August 30, 2020

Menlo Church Annual Meeting & Town Hall (Aug 30)

Apologies in advance for the lack of organization in this post—I just wanted to get it out quickly. Caveat that my descriptions of the Q&A box are based on my best recollection.

Sunday, Aug 30, was Menlo Church’s annual congregational meeting. This meeting happens every year around this time and is normally open only to members. Formal church “membership” is not particularly emphasized at Menlo, so many longtime attendees are not members. Even those who are members often don’t go to this meeting—I have never gone before. This year, due to COVID19, the meeting happened over Zoom. Members who registered to attend were sent a private Zoom link to join. They said they had quorum.

Perhaps because of the nature of the topics under discussion, they decided to livestream the meeting so that non-members could view it as well. This made it public—anyone could watch on YouTube—therefore I think it’s fair to post this summary of the meeting. However, only registered members on Zoom could ask questions, vote, speak in debate, raise points of order, etc.

Immediately after the congregational meeting (with a short break) was a Town Hall Q&A session.

Part 1: The Annual Meeting

The meeting moderator this year was Pastor Mike Barris from Bluewater Presbytery. They also had Dr. Leonard Young serve as parliamentarian. The meeting is run on Robert’s Rules of Order—if you’ve ever been on a committee that uses these, you know how it goes. It’s a bit pedantic but fun in its own way.

If you were on the live stream, you weren’t able to see some of the features in Zoom. The chat was disabled, but they had the Q&A feature on, monitored mostly by Dr. Young. A couple of pastors were also answering questions in there, if they were simple enough. I have never attended this meeting before, and clearly many other attendees were in the same boat, because people were asking questions instead of using it for points of order as intended. Dr. Young often responded that the questioner should ask their question at the Town Hall; the current agenda item was only a vote. I think there was some frustration that people were being asked to vote without having their questions answered. I’m not sure how typical it is to not include any option to propose new motions or amendments to current motions.

As you can imagine, the meeting took a long time.

Rules of Order

The meeting started off with approving the revised Rules of Order for the Zoom meeting. They read off the Rules which had been sent over email. A few people were confused because they didn’t remember receiving the Rules. They were a link in the email, so it’s likely most people didn’t click through. If no objections are raised, the new Rules apply. However, a couple people raised hands with objections and so they moved to a vote. A couple of people with objections spoke and said they’d like the rule about only one vote per device changed because they were a couple, and even though both had registered, only one of the Zoom links was working. However, the answer was this was not possible with the Zoom poll function. So the Rules passed.

Election of elders

Next on the agenda was the election of two new elders. One elder had rotated off—in the Q&A box, it was answered that this was Eunice. One elder was being added because the Elder board had decided to increase its size. (Q&A box asked if that wasn’t something that needed to be presented to the congregation? Answer was that the bylaws allow the Elder Board to set its own size between 6 and 14.)

The bios of the two candidates were presented, and then there was an opportunity for folks to speak. Someone asked about the candidates’ faith beliefs, since the bios were mostly secular accomplishments. The answer was that all elders must agree with the ECO Essential Tenets which could be looked up online. Another person asked if we would be able to hear from the candidates before voting. The answer was no. Both votes to confirm passed (95% yea for the first, 94% for the second.)

Giving Scott voice & vote on the Board

Scott has been with Menlo Church for a long time. He was the original campus pastor at Mountain View for several years, and then launched the Saratoga campus. In the recent leadership restructuring, he was added to the main leadership team to represent “Campuses”.

The Elder Board has decided they want to have a pastoral voice on the Board until the new Senior Pastor is hired. A question about why Scott was chosen was initially deferred but after a moment they answered that by ECO polity, it had to be someone ordained in ECO. There are four such pastors (I hadn’t known about the fourth) at Menlo and Scott was chosen because they wanted a voice to represent all campuses. A couple of people registered objections because they believed the Board deals with confidential personnel matters and so a pastor should not be on Session. Many spoke for Scott vouching for his service and character as their pastor. The motion passed.

Dissolving John Ortberg’s call

A lot of people were confused in the previous agenda items about the “raise hand to speak” feature in Zoom. It is intended only for those who want to speak in debate, but people were pressing it probably thinking it was for voting. The moderator tried to clarify this point before the discussion on John’s call.

I remember one person speaking for this one, and several people spoke against for various reasons:

One person wanted to make a new motion but was told only the topics on the agenda would be allowed. Many had questions which were directed to the Town Hall. Some people asked to table the motion until more information could be given, but were told that by the rules, tabling was only possible if an urgent other piece of business came up—the only option was to vote it down. Time ran out and the motion passed—but just barely, 243-233.

