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United Church of God lets elder go
when he disregards its gag order
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United Church of God lets elder go when he disregards its gag order
By John Warren

The April edition of The Journal reported that Jim O'Brien of Liberty Township, Ohio, who has pastored congregations of the United Church of God in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Georgetown, Ky., was suspended for comments he made during Sabbath announcements in Lexington on March 13. (The congregation meeting in Georgetown is incorporated as the Lexington Church of God, and the congregation is customarily referred to as "Lexington." Georgetown is a few miles from Lexington.)

In April Roy Holladay of Cincinnati, president of the UCG, headquartered in the Cincinnati suburb of Milford, and Richard Pinelli, also from the Cincinnati area and director of the church's ministerial-services department, removed Mr. O'Brien from his speaking duties.

Church-headquarters officials had asked Mr. O'Brien to apologize to the congregation, which he says he did to individual church members by telephone and also to the congregation as a group at a subsequent church service on March 27.

At that time the pastor said he should not have made the comments, which he blamed on "frustration."

Some of his frustration seems to have come from a variety of personal accusations Mr. O'Brien says church officials leveled at him and some has come partly out of empathy with what he sees as the plight of harassed fellow church members in Pennsylvania. (See "Congregation Questions New Pastor's Decision to Abolish Advisory Council," beginning on page 10 of this issue.)

The Cincinnati North and Lexington congregations were two of the dwindling number of UCG churches with real, legally incorporated boards of directors whose authority, at least according to the laws of the land, supercedes the authority of the UCG denomination as a whole.

After two meetings with his supervisors in the UCG in March and April, Mr. O'Brien says UCG officials leveled still more "accusations" at him.

During the process of interviewing Mr. O'Brien, Mr. Pinelli, the ministerial-services director, instructed Mr. O'Brien not to speak to anyone about the situation and that violation of the order not to speak could result in his termination.

Nevertheless, Mr. O'Brien did speak candidly to his Lexington congregation, which apparently church officials saw as a violation of what some in the congregation called the "gag order."

In a letter to Mr. Holladay and the UCG's headquarters-based 12-man council of elders, Mr. O'Brien responded to the UCG's questions and allegations.

"I want to begin by saying how stressful this situation has been, in fact how stressful the last two years have been," his letter began. "I have had a growing sense of frustration, and several weeks ago that frustration broke through during the Lexington announcements.

"The next day I called the brethren individually and apologized. The next week I apologized in public to the congregation."

Mr. O'Brien explained the reasons for his public comments.

"The source of my frustration had to do with my deteriorating relationship with ministerial services," he said, "and I should not have responded out of that frustration when taking announcement time to take questions raised by members."

Specific questions

Mr. O'Brien also responded to specific questions raised in his meetings with Mr. Pinelli, Mr. Holladay and Mr. O'Brien's regional pastor, Lyle Welty of Cleveland, Ohio.

The questions included: Do you support United? Are you a congregationalist? Do you believe local congregations should hire, fire and pay the salary of local pastors? Do you support the policies of United such as not applauding for special music? Do you have philosophical differences with the UCG? Have you received "salary contributions" (directly from individual church members) during the time you have been a minister in the UCG? Has there been full disclosure of contributions made to the Winter Tournament (the Family Tournament Weekend, the annual sports competition, church services, music, seminars and other activities in Lexington or Cincinnati)?

Another question for Mr. O'Brien stemmed from a family of church members who were allegedly offended that payments to them from an emergency-assistance fund became known by other church members.

After providing detailed answers to each question, Mr. O'Brien, in his letter, addressed his view of the disciplinary process he was facing.

"From the outset of this process I feel I have been treated in an adversarial manner," he wrote.

"Richard Pinelli and Lyle Welty took time to prepare their questions--I was forced to give answers on the spot.

"I feel like I am being interrogated by police who want to get me to make a statement on a matter so they could check my alibi."

