PCA Pastor fails to steeplejack UCC church
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 24, 2007 at 05:02:39 PM EST
This past Sunday, a United Church of Christ completed two Sundays of secret balloting to remain a UCC congregation. Failing to garner the support they needed to remove the church from the denomination, the pastor (more on him in a minute), the President of the Council, and the organist have all announced their intentions to leave the church.

Goodbye and good riddance.

Just a few short weeks ago, many of the members of the church were oblivious to the machinations being wrought by the pastor and some of his close allies.

The pastor is a Covenant Seminary graduate. Located in St. Louis as part of the splintered Presbyterian Church in America (yes, the same denomination of IRD director Jim Tonkowich), Covenant Seminary is, shall we say, slightly less liberal in its theological perspectives than every United Church of Christ seminary. This in and of itself is not a bad thing - but it does call into question the wisdom of any UCC congregation selecting one of Covenant's graduates as their pastor. In almost every instance of this occurring, a takeover attempt follows. And this church has been no exception.

I did not become aware of the takeover attempt until two weeks ago, when my co-author Rev. Sheldon Culver forwarded an email to me that shared with us information about what was happening in this church. The email reads in part as follows:

Now, for last night. You may have heard about 2nd Church coming up this Sunday and the following Sunday to vote out of UCC. We had a great meeting last night at Redville as a neutral site for many 2nd church people who for sure do NOT want to pull out of UCC. Wow what fire, sprit and energy! They were using your book as their "bible" for helping them through this take over. They discovered last night how dishonest their pastor, their (Covenant Sem) minister has been and is. He even appeared at our clergy group this past Wednesday and was met with good strong confrontation by several of our clergy. (I was at lectionary and didn't make that mtg.) YOUR BOOK HAS BEEN A GREAT HELP TO THEM TO SEE WHAT HAS & IS GOING ON. All of the steps are right there in the life of 2nd church in this take over.

They are getting in touch with others who are on the fence and are going to help them see what is happening. They need a 2/3 vote, the game plan is to meet, have a lockable voting box this coming Sunday (at 1 pm) at Zoar. Those who want to vote will vote this Sunday, ballots in the box, locked until the next Sunday when after their worship others will be allowed to vote.

We had a great turnout of clergy (7 of us) to help the folks strategize and get some ducks in order for this coming Sunday. Jim L. was & is going. It is an open mtg so last night we as clergy decided to also go to be supportative of the group of Zoar people as well as Jim. Dawson has announced that if they don't pull out of UCC, he is leaving. My bitterness says, good riddance! He sure does talk out of both sides of his mouth at the same time. By now I'm sure you have heard of the majority report of the "committee" from Zoar publishing that you are lesbian living with a partner. This was sent to the members or whoever is on their mailing & even others in other churches. Talk about folks who were mad about that one too last night!

Forgive what will sound like a shameless promotion of our new book, Steeplejacking - which is referred to in the e-mail - but this site has long believed that there is a real value in researching, gathering, and disseminating information about the ongoing attacks that the church in America has been sustaining for three decades now. And even as we do so, others continue to belittle our efforts and our growing storehouse of credible, documented, anecdotal, lived, and experienced information.

The book is just one byproduct of this philosophy - and that it has borne fruit this dramatically and this soon is something to be noted.

And lest you think this is an isolated incidence this early on, let me share with you another report that came in last week:

    The lay woman who spearheaded the effort has decided to write up an account of the church's experience over the last several years, using material from Steeplejacking as a template.  While her case study won't change the turn of events at 3rd church, we are thinking of using that as a workshop at our annual meeting or at association meetings.  I think the need to alert lay people well before a critical vote is taken is crucial - in my region especially, it will be easy this fall to get the discussion on the table at particular gatherings.  I am promoting Steeplejacking as a community read, thinking that if people respond, the whole issue will crop up in many conversations in many situations.  

That it happens to be Steeplejacking that they are referring to here is less relevant than the recognition that the dedicated attempt to inform is bearing fruit. This is not a time for complacency - but for the redoubling of these efforts to inform and empower those who have come to suspect that their church is under attack.

More about 2nd church and its failed take-over attempt:

In the week preceding the vote a church meeting was held. Covenant partners from the surrounding area came to show their clear support of this church, and to remind all of the strong ties that bind us all together. Because of that, the President of 2nd church announced that only members of the church would be allowed to speak at the meeting. This made for an interesting dynamic, since as far as many of the members of the church knew the PCA Covenant Seminary pastor had never become a member of the congregation. Would he be allowed to speak?

Well, apparently he would be. He got up and spoke at some length about one of this church's denominational seminaries - and mostly talking about how terrible things were there. When he finished speaking, one of the visitors - a UCC ordained minister and recent graduate of the seminary he had just heard slandered - stood up and asked if anyone was interested in hearing the truth about the seminary. While some were asking for him to do so, the President stood up and told this pastor to shut up. He said he wanted to speak, and others in the church were inviting and encouraging him to do so. At this point, the President came down herself, grabbed him by the arm, and threw him out of the church. When she came back, a member of the church asked why their own pastor was allowed to speak since he was not in fact a member of the church. The President said he was, and that he had joined at a recent council meeting.

