Copyright © 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
Calvary Chapel founder Skip Heitzig defended his decision to keep out-of-state members on the megachurch's board and described calls for his resignation from longtime members as "arrogant."
Heitzig, in an interview with the Journal on Monday, disputed allegations leveled by former church leaders that he is using the 14,000-member church's assets to build a national ministry.
"I'm really a local leader," he said. "I have no grand vision for a personal national ministry."
Heitzig left Calvary Albuquerque in early 2004 to lead Ocean Hills Community Church in California, but kept his position as chairman of the Calvary board of directors.
The controversy spilled over onto talk radio Tuesday with church members and critics weighing in on KKOB's local morning and afternoon shows.
Former Calvary Senior Pastor Pete Nelson, Heitzig's hand-picked successor, resigned suddenly Feb. 19, citing a power struggle between him and Heitzig over control of Calvary. In his resignation letter, Nelson wrote that despite assurances from Heitzig, he was not allowed to pick board members— even though two years had passed since Heitzig left.
In November 2004, then-board member Greg Zanetti wrote a letter to church leaders outlining many of the same concerns Nelson would raise more than a year later. Zanetti wrote that Heitzig had stacked the board with out-of-town members— who did not attend church in Albuquerque, and who were more loyal to Heitzig than to Calvary. He said in an interview that he was forced to resign from the board after writing the letter.
Four of the church's seven members live outside New Mexico.
In Monday's interview, Heitzig said he believes non-local board members can serve Calvary's interests.
"Board members serve for accountability reasons," he said. "Sometimes, when you have board members that are out of town who ... don't have anything to gain or anything to lose— it can be healthy, because they're going to say some things to the chairman of the board or the president that maybe a church member wouldn't have the freedom to say."
Albuquerque-based board members, Heitzig said, even applauded the appointments of Greg Laurie and Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, to the board. Graham and Laurie, who live out of state, left the board in late 2004.
"We were bringing a whole new level of leadership to this board, where we would get the experience of time and management," he said. "It was agreed upon by everybody. There was no dissent."
Following Nelson's resignation and the publication of Zanetti's letter, a group of longtime church members including John Ackerman demanded that Heitzig and all other out-of-town board members resign.
In a letter to the board, Ackerman, former president of Public Service Company of New Mexico, and other church members contended that "there is little, if any local oversight of this church" and "fiscal accountability to the (congregation) is virtually non-existent."
Heitzig dismissed the group's letter as an "un-biblical" way to "force a change."
"I think it's arrogant for a group of six people, or however many were represented, to come and make demands," he said. "That's the reason there are a board of directors who have to make decisions for organizations ...
"The congregation will ultimately decide how reasonable boards make decisions ..."
Reached at his office Tuesday, Ackerman said his schedule was full and that he did not have time to respond.
Handling of controversy
Heitzig said he wished Zanetti and Ackerman would have handled the controversy privately.
"We hoped Greg Zanetti would have come privately to resolve these issues without pain to the entire congregation," he said. "I'm saddened that they chose to publicly damage the church instead of working out these issues in an appropriate forum."
Heitzig said he tried several times during the past two weeks to contact Zanetti, but his calls and e-mails were not returned.
Zanetti said he wrote a letter to Heitzig six months after his resignation but that Heitzig never responded.
"Only when Skip heard my letter was going to be in the newspaper did he and a host of others— many asking me to retract my letter— get in touch," he said.
And in recent weeks, Zanetti said, Ackerman asked him to hold off on speaking with Heitzig until Ackerman's group had a chance to meet with the board.
In his letter, Zanetti wrote that Heitzig was planning to transfer Calvary's two multi-million dollar radio stations to a corporation run by Heitzig and board member Paul Saber.
Heitzig said a "fact-finding" group was appointed to look at potential ways the stations could be used, but the group decided the transfer would not be appropriate.
"Most of this controversy is based on a 15-month-old letter that raised some premature concerns over ideas that never happened, that never came to pass," he said.
Further, Heitzig said that while he does not have aspirations for a "personal national ministry," he believes his half-hour daily radio show— known as The Connection— has done "good things for Calvary Albuquerque."
"The church in Albuquerque ... has seen (The Connection) as part of their outreach, ministry part of it for some time," he said. "That was the decision made years ago— to get the word of God out."