Yup. It’s true. In 2009, I was “disfellowshipped” from New Covenant Fellowship in Manassas, Virginia – and in an odd sort of way I felt deeply honored!
I first posted this for a few months on my old blog in 2009, but decided to dust it off and make it public once again under its original publication date. Fortunately, it migrated over – with its original publication date and original comments still preserved – when I set up this new blog in late 2009.
I’m re-posting my story because many others have experienced similar fates as they try to deal with abusive leaders who hide their leadership sins behind a wall of unaccountability and by intimidating – and then expelling – all voices of integrity from their church.
I hope my experience encourages others to have the courage to raise legitimate concerns under Biblical procedures, even if it means being kicked out of your church. Stand firm, because there is life after “excommunication”!
The problems I encountered began innocently enough in 2008 when I approached the pastors (who also serve as the sole elders) at New Covenant Fellowship about incorporating into the church some ministries I supported or otherwise led. They agreed.
I’m an attorney who’s done some non-profit and church related legal work, as well as lots of corporate work. I also have held many leadership positions in local churches, as well as various other ministries and charities, over the last several decades. As such, I have a pretty good grasp on relevant legal and ethical issues involving churches and other religious tax-exempt entities.
With my legal background, I thought I might be able to help move things along. So I innocently asked to see the church’s constitution, bylaws and other legal documents in order to recommend the best way to proceed.
For the next several months the senior pastor, who helped start the church over twenty years previously, kept putting me off and stalling. In fact, I subsequently discovered, he was providing me with outright misleading responses to my several inquiries. I was mystified and couldn’t figure out why he was stonewalling me on implementing a decision the full pastor’s board had approved, so I finally started checking into things on my own.
What I discovered totally shocked me. I learned that New Covenant Fellowship apparently had never been legally constituted, and by all indications, had filed false certifications to obtain its tax exempt status with the IRS and also to allow tax deductions for tithes and offerings it received. More than twenty years after the church was founded, there still were no founding documents – no constitution, no bylaws, no criteria for selecting or serving as an elder or pastor, no membership standards or procedures – nothing, nada, zip!
When I went to the senior pastor to ask about this, he admitted that he knew about the problems despite his previously misleading and evasive answers. In fact, he acknowledged, he had known about the need to correct these glaring deficiencies for many years, but just never bothered to get around to it. (See my comment on Legal Requirements for Unincorporated Churches in Virginia, which includes quotes from relevant emails in which the founding pastor confirms that the church lacks the required organizational documents and acknowledges that the problem needs to be addressed – which has yet to occur. Those emails are wholly inconsistent with his new-found claims that all is OK with the church’s legal bona fides.)
I quietly communicated my findings to the other pastors (while discretely refraining from discussing them with anyone else).
They too were shocked.
Much to my surprise, the senior pastor had kept them also in the dark on the apparent lack of any legal status for the church. The senior pastor responded to our concern by saying he’d get things fixed.
In response, I simply asked to be kept appraised of any steps actually taken to make the New Covenant Fellowship legal so I could then move forward with bringing some of my own ministry activities – which did have proper legal status – under the church.
More than six months later, I’m still waiting, without success, to hear whether he’s resolved the church’s considerable and substantial legal problems.
One fallout from this discovery was my concern over the legality of a deduction on my tax return for a very large donation I had made to New Covenant Fellowship in 2007.
That donation was for the sole, expressly-designated purpose of making improvements to the physical appearance of the church’s sanctuary and entrances (which, to put it charitably, had looked very shabby and uninviting for new visitors ever since I’d been part of the church).
I discussed my desire to make that designated contribution with the senior pastor, and then wrote out the check and put the designation in writing. He gladly accepted my donation, under the express conditions of my written designation.
In addition to my new-found worry about the propriety of my subsequent tax deduction, I was growing increasingly concerned because nothing of any significance had been done to spruce up the church over the intervening year and a half.
When I asked for an update on how the money I’d given had been spent, I got no responses and the same pattern of stonewalling began – just like when I asked about the legal status of the church.
Finally, the senior pastor (whom I originally gave the money to) told me that he didn’t think the church had any obligation to use the money for the express, written purpose for which he’d accepted it – but he wouldn’t give me any more specifics.
Regardless, it was clear that the funds had not been used for their designated purpose, as evidenced by the lack of any improvements to the church sanctuary and entrances over the intervening year and a half.
