Megachurches' power changes are often painful, expert says
By Susie Gran
March 9, 2006
When the founder of Legacy Church in Albuquerque left his flock after more than two decades, his successor did not look back for approval or guidance.
Without controversy over new leadership, Legacy grew into the second largest megachurch in New Mexico with 9,000 members.
|AT A GLANCE|
More than 4 million people across the country attend megachurches like Albuquerque's Calvary Chapel.
New Mexico has three megachurches, defined by researcher Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religious Research as a non-Catholic congregation of about 2,000 or more worshippers each week.
Albuquerque and Rio Rancho have two Catholic parishes exceeding 2,000 members.
The megachurches are:
Calvary Chapel, 4001 Osuna Road N.E., 14,000 worshippers
Legacy Church, 7201 Central Ave. N.W., 5,000 worshippers
Hoffmantown Church, 8888 Harper Road N.E., 3,000 worshippers
Sources: Scott Thumma, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, www.hartsem.edu; The Rev. Richard Olona, Church of the Risen Savior, 7701 Wyoming N.E.
That doesn't always happen when a megachurch founder moves on, Legacy Senior Pastor Stever Smothermon said.
"We're probably the exception to the rule," Smothermon said.
New Mexico's largest megachurch, Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque, is in the midst of a difficult, and public, transition.
On Wednesday, church members learned founder Skip Heitzig was stepping down as chairman of Calvary's board following more than two weeks of turmoil.
Heitzig had handpicked senior Pastor Pete Nelson to succeed him when Heitzig left for a California church in 2004.
Heitzig continued to serve as chairman of the Calvary board and conduct his radio ministry.
On Feb. 19, Nelson resigned, saying in a letter to the board that Heitzig wasn't allowing him to run the church.
Nearly 1,600 church members have signed an online petition asking for Nelson to return and for local elders to be seated as Calvary directors.
Church members and former board members had called for the resignations of Heitzig and Calvary's out-of-state directors.
Some church members have also requested information on finances and personnel decisions.
Former Calvary board member Greg Zanetti said any church, large or small, can have difficulties with pastors or boards that have too much power.
"Our problems are not unique to Calvary. We're all human beings," Zanetti said.
It took Nelson's resignation to get the problems resolved, Zanetti said.
"Good men and women are going to do the right thing," he said.
This is a typical reaction in disputes over leadership, said Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, an offshoot of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. Thumma conducted studies of megachurches in 2000 and 2005.
Lack of accountability in the leadership of a megachurch is a frequent claim made by former members and external critics, he found.
Some new senior pastors find it difficult to run the church when the founder refuses to relinquish control, Thumma said in his study.
"Given the pivotal role played by megachurch pastors, it is hard to imagine their churches functioning without them. Indeed, this is a concern for many such congregations: how to create ministerial continuity and a congregational identity apart from the senior minister."
In an interview with The Tribune, Thumma said between 25 percent and 30 percent of the megachurches have changed pastors after reaching megasize.
"The idea that these are going to collapse when the founder leaves is not necessarily true," he said.
For Smothermon, the transition at Legacy Church was much different than Calvary's.
When he arrived, Smothermon said he formed two boards - elders and trustees - to help him govern the church.
From the beginning, he had support to grow the church on his own terms after the founder left.
Smothermon has doubled the size of the congregation, formerly Victory Love Fellowship, and is determined to make room for more.
He counts 9,000 members, with about 5,000 of them attending weekly services at Legacy on Central Avenue Northwest.
Smothermon said he is familiar with the research on megachurches that has documented both smooth and rocky transitions.
"Other churches have transitioned wonderfully," he said. "I know they do, but some do not."
He said he hasn't followed Calvary's controversy closely, but he said he believes churches should handle such disputes privately.
"The church should never air its dirty laundry," he said. "When leadership fails, the people suffer. Our heart goes out to the people" at Calvary.
Calvary Assistant Pastor Chip Lusko agrees Calvary's problems should not have gone public.
"On one hand, I feel concerned for the people of Albuquerque who have watched this publicly unfold. On the other hand, I am expectant God is going to work this out and good things will come of it," Lusko said.
He said the lessons learned should improve relationships and lead to reconciliation.
"Each of us can look and see relationships that get out of sorts. When those become public, it's painful."
Lusko likened the founder of a megachurch to an entrepreneur in the business world. Both leave their fingerprints on their product.
In Calvary's case, there was no business plan from the start to follow as it grew into a megachurch, Lusko said.
"We didn't set out to become a big business," he said. "It grew so very naturally, it seemed like a very smooth change from small to large."
Around Albuquerque, church leaders and churchgoers are joined in prayer for the Calvary membership and the future of their church.
"I'm personally praying for that community," said The Rev. Richard Olona of the Church of the Risen Savior, one of the largest Catholic parishes in the metro area.
"It's a lot different in the Catholic church," he said of leadership changes.
"We are appointed by the archbishop and the local parishioners accept that."