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Embattled Pastor to Step Down

By Jeff Proctor
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Calvary Chapel founder Skip Heitzig said Wednesday he is stepping down from the board of directors in an attempt to "defuse" escalating tension within the church.
    But Heitzig, who served as chairman for 22 years, left open the possibility he may return to the board at some point. He also said, in a telephone interview from California, that he is "still involved" with the 14,000-member church.
    "The pastoral staff and the board want me involved," he said.
    Pete Nelson, Heitzig's handpicked successor, stunned the congregation by resigning Feb. 19. Neither he nor other Calvary leaders would say why he was leaving.
    But a struggle for control became public when the Journal obtained a draft of Nelson's resignation letter that outlined a list of grievances against Heitzig and the board.
    The controversy came to a head last week when a group of church members including John Ackerman, former president of Public Service Company of New Mexico and an ethics professor at UNM's Anderson Schools of Management, asked that Heitzig and the out-of-state directors resign.
    The group also sought more transparency in financial and personnel dealings.
    Ackerman said Wednesday the resignations "provide the opportunity for forgiveness, restoration and healing to begin."
    Heitzig declined to say whether the other out-of-state board members were resigning.
    But former board member Greg Zanetti said he spoke with Heitzig on Wednesday morning, and Heitzig agreed that he and the other non-local board members would step down.
    "My belief is that Skip is trying to get hold of all of them right now to get their resignations so that the church can revert to local governance and the healing process can begin," Zanetti said.
    The other out-of-state board members are Gino Geraci, Raul Ries and Paul Saber.
    Saber, in a telephone interview from California, would neither confirm nor deny his resignation. Geraci and Ries could not be reached for comment.
    In describing his reasons for stepping down, Heitzig said he wants to "defuse any escalating issues. I don't really believe there are any issues. ...
    "I trust the local leadership of Calvary Albuquerque— especially the elders, who are the pastoral staff— and we're just going to see how the Lord leads them."
    Heitzig on Monday had dismissed calls for his resignation as "arrogant."
    He said Wednesday that he didn't know when he would announce his resignation to the congregation.
   
Heitzig meeting with pastors today
    "I haven't yet talked to the board and the pastoral staff, and I want to be able to do that," Heitzig said, adding that he will be in Albuquerque today to "speak and pray" with the pastoral staff.
    Heitzig left Albuquerque in early 2004 to lead Ocean Hills Community Church in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., but remained chairman of Calvary's board of directors.
    In his resignation letter, Nelson wrote that despite promises from Heitzig, he was not allowed to appoint his own board directors.
    He outlined an ongoing struggle between him and Heitzig for control of the church, and concern that Heitzig wanted Calvary Albuquerque to become part of his national ministry.
    Earlier this week Heitzig told the Journal he had "no grand vision for a national ministry."
    Disagreement over how the church was run had been simmering behind the scenes for more than a year.
    In November 2004, then-board member Zanetti wrote a pointed letter to church leaders detailing some of the same concerns Nelson would raise more than a year later.
    According to Zanetti's letter, Heitzig maintained a board stacked with "absentee" members, who were more loyal to Heitzig than to Calvary. Zanetti told the Journal he was forced to step down from the board after writing the letter.
    Nelson, Zanetti and Ackerman all questioned whether non-local board members serve Calvary's best interests.
   
No comment from Pete Nelson
    One person who has not spoken publicly about the conflict is Nelson. He reportedly is out of town.
    Saber said more than a week ago church leaders expected to have a replacement for Nelson within a few weeks.
    It's unclear whether Nelson would be a potential candidate.
    Saber reiterated Wednesday that the board accepted Nelson's resignation.
    However, a group of members has launched a petition drive to reinstate Nelson, which it says has gathered 1,500 signatures.
    Nelson could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
    Heitzig said that his Wednesday conversation with Zanetti represented the "beginning of the reconciliation process."
    "If throwing the olive branch out means stepping down from that position (on the board), though I can still be involved at the bequest of the board ... and the pastoral staff, then great," he said.
    His future involvement at the church will be up to the pastoral staff, made up of Calvary's pastors.
    "I serve at their convenience," Heitzig said.
    He said his conversation with Zanetti included leaving open the possibility that Heitzig may return to Calvary's board.
    "But we have no timetable for that," Heitzig said.
    Board members Paul Scozzafava of Santa Fe and John Fidel and Michael Rosenblum— both of Albuquerque— will remain on the board, Zanetti said.
    Neither Scozzafava nor Rosenblum could be reached for comment. A message left for Fidel was not returned.
    Zanetti said he hopes church leaders will "reach out to John Ackerman's group" to fill out the board and "fully reunite the church."
   
HISTORY OF CALVARY
    1965: Calvary Chapel gets its start in Costa Mesa, Calif., with 25 members. It now has 500 independent affiliates, including 18 Calvary churches in New Mexico, two in Albuquerque.
    1982: Skip Heitzig organizes a Bible study group that meets in an apartment clubhouse with four members, including himself and his wife, Lenya. That is the origin of Calvary Chapel in Albuquerque. By 1990 the church has grown to 6,000 members.
    1986: Calvary Chapel buys a 45,000-square-foot former indoor sports complex. The metal building at 4001 Osuna NE becomes home to one of the biggest churches in the state.
    1999: Calvary Chapel buys 31,000 square feet for an undisclosed price near the Osuna location for a youth complex that includes space for classrooms and two radio stations, KNKT 107.1 FM and KLYT 88.3 FM, known as M88.
    DECEMBER 2003: Heitzig announces he is leaving for a church in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., but will remain on the board; Pete Nelson, a former youth pastor at Calvary who had moved to Denver, returns as to Calvary as senior pastor.
    MARCH 2004: A $3 million expansion that includes a cafe and bookstore is completed. By now membership has grown to 14,000.
    NOV. 8, 2004: Board member Greg Zanetti writes to church officials listing numerous concerns. Among them: Nelson was not allowed to exercise his full duties and the board was controlled by nonlocal Heitzig loyalists. Zanetti later told the Journal he was pressured into resigning after sending the letter.
    FEB. 8, 2006: Nelson drafts five-page letter of resignation, which is sent to the board Feb. 18 and announced to the congregation the next day. The letter details a power struggle over control of Calvary.
    MARCH 2: Church member John Ackerman and five others write to the board and to Heitzig asking that Heitzig and other out-of-state board members resign. They criticize several actions by the board and say local oversight is needed.
    MARCH 8: Heitzig tells Journal he has decided to step down from the board.
    -- Albuquerque Journal