I finally asked one of the other pastors what happened to the donation I gave the senior pastor. He said he didn’t know and, in fact, acted befuddled over my questions because, he informed me, that was the first he had heard of the donation – even though he was on the elder’s board.
This was very strange, because it was a very substantial amount of money.
So again, I started doing some quiet research and again was shocked. I learned, and then confirmed with multiple independent sources, that the senior pastor for several years had been (and still was) taking a very substantial, full salary and benefits package from the church – totaling well into six figures per year without the knowledge of the full elder’s board.
I have no problem with, and actually encourage, paying an elder, as Paul instructs in I Tim. 5:17-18, when he in fact is devoting his time vocationally to the church – which Paul in that same passage sets forth as the sole criteria for such pay.
In this case, however, the founding elder for several years had not been actually working for the church. Instead, he had taken a position and was working nearly full time with an unrelated organization. He was still taking, however, the same very generous full-time salary and benefits package from the church that he had been earning when he actually worked for the church years earlier.
The facts indicated that this elder had been filling his pockets with the hard-earned tithes and offerings of the congregation over the previous several years – to the tune of nearly a million dollars over the previous several years – while not actually working vocationally for the church or otherwise being very engaged in ministry at the church.
The sum total of his involvement appeared to be occasionally preaching on Sunday (maybe once a month, at most) some very basic sermons that certainly took little time to prepare, meeting with the worship team, occasionally leading worship himself, and doing some very occasional counseling sessions.
This also did not square with the facts.
When I was considering joining the church and first met back in the summer of 2007 with the senior pastor at a local diner for breakfast to learn more about New Covenant Fellowship, he brought up the fact that he was working for elsewhere for an unrelated non-profit organization.
I thought little of it, but in the course of our conversation he said that he was averaging about four days a week devoted to that job – which is certainly consistent with what I witnessed over the intervening two years. I asked him how he was able to live on any income from that, given that nonreligious non-profits are notoriously underfunded. He said he received no salary from them, but was being paid by the church.
At the time, this struck me as odd but that’s as far as it went. I then personally observed that he was working around four days per week – despite now telling the church that it was no more than 20 hours per week – for that unrelated organization. (I often sent men I was mentoring, upon their release from the local jail, to work under him as volunteers at that organization.)
Regardless, what he told me then and what I personally observed is wholly inconsistent with his new-found claim that he needed that job to supplement his “meager” salary from the church and that the amount of time he devoted to that outside job was very limited.
In essence, the facts strongly suggested that the senior pastor was fleecing the flock: While acting as though he was entitled to live high off the tithes and offerings of his people – which they earned through hard work in difficult times – he appeared unwilling to engage in any comparable hard work on their behalf.
In response to my inquiries, the pastors called a meeting of the church to preemptively refute my concerns – even though I had only voiced those concerns privately to them – while refusing to meet with me in private or to then allow me to attend that public meeting.
At the public meeting, they stated that the founding pastor was earning a “salary” (they were very careful to use that term and to avoid the term “compensation”) of $80,000 per year.
But what they did not tell the people, thus perpetuating a deliberate deception, was that his “salary” is less than half of the senior pastor’s total compensation package – as can be confirmed by anyone who demands to see and carefully review the church’s full financial reports (even though they were not generally made available to the church).
Thus, that pastor was receiving an obscene amount of total compensation that is more than double what the remaining elders had been willing to admit – totaling over $200,000 per year – even though the church musters less than 50 people most Sunday mornings (down from over 2,000 just a few years earlier due in large part to issues of integrity involving this same pastor), and even though he’s been working nearly full time for another, unrelated organization.
I also learned that the one pastor (out of the then four) who in fact was working vocationally for the church, and who more than anyone else was keeping the struggling church alive by being engaged in the lives of the people and spending nearly every waking minute sacrificially ministering to them (to his considerable detriment health wise), was being paid less than subsistence wages. His total wages for full time service to the church were only about a tenth of what the senior pastor – who was not working for the church – was taking.
To add insult to injury, that other pastor never complained but took the injustice graciously – even though he was not even allowed to enjoy the same generous benefits that the disengaged senior pastor lined up for himself. Thus, the senior pastor essentially was living off the hard work and dedication of this other pastor, who could barely meet his own basic needs or the needs of his own family.
