, is not obligated to operate democratically unless the man organizes it that way. A complicating factor is when one man's personal ministry is billed as the true Church of God."

Avoid doing the splits

Mr. Dart recounted his leaving the Church of God International. When he left, he said, he tried to effect his exit without precipitating a church split.

"I did my best," he said. "I think I was going to make it, but some other guys decided to split the church two months later."

He commented on the split of the WCG during "the Tkach revolution."

"The ethical thing for [Joseph] Tkach and his friends to do was to resign, go across the street" and attend another church or begin another church. "That was the ethical and right thing for them to do . . . I think a person who joins a church ethically needs to accept the existing covenant . . .

"I really think you have to learn how to walk away from things without tearing them up, because that's not your job . . . I've had to do this twice now."

First among equals

In Mr. Havir's address to the conference of church leaders, he talked about the concept of being "first among equals," which he noted is a "phrase from a famous book by Robert Greenleaf."

It is also a phrase, he said, closely associated with "servant leadership . . . in churches, be it Church of God format or any church."

For many years, Mr. Havir said, he was "myopic," cursed with a narrow view of Christianity. "I thought I was in the only Church of God. After I left that Church of God, I thought I had been in the worst Church of God."

But he later came to realize that he had not been in the worst church. "I came to see the world, and I saw I was in neither the best nor the worst . . . The same wrong teachings, same bad trappings, some of that coercive authority" are in many churches and religions, the Big Sandy pastor found.

"Personally, I think that coercive authority is the system of the Antichrist . . . because coercive authority actually puts people in the place of Jesus Christ, no matter how sincere they are."

Levels of hurt

For eight or nine years now, Mr. Havir said, he has visited many congregations whose members have experienced "different levels of hurt at different times."

Some in the independent Churches of God have reacted to past abuses with "a lot of antioverseer mentality," he noted.

In some cases "if you were an elder in any group you were treated very badly . . . There are pockets [of people] around who say we're not going to have any order at all."

One challenge, he said, is for people to understand the difference between someone assuming "dominion over your faith" and "someone having administrative authority."

Mr. Havir commented on "freedom of the press" as it applies (or doesn't apply) in the Churches of God.

"The point of freedom of the press is not that you can force Dixon [publisher of The Journal] to print what you want printed. Freedom of the press is you can start your own newspaper."

Likewise, he said, "you can't force things on your congregation, [but] you have the right in this country to start a new group."

Kansas City stars

Mr. Havir invited Lenny Cacchio to comment on the method of ordaining "elders" implemented by the Church of God Kansas City.

"The laying on of hands involved the entire congregation," Mr. Cacchio said. "Symbolically, to me that was important because what it says was the congregation was willingly giving up part of its responsibility to some men who would act on their behalf."

Eldership, said Mr. Cacchio, is not a lifetime appointment. "Where did we get the idea it had to be a lifetime appointment?"

Mr. Cacchio mentioned that when "elders" from Kansas City visit other congregations, they do not consider themselves to be elders in the new location. The K.C. brethren selected them as their elders. No one else selected them.

"Our congregation is like herding cats," concluded Mr. Cacchio, "and that's a good thing."

Revisiting his theme of "first among equals," Mr. Havir referred to the WCG before 1978, when founder Herbert W. Armstrong and other leaders taught that the biblical James was the "chief apostle."

"In 1978 it was said that Herbert Armstrong was reactive and terrified that [his son] Ted [Armstrong] was going to take half the church, so he changed and taught the primacy of Peter."

Mr. Havir referred to Galatians 2:6-7, which quotes the apostle Paul referring to other apostles "who seemed to be something" as making "no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man--for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me."

Mr. Havir recently referred to these words of Paul in one of his monthly columns in The Journal and thereby "made some of my elder friends in United really mad," he said. "I said that Paul did not care what headquarters thought."

