Early Warning Signs
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 12:13:50 AM EST
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One of the things we have tried to do with our pastors and congregational leaders is keep them informed about the dynamics of church takeovers. And for a long time, we were all reluctant to admit that we were dealing with anything more than just a few disgruntled members raising concerns about things that mattered to them.

But as we began to work more intimately with churches that were in turmoil over various concerns, we began to notice two things that led us to believe that our naïve notions about what was going on were costing us a great deal.

The first thing we noticed was that in almost every scene into which we were invited, we consistently heard the same concerns being raised; and very often with the same phrases and language being used. It took a while, but we began to suspect that this had to be more than a coincidence.  Furthermore, as we began to ask for material that may have been circulated among members of these churches, we found that many of the same handouts were being circulated. In a couple of incidents, a member of the church was purported to have written these materials - and when confronted with material from another church remarkably similar to what he claimed to have written, admitted that he got it from someone else.

The second thing we noticed was that in most churches, by the time members of Conference Staff or Association Committees on Ministry were invited in for dialogue it was much too late to be effective in any meaningful way. Often, they had been hearing misinformation fed to them for so long that by the time we were invited in they were ill-prepared to hear us speak with any kind of objectivity, and their presuppositions were so in-grained that nothing we said seemed to matter.

It was in the fall of 2003 that a Task Force from the St. Louis Association of the Missouri Mid-South Conference of the United Church of Christ met to do something about this. Every member of this task force had been involved in conversation and dialogue with leaders and members from Evangelical Church of the Redeemer United Church of Christ in the days and weeks that led up to the completion of their takeover. Having experienced first hand what those of us who had been doing this for years encountered over and over again, and having spent some significant time de-briefing after those very public dialogues with Redeemer, this Task Force pledged to come together to do something meaningful. And in the days that followed they wrote a five-page document that was sent to every church in the St. Louis Association.

This document was an attempt to inform churches about the early warning signs of church takeovers, in the hope that this information would prompt a pastor or lay leaders to become aware of an attack before it gets too late. It was written in a "Frequently Asked Questions" format, and included recommendations for pastors and lay leaders to act in certain ways once they became aware of any of the early warning signs.

Eventually, this document was presented to the Council of Conference Ministers at their Bi-annual gathering in December of 2004. It has served its purpose well, and is frequently referred to by David Runnion-Bareford - the current Director of the Biblical Witness Fellowship (one of the UCC's renewal groups with direct ties to the Institute on Religion and Democracy). He writes about it on their website in an article entitled "Fact vs. Fiction:"

"2005 - February - Conference Ministers issue a defensive letter attempting to transfer their personal responsibility for the loss of congregations and members to those who dissent. They include a crudely written, inaccurate and angry piece written by the Missouri conference alleging that there is a sinister conspiracy to undo the UCC. Only 7 of the 39 Conferences are willing to circulate the letter but the attempt of the Conference ministers to demonize their critics only deepens mistrust and division."
Although many of us are aware of, and speak publicly about the `sinister conspiracy' which David mentions here, this document does not use that language. It is also neither inaccurate nor angry - it is informative, and reflects the experiences and wisdom accrued from years of fighting these battles.

Among the things pastors and lay leaders are asked to listen and watch for as early warning signs are the following:

·    Hear members of the church refer to the UCC as `that liberal church' in a derogatory way.
·    Members are asked in private conversation or phone calls how they feel about the church being a part of the UCC (this is in essence a hunting expedition, and many members are called and asked this in seemingly innocent and innocuous ways without thinking anymore about it, and therefore do not report this piece of the conversation to their pastor or anyone else).
·    Printed resources are handed out and circulated (first in private, and eventually then to council members or others) slandering the UCC, purporting among other things that it does not believe in God, does not believe in the Bible, does not believe in Scripture, does not believe in the Trinity, etc.
·    Members receive calls from other members, or even family members and friends from other congregations and are asked to defend decisions made by the UCC with which they personally do not agree.
The question is posed: "If any of these things happen, does that mean our church is going to leave the UCC?" And this answer follows: "No. Remember that we wish to inform, not alarm. The danger here is not than any of these things happen in a church, but that when they happen no one does anything.

This has been an important resource for us. Informing church leaders about early warning signs has helped protect a number of churches. We have had a number of training events for our lay and clergy. We have begun the shift from dealing with this after it was far too late to informing proactive leaders about what could happen and how to prevent it.

note : this is part seven of an ongoing series.

