The Closing of a Texas Church

Twelve hundred constituents across the Texas Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recently received a six-page letter alleging conference misconduct and abuse of power. It described the closing and locking of the Fort Worth Northwest SDA Church, the Texas Conference’s seizure of church funds, and the termination of Pastor Joe Gresham.

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Gresham drafted the letter, at members' request, as a warning to others and a call to elect new leadership at the constituency meeting scheduled for May 19 in Bryan, Texas.

Conference officers declined to answer any specific questions, issuing a statement last week dismissing the claims in the letter as “grossly inaccurate, misleading, and false.”

The situation developed gradually during Gresham's 27 years at the Fort Worth Northwest SDA Church, in a district that usually also included the Weatherford SDA Church. In recent months it erupted, leaving the once-harmonious membership at odds with each other, with their long-time pastor, and with the Texas Conference.

With the church’s doors locked, some members attend a church plant in nearby Saginaw, Texas. Another group worships with Pastor Joe. A few members attend elsewhere, but others stay home. The church building sits empty, an ominous sign on the door.

Was it a theological Issue?

What led to the closing of the Fort Worth Northwest Church?

Pastor Gresham blames theological differences with the Texas Conference officers. He is a conservative, traditionalist Adventist pastor who believes strongly that the Textus Receptus that was translated into English for the Authorized Version of 1611 (KJV) are the pure Scriptures, whereas the Westcott & Hort critical text used in newer translations is a corrupted version. Gresham also supports the cluster of beliefs that have come to be called “Last Generation Theology” and opposes the “evangelical” gospel of cheap grace without obedience and overcoming.

“The conference has been trying to get rid of me for twenty years,” Gresham said. “The leadership is evangelical, and they are trying to silence me.”

Some area pastors I spoke to agree that the issue is theological. “Pastor A” [Because of the sensitivity of the situation, I will not be using real names in this article. - HJ] describes Pastor Gresham's theology as “conservative, no women elders, used the King James Version, big on Revelation. But beyond that I just don’t know. These situations are often complex, with multiple sides to every story.”

A long-time friend and teacher, “Pastor B,” reported that “Joe has been a very, very faithful pastor. He has never been in any way self-serving, or drawing extra attention to himself. I see that Joe was 80-90% handling things the right way. He was a well-appreciated, kind pastor. The people wanted to keep him there, even when the conference wanted to transfer things around. I spoke in both his churches. My impression was very positive.”

“This is definitely a conflict over theology. Joe has come out strong on the 1888 message, the KJV, the church's rejection of the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, perfection of character and vindication of God's name. This is coming to a head right now, not just in Texas. Evangelical theology is throughout our conferences right now.”

The Financial Issues

A. Gresham Put on Half-pay, Creating Need for Supplemental “Special Fund”

In 2002, the Weatherford SDA Church was removed from Pastor Gresham’s district, and his pay was cut in half. In 2010, Weatherford was returned to his district, but for some reason the conference kept Gresham on half pay.

In 2013, the conference made Gresham retire, with the understanding that he would continue to pastor his district, and that he would be given a stipend for doing so. But the stipend never came through. When Pastor Gresham asked the conference about it, he was told that he had “misunderstood,” and there was never to be any stipend. Yet he continued to pastor the Fort Worth Northwest and Weatherford churches.

In 2002, when Gresham was put on half pay while still an active full-time pastor, the Fort Worth Northwest Church created a “Special Fund” to supplement his salary, allotting him $1,000 per month, to be paid out of non-tithe funds. The local church treasurer sent the money to the conference, and the conference sent Gresham the monthly checks.

“For 16 years Fort Worth Northwest has pitched in to cover the shortfall in my salary,” Gresham said.

Over the years the “Special Fund” covered various expenses such as Pastor Joe's gasoline, a newer car, some house payments and home insurance, gifts to needy church members, etc. The board voted to approve many such disbursements over the years.

B. Tithe Diverted to “Special Fund”

Before talking to members, I found indicators that some were giving their tithe to the “Special Fund” rather than designating it as tithe and having it remitted to the conference.

Monthly conference alignment charts for the past several years show that the Ft. Worth Northwest-Weatherford district tithes were significantly below average for the Fort Worth area, and for the whole conference. Moreover, in the three-year period from 2016 through 2018, membership in the district increased 9%, but tithe remittance to the conference decreased 4%.

In talking to members, I confirmed that, indeed, some where tithing to the “Special Fund.”

“Sister A” noted a change in church giving. Tithing through the conference dropped, while the Special Fund, and later a Bible Worker Fund, thrived. Benevolent projects and overseas missions—a sister church in the Philippines—were funded. Gresham regularly preached stewardship sermons, yet some felt he condoned tithing to the Special Fund.

