Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 15, 2013

Controversy swirls around pastor's resignation

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — The Rev. David Walls, whose refusal to allow a Muslim mosque leader to perform during a Veterans Day concert sparked a community controversy, announced he’ll step down as senior pastor of the First Congregational Church.

Walls said he’ll leave the prominent local Protestant church after three years because he can no longer rise above continued “loud and harsh voices of condemnation.”

“Certainly I have made mistakes along the way, but I am confident before the Lord that I have been faithful to my calling to Him,” Walls told church members Sunday, according to transcripted remarks provided to the Record-Eagle.

Walls’ decision came two days after a petition was submitted to the Church Council. Signed by about 150 church members. It requested a special meeting in which church members would determine Walls’ fate as pastor by majority vote.

It wasn’t clear whether Walls, 60, will continue to work until his contract ends on Nov. 24.

Jan Vlach, who with several others initiated the petition, said his efforts were aimed at getting out the “full truth of the matter by all people involved so that real healing and real unity can be achieved.”

He and other petitioners shed light on the long-simmering controversy at the 750-member-strong church beginning in late July, when they mailed a series of letters written by disgruntled congregants — letters only seen before by the Church Council.

It appears the issues were myriad, and went beyond the November controversy when Walls refused to allow a Muslim mosque leader to perform the “Call to Prayer” as part of a Veteran’s Day performance of the “The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace.”

The incident became public, in part, because it involved choirs of West Senior High School and Northwestern Michigan College.

The letters allege that Walls, who arrived in the fall of 2010, is prone to yelling and turning disagreements into an issue of faith and loyalty. Yet he allegedly refused to meet to discuss such problems. About 40 congregants aired their complaints at a Church Council meeting in mid-March, according to an Aug. 9 petitioners’ letter.

“When he had a huge disagreement with our praise team (a rock band), he refused to talk about it. And it broke our hearts. We had wanted to work it out, and he refused,” said Marci Berry, a congregant.

Russ Larimer, who served both as choir director for the church and public high school, wrote in a March 14 letter that he tried to talk to Walls after getting left out of the communications loop to exclude the Muslim prayer. He said Walls replied: “I expect your support and affirmation on this matter publically (sic), even though you have a different point of view.”

“My feeling as Sanctuary Choir Director right now is that my voice doesn’t matter,” Larimer wrote.

The petitioning process came to light last month, and the Church Council asked Gary Hogue, former senior and now part-time pastor, to write a letter to church congregants of his “unequivocal support” for Walls. But Hogue, who took a hands-off approach until just recently, wrote to congregants on July 16 that couldn’t do that.

“In my 40 years of ministry I have never seen such secrecy, such hostility to discussion and open debate,” he wrote. “I’m deeply saddened by the polarizing division of the congregation into good and evil persons.”

Hogue voiced his displeasure of Walls’ “manipulative, bullying bad behavior” and retaliating against those who disagreed with him.

Many long-time church members reported such behavior to the Church Council, “only to be discounted, dismissed, and admonished to never again speak of these issues,” he wrote.

Walls had spoken in the past of being “enmeshed in conflict throughout his ministry. He has said conflict follows him wherever he goes,” Hogue wrote.

It appears some church members already voted with their feet. In a July 1 letter, Walls said the church was headed toward a $100,000 deficit by year-end. The church has seen new members and baptisms, but others have left, he wrote.

“Some from our congregation have decided to move on because of disagreements with the leadership,” he wrote. “Others have determined to stay at FCC but are withholding their offerings. Others are simply determined to see me leave as Pastor.”

Yet Walls is praised by his supporters and even critics as a dynamic, charismatic preacher and an excellent teacher who possesses an extensive knowledge of the Bible. Pat Lewallen said she’ll “miss him terribly.”

“I think he’s been an excellent preacher, minister, both from the perspective as a long-time member of the church and on a personal note,” she said. “I lost my brother to suicide and he was just phenomenal to help me cope with that. I have lots of respect for him and I’m really sad to see him go, and I wish him nothing but the best.”

The Record-Eagle attempted to reach Walls for comment, but a woman who answered the phone conveyed his message.

“There is no story,” she said. “That’s all we need to tell you.”

Hogue said it’s now time for prayerful reflection.

“I’m hopeful there will be healing,” he said.