I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. -Thomas A. Edison link
I asked Rhonda to write a post about her experience with the Presbyterian Church of Australia. This situation is in the hands of attorneys who gave Rhonda permission to post this explanation of her situation. Sometimes we think that abusive church practices, especially involving money or power, are primarily found in America. Others believe that having a church hierarchy via a denominational system will also prevent abuse. Here is one more post to disabuse our readers of such notions.
Humans are the same all over the world. Money and position corrupts. The story is a bit complex but I believe it gives us a bird's eye view into the church of another country.
As an MBA student, I was forced to do case studies on decisions in businesses which led to success or failure. Within the Christian community, failures are hidden in order to protect the church's image. Besides being very bad theology, such secrecy prevent us from learning from our failures. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
For example, there is on church planting expert who participated in three failed church plants. This has been kept very hush hush. However, he is out on the circuit teaching others how to do church plants. I believe it would be far more valuable for him to be out there showing what he did wrong in the previous plants. Often times we learn far more from our failures than we do with our successes.
TWW believes that we are offering something that many seminaries and churches fear to discuss and that is failure. This story involves one woman's attempt to bring truthfulness into a bookkeeping situation and ends up in a mess.
‘But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace’. Zechariah 8:16 (NLT)
Just as way of introduction to those who are not familiar with the Presbyterian Church of Australia’s governance. It is probably very similar in other countries however in Australia we have state Churches and these Churches agreed to unite under the Basis of Union in 1901. Australia federated also in 1901 prior to that we were not a nation.
The Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Victoria is the state I live in, together with each of the other states form the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
The Presbyterian governance is a hierarchy of courts of appeal and each court is chaired by a moderator. The moderator is elected from among the ministers and elders for a fixed period of time. The courts are served by a clerk, who issues and receives communication for the court.
The lowest court, the Session, consists of the minister, or ministers, and elders and has wide ranging responsibilities and power over the local Church.
The next court of appeal is the Presbytery and is comprised of ministers, retired ministers, working within its borders and an elder commissioned from each Church within its borders.
The State Assemblies are responsible for the life and the mission of the Church within the state. They are comprised of ministers and elders, as above, and some persons by virtue of their office.
The General Assembly of Australia is the supreme court of the Presbyterian Church of Australia it consists of representative ministers and elders from each state.
Each court is empowered in differing degrees to deal with matters of discipline, only the Supreme Court, the General Assembly of Australia, can pronounce on matters of doctrine.
My story begins with a phone call. It was September 1996 and the call was from a lady who attended a local Presbyterian Church. She told me that the Church ladies were starting a craft group and she was wondering if I would like to attend. My sister and I both joined and I began attending the Church.
The Baptist Church that I had been attending since my childhood was out of the area and I was shopping around for a new one closer to home. I felt a bit strange attending a different denomination however it did not take long before I settled in.
The Church’s chapel was situated on a large property, approximately 10 acres. The manse, a house provided by the Church for the minister and his family, and an old camp dormitory occupied about 2 acres at the front of the property. The chapel and two other camp buildings, one of which was used for the Sunday school and a morning tea room, occupied another couple of acres. A small Presbyterian Church school abutted the property and during the week they would use the chapel as an assembly hall. The remainder of the property was mainly untouched bush land.
The congregation was only small with approximately thirty people attending but gradually over time the number increased. The Church had one minister, known as the teaching elder, and two ruling elders. One ruling elder was also the Session clerk. In Victoria only men can become elders.
A Baptist friend of mine, who knew that I was now attending a Presbyterian Church, asked me why I was attending such a conservative Church. I told him I did not see lot of difference to the Baptist Church and I was enjoying the little fellowship. I was not looking at the wider Presbyterian Church.
In 2001 I became involved in the Children’s Ministry. Most Sunday mornings I would tell a short story and I would try and make it fun and informative for both the children and adults.
By 2002 the congregation had grown to about seventy people with quite a thriving Sunday school. There was a real sense of community but this was about to change.