In the Q&A box, someone asked if mail-in ballots could be accepted, given the technical problems and the closeness of the vote, and the answer was no, it was not allowed by policy.

Financial update

Then there was a financial update—things seem to be going okay. Their projected income was only 93% of budget, so seems that this negative media coverage and pandemic haven’t affected things too much. (Or their budget was very conservative.)

Transitional pastor search update

Beth Seabolt gave an update on the transitional pastor search, which mostly echoed the material in previous emails and on the website. She added that a previous email had said the Senior Pastor search committee had been formed, but that was premature, and they would be focusing on that after finding the transitional pastor.

Supplemental investigation update

Russ Hall gave an update on the supplemental investigation, which also is mostly available on the website. Exec Pastor Eugene Lee worked with staff to form the committee. The person representing ECO is Paul Merrill. The person representing staff is Lisa Carhart. I didn’t catch the names of the parent or resting elder representatives. I recognized the name of the volunteer rep as someone who followed me on Twitter.

He also noted that the staff were working on bringing in an outside party to do a full audit of the child safety policies and procedures at Menlo; earlier emails have said this would be GRACE, though I don’t think the name was mentioned this time.

Various other updates

The meeting closed out with updates from Eugene Lee, Cheryl Fletcher, and Dave Shields on various ministries and missions work.

Part 2: The Town Hall

Members could submit questions through the Q&A function on Zoom, and some had sent in questions prior to the meeting. During the business meeting, Q&A box entries were visible to all, but it seems they changed that for the Town Hall. Pastors Mark and Scott were in charge of sorting through the questions and grouping/summarizing them for the Elders. Different elders answered depending on the question.

Zoom’s Q&A has an anonymous function, but they clarified they would only take questions with a name attached.

Q: Is there going to be a way to give feedback about the meeting?

A: I think we will send out a survey to registrants to capture feedback. I’ll commit to making sure that happens so we can improve as we move forward in this virtual environment.

Q: Is the meeting being recorded?

A: It is being recorded for transcript purposes for our use to create a summary so we can update the FAQs, no post-production planned at this time.

Q: Why didn’t we hear more from the church over the last 8 months re John’s leave, details about what was going on, felt like official information didn’t come out until after John’s resignation or after something was in the news, or social media, it was hard to know what to think, why weren’t the elders more forthcoming with additional information earlier in the process? What are we doing to improve that?

A: Each of us have received this kind of question. We elders are fellow congregants, we agonized over how much we could say outwardly in a situation that had countless layers and was evolving. Sometimes the answer was clear, sometimes not clear, countless hours of conversation, debate, discernment, no decision made lightly, at each step highly aware that disclosure about whistleblower or situation around a live investigation would set precedent for the future.

But I hear the question is that whatever we did communicate didn’t feel like it was enough, we hear that, we acknowledge it, we all want to be informed to the extent possible, that’s only natural.

Here’s what we want to do going forward. We want better communication going forward. We’ve added a couple pages on our website, will do more Q&A, some all-church like this, some smaller settings, site-specific, several of those have already happened, more to come, we’re committed to improving the way we communicate with one another especially with our congregation.

We agree this is super important, we could have done better, we will do better going forward.

A: Also, staff is doing a “Menlo Unscripted” video thing available on the website, staff answering questions, chat environment, will do more of those. We’re in collaboration with the staff on communicating to the congregation.

Q: Several people have commented on the composition of Session, why are we not stepping down?

A: Lot of reasons for that. Milo as chair of governance and integral to the board to comment:

A: Thanks for having the courage to ask a question like that, lots of folks might be thinking a lot of things, we appreciate directness.

Elder board is not an independent body without accountability, we are part of ECO, our denomination, throughout the whole processing of the investigation and thinking through future of leadership of our church, we involved the Presbytery, important to recognize that within I think 24 hours of getting the letter from Danny about her, about his younger brother’s conduct, or at least, struggles he had with attractions, that we notified the presbytery, they were kept informed of the identity and the investigative process, and all members of leadership whether ordained pastors or ordained elders are subject to presbytery’s authority from investigative perspective, if charges are brought etc. We tried to work with presbytery throughout this processing. Unlike other organizations where board is permanent, we rotate off and on, that is the norm, that’s how presbyterian churches work.

There have been a number of people who really feel the problem here was we did not disclose the name of the volunteer in our letter to the congregation back in January. We feel that was the correct decision, we still feel that was the correct decision.

Part of the reason for that is even though we really wanted to be transparent with the congregation, when charges are laid on a volunteer, someone who’s served on and off for like a decade at our church, and we do an investigation, we don’t have anything specific in terms of a particular act of misconduct, just that someone is struggling with temptation or with unwanted thoughts, part of our problem is what do you do with that? We want to be a place where people can share their struggles and find help and healing and if there was no wrongdoing that was found, then to publicly name that person, particularly of a charge like this, is something we did not consider just.

