The Genesis of the United Church of God
A Personal View from Ground Zero
Chapter 3 Conflict Erupts
Chapter two concluded with the first part of a tense, soon-to-be tumultuous meeting with then-Pastor General Joseph Tkach, Sr. in his fourth-floor Pasadena office (the Senior Joseph Tkach is now deceased). Our account picks up as he begins reading the second of my two letters outlining my resignation. As previously noted, with me was my wife Beverly and pastor Doug Horchak, Mr. Tkach’s son-in-law, who resigned a few days prior to this event. I had asked Doug to accompany us at this critical meeting. Shortly after Joe Sr. read the first two letters, we were unexpectedly joined by Joseph Tkach Jr., whom I directly reported to in his then-role as director of Church Administration.
As this chapter will recount, emotions quickly ran hot.
As a backdrop, consider that in late 1994 and into 1995, many ministers and wives – as well as long-time members – had become increasingly puzzled, alarmed, and finally, outraged. No plans existed to create any new organization. But from a personal standpoint, Bev and I – like many others – had to follow our spiritual conscience.
As he unfolded the second letter and I sat before Mr. Tkach’s desk, my mind raced. I had sat in this same executive office many times with other leaders of the Worldwide Church of God and Ambassador College. Almost every Friday morning Joe Sr. assembled key leaders and department heads to review and discuss key events and plans. While often serious, those meetings were also often punctuated with good-natured humor. Previously there was a lot of camaraderie and a feeling that we were collectively seeking to advance the Work of God.
There was none of that on this day. The early morning mood was somber and tense.
These letters presented here preserve a vibrant snapshot of what many people experienced in the spring of 1995. Within a few short months, thousands of lives had been upended as cherished truths were attacked and unraveled, spawning a painful crisis of faith. The magnitude of this spiritual betrayal took place at a level that no one could imagine could actually occur.
In early 1995, it was just unfathomable that we were living a time of heresy and division, one of those times warned of by the Bible.
As previously related, my first letter announced and confirmed my resignation. The second documented crucial details.
The Second Letter
As Doug, Bev and I waited, Mr. Tkach picked up my second letter and started reading it. Here is how it opened:
March 3, 1995
Dear Mr. Tkach,
"In addition to my letter of resignation, I want to share the following thoughts.
"First, I want to say that I love the ministry and serving God's people. I served in the field ministry for 21 years and have now assisted your son Joe Jr. since June 1, 1990, in a most interesting and challenging job.
"I felt that I did make a positive contribution in helping Joe deal with day-to-day tasks. On a personal level we relate extremely well. We conscientiously helped the ministry move towards becoming Christ-like shepherds.
"In the international areas I contributed to doing the Work in Eastern Europe, particularly with the Ukrainian Sabbatarians."
One ironic element in all of this was that I never had any aspirations to work in Pasadena at the church’s physical headquarters. Bev and I had happily served in congregations in Minnesota and elsewhere, including often working extensively with the Youth Opportunities United (YOU) groups. A longtime photographer and writer, I had traveled with Herman Hoeh, the editor of the Plain Truth magazine, and written for that publication. During that time, I began contributing bylined articles to the church’s Youth publication before the death of Mr. Armstrong.
Between 1990 and 1995, my relationship with Joe Tkach Jr. in the Church Administration department for the most part was excellent. Joe Jr. had originally been a ministerial trainee in the 1970s. When there were financial cutbacks in the church, he began working in a state agency and then transitioned to a business career in Arizona, gaining experience in human resources, corporate training, and other areas. He was ordained into the ministry in 1976 and served in an unpaid position as what was once called a local church elder.
After becoming pastor general in 1986 Joe Sr. brought his son from Arizona out to Pasadena to work in church administration, eventually replacing Larry Salyer as director. Joe Jr. had asked me to be his assistant in early 1990.
From my perspective, I thought we had a great working relationship. The Worldwide Church of God was a complex and multi-layered institution, having grown from a handful of members to well over 120,000 baptized brethren, and multiple thousands more attending each Sabbath.
In our short years together, Joe Jr. and I jointly oversaw more than 1,000 elders that included nearly four hundred full-time ministers. He and I often transparently discussed many subjects relating to our work. He was hard-working and personable. We both enjoyed being with people. My work involved making many visits to our field ministry in the United States as well as overseas conferences.
There was a lot of organizational energy in those early days of the Tkach administration, as the WCG was then a rapidly growing church. To help plan for and serve this growth, Joe Jr. and I travelled each spring to Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas, where we interviewed graduating seniors as potential hires into the ministry. New congregations were continually being planted across the globe.
On a personal level in those days, Joe Jr. was a friend with whom I communicated well as far as managing Church Administration. In my experience he was kind, merciful, compassionate, and well-liked generally.
