Backstory: Speaking of Faith

Editor’s Note: This was originally published in the May 2010 issue.

When Seventh Presbyterian Church—a landmark on the corner of Madison Road and Cleinview in East Walnut Hills for nearly 126 years—closed its doors last September, no one was happy. The congregation, which made the decision to go dark, said that it had no choice. As one member said, “We were forced against a wall.” The Presbytery of Cincinnati, the ruling body for some 83 Presbyterian churches in the region, said that the church very much did have a choice, but that, for whatever reasons, it chose to die. In these precincts of faith, there was precious little good faith on either side.

“Under the circumstances, I would think you’d do everything in your power to keep us going,” says Dick Paulsen, a congregant of more than 40 years, “but no one raised a finger.”

“The congregation voted to close the church,” James DiEgidio, the general presbyter—that is, the chief administrator of the presbytery—counters. “You would have to ask them why.”

The story of why Seventh Presbyterian closed is that of a search for leadership, but one made interesting by the context in which it occurred: urban change, fading luster, impassioned allegations, and—how could it be otherwise?—money. Churches are not immune to the kind of complicated, internecine conflicts that beset other institutions. What was surprising in this case was the intensity of the bitterness, freely articulated by the congregants. As church member Margaret Valentine put it: “We didn’t die. We were murdered.” It’s a sentiment shared by a small but vocal congregation who won’t get over their loss anytime soon.

Founded downtown in 1849, the church moved to Walnut Hills 35 years later and, over time, became the church of choice for some of the city’s most prominent families. A bulletin from 1957 includes important names from the city’s halls of commerce and industry—Beckjord, Hollister, Pease, Schwab, and dozens more.

The second half of the last century was less kind. A mysterious fire in 1971 destroyed Seventh’s sanctuary, although not the beautiful steeple; amid much fanfare, the sanctuary was rebuilt. Yet the congregation was already in decline. From a total of approximately 700 members in the early 1960s, it dropped steadily until, by 2009, only 60 members remained. In this it was like many urban churches. But Seventh had something going for it that other churches in decline generally don’t: an endowment of nearly $2 million that could be (and was) used to help with shortfalls when times were tight.

In the summer of 2004, after six years in the job, Steven W. Willis, the young and well-liked pastor of Seventh, left to follow his wife to a new position in Washington state. As is customary in such situations, an interim minister was appointed. Taking the pulpit in August 2004, Richard Fouse was, by all accounts, a skilled interim, and he turned out to be exceedingly popular. “We loved him and we would have kept him forever,” says Paulsen.

“Our ministers have always delivered strong, intelligent, and stimulating sermons,” says Margaret Valentine, “and Dick Fouse lived up to that standard very well.” So well, in fact, that after two years the church petitioned the presbytery to give Fouse a two-year extension. The petition was granted, in part on grounds that continuity is vital in any church.

Not only did the members at Seventh like Fouse, he liked the church—a lot. “It was a very healthy relationship,” he said recently. “They seemed to be of one mind and one heart and knew what they wanted to do. This was my ninth ‘interim,’ and it was the most joyful, happy, cohesive, collegial one I ever had.”

So why didn’t he just stay? For one thing, the denomination’s governing principles, as set out in the Presbyterian Book of Order, dictate that interims cannot become permanent pastors. For another, Fouse was on the verge of retirement. He did agree, in February 2008, to yet another extension of his interim status, but the Committee on Ministry (COM), the presbytery’s powerful arbiter of who will or will not serve as minister at any given church, voted to deny the extension. Not to be bullied, the members of Seventh appealed the decision to the pastors and congregational representatives that make up the full presbytery, and mirabile dictu, won their appeal. However, in doing so, it seems, they used up all their chits.

Meanwhile, the church had made virtually no progress on finding Fouse’s permanent replacement. Why not? “We floundered,” admits Margaret Valentine. “We knew what we had to do, but the path to get there was hard.”