It was not a case that we thought this matter would be kept confidential. Because of the family dynamics that we were aware of, we knew that this would eventually come out, so that was not a surprise. The challenge was what do we say about this without naming John’s youngest son as the volunteer? We tried to be as transparent as we could in terms of dealing with that. And I think that’s what we would do for any volunteer who was accused of having struggles with thoughts.

We did an investigation, there are other groups who got the same letter we did but they didn’t go through that process, we did, so it’s a challenge, you could have seen it the other way, we were put in a position wanting to be as transparent as possible at the same time protecting folks where we did not find evidence of misconduct. So I just want to be completely honest about that.

Q: There are a number of questions about the transitional pastor process, who are the elders on that transitional search team, do we get to know who those people are and how that process works?

A: The two serving elders are David Kim and Beth Seabolt. Beth, do you want to elaborate more?

A: Happy to do that, David Kim and I are serving as active elders, Debbie H. and John B. are serving as resting elders, we chose them bc they served on NAC (nominating committee) before, very good at searching people aligned with our presbytery/ECO tenets and denominational beliefs, David now is vice chair of Session so appropriate for him to be there as well.

Q: There are lot of questions about the process the last nine months the elder board has undergone, can elders share what they’ve learned the last nine months, any steps, anything they’d want to do differently, could be around structure, decision making, roles and responsibilities, what have we learned to not have the same challenges going forward?

A: I think we as an elder board, prayerfully looking back at what we’ve done, trying to serve the community well, our role is servants for the congregation, could we have communicated better, answer is yes, times and decisions we made related to initial investigation, wish we had pushed further to do more at that time, those are two areas in particular.

Something I think we did well, hard for people to see who aren’t part of it, we actively debate, try to look at different sides of issues, we really did debate and think of different angles to this, some people are not comfortable where we came out, give you comfort we really did try to consider many different perspectives, angles, based on the data we had at the time.

A: Moving forward, as far as the communication piece there are experts on staff we can lean into, we’ll be doing more of that, we have a very robust and qualified staff, we can leverage some of those skills, pastoral skills, communication skills. Mike Barris?

A(MB): One of the steps was to ask presbytery to come in alongside this, decision to keep presbytery linked up was really good, going forward presbytery with ministry partnership team will stay engaged with the pastoral search process so we can do everything to ensure a man or woman of God will serve in the transitional pastor role or sr pastor role.

Q: Number of questions coming in related to John process, the vote that just happened, is it true that John offered to resign early in the process, multiple times, is that accurate?

A: Yes. David Kim?

A: Yes, over the last nine months in meetings with Session, John did on a few occasions offer his resignation if we really felt that it would help the church focus on its mission.

Q: At annual meeting, the vote was so close, some people were having problems with tech, was that valid? What would have happened if it went the other way?

A: I believe the motion carried. Prudent for me and the team to reconvene re: rules of order, tech issues in switching to Zoom meeting, that was why we sent out the special rules, I don’t know the number, I’m a little leery to make a firm statement on that, we went right into this meeting.

A(MB): In terms of the vote, good question if it had gone the other way. ECO constitution policy says when a pastor leaves their call whether by resignation or termination or succession, congregation approves, particularly around dissolving of call, congregation is required to request the call be dissolved. So constitutionally required to do this. Had the vote gone the other way, would be a predicament, a person has resigned, you can’t really force a person to not resign, it is a decision that they make, if the vote had gone the other way, it would have produced an internal concern, get into other questions with the bylaws, but the way it was done was according to the constitution.

Q: Very valid concern is what did this vote signify, is there anything the congregation could do that could change that outcome?

A: I can see some summary in the follow up on that.

Q: Speak to how the session approaches thing spiritually, practices, the moment when it was decided to received John’s resignation, why did Session feel it was the time to do that?

A: Elders do approach everything with prayer and discernment, and have from the very beginning, spend time together just in prayer, since COVID happened elders have been getting together for prayer and devotion to undergird everything we do in prayer. Many people have different views on what our decisions should be along the way, but I can say every decision was not just debated looking from every angle but really prayer for God’s direction and God’s best for our church. So with the decision regarding John’s resignation, a lot of prayer went into that, it was a mutual decision with John that this was best for our church in the long run, we communicated those. Practical reasons for that, John had to go on leave anyway for the supplemental investigation to be independent, he needs time for healing with his family, this has just been devastating, him and Nancy, continue lift them up in prayer. Number 1 thing is for discerning God’s will in this and what’s best for our church.