“Sister B” said, “When I first started, I tithed to the conference, but later I kept my tithe in the church budget, the Bible Workers' Fund, the Kitchen Fund. I divided mine out in different areas in the church. Nobody told me what to do with my money. I did it because I wanted to.”

“Brother C” explained, “If you send money to the General Conference, I've heard it doesn't go for what you want it to. I was comfortable giving my money to the Special Fund and the Bible workers. It was all a voluntary thing. It raised some eyebrows at the conference, I think.”

“I didn't like what the conference was doing with the money, so I thought it was ethical to send it to the Special Fund to pay the pastor and the Bible workers. I didn't actually read the quotes from Mrs. White, but that's what I'd heard--you could send it to any ministry. Maybe two or three were doing what I was. Mostly it was sent to the conference, as far as I know.”

“I was at one meeting with Pastor Joe and the Texas Conference,” related Brother C, “when they asked him, 'Did you encourage people to put into the special fund?' “'No, I didn't,' he answered. Then they just went onto another subject. We were not ever told not to send to the conference.”

“Brother D” said, “I have tithed a little bit through the Special Fund, but mainly my tithe goes to the conference. I never truly understood what the Special Fund was, so I didn't support it faithfully.”

C. “Special Fund” Questioned

“Last year there were close friends/family on the board,” stated Brother D. “They wanted to beautify the church. They felt [Pastor Gresham] didn't deserve to have the full amount of the Special Fund. They were wanting to dissolve the Fund and give it to the conference. As a board member I told them I would not allow that, because some members gave in good faith to support Pastor Joe. Then they wanted to move it to Texas Evangelism Fund. I was against that.”

“Brother E” explained, “The board made decisions to assist the pastor in getting a vehicle, in helping some of his own family members. Some felt convicted that this wasn't right. We are not a congregational church. But they had approved the system a long time ago, and they have been letting it go for a long time. All of a sudden they just decided, 'We don't want to do this anymore.'”

“In January,” Brother D continued, “the church voted a new board that [would have supported] Pastor Joe. The new board decided Pastor Joe should be able to get that money but he should be willing to give members [who objected to their money going to Gresham] a chance to get their money back during January.

D. The Conference Gets the Money

At this time, the previous treasurer was still in charge of the checkbook. At the end of January, she withdrew all the church money. She gave money back to some that gave to the Special Fund. Without notifying members, she wrote a check for the rest of the church money, some $72,000.00, to the Texas Conference, defying the local church board’s decision.

The Ft. Worth Northwest Church had over $90,000.00 in the Southwestern Union’s Revolving Fund, a sort of bank where churches can deposit excess funds at interest which can then be loaned to other churches for special projects. After the $72,000 in local church funds were sent to the conference, the church tried to withdraw its money from the Revolving Fund, and they were given a check for the full amount. But the Southwestern Union stopped payment on the check before the Ft. Worth Northwest Church could realize the funds.

Dealing with the Fallout

“Northwest was one of the fastest growing churches in [the Dallas-Ft. Worth area],” said Brother D. “We had many Bible studies, baptisms. Now many newly baptized members are so discouraged they don't wanna' come back. They are scattered. They go other places, and they don't feel the same. For me, it's a stumbling block that's gonna' come back to bite us.”

“Pastor Joe should be reinstated. The conference should work things out, bring back Northwest, be willing to forgive. One wrong doesn't fix another wrong. There is pride on both sides. We know this man is not perfect...but you'll always find issues in a person wherever you go. The issue may be you! The devil wants us to think of men, but we are dealing with spiritual darkness forces here. Pastor Joe, or Family A or B, are not the bad guys,” Brother D affirmed.

Sister A reports, “All of us (Saginaw group) are going to tithe through the conference again. I guess it's like the Bible says, “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, and I guess we'll just let God worry about it. If the conference is misusing it, then at some point God will take care of it.”

“It's a church-split plant, you could say. We don't exactly have a treasurer yet, or a bank account. We have somebody holding the money until we get a physical address and a P.O. Box. There are checks in there written to the conference.”

“What's so sad,” said Sister B, “is when they were changing the locks...I was talking to Carlos [Texas Conference President Carlos Craig] about why they terminated Pastor Joe. They wouldn't give me a specific answer. They didn't do that in our board meeting either. They were supposed to be telling us why Pastor Joe was terminated. If we chose to stay with him, they told us we would have to leave the conference. Carlos finally said, “Well, we need younger pastors.”

What is the root cause of Northwest's split? “It's pride and selfishness,” concluded Brother D. “pride and selfishness on all sides.” Brother D seeks to reconcile church members, pastor and conference.