This situation clearly violated the prohibition in scripture on “muzzling the ox that treads the grain” – which Paul expressly says happens, in I Tim. 5:18, when an elder is denied fair wages and others unjustly profit from his hard work.
On top of all this, I also started seeing – and confirmed with independent sources – ongoing, disturbing moral lapses of a substantial and disqualifying nature by the senior pastor, which involve reoccurring issues of dishonesty and also lack of integrity regarding other aspects of the church’s finances.
As I learned more, I also discovered that these and other repeated problems with the senior pastor contributed to the church shrinking over the years from more than two thousand to barely fifty people on Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, when I joined the church in mid-2007, I didn’t know its history of wave after wave of people leaving because of these reoccurring but unresolved problems.
I struggled over what to do with the information that had come to me and been conformed – even though I had approached things innocently and without the least desire to dig up dirt.
After much prayer, I decided to approach the senior pastor in private to raise my concerns and ask if what I had learned was true.
I sent him a polite yet very specific private email laying out those concerns and asked to meet with him. I had no desire to embarrass him or raise my concerns elsewhere, but simply wanted to be faithful in walking through the steps outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18.
Under that procedure, you should first go to an offending brother in private. If he refuses to hear you, then you should take one or two others. If he still refuses to repent or resolve your concerns, then you are to take him before the whole congregation.
That founding pastor responded in writing that he would NOT meet with me to address my concerns, and furthermore stated that as an elder he was exempt and not subject to the procedures of Matthew 18.
In an email to me on April 6, 2009 (just two days after I had approached him with my email that outlined my specific concerns and questions), he stated: “I respectfully disagree with your assumption that the issues which you presented are Matthew 18 issues. I do not view the things which you listed as matters of my personal sin, but rather a difference between your perspective and mine. Therefore your invoking Matthew 18 is invalid and, because of this, I do not agree to a private meeting with you to discuss these issues.”
I was shocked that he viewed himself exempt from a Biblically-mandated procedure for resolving concerns between brothers. When I saw him in church the next Sunday, I approached him and politely asked him again, in person, if he’d meet with me. His direct and angry response was: “No, not on those issues I’m not.”
I then asked if he would meet with me in the presence of one or two others. He shook his head no, then abruptly turned his back on me and walked away.
After being rebuffed by the senior pastor, I went to a neutral pastor in private for advice on how to handle my concerns, given the senior pastor’s refusal to meet or even address the facts I had assembled.
Unbeknown and totally independent of me, he indicated – without going into specifics – that he too had been seeing and learning about the same things I had discovered concerning the improprieties and financial irregularities of the senior pastor.
He asked me to stand down on my concerns because he had independently started to raise and address those sins and improprieties internally with the other elders – including the financial issues and moral lapses, as well as several other issues of grave mutual concern.
I agreed to stand down and let the process play out within the eldership, and for several months waited and kept my peace on any specifics.
Unfortunately, that other pastor was rebuffed by the senior pastor and met with no success in addressing the increasingly growing problems that where then starting to become more widely known – wholly independent of us – within New Covenant Fellowship and the broader Christian community.
The senior pastor then launched a preemptive strike to silence my potentially dissenting voice by sending out a grossly false email to the whole church saying I had withdrawn as a member and claiming that the elders had confirmed that decision with me.
No such thing had happened, and his email was a total fabrication. I simply had previously communicated my intent to withdraw from ministries that were under that elder’s oversight because of repeatedly false and grossly misleading information he had given out, going back over a year, on matters that were essential to the health of those ministries.
The senior pastor also signed the email on behalf of the full eldership, even though he had not cleared it with all of the elders and there was fierce opposition within the eldership.
Soon after that false email was sent out, the neutral pastor was forced to step down from the eldership and take a sabbatical from church governance issues.
After failing to see any resolution over the intervening months on that neutral elder’s attempt to resolve things internally within the eldership, and after seeing him finally step down from the eldership, I sent an email to the remaining elders.
That email reiterating the facts (which to this day remain undisputed and unresolved by the senior pastor), once again expressed my concerns.
My email also documented how I had faithfully tried to follow the procedures of Matthew 18, and how at least one former elder had likewise followed separate procedures by bringing the issues before all the elders.