Mr. O'Brien said that when he would ask the three men questions Mr. Welty "demanded in a raised voice that I answer his questions first."

He said he "felt a substantial level of anger directed toward me."

Mr. O'Brien said he believed he was "being treated as a heretic on whom they finally have 'got the goods' and are pressing the matter toward either my termination or being made so uncomfortable that I will resign rather than face the process."

Stored questions

In his letter Mr. O'Brien complained that some of the questions concerned matters that were "years old" and appeared to be "stored up over time."

"While I do not disagree with being called into question regarding my Lexington statement [to the brethren in church services], Richard and Lyle have introduced a long list of issues that are now a part of this investigation. These are now being sprung on me all at once. It appears that the Lexington issue was the opportunity they have been waiting for to dump the amassed allegations on me."

Mr. O'Brien addressed his order not to speak to anyone about the situation.

"By the specific instructions of Richard Pinelli I have been 'gagged.' I was threatened that I would be terminated if I spoke to anyone about these proceedings. This has cut me off from fellow elders with whom I would normally discuss my thoughts, gain their insight and prepare reasoned responses to the charges, allegations and insinuations of wrongdoing about which I am having to give answers and defense."

Mr. O'Brien wrote that Mr. Pinelli told him the council of elders "had voted to terminate me, but that he [Mr. Pinelli] had intervened to see if I could be worked with. I had to remain silent on these matters as a condition of continued employment.

"I cannot understand the rationale for 'gagging' me from discussing these matters, even with the most trusted of my friends in the ministry. If the idea is to preserve my reputation, I want an open process, not one done secretly. I do not feel that gagging me is beneficial to my interests or those of getting to the facts."

Unnamed witnesses

The final response the suspended pastor presented had to do with what he called "false witnesses."

"False witnesses who are unnamed are allowed to bring their lying testimony against me," Mr. O'Brien wrote. "Does my employer, the church, have the right to ask me any question, on any topic, based on alleged statements made by unnamed sources?"

Prospects for reconciliation

Mr. O'Brien, lastly, gave his recommendations for ways to resolve the situation.

"Candidly, I have felt that Lyle and Richard believe I should have been terminated years ago; they have simply been waiting for the opportunity. I have felt they disliked my work with Us Teens [a church publication for young people]; they disliked how I ran the Winter Tournament; and they do not approve of how I pastor the congregations I serve. It has not been pleasant working under them, to say the least.

"Their questions point to the doubts they have had about me, apparently for a long time. They asked if I agree with UCG, if I have philosophical problems with UCG, if I am a congregationalist. They question my integrity as a man, as an elder, and the integrity of those who serve with me in the congregations through what I consider to be a false witness.

"Then they gag me and threaten my employment if I speak to another person about this. I cannot any longer carry on this pretense of some approved process of resolution or reconciliation by ministerial services and my regional pastor that is based on false witnesses. I believe their animosity toward me has clouded their judgment and actions."

After writing that he would be willing to submit to further questioning by church officials other than those who had already questioned him if carried out in a "righteous" manner, he stated: "I will not accept being gagged under any circumstances."

Mr. O'Brien learned on May 5 that he had been terminated and his ministerial credentials revoked.

The firestorm

The internal matters that apparently and allegedly inspired Mr. O'Brien's frustrations were no longer private. The decision to terminate the pastor resulted in a firestorm of activity in his two congregations and on various church Internet forums.

The UCG appointed Mark Winner of Louisville, Ky., an elder and UCG employee, to take over Mr. O'Brien's Lexington pastorate and named Matthew Fenchel of Cincinnati, an elder and home-office employee, to take over as interim pastor of Cincinnati North.

Almost immediately the Lexington board of directors voted to officially disassociate the congregation from the United Church of God and asked Mr. O'Brien to replace Mr. Winner as its pastor.

One man involved in the turmoil stated, "Mark Winner's work load got a lot lighter last night."