Like a school superintendent

Mr. Havir surprised the Big Sandy congregation by resigning from the board of trustees in 1999 during discussions about conflict-of-interest issues, he said. Under the bylaws in Big Sandy since 1999, the pastor is not a member of the board, although he attends all board meetings.

"Our board provides oversight," he said. "They don't micromanage me. They are the first-appeal place. They handle finances. They view me almost like a school board [would view me]. I'm like a superintendent."

Alan Ruth of Farmington Hills, Mich., The Journal's webmaster and founder of Barnabas Ministries and, commented from the audience that he was amazed at the number of Feast of Tabernacles sites sponsored by the Church of God Big Sandy.

"Maybe you could comment on how your congregation cooperates with a pretty wide swath of independent fellowships . . . that want to have an associated Feast," Mr. Ruth said to Mr. Havir.

The relatively large number of Feast sites--seven at last count--has resulted from Mr. Havir's travels, the Big Sandy pastor said.

He noted that this year the Church of God Big Sandy and the Church of God International, the latter led by Charles Groce of Tyler, Texas, were considering jointly sponsoring some of their Feast sites.

Put another nickel in

"The major challenge" in the diversity of Big Sandy Feast sites, Mr. Havir said, "is music."

At that point Mr. Dart commented from the audience: "We refuse to sing Dwight Armstrong songs."

After a pause of a few seconds, Mr. Havir got the biggest laugh of the conference when he countered: "And we refuse to sing Christmas songs."

Mr. Dart's reference was to WCG founder Herbert Armstrong's brother, Dwight. Many of the hymns in the old WCG songbook and in many hymnals of the COG splits are psalms set to music by Herbert Armstrong's musical brother.

Mr. Havir's Christmas comment referred to Mr. Dart's and the CEM's practice of singing two songs that are traditionally Christmas carols--such as "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"--on the first evening of the Feast of Tabernacles each year.

Mr. Dart does not observe Christmas. Rather, leading Feastkeepers in the singing of these songs is his attempt to keep from making short shrift of the birth-of-Jesus stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

He has said that the COGs, in their haste to disavow any perceived observance of a pagan holiday, act as if there are no birth stories, and he tries to counter that set of mind.

Just before a break in the meeting, Mr. O'Brien was heard singing a few notes of "O Come All Ye Faithful."

Growth and fruit

The last speaker was Mr. Swenson, who, along with Mr. O'Brien, organized both the Winter Family Tournament and the Conference of Church Leaders.

Mr. Swenson talked about churches that grow and bear fruit because of their heeding of Jesus' directive, in Matthew 28:18, to make disciples.

Why don't Church of God people seem to show the same incentive to make disciples, thus bringing new members into COG fellowships?

A clue was evident in the opening address of the conference on Friday night, Dec. 22. At that point in the proceedings, Bill Jacobs was telling a story about his friend Mr. Swenson.

A doctrine with a problem

Mr. Swenson "knows a man who is in charge of evangelism in North America for the Seventh-day Adventist Church," Mr. Jacobs said, "and he went to visit this man quite a few years ago now . . . He went there to learn how to do evangelism the way they [SDAs] did it."

During the conversation with the Seventh-day Adventist, Mr. Swenson explained the Church of God's traditional teaching about the "second resurrection" and "great-white-throne judgment."

When Mr. Swenson had completed his explanation, the Adventist turned to him and asked: "How can you be motivated to do evangelism with a belief like that?"

The second-resurrection doctrine holds that people who are not converted during their life on earth before the Second Coming will come back to physical life during or after the Millennium, the 1,000 years that immediately follow the Second Coming.

The significance of the doctrine is that no one--even if ill served by the inadequate efforts of missionaries and evangelists--will miss out on a chance at salvation. If they do not hear about Jesus and His sacrifice in this life in this age, they will hear about them and have opportunity to act on them after the second resurrection.

That is the traditional belief of the old Radio/Worldwide Church of God, and that belief is a comfort to many COG folks.