What they had to do, she said later, only became clear in the winter of 2007–2008, when congregants became aware of an inspirational presentation about a San Antonio church in a changing neighborhood transformed by dynamic leadership. It demonstrated how their ministry might be reinvigorated under the right pastor. “That was God showing us the way,” Valentine recalls. “But the presbytery did not agree with us.”

The ambivalent feelings the congregants at Seventh had about the presbytery were nothing new. Paulsen explains: “Over the years, Seventh never had good relations with the presbytery. We paid them the money”—approximately $25 per congregant annually—“that we were required to contribute, but we never really got involved. We were conservative. They were liberal. There was a feeling that the presbytery was out to get us, and they did it by turning down our choice of minister.”

Margaret Valentine served as the church’s clerk of session—its official record-keeper; long-time member Buck Middlekauff was the church’s treasurer; and both found themselves in the center of the wrangling. They report that when they requested Fouse’s second extension, the reception they got from the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry was demeaning. “I have never been treated so poorly in my entire life,” says Margaret Valentine.

Traditionally, a Presbyterian congregation forms a pastor nominating committee (PNC) to locate and “call” a new pastor. In church-speak, a PNC asks for God’s guidance in identifying a new leader. In practical terms, a committee seeks out candidates through church publications and referral channels, even using DVDs and YouTube videos to size up preachers before meeting them.

With Seventh, most of these tactics were employed, but to no avail. One problem, says Valentine, was the revolving-door liaisons from the Committee on Ministry, delegated to assist Seventh’s PNC. “The first one was unacceptable because of attitude,” she recalls. “He wanted to control things.” She says that the COM assigned four different liaisons before the PNC settled in with one comfortably. Then, “we didn’t hear from him for a year and a half. We were put on hold.”

In August 2008, the PNC and the congregation made the unusual—within church circles—move of hiring a ministerial search firm. And by the following March, Seventh’s PNC was looking favorably at a candidate: the Reverend Dr. Ian Lamont.

On paper, Lamont seemed to have it all. At 50, he was serving as senior minister at Dardenne Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, an historic church that had almost died in the 1960s but more recently had grown substantially both in numbers and attendance. Previously, he had performed similar magic at a church in New Jersey and another in Ft. Myers, Florida.

A reputation for thoughtful, provocative sermonizing and an appealing turn of phrase was reflected in a quote from his personal statement, supplied by the search firm: “I find God making me softer on issues that need charity, and firmer on issues that need clarity. My prayer is that the world would not meet me each day, but that Christ would meet the world through me.” The candidate summary supplied by the recruiter noted, “He has an ‘investment’ mindset and would like his next call to be where he can invest the next 20 years of ministry.”

Bingo!

The congregation, led by Mike Valentine, Margaret’s husband and chair of the PNC, voted to issue the “call” to Ian Lamont last July. Following Presbyterian protocol, they next presented their candidate to the COM for approval. After all the years of being pastor-less, it was an approval they felt confident of receiving. But within two days, the COM rejected Lamont.

Nine specific reasons were given, some having to do with style and some with alleged improprieties. Number one: “The candidate does not seem to be a good theological match with the congregation.” The congregants interviewed for this story interpret this as the liberal-leaning presbytery not warming to the conservative Lamont. Furthermore, Lamont was perceived as having a strong personality that, the COM said, was “brash and unyielding.”

The COM had other issues. Seventh had offered Lamont a total compensation package of approximately $130,000, which the COM deemed “excessive.” Also, deep in the COM’s list was this: “The report of the Permanent Judicial Commission [in the St. Louis presbytery] indicated inappropriate action regarding Dr. Lamont’s finances….” And this: “Dr. Lamont appears unwilling to accept any responsibility for conflict in the congregation he previously served.”

Here’s what appears to be in Lamont’s baggage. His move from Florida to St. Louis in 2007 left him saddled with two mortgages, so he asked his new church for help. Some members objected, and one filed a complaint with the presbytery. (A formal remedial review by the presbytery resulted in no suggestion of wrongdoing.)