One Sunday morning the Minister and the Elder who was also the Session clerk announced to the congregation that the other Elder was being excommunicated. We were told that he belonged to a group called ‘The Fellowship’ and its members were being excommunicated by the Presbyterian Church of Australia. I did not know anything about this group. What I did know was that this person was a stickler for Church rules and the Minister and the other Elder had not approved of his very conservative views. What I witnessed that day was very upsetting. I had worshipped with him for nearly six years and felt he did not deserve to be humiliated in front of the whole congregation. The atmosphere of the Church seemed to change after that and a number of families drifted away.
A year or so later the Christian school purchased approximately 4 acres of the property so they could build more classrooms. This included the land that the chapel and the Sunday school building were situated on. It was quite a gloomy time for the congregation. We did not have enough money to build a new chapel on what was remaining and we did not know how long the school would allow us to keep the existing chapel on their land.
At the beginning of May 2004 it was brought to the congregation’s attention that the Minister and his family wanted to purchase their own home. The manse was their preferred option because this had been their home for nearly eighteen years. We were told that this would require the approval of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria Trusts Corporation. These Trusts Corporations are set up to hold the property of Churches as most Churches are Unincorporated Associations which means that they do not have the legal capacity to own property.
Just when we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would never be able to afford our own facilities the Elder made an amazing announcement. It was the Sunday after the 2005 meeting of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s General Assembly. He told us that the Assembly had gifted the manse property to the Church along with $60,000 (AUD) to relocate and re-establish the chapel on to the adjoining vacant land.
What I noticed, regarding the manse property, was that as soon as it was gifted to the congregation the Minister’s focal point was to try and buy it.
The school building program was continuous and we knew that we would have to move the chapel or the school would have it demolished. However, there were on-going issues with the local council which meant the Church could not get a building permit. The congregation decided to have the chapel moved to an area adjacent to the vacant land but it was still on land owned by the school. This cost the Church nearly $30,000.
The size of the congregation continued to dwindle and by 2010 it was back down to about thirty. The Church’s Board of Management negotiated with the council over the building permits but to no avail. It seemed that the Church’s vision to build a new chapel on the vacant land would never be realised.
For years people at the Church had been asking me to go on the Board of Management because I am a bookkeeper. I finally relented and I was voted on at the AGM in September 2010.
I have always believed that correct procedure is of the utmost importance. So I set about investigating what was written in The Code and Regulations of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (The Code) about the Board of Management (the Board). When I attended my first meeting in October I was pretty savvy to what should have been happening and to who should have been there.
‘The Code’ stated that ‘The board of management of a congregation consists of its minister or ministers, those elders who are both members of the congregation and of its Session, together with managers to a number determined by the congregation but not less than three’.
At this meeting the Elder was not present. At the first opportunity to speak I mentioned this fact. I could tell by the Minister’s reaction that he was extremely displeased with what I had said. He told me that he was the representative of Session on the Board. The look on his face when he said this actually frightened me. I believe I had just glimpsed the ‘real’ person not the one I thought I knew.
As a new member of the Board I felt that it was important I knew the history of some of the items that were being discussed at the meetings.
I asked the secretary of the Board if I could borrow the records of past Board meetings. I was shocked to see that the minutes were kept in a lever arch file. There were many hand-written jottings on the minutes and they had not been signed by the chairman.
I read through all the minutes and documentation in the folder and photocopied some of the pages for later perusal. As a bookkeeper I did not like what I was seeing. However, because I was a Board member at the time I cannot divulge what had been discussed at the Board meetings. But what I can say is that there was one motion that had been agreed to by the Board I believed could have had very serious ramifications for the Church if it had become public knowledge. I phoned the secretary and asked her if I could meet with her. I told her of my concerns and both of us felt that it was important the Elder also knew.
I tried to explain what I had discovered to him over the phone but it was too difficult. So I asked if I could meet with him. His attitude towards me was very intimidating. He said I could have half an hour of his time.
I told him that I was very concerned by what was written in this motion and I believed the correct course of action would be for the Board to rescind it. I presumed a positive response from him but that is not what I received. He saw what I wanted to do as bogging down on meeting protocols. He did not even want the issue raised at the next Board meeting. Nevertheless, I decided to bring it up at the December meeting. I explained to the Board members my concerns with what had been agreed on by them; despite this, not one person supported me. The next day I received an email from the Elder. He said it was fantastic that it had gone so smoothly at the meeting and it was great that we all had come to the same understanding of the issues.
