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Conflict between church, association may be part of motion

GREENSBORO, N.C. (BP)–A complex and messy two-year-old legal battle between a small California church and an association is expected to spill out on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 13.

At issue in the motion is whether New Life Community Church of Prunedale, Calif., is an SBC church. It has given directly to the SBC allocation budget the past two years — in May 2005 and May of this year.

At the heart of the controversy, however, is whether First Baptist Church in Las Lomas, Calif. is an SBC church.

To complicate matters, the Central Coast Baptist Association (CCBA) in Gilroy, Calif. brought a lawsuit against both churches in 2004.

Michael Stewart, CCBA director of missions, says he filed suit to prevent New Life Community Church — which began as a nondenominational church and which he still considers to be a nondenominational church — from taking over the property of First Baptist Church in Las Lomas, a congregation which then had around 10 members, most of them elderly.

But several of the remaining members of FBC Las Lomas say that instead of it being a “takeover,” New Life Community Church and its pastor, Hank Holley, were invited with open arms. The goal, these members say, was to keep their tiny church from dying, to bring more people into the building and to keep its founder’s wishes alive — that is, that the church never close.

These FBC Las Lomas members consider Stewart’s action a violation of their church autonomy.

New Life Community Church, which had around 40 members, had no building and had been meeting in a senior center. The church building seats around 100 people, one member told Baptist Press. FBC Las Lomas was founded in the 1960s.

Stewart is expected to make a motion June 13 not to seat the messengers from New Life Community Church. Holley told Baptist Press that New Life isn’t sending any messengers and doesn’t have the finances to do so.

The 2004 lawsuit filed against FBC Las Lomas and New Life Community Church sought to place the property of FBC Las Lomas into associational control.

Among the allegations and counter-allegations between Stewart and FBC Las Lomas church members:

— Stewart points to a March 2004 FBC Las Lomas business meeting, in which he says a majority of church members gladly signed a legal document dissolving the church and giving the association the property. But several church members say they felt misled into signing the document, which they say they thought would have allowed Las Lomas to keep its property. They say their attorney wasn’t present at the business meeting and that they subsequently signed a document rescinding their earlier action. Stewart denies the charge that he pressured the members — he says it was purely voluntary — and he also says the church had no attorney at the time.

— Several FBC Las Lomas members say they believe that the association’s interest in the property is strictly financial. The property — located in a high-priced area of northern-central California — is worth more than $3 million and has two rental properties (both homes) on site. Stewart denies that and says the property would be used to start a Spanish-speaking church.

— In the lawsuit, Stewart and the CCBA argued that FBC Las Lomas had ceased to be a Southern Baptist church, thereby triggering a clause in the church’s constitution reverting the property back to the association. But the church members say they never ceased to be Southern Baptist and had no intention to do so.

— In the lawsuit, Stewart and the CCBA alleged that the two churches — FBC Las Lomas and New Life — had agreed to a “memorandum of understanding,” in which the assets of FBC Las Lomas would transfer to New Life Community Church. But several church members say that the memorandum was never signed, and that even if it had, it wouldn’t have given the property to New Life.

— Some people knowledgeable with the situation say that Stewart opposes the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message and voted against it becoming the association’s statement of faith. However, the association has a summary of the BF&M posted on its website. Notably absent, though, is any mention of the articles on female pastors and biblical submission in the husband-wife relationship. In an interview with Baptist Press Stewart declined to discuss his position on the BF&M.

Stewart and the CCBA won the lawsuit last October, when a California state judge rule that FBC Las Lomas had “ceased to function as a Southern Baptist Church” and that the property belongs to the association. But FBC Las Lomas is planning on appealing.

“It has taken a toll on all of us,” FBC Las Lomas member Bonnie Caudill, who is 80 and the church treasurer, said. “[Stewart] keeps saying that Hank and his group were trying to take over. But all we asked them to do was come over and join us and fellowship with us.”

As of now, both FBC Las Lomas and New Life Community Church consider themselves SBC churches, Caudill said. They meet together under one roof and have the same pastor — Holley — but have separate budgets, Caudill said. Holley receives no salary from FBC Las Lomas, she said, and is considered to be a voluntary pastor for FBC and a paid pastor for New Life Community Church.

