EastpointeJune 15, 2012
Controversy surrounds St. Gabriel’s closure
By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer
EASTPOINTE — A local church slated for closure is getting heat from parishioners who say church officials hid information about the closure and that in closing the church they are violating the Episcopal Cannons that govern it.
St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, 15717 Stephens, will hold its last service on June 24 before completely closing down at the end of the month. For many longtime parishioners, the news came as a surprise.
They say it was first announced less than a month ago, but church representatives say the closure has been a long time coming.
“The actual decision was made back in April,” said Betty Brogan, a bishop-appointed deacon to the church. “We asked the congregation if they wanted to merge with (a) church out in Mount Clemens, but we needed a two-thirds vote, and we missed that by about seven votes, and we didn’t have money to continue running without the merger.”
Congregants say they were never made aware that by voting against the merger they were voting for closure.
“We were told that the ‘money people’ would leave; there wouldn’t be an auction; and (Pastor) Susan (Bock) would be going, so we would have to go to a supply clergy. But we were never told the church would close if the merger vote failed,” said congregant Andrew Crawford, who voted against the merger in the May 6 vote.
“We were told it would be difficult to continue and we would probably end up having to close, but not that we would close immediately.”
Just a rumor?
In recordings of a vestry meeting from May 21, provided to the Eastsider by a source who asked not to be named, Bock denied the claims that the church was closing. In the recordings, a woman tells the vestry that in church the previous Sunday, the people behind her were saying that the church was going to close on July 31.
Bock responds by saying it’s “just rumors.”
“I’ll tell you what I know: I resigned, and I think that is where the date came from,” Bock said in the recording. “There is no such date. We have approached the bishop about what to do next, and he’s talking to the diocesan council. I’ve seen it in email. He’s talking to the standing council. He’s going as fast as he can, but things are not settled yet. The fact that there are rumors out, we can’t help.”
She went on to say that as soon as she knows anything, she would call a special meeting and send out a letter to the congregants. She added, “I promise you that is all I know. I’m telling you all I know.”
However, a letter sent to the congregants announcing the closure, dated May 31, says a request for closure was sent to the bishop on May 17, four days before the meeting where Bock regarded talk of closure as a rumor.
When asked about the discrepancy in information, Bock declined to comment and referred questions to Brogan.
Brogan said she could not recall offhand the dates the vestry petitioned for closure and heard back from the bishop. She added that the petition and arrangements for closure were made between the bishop and the pastor, and she was not included in them.
The last-minute announcement of the closure has some parishioners maintaining that church officials knew what they wanted all along, going as far as excommunicating a loyal parishioner for petitioning against the merger by passing out roses in the parking lot the day of the vote.
“I wasn’t even passing out roses against the merger,” the parishioner in question, Ed Brown, said. “I was passing out roses to have a discussion before the vote. I had a sign that said, ‘If you are for democracy and want to know the facts before you vote, take a rose.’ I just wanted to have a discussion on the merger. We’ve always had discussions before votes. Not this time though.”
The vote to merge failed, and Brown sent out an email to the members of a group he runs calling for a meeting to discuss how to raise money for the church and increase the number of parishioners.
A week later — one week before his proposed meeting — Brown, 69, of Harper Woods received a letter signed by all but two vestry members banning him from worship at the church or with any groups affiliated with the church, and from entering onto church property all together.
The letter stated divisive behavior as the reasoning behind the ban.
Another church member who asked not to be named said he was also banned from holding meetings after he attempted to have a meeting on how to grow the church. He said he was told he could worship at the church, but not hold meetings.
That’s why some parishioners contend that financing is not the reason for the closure, but instead the excuse for it.
“We were in the black last year and were within $1,000 of budget every month this year. We could have made it work,” said Crawford, 30, of Eastpointe. “The treasurer put out five plans to grow the church and meet budget. None of them were attempted.”
‘No idea what they are talking about’
When asked about denying parishioner requests to fundraise and grow the church, Brogan said, “I have no idea what they are talking about. We have had many fundraisers over the years to try and raise money for the church, but it just wasn’t enough.”
Vestry member Jane Carpenter added that the financial situation of the church was made clear during vestry meetings leading up to the decision for closure in April.