Gresham previously appealed to the Texas Conference and the nearby Southwest Union Conference, without success. North American Division Undersecretary Kioshan Ahn has agreed to intervene.

Several church members, related on both sides of the conflict, have committed themselves to mediate and pull the others back into harmony. “My father's one goal is to get that church building opened back up, and to have us all worshipping there again,” said Brother E.

“But it's like the Bible said,” he explained, “Father against son, brother, mother...(Mt. 10:35-36). We should remember that it is going to get much worse before Jesus comes.”

A Relevant Passage from the Spirit of Prophecy:

I saw that the remnant were not prepared for what is coming upon the earth. Stupidity, like lethargy, seemed to hang upon the minds of most of those who profess to believe that we are having the last message. My accompanying angel cried out with awful solemnity, “Get ready! get ready! get ready! for the fierce anger of the Lord is soon to come. His wrath is to be poured out, unmixed with mercy, and ye are not ready. Rend the heart, and not the garment. A great work must be done for the remnant. Many of them are dwelling upon little trials.” Said the angel, “Legions of evil angels are around you, and are trying to press in their awful darkness, that ye may be ensnared and taken. Ye suffer your minds to be diverted too readily from the work of preparation and the all-important truths for these last days. And ye dwell upon little trials and go into minute particulars of little difficulties to explain them to the satisfaction of this one or that.” Conversation has been protracted for hours between the parties concerned, and not only has their time been wasted, but the servants of God are held to listen to them, when the hearts of both parties are unsubdued by grace. If pride and selfishness were laid aside, five minutes would remove most difficulties. Angels have been grieved and God displeased by the hours which have been spent in justifying self. I saw that God will not bow down and listen to long justifications, and He does not want His servants to do so, and thus precious time be wasted that should be spent in showing transgressors the error of their ways and pulling souls out of the fire. Early Writings, page 119 (emphasis supplied).

Conference officers, what is Christ's way to deal with a “difficult” pastor, who boldly preaches doctrines many have lightly regarded? What if he publishes your failings? What if you suspect he is bucking at your instructions? Do you terminate him? How, and for what cause? What are treasurers' and auditors' roles when a church's tithe falls off? How much do you investigate before drawing conclusions and taking action? Is it ever appropriate to change locks on a church without notifying those expecting to worship there next Sabbath? Do church splits make good church plants?

Texas Conference Constituents, Do you nominate and elect leaders demonstrating faithfulness to Bible doctrines and the Spirit of Prophecy, or cultural and political conformity? Do you believe the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, voted by the world church in executive session, should be followed in your conference? How do you expect your conference officers to handle church conflicts? What does the “...hope and wholeness” motto mean in practice?

Consider this God-given counsel:

“The greatest want of the world is the want of men—men who will not be bought or sold, men who in their inmost souls are true and honest, men who do not fear to call sin by its right name, men whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, men who will stand for the right though the heavens fall,” Education, page 57.

Pastors, what is the best way to work with your conference when you deplore its doctrinal drift, policies and practices? Is your faith in God's oversight of His remnant church evident in your sermons, your counsel and conduct, your board meetings? When members or conference officers offend you, how far do you follow Matthew 18 before you “tell it to the church?” How can you answer Jesus' prayer for church unity? Do you model the Seventh-day Adventist teachings you espouse? How should you respond if unfairly paid, terminated and treated?

Church board members, what happens when the board votes against your opinions, your conscience? How should you address divisive church issues? Is majority vote enough, without first building consensus and addressing dissenting opinions? Is the pastor always right? Is he always wrong? When, why and how do you appeal to the conference for help?

Church members, how do you respond when the nominating committee votes you in or out of a position? What should you do if you suspect a power play, or unfair voting? Are there any good reasons to stop attending church, or to stop speaking to fellow church members with whom you disagree? How does your understanding of present truth, the 1888 message of righteousness by faith and all other precious truths inform and guide your daily conduct? What witness do you bear within your family, your church, your community? Have you studied every Seventh-day Adventist doctrine for yourself, or do you rely on the pastor, fellow members or your own opinions for guidance?

Preach the word...reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2). Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse...(Mal 3:10). Let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40) . (2 Tim. 3:25) . . . Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (Eph. 5:21).

UPDATE (4/11/19):

I just received this official communiqué via email from the Texas Conference. Joe Gresham has been banned from speaking anywhere in the Texas Conference, inluding in “companies or groups.” The Texas Conference officers state,

“We write today to inform you that Joe Gresham should not be allowed in any pulpits in churches, companies or groups within the Texas Conference. While we cannot go into detail, please be assured that this was a prayerful decision made with counsel.

Holly Sue Miller Joers studied at Newbold College, Southern Adventist University, and Weimar College. She is married to Skip Joers and writes from Clinton, Arkansas.