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Saturday
Dec132014

The Growing Crisis at Covenant Life Church

Recently I posted Budget Crisis at Covenant Life Church after Attendance Drops by 1,600 People over Last Three Years.  It was based upon a letter sent to the church on November 21 from its Executive Pastor, Mark Mitchell.  The Mitchell letter said in part.  

“Over the last three years Sunday attendance and giving have declined.  Since 2011, Sunday attendance has dropped from 3,305 to 1,715, and giving has declined from $8.2 million to $6.2 million.  Up until now, we have been able to keep in step with these realities through the departures of several pastors and reducing other expenditures.  But in September of this year, giving took an unprecedented downturn, dropping from the norm by about 25% and remaining at or near that level since then.  Very simply, we are a smaller church with less than expected revenue, and we need to reduce our staff to match this reality. … The elders, having consulted with the non-staff elder candidates and Financial Advisory Committee, are in agreement that we cannot sustain our present budget and that it’s necessary to lay off two pastors.” (Mark Mitchell, Nov 21, 2014) 

Mitchell refers to “the departures of several pastors” over the last three years.  That includes Brian Chesemore (2011), Mike Bradshaw (2011), Jon Smith (2013), Matt Maka (2013), Braden Greer (2014), Grant Layman (2014), Erik Sheffer (2014), and Ben Wikner (Dec 2014).  This has saved Covenant Life Church (CLC) considerable money but not near enough to balance its 2015 budget.  Two pastors still need to be laid off.

Mitchell also refers to “the reducing of expenditures.”  In FY (fiscal year) 2014 expenses were reduced by $894,543 from FY 2013.  In the FY 2015 budget there were no plans for additional reductions.  That turned out to be a grave miscalculation.  CLC is now having to make 1.2 million in cuts they did not anticipate.  Corby Megorden, the administrator, devised the FY 2015 budget based upon optimistic assumptions about increased giving.  See my comments in Budget Crisis at Covenant Life Church after Attendance Drops by 1,600 People over Last Three Years for more details and analysis. 

As a result the FY 2015 Budget must be reduced from 6.5 million to 5.3 million in hopes such measures will balance the budget.  CLC has an undesignated cash surplus (i.e., savings) of 1 million from which they can draw money if necessary.  That total, however, is less than a two month operating reserve which is imprudently low.  There should be a 3-6 month operating reserve.  That is the wise and recognized standard. 

Two weeks after his first letter, Mitchell sent out a second letter announcing the layoffs of Issac Hydoski and Joe Lee (see bios below) and outlining additional budget cuts in the amount of 878K.  Here is his letter with my comments in bold letters

## 

December 5, 2014 

Dear brothers and sisters, 

I pray we’ll all know the peace and joy of Christ this month as we reflect and prepare to mark his coming.  What a marvel that the eternal God should take on human frailty to live among us and become our sin bearer.  May we ever live in the good of this glorious truth!

I write this letter to communicate important details about our church’s budget situation and the resulting layoffs.  Though this is coming as we embark upon the Christmas season, we nonetheless felt it important to get this information out to you sooner rather than later.

Comments:  Joshua Harris & Mark Mitchell planned “to share more specifics on the layoffs at an after-service Members Meeting on Sunday, December 14.”  They cancelled those plans and made the announcement via this December 5 email letter.  They also announced the layoffs this past Sunday, December 7, but provided no details. 

WHAT LAYOFFS ARE HAPPENING? 

As I wrote to you* a couple of weeks ago, declining Sunday attendance and giving mean that we have to lay off two pastors at this time.  With great sadness, I must let you know those two pastors are Isaac Hydoski and Joe Lee. 

Comment:  There is great sadness in the church.  Both these men were caring and effective pastors.  At no point in this letter, does Mitchell discuss the reasons for laying off these two men in particular.  I think he and Joshua Harris have an obligation to do so in a candid fashion. 

In my opinion, Kenneth Maresco and Robin Boisvert should have been laid off for various reasons including their central role in the conspiracy not to report Nathaniel Morales to law enforcement even though they knew Morales was a confessed serial child molester.  Lars Liebeler, CLC’s lawyer, left this out of his report to the church on October 12 and 26.  So did Mark Mitchell.  I’ve asked to talk and meet with Liebeler and the pastors about this matter but they are unwilling.   

I met with Isaac and Joe last week to inform them, and then spoke with the church staff this Wednesday.  Isaac and Joe are communicating with their care group leaders and care groups in close coordination with this letter going out to the wider church. 

