Yes, Open Letters Are Still Needed!
Four Resign From Elder Board At Chapel Hill Bible Church.
If you want to see . . . .
#1 – how typically churches respond to disagreement (emphasis mine), and
#2 – how an effective open letter is written (emphasis mine),
. . . the one written by Walker and Katherine Hicks is the most illustrative of both.
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Dear fellow CHBC elders and brothers in Christ,
Katherine and I have approached our life in the church as a family affair, so my involvement as an elder has always involved both of us. We have made the decision for me to resign as an elder together based on our shared experiences. We have been members of the church for the better part of thirty years (joining the community in the early 1990’s) and have joyfully served and been served by this body for our entire adult lives. Out of a love, concern for, and long commitment to this church family, we are compelled to more fully share our reasons for my resignation from the board.
Our history at CHBC
The Bible Church has been the defining institution in my walk with Christ. I encountered Him as a freshman at UNC in 1994, and in the fall of 1995, a friend at Campus Crusade for Christ suggested that I check out this church on the edge of campus. Upon visiting, I heard the Gospel professed with a clarity, depth, authenticity, and earnestness that I had never encountered before. The worship, the sermons, and the community all pointed me to Jesus through the conduit of the scriptures in a way that was entirely fresh, vibrant, alive, and genuine. I had never experienced anything like it.
Katherine and I got engaged in October of 1996, and Pastor Randy Russell conducted our pre-marital counseling and marriage. We set our roots into the soil of this community and became involved in youth ministry and young adults fellowship, and through those avenues began to grow the kind of deep, long-lasting, intergenerational, Gospel-centered friendships that CHBC specializes in. We are dear friends with many of those we met in the late 90’s to this day.
The Bible Church hit rocky times in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but Katherine and I remained committed to it, for many reasons. First of all, we understand a church to be primarily a family, and families should not break apart slightly or easily when facing difficulties. Secondly, those rich and deepening relationships formed the core of our life at the church, more so than the Sunday morning experiences or other programming aspects. We were serving the body through our youth ministry leadership and also getting fed through those relationships with others committed to following Christ and growing in Him through Scripture, prayer, and fellowship.
Another challenging season awaited CHBC in the late 2000’s, when many people left and the remaining body floundered, staying afloat but barely. I was called to eldership in 2010. The ensuing 12 years have been some of the most rewarding and, simultaneously, discouraging years of our lives in the church. The church embarked on a new era with the hiring of a new lead pastor in 2011, and I, as an elder voting “yes,” was so excited about the new chapter ahead of us. I have spent the last 6 years as a member and secretary of the Oversight Team. Since June of 2021, I have been on sabbatical from eldership duties.
Why I am resigning from leadership
Over the last few years, Katherine and I have both had myriad occasions where we witnessed people in our church body being marginalized or mistreated. We have heard the stories of an array of wounded people, including women, people of color, children, elders, and current and former employees. We brought concerns about those situations to leadership. We shared hurtful attitudes and racialized statements towards people of color, dismissive and demeaning treatment towards women, and thoughtless, callous, dishonest, and even unethical treatment towards employees and other leaders. After the investigation of the executive pastor, we advocated for care and protection for our staff after learning about the ways that they had been wronged.
Each time that we came forward as advocates of those people, we strove to speak respectfully, as we saw church leaders as brothers in Christ and our friends. We sought to honor the proper channels and lines of authority. We came with the full expectation that our leadership would meet those concerns with the biblically-driven compassion, sadness and concern that we felt. We came with the humble understanding that we may not see all situations fully, so we asked questions to fill in gaps or correct any facts we had wrong. We fully expected they would want to know more to understand these situations better. We thought we would get answers to our questions. We thought that we would have dialogue about what went wrong and how we, as a body, could make the situation right and avoid such wrongs in the future. We never expected anything from our leaders other than assertive action to move toward better understanding, repentance, and repair.
