Plaster Rock church at center of controversy, lawsuit

A rift in the house of God

The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal/February 24, 2001

By Bob Klager

Plaster Rock -- The words explode from the audio recordings as they did when Fletcher Argue first heard them searing from his preacher's mouth. "In here, I'm ... daddy," cracks the voice of Dana McKillop, head of a controversial Plaster Rock church. "We better have a daddy in the house!" Mr. Argue, a 41-year-old small-business entrepreneur and father of five boys, is among a growing number in this Upper St. John River Valley community unsettled by such spiritual leadership.

They feel Mr. McKillop's preaching pushes the boundaries of conventional clergy work. They feel his burgeoning Apostolic Pentecostal Church Inc., a divergent sect of the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), strives for an influence that goes beyond what should be acceptable in any secular or faith community.

"When [Mr. McKillop] says 'I'm your daddy,' he's meaning that he has authority over every aspect of their lives," said Mr. Argue. "He told the church, 'As far as you're concerned, I'm your daddy.' "

Mr. Argue no longer attends the Apostolic Pentecostal Church. By challenging the pastor's authority, he said he's been excommunicated, shunned by the congregation. And, stung by the estrangement of his wife and children through the church, he is now embroiled in a civil action with Mr. McKillop, Mr. McKillop's wife, Linda, their son, Darren and Sandford Goodine, principal of the church's Apostolic Christian School.

Taped sermons are among several items Mr. Argue has accumulated to support his positions in the lawsuit. They only help to illustrate the apparently awesome nature of the pastor's relationship with the congregation and other Plaster Rock residents.

A statement of claim filed with New Brunswick's Court of Queen's Bench last May, alleges, among other things, a conversation with a Plaster Rock resident during which "Dana McKillop falsely and maliciously...spoke the following words: 'Fletcher Argue is untrustworthy.' "

The suit claims Mr. McKillop also told the resident "...words to the effect that the plaintiff should not be given the opportunity to assume a career with him in the insurance business." Further, the statement of claim alleges Mr. McKillop told another individual "that the plaintiff had an 'evil spirit' in him."

The claims within the defamation action have not been proven in court and no trial date is set in the case.

Darren McKillop, speaking on behalf of the defendants, declined comment for this story. The decision to refuse interviews, he said, was made on the advice of his lawyer and after considering how the issues might relate to Mr. Argue's civil action.

However, a statement of defense for those named in the action refutes each of Mr. Argue's claims related to the alleged defamation. Grant Ogilve, a Fredericton lawyer representing Mr. Argue, said the civil action isn't a case about money - no estimation of damages is included in the statement of claim. Rather, he said, the matter is about exploring the "uncanny" influence Mr. McKillop appears to have over hundreds of people in Plaster Rock.

"It bothers most of the people who are not members of the [450-member] church, and it bothers many who are members there," said a prominent Plaster Rock resident not connected to the litigation.

The man, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, has worked with many of the church's past and present members. He said the degree to which adherents in the growing church submit to its doctrine and direction concerns several area residents.

So does the church's growth and activities within the community of about 1,200, he said, citing a wide belief that Apostolic Pentecostal leaders have identified new congregants to local businesses and then formally encouraged the businesses to hire these individuals.

"This whole issue involves a large part of our community, and none of us really wants to see a major community split and discord," he said. "We want to maintain stability and co-operation as best we can. "That's the reason many of us are afraid to jump into the fray publicly." The issue proves a delicate one because of the percentage of Plaster Rock's population now belonging to the church, he added. "The very integrity of our community is at stake with this whole business," he said.

The McKillops have also declined to discuss such community perceptions surrounding their church. However, Plaster Rock Mayor Gary Broad says there's no question about the church's presence in his community. He said he's heard the concerns about the influence that presence yields. "There's no way around them not having influence because of the number of people and because of their faith," said Mr. Broad. "They're a very rigid faith."

It's a faith that has attracted a big following, he added, and one the mayor said could easily manifest itself as influence were the church to take issue with things in the community. The potential for that was dangled before local politicians last fall during a public village council meeting, when a congregation member confronted them about a water bill and with accusations he had been lied to by village staff.

"You might think that people you deal with have no influence," the man said. "I look after the men's department in our church - there are 400 members and about 100 men I call on to help handle the affairs of the church. "The next election's coming up and I'm not throwing out any threats, but please take that into consideration."

Whether that influence extends, as is rumored in the community, to the church helping its members find work is difficult to ascertain, the mayor said. Mr. Broad said he is aware of at least two companies that employ several church members, but added he's never been approached with complaints about the organization pressuring local businesses to hire congregants "I hear this," he said, but due to the number of Plaster Rock residents attending the church "it's almost impossible not to hire them.

"I've talked to the minister and he told me that he encourages children to stay here," said Mr. Broad. "I guess what him and I was talking about ... he was asking me as mayor if we was trying to encourage entrepreneurs to come into the village to make more work. "I would say the majority of businesses in the community probably have an employee from that church, but that's due to the percentage of people that go there that live here."