Indeed, many, including this writer in 1965, were attracted to the Radio Church of God in large part because of this very doctrine, which they considered much more humane and righteous than a tenet that teaches that people will either burn in hell or eternally cease to exist if they don't happen to hear Jesus' name in this life.

But the same doctrine that is a comfort to many leads to a certain amount of frustration for people who want to do their best to take Matthew 28:19 to heart: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

The advice and admonitions from Mr. Swenson about the gospel include exhortations that, second resurrection or not, God wants His people to preach and baptize and bring in converts.

Is God calling?

Mr. Swenson said that "one of the controversies in evangelism we had in United [Mr. Swenson is a former elder of the United Church of God] was this statement, that the mission of the church is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all things."

In line with the traditional Church of God consensus on the second resurrection, "we've had people say in United and in the independent world that God's done calling people. Now the job is just to prepare the bride."

"Even if somebody had this great insight," Mr. Swenson said, "I kind of think when Jesus returns He wants to find His servants so doing."

Mr. Swenson said no one needs to "change doctrine" (an apparent reference to the second-resurrection teaching), "to throw the baby out with the bath water, but maybe there are some things we can do."

Natural development

He listed eight prerequisites to promoting a regimen called Natural Church Development (which developed in non-COG ministries and churches):

   Empowered leadership.

   Gift-based ministries.

   Passionate spirituality.

   Functional structures. "Everything that we do should relate to our mission in some way."

   Inspiring worship. "I come from a long line of enduring worshipers."

   Holistic small groups "that add to the whole."

   Need-oriented evangelism.

   Loving relationships.

Mr. Swenson mentioned that, "in all my years as an elder, nobody told me that my biggest job was the job of equipping the saints for the work of ministry," a reference to Ephesians 4:12.

"I know it's uncomfortable to think that we have a particular mission, a particular purpose, that God wants us to make a difference in our communities."

When congregations are "healthy," he concluded, "they attract people. When they are unhealthy, generally speaking, they shrink . . .

"When a congregation is healthy, almost anything it does works when it comes to evangelism. When a congregation is unhealthy, almost anything it does doesn't work."

Perfect brainstorm

One of the last exercises at the conference came when Mr. O'Brien, at the lectern, invited members of the audience to "brainstorm," to throw out suggestions of ways "to be more effective as congregations, as ministries and individuals."

The following are some of the colorful comments during the brainstorming session:

   Tony Bosserman of Lincoln, Calif.: Invite the public to your holy days. Place an ad in the paper saying, "Keep Trumpets."

   Unidentified man: Be absolutely sure you are living what Jesus Christ taught.

   Brian Drawbaugh of Orrtana, Pa.: You have to get out into the world. Be in the world, not of the world.

   Pam Bosserman, wife of Tony: Don't be afraid to join with others who are already doing something. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, as in charities ministries.

   Unidentified man: Try to get involved in a group that is about getting biblical principles that founded this nation back in the school system. Restoring Our Heritage is a group I heard of.

   Allie Dart: Start a vacation Bible school.

   Unidentified woman: Disciple your children. Teach them concepts you have been taught.

   Unidentified woman: Empower children and young adults to go out on their own and do some evangelism.

Join an association

   Mr. Bosserman: Join a pastors' association. I joined one locally. I'm the only Sabbatarian pastor. It was formed for one reason: to send a message to the secular community that we are Christian denominations and can serve the public. We plan four events per year and do them together. I was invited to present the Feast of Unleavened Bread at one of these churches.

   Unidentified man: Allocate some resources to another group that's doing ministry.

   Unidentified man: Look for talents within your congregation.

   Mr. Dart: Start a home fellowship Bible study, or at least join one.

   Mrs. Bosserman: Take advantage of resources. We have a guy that does a home videotape Bible study each week. We go there every week and watch something Bible-related and then discuss it afterwards.

Know your neighbors

   Unidentified man: Get to know your neighbors. Invite them over for dinner.

   Mrs. Dart: CEM provides materials for a home-fellowship Bible study. We have four in print. We're working on the fifth one.

