Monday, October 24, 2016

The Lost Tribes...of Heritage?



Once upon a time, there was a wonderful Presbyterian church called Heritage.  It came into existence in 1980, and the people who created it were wonderful people.  Over the years, the church grew and grew.  New buildings were added to the original land that was purchased.  Various pastors came, led, and left - and at least two of them were Godly, righteous, beloved leaders.  The church had many programs, but none better than the children's nursery school that began as a mother's day out program.

The people who attended Heritage also invited their friends and family to their church.  By the time 25 years had passed, the church property consisted of a 100+ year old chapel, an education wing that housed the nursery school during the week, a fellowship hall, a big sanctuary that could seat over 500 people, and an administration building for the various church employees and the pastors to work.

All in all, Heritage was thriving, happy, healthy, and successful by anyone's definition.

Then, just like the thriving nation of Israel, something terrible happened.

The original members of the Heritage tribe often considered that what happened to their church came on very quickly.  However, a thorough search of the records of the church - many of them deleted from the church's computer server (which cannot ever be completely deleted) - revealed that the leaders of the church at that time were planning something much earlier than they let on.

Earlier that year, a report came from the denomination's General Assembly that, for the very first time, discussed the possibility of including gay people as fully-included members of the Presbyterian Church.  The pastor of the church recognized that if this happened, then gay people could also be elected as church officers; and if gay people could be elected as church officers, then they could also call gay pastors (or at least gay-friendly pastors).  To the pastor of that time, this was unacceptable.

Rather than do the honorable thing and resign as a matter of conscience, the pastor was determined to remove Heritage from the denomination.  He contacted outside groups and individuals and requested counsel and guidance to achieve this end.  One of these groups - the New Wineskins - advised him to "run up the bills."  If the church was heavily in debt, it would make it extremely difficult for the local presbytery to take control of the church; at that time, the country's economy was experiencing the worst conditions since the Great Depression of the 1930's.  So the "balloon payment" on the mortgage was not renegotiated, the contract with the copier company was set to an unbelievable amount each month, the phone system was rented by long-term contract, the entire staff was given generous raises, and "suddenly" several staff members attended expensive, out-of-town conferences.  All in the name of "running up the bills."  

Then the announcement of church meetings was given.

At those meetings, the leadership of the church voiced their concerns about the direction of the denomination.  As they did so, they also turned most of the membership against "those gay people."  What most of them failed to realize was that there were already gay members of their church sitting in the pews with them!  In fact, at least two members of the church had been raised in that same church, and they were not going to go quietly or without a fight.  So they got it.  Everyone listened to the hateful comments raised against "those people" - parents and friends of "those people" got to listen to the hate spewed against their loved ones.  It had little to do with the Kingdom of God...it had a lot more to do with conveniently forgetting that the tribe of Heritage was supposed to be one big tribe.

The next steps were pretty predictable...sort of.

The larger group renounced their membership and the jurisdiction of the denomination.  The vote was taken and the congregation overwhelmingly voted to leave and to take the church campus with them.  What they didn't count on was the stubborn faith of the local presbytery officials and supporters.  Only 60 members of the tribe were dubbed the "viable remnant," but they were legally awarded the property and all the assets.  The larger portion of the tribe  - about 200-250 - left the campus and set up somewhere else.  Two churches were formed.

But the numbers don't add up:
60 people in the viable remnant that remained as Heritage.
200-250 that left with the leadership.
What about the other 200?  Where did they go?  What did they do?  Did they begin attending other churches?

Or did they completely quit attending church at all?

This is the question that haunts me almost 9 years later.

I came to Heritage as their pastor after all this happened.  I found the documents on the server after it was repaired and all "old" documents were recovered (no one meant to find them, including me).  I have met and spoken with a few of those who left with the former leadership.  I have heard, with pain in my heart and tears in my eyes, the stories told by members of the viable remnant who lost their former church, their long-term friends, and maybe even a portion of their own faith when all this happened.  Time has passed, and most people won't speak about this terrible time without effort...which is why it needs to stay in the ancient past.

But the missing tribes of Heritage - the missing 200 - haunt me.  I hope they are still worshipping somewhere.  I hope they are still believers.  I hope that they hold onto the good memories of their good old church and not the disastrous ones.

More than anything else, I hope that the members of the lost tribes of Heritage are NOT lost at all.

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