Plus, Lamont didn’t weather the transition to his new pulpit successfully. As the report to the COM in the St. Louis-area presbytery put it: “…conflicts within the congregation over worship styles, staff roles, and stewardship issues reasserted themselves.” By mutual decision, Lamont and the presbytery agreed that his “pastoral relationship” with Dardenne Presbyterian be dissolved. On July 1, 2009—five days before he got the call from Seventh—it was.

In the weeks that followed, Margaret Valentine tried to sort the problems out by telephone with Susan Niessen, associate executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy in St. Louis. Niessen clarified that Lamont was on “administrative leave,” but “not for anything he did wrong.” A letter to the COM of the Presbytery of Cincinnati from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy, dated September 8, 2009, reiterated the message that Dr. Lamont left his position “without prejudice, free to seek a new call.” But it was too late. On that same day, the full Presbytery of Cincinnati denied Seventh’s appeal to overturn the COM’s rejection of Lamont. When Margaret Valentine tried to introduce the letter at the hearing, Thomas D. York, pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park and chair of council for the Cincinnati Presbytery, who was chairing the meeting, failed to recognize her. The vote was 96–40.

During the appeal, one of the congregants had asked a member of the COM what he thought the future of Seventh would be were the appeal to be turned down.

“Only God knows,” came the answer.

“They knew damn well,” says Dick Paulsen. “We would have no choice but to close.”

Of course, they could have started the search all over. But “we ran out of steam and bodies,” says Middlekauff. When you talk with former members of Seventh, you hear the litany of their complaints: They feel the presbytery resented them and their elitist heritage, resented their hiring a headhunter, feared bringing a strong, conservative voice into the presbytery, and was frustrated that the church did not look at candidates closer to home.

When the COM gave Lamont a thumbs-down, members even became fearful that the presbytery had designs on their endowment. In a time of uncertainty or difficulty, Middlekauff explains, the presbytery has the right to dissolve a congregation’s ruling body and put its own people in to administer the church. “Then they have control of the money,” he says. “They didn’t do it, but we were concerned.”

Whether they were justified may be something else only God knows. Tom York, for his part, says simply, “There was never any desire expressed by anybody to me that the presbytery was anxious to take over.”

The vote to close was taken at a congregational meeting on Sunday, September 27. There was no dissent. The endowment was placed in a legacy fund at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation where, Margaret Valentine says, the ministries of Seventh Presbyterian “will live forever.” On November 10, the presbytery officially dissolved the session—Seventh’s ruling body—ending the 160-year-old institution. Dispersal of the church property is up to the presbytery.

“It was not an easy situation,” said General Presbyter James DiEgidio, afterwards. “Nor was it taken lightly.” He feels the presbytery and the COM dealt fairly with the little congregation. “The amount of time the Committee on Ministry spent was literally hours and hours,” he says. Nor was there any effort to steer the church’s hand in their selection. “You try to find the best person you can,” DiEgidio says, “and that you feel God is leading you to.”

“The last thing any of us wanted was for the church to close,” adds York. “But once the vote was taken, it’s hard for the presbytery to say, ‘No, you can’t close.’ It was very sad.”

Could there have been a different outcome? Maybe if the church had borne down on the project sooner; maybe if it had been more flexible with its choice; maybe if it had found the energy to reignite the search for a new leader. And surely it would have been helpful if the presbytery had provided the emotional and psychic support that the congregation needed.

It appears that the conflicts that beset Seventh before its death haven’t passed away. The church was a beneficiary of a trust administered by U.S. Bank. Early this year, Margaret Valentine, as former clerk of Seventh’s governing body, asked that the money go to the church’s legacy fund; the Presbytery of Cincinnati asserted that it should be the beneficiary. As this article went to press, U.S. Bank was asking a higher power—the Probate Court of Hamilton County—to sort it out.

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