In the spring of 2011, the leadership of Church of the Reconciler, a United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, was attacked by the leadership of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. The clergy and laity who had begun and sustained the ministry of the church were falsely accused of misconduct and removed from offices of ministry by action initiated and coached by the leadership of the North Alabama Conference. This was done in an abusive, arbitrary, and capricious manner, without following the due process of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. This web site contains the story of the laity and former lay leadership of the Church of the Reconciler.
The site displays the most recent post at the top of the home page. If you want to understand the full story of what happened, start with the first post at the bottom and read to the latest one — start at the bottom and read up!
You can also read the posts by our Categories listed to the right.
It has become clear that we will not receive justice at the hand of our bishop or from the United Methodist Church at any level.
Three of our group continue their ministries of helping the homeless find housing, food, and healthcare at Church of the Reconciler. Others decided we could no longer be a part of a ministry in which we had no voice.
While a great many services are still available to the homeless, the children’s ministry has never been revived, and the ministry as a whole is a shadow of its former self. One member said upon leaving, “I no longer find life here; I only see the bones of what was.”
Some former members have moved to other churches. In addition, many of us are now working together to form a new organization, the Birmingham Progressive Christian Alliance. We meet weekly for book study, prayer and communion. We share meals together periodically. We pledge to live nonviolently and to see Jesus in others. We work for justice. You are invited to join us.
Seemingly out of the blue, a year after we originally requested such a meeting, several of us received a letter of invitation to a listening session with the Bishop. We agreed to her conditions, which included meeting in a neutral location and that there be no recording of the meeting, “including audio, visual, note taking or verbatim recording.” A dozen members and former members attended the meeting. We were each given an opportunity to share our thoughts. At the end, Bishop Wallace-Padgett said she had come to listen and so would not make a response to us that night. We have heard nothing from her since.
When Debra Wallace-Padgett was appointed bishop of the North Alabama Conference, we had newfound hope. Perhaps, we thought, we would have a bishop who would listen to us and help us as we sought to recover our chartered status, our elected board, and our full ministry. After giving her a few months to settle in, we wrote and requested a meeting with her, so we could meet her, tell her our story, and seek restoration and reconciliation.
She refused to meet with us.
When challenged by former Chair of the Board Marti Slay on her refusal to meet with the members of a church in her district, Bishop Wallace-Padgett offered to meet with Marti and only two others. Feeling that such a limited meeting was unfair to the group which had worked so hard together for so long, and also believing it reflected a less-than-genuine desire to hear our story, Marti declined the offer, saying, “This is an ordeal that has been experienced by and has affected the entire church. The original letter of complaint to the Southeastern Jurisdiction contained 29 signatures. Five officers of the church were removed without cause when the appointed board was put in place. How would we choose only three people to meet with you? One of the many problems throughout this process has been the lack of transparency. Everyone who wishes to hear and be heard should have that right …. Personally, I do not sense a willingness to actively engage with us. Apparently there is no possibility of restoring our rights as members of the church. Without that possibility, I see no reason to put myself through another excruciating review of this difficult and painful experience.”
In October 2012, the Judicial Council considered our complaint. As with our other efforts to seek justice, none of us were contacted concerning our experience. We were denied the right to appear before the Judicial Council, we were not interviewed, and there was no investigation. The Council determined that they did not have jurisdiction in the case and sent it back to the North Alabama Conference, the very perpetrators of this injustice.
We continue to serve at Church of the Reconciler despite the disenfranchisement of our leadership. We feel called to this ministry and are passionate about it, and we ask the broader community to continue supporting the church as well. Please come to our annual fundraising banquet. Please send contributions. We cannot allow the homeless community to suffer because of the abuse of power in the very church that is called to serve them. Despite the brokenness and confusion, we continue to seek justice, speak truth to power, and serve the least of these. We ask you to join with us and do so as well.
When Matt Lacey became the fifth senior pastor of Church of the Reconciler in a 13-month period, the newly appointed board of directors was made public. Of the eight people on the board, only three were members of Church of the Reconciler. Two of those three had been members for less than a year. In an intentionally multicultural, multiracial church, only one of the eight members is African American.
A year after this ordeal began, we still had no church board to make decisions or provide leadership in the church. Emily Freeman Penfield was working to put together the board, which had to be approved by the cabinet. She was told that none of the people who signed the letter of complaint against the bishop would be considered. That meant that no long-time members of the church would be appointed to the board. It meant that none of the previous leadership would be appointed to the board. It meant that the people who ran our housing ministry, clothes closet, and kitchen would not be appointed to the board. It meant that the nurses who started our health clinic and worked in it every Sunday would not be appointed to the board. It meant that the founding members who had passionately built this ministry for 18 years would not be appointed to the board. Many of us had been asked to serve on the board by a previous pastor. Clearly the decision not to allow us to serve was retaliation for filing a complaint against Bishop Willimon. This was just another effort to silence us.
In the middle of the month, Emily announced that she was unable to continue as our pastor. We were told Matt Lacey would become our senior pastor. Once again, there was no consultation with the church about these changes. We were merely notified.
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.