We begin fighting for our right to self-determination as a chartered church

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.

May 26, 2011. Pastoral changes made without consultation

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.

May 2011. ‘Investigation’ continues, but church members are refused access

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.

May 2011. Church leadership was denied opportunity to lead; secrecy continues.

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.

May 2011. Decisions made by DS without input by church leaders result in expensive and avoidable problems

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 9-28, 2011. Secrecy breeds confusion and disarray

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.”

April 4-6, 2011. Our ministry, pastors and members under attack.

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

April 1-3, 2011. The ordeal begins.

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.

Before our ordeal: a picture of Church of the Reconciler

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

For information: martislay@centurytel.net