Comment:  I don’t understand why Joshua Harris, the senior pastor, didn’t meet with Issac and Joe to inform them.  It is his responsibility to “do hard things” under these circumstances.  Mitchell could have be present but Harris should have taken the lead role in communicating their layoffs, answering their questions, and caring for them in that heartbreaking context. 

This is very sad and difficult news for Isaac and Joe and their families, for those in the care groups they serve, and for every Covenant Life member.  It brings a deep sense of loss and sorrow to us as a pastoral team.  I encourage you to pray for these men and their families and express your love and gratefulness for them as I know you are eager to do.  They do need time to pray and seek the Lord about their next steps, but in the meantime, please encourage them by expressing your love and appreciation. 

Comment:  This is very sad and difficult news ESPECIALLY for Isaac and Joe and their families.  Joe and his wife Esther have five children.  Issac and his wife Kelly have three children.  Unless they find secular employment, the families will be forced to leave the church.  

The severe decline in giving and attendance over the past three years is primarily due to the compromised leadership of Joshua Harris, Mark Mitchell, Corby Megorden, Robin Boisvert, Kenneth Maresco, and Grant Layman.  They did not stand up to C.J. Mahaney and pronounce him unfit for ministry though he clearly was.  Nor did they report known sex abusers to law enforcement with Mitchell being a possible exception.  

The recent reports to CLC by Liebeler and Mitchell regarding the allegations in the civil lawsuit and incriminating evidence from the Morales trial also demonstrate their unwillingness to be open, honest and accountable.  The reports were partial, misleading and woefully incomplete.  Their conclusions regarding alleged child molesters were frightening and dangerous. 

Isaac and Joe’s last day of work will be January 15.  Both men have served on staff for 12 years and therefore will receive 12 weeks of severance pay. 

Comments:  That comes to roughly 17k each.  Under these circumstances, I believe the pastors owe them a higher amount.  These two men share far lesser responsibility for the demise of CLC compared to Harris, Megorden, Boisvert, Maresco, and Layman.  Though staff pastors, Hydoski and Lee were never told about Nathaniel Morales in 2007 when these five men decided on their own not to report him to law enforcement.  

Harris from his considerable wealth; Megorden, Boisvert and Maresco from their retirement accounts if necessary, should each give “12 weeks of severance pay” to both of these families.  

We had planned to share this news in person at a Members Meeting on December 14.  But as we looked more closely at the schedule and talked with Isaac and Joe about what would serve them, we elected to cancel the Members Meeting for this month and communicate via letter. 

Comment:  Their last day is January 15, 2015.  Will Isaac Hydoski and Joe Lee be commended for their 12 years of service before the church and prayed for on a Sunday morning?  The same for Ben Wikner. 

One other significant change is in view.  Corby Megorden will be voluntarily reducing his hours to half-time effective January 1 with a plan to transition off the staff at the end of Fiscal Year 2015. 

Comment: That is August 31, 2015.  Megorden is the Church Administrator responsible for implementing child sex abuse policies.  He told Covenant Life Church on August 17, 2011 that the fear of lawsuits was a significant factor in whether or not the pastors reported suspected sex abusers to law enforcement.  The facts show the pastors at CLC have been far more concerned with avoiding lawsuits then the reporting and prosecution of suspected and known sex abusers.  

Several years ago, Corby was introduced to the concept of Business as Missions, and began to study the theology of work.  In the past two years he has had an increasing desire to be used by God to help Christians develop kingdom-minded businesses that exist for more than just profit.  He also desires to use his background in business, churches and non-profits to help these organizations define measurable goals, implement clear strategy and function effectively.  His plans, therefore, are to continue to be engaged in ministry here at Covenant Life, just not on staff. 

This decision to reduce his hours not only reflects his desire to pursue new ministry opportunities, but its timing also helps us meet our need to reduce expenditures. 

The elders entrusted the decision about who to lay off to Joshua and me, and we acted prayerfully with all the wise counsel available to us through the elders, Non-Staff Elder Candidates and the Financial Advisory Committee.  Sitting across from Joe and Isaac one by one and delivering this news is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. 

Comment:  Where was Josh?  

Joe, Isaac and Corby are beloved and faithful servants who have made wonderful contributions to the work of the ministry at Covenant Life.  Numerous members have grown in the grace and knowledge of God through their friendship, counseling and care.  Every pastor on our team feels a deep sense of loss as these three men prepare to close out their time on staff.  Our hearts are full of love and gratitude for them, and we want to bathe them in prayer during this time. 