But as the 1990s advanced, cracks and fissures appeared. Astonishing and divisive changes started being force fed to minister and member alike.
After his surprising outburst in reading my first letter that documented my resignation, Mr. Tkach Sr. continued to read my second letter. I had written:
"One of the highlights of working with Joe Jr. was establishing the regional pastor structure. These competent and converted men along with their wives devoted themselves above and beyond the call of duty to serving not only a congregation but several dozen ministers as well. They are highly respected by the ministry."
To understand the context of what happened over a quarter of a century ago, it’s important to remember that Mr. Tkach Sr. first came to organizational power during the 1979 Receivership crisis in Pasadena.
As many will recall, in January 1979, without warning, the organizational and accounting functions of the Worldwide Church of God were invaded and brazenly taken over in a receivership by lawyers appointed by a local California administrative court judge. Mr. Tkach Sr. and others were on hand in Pasadena and stood in the breach, organizing, conducting, and supporting activities to counter the abusive legal action. That major crisis would stretch out more than a year.
These acts elevated Joe Sr.’s stature. He previously was a low-key minister from Chicago who had been serving in a church department that provided organizational services for the ministry. In the half decade following, Joe Sr. became known as a loyal follower of Mr. Herbert Armstrong. Joe Sr.’s reputation and performance aided his selection as head of the church’s ministry, replacing Roderick C. Meredith (who later formed two church Sabbath-based organizations and is also now deceased).
Joe Sr. was appointed deputy Pastor General shortly before Mr. Armstrong’s death in January 1986. He then became the legal successor to Mr. Armstrong, together with all of the sweeping powers that Mr. Armstrong had held to protect the church from the receivership. As Michael Feazell, a long-time assistant to Joe Sr. would later publicly admit, those sweeping legal powers were ultimately leveraged to foist broad harsh doctrinal and administrative changes on the church.
At the time Bev and I were serving local congregations in the upper Midwest. We had no idea of what would soon come.
After being appointed the director of Church Administration by his father, Joe Jr. had held off on creating any kind of mid-structure in administration. This hesitancy existed because two former mid-structures efforts had resulted in the creation of organizational-sapping problematic power bases.
Before it is lost to history, allow me to present some important background: one early streamlined structure of regional pastors organized by David Antion (a senior Pasadena ministerial administrator and brother-in-law to Garner Ted Armstrong, son of Herbert Armstrong) replaced sixteen District Superintendents in the early 1970s. That structure lasted only a brief time because of an attempted organizational revolt against the administration of Mr. Armstrong (the years 1972-74 included times of momentous change and difficult organizational upheaval).
That system conceived by David Antion was done away with, but replaced with a two-tier Area Coordinator structure that suffered a similar fate. Now with two failed mid-structures, there was no organizational appetite for yet another structure.
When I came to work for Joe Tkach Jr., we interfaced directly with the entire pastoral workforce, similar to what Joe Sr. had done when he was head of Church Administration. That had its own set of challenges in creating a form of a managerial bottleneck.
But events in 1993 showed the need for a new organizational structure. Joe Tkach Jr. was now wanting again to install a mid-management structure to oversee the ministry more closely (this act and its consequences will be explained more fully in a future chapter). Accordingly, in 1993 fourteen regional pastors were appointed in part to serve as “cheerleaders” and promote the sweeping doctrinal changes to the ministry.
Back to my second letter:
"Over the last few years, the church has undergone massive doctrinal changes Some of these changes have been well-accepted and have added to our understanding of doctrine. Some of the changes, particularly those relating to the New Covenant, the Sabbath and Holy Days are not being accepted well by the ministry and members. I personally do not agree with what is taught about the Sabbath and the Holy Days.
"What has happened is that the teaching about the latest changes in particular has brought a crisis of conscience to our ministry. It has for me. Many ministers cannot and won't preach what you espouse. Congregations are divided in how they view the latest teachings.
"The way the changes have come about has been insensitive and uncaring to our people's faith. Mr. Tkach, I think it would be good to have a broader consensus of ministers in the decision-making process. In the Statement of Beliefs booklet under the section "Church Leadership" it states:
"...the decision-making process under Christ involves councils of ministers who report to the Pastor General."
"Yet, these most recent major doctrinal changes have come about with no input in the decision-making process from the ministry on either the administrative or the field levels. What ever happened to the Council of Elders?"
We loved our church and its people, so Bev and I wanted to be problem-solvers. We had no intention of launching a personal attack. So, I proposed a solution in the second letter.