“Our budget was $149,000 for the year, but the pledges only made up half of that,” said Carpenter, 64, of Fraser. “Plus, being an older church, we have an aging congregation — we’ve lost 10 pledging members in the past year. We told them about the financial situation, but some people, no matter how you explain it, just don’t see it because they are wearing rose-colored glasses. There was no way we could afford to stay open.”
A document prepared by the church treasurer and made available to congregants via a church newsletter prior to the May 6 vote shows a different picture though. The document highlights the expected costs to stay at the church or merge with Grace Church in Mount Clemens.
According to the spreadsheet, if the church merged with Grace, it would face a deficit of approximately $13,762 by the end of the year. There were three forecasts for non-merger. The first predicts the deficit with clergy and vestry at $36,762. The second predicts a deficit of $11,328 if the church goes to supply clergy and keeps the vestry. The third predicts the potential for a $5,282 deficit up to a $1,718 surplus at year’s end if the church has part-time clergy, no vestry and implement plans to fundraise and grow the church.
Crawford claims that if the church would have gone to part-time or supply clergy directly after the merger vote failed, St. Gabriel’s would not have run out of money.
“It is by design, not by result, that the church now has no money now,” he said.
Additional sources, many of whom asked not to be named, came forward with similar statements.
Carpenter says they had to continue as-is until they received permission for a change from the bishop. She says if there were any possible way to keep the church open, she would have backed it.
“Believe me, if anyone wanted to keep the church open, it was me,” Carpenter said. “I’ve been going here since I was a little girl, since a year after the church opened. Sitting on the vestry, we could see the closure coming from a long way away, but it still took me awhile to reconcile myself to it.”
She added that the vestry began warning parishioners of the church’s financial situation in January, but Crawford and others say that is not the case, and the vestry didn’t follow the Episcopal Canons that dictate how the church is run when they did decide to petition for closure in May.
‘We want to at least try’
According to Canon 184.108.40.206, dealing with membership role and quorum, the church must publish a letter listing adult communicants in good standing to vote no less than 60 days before a vote. The letter listing eligible voters was posted April 12, 24 days before the vote.
Canon 4.0, regarding congregational governance, states that the meetings of congregation and governing bodies are to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, which state that refusal to allow debate prior to a vote or suspending a debate can only occur with two motions and a two-thirds vote.
Canon 220.127.116.11, i.e. notices, requires the time, place and agenda for any meeting to be posted in advance of the meeting. Multiple sources say this did not occur.
The canons that govern the church are not the same as state or local laws, but some congregants feel that failure to follow them could possibly be considered illegal.
According to Michigan law, the director of a nonprofit cooperation must act in good faith, which is defined as “honesty of intention, openness and fair dealing,” and they must discharge their duties with “the same degree of diligence, care and skill which an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances.”
Hypothetically, if the actions of the pastor and vestry were brought to court and the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, those church officials could be held liable for the liquidation of the church’s assets, according to one source who sought legal expertise on the issue.
Crawford says that’s not what they want though.
“We just want to be able to keep our church open and have the chance to do something with it, to try. We want to be able to at least try.”
Attempts to get further comment from the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan were not returned at press time.
What will happen to Wednesday night Family Suppers?
Eastpointe’s Family Suppers could be in jeopardy, as the church that hosts them, St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, is prepared to close at the end of the month.
Kirsten Blackburn, director of the free dinner program, says no one needs to worry just yet, though.
“We are going to continue with the Wednesday night dinners, but I am not sure how long they will be at St. Gabriel’s and where they will be after that.”
Blackburn is waiting to hear back from the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan on if she can stay at St. Gabriel’s through July and said she’s hopeful she’ll hear back from them by the end of June.
“I’m hoping we can stay there at least until sometime that I can find another place in Eastpointe to continue them,” she said. “Our sister church, Grace Church in Mount Clemens, will continue to sponsor them, though, even if we are at a different location in Eastpointe.”
The dinners average about 170-200 people a week; many come every week. Blackburn said she feels the turnout is high because of the need, and that’s why she hopes to remain in the area. She is meeting with a pastor of a nearby church to see if the program could work there.
“Pastor (Kevin) Lancaster from Love, Life, Family Christian Center said he is interested in having it there, and we are all really hoping their facility will work for us.”
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