“Throughout this process my goal, and the goal of NLCC and FBCLL, has been to grow an effective, vibrant Southern Baptist church to the glory of God,” Holley said.

Holley planted New Life Community Church in the summer of 2003 as a nondenominational church. Early the next year, they were approached by members of FBC Las Lomas, which had to let their pastor, Jack Johnson, go due to a lack of finances, Caudill said.

“We invited them over to share [our building],” FBC member and trustee Luther Burbank, 81, said. “We couldn’t have a pastor [because of finances]. There were only about six or eight of us in the church.”

Caudill says she recalls telling a friend, who was a member of New Life Community Church, “Do you think your group would like coming over and joining us –- worshiping with us? We need people and a pastor. You need a place to meet.”

But Stewart paints a different picture and says the FBC church constitution wasn’t followed “in firing” the pastor. He also says the church had “around $25,000” in the bank when it let its pastor go and that FBC Las Lomas has “merged” into New Life. Caudill says the money came from cashing in a CD.

“The concept that they were out of money is not factual,” he said, adding that FBC’s money was used for legal fees.

Stewart sent out a series of e-mails to SBC directors of missions, explaining his side of the story and urging the DOMs to show up at the SBC annual meeting and support his motion.

“What would you do, as a Director of Missions, if a pastor and a trustee from an associational church came to your office and reported that a non-denominational church was secretly conspiring with another trustee to take control of the church and its assets?” Stewart wrote. “That happened here in January of 2004, when the leaders of the Las Lomas Baptist Church appealed to the Central Coast Baptist Association for help.”

Those leaders were the former pastor of FBC Las Lomas and his family, who were still members.

“We asked [Holley] not to seize the property,” Stewart wrote. “But on Mother’s Day 2004, he did just that and we were forced to ask the courts to rule on the lawful ownership of the property.”

Stewart told BP, “These are difficult situations, and our executive board of our association is unified on this decision that we made two years to keep our word to the founders and the mother church and the pastors involved in this whole affair.”

In his ruling, the California state judge pointed to the FBC Las Lomas constitution, which states that the pastor “shall lead the church in cooperating with the work of its local association and the state and national conventions of Southern Baptists.” It also says that the church’s assets — should the church “cease to be a Southern Baptist Church” — “shall be given” to the Central Coast Baptist Association. The judge said there was “uncontroverted evidence” that FBCLL had ceased to be Southern Baptist, pointing to the vote the members had taken to dissolve — the judge didn’t recognize any actions revising that vote — and the fact that it fired a “Southern Baptist pastor” and hired one who “is not a Southern Baptist.” The judge also said the memorandum of understanding would have transferred all of FBC’s assets to New Life Community Church.

Caudill, though, said the church never had plans to leave the SBC.

“We are not governed by the association,” she said. “Our constitution clearly states that we are an independent church. We belong to a Southern Baptist association, but … we are self-governed.”

Holley said New Life Community Church’s members voted in May 2005 to affiliate with the SBC.

“We were not interested in obtaining property but only in helping this struggling church survive as its founder and members wished,” he said.

Asked why New Life Community shouldn’t be considered a Southern Baptist church when it voted to become an SBC church and gives to the SBC budget, Stewart said, “I would say that would be a question the messengers will get to decide. In our structure, you normally have to join when you’re in friendly cooperation and sympathetic to the causes of Southern Baptists.”

Larry Lewis, former president of the then-Home Mission Board, testified on behalf of FBC Las Lomas and New Life Community Church during the trial.

Wiley Drake, pastor of pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., supports Stewart’s motion. Drake said he did not know Stewart until recent days, but said he felt compelled to respond after reading Stewart’s e-mails. The court ruling and other “legal documentation,” Drake said, swayed him.

“It’s pretty clear to me that what was taking place was that they [Holley and New Life] were trying to take over the church,” he said.

A letter that the SBC Executive Committee sent to New Life Community Church — welcoming it into the SBC — also has made its way into the controversy. John Revell, editor of SBC Life, sent the letter to New Life Community Church in May 2005 — not knowing that there was an ongoing lawsuit and that the letter could be used in a court battle, he said. Stewart said Drake will make a motion to withdraw the letter of affiliation.

Caudill said she wants to see the convention look at the issue closely.

“Hopefully we can hang on to this little church,” Caudill said.

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