Part 1: Religion Under Attack

Part 2: That Which We Call Renewal Groups

Part 3: Anatomy of an Attack: Part I

Part 4: The Role of the Pastor in an Attack: the Aggressor

Part 5: The Role of the Pastor: The Pacifier

Part 6: The Role of the Pastor: The Protector

Additonal material on this topic can be found on Talk To Action here

I've read through a number of your articles about this overt attempt to take over the UCC, and similar articles about other mainline Protestant denominations.  

While I can imagine a Biblical, theological justification for engaging in dialogue with another person who identifies as a Christian but disagrees with me theologically, how can anyone justify an attempt to sow dissent within another person's church, sever another church's relationship with the larger body of Christ with which they are a part, and ultimately diminish the effectiveness of their ministry?  

Can/should more mainstream Christians be more vocal in countering right-wing religion on theological grounds?  Is there a way to mount a strong offensive on behalf of the Jesus of the Gospels instead of simply defending one's church  battle by battle?  

This website certainly helps a great deal in providing information, but are there religious leaders in America who are actively proclaiming the anti-Christian nature of the religious right?  Who are they?  

by cdunaway on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 10:44:10 AM EST

I'm confused by your article a bit. I gather from cdunamway's comment that the post's part of a series. Maybe consider editing your post a tad to include links to past articles about this topic, so a reader approaching this article can put it into a larger context. (In reading this post, I certainly didn't understand that you were writing about the UCC right away.)

Is it a formal organization that's trying to coax congregations into leaving the UCC?
To what end? What do they gain?
Also, what does a congregation loose if it leaves the UCC? (I know that Episcopal parishes might die from time to time, but very few ever leave, because the economic implications are huge...for starters, the congregation usually loses the building and everything in it.)

What's going on here vis-a-vis the UCC seems from your description to be essentially a political operation, in a broad sense of the word "political." I think it's best countered with similarly political-minded shrewdness. Could the UCC set up a legal or punitive mechanism vis-a-vis churches leaving the denomination? If the UCC did that, these coaxing efforts might not be as frequently attempted.

by IseFire on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 01:13:51 PM EST

Of the rest of John Dorhauer's series as well as the other articles on this topic that have accrued on Talk To Action. Thanks for mentioning this. Context is important.

by Bruce Wilson on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 03:11:08 PM EST

What do they gain? Besides millions of dollars in proerty assets, endowments, and membership contributions they continue this very well organized attack on Mainline churches. The IRD and other political bodies have larger theocratic visions, and they know that there most tenacious opponent has and always will be the Moderate and Progressive religious voices.

And unlike other denominations, when a church in the UCC votes to leave, they take everything with them. Our polity does not afford us any leverage over a congregation. Lyle Schaller refers to the UCC as less a denomination than a voluntary affiliation of local congregations.

There are in fact no punitive or legal defenses that can be deployed by the UCC. We have always maintained the full automony of the local church, and will continue to do that.  But that has always been balanced by an expectation of covenantal relationship that requires mutual respect. What we now see in the UCC that is both being fed by groups like the IRD and being taken advantage by them at the same time is an argument from the right that the UCC has broken covenant by taking liberal stands that alienate their members. To be sure, there is some truth in that claim: liberal positions have caused some members to become angry. What is unconscionable is outside agitators feeding that with propaganda intented to enflame. No longer is this - under those circumstances - a family sqaubble that can be resolved with education and communication. It is now something else entirely. With so much at stake, and much to gain by doing so, these outside agitators are training, raising up and equipping activists from inside and from outside the UCC - coopting them in their more sinister and nefarious endeavor. This is no longer a family dispute: it is a battle for the soul and heart of a church that has a long and proud history.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 03:38:12 PM EST

Thanks for the critique, and I will try to reference past articles and try better to contextualize these articles in the future.

As to your questions about the UCC, one of the realities that changes the tactics when our churches are attacked is that our churches are both ecclesiologically and legally autonomous. What that means is that if a congregation votes to disaffiliate, they take with them millions in dollars of assets, including the property, endowments, and membership contributions. Unlike many other denominations, we hold no claim to the property and assets. This, along with the reality that we are the most liberal of the Protestant denominations, makes the UCC an especially attractive target for these attacks.

