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Notebook Religion


Blue Ridge Community Church (Handout)


Joy comes to Happy Jack

In rural Arizona, congregants at two churches forsake rivalry to pursue unity

They will know we are Christians by our love,” sang 40 gray-haired members of Blue Ridge Community Church in Happy Jack on a brisk Sunday morning. The refrain could be the motto of the church, but it wasn’t always so.

Happy Jack, an unincorporated area in rural northern Arizona, is home to about 900 year-round residents (mostly retirees or semi-retirees), not including the hunters, campers, and snowbirds.

Blanketed by a pine forest on the side of a rocky mountain, Happy Jack might seem an idyllic setting for the golden years. Yet when Pastor Danny Allen arrived as a fill-in preacher in 2008, he found a divided community. Members of subdivisions with homeowners associations looked down on subdivisions without HOAs. Residents disagreed over how the fire department should be run. Worst of all, Blue Ridge and the other Protestant congregation in town, Calvary Bible Church, were at odds with each other.

Much of the trouble had started in 2003, when Blue Ridge hired as pastor a charismatic, likable man who brought new members into the congregation but clashed with church officers. That pastor led a church split, started Calvary Bible, then two years later resigned and left town amid scandal. The fiasco left hurt feelings between Blue Ridge and the new congregation, Calvary Bible Church. 

When Allen took a full-time pastoral job at Blue Ridge in 2010, he and his wife, Janice, found members of the rival congregations avoiding and gossiping about each other. 

The Allens were no strangers to adversity and mending broken relationships. They had experienced a personal tragedy in 2003 when their teenage son pleaded guilty in a different county of attempted molestation of his younger adopted siblings. Janice Allen says that after that incident, her family felt like outcasts. She and Danny had to rebuild relationships with their children. The experience taught them everyone has challenges to overcome.

Danny Allen decided to contact the new pastor of Calvary Bible, Mike Owsley. Owsley also desired healing between the congregations, so the two pastors concocted a plan: For Christmas Eve and Easter, they would hold joint services. They both preached hard-hitting sermons about love and putting away strife.

At the time, Blue Ridge was meeting in its original church building, while Calvary was renting from a Mormon congregation. Both churches bought property adjacent to each other and intended to build new facilities, but lacked funds. By 2011, Calvary had an unfinished building shell, and Blue Ridge had held a groundbreaking ceremony.

Happy Jack residents who knew about the split watched the two projects and saw rivalry. Who would “win”?

That summer, the Allens spent their vacation on a cruise. But the weather turned bad, and there was little to do but read and pray. During that time, Danny felt God was prompting him to offer his church’s building fund to Calvary.

He wrestled with the idea for weeks. When he proposed it to his church board members that October, they were surprised but embraced the idea. The following Sunday, the congregation voted to give the money. It also took up an additional special offering for Calvary. The total funds weren’t much—about $2,000—but Blue Ridge congregants further helped by volunteering time and skilled labor: Together, it was enough to finish Calvary’s building before winter.

Suddenly, members of the community were seeing the two rival churches working together. Some called it a terrible business move. Others began to reevaluate their assessment—and some even visited.

When 2012 arrived, Blue Ridge had zero dollars in its building fund. Soon, donations and workers arrived seemingly from nowhere: When the church needed a plumber, a retired plumbing inspector from Phoenix moved into town. So did an electrician, a general contractor, and an ornamental stoneworker. When Blue Ridge needed a concrete finisher, the county sheriff’s office called to say a man on probation needed to complete over 600 hours of community service—and all he could do was finish concrete. That man came, finished the concrete, taught others how to do it, and started attending Blue Ridge himself. The plumber began attending Calvary.

By Easter 2018, the two congregations held a joint service in Blue Ridge’s almost-finished building for the first time. One hundred and eighty people attended, including visitors, an unusually high number for the small town.

One month later, the congregants had an opportunity to serve their community together when a disaster hit Happy Jack: A wildfire swept through the area and destroyed 32 homes. Blue Ridge’s new building became a base camp for over 20 relief agencies, and church members volunteered every day to hand out food and supplies. Calvary helped by supplying port-a-potties.

At Happy Jack Lodge, where Blue Ridge and Calvary members often gather for food and fellowship after church on Sundays, server Denise McGuire described the town’s change in attitude as like “night and day.” McGuire has lived in the community since the mid-1970s, when she was 7. Five to 10 years ago, she said, members of the two congregations would say of the other, “Oh, that’s not our church.” Now, she noted, they cooperate and hold joint events. Some people even attend both churches. (Church services temporarily closed earlier this year during coronavirus restrictions, but have begun meeting again.)

Church members I spoke to agreed the old rift is history. Pastor Owsley said, “It’s completely healed.”

Pastor Allen attributed the change entirely to God. “It’s all about the kingdom of God: God working through disaster, doing bigger things than us.”

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St. Laurence Episcopal Church in Southlake, Texas (Handout)


Anglicans and a Supreme Court victory in North Texas

Conservatives seeking to retain church property score a rare legal win

Doctrinally conservative Episcopalians have rebranded as “Anglicans” in many parts of the United States, but some are still holding on to the name “Episcopal”—and not just as a matter of branding. In North Texas, two groups call themselves the “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.” Each claimed rightful ownership of some 60 church properties worth over $100 million.