Comment:  I hope Harris, Mitchell, Megorden, Boisvert, Maresco and Layman ask Hydoski and Lee’s forgiveness as the ones primarily responsible for bringing about the financial crisis at CLC and their resultant termination. 

DID WE TAKE ANY OTHER STEPS TO REDUCE EXPENSES? 

Prior to making the decision to lay off two pastors, we looked across our entire budget and decided to make a number of adjustments to reduce expenses. (We did this initially in the hope that we would not have to make pastoral or administrative staff layoffs.) These adjustments are summarized in the following table: 

  • Pastoral Team Reductions (Shef, Ben, Isaac, Joe, & Corby to half-time) $293 K
  • Missions “Freeze” $433 K
  • Health Care Savings $70 K
  • Cancelling Planned Hires $130 K
  • Moving Raises to January $29 K
  • Reduction in Ministry Expenses to 2014 Levels $86 K
  • Repayment of Legal Expenses $200 K 

Comment:  The pastoral team reductions include Erik Sheffer and Ben Wikner.  “Shef” recently left to plant a non-Covenant Life Church.  Wikner resigned as a matter of conscience.  I will say more about these men later.  

The 433K “Missions ‘Freeze’” is the amount of money Covenant Life planned to give to church planting, local missions, and global missions.  This is their “tithe” so to speak; but it was reduced from 10% in FY 2014 to 7% in FY 2015.  Now it has been frozen at 0%.   CLC has given nothing to missions since September 1.  

This introduces an element of hypocrisy in my opinion.  The Covenant Life pastors have taught and counseled people to tithe regardless of their financial circumstances.  I’d not be surprised if members follow their example and cut out giving because expenses exceed income in their personal budgets.    

The last line item is “Repayment of Legal Expenses 200K.”  I don’t know if this repayment has been postponed or written off by legal representation.  I do know CLC paid $303,077 in legal fees in FY 2013.  It is hard to tell what they paid in FY 2014.  If I were a member, I’d ask for a clear cut accounting of all legal fees since October 2012 when the original lawsuit was filed to the present.

TOTAL $1,241 K 

The total amount of $1,241,000 met the agreed-upon goal set by the Board of Elders for reducing our overall Fiscal Year 2014 expenses in light of the September downturn in giving. 

Comment:  The last three months (Sep-Nov) giving has been down approximately 375K from what was budgeted and anticipated.    

WHAT’S NEXT? 

First, let’s acknowledge what an emotional time this is for us all.  We don’t need to shy away from our sadness and tears, or hold back on expressing our heartfelt gratefulness for each of these men.  The Lord is with us in these times, and the Holy Spirit will move among us and minister comfort as we share both our sense of loss and all our questions. 

Comment:  The termination of Issac Hydoski and Joe Lee raises a lot of questions.  I hope they are being asked and answered in a transparent manner.  

Second, we are taking time to reorganize and redistribute the pastoral responsibilities that Isaac and Joe have faithfully carried out.  We will be pulling together meetings with the Singles Ministry, Care and Counseling Team and the relevant Care Group leaders to outline next steps and pray.  We know God is with us and will continue to strengthen the body for the work of the ministry.  Relative to Corby’s position, we envision hiring a single individual (non-elder) to serve as both Administrator and Controller. 

Comment:  For many years as a part of my responsibilities in SGM, I monitored the ratio of pastors to people and the ratio of support staff to people attending the churches.  I did this to help the churches make sure they were not over staffed.  I always counseled the pastors in my sphere to keep staff expenses at 50% of the budget or lower.  That way you avoid getting into financial trouble and keep giving to missions high.  Relative to this standard, Covenant Life Church was always overstaffed but could afford it because their members lived in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States.  In the FY 2015 budget, Megorden and the pastors planned on 62.2% of revenues going toward staffing costs.  That makes me cringe. 

In Sovereign Grace Ministries, the average ratio of support staff (non-pastoral employees) to attenders was one per 130 attenders including children.  That meant a SGM church of 520 had four support staff employees on the average.  Depending on size and priorities, a given church might employ an administrator, accountant, secretaries, Children’s Ministry director, worship leader, information technology manager, etc. 

Approximately 2,500 people including children currently attend CLC.  That means CLC would employ approximately 19 support staff personnel using this long term average in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  They currently employ 34 support staff.  This is a major reason for their 1.2 million deficit.  I feel for the support staff.  They are not the ones responsible for the budget crisis but it may result in multiple terminations. 

Lastly, we are moving forward with plans to affirm the Non-Staff Elder candidates early in the new year, so we’ll be sharing lots more about this in the coming weeks.  These men have been closely involved for almost a year now in helping the elders navigate the various challenges and have proved to be a blessing at every turn. 

Comments:  These 10 non-staff elders were never affirmed by the church per the proposed Constitution but “have been closely involved for almost a year now.”  

FINAL WORD 

I invite you to speak with us and let us know how you are doing.  Questions and concerns are to be expected, and we welcome the opportunity to talk with you.  I also encourage us all to avoid speculation, turning instead to prayer.  As Paul exhorted Timothy (2 Timothy 2), let’s “pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” 

Comment:  “I also encourage us all to avoid speculation.”  I don’t think speculation is a problem for Mitchell because he has all the answers.  On the other hand, this letter tempts people to speculate because it fails to address vital issues in open, honest and accountable fashion.  For instance, what criteria were used by Harris and Mitchell in deciding to lay off Hydoski and Lee?  Let me illustrate. 

Mark Mitchell told CLC on October 26,

“Ben [Wikner] was one of two pastors who disagreed with the decision by the elders to not place Josh, Kenneth, Robin and Corby on a leave of absence in May.  The second pastor who had disagreed with that decision was Joe Lee. … As I mentioned Ben was one of the two dissenting pastors.  His disagreement with this decision was a significant factor in his decision to leave the pastoral team.” 

In other words, Wikner and Lee believed Harris, Mitchell, Megorden, Boisvert, and Maresco should take a leave of absence while under investigation for not reporting Nathaniel Morales to police in 2007, etc.  Wikner resigned as a matter of conscience when they were allowed to continue without a leave of absence.  That is commendable. 

CLC should give Wikner “severance” since they gave money to Brian Chesemore and Mike Bradshaw when they abruptly quit in August 2011, left the church and went with C.J. Mahaney to Louisville, KY.  The Wikner’s have six children.  I also hope people from CLC help them out financially.

Furthermore, Harris wrote a letter to CLC in August that accompanied the budget for FY 2015 (see below).  In that letter, he highlighted the top three budgetary priorities for 2015.  Here’s what he said about Joe Lee and the Care & Counseling Ministry. 

Dear Covenant Life Church,

In preparation for a new budget year I’m writing to share our top ministry priorities and how these are expressed in our upcoming budget. … The pastors have prayed and sought to identify the most important priorities that will help us to advance our mission to “worship God, love one another and make disciples of Jesus Christ.” 

We believe the priority this year is to focus on growing healthy internally so we can make a greater impact externally.  With that in mind here are three priorities for the new year’s budget: 

1.  Revitalize Small Groups: … 

2.  Strengthen Student Life Ministries: … 

3.  Expand Care & Counseling Ministry:  We believe a key to fulfilling our mission to love one another is creating a culture of compassionate care where we can both know and be known by God and others.  We want our church to be a redemptive environment where weak, broken, hurting, suffering, and sin-weary people can find real hope and transformation in Jesus Christ and in community with one another.  Joe Lee is not only building a team, but a church culture of care and counseling (which will include hiring a female counselor to help us more effectively ministry, in particular to women and those who have been victims of sexual abuse.

I hope you’re excited as you read these three priorities.  Understand, we’ll still be pushing ministry forward in equipping people to know God’s word, taking steps to advance missions locally and globally and seeking to make every Sunday a powerful time of encountering God and his truth.  But these priorities are ones we specifically need to increase in this year’s budget in order to make the progress we believe we need to make. 

Harris says “Joe Lee is not only building a team, but a church culture of care and counseling.”  He refers to the funding and expansion of the Care & Counseling Ministry as a “top” priority” and a “most important” priority.  He also says, “But these priorities are ones we specifically need to increase in this year’s budget in order to make the progress we believe we need to make.” 

In light of these commitments, why is Joe Lee being terminated when the ministry he leads is so vital to the progress and well-being of the church?  Joe Lee is not being laid off because he is a low priority.  He is being laid off for other reasons.  Harris must clearly explain those reasons. 

In the love of Christ, 

Mark Mitchell 

*Since 2011, Sunday attendance has dropped from 3,305 to 1,715, and giving has declined from $8.2 million to $6.2 million.  Up until now, we have been able to keep in step with these realities through the departures of several pastors and reducing other expenditures.  But in September of this year, giving took an unprecedented downturn, dropping from the norm by about 25% and remaining at or near that level since then.  That necessitated cutting an additional $1.2 million from the budget through layoffs and reducing other expenditures.

Comments:  I wish CLC was prospering.  I wish giving and attendance were increasing.  I wish all the pastors were walking in integrity and Lars Liebeler had done an impartial investigation.  But alas, the crisis at CLC is growing and it will increase in 2015.  The elders and non-staff elders have made some terrible decisions.  The conspiracy continues.  Even greater difficulties lie ahead for the church.  I genuinely wish it were not the case.    

I’ve included some primary source material below.

## 

BUDGET LETTER FROM JOSH
August 2014 

Dear Covenant Life Church, 

In preparation for a new budget year I’m writing to share our top ministry priorities and how these are expressed in our upcoming budget. 

The pastors have prayed and sought to identify the most important priorities that will help us to advance our mission to “worship God, love one another and make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  Now we’re asking you to consider these plan, pray over them with us, give us your feedback and ultimately join us in fulfilling them.  What God is calling us to is something we can only do together. 

Each of us needs to own the mission in our hearts and each of us needs to fund the mission with our giving. 

Three Main Priorities 

We believe the priority this year is to focus on growing healthy internally so we can make a greater impact externally.  With that in mind here are three priorities for the new year’s budget: 

1.  Revitalize Small Groups:  This year our Community Life team is leading to recharge our groups with vision, give more training and support to leaders, and provide more group options for members.  We want our groups to be a place where God’s word transforms lives, Christ’s love is expressed, gospel community is build and disciples are made. 
 
2.  Strengthen Student Life Ministries:  We want to prioritize making disciples in the next generation of our church by staffing to make our children’s and youth ministries a place where students are equipped to know God and his word, engaged in our mission and excited to participate.  In the past few years this team has been reduced, we believe we need to reverse that and increase it.  (Our goal is to hire a new staff member to work with middle school students ad assist Dave Brewer with high school ministry.) 
 
3.  Expand Care & Counseling Ministry:  We believe a key to fulfilling our mission to love one another is creating a culture of compassionate care where we can both know and be known by God and others.  We want our church to be a redemptive environment where weak, broken, hurting, suffering, and sin-weary people can find real hope and transformation in Jesus Christ and in community with one another.  Joe Lee is not only building a team, but a church culture of care and counseling (which will include hiring a female counselor to help us more effectively ministry, in particular to women and those who have been victims of sexual abuse.” 

I hope you’re excited as you read these three priorities.  Understand, we’ll still be pushing ministry forward in equipping people to know God’s word, taking steps to advance missions locally and globally and seeking to make every Sunday a powerful time of encountering God and his truth.  But these priorities are ones we specifically need to increase this year’s budget in order to make the progress we believe we need to make. 

Against, each of these priorities is helping us grow healthy internally so we can make a greater impact externally.  This year is about us strengthening and improving some key aspects of our “internal” church community so that we can advance our “external” impact on those who need Jesus. 

The following pages include brief synopses of how each our teams will focus on accomplishing their part of the mission.  The Coffee and Conversations with year will highlight the various departments and allow the opportunity to ask questions of the Team Leaders. 

We look forward to seeing what the Lord will do in Covenant Life this year. 

Grateful for your partnership in the Gospel, 

Joshua Harris 

For the elders.

##

Issac Hydoki
CLC Biography

At the age of 16 Isaac’s life was changed forever when he sat down and read a simple letter from a friend that explained the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Soon thereafter, he began to be discipled by members of Covenant Life, and he has been here ever since. 

After earning a degree in visual arts from UMBC, Isaac worked for a handful of years as a freelance photographer, but his true passion was for the church.  Several years of serving as a small group leader in the singles ministry gave Isaac a love for discipling singles and helping them to apply the gospel in a way that defines their lives, their work, and friendships. 

He was invited to attend the Pastors College and graduated in 2001 (during which time his wife served him heroically by putting food on the table while he studied!).  He then began working with the singles team as a pastoral intern and then a pastor.  “Hydro” says what he loves most about pastoring in the singles ministry is, “equipping men to lead, and helping all believers grow in maturity in Christ through the application of God’s Word into the details of their lives.”

When work is done for the day, Hydro enjoys dating his beautiful wife Kelly, roughhousing with his two boys KJ and Tate, and trying to make his daughter Ella laugh.  He prays each of them will one day be God-fearing, gospel-loving, church-builders someday like their momma and dada.

##

Joe Lee
CLC Biography

When Joe Lee’s second-grade Sunday-school teacher asked him why he was going to heaven, Joe answered, “Because my dad is the senior pastor of the church!”

Sensing the opportunity, Joe’s teacher took him aside and explained the gospel again.  At that point, says Joe, “God’s Spirit illuminated the truth of the gospel to my heart and allowed me to see that I was a sinner in need of a Savior.”

Joe grew up in Northern Virginia attending Korean Central Presbyterian Church, where his father was a pastor for 26 years.  We are grateful to Joe’s father and the church for sending Joe to us with their blessing.

While in high school, Joe felt called to ministry but gave up that desire after hearing discouraging stories from pastors.  He received a B.S. from Virginia Tech in 1996 and became a computer network engineer.

At Celebration East (a regional conference for Sovereign Grace churches; no longer being held) in 1998, Joe’s desire was re-ignited when he heard Tab Trainor, then a student at what is now Sovereign Grace Pastors College, speak with joy and excitement about ministry.  The Lord led Joe to the Pastors College in 1999-2000, and he joined the Covenant Life pastoral staff in July 2002.  Today, he oversees numerous care groups and oversees the Biblical Counseling Ministry in the church. 

Joe wants to help equip every member of the church to see themselves as ministers of the gospel and actively engaged in the lives of the people in their community. 

Joe and his wife Esther have five children. 

## 

From: Mark Mitchell - Covenant Life Church
Sent: Wednesday, August 27, 2014 5:03 PM
Subject: Staff Transitions 

Dear Covenant Life Members,

We pray this letter finds you well.

We’re writing to inform you that Erik Sheffer and Ben Wikner, two faithful members of our pastoral team, will be departing our staff.  Both men initiated this discussion with the elders a couple of months ago.  They did so independently from each other and for different reasons.

Though we are saddened to see these two friends and co-laborers leave our team, both we and they believe this is the Lord’s leading and therefore this transition is best for them, their families, and for Covenant Life Church.

It is possible that you have already heard about these changes and have been wondering why we haven’t said anything officially until now.  The reason is that we were still discussing the details of Ben’s transition and seeking to communicate with and care for all the relevant parties before getting word out to the church as a whole.  The details were finalized on August 19.

Ben came to Covenant Life Church having had ministry experience as a church planter and lead pastor in two Presbyterian churches, and has faithfully served Covenant Life since his arrival in January 2008.  He has served as a shepherd over a number of care groups, has been a strong voice on the elder board, a leader over various ministries and a regular contributor to the Sunday preaching.  Ben will be leaving the staff at the end of the year, so we will share more details about his transition at a future time.

Erik Sheffer, affectionately known as “Shef,” graduated from seminary with a degree in counseling, relocated to Covenant Life in the summer of 2002 and has been on staff serving in various positions since then.  He joined the pastoral team in the summer of 2006.  He has overseen the pre-marital process, has been strategically involved in the discipleship of newly married couples, and has faithfully shepherded a number of care groups over the past eight years.  Shef will leave the staff at the end of September.

Shef feels called to start a new church in Damascus.  Though this is not a Covenant Life church plant, we pray God’s blessing on him, his wife Jerusha and this new season of their ministry.  We love this man and his family and believe God will use this parting of ways to multiply gospel ministry.

Please pray for the Sheffers and extend your love to them as they move on from our church and staff.  If you would like to correspond with Shef, don’t hesitate to contact him at his e-mail address eriksheffer@verizon.net.

We will pray for Shef and family during our service on Sunday, September 28, and for Ben and family later in the year.

Please reach out to anyone on the pastoral team if you have further questions.

May the peace of Christ reign in our hearts.

Sincerely,

Joshua & Mark

On behalf of the Elders

##

Erik Sheffer
CLC Biography 

Erik Sheffer says he and his wife Jerusha “had a conviction that it was time to stake our claim” in a Sovereign Grace church.  With degrees in tow (he an M.A. in Counseling; she an M.Div.), the couple left Boston and Gordon Conwell Seminary and moved to Maryland in May of 2002.  They initially ruled out Covenant Life because of its large size, but “Providence and wise counsel” soon overrode their reluctance, says Erik. 

Erik’s involvement at Covenant Life Church ramped up quickly in the summer of 2002 when he took a job as manager of the Audio and Bookstore ministries.  In 2004 Erik was asked to oversee all of the church’s ministry teams and leaders.  At the same time he led a few Beta groups and a Care Group from 2004 to 2005.  Over time, however, the Lord began to make it clear that his role in the church was to change drastically. 

“I realized more and more, only through the help of many, that God [was] calling me to pastor his people.  Sadly, it was a long road.  I didn’t heed God’s call because of sin—fear of man, unbelief, etc.  But through God’s grace and the care of many people, I am here today,” Erik says.  Erik studied faithfully with the Sovereign Grace Pastors College class of 2006 and joined the Covenant Life pastoral staff in June. 

Erik, and the other pastors in the Family Life ministry, oversees care groups, leads discipleship groups, counsels, and develops new resource materials for the ministry.  He says he is most passionate about “building with and caring for God’s people,” as well as discipleship, counseling and studying God’s Word. 

Erik and his wife Jerusha married in 2000 and have six children—Karis, Jotham, Mercia, Jedidiah, Titus and Jubilee.  Erik enjoys spending time with his family, the beach, games, reading and basketball. 

## 

Ben Wikner
CLC Bibliography 

Ben Wikner is one of the newer pastors at Covenant Life, having served on staff since 2008.  Prior to coming here, Ben was a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Temecula, CA from 1999 to 2005.  Of this ministry background, Ben remarked, “I’m so grateful for all that I experienced coming from a reformed, high church background like the OPC.”  He continued, “It served me exceedingly well for my ministry training, but God definitely brought us here to serve Covenant Life, and it has felt a little like coming home to us.”

Ben was born in South Korea, was orphaned and then adopted into a Christian family in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Suffice it to say, identity was a dominant issue for Ben growing up, but when he was 19 years old, God revealed himself to him and Ben committed his life to follow Jesus.  One of the things Ben is most grateful for is his secure identity as God’s precious and beloved son, through his Savior Jesus Christ.  Such wonderful truth, as well as his own experience, has given Ben a real heart for orphans, adoption and vulnerable children.

Ben holds a BA from Covenant College, and a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary in California.  It was at Covenant College where he met his wife Erin and first sensed a call to pastoral ministry. 

Ben now serves with the Family Life team of pastors where his responsibilities include pastoral oversight for a number of Care Groups, teaching classes, leading in various missions and being the resident (former) Presbyterian. 

The Wikners have six children, which keeps them busy, tired and humble. “But,” commented Ben, “We wouldn’t have it any other way.  We are so amazed and grateful that we get to pastor our children as well as to serve this church.”

Saturday
Nov222014

Budget Crisis at Covenant Life Church after Attendance Drops 1,600 People over Last Three Years

Yesterday, Mark Mitchell, the Executive Pastor for Covenant Life Church, sent out the following email to all the members.  I’ve interspersed comments in bold print.

From: Mark Mitchell
Sent: Friday, November 21, 2014 6:00 PM
To: [Covenant Life Church Members]
Subject: Budget Outlook

November 21, 2014

Dear church family, 

Earlier this year when we affirmed our budget, we said that we would update you as the year unfolded if giving decreased and we needed to make adjustments to our plans.  In the providence of God giving has decreased, and I’m writing today to share how we’re seeking to be good stewards in response.  

Comment:  The budget was affirmed by the church in August.  It runs for the fiscal year, September 2014-August 2015.  Corby Megorden, the church administrator, wrote the following in his introduction to the budget.

“One could make a case that it [the budget] is optimistic, given that membership has decreased over the past few years, and the average giving per member has dropped also.  However, in prior years we have experienced giving that exceeds this budget with fewer members.  If the average members were to give at the rate they did in 2009, 2010 and 2011, this budget will be attainable.  It is our hope that the vision for Covenant Life defined here will appropriately challenge and inspire members to investment of their time, talent and treasure.”

Just the opposite has occurred.  The giving rate of members has not gone up, it has rather drastically gone down. 

In Psalm 16 David writes, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”  God is in control and he is good and right now he is redrawing our “boundary lines” as a church when it comes to our size and budget.

Comment:  The Sovereign Lord has greatly reduced the size and income of Covenant Life Church.  Mark Mitchell gives no explanation for this “redrawing.”

OUR SITUATION

Over the last three years Sunday attendance and giving have declined.  Since 2011, Sunday attendance has dropped from 3,305 to 1,715, and giving has declined from $8.2 million to $6.2 million.  Up until now, we have been able to keep in step with these realities through the departures of several pastors and reducing other expenditures.

Comment:  Attendance has basically dropped by half over the past three years.  CLC used to do two Sunday services that were full.  Now they do one service.

But in September of this year, giving took an unprecedented downturn, dropping from the norm by about 25% and remaining at or near that level since then.

Comment:  25% of $6.2 million is approximately 1.5 million.  That means a 125k loss of income each month.  Covenant Life is already 375k in the red after three months of operation on the new budget.

Very simply, we are a smaller church with less than expected revenue, and we need to reduce our staff to match this reality.  While this is difficult we believe it’s part of God’s ongoing work of pruning us and focusing us as a church so that we can be more fruitful in the days ahead.

Comment:  Covenant Life Church will need to reduce its support staff, not just its pastoral staff.  It lists 34 support staff employees.

OUR RESPONSE

The elders, having consulted with the non-staff elder candidates and Financial Advisory Committee, are in agreement that we cannot sustain our present budget and that it’s necessary to lay off two pastors

Comment:  Laying off two pastors will not nearly make up for the budget deficit.  Cuts will have to go much deeper. 

I realize this is unexpected and uncomfortable news that affects our whole church body.  As the one with specific responsibility to implement the layoffs, my heart is heavy at the prospect. 

Comment:  I guess this means Mark Mitchell is not a candidate for being laid off.  Is Joshua Harris a non-consideration too?   Who decides which pastors get to stay and which ones are let go?  On what basis will these decisions be made and will the church have any say in the process or decision? 

We plan to share more specifics on the layoffs at an after-service Members Meeting on Sunday, December 14.  We would appreciate your prayers for the whole staff in the interim. 

Comment:  From what I gather, Joshua and Mark will be making the decision.  The other pastors will be left in the dark.  It appears the pastors won’t be functioning as a plurality and there will be no congregational input. 

Also on the 14th, we will share plans to help the congregation get to know the non-staff elder candidates during January and move forward with an affirmation vote in January or February.  Even as the Lord is taking away, he is providing new means of care and leadership for his people. 

Comment:  Non-staff elders are greatly limited compared to staff elders because they work full time jobs that are typically demanding.  They cannot provide the same level of care and leadership and they often suffer from over-extension.

THIS SUNDAY

Finally, two notes about this coming Sunday.  First, we’re having a Coffee & Conversation meeting at 12:15 p.m. in the Edwards Room, and we invite you to come and ask any questions and share your thoughts with us there.  Second, I’m preaching a message in our “Life Together” series on giving and its role in our community. 

Comment:  During October and November, the pastors have been defending themselves against charges found in the Second Amended Complaint (lawsuit) and against charges that arose from the Nathaniel Morales trial with the help of their lawyer, Lars Liebeler.  That two month defense wraps up at the Coffee & Conversation tomorrow.    

When we planned the series earlier this year we didn’t know that giving would drop in September or that we’d be facing the prospect of laying off staff.  I want you to know that the purpose of this message is not to trumpet the need for giving in hopes of quickly reversing the trend.  We are entrusting that to the Lord.  The purpose of the message is simply to let God’s Word speak and remind us all of God’s call to generosity and faith in regards to our resources—something that so many of you are already modeling. 

Comment:  I’m sure the pastors hope their defense against the conspiracy to commit and cover up sexual abuse has restored some trust.  I have closely followed their defense.  It's had the opposite effect upon me.  The recent “independent investigation” by Lars Liebeler was neither independent nor an investigation.  Liebeler did his review as the church’s lawyer.  As such, he was forbidden from sharing incriminating evidence in his possession against the pastors.  He withheld it. 

May God help us to process this news in keeping with the truths from God’s Word throughout the “Life Together” series.  We are God’s dearly loved children, redeemed for his glory, and called by his grace to draw near to one another in enduring love and service. 

Comment:  1,600 people no longer do “Life Together” at Covenant Life Church.  Most of them were godly believers and church members.  They lost confidence in their pastors and no longer attend or actively participate.  A teaching series is not the answer to the decline in giving or attendance.  The pastors have often compromised themselves and refused to do what they knew was right.  Nor have they been accountable to the church as promised in their “Jesus ruled, elder led, congregationally accountable” creed. 

With faith, hope and love,

Mark Mitchell with the Elders