Radio teacher Skip Heitzig has returned to lead the church he founded as a small Bible study in 1981, then left in 2003. Heitzig resumed his role as senior pastor of Calvary of Albuquerque, with a weekly attendance of 14,000, months after he and the church board became embroiled in accusations about accountability and conflicts of interest.
Despite leaving in 2003 for Ocean Hills Church in Southern California, Heitzig remained chair of the board of directors at Calvary of Albuquerque (CA) while Pete Nelson, his chosen successor, took over at CA. Nelson resigned after two years as senior pastor. In his resignation letter, which was leaked to local media last February, Nelson accused Heitzig of stacking the board with people who didn't attend the church. When Nelson complained about the issue, he said Heitzig threatened "to take over as senior pastor."
Heitzig admitted he made mistakes during the transition, but rebutted Nelson's charges.
"Some of the things that he mentions or allegations that he brings he himself voted for in board meetings," Heitzig told CT. "When Pete Nelson resigned I had a level of responsibility as founding pastor."
ca affiliates with Calvary Chapel, a network of 1,300 U.S. churches. The group began as an outgrowth of Chuck Smith's ministry to hippies during the Jesus Movement. At CA, as with many other network congregations, church bylaws make the senior pastor chair of the board of directors with the sole authority to nominate board members. CA, like many Calvary churches, does not have members, only people who attend.
Following the CA turmoil, Calvary Chapel Outreach Fellowships (CCOF), an organization formed to maintain accountability for Calvary Chapel pastors, looked into the controversy. CCOF found "no evidence of sin or wrongdoing on the part of the board of directors, Skip Heitzig, or Pete Nelson."
One report from the CCOF investigation surfaced on an antiCalvary Chapel blog. The report's author, Tom Stipe, is senior pastor of Crossroads Church of Denver, where Nelson previously worked. Stipe said Heitzig interjected himself at CA because he faced a rough transition at his new church and remained dependent on CA for $500,000 per year to fund his radio program. Hundreds of radio stations broadcast Heitzig's daily radio program, The Connection. Stipe said Heitzig suffered from "buyer's remorse."
"[Ocean Hills] had not reacted well to the changes in becoming a Calvary Chapel type church," Stipe wrote. "Many [congregants] moved away. The end result was a decline in attendance and most likely a decline in financial support."
Stipe declined to speak to CT.
Heitzig said that Stipe was asked to present only Nelson's perspective. "He didn't interview me," Heitzig told CT. "He didn't interview board members at Ocean Hills. He didn't interview board members at Calvary Albuquerque."
Though Heitzig has returned to CA, some attendees wonder if the problems exposed by Nelson's resignation have been addressed. John Ackerman, a business ethics professor and former ceo of a state utility company, is one of six longtime lay leaders who are leaving the church after fighting for changes to the board makeup and accountability structures. Nelson's resignation, Ackerman told CT earlier this year, "was indicative of a larger governance problem. Fiscal accountability was virtually nonexistent." CA says their finances have since been audited and provided a copy of the auditors' statement to CT. Anyone with questions can make an appointment to speak with a pastor, they said.
"We welcome Skip and [his wife] Lenya back to Albuquerque," said interim senior pastor and board member Dave Row, "and look forward to what the Lord will accomplish in the coming days."
Heitzig denied reports of continuing dissension at the church, New Mexico's largest. "What I see here is a very united front," he said. "From everything that I've seen and heard in the last few weeks, there's nothing but a unanimous joy."
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See our earlier article on the controversy, "Unaccountable at Calvary Chapel" (May 8).
The Albuquerque Journal has extensively covered the dispute. Its articles include:
Heitzig Returning to Calvary (July 2, 2006)
Is Heitzig Back? Calvary's Future Revealed Tonight (June 1, 2006)
Report Examines Calvary Dispute (June 27, 2006)
Calvary Holds Off On Naming Pastor (May 18, 2006)
Interim Pastor To Take Reins at Calvary (Mar. 23, 2006)
Board Accepts Heitzig Resignation (Mar. 22, 2006)
Calvary Board To Discuss Founder's Resignation (Mar. 20, 2006)
Gift of Radio Station to Calvary Sparked Little Static (Mar. 20, 2006)
Heitzig Slams His Critics At Calvary (Mar. 17, 2006)
Calvary To Choose Pastor Shortly (Mar. 11, 2006)
Embattled Pastor To Step Down (Mar. 9, 2006)
Heitzig: Calls for Resignation 'Arrogant' (Mar. 8, 2006)
Calvary Parishioners Confirm Belief in Church (Mar. 6, 2006)
Heitzig Severance More Than $300,000 (Mar. 4, 2006)
Resignation Letter from Pete Nelson (Mar. 3, 2006)
500 Sign Petition for Pastor (Mar. 3, 2006)
Web Site Calls for the Return of Calvary Pastor Pete Nelson (Mar. 2, 2006)
Christian Leader Supports Calvary (Feb. 27, 2006)
Calvary Chapel Power Struggle (Feb. 26, 2006)
Calvary Looks For Successor; Resignations Shock Church (Feb. 21, 2006)
Longtime Pastor Leaving City (Dec. 22, 2003)
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