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Calvary Chapel Power Struggle

By Paul Logan
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Calvary Chapel Senior Pastor Pete Nelson's surprise resignation last week followed an internal struggle with founder Skip Heitzig over control of the Albuquerque megachurch.
    Heitzig left Calvary two years ago to become senior pastor at Ocean Hills Community Church in California. He continued as chairman of Calvary's six-member board.
    Nelson, Heitzig's hand-picked successor at Calvary Chapel, said in a draft resignation letter written shortly before he stepped down that Heitzig never allowed him to totally exercise his senior pastor duties here.
    Nelson also said in the letter that Heitzig was using assets of the church— one of the city's largest with more than 14,000 followers— to further his national ministry.
    The draft letter obtained by the Journal was dated Feb. 8. Nelson said he submitted a final version to church leaders on Feb. 18, one day before he stunned parishioners with his announcement to step down.
    He declined to give the Journal a copy of what he called his "resignation letter." Church officials also declined.
    Heitzig did not respond to Nelson's allegations in the letter but issued a statement to the Journal on Saturday concerning Nelson's resignation.
    "As the one who invited Pete to assume this position, I take responsibility for the failure of this process," he said. "I am sorry to see the pain and confusion these events have caused this week."
    Other church leaders said they hoped the differences could be worked out.
Church leader
    Nelson moved his family from Crossroads Church in Denver to take the Calvary position. He said in what he described as the draft letter that he moved with the understanding he would lead the church, chair its board of directors and appoint board members, as described in the church's bylaws.
    Instead, Nelson wrote that he was not allowed to select his own board members and that Heitzig demanded the resignations of board members who opposed Heitzig.
    Nelson also contended that, during a board meeting in December 2005, Heitzig "repositioned himself to remain board chair for an indefinite period."
    Nelson's letter said that, as board chair, Heitzig "indicated that he intended to run CA (Calvary Albuquerque) while serving as Senior Pastor at Ocean Hills in California.
    "It seems he now plans to ultimately have the power to make key decisions for CA to facilitate his vision for CA as part of his national ministry vision.
    "His vision appears to have CA serving as part of this larger national ministry and includes having Calvary provide significant financial resources to fund his national ministry," Nelson wrote.
    Nelson said in the draft, addressed to "Calvary Albuquerque Leadership," that the church is "at a fork in the road."
Leadership issues
    After Nelson announced his resignation last Sunday, a church spokesman said he was leaving "to pursue other ministry options."
    At Wednesday's service, Heitzig gave the Bible study before an overflow crowd of about 2,500 worshippers, said Pastor Chip Lusko of Calvary. During his preaching, Heitzig expressed appreciation for Nelson's work.
    But the undercurrent of Nelson's letter expresses his frustration over leadership issues at the state's largest evangelical church.
    He began the letter quoting Scripture:
    "My desire is to speak the truth in love."
    Nelson's letter then described how his mentor, Heitzig, invited him to assume the role of senior pastor at Calvary. It goes on to contend that Heitzig then blocked him from assuming the authority he said he was promised.
    Nelson wrote that:
  • Heitzig maintained control over the board and removed members at his discretion, even ousting Nelson from the board for a period in 2004.
  • Heitzig proposed to transfer the assets of Calvary's radio station in 2004 to a new company Heitzig controlled. Nelson said the station was "very valuable" to the church and said he understood that the station assets serve as collateral under a bond indenture of Calvary Chapel and could not be transferred without breaching Calvary's covenants under the debt documents.
  • Heitzig called a meeting in California in 2004 to propose a new national organization under his control, which would make Calvary Albuquerque one of the organization's campuses. Albuquerque board members expressed serious concern over this proposal.
  • Heitzig first proposed in 2004 that he have "perpetual chairmanship" of the board.
        In late 2004, Nelson wrote, the board agreed to put into place an intermediate plan to get it back to the original governance model. Nelson said he did his best to implement that plan.
        But in December 2005, he wrote, Heitzig sent board members a letter stating they would not be qualified to sit on the board unless they supported his governance vision.
        Nelson also wrote that while he was on vacation in late December, Heitzig and one other board member voted to establish Heitzig's chairmanship indefinitely.
    Settling dispute
        Calvary is a nondenominational, autonomous church. Calvary Chapels, located throughout the nation, began in the 1960s in California.
        Board member Paul Saber, a San Diego businessman and former Albuquerquean, said in a telephone interview that Nelson read his resignation letter to other pastors at Calvary Albuquerque before sending it to the board.
        "From a Christian point of view, we absolutely believe we would want to settle any disputes, any matters, as a biblical model," Saber said.
        "I read the letter. There are two sides of every issue. Our prayer is that we can sit down with Pete and reconcile this."
    Supporting radio
        Another of Nelson's concerns involved Heitzig's national radio ministry, known as Calvary Connection.
        Nelson's letter stated that the board in November 2004 decided the radio program's operation expenses "would be systematically weaned off of Calvary Albuquerque over an agreed period of time."
        But in January of this year, Nelson said in the letter, he learned there was a different plan. He wrote that Lusko, a longtime Calvary minister, told his department: "Skip's radio program operations will remain in Albuquerque and continue to be funded by Calvary Albuquerque indefinitely."
        Lusko says he didn't have a copy of the letter in front of him during the Journal interview and declined to comment.
        "Nothing has been changed, and we have been following the direction of the board of directors," Lusko said.
        Saber, Heitzig's longtime friend and a board member since 1998, said the board has supported Heitzig's radio program for many years.
        One Calvary insider expressed concern about a six-person board overseeing a multimillion-dollar annual budget with only two New Mexico members— the Rev. Paul Scozzafava of Calvary Chapel Santa Fe and newly appointed John Fidel, an Albuquerque accountant.
        Also on the board are Saber, Heitzig, and two others— one in Colorado and one in California.
        Saber defended the system, saying Calvary has "great checks and balance ... not only great accountability, but it's above-board."
        As for Nelson, friends said his Albuquerque home is for sale.
        Near the end of his letter, Nelson said:
        "I am at a quandary and face a severe dilemma as the senior pastor of this church. I'm not claiming to be perfect, however, I believe that I have walked in integrity before the Lord at each step of the transition process, but I am unwilling to be further compromised in my role as senior pastor."
        Heitzig, in his statement, said: "I want to assure our church that the staff is united, that they will not be abandoned and that the pulpit will be filled with the teaching of the Bible."
    Excerpts from former Calvary Senior Pastor Pete Nelson's draft resignation letter:
  • "Skip announced to me that I had 'failed the test' by my negative vote on this matter and was now 'on probation' in my role as senior pastor of the church."
  • "As the founder of Calvary Albuquerque, Skip feels he should still be in full control ... He has removed all past Albuquerque (board) directors in retaliation for opposing him. I seek your (the board's) assistance in dealing with this untenable situation."
    Excerpt from Calvary founder Skip Heitzig's statement concerning Senior Pastor Pete Nelson's resignation:
  • "I was surprised and saddened by the sudden departure of Pete Nelson as Senior Pastor of Calvary of Albuquerque. Like our Board of Directors, I was unaware that Pete was planning to resign. I want to thank Pete for his service and leadership, and I wish him the absolute best as he pursues God's will in his life."