Upheaval In Ashburn…And C.J. Mahaney Needs More Reconciliation?

September 15, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

The Ashburn, Virginia Sovereign Grace Church appears to be going through some changes in leadership.  From a reader comes the following:

Kris,

There has been a significant shakeup at the Ashburn church over polity.  Two of the three founding pastors resigned last week. The similarities to the Detwiler situation are striking.  There are apparently documents from both sides being circulated to member.

A sound file of the announcement can be accessed here.

EDITED TO ADD:  Here is one letter that was sent out to members and attenders on the church’s distribution list –

September 1, 2011

Dear Members of Grace Community Church:

It is with heavy sorrow in our hearts that we inform you of our resignation from the board of Grace Community Church and our separation from the church we helped establish with dozens of you. Serving alongside you has been among the greatest joys of our lives. We had hoped to serve here for decades, but God has ordained a different path and we trust His promises to bring good to all of us in the midst of this painful separation.

The differences that separate the pastoral team are not scandalous in nature, and do not involve heresy. We are grateful that all of the men leading this church have a firm grasp on the gospel of Jesus Christ and dearly love this church. Each of us has sought to honor God in what
we believe to be in the best interest of this church. We commend our brothers in this, for this pursuit matters more than any of our differences.

However, the differences are many and are significant in their implications for (1) how we shepherd the flock and (2) how we govern the affairs of the church. Without agreement on these issues now for over a year, progress has come to a standstill and the church is suffering while the pastoral team is distracted attempting to resolve the differences. We have come to conclude that there is no resolution that will satisfy all of us and that it is best for the church if the distractions were removed so the church can take on her new shape as God ordains.

We believe that, as members of the local church, you should know the nature of some of the differences that have led to this separation, just as you should know how much we all love you and treasure our relationships with you. We will briefly share our perspectives openly here so that you are not left wondering our reasons behind this massive decision.

1Peter 5:2-3 reads “…shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

We have significant differences with the other men on the team about how to shepherd the flock of God. The fruit we have seen in others and experienced ourselves is not reflective of a model that we would desire others in the church to experience or emulate. Various church members and leaders have brought observations to the pastoral team echoing concerns that the two of us have been sharing with our team and with Sovereign Grace representatives with little effect. Without unity on this topic, we have been unable to support each other’s approaches to preaching and counseling.

Secondly, differences have arisen in our convictions about how to govern a church as elders, and how pastoral authority should be practiced in the life of the church. Contrasting opinions about the biblical qualifications for elders emerged as we evaluated both Brian and Kirk for ordination. Without fully completing either of those evaluations, we realized that we have
incompatible convictions about key qualifications such as the “ability to teach” and what constitutes humility. Without unity on those important topics, we reached an impasse. A more detailed summary of our disagreements in this area is attached for those who have asked, and you may always contact us at our personal e-mail addresses (below) if you have any other
questions. We are confident the other men on the board would be equally eager to give you their perspectives on the matter.

We have become convinced that no matter how the board decides on the primary points of disagreement, some of the pastors would be dissatisfied with the conclusions and would likely leave at that time. Given the toll this has taken on our ability to serve you and our families with faith and joy, we believe God is leading us to remove ourselves now. Besides the benefit of
stopping the worsening interpersonal conflict, we believe this separation will allow the church to rebuild with a more unified vision.

We are not sure the two of us have ever done anything more difficult in our lives. We simply don’t have words to describe how painful this separation is for us. We love you so very much and truly desired to find a way to continue to serve you as pastors. We’re not sure how to adequately convey the joy you have brought us and how much we have loved caring for you. Neither of us
saw this as a job or some generic calling to serve as professionals, but a calling to serve you in particular as pastors and friends. You and your families are dear to us and we will picture your faces as we think of you with love and gratefulness to have been able to serve alongside you.

Many of you have already expressed your care for us and for our families, and for that we are sovery grateful. You should know our short-term plans are to attend Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax to receive care from their pastoral team with no break in our practice of regular Sunday worship. The men on that team have already provided much care to us during this season, and we are grateful for their expressions of love. We’ve also been encouraged by the way they are humbly and honestly addressing their past failures, and by the questions they are asking of Sovereign Grace Ministries. We do not know what the future holds for us long-term, but believe our hearts will be tended to and healing will begin there. Please continue to pray for us. Pray for our hearts, for our wives and children, and for our physical needs as we seek new employment.