After Jim Sexton of Georgetown, president of the Lexington board, called a special meeting for May 7, the Lexington congregation convened a special meeting on May 7 during which all but one family decided to remain with the newly independent congregation. Members of the board and congregation asked Mr. O'Brien to continue as their pastor.

As of this writing, the Cincinnati North congregation has not decided whether to remain with the UCG or declare its independence.

Whatever happens officially with the local board, many congregation members say they will leave the United Church of God even if that means severing their ties to the local congregation. Then they would help to start a new congregation in the area.

Cincinnati Q&A

Ministerial services conducted question-and-answer sessions with church members in Cincinnati North in its rented facility on May 8 and 15.

Moderating the May 15 four-hour Q&A was Cincinnati North's new interim pastor, Mr. Fenchel.

Other UCG officials in attendance were Mr. Holladay, Mr. Pinelli, Mr. Welty, UCG media-operations manager Peter Eddington and council-of-elders secretary Gerald Seelig, all of the Cincinnati area.

Part way through the Q&A Mr. Fenchel announced that he had just realized the meeting was being tape-recorded.

According to various reports, Mr. Fenchel then said, in effect: "It had been previously agreed that they [parties loyal to both sides in the controversy] would not tape the meeting."

Rick Pratt, president of the Cincinnati North board, then asked, "Who had agreed to not make a recording?"

After discussion it was decided that the meeting would be taped but the discussions kept private.

(As one observer noted, it might be possible to keep a tape "private," but a public meeting cannot accurately be described as private.)

Nagging questions

The Cincinnati North congregation asked the church officials many of the same questions their terminated pastor had posed. A few queries had to do with a letter Mr. Pinelli addressed to the congregation.

"In Mr. Pinelli's letter it says that Mr. O'Brien was terminated for just cause," stated one Q&A questioner. "What does it mean terminated for just cause?"

Mr. Sexton, president of the Lexington board, also attended the Cincinnati Q&A. He stated that an earlier statement by Mr. Welty that six church members had left the Lexington congregation as a result of mismanagement by Mr. O'Brien was not accurate.

The Journal cannot report completely on this meeting because, even though the meeting was conducted in public and everything said in the meeting was a matter of public record and anyone in attendance was therefore ethically free to discuss anything that was said during the meeting, some church members who were there do not feel free to ignore the order not to speak.

Members who would talk with The Journal said the Q&A did little to calm troubled waters. The Cincinnati North board almost immediately called an emergency meeting.

In an E-mail that interim pastor Matt Fenchel (who as pastor, as provided in the congregation's bylaws, is a new member of the local board) sent to Cincinnati North members May 16, he wrote:

"The topic of this board meeting is disassociation of the United Church of GodÐCincinnati North from the United Church of God, an International Association."

The Journal learned that the meeting scheduled for May 16 was adjourned after the participants had gathered for it after Mr. Fenchel questioned the legality of an emergency meeting without seven days' notice, as mandated by the bylaws.

Mr. Fenchel made a motion to adjourn the meeting before any more business was conducted; it passed with a 5-4 vote.

Seven days of no rest

All was not quiet during the seven days leading up to the subsequent meeting rescheduled for May 23. Church Internet forums and independent Web sites were abuzz with forum members' opinions, letters written by some of the principals, and insights by interested observers into the events centered on one of the UCG's most popular elders.

One of the buzzing Web sites was the Young Adults' Forum, run by United Church of God members at (See the related commentary by Gavin Rumney beginning on page 3.)

One of its visitors was Clyde Kilough of Sacramento, Calif., who serves as chairman of the UCG council of elders. Although Mr. Kilough by forum standards is not a "young adult," he took advantage of the opportunity to talk directly with young people whose postings in the wake of the Jim O'Brien situation exhibited what might be called concern and even disillusionment over the events.

