January 20, 2006 Volume 19, Number 21
Legal issues disrupt life for church community
By ChristianWeek Staff
CALGARY, ABChurch disputes are a harsh reality for many congregations across Canada and the ramifications can be far reaching when problems escalate into the legal sphere.
Such was the case for South Calgary Community Church (SCCC), a growing Baptist congregation with plans for expansion. When some former members alleged they were victims of spiritual abuse at the hands of church leadership, lawyers got involved and the situation got messy.
Last April, Barry and Jennifer Pendergast set up a website detailing their experience at SCCC, several months after leaving the church where they were involved in a lawsuit against the board of elders who had revoked their membership not once, but twice.
Much of the Pendergasts' site details and documents their clash with former SCCC pastor Jim Wallace and church elders that began in 2003.
The last two years have included a barrage of e-mail exchanges, letters and meetings between the Pendergasts and the churchand thousands of dollars in legal fees on both sides. The couple also says their physical health has suffered.
The Pendergasts, now attending a different church in Calgary, say they will "tell their side of the story…at every opportunity presented to them."
"Networking with others around the world going through the same challenges is an amazing experience," Barry told ChristianWeek. "We decided we must bring the topic of spiritual and emotional abuse in church settings out of the closet and into the light."
They chose to post the official documents in their case on their website "for others to see with no secrecy and full openness. Many others…have told us their hurt and pain has been validated by knowing they are not alone. There are so many common factors in the way the abuse unfolded in secrecy and shame."
The Pendergasts say the problems began with a disagreement with church leadership about a ministry opportunity. From there it escalated when the two sides couldn't come to a workable solution. The church elders, saying they were acting in accordance with church constitution and bylaws, removed the Pendergasts from church membership.
The Pendergasts, who say church leaders refused to meet with them within a satisfactory time frame, launched a lawsuit. A mediator became involved which led to the couple's reinstatement as members.
However, the Pendergasts say they came back to a "very cool reception."
Jennifer says she was not allowed to visit the pre-school she was once headed. Barry could not attend the men's breakfast he founded. They say church elders followed them about, one telling Barry "I'm protecting the flock," when Barry challenged him.
The relationship fell apart a short time later when both sides felt the other was not living up to their side of the agreement. The church, with legal advisors on side, permanently removed the couple from membership in November 2004.
The Pendergasts say they have since learned they are not the only ones who struggled at SCCC. They say others have come forward with claims of abusive behaviour by church leadership, including a 15-year member of the church who developed severe psychological stress after "clashing" with Wallace and being stripped of her ministry responsibilities, and a popular youth pastor who resigned from SCCC after just two years, feeling "harassed and undermined" by church officials.
Wallace, now living in Kentucky where he is caring for his aging parents, says the matter involving the Pendergasts was "an unfortunate case of church discipline." He says the church tried to resolve the issue internally but found their hands tied once lawyers got involved.
Still, he maintains the Pendergasts did get their chance to make their case. "The charge that the church didn't hear them just is not a fair charge in my mind." The allegation that the elders would not meet with them is "unequivocally false and it can be documented as such," he says. "The elders went to great lengths to set up repeated meetings and it was the Pendergasts who cancelled and postponed."
Wallace says he is aware of the claims on the Pendergast's website, but says he has made the decision "to take the high road, and to try not to continue the battle."
Wallace, a leading Calgary clergyman for more than 20 years who was recently awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal, says the situation has "been an attack against his integrity and reputation." But he adds, "in the midst of all of this God has encouraged us in other ways," including solid support from friends and acquaintances across Canada.
Meanwhile, the Pendergasts say they hope to work with Christian academic institutions to openly discuss the topic of spiritual abuse with future church leaders, perhaps developing manuals and a think tank. Last fall they helped to organize a spiritual abuse seminar at Alberta Bible College.
"We want to be very proactive and develop more discerning followers who are critical thinkers who will follow good leaders with a vision and proper attitude but be wiling to take a stand on any form of subtle or deep abuse," says Barry. "It's of great importance to us to seek out proactive ways to heal the abusers as well as heal the abused."