As many of you would be able to testify, we know that God promises to work all things for our good, using even trials (especially trials!) to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:28-29). We don’t treat these promises flippantly. We are sad that some of you have only known about this for a short time. Our decision has not come easily or quickly. We have wrestled with some of these issues and have dialogued about them as a team for years now. We regret our contributions to this impasse and the pain it has caused you. We have remained as long as our faith would allow. Our goal has been to avoid harming the people we love. To remain now, though, when there is no longer faith to serve on this team, would cause more harm than good.

Hebrews 12 has been a great comfort to us and we pray it will be for you as well. God promises that even though “discipline seems painful rather than pleasant,” it later yields “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it,” to those He loves as sons and daughters. He promises to remove “things that are shaken—that is, things that have been
made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” Regardless of any “shaking” that takes place in a local church and its leaders, our confidence is in our connection to Christ as members of His church, and in the fundamental unity we share because of His gospel. That can never be shaken.

“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken…” We have been transferred to the kingdom of His Beloved Son! This is our eternal hope.

With our deepest love and gratitude,

Tito Mercado
Brian Gash

Addendum: Summary of Church Governing Differences

As we mentioned in our letter above, we have received several questions regarding the nature of our disagreements as a team in the area of church polity (church government). We recognize that these details will not be of interest to everyone, but for those who are asking we have attempted to provide a little more detail.

Our primary concerns in this area revolve around the notion of a “plurality of elders,” how a team of coequal pastors functions. In our elder-led government structure, there are no checks-and-balances outside the team of elders/pastors. Sovereign Grace has made it clear that while it has the ability to remove our church from its affiliation, it cannot and will not impose its counsel over our board. As a result, our appeals for help have been met with gracious care (key men devoting many hours to helping us), but with no authority to enforce its recommendations.

Without external authority from Sovereign Grace or internal accountability from the congregation, then, it falls to the team of elders/pastors to hold itself accountable. This could work as long as all of the pastors function with humility and within the previously established internal governing structures. But when those structures are challenged from within, and unity and trust erodes, there are no structures left to help resolve impasses.

Bob, Tito, and Brian formed the official governing board of elders from 2006 until last month, when the governing board was expanded to include Kirk and Zach, along with two pastors from other Sovereign Grace churches and two lay leaders from within the church. For several years, Bob operated with the two of us in mutual understanding that we were biblically governing elders, having met the scriptural qualifications, and were thereby given legal authority to govern. When Sovereign Grace began to encourage its churches to ordain all pastors, all of the pastors agreed with that ideal and began to work toward that goal. As Bob communicated in a members meeting just before the two of us took our ordination exams, the process of ordination was only intended to confirm the pastoral calling that had already been made evident to the church.

However, when Brian failed the oral portion of the ordination exam, a series of changes to the functioning of our governing board began to develop without full consensus of the board. Bob and Tito could not find agreement about giving Brian another chance to retake the exam. Bob began to view Brian as disqualified from governing, and yet more evidently began to treat Kirk and Zach as equal members of the board, without agreement or ratification by the existing board.

The most significant impasse we faced, though, was not fundamentally about whether Brian was qualified to pastor, or whether Kirk would be ordained. We were not able to adequately address those issues. The impasse became more related to the process, about how decisions were made, and about how the senior pastor is to function within a healthy plurality, a team of leaders. Should he be equal in every sense with the other elders, or should the other elders willingly defer to his role, insight and perspectives?

Differences also emerged over how to define the gifts and character qualifications of an elder: what it meant to be “able to teach” (1Tim 3:2); how Scripture defined humility (1Pet 5:1–7); and beyond the Scriptural qualifications for eldership, what standards were required of a pastor functioning within Sovereign Grace Ministries and in this church.

With our governing board being redefined in practice (some desiring to include the other two men), and with differing opinions on how to balance the senior pastor’s input (some inclined to defer to his opinion when an impasse was reached), it became impossible to have the constructive conversations necessary to answer those questions as a unified team. After various meetings with representatives from Sovereign Grace in the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011, we were no closer to unity in these areas because their counsel and insights were not authoritative and not embraced by all on our team.

