Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Sitka First Presbyterian Church’

28377988_10155805537491311_1633432028784135147_n
Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church in February 2018. Photo by James Poulson, Daily Sitka Sentinel.

Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church building was dedicated in 1958, after years of fundraising and volunteer labor. It replaced one built in 1892, that was on the Sheldon Jackson Junior College campus, which at the time was owned and run by the Presbyterian Board of National Missions. The current church is a quarter mile or so to the west, because the National Missions discouraged building churches on school grounds.

Sheldon Jackson College started as an industrial training school for Native children, became a boarding high school and finally a college. It was always very small, with around 130 students most years, part of why it finally closed in 2007.

The church is large enough to accommodate the entire student body and staff of Sheldon Jackson High School. It has a pleasant, lofty sanctuary with modern wooden laminated beams, and simple stained glass windows. (It was designed by architect Linn Forrest, who also designed the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood.) Adjacent is Latta Hall, a multi-purpose, linoleum-floored gathering space, a kitchen, a “fireside room,” and offices and a small upstairs. It is a large, plain but pleasant building, with high ceilings and lots of varnished wood. Membership was around 300 in 1962.

But by 2009, there were only 71 members, and worshipers filled only a small portion of the sanctuary. Like mainline Protestant denomination churches around the country, most of the remaining worshipers were of retirement age and older.

To be a member of a Presbyterian church, you apply to the Session, the governing body of the local church, who decide whether you are sincere. If you are new to Presbyterianism, you take classes. Nearly all the members had joined decades ago, many when they or their parents came to work at Sheldon Jackson School or College, or when they attended school there.

 

Members had built the church – and ran it. Presbyterianism is named for the system of governance, which is the essence of democratic management, and is, in fact, one of the models for our American system of government. Members, the congregation, elect Elders to the Session, the governing body of the church. Each year at Sitka three Elders were elected for a three-year term on the nine-member Session. The Session runs the church, but decisions are made by the congregation. In the Sitka church, congregational meetings were held twice a year. At these meeting reports were made by committees like the finance committee and the building committee.

Ten or more churches make up a Presbytery. A number of Presbyteries form a Synod; representatives of all the Synods in the nation gather annually at the General Assembly. Decisions are made by voting representatives who have been elected by church members.

Others attended services but were not formal members of the church. With the small congregation, the Sitka church had fallen from the category of churches that were self-sustaining. By 2011 they had not had a full-time pastor for some time.

In 2011 the congregation selected a committee to search for a new pastor. The committee liked a recording of a sermon by an applicant, Diane Wonnenberg, and invited her to Sitka, where she brought, in the words of a congregant, a caring, scriptural, message.

But in the months following her installation in July, most of the congregation became unhappy with her style and her theology.

While she had been ordained in the 1980s as a Presbyterian minister, by the 2000s her practice had become more Pentecostal than the style most of the Sitka Presbyterians were used to. Pentecostalism is a branch of Protestant Christian faith that emphasizes the Gifts of the Spirit – it comes from the Book of Acts in the Bible, in which, at the time of the Pentecost, Jesus performed miracles including healing. Pentecostals believe that those miracles, evidence of God, are just as real, now. Pentecostal services include being taken by the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, miracles of healing, and being called to the altar to witness. Services include vocal, and often passionate, responses from the congregation. Pentecostal sects include the Assemblies of God.

The Pastor, and her husband, who was also ordained in the 1980s as a Presbyterian minister, according to their biography on his LinkedIn page, by the 1990s were traveling revivalists, working out of a van and trailer, with their four young children. In the early 2000s they were Presbyterian missionaries in Mozambique. In their letters on the Presbyterian Mission site of the Presbyterian Church (USA) they tell of her healing a man with prayer, and of her husband healing a man by laying his hands on him and praying, and of speaking in tongues at a tent revival at their home in South Dakota.

In Sitka, the actions that offended members of the congregation were her loud volume, the way she raised her hands, but mostly the “condemning” words of her messages.