One of the typical tools used by these churches in a takeover attempt is the report of what is called the "Research Committee.' It is their job to `research' certain questions concerning the teachings of the denomination, and offer a report to the church before they take up their vote. Such a document was mailed to and circulated to the membership of the church. In that report, it was stated that the candidate for the open position of Conference Minister (that is, the governing judicatory office that relates directly to this congregation) was a lesbian.

Now, I want to be very clear that such a revelation would in no way alter my opinion of or vote for any candidate in ministry. But that would clearly not be the case in this church. Such a revelation would effectively end that candidate's chances - if it were true.

Not that it matters - but it is not true. I know the candidate personally. That anyone should have to make a public issue of this is a disgrace to the church. That a church would exploit the fears and latent homophobia so evident in the church today to attempt to discredit an otherwise gifted candidate is a scandal for which someone in authority should hold them accountable.

But this revelation is more than that. It is continuing to build the case: they have no scruples when it comes to playing the divide and conquer game. Any means necessary can and will be used to foment dissent and disrupt what would otherwise be strong, covenantal bonds between partner congregations and their denominational leaders.

These are not isolated incidences: a pastor being thrown out of a congregation when only wanting to tell the truth about a seminary that trained him for ministry after a slanderous screed is placed with malicious intent before a deliberating body; a good woman herself exploited by a research committee who did no research and yet felt empowered in their mission to destroy this church's covenantal bond with an outrageous and inflammatory lie. None of this is new.

Typically following yet another story like this, I will hear from some who think that what we do here is exaggerate or distort, take things out of context or refer to isolated incidences that are not in fact patterns.

I want none of that this time. I want someone asking these questions:
*    Who empowered this pastor to take a church NOT a part of the denomination that trained him and authorized him to serve?
*    Who taught him that once he was called by that church to serve he should work to remove it from the denomination with which it has been aligned throughout its history?
*    Who authored the lie that the Conference Candidate was a lesbian?
*    Who authorized the secretary of the church to mail a document with that lie in it to every member of the church?
*    What Christian teaching led the President of this congregation to refuse to hear the truth from a graduate of her denomination's seminary after her pastor, whose experience in preparing for ministry gave him no authority to speak about such a subject, publicly slandered that seminary?
*    And what Christian teaching compelled her to bodily force that pastor our of her sanctuary when he tried to speak the truth?
*    And finally, what are we to think now, not about those who continue to perpetrate these circumstances, but about those who hearing about them either defend them or choose to concern themselves with the trifles of the messenger?

I was at that church the morning of the first vote and heard the discussion that preceded it. I was amazed that people could so brazenly get up in a pulpit and spread such a pack of lies. If we in the UCC fail to respond to those who would destroy us from inside our churches, I fear for the future. Paraphrasing Harry Truman, " Those who are against me think I'm giving them hell...but I just tell the truth and they think it's hell!" All we have to do is have the courage to just tell the truth. Good people MUST stand up for their faith, and refuse to be shouted down. It's that simple. God helps those who help themselves.

by ddiamonds on Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 11:06:14 AM EST
it feels like hell when all we do is stand up and speak truth. And that is really our best took in this struggle. As Edmond Burke so famously said: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing." Too long have our good people done nothing while this evil scourge has plagued us. Let us hope that no longer will we be silent.
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 Tue Jul 31, 2007 at 11:35:19 AM EST

In case anyone does not have it, you can order the book by clicking here:  Steeplejacking:  How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion

It's good to hear such a slam dunk success story -- of people standing up for themselves against such nefarious characters.

I am sure that your book will continue to be an incredibly useful resource in discerning attempts at steeplejacking before they occur, and thwarting them even as they are underway, as happened so dramatically in this instance.


by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jul 24, 2007 at 05:47:12 PM EST

Sheldon and I visited yesterday about this. You know the old cliche: "If I can make a difference in just one life it will have been worth the effort..." Well, here is one. This is why we put ourselves through this - it has made it worth the effort. I suspect this will not be the only case, as we are hearing from folk in many places right now about how this book is empowering them with the insight and information to not only contextualize what they are experiencing, but to do something positive about it.
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 Jul 25, 2007 at 09:07:25 AM EST

Having worked across two decades with several students attending the conservative seminary that was in some way "enabling" the attempted steeplejacking in Missouri detailed by John Dorhauer, I can say that ministerial ethics must not be one of the curriculum offerings of that institution! Most recently, an historic UCC congregation in St. Louis was manipulated into withdrawal and then "hired" a graduate of this particular seminary. He lasted less than a year. It was his way or the highway. Now that congregation is at half-strength, hurting, seeking answers. John's earlier comment is especially pertinent as we look at the undermining of congregations: Members so eager for "independence" should ask, "Who will help us find sound ministerial leadership?" Thanks for all you do, John and associates!

by Jimmerrell on Fri Jul 27, 2007 at 10:01:26 AM EST
and for the rest of you out there - Jim was the last one to provide anything like stable leadership at that other church he writes about. What a truly sad story that is, and as he writes they are hurting more ways than they even know at this point. When the steeplejackers come in and wreak their havock, few have any idea what is coming down the road for themselves. Some congregations do ok, but so many are just left devestated after the activists get what they want and 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 Fri Jul 27, 2007 at 11:29:47 AM EST

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