Instead, every time, we were met, at best, with vague apologies about people hurting and, at worst, rebukes for having brought the concern forward. A few elders came to me to ask questions and listened to our stories; some have shown sympathetic concern. But never did key leadership ask more than the most basic of questions or show any desire to better understand any of these situations. Only on a few occasions did we hear any recognition by our leadership of wrongs, but those recognitions were primarily of the least significant elements of those issues and came with justifications and disclaimers. There has never been a clear acknowledgement of harm that has been done to our brothers and sisters at CHBC. Instead we have heard defenses of actions, and even outright calls for us to apologize for having brought up our concerns. And from many in leadership, we have gotten a lot of head-nodding and silence; and never have more than a small minority of elders converted their sympathetic concern into action to address the problems we clearly have. We cannot comprehend these responses from fellow followers of Christ, especially those who have taken the mantle of leadership and profess a gospel that is based on our recognition of brokenness and need for Jesus.
Katherine submitted a letter to leadership in May of 2021 that articulated some of the growing concerns we’ve had in recent years. Those concerns have only heightened in the ensuing months by our experiences where I have tried to follow the clear biblical call to elders to shepherd the flock by guiding them, protecting them, and serving as advocates for them.
Excerpts from Katherine’s letter (with a couple of updates and modifications) are below:
I want to be able to stay at this church that I have called home for almost 30 years, but sadly cannot do that if we do not aggressively change course, as I think that we have veered far from Jesus. I think we have glaring blind spots that are doing damage to the Gospel and to people in our body. I am a mother who sees her children, friends, and many fellow believers and non-believers being emotionally and spiritually harmed. I am a follower of Jesus who sees many of her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ at CHBC (leaders and others) both actively inflicting and passively condoning that harm – over and over again and in the name of Jesus — all the while simultaneously demonstrating both total ignorance of the harm they cause and arrogance about their moral and spiritual authority. It’s painful in so many ways to watch.
Some people are valued more than others
First, I have seen people “on the margins,” as well as the concerns of those people, be devalued, minimized, and silenced in and by our church. I include in this category, at a minimum, non-white people, women, people of low socioeconomic and/or educational status– which, if you do the math, is the majority of people.
Ironically, though, people “on the margins” were Jesus’s first priority, whom he regularly ate and fellowshipped with, and clearly deeply related to. These are the people that he was born into – and I know not by accident. Throughout scripture, God has always displayed a special concern for the vulnerable. And he reached those people by being with them and attending to both their physical and spiritual needs.Now, certainly, CHBC attends to the earthly needs of people in our church body through the benevolence fund, staff’s generous counseling of people who are struggling with various issues, and I’m sure many other ways that I do not see. In addition, CHBC facilitates plenty of one-off projects to serve people outside of the church but I think we can agree that those are not the priority of our church.
However, serving people is also different from respecting and considering those people as having something to offer to you and to the church. This latter area is where I think we fall short. I see a theme in our church that the voices of people who do not fit a certain profile are not valued. I have seen it happen repeatedly where people who have differing ideas are often discredited. When discussing important points or initiatives that other Christian organizations who more aggressively attend to the earthly needs of people in our community, I heard, “yes, but what’s their theology?” before celebrating their generosity and kindness and how they are loving and providing for people in ways that are very much like Jesus did; this is a form of discrediting. I have seen women having their needs and concerns minimized and then, on top of that, when they have expressed their frustrations about not being heard, they have been chastised for being disrespectful and deemed “ungodly.” I have seen people bravely convey their painful experiences of both explicit and subtle “silent” discrimination in and outside the church, and not receive the compassion that is so clearly warranted. [Additional specific examples and instances removed for confidentiality purposes.]
Recognition of sin, confession, and repentance
I see a clear and consistent reluctance to investigate, recognize, confess, and repent of sin within our leadership and church body, despite the fact that the willing recognition of sin, confession, and repentance are some of the most profound acts of faith to which we are clearly called.