Most of Sitka’s Presbyterians are not very demonstrative, and most are relatively tolerant. In 2018 a long-time member passed away, and the scripture reading at his service I think epitomizes the culture of this congregation: the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” from the Gospel of Matthew.

The belief that the best way to honor God is by “shining your light” through service, goes back to the origin of Calvinism (“Predestination” of who will go to heaven means that “works” won’t get you to heaven) but was also in the mission of Sheldon Jackson School and College – secular education, in a Christian setting.

This seems to have been the most offensive to many congregants, in the Pastor’s worship messages – decrying the error of those who did not agree with her interpretation of the Bible.

 

The Presbyterian Church nationally at this time was riven by the issue of allowing gays to become ordained ministers. Technically, it was the issue of allowing unmarried, but not celibate, persons to be clergy. In 2010 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – the largest body of Presbyterian churches – voted to allow unmarried but non-celibate clergy, which was ratified by individual churches in 2011.

This precipitated many churches to leave the denomination, in a process called discernment. The alternative body which many of them joined, that had been created for this purpose, is called ECO, the Evangelical Covenant Order, now the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

The last president of Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson College had been an employee of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and had been the president of the Board of Trustees of the college. In 2006 he stepped down from his position on the board of Trustees to become the college’s last president. After the college closed in 2007, he returned to work for the Presbyterian Church as the Pastor to the Presbytery, the staff position also known as the Executive Presbyter, of the Alaska Presbytery. The Alaska Presbytery, based in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, represents the churches in Southeastern Alaska, including Sitka.

At the June 2011 General Assembly, the national gathering of the Presbyterian Church, this Executive Presbyter helped write the constitution of ECO and was its spokesman at that General Assembly. (The question of whether or not he could be impartial, in working with churches looking to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join ECO was addressed by the Alaska Presbytery’s General Council in April of 2012, when they decided he did not have a conflict of interest.)

The articles for the new group are quite different from the Presbyterian confessions (the guiding documents for Presbyterian worship), and is closer to evangelical churches, including principles like the inerrancy of the Bible. The issue of gay clergy – whether or not being in a homosexual relationship is a sin – was the spark for its origin, and it demands either being celibate or being in a heterosexual marriage. It is a more conservative option for churches who felt they had to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) over the possibility of ordination of gays.

 

This issue – of whether being in a homosexual relationship is a sin – has split many churches in the United States. Over time more and more Americans think it is a nonissue; but for those who believe, as the Pastor and her husband do, that even refraining from condemning this behavior is a sin, it is a matter of supreme importance. In this view, it represented “an erosion of Biblical authority.”

For many members of the congregation, whether or not they personally felt that gays should be allowed to serve as clergy, they did not like being told, from the pulpit, that anyone who did not condemn it was not a good Christian.

The majority of the congregation did not like the Pastor’s style of worship or her message. In early June 2012, members of the congregation, following church procedures, petitioned the Session with the signatures of more than a quarter of the membership, for a congregational meeting to discuss ending her call. In August of 2012, a meeting was held, and members voted 22 to 12 to end her call. That should have been the end of it: it was not a good fit.

But the Session, which by this time was down from nine to just four members (including one whose term had expired), and the Pastor herself did not abide by that vote. It is clear in the Pastor’s writing that to her, disagreement with her was not about her conduct, but about, as she wrote in March, “the nature of revelation. . . . either what God has taught concerning sexual morality and the blessing of God for two thousand years is the word of God, or there is a new revelation that homosexual conduct is acceptable in God’s sight.”

This set up the conflict: the Pastor and the Session believed that anyone who disagreed with them was wrong.

The congregation had invited representatives of the Presbytery Committee on Ministry, as the body that would rule on whether or not to end the Pastor’s call, to the congregational meeting. That body, though, decided not to dissolve the pastoral relationship.

It seems straightforward, in hindsight, but at the time, it was very confusing and contentious, and nothing was straightforward; even holding a congregational meeting to vote on the issue took weeks, and when they did, there was no agenda and no minutes taken; the Presbytery called it a “listening session.”