Over the past year, decisions have been made by all that contributed to a breakdown in trust of one another. From our perspective, concerns the two of us expressed about the direction of the church were not adequately addressed (e.g., changes to practices such as the sacraments, preaching emphases, practices of fellowship, etc.). Some of our appeals and disagreements have not been represented well to the board, to outside pastors, and to members of the church, and our motives have been falsely judged despite our attempts to clarify our intentions.

A practice the two of us believe would have helped our team avoid our breakdown and misunderstandings would have been to pursue more congregational involvement. All of the pastors believe Scripture affirms an elder-led form of church government, not congregational. However, we differ on how to and even whether to solicit and process your input as members of the church in decisions and changes proposed by the team.

Because of Sovereign Grace’s less authoritative oversight role and our ailing eldership, the two of us would have preferred to involve you as members into our disagreement at least as early as a year ago. There are pros and cons to this and we understand the hesitancy of the other men to unnecessarily burden you with the details and reality of a disjointed team. However, we believed then, and still do, that the benefit of being open and seeking help from those who know us best outweighs the downsides.

From our limited study of Scripture, when the apostles and elders made decisions in the interests and mission of the church, there often seemed to be congregational support or affirmation (Ac 6:2-5, Ac 15:22&30, Mt 18:17, 2Cor 8:19). In the same way, Paul, Peter, and the other New Testament writers often addressed their epistles to local churches or to the church at large, not merely its leaders. The most notable exceptions are Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy, referred to as “The Pastoral Epistles,” because they were written to those two overseers who were responsible to appoint elders in the churches.

Even since the recent initiation of our “transitional board,” the information conveyed to the members has been inadequate from our perspective, and we have found it difficult to even agree on what details to share. This is just one of many differences that are not primary, not gospel-threatening, but that has significant implications for a team of men trying to govern together. By God’s grace, we will one day reconcile relationally but in our opinion the convictions and values of the five men, and even among some leaders within Sovereign Grace, are not compatible.

As expressed above, we deeply regret causing any pain to the church family we love so dearly. We don’t understand why God has seen fit to ordain this day, but we trust that behind this “frowning providence, he hides a smiling face” that will one day cause us all to rejoice as we behold His wisdom and love. We wholeheartedly believe His promise to turn this “momentary affliction” into “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2Cor 4:17).

 

There was the following response from the pastors who remain in on staff at the Ashburn church:

Dear Church,

It is indeed a most sorrowful time that we write to you as the pastors of Grace Community Church. The resignation of Brian and Tito on our team represents a significant loss to our congregation. It is something for which we, the remaining pastors, deeply regret, and something that we have repeatedly sought to avoid in our appeals to Brian and Tito. We hoped that they would stay, and that our differences would be resolvable. And yet we understand that they did not feel they could serve as pastors of this church any longer. We know that our own sins have made these disagreements more difficult to resolve, and where the Spirit has given us conviction in those areas we have sought to repent and seek forgiveness. That is something we are committed to continue doing, and your feedback to that end has helped.

Attached you will find a joint letter to the members of Grace Community Church from Brian and Tito, with an addendum that gives you their detailed reasons for leaving the pastoral team here. As Bob said on Sunday, there is so much to commend in these men, and it grieves us to need to focus on the differences we have with them rather than the massive number of agreements we share in Christ. Tito and Brian have served our church faithfully and been such a significant blessing, and we would want to separate focusing on those graces that have defined our relationship more than anything else.

Unfortunately, though, we cannot agree with all of their perspectives, so in response to their addendum, we’ve included our understanding of the situation so both sides can be heard. We hope none of it comes across like a personal attack, as we care deeply about these men and their families, but since there has been concern in the church about the lack of providing details, we thought it best to include the specifics of our version, for those who are interested.

If any of this is confusing or if you have further questions, we would be happy to meet with you in person to try to work through any issues this crisis has caused. We continue to be hopeful that pursuing a formal process of reconciliation with Tito and Brian will go a long way to clearing up so much of the disagreements and misunderstandings between us.

Please pray for that to happen soon, and that we would all, as a church, glorify God in how we process and walk through this challenging time. May we think charitably towards one another and strive to believe the best, as the cross of Jesus Christ has the final say in all of our relationships.