The Texas courts were forced to decide: Which was the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, and which, in effect, was the imposter?

After a decade of litigation, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter unanimously on May 22. The conservatives, it ruled, get to keep their property.

The Fort Worth case is a rare legal victory for Anglicans who left The Episcopal Church (TEC) over a decade ago. Several other dioceses that left the national denomination have lost substantial amounts of property. In South Carolina, litigation is pending over some of the oldest churches in the United States. 

At the root of these property disputes are doctrinal differences, including over same-sex marriage. TEC performs same-sex marriages, whereas the Anglican Church in North America affirms a Biblical definition of marriage. But the case also highlights the denominations’ divergent views over church government, which have grown more pronounced over a decade of separation. 

If the Fort Worth ruling had gone the other way, conservative congregations throughout North Texas would have been tossed out of their churches, said Scott Brister, the attorney who argued the winning side and who is himself a former state Supreme Court justice.

Churches elsewhere have been sold or stood vacant for years after TEC won similar lawsuits against wayward parishes or dioceses, including in California, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. “The risk was that the majority of these churches would just close,” Brister told me. 

That assertion is borne out by statistics published by TEC’s New York headquarters: The loyalist diocese in Fort Worth lost 79 percent of its Sunday attendance in the decade since the schism, falling to 1,392 attendees by 2018, less than a third the size of the breakaway diocese.

Not all Anglican churches have gone through years of litigation. Commonly, dissenting congregations left TEC individually, sometimes leaving behind their sanctuary, sometimes negotiating an exit amicably. 

The dispute in Texas dates to 2008. A convention of the then-united diocese, led by Bishop Jack Iker, voted to disaffiliate from TEC, taking with it most of the diocese’s property, members, and clergy, before going on to help establish the ACNA. The national Episcopal church rejected the decision, installed its own bishop over the remaining loyalist congregations, and sued to recover the property. 

In the May 22 Texas Supreme Court ruling, Justice Eva Guzman stressed the court wasn’t making an “ecclesiastical” judgment as to which faction was the true Episcopal Diocese. That kind of ruling would put the court afoul of First Amendment protections against state involvement in church affairs.

Guzman pointed to a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case, Jones v. Wolf, that prohibits courts from settling church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine or practice. But Jones allowed judges to apply “neutral principles” to examine the language of deeds, local church charters, and provisions of a denomination’s constitution.

Nothing in the organizational documents had prohibited the Diocese of Fort Worth from withdrawing from the denomination, Guzman wrote. “Under Texas Associations law, control and governance are determined by the terms of the Fort Worth Diocese’s charters. … Having complied with the diocese’s charters, the majority, not the minority, constitutes the continuation of the Fort Worth Diocese under the terms of its charter.”

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Kevin Schoen

(Kevin Schoen)


Friends and farewells

For Maynard and Joan Schoen, the more years of church ministry, the harder the goodbyes

Fourth in a series on long ministry

Fresh out of seminary, Maynard Schoen arrived with his wife, Joan, in Jonesville, Mich., in 1961 to pastor a small church there. The church had 40 people and no bathroom—only an outhouse. Maynard devoted himself to his new role and made friends among the congregation, but he wasn’t destined to stay: After a few years, another church asked him to become its pastor. 

The Schoens moved to the second church, one hour east of Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1968. Maynard remembers noticing the church’s outstanding music, friendly people, and basement full of salamanders. Maynard and Joan loved that small church and stayed for 39 years. Their ministry involved great joy but also growth challenges and painful losses.

When the Schoens arrived, the church had plans to build a new auditorium. The church did not want to take on debt, but inflation was eating its savings every year. A year and a half after Maynard arrived, the elders realized their plan was not feasible and agreed to borrow the money and then repay it quickly. They purchased a cherry orchard, 32 acres for $10,000, and eventually built an auditorium and a center with a gym and education space on the land. By the time the Schoens left, the church had paid off the debt and grown from about 120 congregants to 500.

We lost some people through death that were devastating.

Pastoring could be difficult: Initially, Maynard wore a lot of hats, acting as the preaching pastor, youth pastor, Sunday school teacher, and organist. After a few years, the elders eased his burden by hiring a youth pastor. Such hires didn’t always work out, though. The elders hired a new seminary graduate to serve as an associate pastor, but soon dismissed him when his ministry style clashed with the other pastors.

But the biggest challenge of Maynard’s ministry involved the biggest blessing—close relationships that came with painful goodbyes. “We lost some people through death that were devastating,” Maynard said. “Those are things where if you’re only going to be in a church five years, six years at most, you can ride those storms with little trouble. But these are people we’ve gotten to know and love dearly.”

The Schoens tasted this pain in their first church: A friend named Shirley Havens developed leukemia and died within two months. Maynard remembers putting away her husband’s boat for him, sitting on the bank, and asking, “Lord, what are you trying to do? I needed Chuck and Shirley.”

Maynard retired in 2007, bringing more painful goodbyes. The Schoens decided to change churches so the congregation would not feel divided between the old and new pastors. Two years passed before Joan said the new church felt like home. But in the last 13 years, they have found their place at their new church: Maynard has taught adult Bible classes, and Joan has taught the Bible for second graders. They occasionally see friends from their church of 39 years. They say they still miss and love them like family.

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