 

Over the course of 2012 the Session dropped from nine to as few as four members, and met with as few as three. At least seven congregational meetings were called, with a regular meeting to elect two elders in January, but several were marked by dissension, without an agenda and without minutes being taken; one evolved into a shouting match, with Session members and the Pastor’s husband escorting people who had come to the meeting (but who were not members of the church) out of the building. The Pastor and the Session brought in new members of the church, and put them on to the Session, without customary training in Presbyterian service. Committees did not meet or deliver reports; even the church’s financial reports were not made available.

Then they began to push members to resign. The congregation, over the first year, began leaving the church, unhappy with the Pastor’s manner and theology. From a membership of 60, two thirds stopped worshiping there, and instead attended the Episcopal, Methodist, or Lutheran churches. But many were still members of the church, as were others too infirm to come to services. The Pastor and the Session began sending letters to these people, asking them, since they were not attending services, what their intentions were regarding their membership.

At the same time, they were recruiting new members, but were not able to get many, because at the time Sitka had a very popular evangelical church, as well as the Assembly of God, so there was no niche to fill.

Many of the members and former members of the Presbyterian Church were disturbed, but found fighting it, or even attending church, was too upsetting. But others were angry over the takeover of the church, and tried to end the Pastor’s call, seeing her as the source of the problem: these people paid a high price for their efforts.

My impression is that this was where most of the damage was done. The congregation believed in order, democracy, and civility; they saw rules being bent and broken, and decency and civility ignored, and there was nothing they could do.

 

The effort to end her call began with getting the vote of the congregation, but the Presbytery Committee on Ministry decided to keep the Pastor installed. Annually each church sends a delegation to Presbytery, consisting of the Pastor and, at least one member of the Session. The Alaska Presbytery consisted of all the churches in southeast Alaska. In 2012, Presbytery was held in Kake, Alaska. The Sitka Presbyterians who did not support the Pastor – none could travel to attend the meeting – sent a letter, signed by 22 members of the congregation, appealing the Presbytery Committee on Ministry decision, but the Presbytery voted overwhelmingly to affirm the Committee’s decision.

 

Over the summer of 2012, church members had sent letters to the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, detailing the exodus of members, and the concerns they had with the actions of the Pastor and the Session, mainly the violations of the Book of Order, the rules for governance and worship, and the Pastor’s confrontational personal style. An issue with her theology was her declaration that physical and mental illness were the work of the Devil. Another issue was her calling out, from the pulpit, individual members for criticism for not agreeing with her. She refused to allow a funeral of a long-time lay pastor to be held in the church, because it was to include a secular song. That funeral was held in the Methodist church, instead. Another matter was not sharing the church’s financial statements, and their concern that the church could not afford to have a full-time pastor. The Pastor also got money from the church and members to go on mission trips.

The church had sold its manse in 2007. The Session at the time put part of the money into a fund for a down payment for a future manse, and the bulk of it in a fund for repairs to the church building. Over the course of 2012 the church was going into savings to pay the Pastor and other bills, then in late summer, tapped into the manse fund, without going to the congregation. In 2012, the church spent more than $48,000 more than it took in.

Money was a problem even before the Pastor came. With the loss of tithing members, and the loss of a church tenant – a secular preschool that the Pastor and the Session encouraged to leave – it was even more of a problem.

The Session at one point had a plan to start their own, Christian pre-school, to raise money, but this fell through in early 2013. Another plan was to recruit more members, who would contribute $100 a month.

While the majority of the group were focused on rationality and civility, the Pastor’s personality brought out bad behavior in at least three of those who opposed her, which helped make it such a messy and intractable problem: One long-time member wrote a letter to the editor, accusing the Pastor of staying on when she was not wanted. When one member, who had been opposed to the Pastor, died, the Pastor would not allow the service to be held in the church unless she officiated; the woman’s daughter called the Pastor “the devil.” One non-member who had been doing work for the church, angrily criticized her personally, and the Pastor asked police for a trespass order.

