TRAVERSE CITY — A nondenominational church broke from the First Congregational Church following a year of acrimony.
The Rev. David Walls opened the doors of Christ Church on the Sunday after First Congregational Church members overwhelmingly voted on Oct. 2 to have the Rev. Gary Hogue take over his duties as a transitional pastor. At that point, Walls already had submitted his resignation, said Donald Bell, who heads First Congregational’s new church council.
Jeff Goodwin, the associate pastor, joined Walls. He will serve as lead pastor at the new church located in the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Four Mile and Hammond roads. Walls will serve as teaching pastor, according to the church’s website.
Walls and his supporters were in the bulls-eye of community controversy after deciding last year to exclude a Muslim call to prayer from a Veterans Day performance of a piece that calls for world harmony.
Congregants said the dispute didn’t necessarily cause the parting of ways; some agreed with Walls’ opinion that a Muslim prayer didn’t belong in a Christian church.
But many congregants disliked what they termed Walls’ autocratic and polarizing style that quashed debate, an approach at odds with the more democratic Congregational church. Church members make decisions by committee and church council, which operate under church bylaws. The council is appointed by the congregation, which also has voting power.
“I loved (Walls’) sermons, but he was kind of autocratic and he wanted to be in charge,” said Dianne Walker, who stayed with the church, as she prefers its traditional service. “This is a congregational church. We are run by the congregation; everything is open and run by committee, and I don’t think that was his style.”
Goodwin declined comment on behalf of Christ Church.
But Pat Lewallen, a former First Congregational council member who moved over to Christ Church, said the break-off was the best solution for both churches.
Christ Church is off to a “fabulous start,” she said, with about 250 people attending services.
“I thought we’d be lucky to have 100,” she said. “It’s refreshing to be back in a church, to be happy. There’s no dissension.”
Lewallen said Walls found the committee process frustrating at times.
“Sure, he was impatient. He was human,” she said. “But I lost my brother during that time, he committed suicide, and it was so traumatic. The counseling I got from Dr. Walls was so helpful, and other people had similar positive experiences.”
Walls was almost wholly supported by the previous church council; only one of those council members remains, Bell said.
“Our new council has a bunch of leaders, they are doers,” Bell said. “They assume responsibility very well.”
Bell has extensive experience in corporate finance and strategic planning, and worked for Chrysler automotive during its darkest financial days.
The council has been tasked to help First Congregational rebuild financially, owing to a significant drop in giving during the year of dissent. The church has more than 700 registered members; between 250 to 300 typically attend services, Bell said.
Walls continues to collect a salary from First Congregational, as defined by his employee contract, approved by the council, but not the congregation, Bell said.
“Right now, that’s a financial burden, paying a senior pastor who is no longer here,” Bell said.
Walls is serving at Christ Church in an unpaid position and is doing other work, as well, said Lewallen.
Hogue said he is receiving $14,000 a year, the same salary he received as a part-time, pastoral care pastor. He now works full-time and attends council meetings, which will rectify bylaws to handle future disagreements.
In the midst of the October break-up, First Congregational Church celebrated its 150th anniversary and Hogue took the helm.
“It’s just a thrill to serve Christ and the community. We sent 250 shoe boxes to children around the world, and are sheltering the homeless during the week of Christmas,” Hogue said. “We’re glad to do it, to be engaged in real ministry with God’s people.”