OAKLAND UMC- In Their Own Words continued

The saga of Oakland UMC continues here with more sad news, but also with some rays of hope. The consistent theme throughout this story is how poorly things were handled, how poorly the members of the church, especially the pastors, were treated, and how wrong headed this entire situation is. What could have been handled graciously was instead handled with an iron fist. What could have been a discussion became a conflict. What could have been a Christian response smacks of a political maneuver. It is a sad story for Oakland, and for us all, as we drift closer and closer to this being a denomination wide reality.  If you have missed the beginning of the story, please go back and take the time to start at the beginning. 

The Firing, The Lockout, and the Exodus

After Oakland UMC’s vote (which was essentially a straw poll) to leave the United Methodist Church, Oakland’s Pastor, Rev. Kent Tice, was ordered to appear before Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling. When he arrived at the meeting, he was questioned about our activities and the vote to leave. Before any intention to remove him was stated, he was asked if he would promise that neither he nor his family would comment on Oakland’s intentions to leave the Conference on social media. He stated that he could only promise that for himself, but not for his wife and grown children. The Bishop then stated that, due to Rev. Tice’s not preventing the Administrative Board at Oakland from voting to leave (despite his not being present during the meeting in which this decision was decided), and apparently due to his inability to control his wife and grown children’s free speech, he was being removed. He was banned from the church building that he had built. Rev. Tice reflected on the situation:

“’You’re Fired!’  I was just 7 weeks short of the end of my 32-year appointment as pastor of a mid-sized United Methodist church, and it was the first time for me to be fired in 53 years of working since I started gainful employment at age 15.  And it wasn’t for anything immoral or illegal or even unethical.  I had allowed our church Administrative Board and then the whole congregation to not only have opinions concerning heretical statements made by some of our denominational leaders, but I had allowed them to vote on whether they wanted to remain a part of the denomination.  And when I could not promise to prevent my wife and family from any further public discussions of the issues, she fired me.  According to the bishop I was fired for being a “passive” leader; for not stopping the vote or even the discussions. My first reaction was surprisingly not anger or disappointment, but relief.  I no longer carried the burden of helping maintain a building.  That felt good.  But, more importantly, I no longer felt the burden of trying to defend or offer excuses for a denomination in a mess.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Free at last!’” – Rev. Kent Tice

By early afternoon when Rev. Tice arrived back at his home (next to the church) after his meeting with Bishop Easterling, representatives from Conference were already present changing the locks on the church. Undoubtedly the lock change must have been coordinated in advance, and consequently his removal was already guaranteed regardless of the outcome of his meeting with the Bishop. Given the fact that Kent was told that failure to “appear” before Bishop Easterling would result in his immediate removal from his Oakland UMC appointment, and given the fact that the changing of locks by Conference personnel was underway when he returned, his firing was a foregone conclusion – he had never even been told the locks were being changed. In other words, it is not just that Kent being fired for not censoring his family may be an abuse of power; the entire meeting also appears faithless on the Bishop’s part from the beginning.

It wasn’t just Pastor Tice who was impacted by the lock change. Pastor JoAnne Alexander had an upsetting experience that day as well, which we received permission to share:
“Yesterday was a bit traumatic and I need to share it with some others who are not parishioners. Kent and I got back from the Conference Center yesterday and I dropped Kent off at the house and went over to my office to start clearing some things out. Our CFO was just leaving after getting a few of his things from his office and he and I talked in the parking lot for a few minutes. I opened my outside office door and went in, realized I left my cell in the truck, and opened the door to go back out just as some strange man was coming around the corner of the building by my office door. He yelled “Let me in there!” and lunged for my door. I was still inside and so I threw my body against the door slamming it right in his face. He walked out of sight. Totally shaking I tried to dial Kent, couldn’t get him, and realized he couldn’t come help me because he was told he couldn’t set foot in the building! Then I hear angry voices I didn’t recognize out in the hallway outside my office.

I kept praying and trying to find a phone number for help… no directory. Why do I not memorize phone numbers anymore? For about 15 minutes I sat in my office shaking and trying not to cry… and I’m not a terribly emotional or easily scared person! I didn’t know who was in the building, no one identified themselves and I was afraid to leave. I finally got hold of my son Joshua who was a distance away and asked him to get me help. He put out an SOS and one of the men showed up within a short time… a Marine. It’s the first time in my whole ministry I have been terrified. If the Bishop had just said she was having the locks changed in the building and that there would be strange big men outside my office door at least I would have been prepared. That was the most difficult thing of this whole ordeal. The rest was the abuse of power I’ve come to expect. At least 20 people from the church finally got there and helped me.

I can cry today… yesterday, I was shaking too badly. And for the first time in my ministry, I felt actually emotionally abused. Sorry for sharing tears, but I don’t want to talk about how scared I was with my friends at church. They are angry enough already.” – Rev. JoAnne Alexander

As you can imagine, all of this had quite an impact on our congregation as well. Since then, most of the staff of Oakland have resigned, but several have gone unpaid for the hours they worked this month prior to resigning – prompting complaints to be filed with the WV Division of Labor for violation of labor laws requiring speedy payment in such cases. These complaints are being acted upon by the Division of Labor but have not yet been resolved.

With our Pastor fired, our locks changed, and our leadership resigning, we decided to launch our lifeboat – Oakland Community Church – on Mother’s Day. We met in a local Funeral home with a nice chapel our first Sunday – a special “Thank you!” is due to Eackles-Spencer & Norton Funeral Home! We even baptized a newborn that day as well, which we felt would make for a humorous story when the baby grows older. Overall the atmosphere was very good.

A new pastor was appointed at Oakland United Methodist Church, and a very small contingent of Oakland UMC members who didn’t wish to leave the denomination remained at Oakland UMC on Sunday, since the conference apparently wants to keep it open with a skeleton crew to save face. So there is a still an Oakland UMC, but most of us left to form Oakland Community Church.

Those of us who were advised that anyone who left any personal items at the church must prepare a list of such items to be provided to the “core team” left at Oakland UMC for their approval to remove the items. We were finally allowed to retrieve most of these items on June 9th – one month after Rev. Tice was removed as pastor, though Rev. Tice himself has not been allowed back into his office since then. Most of his personal belongings were removed for him by others. Additionally, we were forced to either cancel or relocate most of our ministries.

Nevertheless, ministries at Oakland Community Church continue unabated, and God’s faithfulness and provision for us “in the wilderness” since leaving our “slavery” have been truly astounding.

So, finally, there is some good news in the story, though unfortunately it is not good news for the UMC, it is good for the Kingdom of God. The UMC has a building with little to no congregation and Oakland Church has a Wesleyan community of Christians, that is to say a church without a building. Odd how the people without a building are acting like a church and the people with one are not. There is likely a lesson in that. Let those who have ears, hear. 

The end of the story.

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