The letters from Gail O’Dell, the Moderator for the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, don’t acknowledge any fault with the Pastor or the Session. Instead, the Moderator writes that the church was evenly divided, in spite of the nearly two-to-one vote, and accuses those opposed to the Pastor of “agitation” and “campaigns of slander, innuendo, intimidation, and anonymous attack” and that the Committee on Ministry was seeking to support the “emerging mission” of Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church.

 

When the Sitka church had a congregational meeting later in August, called to reduce the number of Deacons, and of Elders on the Session (from 9 to 6), the congregation elected, to the Session, one of the old congregation who had been appealing the Presbytery decision. When she was not notified of being installed after a few weeks, she was called in to a meeting with the Pastor, who asked if the elected Elder would support her. She replied to the Pastor that she would probably support her in some things, and not in others. The Pastor told her that that meant she was not fit to serve on the Session.

This turns the process of church governance on its head, if the Pastor and Session decide who serves on the Session, overriding the congregation.

 

In October of 2012 the session distributed a memo from the Pastor, arguing (with lapses in logic) that members of the church had to support the Pastor in order to serve on the session, and a letter from the Alaska Presbytery’s Executive Presbyter, saying that the Session could do what it wanted with the manse fund.

 

Worse was to come: in 2013 the Secretary of the Session, with the Pastor, delivered a letter to the elected, but uninstalled, Elder telling her that they were taking away her 46-year-long membership in the Sitka Presbyterian church. She was nearly 90 years old at the time, with an impeccable record of service in the church and the community.

The central issue was made clear in a Session meeting with several of the old congregation in April, 2013, at which the Pastor to the Presbytery and another representative of the Presbytery were present. A Session member read a statement on behalf of the Session: that the issues in the church were not about “persons” or the Session, it was over “resistance to Renewal,” as revealed in the Bible.

The Pastor, the Session, and Moderator of the Committee on Ministry repeatedly called for reconciliation, but their intention seems to have been that the dissident members should repent and reconcile themselves to the Pastor’s and the Session’s interpretation of the Bible. The Pastor’s letter to the elected, but uninstalled, Elder is even more clear, urging her to “accept correction.”

 

The weakness of the Presbyterian system is that, like any human system, it is built on trust, and a common understanding of the rules. With the congregation mostly elderly, and unaccustomed to confrontational personalities, they did not know what hit them.

The worst of it was that the ugly behavior of the Pastor brought out ugly behavior in others. She made people angry and made them feel helpless, and because of the Presbytery’s actions, they were helpless, as they saw the congregation dispersed.

This is a horrible thing at any age, but even more so for people in their seventies or eighties. Parishioners died, and were not buried from the church they had belonged to their entire lives. One member, a loyal, dedicated member all his life, who was battling cancer, after one chaotic congregational meeting in 2012 said: “We’ve lost.” Those who kept fighting, and those who gave up, had something taken away from them. Before this episode, they could believe that a church body could worship together, even if all were not in agreement on every issue. Before this, church could be about being thankful, helping others in need, and trying to be better people. This church had had disagreements, and had even had to dismiss a pastor, but it was done with compassion and deliberation. Before this, they could believe that the process of discernment (choosing whether or not to remain with the Presbyterian Church (USA)) could be civil and democratic, if painful.

All this time the Session and the Pastor were working to promote the Sitka church to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., because of their belief that Christians should condemn homosexual behavior, and called special congregational meetings to enter the discernment process, and another meeting to vote to leave.

In an ironic twist, they were told by the Presbytery discernment committee in December 2012 that because they would “likely be without funds to operate in 12 to 14 months,” they could not join ECO even if they wanted to, because they were financially unsustainable.

 

The Session and Pastor seemed to ignore this determination. Several Southeast Alaska Presbyterian (PCUSA) churches did join ECO in the spring of 2013, leaving too few churches for a presbytery. The nine remaining churches, under the jurisdiction of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, based in Seattle, joined the North Puget Sound Presbytery. In March of 2014 the enlarged presbytery named themselves the Presbytery of the Northwest Coast.

