New Charlottesville church draws suspicions

Three United Methodist pastors view a nondenominational new church start as an effort by traditionalist organizations to challenge the denomination — a claim members of those organizations deny.

The Virginia Conference interim bishop and the Charlottesville District superintendent said any concern is overblown.

Mission Charlottesville defines itself on its website as “a missional church, obedient to God’s command to take the good news of Jesus Christ to others. We do this through what we say and how we live.” The pastor declined to talk to UM News for the story. 

But pastors of three nearby churches say the new church, which is a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, aims to undermine the ministry of The United Methodist Church.

“Is it a direct attempt to compete with The United Methodist Church? Yeah,” said the Rev. Phil Woodson, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church. Woodson researched the new church’s connections with the Wesleyan Covenant Association, a group that formed in 2016 to encourage the denomination to hold the line on restrictions related to homosexuality.

The Rev. Isaac Collins, lead pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church, said that Mission Charlottesville is an “obvious” church plant by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia, “and anyone who says otherwise is trying to cover up their involvement.”

The Rev. Robert Lewis, pastor of Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church, said he is not threatened by Mission Charlottesville but is “very annoyed.”

“It’s been incredibly out in the open and completely unashamed of undermining the ministry of The United Methodist Church,” Lewis said. 

The new church meets in a school building less than 5 miles from four United Methodist churches: Aldersgate, Wesley Memorial, Hinton Avenue and First United Methodist. 

While the Evangelical Fellowship collected money for Mission Charlottesville, the president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association said neither the national nor state group has been involved in any activities to help Mission Charlottesville. 

“Neither the WCA or the Virginia WCA has provided any funding for Mission Charlottesville at any time,” the Rev. Keith Boyette said in a letter to the Rev. Gary Heaton of First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville. Boyette made the letter available to United Methodist News in response to questions posed in an email.

Likewise, the Rev. H.O. Tom Thomas Jr., president of the executive committee of the Evangelical Fellowship’s board of directors, said the group has never started churches. 

The fellowship is a nonprofit corporation “whose purpose is to unite clergy and lay persons in the Virginia Annual Conference to advance biblical Christianity in the Wesleyan tradition,” he wrote in a website post.

Woodson cites online information and Mission Charlottesville’s printed handouts, which he said reveal connections “provided by and through the Wesleyan Covenant Association” and the financial assistance provided by the Evangelical Fellowship. He also cited leadership overlap between the two organizations and ties to the pastor of Mission Charlottesville as well as “vocal support” for the church plant online.

Woodson’s research was published on the Hacking Christianity website.

The Evangelical Fellowship lists among its objectives “to encourage the preaching and teaching of the orthodox Christian faith openly and aggressively.”

The Virginia Conference’s interim bishop and the superintendent for the Charlottesville District said any threat to the United Methodist denomination is overblown. 

“This is not a church plant by the WCA,” Bishop Peter G. Weaver said. “We are a denomination that does recognize and believe that God is working through other denominations, other congregations. … I pray that God will use them to reach some people that the United Methodist church down the street won’t be able to reach — for Christ.”

Mission Charlottesville began worshipping at Burley Middle School in December 2018. Its pastor is an ex-United Methodist.

“If everybody is all concerned about the unity of the church and the well-being of The United Methodist Church … why are we allowing these alternative organizations to explicitly use their connections within the denomination to hurt the denomination?” Woodson said. 

Collins is doubtful Mission Charlottesville will succeed.

“As the only reconciling United Methodist Church in town, Wesley proclaims God’s unapologetic love for queer people,” Collins said. Reconciling churches make a point of welcoming worshippers of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  

The pastor of Mission Charlottesville is the Rev. David V. Ford, who served in the South Georgia and Virginia conferences of The United Methodist Church from 1985 to 2016. He retired in good standing and surrendered his credentials in May 2018.

Ford is a member of the WCA and has been on board of the Evangelical Fellowship “for decades,” Thomas said. In a video titled “Attack from Without and from Within,” posted to the church’s Facebook page last year, Ford appears to criticize The United Methodist Church on sexuality and other issues.

“Are there attacks from without and from within today in the church against the teaching of Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures? You betcha,” Ford said, going on to list several complaints including sexuality, a divisive issue in The United Methodist Church for decades. “What about when bishops, elders, deacons and seminary professors teach contrary to the revealed will of God in the creation and the Holy Scripture regarding marriage and human sexuality?”

Ford declined an interview request from United Methodist News. To join the WCA, he had to pay a membership fee and sign statements committing himself to biblical authority, faith and moral principles. 

The Rev. Chip Geissler, lead pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, one of four United Methodist churches near where Mission Charlottesville meets, said he has known Ford for more than 20 years and has “experienced David to be a person of high integrity and sincere passion for ministry.” 

“I believe his desire has always been to be part of Jesus' work of ‘seeking and saving the lost,’ not of attracting disgruntled Christians. I don't believe David would stoop so low as to try to attract believers away from other churches.”

The Evangelical Fellowship, which shares some board members with the Wesleyan Covenant Association of Virginia, has collected funds for Mission Charlottesville, confirmed the Rev. Danny J. Kesner, superintendent of the Charlottesville District. 

“It was on the Mission Charlottesville website for the members to write their checks to Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia until Mission Charlottesville received their 501(c)(3) status,” Kesner said. 

Woodson and others thought it was inappropriate for United Methodist clergy who are members of the Evangelical Fellowship to be part of an organization acting as a financial conduit for a non-United Methodist church plant competing with nearby United Methodist churches.

Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, resident bishop of the Richmond episcopal area who is currently on medical leave, contacted Mission Charlottesville, said Weaver, the interim bishop.

“As soon as Bishop Lewis raised that question of the impropriety, the Evangelical Fellowship (of Virginia) … the next day stopped that arrangement,” Weaver said, saying the group was “totally cooperative.”

Kesner said he had no concerns about the new church once the fund collection issue and another about the Mission Charlottesville logo looking too much like the United Methodist cross and flame were settled. 

Lewis said that the issue of money collection for Mission Charlottesville is not as clear-cut as church officials present it. 

“It’s been very much a case of things being edited, taken down and put back up again,” he said. “It was initially said that (Mission Charlottesville) was the first of a network of churches.”

On the list of six objectives posted on the Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia website is No. 2, which reads in part: “To be a positive force within the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.”

The nine-member council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association of Virginia and 13-member board of director’s executive committee 2018-2019 of the Evangelical Fellowship share four members in common, including Boyette, a non-voting ex-officio member of the fellowship. On a larger list of 39 Evangelical Fellowship leaders for the years 2019-2021, all but two of the Wesleyan Covenant Association of Virginia’s committee are listed.

Woodson and Lewis see the leadership overlap as a problem. Lewis questioned “… the underhandedness of planning and plotting all of this while claiming to be in conversation with the rest of us.”

Boyette said neither group has done anything wrong since both are independent 501(c)(3) organizations. “Neither is a subsidiary of the other. Members of one are not necessarily members of the other,” he said. 

The Evangelical Fellowship hosted a banquet at the June 20-22 Virginia Annual Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. It was not an official conference event, but was on the conference list of banquets. The Rev. David F. Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, spoke about the future of Methodism.

Watson said that Christianity and the Methodist movement are healthy and will stretch on far into the future.

“The lifespan of The United Methodist Church may be considerably shorter than that,” Watson said.

Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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