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suspends pastor Jim O'Brien from speaking
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United Church of God headquarters
suspends pastor Jim O'Brien from speaking

MILFORD, Ohio--Events leading to a decision by church-administration officials to suspend a pastor from his preaching duties have apparently ignited a firestorm of disagreements centered on church governance.

The differences of opinion center on the move by the ministerial-services department of the United Church of God an International Association (UCG), based here, to censure Jim O'Brien of West Chester, Ohio, pastor of the Cincinnati (Ohio) North and Lexington, Ky., congregations.

Roy Holladay of Cincinnati, president of the UCG, and the ministerial-services team, headed by Richard Pinelli, also of the Cincinnati area, removed Mr. O'Brien from speaking for an undetermined period and directed that he apologize to one of his congregations.

As of April 30, Mr. O'Brien continues to organize the speaking schedules for his two congregations.

Although some on the administrative team at church headquarters see Mr. O'Brien as having serious philosophical differences with the church denomination, Mr. O'Brien claims he supports the "founding documents" of the United Church of God.

The spark of the conflict was apparently comments that Mr. O'Brien made during the church service in Lexington on March 13.

According to Mr. O'Brien, his comments were inspired in large part by a conversation he had had the previous week with a member of the congregation who apparently questioned the local congregation's procedure of voting on local church-business issues.

On March 13 Mr. O'Brien explained the similarity of the voting process at the ministerial level of the United Church of God and at the congregational level of the church.

He told his audience that the general conference, made up of most of the elders in the UCG, elects the 12-man council of elders and that the council of elders elects the operations managers of the church.

Among other items Mr. O'Brien discussed on March 13:

  • He announced that the church administration planned to transfer him to another area.
  • He noted that the denomination's administration could send in a new pastor who might not be as willing to work with a local church's board. (Both Cincinnati North and Lexington are independently and legally incorporated apart from their UCG affiliation.)
  • He referred to a situation in a UCG congregation in Pennsylvania in which a recently transferred pastor reportedly disbanded the local church's advisory council without the support of the congregation.

(The Journal has been aware for months of the alleged events in Pennsylvania but has not reported on the situation because UCG members there have not been willing to go on the record pending the completion of a formal appeal.)

The services seemed routine on the Sabbath of March 20 as Mr. O'Brien delivered his sermon in Lexington. But either shortly before or shortly after that sermon Mr. Holladay called Mr. O'Brien to say that ministerial services wanted to meet with him.

That meeting was then arranged for Monday, March 29.

On Saturday, March 27, Mr. O'Brien apologized for his comments to the Lexington congregation as instructed by ministerial services, and Mr. Holladay gave the sermon.

Two meetings

Members of the ministerial-services team proceeded to meet with Mr. O'Brien on two separate occasions.

Six people met with Mr. O'Brien in the conference room at the home office March 29. Mr. O'Brien did not have a witness or advocate at either meeting.

Present were President Holladay, Mr. Pinelli, regional pastor Lyle Welty of Cleveland, Ohio, and three other personnel from ministerial services: Jim Franks of Houston, Texas, Doug Horchak of Dallas, Texas, and Dennis Luker of Bothell, Wash.

Messrs. Franks and Horchak are members of the ministerial-services team while serving simultaneously as members of the 12-man council of elders.

Mr. O'Brien met in the president's office on Wednesday, April 7, with Mr. Holladay and Mr. Pinelli. Mr. Welty joined the meeting by telephone.

Although the men discussed several items, one of the main discussions was the alleged difference of philosophies between the UCG and Mr. O'Brien.

Exaggerated amount

Another issue that arose at the March 29 meeting came up when the ministerial-services team inquired into an accusation that Mr. O'Brien had received a substantially large donation from one individual for the Family Tournament Weekend (sports competitions, church services, music, seminars and other activities) sponsored every December by Mr. O'Brien's two congregations.

Mr. O'Brien initiated the annual weekend in 1998. Attendance over the years has grown to 2,000 people. Even though the tournament has been organized by a UCG employee (Mr. O'Brien) and UCG-affiliated congregations (Cincinnati North and Lexington), the home office of the UCG has spent little money on this popular activity.

Some conservatively estimate that 10 to 20 percent of the people who attend the Family Tournament Weekend are not UCG members. Donations from non-UCG members are a significant part of the sponsorship of the event.

When Mr. O'Brien said to the ministerial-services representatives that their information about the size of the particular private donation was grossly exaggerated, the ministerial-services team dropped the issue.

Mixed reviews

Reaction to the Cincinnati North-Lexington situation varied among loyal UCG members as letters and E-mails circulated around the world.

A man who frequently attends with the Lexington congregation wrote:

"The way you decide to handle the case against Jim O'Brien will decide, perhaps forever, the direction of this church and its attitude toward its members and its field ministers.

"Will this church move ever closer toward authoritarianism (while paying lip service to 'Christ Centered Servant Leadership')?"

An unidentified elder wrote: "His [Jim's] comments verify that he does have philosophical differences with us. And those differences need to be repented of, or he needs to leave the ministry."

A resolution to the matter could come shortly. The annual conference of elders is scheduled to begin here on Sunday, May 2, and a meeting of the council of elders is scheduled to begin here May 5.

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