Both of us, however, had been stonewalled and there still was no substantive resolution. In fact, there had never been any dispute by the remaining elders over the accuracy of our independent but similar findings. Why then, I asked in the email, had they failed to act to protect the church and what were their intentions?
I also asked, honestly but directly, if they thought everything had been done properly regarding the senior pastor’s salary and benefits. If so, then why weren’t they willing to disclose to the whole church the salary and benefits package, and the nearly million dollars apparently taken from the church by the senior elder while he was working nearly full time for another, unrelated organization?
I furthermore asked if they would be willing to tell the church what the other elder, who was working more than full time but being paid less than subsistence wages, was making in salary and benefits so the congregation could compare the two and determine if the discrepancy was appropriate?
Finally, I asked why nothing had been done about the reoccurring, apparently disqualifying moral lapses which they knew about, and as to which there did not seem to be any factual dispute?
In response, I received a short email from the remaining elders – after the one dissenting elder had been removed and silenced – labeled “Final Response”. It said I no longer was welcome at the church, while yet again refusing to address the facts or the substance of my concerns and refusing to meet with me.
It’s often said that there are two sides to every story. No doubt that’s true. I guess, having tried to walk in integrity and having sought resolution on substantial issues of apparent sin and impropriety with a pastor/elder, I would have liked to have heard the other side of the story. Instead, starting in 2008 and through the present (mid-2009), I received nothing but stonewalling and a total, absolute refusal to address what, so far, remain undisputed facts.
So that’s it. I’ve been essentially excommunicated from New Covenant Fellowship without ever having the chance to discuss my concerns with the senior pastor and without ever having received any substantive response from the two remaining elders.
I’m posting this blog to bear witness and warn others, as per Paul’s instruction in 1 Tim. 5:19-20, which says: “Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.”
Here, the relevant facts are confirmed by multiple sources – including the words of some of the elders as documented at the end of this blog.
Once such allegations are confirmed, Paul then commands: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.”
I have never done anything like this before and I’ve always been a peaceful and active participant in the life of the Church. In fact, the church I had been with for over 12 years before New Covenant Fellowship even bestowed the “Volunteer of the Year” award on me – out of a congregation of nearly 2,000!
This fact remains: The remaining elders simply refused time and again to meet with me or others, despite numerous requests, or to respond substantively to my several written communications.
When one of the elders also tried – independent of me – to raise issues of substantial sins and improprieties within their ranks, they yet again rejected all attempts to bring correction and restoration.
After that elder finally was forced to step down and they then felt emboldened enough to meet with me, they requested that I reiterate in writing once again my questions and concerns. I did so in a polite but specific manner, but they responded in writing by getting huffy and stating that they were offended that I dared ask questions that challenged them. They also canceled the private meeting which I asked for and they previously committed to, said they would NOT ever meet with me, and said that I was no longer welcome at the church – for the sole reason (and this is the only “charge” they ever laid before me) that I had dared raise questions about them in the email that they requested and that I then sent to them in private.
They then sent out a mass email, without telling me or even providing me with the courtesy of seeing a copy, which announced to members of New Covenant Fellowship and to many people outside the church that they were calling a meeting to rebut the various issues – all of which I had been trying to raise with them in private.
I was shocked that they were now going public in an aggressive attack mode against me personally. When I asked to attend that public meeting so there could be open dialog and so the issues could be properly presented to the whole church, they responded by saying I would be escorted out if I showed up.
Because they have now publicly attacked the validity of my concerns (which I had previously only raised in private), while denying me the right accorded by scripture in Matt. 18 to come before the whole congregation in response, I reluctantly decided to respond in public via this account of the facts.
To my remaining friends at New Covenant Fellowship, I urge you to insist on answers and to require that the elders finally come clean on what’s been happening within their ranks. Biblically, you have this right. No pastor is above Scripture or above accountability to the whole congregation or even one of its members.
- Participatory Church (crossroadjunction.com)
- New Covenant Fellowship? Beware! (crossroadjunction.com)
- Ken Hornby (1945 – 2010) (crossroadjunction.com)
In response to some private inquiries, I’ve added two comments below that address some follow-up issues.
The first is on Legal Standards for Salaries and Compensation.
The second is on Legal Requirements for Unincorporated Churches in Virginia, which also includes quotes from relevant emails confirming that New Covenant Fellowship lacks the required organizational documents and that the elders have acknowledge this fact.