Rev. Harry Lewis, pastor of Calvary Tabernacle Pentecostal church and a former Atlantic superintendent for the UPCI, leads a Perth-Andover congregation that has absorbed several Plaster Rock-area residents who apparently couldn't see eye to eye with the McKillop ministry. He's reluctant to talk about what leads people to travel more than 40 kilometers to worship outside of Mr. McKillop's church. However, Rev. Lewis points out a church hierarchy within the UPCI faith community and the apparent lack of such a system in Plaster Rock. "When you get out into this particular sphere where they are, they're not accountable too much to anybody to my knowledge," said Rev. Lewis. "They just act to themselves."

Acknowledging he's been labeled a compromiser for welcoming into his church people who have "backslid" in the eyes of the Plaster Rock congregation, Rev. Lewis said he's unsettled by the hard line espoused by the McKillops. "I'd consider myself a conservative, but they're ultra," he said. "We have some 8,500 to 9,000 ministers in North America, but they've broken away. They felt like they could work better on the outside. "Consequently that is what they've done, and over the years it brought a good [amount] of unrest and hurt. "I wish I could tell you all my heart," added Rev. Lewis. "But I'm personally quite concerned. I'm personally quite concerned." And, he said, he prays for the members of the Plaster Rock congregation. "Obviously, my personal feelings...let me put it this way - I would like to attend a church like I'm pastoring in here," he said. "That would be my preference. "I don't want the extreme right or the extreme left. I see dangers in it."

Rev. Lewis is not alone. One of several men called by Mr. McKillop to pastor other "works" or smaller churches planted by the Plaster Rock organization across the Maritimes and as far away as Ontario says he's struggled too much from the experience to talk publicly about it now. He says it's a common theme even among those now disconnected from the McKillop ministry. "A lot of those people are afraid to speak out," he said. "They have a fear.He has power over the people. There's no question about that."

In fact, one of the earliest signs of concern appears to come from the church's founder, the late William J. Rolston, in a letter he wrote home more than 25 years ago during a visit to his birthplace in Ireland. After turning a ministry he began in the 1920s over to the McKillop family, the pastor had apparently begun to question what his church had become by the early 1970s. "I feel justified, personally, in taking the stand I have taken," wrote Pastor Rolston. "I have no malice in my heart. "For two years I tried to go along and accept things, but I perceived the boys were determined to conduct things after their own fashion and ask advice of no one ..." he wrote. "If their behavior or actions are of God, then I must conclude that I do not know God."

Knowing God in Plaster Rock means understanding one's financial commitments to the Apostolic Church. Tithing by members is mandatory and expands beyond financial transactions in other faith bodies across New Brunswick. Members of the congregation are required to provide at least 10 per cent of their gross income directly to Mr. McKillop for church operations, and an additional five per cent must be committed to the Apostolic Christian School. Several incidental offerings are also taken up to cover pastoral expenses including a trip to the Holy Land for the McKillops and the lease commitment on a 2000 Yukon the congregation presented to their "daddy" on Father's Day last year.

There's speculation the church, as well, funds an informal lending agency open solely to congregation members for the purchase of homes or vehicles. "The minister tells me that he wants his young people to stay here," said Mr. Broad, confirming there is talk in the community that the incorporated church is buying up real estate in Plaster Rock. "He's probably got a pretty good money base because it's a lot of people and they support the church well," the mayor said. "If they chose to do what people are saying they're doing - like putting money in to buy the houses - then, definitely, he would have the money base to do that."

The fact is when a house goes up for sale in Plaster Rock, "chances are it's going to be a Pentecostal that buys it," he added. "He [Mr. McKillop] would like to see the children and all the members of that church stay in Plaster Rock, live in Plaster Rock, work in Plaster Rock," said Mr. Broad. "I would imagine probably so they will attend that church."

Fletcher Argue was nine years old when he answered an altar call at the Pentecostal church in Tilley and committed his life to Jesus before a young evangelist named Dana McKillop. Years later, Mr. Argue married his wife in a ceremony conducted by Mr. McKillop. Their first son even bears the pastor's name. Devout in his belief, Mr. Argue insists his struggle is not with the Pentecostal faith, but with the pain that he says can simmer behind the faith's name. "I still am very, very much Pentecostal," he said. "My whole fight is...around this [McKillop-driven] doctrine and the devastating effect it has had on my family."

Mr. Argue's lawsuit reached the discovery stage late last year and stalled, his lawyer said, after the defendants refused to answer key questions related to the pastor's authority over the congregation. Mr. Ogilve said an application to have the court compel the defendants to answer such questions might soon be filed. "[The answers] are critical," he said, in establishing Mr. McKillop's unique social position within the Plaster Rock area. No date is set for the resumption of proceedings in the case.

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