As questions linger, COH tries to move on

Posted on 03 May 2013 at 8:45am

Church’s board holds open meeting to discuss abrupt resignation of Senior Pastor Jo Hudson, who declines requests for an interview

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HOPE AND HEALING  | Representatives from ministries of the Cathedral of Hope carry signs down the aisle to show that the church is greater than any one person, during a Sunday service on April 28.

 

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer

At a public meeting this week, members of the Cathedral of Hope’s Board of Stewards acknowledged a lack of support for the Rev. Jo Hudson, who stepped down as senior pastor April 21. Financial problems, leadership style and management of staff were among their reasons.

Board Vice Chair Cline Taplin said no single event led to the pastor’s resignation.

In a sometimes contentious open meeting attended by several hundred congregants April 29, Board Chair Stacia Sims was booed when she refused to answer whether the board recorded a vote of no confidence in Hudson during an executive session prior to her resignation.

“That is not public information,” Sims said.

After making an initial presentation, the board answered questions from the congregation for almost two hours. While there was disagreement about past events, the congregation appeared united behind the board’s plan to move forward.

Staff members from the Cathedral’s denomination, the United Church of Christ, were expected to be at the church this weekend helping the congregation implement its plan for moving forward.

A committee of the board was appointed to name an interim senior pastor with plans to have that person in place by May 19, which is Pentecost Sunday.

Once an interim is in place, a search committee that may include members of the congregation and board will be named to look for Hudson’s permanent replacement.

The special board meeting Monday night was prompted by rumors in the community and on social media after Hudson resigned her position during her sermon at an 11 a.m. Sunday service. An email was sent to all members that afternoon since those who attended the 9 a.m. service or watched the broadcast of that service had not been informed of the resignation.

Some assumed Hudson learned information between services prompting her resignation. Board members insisted they were as surprised by the resignation as everyone else in the congregation. But the board was aware of disagreements involving Hudson, while many members of the congregation were surprised at the level of conflict.

Hudson declined to be interviewed for this story.

On April 28, the first Sunday after Hudson’s resignation, services were led by the Rev. Dawson Taylor. To celebrate the many people who make up the church’s spiritual life, the service began with a representative of each ministry walking down the aisles holding a sign for their group. Everything from ushers to hospital and prison ministries were represented. The intended message was that the church is greater than any one person.

Many congregants came to the service looking for answers to why Hudson left. While Taylor alluded to the stressful week, the Rev. Katherine Godby, associate pastor for spiritual life who delivered the sermon, addressed the hurt among congregants without giving a reason for the sudden departure.

“For some of you, it’s a huge loss,” Godby said.

She spoke about a variety of emotions among congregants including anger, anxiety, abandonment, disillusion and hurt.

But she also called the situation an opportunity for growth. She claimed to have no knowledge of a reason for Hudson’s departure. She said she could only speculate.

“But speculating leads to rumors,” she said. “And rumors are very destructive.”

Godby’s sermon received two standing ovations as she called for unity within the church as it begins to move forward.

At this week’s open board meeting, the first question came from a member who told the board the congregation has a right to know what happened.

“What transpired that brought us to this point?” she asked. She turned to the congregation and asked, “Do you think that’s a reasonable question?”

Those in attendance shouted “Yes” and applauded.

“I don’t know why Rev. Jo made the decision she made,” Sims said.

Board members said problems began in the fall with the layoff of 10 staff members. Treasurer David White said the board has been cutting expenses, but there’s currently a $130,000 shortfall.

Financial issues have dogged the church since before it severed ties with Metropolitan Community Church in 2003. That period was marked by charges of financial impropriety.

When MCC sent auditors to the church, which had a budget larger than the denomination’s, then-Senior Pastor Michael Piazza said the auditors were overwhelmed. He brought a question of affiliation to the congregation, and 90 percent of members voted to withdraw from MCC.

Hudson’s nine-year tenure was also plagued by financial controversy, but mostly because of shrinking revenues. During that period she pushed ahead with building the Interfaith Peace Chapel.

In October 2012, the Cathedral laid off 10 people while three top staff members, including Hudson, took pay cuts. That was attributed to a downturn in giving.

One congregant at the board meeting suggested saving the cost of an extra staff person by making a current clergy member the interim.

One questioner brought up an email he said Hudson received from a board member asking her to resign and threatening to bring up a vote of no confidence at every board meeting.

No board member claimed knowledge of the email and Sims said the threat wasn’t carried out at the board. Congregants challenged board members’ claim they didn’t know Hudson was resigning. Sims offered an explanation.

“One person can only take criticism for so long,” Sims said. “She did what she thought was best for herself and her family.”

Several commenters were surprised at the level of criticism of Hudson and accused the board of not being transparent.

“She did not have the support of the board,” one board member said. “She didn’t have the support of the staff. She felt she had no choice.”

One congregant told the board he felt like a 6-year-old being hidden from a pending divorce.

The board said they came up with a plan to move the congregation forward and discussed that plan with Hudson the week before she resigned. The plan would increase fundraising and fix what wasn’t working.

Martin said it wasn’t the first plan developed since the fall layoffs, but he felt this plan would work. The board thought Hudson had agreed to carry out the plan.

Lower attendance has affected giving. The church has two Sunday services now. When the current building opened, they filled three services a week.

The Rev. Eric Folkerth, senior pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, called Cathedral of Hope a marquis in the LGBT community that he expects to be strong for decades. He said financial problems are something every church faces.

“The biggest fights are over money,” he said.

Folkerth said he thinks a number of things may be contributing to membership and financial woes at the Cathedral.

He compared today’s need for an LGBT church to the fate of Crossroads Market on Cedar Springs. At one time, that store was the only place to buy a gay-themed book. Once every bookstore had a gay books section, fewer people had a reason to shop there.

While Folkerth believes gay churches are still relevant, he sees more mainstream congregations fully including their LGBT members in congregational life. With more choices, many LGBT people are remaining in the denomination where they were raised.

“Every church is struggling with the growing ranks of the ‘nones,’” Folkerth added.

Nones are those who don’t identify with any religion.

“They’re asking themselves, ‘Why do I need organized religion?’” he said. “And when you have church controversies, they say, ‘I’m done with that.’”

Many people with AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s joined churches because of a need for community that isn’t as urgent as it once was.

Toward the end of this week’s board meeting, several members addressed the thriving Spanish ministry whose pastor also resigned. The day after Hudson announced her resignation, the Rev. Alejandro de la Torre announced he would leave as well. De la Torre is leaving because of family health issues.

Congregants were concerned about finding someone to fill in because unlike the main congregation, the Spanish ministry has no backup.

Shelly Hamilton, a staff member who was laid off in the fall and now works for Resource Center Dallas, said, “It’s pointless to wonder and speculate about what the senior pastor has done. We’ll heal.

Churches heal. She made the choice she made because she thought it was best for her and for the church.”

Church member Tommy Thompkins said, “If the energy that went into social media this week went into feeding the homeless or anything else we do here, it would be amazing how much we’d get done.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 3, 2013.

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