Strange, from where I was sitting it did not seem ‘smooth’ at all. I do not know why he included me in the ‘we all have come to the same understanding of the issues’. My understanding of the issues was that the motion should have been rescinded.
The first Board meeting for 2011 was held on the 16th February. I was horrified by a proposal that the Minister had put to the meeting. I made my objections known but as before no-one supported me.
I felt so strongly that this was not a Godly course of action. The next day, which was my 59th birthday; I sent a group email to the Board telling them that I had real concerns about what the Minister was proposing to do because I believed it could be so divisive. Sadly I did not receive a single reply. A week later I sent another email to make sure they were all aware that I did not support the intended action. I was hoping they would agree at least, to put it back on the table for further discussion. From the lack of response I gathered no-one else had an issue with it.
The following Saturday I mustered up every bit of courage I had and with a heavy heart I went to see the Minister at the manse. I told him I believed he had lost his first vision for the Church and his driving vision now was to buy the manse property at all cost. At this he became very angry. He told me his intention was to offer it back to the Church when they (him and his family) no longer required it.
I left him to ponder the Scripture verse ‘Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable’ Heb. 4:13 (NLT). Speaking to the Minister this way was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
When I said goodbye to him that day I knew that I would be saying goodbye to a Church that I had grown to love over a fifteen year period. In spite of deep personal pain at the thought of losing most of my friends, I could not in all conscience continue to worship there. So much of what I had thought was ‘good’ about the Church was a lie.
Three weeks later on a Tuesday afternoon the Elder phoned me at home. I was out at the time. He phoned four or five times the next day, starting at 9.30 am. I really did not want to speak to him so I did not return his calls. I remember too well my last phone conversation with him where he had made me feel intimidated.
The following Friday the Elder sent me an email. He said that had been trying to contact me. My response to this was that I did not want to speak to him at this time and I would contact him when I was ready to do so. How sad to think when I actually needed to talk to him he was only willing to give me half an hour of his time.
Three weeks later I received an email from the Minister. He wanted to meet with me in a café. I would not have been meeting with only him but also the Elder. He said that he was very keen to resolve the issue. I am not sure what he meant by ‘the issue’.
I received another email from him five days later. This one had a real urgency attached to it. He said ‘we must meet and resolve the issue’. A few days later he phoned and my son answered. I told my son I would not take the call. This was so upsetting for both of us. I see this as such inappropriate conduct from someone in his position.
I was so overwhelmed by the phone calls and emails from the Church leadership I began to feel frightened. It was not long after this that I went to the local police station. After showing the policeman a copy of the emails and explaining to him about the phone calls, he advised me to print out a ‘Restraining Order’ in case they continued.
Even though I had left the Church I could not ignore what was going on there. I sat down and carefully re-examined the documentation that I had photocopied.
Not wanting to go into too much detail but my main concerns included:
- Misrepresentation of the actual financial position of the Church;
- The misapplication of Church funds;
- The Board’s poor financial record keeping and reporting;
- The Board’s attempt to borrow money despite the Church’s financial insecurity and the congregation voting that no money was to be borrowed; and
- The Minister’s persistence to purchase the manse, despite the presence of a serious conflict of interest.
I began to wonder if this and other things that I discovered in the Board’s documentation, which I cannot disclose, was the reason the Minister and the Elder were so desperate to speak to me.
I now knew I had a responsibility to pass on all the information I had to someone else in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.
I wanted to present the documentation from the Church in such a way that the person reading it would instantly see what I was seeing. So I spent many hours cross-referencing and writing notes on the photocopied minutes highlighting what I considered to be important. I bound them in a two ring folder and being very trusting I did not even keep a copy for myself. In an envelope I placed a copy of the correspondence I had received from the Minister and Elder.
The Director of the Ministry Development Committee (MDC) in the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, who I knew because he had attended the Church for a while, was helping me in the background. He phoned me at home and told me to address the envelope and the folder to the Moderator of the Presbytery of Maroondah. The Presbytery of Maroondah (the Presbytery) has jurisdiction over the local Church I had attended. He said that if I could take them to the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s Head Office in Melbourne, the Clerk of the General Assembly of Victoria (Victorian Assembly) would arrange to have them sent on. I did not want too many people knowing who I was so I chose not to provide personal contact details. I walked away believing that I had left the information in capable hands.