Gratefully Yours,

Bob Donohue
Zach Jones
Kirk Whitworth

Response to Tito and Brian’s Addendum

We want to begin with apologizing again for the delay of information in this situation. We know it has been a source of consternation for many of you, as you are undoubtedly grieving such a painful and sudden separation. We sincerely regret any additional temptation the slowness of any response from the temporary Board has caused you throughout this process, and have been eager to communicate with you more details in a way that would honor Christ as well as help this church we all love to process this very sad news as best as possible.

For some time now, all five of the men on the pastoral team have sought to come to agreement on how to explain our differences to the church. But it seems that at every point of these attempts, we have fallen into the trap of each person believing he was being mischaracterized by the other. This has made communicating in more than generalities, while avoiding misrepresenting one another, very difficult.

We realize that this has made some of you feel like we were seeking to hide information from the members of the church. We want to be clear that this has never been about hiding information; it has genuinely, from the best we can tell, been about honoring Christ with how we communicate to the church. But because the lack of information has led to understandable temptations for many to try to “fill in the blanks” where the information you had didn’t answer questions sufficiently, we are aware that more information is sorely needed. At this point, the only way we can see to move forward is to let some of these disagreements play out in this letter now.

We are also aware that one chief mistake we all made was the failure to bring the church into the situation sooner. We deeply apologize for any way that this has made anyone feel disrespected. Because we believed we would be able to work these differences out, the entire pastoral team supported the guidance of Sovereign Grace’s representatives to not share with the church at that time, even as we had questions about such counsel. Given the failure of the team to reach such reconciliation and agreement, when our need to separate became apparent several months ago, we all regretted that we had not brought the church in sooner.

The Polity Impasse
From our perspective this conflict is primarily about answering the question of “Who is qualified to govern the church?” This question first became apparent when Brian failed the oral portion of his ordination exam in the Spring of 2009. The manner in which he failed this exam led the pastoral team to realize that before Brian retake the exam; greater clarity was needed as to whether Brian met the gifting qualifications for an elder in the area of being, “able to teach.” Bob is particularly grieved at how his sin of presumption played into putting Brian forward without adequately preparing him for the exam, and without having spent the proper time with Brian beforehand to evaluate his gifting.

But as that process of re-examining Brian’s teaching and counseling abilities progressed, personal relationships on the team began to break down. So with the agreement of the pastoral team, his reexamination was suspended, but with the hope to restart the process as the relational concerns were resolved. Shortly thereafter, we all agreed as a team to transition Brian to focusing exclusively on administration as the need there was growing and his skills in that area were excellent.

Later that fall, Brian and Tito supported Kirk being put forward for ordination, even as Brian’s was on hold. It was announced, with the pastoral team’s full support, in a Member’s Meeting in November of 2009, soliciting any encouragement and concerns for Kirk being a pastor. And so in the Spring of 2010, Kirk took and passed his written exam, but the day before he was to take the oral exam, Brian and Tito informed Bob that they were withdrawing support for Kirk’s ordination, a sudden and surprising change that became the catalyst for the situation we find ourselves in now.

Tito then changed his position on Brian’s role, arguing that Brian should not just be the administrator but should fully function as a governing elder, despite the questions about his qualification that remained unanswered. Tito and Brian believed that we had too stringent a definition of “able to teach,” and that Kirk’s arrogance was to a level of disqualifying him as a pastor. While Zach and Bob shared some of the concerns for Kirk’s pride, they did not think it disqualifying, especially where he wanted to change and was pursuing growth and making progress in that area. Even though we believed it was inappropriate for Brian to continue insisting upon his authority as an elder while his qualification was in question, Bob did not go against decisions they made where Bob was in the minority, and he continued inviting the involvement of Sovereign Grace to help resolve the impasses.

Accountability to Sovereign Grace
Through this process other issues emerged. As Brian and Tito describe in their addendum, they recently began expressing concern about the nature of Sovereign Grace’s authority over our church, suggesting that accountability can only truly exist if someone can step into our church and require the elders to obey them. We believe this doesn’t represent the accountability that we indeed do have. Sovereign Grace’s ability to remove affiliation with a church if any of our doctrines or practices go outside of our affiliation agreement with them is very significant accountability, not to mention the personal accountability that we have with each other, and, even more sobering, the accountability to God that the Bible tells each pastor they will have for the way they lead their church. Indeed, this whole process of inviting the help and insight of Sovereign Grace has been all about accountability.