I have personally tried many legal ploys to try and maintain property rights, but our own legal counsel informs me over and over again that such recourse is not available to us, given our polity and the By-Laws written by the congregations that vote to leave (many of which are amended before they vote to leave, only further ensuring that no property will leave their grasp when they disaffiliate).
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 09:52:09 AM EST

I know of many, but let me share very briefly about a grass roots organization that has sprung up in the St. Louis area. We are called All God's People, which is a way of saying that we are guided by this single, fundamental notion that in fact we are ALL God's People, and that we should dare to let our politics reflect that. A white life is never more valuable to God than a black one, though our politics suugest otherwise. A heterosexual life is never more valuable to God than a homosexualy life, and our politics should reflect that. You see where this is going. We work very hard to respond to voices from the religious right who want their own politics to enforce their narrow vision of not only who God should be, but who WE should be. We are working every day to speak out against the radical right, and to inform a media that when it looks to the religious community for perspective on the pressing issues of the day, they don't always have to turn reflexively to the right. Our group grows with each passing month, and we are committed to our message, and to our goal not of silencing the radical right, but of demonstrating that their is little in their message that is worth listening to.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 07:00:22 AM EST

Now you know why I dedicate my time doing this research and writing on this site. Our churches ARE under attack, and yes a more concerted effort to fend off attackers is exactly what is needed. As I have often said, the church is large enough to accomodate conservatives and liberals, but it will not long endure any one of those parties naming the other apostate and attacking it to preserve its perceived purity, which is what we are now enduring.

Some of the leaders who have written quite extensively, and who are also instrumental in carrying out the mission of this site, are Frederick Clarkson, whose book Eternal Hostitilities is a must read; Michelle Goldberg, and ditto on her book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism; and Andrew Weaver, contributor to the book Hard Ball on Holy  Ground.

This site is intended to provide first hand information, insight, and revelation about the kind of attacks perpetrated by the right on our churches in the mainstream of Protestant Christianity.

Thanks for listening.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Fri Aug 18, 2006 at 09:46:34 AM EST

I have tried to follow these articles about a conspiracy, but only one church (Evangelical Church of the Redeemer) is referenced as an example of external influences. In last week's article, Ivy Chapel United Church of Christ and Carondolet UCC were mentioned, but problems there, according to the article, were not attributed to external forces and, as I commented last week, those examples appeared to be classic "clergy abuse" cases. Were other churches besides Evangelical Church of the Redeemer part of a conspiracy?

by Rev Minnotti on Tue Mar 07, 2006 at 04:11:06 PM EST
Oh, my goodness yes. And I have in fact mentioned a few of them in the past few weeks. St. Luke's in Wellington, which voted to leave in the early 90s. St. Paul's UCC in Creve Couer, MO which voted to leave in the late 90s. St. John's in Bem, MO; Bland, MO; Jamestown, MO; Millstadt, Ill. This is a long list. The Faithful and Welcoming website lists 85 churches that voted to leave since last July (though our numbers don't show that - and that is not to say that they are not correct, just that some churches don't inform us when they vote to leave).
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 07:04:37 AM EST
John, yes I am aware that 85 churches have left since General Synod, but my question is specific to which churches left as a result of a conspiracy from external forces (which is a great concern of mine).

by Rev Minnotti on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 09:09:20 AM EST
This is a very difficult question to answer. The quick answer is all of them, but making that case is hard.

Can we argue that the IRD has trained members of each of the churches that voted to leave? That would be a ridiculous claim, and simply not true.

But churches don't vote to abandon their history and their long-standing covenantal relationship to a wider church overnight. Renewal groups such as the UCC's Biblical Witness Fellowship have been producing slanderous materials for almost three decades, and doing that with consultation from allies like the IRD. Those materials are read by many with the desired effect of alienating them from the consituentcy of the wider church.

And so when a church votes to leave in central Missouri, for example, we could very well discover that no one there has heard of the IRD. But many of them will have read materials that a pastor or a council member has circulated - the origins of which it is very likely they don't even know - that enflamed the passions of enough members that they voted to leave.

And the UCC is small enough that when one church leaves, members of the surrounding churches who are in contact with that church's members hear about what they went through, some of which become enflamed themselves, and maybe even challenged to take the same actions in their church. They will inevitably then ask for any materials they used that would be helpful, and the cycle repeats itself.

My point in writing these articles is to clarify for us that when this happens, there is a history to the development of these tactics and matierials to which many of the ones using them are oblivious. The IRD and the BWF - wanting to appear as friendly correctives to a broader public - do not attach their corporate names to these slanderous articles: that would make our work here much easier. But we must recognize that every church that votes to leave is in fact a piece of this larger conspiracy to destabilize mainline Prostestant Christianity.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 03:27:38 PM EST

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