In his message to the forum, titled "An Open Letter to the YACOG.ORG Forum Subscribers From Clyde Kilough," the council chairman wrote:

"I have followed with great interest the string of E-mails on this and other forums concerning Mr. Jim O'Brien's dismissal, and by extension the discussions about pastors, the Council of Elders, the President, Ministerial Services, etc.

"Ordinarily I would not jump into the fray, but it just seems appropriate now to make some comments due to the disputes, confusion and misinformation. Many of the forum messages have been quite good, while others have been disappointing."

Mr. Kilough shared his view on the origin of Mr. O'Brien's difficulties:

"What many do not realize is this whole matter began very simply with a discussion about a job transfer. It was neither Ministerial Services nor the Council of Elders that broadened its scope into many other areas and took it public, initially before a church congregation.

"However, when that was done, the administration sought to engage in an internal process of working out the differences of opinion and any misunderstandings, whatever those might have been."

Mr. Kilough also posted a policy statement explaining the church-mandated procedures for handling grievances by employees. He wrote:

"It is expected that employees will use this process to resolve their grievances privately within the internal avenues made available herein and will not air those grievances arising out of or concerning their employment other than those individuals authorized to hear the complaints at each step, nor take the matter prematurely to the Council."

After addressing accusations by some of the forum's regulars of a "cover-up" and "name-calling," Mr. Kilough said:

"I also find it ironic how that a year and a half ago many people applauded the Council of Elders for honestly and equitably addressing a situation that resulted in a fellow Council member [John Jewell of Eccleston, England; see Mr. Jewell's comments later in this article] having his ministerial credentials removed.

"Yet now the same Council is accused of a wide variety of faults ranging from ineptitude to Hitleresque tactics. Does anyone think we judge such matters lightly? Carelessly? Without concern? Does anyone think we are trying to get rid of ministers when we already have a shortage?"

Speaking of why the UCG judged Mr. O'Brien worthy of termination, the COE chairman stated: "While one's good deeds have been acknowledged and appreciated, that is not the issue when a problem arises to the level of termination. One's improper actions must also be acknowledged and accounted for, no matter how many good deeds are apparent.

"That is the issue at hand."

Mr. Kilough warned forum posters to be careful of "judging."

Mr. Kilough's mention of a former council member is an obvious reference to Mr. Jewell. This writer contacted Mr. Jewell and asked him how his fellow council members, while he served on that body, viewed legally incorporated local church boards.

"During the four years I was on the Council of Elders," replied Mr. Jewell, "I became aware that some members, not all members, did not like the concept of local church boards, or that tithes could be collected locally. That the constitution of UCG allowed local boards and for tithes to be collected locally if wished was not liked by some.

"I believe Ministerial Services similarly did not like local boards or tithe collection.

"There was also a desire among some members for international areas to be more firmly under the council of elders."

The Young Adults' Forum, moderated by Andy Lausted, apparently because of the discussions temporarily shut down for a "cooling-off period."

Another forum that includes comments by young UCG members called Katie's Forum included a comment that expressed disappointment in Mr. Kilough's letter.

"Mr. Kilough's letter basically said, 'You know, God doesn't like you people talking about our abuse of power, and you should really stop,'" wrote a poster.

"Mr. O'Brien is accused by UCG of stealing money [apparently a reference to church members allegedly donating funds directly to Mr. O'Brien to supplement his salary and to help support the Winter Tournament] and sowing discord [which is the UCG's and other Church of Gods' customary allegation when terminating a pastor]. Anyone who steals money and sows discord is not going to be considered a minister, but rather a wolf in sheep's clothing, regardless of the good qualities they have. So why protect his reputation?"

More letters

On May 20 acting pastor Mr. Fenchel sent another E-mail to Cincinnati North members. In his message he listed the members of the board as Rebecca Hollen (treasurer), Bruce Kieviet, Wes Kincaid, Todd O'Brien (vice president), Rick Pratt (president), Michael Shoemaker (secretary), Patty Wayne, Jane Wiesman and himself (pastor and board member, as provided by the local bylaws).