"Wouldn't it be honorable to set up a board that would represent a broad spectrum of our leadership from both the local administrative ministers and representation from the field ministry? I sincerely feel that if the regional pastors and regional directors had been able to be involved in the process of considering these most recent subjects of change in doctrine, that we would have avoided much of the trauma and crisis we now face in the church. These major changes in belief have come about as a result of input and opinion of only a very few people that surround you."
I thought it possible that Joe Sr. was being insulated from the alarm and outrage that was fissuring the church. How could a man who championed the church at great personal risk in 1979 now lead an abusive campaign to literally destroy the very foundations of that same church?
So, I was determined to lay out the tension and pain that was rocking the ministry, the church, and me personally.
It is important to consider that these were not administrative or cosmetic changes. These changes touched the depths of our faith. The church’s human administration was now figuratively treading with hobnailed boots on our minds and hearts – and on our relationship with God.
In foisting these sweeping changes, some purported a red herring fallacy of ministers somehow teaching that righteousness (and salvation) was a result of keeping the law. Like others trained at Ambassador College, I knew full well and accepted that my eternal salvation would come through grace, a gift from God. Salvation could not be “earned” by law-keeping, although God’s law would serve faithfully to set high and powerful standards for Christian living.
Now, I’m essentially being told that was not my thinking. The truth? Administrators were tampering with the inner identity of the Church and its doctrine in a classic gaslighting campaign.
I wanted to document what was happening. Perhaps reason and fact could be restored. In my second letter to Joe Sr. I continued to talk about the most recent environment that had been created, a boiling over with fear and terror upon our ministry, members, and families.
"An administration that wants to be known for its love is now feared for its abusiveness and control. The ministry is told what to believe and teach or get out. It seems that a minister's worth and value now is his ability to promote the latest teachings which come in the Pastor General's Report and the study papers. If he doesn't actively promote them or shows reluctance to teach them he is often reported to Church Administration.
"It has been extremely painful for me to watch our ministers, my peers, and friends, be called on the phone one by one, questioned and then terminated for the very beliefs they came into this church for. This last month and a half has been traumatic for our ministry as they wonder whether they will be next on the list to be called. These are fine men who served us well for decades.
"There seems to be little regard for anything but their stand on new doctrine and how quickly they teach it to their congregations. On the other hand, we have a minister who is asking a settlement from the church for over three million dollars who has a poor record of insubordination and other problems who continues to pastor because he is a supporter of current doctrinal changes."
Those of us on the inside were seeing a Church quickly reeling out of control. Alarm sirens – in the form of upset members and ministers – were howling as organizational dark storm clouds appeared above us all. This was happening at breakneck speed, and despite fractures cracking all over the organization, the administration didn’t seem to care. Even now it is too bizarre for words to convey.
Mr. Tkach continued to the final paragraphs of my letter:
"Yesterday afternoon a regional pastor, a highly respected minister, was terminated in part because he said he believes in the Sabbath and the Holy days and how they picture the plan of God. Others have been terminated, pushed out or questioned by phone for their very basic beliefs that brought them into this church.
"Mr. Tkach, I hope you realize how much the church is hurting at this time. I know that perhaps two-thirds of the ministry cannot teach what is being said about the Sabbath and Holy Days. Will they be terminated one by one? Why shouldn't those who do not believe in the Sabbath and Holydays go to some other church; there are plenty of other churches out there to go to.
"The fruits of the latest changes have not been good. In Matthew we are told that we will be known by our fruits. It is grievous to see the results in the torn families and friendships in the Church.
"We have all had to make choices. My religious convictions continue to rest in Jesus Christ, His example, the New Covenant, the Sabbath, Holy Days, and other teachings.
"You have written that we should not judge one another, that doctrinal differences are not important and that what is important is love. I don't see that in practice. We are tearing one another apart through doctrinal division and I don't see love in how Church Administration in how we treat our people. Those who cannot comply to the new teachings are being terminated.
" Mr. Tkach, I will continue to pray for you. This is a sad day for me. I pray for a time of peace and a time when we can all be unified.
Then, without warning, my immediate boss Joe Tkach Jr. suddenly walked into Joe Sr.’s corner office. He often started the day with a visit to his father. He appeared surprised to see this particular group.
The senior Tkach gruffly announced: “Joe, Vic is quitting.” Joe appeared to be trying to hide his surprise. Perhaps he wondered why I didn't come to him first.
An animated exchange ensured. The big issues and the big upcoming changes swiftly came to the forefront.
I challenged Joe Jr.: “So, it seems that we are changing the Sabbath to Sunday. You’ve been denying that for months!” He dismissed the portent of this statement, coming back with the comment: “Well, we changed our mind!”
Bev and I were astonished, to put it mildly.
