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.
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, May 26, 2011. We received another email from Ron Schultz. Without having consulted with us, without meeting with many of the people who wished to be heard, the bishop and cabinet made a decision in this case. Although the complaints against them were found to have no merit, the Higgs would no longer serve at Church of the Reconciler. Lawton, the founding pastor, retired, could no longer be connected to the church “in any capacity.” Among other changes being instituted, we were told that “Church of the Reconciler will become a mission church of the Annual Conference governed by a Board of Directors established by the District.” There had been no Charge Conference or any discussion with any member of the church about the change in status.
Those of us who had served in leadership positions were told we could submit our names “to be considered for a position on the advisory board.”
There are no words to describe adequately how we felt upon receiving this email. We were shocked that decisions had been made about moving our pastors and assigning a new one without even the appearance of following the consultative process as prescribed by the Discipline. We could not understand why, if no evidence was found that would lead to judicial charges, our beloved pastors were not coming back. After being shut out by the DS throughout the entire process, we were now being informed about the change in pastoral leadership and the takeover of our church by email! We were not even granted the respect of a meeting to discuss these changes. And most of us still had no idea what the original complaints were that started this whole mess.
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.
April 9-April 26, 2011. Throughout this time, most of the church had no idea what was happening and why. Those who were on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee knew a little more than others, but because they couldn’t discuss what they knew, the sense of distrust and suspicion within the church was intensified. Longtime, trusted members of the church continued to be accused of stealing items, showing favoritism, and more. Locks were changed in the building. A sense of mistrust, suspicion, and division was rampant in the church.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Three weeks into this ordeal, the leadership of the church wrote Ron Schultz to ask for a meeting in order to get an update on what was happening to our pastors and our church.
Thursday, April 28, 2011. We received a letter from Ron Schultz. The request for a meeting was not addressed at all. The ‘update’ was generic and shed no light on the situation: “The investigation is making satisfactory progress and is being conducted within the time frame prescribed by the United Methodist Book of Discipline.”
Friday, April 1, 2011. Senior Pastor Kevin Higgs and Pastor Emeritus Lawton Higgs Sr. were absent from the church. We were told only that both of the Higgs were on vacation.
Sunday, April 3, 2011. Pastors were still not present. An interim pastor led worship. None of the church leadership had heard from the district superintendent (DS), Ron Schultz, with any explanation as to what was going on.