Unaccountable at Calvary Chapel
Members of one of the largest churches in New Mexico are fighting to bring accountability to church elders who they believe are mishandling church property, misusing their authority, and covering up misbehavior.
Two groups formed after Pete Nelson resigned in February as senior pastor of the 14,000-member Calvary of Albuquerque, affiliated with the Calvary Chapel network of 1,300 independent churches, mostly in the West and Southwest. Nelson said he wanted "to pastor and lead a church and to be accountable to that local church." He was unable to do that with the "current structure" at Calvary of Albuquerque.
Nelson's sudden announcement on a Sunday morning took church members and staff by surprise. Nelson has not been in touch with the congregation or spoken publicly since he left. But it wasn't Nelson's disappearance that shocked them. Nelson's resignation letter, which was leaked to the press, alleged the church's former pastor Skip Heitzig was exercising behind the scenes control two years after he had left to pastor another Calvary church in California.
Heitzig had retained his position as chair of Calvary of Albuquerque's elders board, which included a significant number who did not live in Albuquerque. These were all loyal to Heitzig. According to Nelson's letter, Heitzig, as chair, forced off or blocked local church members from joining the elders board. Heitzig did not return calls requesting comment. Assistant Pastor Chip Lusko told CT, "I think there were some inaccurate facts in his resignation letter." However, he declined to comment specifically.
Heitzig attempted to place Calvary of Albuquerque under the jurisdiction of a "mega-board." That structure would permit Heitzig to manage Calvary Albuquerque, the church's two radio stations, and his Calvary church in Southern California. (The church's stations are not part of the Calvary Satellite Network, the broadcast arm of the Calvary organization.)
Under the Calvary structure, pastors and elders have little or no requirement to disclose finances or decisions to church members. At Calvary of Albuquerque, little information was disclosed publicly. The church says members who wanted information were allowed to set up private, one-on-one appointments with the pastoral staff.
Chuck Smith founded the Calvary Chapel movement in the '70s when he left a denominational church. Smith had resisted the oversight of his denomination, and he now teaches that the senior pastor is solely accountable to God. "The pastor is ruled over by the Lord and recognized by the congregation as God's anointed instrument to lead the church, with the board guiding and directing," Smith writes in Calvary Chapel Distinctives. Though there is no standard for church government, most Calvary Chapels follow the so-called "Moses model," which gives the senior pastor extensive authority to run the church as he sees fit.
Bring Back Pete
In the days after Nelson's departure, Calvary of Albuquerque brought in speakers, including evangelist Franklin Graham, who said Nelson was unfit to run a mega-church, but he praised Heitzig, church members told the local news media.
Church members became suspicious. "All these friends of Skip were brought in to praise him and they would dig Pete," said one five-year member. On top of that, the member said the church wasn't providing information on what was happening.
That church member set up a website called www.BringBackPete.com, and 1,800 people signed his petition asking "to have Pete return as pastor in good standing, having control over all areas previously controlled by [Heitzig]."