   Mr. O'Brien: We've got ministries within the Church of God. Support some of those ministries.

   Unidentified man: Network with other people in the community. If somebody has a spaghetti dinner, attend it.

Talk radio

   Mr. Bosserman: Join a prayer group. My wife joined Moms in Touch.

   Mrs. Bosserman: Get together once a week and pray for the school that your kids are in.

   Unidentified man: If you have Christian talk radio, call in.

   Mrs. Dewey: Take advantage of the opportunities, but go [to other churches] thinking you might learn something too. Don't just proselyte them to your doctrinal distinctives.

   Mr. O'Brien: You'd be surprised how many Sabbath and holy-day groups there are among Catholics and Protestants.

Don't forget to write

   Mr. Dart: Write letters to the editor, particularly in regard to Christian topics when they come up.

   Unidentified man: Focus more on service rather than growth.

   Wes Higgins of Weiser, Idaho: Write a newspaper article.

   Mr. O'Brien: Try The Journal.

   Mrs. Dewey: I wrote an article, "Christians Keep Passover Too," that appeared in The Lansing Journal.

   Mr. Girouard: Find nonthreatening places to assemble. Beer halls, living rooms and Unitarian Universalist churches can be threatening.

Unusual church location

During a brief discussion about nonthreatening places to meet for church, Bill Stough of Lonedell, Mo., commented from the audience about the location of the Sabbath service he had attended the day before.

He had met for church services in a funeral home with friends who live in the Lexington area.

"In the room where we met, behind the lectern was a paper screen," Mr. Stough said.

"I walked over and looked behind the screen, and there was a casket."

When the audience regained its composure after Mr. Stough's comment, the brainstorming ideas began flowing anew.

Libraries are free

   Unidentified man: Every city has a nonthreatening meeting hall that's free: your public library.

   Unidentified woman: We use the Sabbath as a time to come together. Should we be using the Sabbath day to do good works on the Sabbath?

   Unidentified man: Occasionally don't have services and instead go to another Church of God.

   Mr. O'Brien: I would highly recommend a super-Sabbath from time to time.

   Mr. Drawbaugh: We need to preach the gospel rather than talk about our past.

   Mrs. Dart: I would like for us to steal a page from the Protestants and have an hour before the Sabbath service for Bible schools and studies and then have the worship service.

On time and the long view

   Unidentified man: Advertise in front of your building or in your paper that you start at 10 a.m. Then start at 10, not 10:30.

   Mr. Dart: Develop a five-year plan. What are your goals? Plan on acquiring property in your long-range planning.

   Unidentified man: Once each quarter have a youth service, with the youth actually having control, including a speaker.

   Unidentified woman: Practice what you preach. If we're really focused on service rather than growth, if implementing all of these wonderful suggestions doesn't result in an increase in membership and baptisms, don't automatically assume you've failed. In other words, take the long view.

Four summaries

The conference ended with brief summaries from the four main speakers.

   Pam Dewey: "What I hope to get out of this won't be the end but just a beginning of the beginning."

   Ron Dart: "We are really in spiritual warfare, and we're going to have to, men and women, play the man. Learn to be assertive. We cannot afford to be spiritual pacifists. We're going to have to escort somebody out of church physically. I'm afraid if we get too timid, pacifist, we will sit there and let people roll over us . . .

"The first job is the inoculation of your congregation by education, teaching and laying the foundations of doctrine so they will not be deceived by these people.

"The second is stand up to these people in a congregation, even if the leadership of your congregation doesn't."

Accountable only to God

   Jim O'Brien speaking for Dave Havir, who left the meeting early:

"There is a place for leadership in the church, and that does not make a leader better, and it does not remove a leader from accountability. But we are all accountable to God and to one another.

"There must be a place where people can lead within the Church of God, and those places are not only allowed but placed there by God."

   Guy Swenson: "We share accountability with everybody in the congregation, but with leadership comes greater responsibility for leadership and accountability."

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