 

The members of the congregation who felt spiritually unfulfilled by the services conducted at the church had, for some time, been meeting after the regular Presbyterian church service, in the Yaw Chapel on the former Sheldon Jackson College campus, calling themselves the Fellowship. This group had spent many hours writing letters and petitioning for meetings with the Session and the Presbytery, which had been ineffective. They learned there is a formal process they could use to appeal to the Synod-the next level up from the Presbytery-to hear their concerns. They initiated the process, and had a scheduled visit from a specialist in reconciling churches in crisis. This became the turning point in progress toward saving what they felt was a more Presbyterian way of worship.

The specialist, a retired pastor with experience helping churches in crisis, with a young minister representing the Synod, visited with the group in early 2014. By this time the Fellowship had more people attending than went to the service at the church. (At one point the Pastor had come to a meeting of the Fellowship, rose and told them they were not good Christians, and left angrily.) Since their primary concern was with process, they hoped to find a sympathetic ear, and someone who could help restore order to the church.

But, when one attendee of the Fellowship brought up that it was the violations of the Book of Order that most bothered them, he responded by telling them they had called their meeting a worship service, which was not allowed, and that the minister leading them was not allowed to lead worship service.

He asserted that the group may have been malicious in their actions toward their pastor, and that they did not sound repentant. All stated they wanted to move on and wanted to forgive. When one younger member said she couldn’t forgive and forget, she was censured by the group. Several old timers said they were ready to be repentant and to apologize and asked, sincerely, what to apologize for?

 

He probably did not intend to do it, but his words only wounded these people even more and made them defensive; what made me cry was the way not only the Session’s and the Pastor’s actions, but the early actions, and inaction, of the Alaska Presbytery caused a sense of helplessness and injustice, and anger, that was always going to be part of them.

 

The Pastor finally left in the spring of 2014. The congregation had been unable to get her to leave, but finally the church ran out of money – the funds from the sale of the manse were nearly exhausted.

At the request of the Fellowship, with concurrence of Session, the process of mediation continued. The Presbytery of the Northwest Coast sent two mediators to Sitka in August of 2014 to conduct a Mediated Reconciliation, to acknowledge the conflict, anger, and hurt, to seek forgiveness by those on both sides of the issue, and to move forward towards unity, respect and harmony. The Fellowship stopped meeting separately and some returned to worship at the church.

The Pastor was gone, but many of the congregation would not come back, and the church now had a style of worship that was no longer what it had been before that Pastor. As members who had hung in there, came back, they still found much to disturb them, including the use of songs that were unfamiliar, projected onto a screen, and to the Praise Team – who performed worship songs, both of these displacing hymns sung by the congregation.

The Presbytery supplied transportation and per diem for an interim pastor to be in Sitka about ten days, including two Sundays, each month from October 2014 to November 2016. Then, Presbytery supported a seminarian intern or temporary pastor to serve the Sitka Church for about five days every four to six weeks  until the July, 2018 closure. Members felt it a blessing to have this pastoral care, but attendance and membership continued to decline due to aging and health challenges of the congregation. Income declined and workload increased for the small, aging congregation beyond their capacity to continue. And, as the church moved away from the Pentecostal style and conservative message, the newer members, and the members who had been the Pastor’s supporters in the “renewal,” left.

 

In July 2018 the church closed. It could be that by this point, the congregation would have come to this in any case. The tragedy is not that it closed, but the hurt done to so many, when a few individuals decided that their interpretation of the Bible was more important than allowing the congregation to work together civilly, to decide as a body whether or not to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The actions of the Pastor and her allies, pushing people out of the church when they did not agree with her interpretation of the Bible, and the loss of any control the congregants had when the Session, and then the Presbytery, did not acknowledge their concerns, led to anger, and a sense of depression and helplessness. It took a toll.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »