Sunday, March 26, 2006

Calvary Board to Discuss Founder's Resignation

Monday, March 20, 2006

By Jeff Proctor

Journal Staff Writer

This week could be pivotal for Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque.

The 14,000-member church's board of directors is scheduled to meet Tuesday. On the agenda: the resignation of Calvary founder and former senior pastor Skip Heitzig.

Heitzig, who has served as Calvary board chairman since founding the church nearly a quarter-century ago, submitted a letter of resignation March 10, according to Tom Garrity, who is handling public relations for Calvary.

That wasn't the first time Heitzig tried to resign during the leadership crisis that has gripped Calvary in the past month.

According to church leaders who spoke from the pulpit on Feb. 26, Heitzig had "submitted his resignation, but the board wouldn't accept it."

That scenario isn't likely to play out again at Tuesday's meeting, Garrity said.

"The situation has dramatically changed since (Feb. 26), and it is Skip's desire that the board accept his resignation," Garrity said Sunday. "Skip's desire for the congregation is that the healing process begin.

"From everything I've heard, the resignation will be accepted."

What is still unclear is whether Calvary's other out-of-state board members will resign as well.

Controversy at Calvary spilled into public view Feb. 19 when then-senior pastor Pete Nelson abruptly stepped down. In his resignation letter, obtained by the Journal, Nelson cited a struggle with Heitzig for control of Calvary.

Nelson wrote that Heitzig, who left Albuquerque in early 2004 to lead Ocean Hills Community Church in California, was not allowing him to choose his own board members— or enough autonomy to run the megachurch as he saw fit.

A November 2004 letter written by then-board member Greg Zanetti raised many of the same concerns.

Zanetti's letter, also obtained by the Journal, said Heitzig had tried to wrest control of Calvary's two multi-million dollar radio stations from the church. Zanetti also expressed concern that Heitzig had loaded Calvary's board of directors with his friends, who did not live in Albuquerque or attend Calvary, and who were more loyal to Heitzig than to the church.

Finally, during the first week of March, a group of church members headed by John Ackerman went to the board and demanded that Heitzig and all other out-of-state board members resign.

Ackerman, former president of Public Service Company of New Mexico and an ethics professor at UNM's Anderson Schools of Management, is a longtime member of Calvary.

The group he leads wants more transparency and accountability in Calvary's financial and personnel moves, and asserts local governance is a key first step to achieving those objectives.

At Tuesday's meeting will be Heitzig, Gino Geraci, Paul Saber, Raul Ries, Paul Scozzafava and Michael Rosenblum, according to Garrity. John Fidel, a certified public accountant, is on sabbatical until the end of tax season.

Geraci, Saber and Ries all live out of state. Scozzafava lives in Santa Fe; Rosenblum and Fidel— the board's two most recent appointments— live in Albuquerque.

Zanetti said that, on March 8, Heitzig promised his resignation along with those of Geraci, Saber and Ries.

On that same day, Heitzig told the Journal that he wasn't clear on the others' resignations, and that he needed to speak with Zanetti again on the matter. Heitzig has not returned telephone calls from the Journal since March 8, and Zanetti said Heitzig did not get back in touch with him until last week.

It appears that Heitzig's will be the lone resignation discussed by the board Tuesday.

"I'm not aware of any other resignations that could be coming down the pike right now," Garrity said Sunday, but he left open the possibility the others could step down.

The board will act on three other items Tuesday: selection of an interim senior pastor; a selection process to find a permanent senior pastor; and internal realignment of staff to meet existing and future church needs.

Garrity said Heitzig is "very unlikely" to fill the role of interim senior pastor. But he said Heitzig may return sometime down the road— either as senior pastor or as a board member.

"He has a strong place in his heart for Calvary of Albuquerque," Garrity said. "Whether those feeling will bring him back, I don't know."

For now, there is no "short list" of candidates to step in as senior pastor. In fact, on Tuesday the board will simply discuss a process to find the church's next top preacher.

As for "internal realignment," Garrity said, the church has at least two spots to fill on its pastoral staff. Bob Church and C.B. Blankenship— both members of the staff— resigned about the same time as Nelson last month, he said.

Garrity, president of the Garrity Group LLC, said he was hired last week by Calvary Associate Pastor Chip Lusko, who normally handles media inquiries for the church.

Garrity counts as recent clients the Albuquerque Public Schools, Intel, New Mexico Senate Democrats, Furr's Supermarkets and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

He said his salary is being paid by the Calvary board of directors but declined to say how much.

Garrity's role, he said, is to manage "crisis communications and public relations" for Calvary.

"The church is in the midst of a transition, and the pastoral staff more than has its work cut out for it," he said. "That's one of the underlying reasons I was brought on."

Zanetti and Ackerman have criticized Calvary's hiring of a public relations firm.

"I find it revealing that Skip Heitzig and Chip Lusko are using Calvary Albuquerque funds to pay a public relations firm," Zanetti said in an interview. "Using hard-earned tithings and offerings in this manner is deplorable. Truth does not need spin or packaging."

Ackerman said Sunday that none of his group's concerns have been addressed so far.

"Our principal concerns continue to be a governance process and behavior that lacks accountability, transparency and truth," he wrote in an e-mail response to Journal questions. "P.R. firms are hired to improve image. The best way to improve the church's current image is to adopt accountability, transparency and truth. It is cheaper than a P.R. firm, and may even be biblical."

Journal staffer Paul Logan contributed to this report.

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