We filed our complaint about the disenfranchisement of our church in October. Four months later, Bishop Gwinn dismissed our complaint against Bishop Willimon. There had been no investigation. Although Bishop Willimon was permitted to answer our complaints, we were not provided a copy of that response until we requested it following the dismissal. Not one person who signed our letter of complaint was interviewed. We did not have an opportunity to respond to Bishop Willimon’s statement. As had been the case throughout this entire ordeal, we were not heard. The Discipline was not followed. Justice was still denied.
No board had met to make decisions about the church since before April 1, 2011. We didn’t have a nominating committee meeting, didn’t have a budget, and were tired of being told decisions couldn’t be made because we were in transition. We called a meeting of the board, although we were told by Pastor Lillian that it was out of order. Thirty people attended. Among other business, we unanimously passed a resolution against an appointed board, nominated officers, and prepared as best we could without pastoral support for the upcoming charge conference.
Two days later we received an email from Bishop Willimon stating that our votes at the board meeting had no meaning, and that Church of the Reconciler would not be included in the mass charge conference being held the next day. In fact, Church of the Reconciler would have no charge conference at all. We had been designated a mission church and no longer had any say in the running of our church.
We were later told that a celebration of Church of the Reconciler was held at the mass charge conference, but while our ministry was held up as an example of mission and ministry, those of us who had built that ministry were being removed from office and denied a voice in our own church.
Three weeks after the public announcement at Highlands, Reconciler was finally notified during worship that we would receive Emily Freeman Penfield as our new senior pastor in January.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011. Twenty-nine members and active friends of the church filed a complaint against Bishop Willimon with Bishop Alfred Gwinn of the Southeastern Jurisdiction. We asked for an investigation into the effort to remove the church leadership and the complete lack of consultation and engagement with our members.
Grief and loss statement w_ signatures
Sunday, October 5, 2011. It was announced during worship at Highlands UMC that their associate pastor, Emily Freeman Penfield would be leaving at the end of the year to become senior pastor at Church of the Reconciler. There had been no consultation with Church of the Reconciler about this appointment, and no announcement was made at Reconciler. We only found out when people began to call us to ask us what we thought of the appointment. In fact, Lillian Eddleman, who had been appointed associate pastor in June and became the only pastor in August, did not know that a new senior pastor was being appointed before the public announcement was made at Highlands.
The church leadership had asked several times for a board meeting, since we had not had one since before April. Always there was some reason to be put off and denied such a meeting. In a meeting between the chair of the board (Marti Slay) and pastor (Lillian Eddleman), Pastor Lillian informed Marti that the appointed board was going to happen, “because I think it is a good thing, and I’m the pastor.”
We had made our opposition to the idea of an appointed board clear. Now the effort was moving forward without the pretense of following any procedure. The lay leadership was to be dismantled and replaced with a board, agreed upon between Lillian Eddleman and Ron Schultz.
Although there had been no charge conference to change leadership, and although the much-discussed appointed board had not been set up, we were told that there was no leadership of the church and that we were in transition. Marti Slay was told she could no longer continue to do the welcome during worship on Sunday mornings unless she stopped introducing herself as chair of the board.
The leadership and members of the church who had built this vibrant ministry had been completely disenfranchised.
Bud Precise and Lillian Eddleman met with the SPRC and informed us that Bud would be leaving as interim pastor, and Lillian would become the only pastor of the church. Once again, we had had no consultation with Ron Schultz concerning these changes. We were merely notified of the decision.
In addition, we were notified yet again of plans to replace the lay leadership of the church with an appointed board. We were told that this was good for the church because it would broaden the support for our ministry. There seemed to be no awareness of the irony that Ron Schultz had ended the successful effort we had made for many years to have associate and affiliate members in order to broaden that support, only to replace all of the current leadership under the pretense of letting other churches have a say in our ministry.
At this meeting, we were told that Ron Schultz was ready to meet with us within the week to explain how this new, appointed board would work. When we made clear our willingness to meet with him as long as he understood that we would make no decision about a change in leadership at that time. Lillian assured us that the change would happen only in accordance with the Discipline. She told us there would be a charge conference and we would vote on any change in status.
The meeting with Ron Schultz never happened.
One of the vital activities of our church before April 1 was our Wednesday night prayer service. It was a time when the pastors would update members on the latest celebrations and problems in our ministry. Upon removal of the Higgs, Wednesday night prayer meetings were suspended. Feeling the need to spend time together in prayer for our church, several members decided to start back with our Wednesday night programming. Neither the interim pastor nor the associate pastor, Rachael Martin, however, was able to join us on Wednesday night. And the group which wanted to gather — although long-time, very active members of the church — was no longer deemed trustworthy enough for keys to the building. So we began to convene in the home of one of our members. In essence, we were a group in exile from the church we had worked together to build.
When we received news of a new associate pastor following annual conference, we invited her to join us on Wednesday night and requested the church be made available to us again. The associate pastor (Lillian Eddleman) did attend one Wednesday night. After that, arrangements were made for us to get into the building, but still, the pastors did not attend. Without regular, pastoral reports on Wednesday night, there was no longer a connection between the day program and Wednesday night group. Between the removal of the Higgs, the discontinuation of Wednesday night programs altogether for a period, followed by their being resumed off location, and then brought back home but clearly not endorsed or valued by pastoral staff, attendance on Wednesday night suffered. Attendance had dropped to a small, core group of members who continued to hang on to the vision of the church and maintain a study group that supported the ministry.
Later, we would be accused by the associate pastor of turning inward and clinging to each other, with no apparent understanding of the dynamics of the group prior to April 1 or afterward. This is one of many examples of our not being heard in this process.
Despite the devastating events of the past months, we remained committed to the ministry we had been called to build. We tried to move forward, welcoming our new associate pastor and continuing with our work. For a short time there was a flurry of meetings of the staff-parish relations committee and finance committee. There were flurries of emails from our new associate pastor, many of which started, “this is being sent to you as a member of the board,” or “this is being sent to you as a member of the staff-parish committee.” It appeared that the church would be allowed to move forward with its ministry and with its elected lay leadership.
Ron Schultz had questioned our long-standing and open practice of having associate and affiliate members at Reconciler. These were people who maintained their primary membership at other churches but wanted to be connected to Reconciler in an official capacity. They were active in the ministry at Reconciler and their other church, serving as a liaison and helping encourage a broad support and participation in our community. This effort was a part of building our church from the first. Our brochures acknowledged the opportunity to become an associate or affiliate member, and we often talked potential members out of becoming full members at Reconciler with the express purpose of having them maintain ties with churches around the city. In 18 years of openly recruiting associate and affiliate members and reporting them on our charge conference reports as a way of building our base, nobody at the conference level had ever questioned this practice until now.
Suddenly, we could no longer have affiliate and associate members from the Birmingham area. And they could no longer serve in leadership roles. The staff-parish committee was purged of all formerly associate and affiliate members, now termed by the DS as non-members, but the rest of us continued to meet as a committee and receive email as the SPRC, so it certainly appeared to us that the church would continue to function with all the rights and responsibilities of any other chartered congregation.
Having been rebuffed by Ron Schultz in every attempt to engage over this process, we turned to another source for help. We called Donald Stewart, a lifelong Methodist, a friend and supporter of our church, and an attorney. He called Bishop Willimon and told him we felt the move to change our status was against the Discipline and informed him that if a move were made at Annual Conference to formalize that decision, we would ask for an Episcopal ruling. Bishop Willimon responded by saying he didn’t realize we were a chartered church, but allowed that they could not remove the existing board if that were the case.
Thursday-Saturday, June 2-4, 2011. North Alabama Annual Conference. When the conference ended and no action had been taken to change the status of Church of the Reconciler, we believed that we had successfully stopped the effort to take over our church. However, we were still in a state of grief and shock concerning the removal of our pastors without notice or consultation.
We were not permitted to say goodbye to the Higgs, celebrate their service to us, nor honor Lawton Sr. for the work he did in founding this unique ministry. They were disappeared from the church and we were still made to feel that any effort on our part to contact them, especially Kevin, would result in the loss of his credentials.