A: The Session really has been trying to seek the Lord’s will in what to do. We were put in a situation of having to think about what happens, what it would take to bring John back, what new restoration process would be required to deal with the concerns that staff and the congregation had about, when it was made clear who the volunteer was. John served here 17 years. At some point he’s gonna want to retire. After that kind of investigation and new set of restoration, how much longer would it be before we would have to go through another transition?

But I would also just say, we care deeply about John, many of us are good friends of John and Nancy, we feel for him and his family. With the disclosure of his youngest son as the volunteer, he and his family have to try to work to deal with that. And, to protect him, to try to have him go through that restoration process while he’s dealing with all the battling going on in the Twitterverse and still be able then to preach and teach, that’s asking a lot of John, and we think it’s really important for him to use this time to find peace and reconciliation in his family. So part of the reason we mutually came to the conclusion it was the right time for him to leave, even though that was so hard for many of us to deal with, I think that was good for him as well. It was a very painful process. One that we really had to feel and try and discern what the Lord was asking us to do here. John is well loved. Not just by the congregation, but by many on the Session. By all of us I think on the Session.

Q: Given that the vote was almost a split vote, and in these meetings the comments and questions being raised, it’s clear there’s not a unity in what the right outcome was, there’s a lot of diversity, what is our plan moving forward, how can we bring healing and trust when there’s a lot of wounds right now. When there’s pain there’s anger and grief and what’s the church’s plan to lead us through that time?

A: Regarding the voting piece, we have not processed that together, I don’t know who to point that to, David Kim about the second half?

Q: The question isn’t about the technicality, just an indication the congregation is deeply divided.

A: Thanks everyone for participating. If we can just focus on the questions in the time that we have. In terms of going forward, that’s why we’re having this town hall, we want to humbly listen, we will have fireside chats, we will update the FAQ section. This is the reason per guidance of presbytery, so important to have transitional pastor as we turn the page from former senior pastor to next senior pastor. And so part of the reason behind presbytery’s guidance and practice of transitional pastor is to bring unity, build trust, unity, healing across the board, congregation, staff, elders, community at large, we acknowledge that, it was really helpful in one of our elder meetings to read from Phil 2:4, what I sensed today in our worship today was a powerful moment of us taking the next step, to see and focus on the mission vision of our church, it’s going to take all of us united together, to understand the mission vision of our church continues, going to require all of us to lift Jesus up and out and in as we work together to build the healing and trust building ahead.

A(MB): David’s comments are exactly right, biggest takeaway from the vote is there are a lot of thoughts and feelings in the congregation, one of the things the presbytery does is walk alongside congregations that go through difficult times, relational issues, our goal and commitment is to do everything we can to partner with Menlo Church from the presbytery side, ECO side, to help you move forward, greater health, restoration of trust.

One is whoever the transitional pastor is selected, part of the gifting of that individual is to listen well, to hear the hurt and frustration people might have and help find ways the leadership can come together and process that, it is a family work to work on healing and restoration and unity because you have been in and you’re in the middle of a very very hard season, so we’re going to work with the transitional pastors. Same thing is true looking for a gifted next senior pastor.

We also think there might be a healing piece worth doing in terms of reconciliation, you are in a process that’s deep, important, hard, heartbreaking, we as a presbytery and synod and ECO as a denomination want to bring resources and people alongside you to help you move through this time and come out on the other side of it.

(Note: there were some closing statements saying that many questions were not reached due to the time limit—the elders said there was a lot of follow up to do and they were committed to doing that.)

Closing prayer

(Note: Normally I wouldn’t post a prayer, but in this case I think it’s helpful to hear something unscripted. This is not quite verbatim; I have removed some filler words.)

Lord, we just thank you for this time together, time spent with our brothers and sisters, all children in your family. We lift up John and his family to you, Lord, we know you are not done with him, we just thank you for how you’ve gifted him, how you’ve blessed him, we pray for healing and restoration in his family, with the Twitterverse and the internet and social media attacks that seem so easy to do, we pray that you would intervene, that you would create peace in his family and that you would be able to bring them together in a way that glorifies your Son.

Lord, we also just pray for the ministry here at Menlo Church, John would never want to be a distraction for reaching the lost, for bringing healing, for bringing freedom to captives, this is the mission of your church. Lord, we just thank you we are not doing this in our own strength, that your Holy Spirit is here, we just pray that the blinders the Enemy puts on in our community would be removed, that people could see your beauty, that people could see you as you are, that your power would be made manifest in their lives, and that your name would be glorified here and that this entire community would be blessed by your work.

We just thank you and we confess this is your church, we give you permission to lead it and run it in whatever way you please. Give us wisdom from on high. Let us not be satisfied with human wisdom but be guided by your word and your Spirit to the glory of God, in Jesus’ holy name, amen.