I reminded both men that we in Church Administration were daily trying to put out organizational fires of rumors that the Sabbath was going to be changed from Saturday to Sunday. There was real concern. We told ministers and members alike that this was simply a false allegation.
And now, sitting in the executive office of the then-Pastor General, we’re being emphatically told that this here-to-fore denied rumor is actually true. We were shocked and aghast at the apparent duplicity.
I had already suspected that all that the rumors did not emanate from the church. They were leaked right from Headquarters from advisers to Joe Sr.
At the time, I wasn’t sure how much Mr. Tkach Sr. really grasped the fearsome impact of this.
In public and to me personally Joe Sr. sincerely seemed to be assuring our people that that some of the feared changes were just rumors.
He publicly said as much in many church visits. Mr. Armstrong had set a long-time precedent in traveling to field churches and personally meeting with the combined crowds of people. Congregations generally loved visits from the Pastor General, and Joe Sr. truly enjoyed continuing this tradition. Mr. Tkach was an effusive man who connected well with church crowds. They looked to him for leadership. He was bright, enthusiastic, filled with enthusiasm.
But as time passed, he was increasingly bringing up rumors of coming changes. There were rumbles of church leaders literally throwing out much of our understanding of the Law of God, the Sabbath, the Holy Days, clean and unclean meats and much more. The inconsistency puzzled members.
As will be discussed later, these changes had their origins in a variety of settings. Allow me to interject this essential information: in the late 1980s and 1990s, many church leaders and Ambassador College faculty had attended a number of colleges and universities – including non-church theological institutions – as part of a fast-paced effort to achieve accreditation for Ambassador College in Texas.
Where advanced degrees were once frowned on, even openly discouraged, the church now encouraged (and subsidized financially) many administrators, faculty, and employees to obtain masters and other degrees as quickly as possible. This ranged from the University of Southern California (USC) to the University of Texas in Tyler to Southern Methodist University (SMU) and several more.
That also included Azusa Pacific University, a small private evangelical religious institution near Pasadena (which holds to Methodist theology), where several Pasadena-area administrators and employees obtained masters and other degrees in theology or pastoral administration (Joe Jr. himself received a Doctor of Ministry degree in 2000 from Azusa). After the Big Sandy campus closed in 1997, the church and Azusa Pacific jointly established the Ambassador Center at Azusa Pacific University for the continuation of classes for former Ambassador College students. (It is now defunct).
The point? In many situations, contrary doctrinal thought entered from these outside influences, and in several cases was outright adopted, then enforced. For example, even though it is well established that the early disciples of Jesus Christ taught and kept the seventh day Sabbath and the annual Holy Days, opposing non-biblical views from authors writing much later now increasingly supplanted long-proved and long-held doctrines.
Back to my role in the 1990s, I helped schedule Mr. Tkach Sr.’s travels. After becoming pastor general, Joe Sr. had paid off and then sold the church’s Gulfstream IV jet, which could only accommodate a limited number of people. He then commissioned the purchase of a less-expensive older British-built BAC 1-11 jet that could fly a much larger entourage. As a commercial airliner it was originally designed to seat 99 passengers. He and Joe Jr. and I consulted about what areas around the country would be best served by a personal appearance about every three weeks.
As the 1990s advanced, the tone of Joe Sr.’s messages changed. He appeared to be becoming more and angrier as he would lash out at unnamed people who allegedly spread rumors of doctrinal changes. People left these services puzzled. What was he talking about?
All of this led to this epochal personal moment in Joe Sr.’s office. Bev and I were done. We were much saddened.
The tense meeting ended, and we made our way out of the ornate office through a paneled corridor. Walking through the open interior hallway architecture of the Hall of Administration, we headed toward the elevators.
A few minutes later, as Bev, Doug and I left the building, we ran into Norva Kelly, wife of senior minister (and World Tomorrow host) Ronald Kelly, walking towards us.
I told her that I had just resigned in the past hour. She expressed dismay and sorrow. We talked a bit and then continued on. In a few hours, Bev and I were surprised by flowers that arrived first from Church Treasurer Leroy Neff and then from Tina Kuo (now Tina Graham), an extraordinarily bright and accomplished co-worker from Church Administration.
March 3, 1995 was a hard day.
The Bible not only gives us instructions about how to worship God; it also presents a vital history of those who had to prove their faith in the face of persecution and even martyrdom. As the Bible plainly chronicles, the history of the Church has not always been pretty. Tumult, discord, and division within the human assembly were biblically predicted and came to pass.
Bev and I were now at a juncture in our life where we had to make some hard choices of what to do next. Ironically, forming a new organization was nowhere near our minds at the time.
Many would soon share our act of resignation. Unforeseen events would begin to quickly pick up speed.
In the next chapter I will share more details about how this unraveling process started and developed.