Recent situations demonstrate that reluctance so clearly in multiple ways. Related to the executive pastor issues, I know many people told leadership there were problems all along. How, though, could those same problems, when seen by an outside consultant, leave that consultant deeply alarmed? Why not investigate those when they were reported in the years prior? And then once it all came out, the public statement was not one recognizing and confessing leadership’s complicity in all of it, but one about how leadership was going to have to work harder to do an extra job? Repentance was critical at that point for healing and the obvious next step, but it’s not what happened. Why not?
I have also seen this reluctance play out in the way that race issues have been addressed at the church, since that is something that I have been intimately involved with and have seen firsthand. Over the last several years, we have heard a lot of talk and preaching about race issues. I have been so deeply encouraged by that. I appreciated sermons on that topic and the awareness that has been brought in the many applications of scripture to those issues, along with other church events. Yet, at no point have we really investigated, confessed, repented of, and sought to address the challenges of racism in our body. It’s a difficult but crucial first step before any racial development can occur. Plus, confession and repentance of sins are foundations of our faith. I realized when I read the letter sent after the Capitol riots, though, that we were experiencing the direct repercussions of never having done that. I saw damage being done with the words – a neglect to care for those who were most vulnerable in our body at that moment, people who had been threatened and were justifiably terrified for their safety. What I have observed both from the pulpit and from church leadership has been an academic and “safe” study of this sin, as if it is sin that others deal with, but not us.
The anemic response from elders to the responses to the survey of congregants of color at CHBC clearly exemplifies the gravity of this problem. Where is the care? Where is the compassion? I see in that situation that even the leaders of the church are illiterate in these issues that are so significant to many in our body and in our society. How are we to reach people for Jesus if we cannot speak on these things? If we were truly investigating race issues, we would know that and be working hard to root out that sin that binds us. But we haven’t. We understand that a “white paper” on race issues is in development; putting efforts toward a document to demonstrate expertise on these issues without ever recognizing or addressing the many appeals for care in our body only further demonstrates the cognitive dissonance at play.
I have noticed what most people in power typically do with events that have negatively affected marginalized people. They will so often hear each of those stories and decide that they were one-off eventswithout import, writing them off as either one person arbitrarily behaving badly toward another or likely the “victim” deserving what came to them. So those stories are erased in their minds as only that, one-off events. However, if instead of erasing those events, one was to plot them on a graph, a clear pattern would emerge. People in those marginalized groups have enough data points that they, as a matter of their own physical and emotional safety, do not erase – and they clearly see the patterns. At the same time, though, the people in power look at their “graph” and don’t see anything, because all those points were erased along the way. And those that see the patterns see them clearly and it alarms them, and it frustrates them that those people who are their bosses, leaders, and decision-makers make decisions without regard to them. I see that having happened in our church. We have to consider why so many data points have clearly been erased at CHBC along the way, leading leadership to miss those patterns.
Katherine’s insights articulate for me many of my reasons for resigning. In addition, perhaps most disturbingly, I have seen that our leadership has increasingly been willing to compromise its integrity and behave in ethically questionable ways. We have witnessed alarming efforts to hide truth and to control and limit essential information from not only congregants but from officers of the church. The patterns are clear and have also been recognized by many “concerned congregants” in our body, yet they have thus far been disregarded, excused and dismissed by our leadership.I have brought my concerns, supported by specifics, to elders and church officials in conversation after conversation and email after email. This letter is not the place to rebroadcast the specifics of those concerns (involving, for example, recent resignations and firings), but I can no longer serve in such an environment in good conscience.
Recognition of my own complicity (wow!)
I want to be clear that I own my part in contributing to the dysfunction of the leadership. On many occasions and in many ways, I participated in allowing our church to drift. Time and again, I did not push hard enough for course correction or advocate effectively for biblical priorities. I allowed myself to be persuaded in group settings to go along with unsound decisions that, in hindsight, did not reflect wise, biblical thinking. I was in a position of influence and power, and I failed to use that influence assertively and productively for the kingdom.As a result of my shortcomings, many people were hurt, and our church’s witness has been compromised. For this, I sincerely repent and apologize to the congregants who entrusted me with the church’s care.