Cluelike clue

The Journal contacted church leaders to ask about Mr. O'Brien's termination. Mr. Kilough on May 26 told The Journal when and how it took place: "May 5, 2004. In person, by the president, Roy Holladay."

Mr. Pinelli, ministerial-services director, on May 26 responded, "We are in the process of working with Mr. O'Brien on some matters, so this is a personal HR [human resource] matter and requires me to leave it in that realm."

Mr. Pinelli later told The Journal: "Once Mr. O'Brien began pastoring congregations outside the United Church of God, the process [of working with him] obviously came to an end."

One of the two congregations Mr. O'Brien pastored as an employee of the UCG is still with the UCG: Cincinnati North. The other, called Lexington although it is located in Georgetown, Ky., is still pastored by Mr. O'Brien. It, along with Mr. O'Brien, left its UCG affiliation.

When asked what was his understanding of the reason for his termination, Mr. O'Brien said, "I was told because I had posted things [on Internet forums]," thereby violating the UCG-imposed "gag order."

Mr. O'Brien said he did not post comments on the Internet but did send letters to trusted friends. He does not think any of them passed them on to Internet forums but one of them sent them to someone who did.

Mr. O'Brien said his concern is how churches make decisions and the accountability of their leaders.

"This all comes down to should a congregation be involved in decision making," he said. "It is all about accountability."

Mr. O'Brien waxed philosophical concerning his firing.

"It was unjust," he said, "but it is in the past and I am ready to move on."

Moving on

After the Lexington board decided to disassociate from United, the congregation asked Mr. O'Brien to continue as its pastor.

The Cincinnati North board voted to form a bylaw committee to make changes to its founding documents. The board plans to vote on that committee's recommendations at a meeting in June.

Mr. O'Brien continues to pastor members meeting as a new group in the Cincinnati area as well as the original Lexington congregation in Kentucky.

Southern comfort

On the Sabbath of May 29 Mr. O'Brien was joined at services for members of both congregations at separate locations by Dave Havir of Big Sandy, Texas, another former UCG pastor (and a member of The Journal's volunteer staff), whom the UCG terminated in May 1998.

Mr. O'Brien asked Mr. Havir to give two sermons, which he delivered in each of the two locations on the Sabbath of May 29.

In Mr. Havir's first sermon, he talked about the life of Barnabas.

He noted that Barnabas was the "son of comfort" (Acts 4:36). He said Barnabas was a helper of Saul when almost everyone else did not trust Saul (Acts 9:26-27).

Mr. Havir also read the account of Paul and Barnabas contending over administrative matters. The contention grew to be so sharp that the two men separated in their service to God (Acts 15:36-41).

Mr. Havir stated that both men remained a part of the Body of Christ, even though they preached the gospel separately. Mr. Havir said that, even though Paul and Barnabas had the same Spirit (God's), they separated over administrative differences.

Mr. Havir expressed his hope that people on both sides of the local congregational split would treat the other side as a part of the Body of Christ.

Other sermons

Mr. Havir's second sermon addressed "the stages of maturity." Quoting principles of author Stephen Covey, Mr. Havir discussed the progression of maturity from dependence to independence and then to interdependence.

He quoted Dr. Covey: "Interdependence is a choice only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to become interdependent. They don't have the character to do it; they don't own enough of themselves."

On the Day of Pentecost, which the UCG observed on May 30, Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Havir each gave two sermons at two church services.

During the morning service Mr. Havir talked about "the church that would not die," and Mr. O'Brien gave a sermon, "Get Out of the Boat," about Peter having the faith to walk on water. That afternoon Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Havir each delivered another sermon.

On the same day, at another location, Mr. Fenchel and Frank McCrady III, pastor of the Dayton, Ohio, UCG congregation, delivered Pentecost sermons to a combined audience from Cincinnati North, Cincinnati East and Dayton.

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