Pilgrims Not at Rest

An intra-church dispute is in the news – again. A couple years ago, a pastor and his secretary were both convicted of embezzling funds from their congregation, Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids. Former pastor Arthur Pearson was ordered by the Kent County Circuit Court to pay back $167,000; former secretary Gerolanita Bailey, $60,000. An audit done at the board’s request in 2011 showed that each had used church funds for personal use, including restaurants and home utility bills.

As often happens in these cases, the congregation divided into two camps: one that supported the pastor, and one that wanted him prosecuted. The board of trustees fired him, but he and his supporters contend that the board had no authority to do that. The pastor-supporters later held services in another location and collected $14,623, which they deposited into an account using the Pilgrim Rest tax id number, so the church claims the money belongs to them, while the pastor-supporters claim it belongs to them. Both sides filed lawsuits against the other in Kent County Circuit Court, and the judge’s decision that this was a church matter unsuitable for a civil court was then appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals determined last week in a published opinion that the pastor’s employment claims are indeed church business and cannot be decided by a court, but that the issue of who controls the church, and that $14,623, can be decided by a court as long as it can do so following standard legal principles without determining religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity.

And so there will be more court hearings.

If there was ever a case that cried out to be resolved within the church, rather than in the courts, this is it. Even the local judge thinks so — his ruling that the courts had no jurisdiction over church business should’ve sent everyone  to a church dispute resolution process, instead of to the Court of Appeals. These church members do not honor God through their litigation in the civil courts. Jesus’ teachings, such as in Matthew’s gospel, exhort us to turn the other cheek, to forgive, and to love one another. Paul specifically condemns civil lawsuits among believers, in his first letter to the Corinthians. Resolving matters in the civil courts may bring a sense of justice, but deprives everyone of the reconciliation that can come from the confession, repentance and forgiveness integral to a Christian dispute resolution process. Organizations like Peacemaker Ministries, Crossroads Resolution Group, and Peacebridge Ministries attest to the power of a Christ-centered dispute resolution process for church conflict.

I’m praying that members of these groups, and/or their attorneys, Brent Boncher and Bernard Schaefer, will make their faith in God their top priority, and resolve this privately, to the glory of God.


One Comment

  1. Posted May 28, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Great post. Unfortunately Anne, it takes both sides to resolve a case or agree to arbitration. We are and have been willing to resolve these cases. I’ll also add that, based on my experience in working with Brent Boncher, he is an ethical Christian attorney who would not engage in unnecessary litigation if a fair resolution was available.


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