Plurality
Brian and Tito conclude in their letter that the chief issue is about the process by which decisions are made. But we have no difference of opinion about the core components of that process. We agree that decisions must be made by the eldership, with no man having more of a vote than another. We agree that each qualified elder has equal authority to govern. We agree that congregational input is not only important, but critical, and is an area we really need to grow in as a church. We agree that a formal process is necessary so that members of the church who have a serious concern against one of the pastors can have a fair hearing with an outside panel of Sovereign Grace pastors (and just such a process is currently being put into place by Sovereign Grace).

As to how that process played itself out in our situation, Brian and Tito did not accept Sovereign Grace’s first attempt at resolving the question of who should govern by recommending that Kirk and Zach be added to the governing board until a third elder could be ordained. Although we did believe that Brian did not have biblical authority as an elder, Bob did not disregard his vote, nor did he regard Zach and Kirk any differently. There was also no point that Kirk, Zach or Bob sought to remove Brian or Tito from serving on staff at this church. Indeed, it was Brian who recommended to the Sovereign Grace representatives that Bob be removed as Senior Pastor of Grace Community Church, a move that significantly eroded trust and that Sovereign Grace did not support. Fundamentally, then, our disagreement is not over the process by which decisions are made, but over who is qualified to be on the governing board to make those decisions. This is the impasse that we reached.

Conclusion
There are certainly other issues that have been discussed over the past 14 months, and we would be happy to address any of those questions that members may have of us. We are aware of a number of claims circulating that we believe are mischaracterizations of things that have been said and done in this situation. If you have any questions or concerns about these things, please bring them to us so we can try to work through them together in a way that glorifies the Lord. We really want to see all the ways we have contributed to this situation. We need your help, as we do not see everything clearly in this crisis. God is showing us where we have lacked wisdom at points or been proud or defensive or anxious or not listened well. We really want to repent where we’ve sinned and learn from our mistakes.

And so we pray that God will preserve this local church, and that he will continue maturing and growing us as pastors. We need your insight and your counsel, your encouragement and your concerns, your prayers and your burdens, for us and for this church. We are confident that God has great things in store for Grace Community, not because of who is pastoring, but because this is first and foremost Christ’s church. We are his people, and he will not abandon this church in its hour of greatest need. We thank you for the patience you have demonstrated thus far, and ask for your continued patience as we seek to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to glorify the risen Christ above everything else.

Gratefully Yours,

Bob Donouhe
Zach Jones
Kirk Whitworth

Meanwhile, at Covenant Life Church, members were informed that C.J. Mahaney, with the help of mediators, is now working on “reconciling” with Josh Harris.  This message was distributed yesterday:

September 14 2011 at 11:55 am

A Joint Statement from C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris

At the August 17 Members Meeting, I shared that C.J. had concerns with how we  had been leading through this crisis. C.J. communicated that he wants to pursue  reconciliation with us with the help of a mediator. What some of you might not know is that this week we met as a first step. The following is a joint  statement that we prepared to explain the status of the process. Thank you for your prayers!  – Joshua

We are grateful for all the people who have expressed support in prayer as C.J.  Mahaney and Joshua Harris pursue reconciliation with the assistance of Ted Kober from Ambassadors of Reconciliation. Joshua was accompanied by his advisor Grant Layman. C.J. was accompanied by his advisor Phil Sasser.

While we both desire the mediation to occur, Joshua asked for the meetings to be postponed because of a difference on how matters of confidentiality will be handled. Normal mediation agreements involve a commitment not to share details of the mediation with anyone that does not have “necessary interest.” Both parties acknowledge that certain outcomes of the
mediation need to be shared with others, but we have different viewpoints on when and how that occurs.

Nevertheless, C.J. and his advisor shared documents they had prepared outlining the categories of concern for Joshua and the pastors of Covenant Life.

Both parties agreed to share these documents only with the pastoral team of Covenant Life and the Board of Directors of Sovereign Grace. We have agreed to only share these documents with others with the permission of each other. We anticipate that there will be a time after some reflection and possible changes that these documents will be shared more broadly.

The next step in the process will be for the Covenant Life pastoral team to read, consider and pray over the documents C.J. has prepared in writing. We will then work on the next appropriate step for moving the mediation forward.

We ask for people’s prayers as we continue to work together toward resolution of our substantive issues and reconciliation of our personal relationships.

 

© 2011, Kris. All rights reserved.