The following Monday my Director friend called me and said that I needed to contact the Clerk. Not knowing what he wanted I had butterflies in my stomach as I phoned him. He told me that I would have to make a statement in writing that the information had originated from me, and fax it to him before he would accept it. His attitude towards me was so abrupt it left me physically shaken. I struggled to even type the statement and I needed my husband’s help to fax it.
Two weeks later I received an email from the Moderator of the Presbytery. He said, ‘can I just first say that we are truly sorry for the difficulties you have been going through. We do care. Please know that you have been, and shall continue to be, in our prayers’. When I read this it made me feel a little less apprehensive about the repercussions of what I had done.
However, that feeling did not last long. The Moderator then said that they had received the book and the envelope but before agreeing to meet with me I had to make it clear what I would be seeking from such a meeting and what it was that I wanted to discuss with them. He then asked me if I wanted the documentation returned.
I was dumbfounded. These were the minutes from one of the Presbytery’s Churches and I had to make it clear what I wanted to discuss with them. I thought that they would go out of their way to help me but that was not to be. I had an inkling then that some of the people in the Presbyterian Church of Victoria were not all that impressed with what I had done. It seemed to me that I had to do everything by the book whereas the leadership at the local Church could do whatever they liked.
I let the Moderator know I wanted to meet with the Presbytery and that I needed the information back. He said, ‘after we hear from you in writing we can take things from there. Please know that it wouldn’t be me only meeting with you if/when that happens but 2 or 3 of us from the presbytery. No need to fear though’.
I did not waste any time getting the information back into my hot little hand. As soon as I had retrieved the information and arrived home I went straight to the photocopier and made three copies of every piece of paper.
Even though three months had passed since I had left the Church, I felt as if I was back to square one. Knowing that I was very upset with what had happened, the Director of the MDC phoned me again. For over an hour, in between tears from me, we discussed what I could do to take the matter further. He suggested that someone from the Church might be able to help me write the report for Presbytery. The names he mentioned were all Board members. I knew from past experiences they would not help me. Then he suggested his wife. Even though she still attends the Church I jumped at that suggestion as I knew she is very knowledgeable in the working of the Presbyterian Church.
We arranged to meet in her home where we thoroughly discussed each minute that I was concerned about. This worked very well. If we were not sure if what was written in the minutes was the correct course of action, we would ask her husband. The report was six pages in length and took many painstaking hours to put together. For supporting evidence we included a copy of all the minutes and any other correspondence that we felt was relevant.
In the letter I attached to the report I wrote: ‘During the time that I was a member of the Board of Management at [the Church], I was shocked to find many situations that seemed to be handled inappropriately. While I admittedly have had little to do with the legal proceedings of the Presbyterian Church, my many years as a professional bookkeeper have convinced me that some, if not all, of the items below warrant further investigations’.
I asked Presbytery to provide me with a written response. I wanted them to explain to me why each situation was or was not handled correctly. What they planned to do to make certain that these were remedied as far as possible and the steps that they would put in place to ensure that situations like this could not happen again. I asked Presbytery to prayerfully consider my questions and the documented evidence and to allow me to meet with them so that I could further discuss my finding and give them the opportunity to ask for clarification if required.
At one of my visits to her home, her husband, the Director the MDC, spoke to me very apologetically. He said ‘they told me that I cannot help you any more’. This came completely out of the blue. He did not say who ‘they’ were but I had my suspicions. When the report was finished I contacted the Moderator of the Presbytery to arrange a drop off point. He said that I needed to get one copy to him at Donvale Presbyterian Church office and another one to the Clerk of the Presbytery so it could be presented at their June meeting. When the Director’s wife and I arrived at the church I was so overcome with emotion I collapsed on the floor of the foyer. The Moderator knelt beside me and prayed that I would not lose my faith because of what I had been through.
To be continued……………
Lydia's Corner: Exodus 39:1-40:38 Mark 1:1-28 Psalm 35:1-16 Proverbs 9:11-12