Legal issues disrupt life for church community

Christian Week, Canada/January 20, 2006

Calgary, AB -- Church disputes are a harsh reality for many congregations across Canada and the ramifications can be far reaching when problems escalate into the legal sphere.

Such was the case for South Calgary Community Church (SCCC), a growing Baptist congregation with plans for expansion. When some former members alleged they were victims of spiritual abuse at the hands of church leadership, lawyers got involved and the situation got messy.

Last April, Barry and Jennifer Pendergast set up a website detailing their experience at SCCC, several months after leaving the church where they were involved in a lawsuit against the board of elders who had revoked their membership not once, but twice.

Much of the Pendergasts' site details and documents their clash with former SCCC pastor Jim Wallace and church elders that began in 2003.

The last two years have included a barrage of e-mail exchanges, letters and meetings between the Pendergasts and the church, and thousands of dollars in legal fees on both sides. The couple also says their physical health has suffered.

The Pendergasts, now attending a different church in Calgary, say they will "tell their side of the story" at every opportunity presented to them.

"Networking with others around the world going through the same challenges is an amazing experience," Barry told ChristianWeek. "We decided we must bring the topic of spiritual and emotional abuse in church settings out of the closet and into the light."

They chose to post the official documents in their case on their website "for others to see with no secrecy and full openness. Many others "have told us their hurt and pain has been validated by knowing they are not alone. There are so many common factors in the way the abuse unfolded in secrecy and shame."

The Pendergasts say the problems began with a disagreement with church leadership about a ministry opportunity. From there it escalated when the two sides couldn't come to a workable solution. The church elders, saying they were acting in accordance with church constitution and bylaws, removed the Pendergasts from church membership.

The Pendergasts, who say church leaders refused to meet with them within a satisfactory time frame, launched a lawsuit. A mediator became involved which led to the couple's reinstatement as members.

However, the Pendergasts say they came back to a "very cool reception."

Jennifer says she was not allowed to visit the pre-school she was once headed. Barry could not attend the men's breakfast he founded. They say church elders followed them about, one telling Barry "I'm protecting the flock," when Barry challenged him.

The relationship fell apart a short time later when both sides felt the other was not living up to their side of the agreement. The church, with legal advisors on side, permanently removed the couple from membership in November 2004.

The Pendergasts say they have since learned they are not the only ones who struggled at SCCC. They say others have come forward with claims of abusive behaviour by church leadership, including a 15-year member of the church who developed severe psychological stress after "clashing" with Wallace and being stripped of her ministry responsibilities, and a popular youth pastor who resigned from SCCC after just two years, feeling "harassed and undermined" by church officials.

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