My call to the elder board
In inviting GRACE to assess our church, we have opened up a golden opportunity for CHBC to change course. GRACE is renowned for its effective work in helping churches navigate just the sort of problems we are having; it is arguably the most respected agency in the field. I am so grateful for their help. As we approach the release of their report in the months to come, I am concerned that there will be a reluctance to share GRACE’s report broadly and transparently. I am also bothered to have even seen hints of communications and actions that may already be undermining GRACE’s potential recommendations and the impact of the report. For example, I have heard leadership question GRACE’s accepted definition of “abuse,” and I’ve heard general criticism of the use of that word and concept. I have also heard, in a recent sermon, criticism of the recent proliferation of material about church dysfunction, expressing general skepticism about the integrity and value of abuse response and labeling it as a “cottage industry” – while we are the midst of an assessment from a leading organization in the field. I urge you, the elders, to express wholehearted, unequivocal support for GRACE’s assessment and to advocate strongly for a full and transparent sharing of the ensuing report.
Katherine closed her letter with a story and an exhortation. I’d like to finish by sharing it.
I’ll tell you a true story that I feel relates to this situation. Years ago, I had a colleague who also did health economics research, like I do. For several years, much of his time at work was spent on studies aimed at understanding the costs and benefits of an eye screening program for children. The screen was a fairly simple and low-cost one, but identified a fairly rare eye problem that, if diagnosed and treated, prevented many debilitating and expensive problems in the future. He was becoming somewhat of an expert in our field regarding interventions for eye and vision problems. One day my colleague was at Target with his kids. He saw something that he thought one of his sons, who was around 8 or 9 at the time, would like, so made a statement about that item to the son. The boy looked up toward the item, then hesitated, stepped a few feet over, and then clearly recognized and acknowledged how much he liked it. His dad was confused and asked, “What just happened there? Why did you step to the side like that? You could see it from where you were.” His son replied, “Oh, I just had to get myself in a place so that I could use my good eye to see it.” He and his wife soon learned that their son had the very problem with his vision that he had been working for years to get diagnosed in other kids. My colleague was an expert on this vision problem but didn’t recognize that it was right there in his own family.
I think the Bible Church unknowingly has only “one good eye.” It is great at studying and appreciating the scriptures. It is a warm and nurturing place for many people. But I would argue that one of our eyes doesn’t work, the one that truly shows Christ’s love for everyone, regardless of their theology, gender, or race; the one that respects and honors all people’s value; the one that is transparent about our depravity and genuinely celebrates our need for Jesus; and the one that recognizes clear patterns that would be evident if the “data points” of people within and outside our church body were recognized. I feel like we are like Esther in the palace with the king, ignorant of the travesty that is about to unfold, and just wanting the Mordecais in our midst to put on some nicer clothes and stop making a scene. Like she did, though, we have to inquire and we have to respond. We are at a critical point in our church journey in deciding whether we are going to do the hard work and recognize that two eyes are better than one, or live in the fear that currently holds us back from that. We serve the maker of the universe, thank the Lord, and we can trust that we don’t need to live in that fear.
We have been putting out this “call to respond” to the systemic shortcomings in our church again and again over the course of this last year and even before. To our dismay and sadness,not only has that call fallen on deaf ears, but it has met considerable active resistance. We love the Bible Church and grieve that it has become what it is today. We exhort you, the elders, to respond boldly to the moment. We will pray for you, trusting the matchless power and love of the Father to bless CHBC, and we continue to covet the prayers of the faithful for ourselves.
Walker and Katherine Hicks
As I read this letter, along with the other three letters, I said to myself . . . . .
This is why you need to write an open letter!
It speaks loudly about the dynamics that operate when calling out wrong, and
it alone offers hope for needed change!
P.S. The lines highlighted in blue are all so typical when it comes to standing up and speaking out in a ministry or local church setting. Just follow the ⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅⋅