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.
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.
In addition to efforts by the church leadership to get information or to meet with the district superintendent, church members — knowing that some kind of complaint had to have been made against the pastors — also made an effort to meet with the district superintendent. They were told the DS had no time to meet with them or to hear what they wished to say. As one member pointed out, “he had time to hear the complaints; why doesn’t he have time to hear from the rest of us?” There was no answer to that question forthcoming. To our knowledge, we are not aware of ANY member of the church, other than the complaining parties, who was interviewed during the ‘investigation’ of the complaints. Once the DS met with the Staff-Parish Committee and the finance chair, no requests were granted for meetings with the district superintendent by members of the church.
Monday, May 9, 2011. Concerned that the continuing confusion, suspicion and unfounded accusations were taking a serious toll on the church’s sense of community, the church leadership called a meeting of the Staff-Parish Relations Committee to address unity within our congregation. The Discipline clearly lists ‘building unity’ as one of the top tasks of the SPRC. The interim pastor agreed, but then we received an email from Ron Schultz forbidding us from meeting. In the email, Ron said he would meet with the committee “soon” to brief us. To this date, despite repeated requests, Ron Shultz has still not met with this committee nor any other at Church of the Reconciler.
Friday, May 6, 2011. Mary Jones, lay leader and founding member, received an email from interim pastor Bud Precise. Under orders from Ron Schultz, she was to bring the church van (which had been kept at her house for over a dozen years) back to the church.
When we first got our van, and the other vans over the years, the board had determined that keeping a vehicle on the street in downtown Birmingham would invite vandalism. Our vans had always been kept off-site. Mary had a van which she used on Sunday morning to pick up children near her home and bring them to church for Sunday school and worship. After we served them a hot lunch, Mary would drive the children home and keep the van until the next Sunday.
Ron Schultz made the determination to have the vans stored at the church without consulting any of the leadership or other members as to why we kept our vans off-site, and without considering the problems that would be created by the change in policy. Mary would have to drive an extra hour or more each Sunday to pick up the van and return it. She was already dedicating more than four hours every Sunday to the church, in addition to the hours she spent volunteering during the week in the kitchen and the clothes closet.
In addition to the logistics issues this change raised, many of us feared that the vans would not be safe. Indeed, within three weeks, the tires on all three vans were slashed one night, rendering them un-useable, since we didn’t have funding for new tires. It was weeks before we could get the vans running again, and it cost our ministry, always cash-strapped in the best of circumstances, money which could have been saved if we had been consulted and brought into the decision.
Monday, April 4, or Tuesday, April 5, 2011. Margaret Sherrill, chair of the staff parish relations committee (SPRC) received a phone call from District Superintendent Ron Schultz’ office summoning the Reconciler SPRC to a meeting in the DS office. No explanation was given as to the reason for this meeting.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011. The SPRC convened at the North Alabama Conference headquarters and we were told that our pastors (Kevin Higgs and Lawton Higgs, Sr.) had complaints against them. We were not told who brought the complaints, nor were we allowed to see the complaints or know the specifics, but the two general areas of concern had to do with mismanagement of money and using the pulpit to promote a personal political agenda. Kevin and Lawton would be on “vacation” until this could be resolved. That was it. We were warned not to talk about anything outside the group under threat of revocation of Kevin’s and Lawton’s credentials. We asked how we were to answer inevitable questions about our pastors’ absence. We were told to respond: “Kevin and Lawton are taking time away from the ministry while we work as a team to get things worked out.” We were told that an investigation would be conducted within 90 days and charges made, if merited. We would be notified when the investigation was complete.
We were also informed that materials were being taken out of the clothes closet which we maintain for the homeless. Ron Schultz had approved the changing of the lock on the closet, and Mary Jones, lay leader and founding member of the church, was denied a key, despite the fact that she had set up the closet years before and always coordinated the work in that area, spending hours every week to organize the clothes and coordinate volunteers. Rumors began circulating, fed in part by the associate pastor, that Mary was the person taking items from the closet, even though there was no proof at that time or in any time since.
Friday, April 8, 2011. Ron Schultz met with the chair of the finance committee, George Likis. His report from that meeting is attached. George Likis statements
On March 31, 2011, Church of the Reconciler was a vital, growing, United Methodist congregation.
We faced many problems, inherent in a ministry to the least of these. Our theology of radical hospitality and an unguarded gospel means we are in ministry to addicts, prostitutes, homeless, the unemployed, and the poor, in addition to those who are well-to-do. As a result, it sometimes feels like we are always a few steps behind where we should be…as soon as we understand a need, determine how to address it, and garner the resources, multiple other needs have presented themselves. But we feel called to our ministry and firmly believe that when God calls us, God will provide the resources.
And so, on March 31, 2011, we were feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, directing addicts in and to recovery, clothing those in need, and helping transport those without access to transportation. We had an active children and youth ministry that served nearly 50 children and youth and their families. We were pursuing the purchase of additional space to more safely serve our children while continuing to grow our ministry to the homeless community. We had recently formed new partnerships with UAB and other organizations.
We had two full-time paid ministers, and our founding pastor, R. Lawton Higgs, Sr., was ‘volunteering’ full time in his retirement. We had a wealth of volunteers who freely gave of their time to maintain the many aspects of our growing ministry. Many of those volunteers were formerly homeless, recovering addicts, who had found healing and wholeness at Church of the Reconciler and sought to help others on their journey.
Thanks to the support of many other churches in Birmingham and beyond, we managed to maintain our budget, and in the 18-year history of the church, we had always paid our bills on time and stayed solvent.
In short, we were a ministry whose leadership — pastoral, lay, and volunteer — and work was well-respected and highly thought of in the community.
But then our church came under attack, and we have been struggling to overcome that attack while staying committed to continuing this ministry ever since. Our story is documented on this web site. (To read the timeline in order, start at the bottom and work your way up.)
We continue as friends and members of Church of the Reconciler. We volunteer. We pray and study together. We serve. We feed. We clothe. We give our tithes and offerings to this church, which we still feel passionate about.
But we continue to seek justice. We covet your prayers and support in this endeavor.
“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31
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