Ground Zero — Chapter 6 — In the Beginning It Was Very Good

The Genesis of the United Church of God
A Personal View from Ground Zero

See previous chapters

In this chapter, I would like to rewind the clock by five years to 1990. Many people associated with the Church of God community today perhaps have less familiarity with what life was like serving in Pasadena and other areas of the Worldwide Church of God (WCG).

Ironically, California is known for earthquakes. The events of 1995 could be likened like a massively destructive 8.0 quake that shook the Church and its multiple thousands of believing brethren, with multiple aftershocks felt around the world! 

So, let’s now go back to where I entered Ground Zero. In the beginning, as can be said, it was very good.

The Phone Call

The phone rang as snow flurries were flying on a wintry February 1990 day. As I gazed out my office window from our Anoka, Minnesota home, I heard the familiar ring. There were, of course, no cell phones in those days. Little did I know that the call ringing in on our landline would change my life.

“Hello, this is Joe Tkach, Jr. calling for Victor Kubik.” 

“Hello. This is he,” I replied. Joe Tkach Jr. was the Director of Church Administration for the Worldwide Church of God. Shortly after his dad became Pastor General (after the death of Herbert Armstrong), Joseph Tkach Sr. called his son from Arizona to first work under Larry Salyer in Pasadena, then to be elevated as head of Church Administration. He oversaw the ministry in those days, so he was my boss.

“Why is he calling?” The question quickly flashed through my mind. After exchanging a few pleasantries, he stated his purpose for the call: “Vic, I’d like you to come to Pasadena and work for me as my assistant." 

I did not know what to say. I was already pastor of three solid congregations, Minneapolis North, St. Cloud, and Brainerd, Minnesota. The state of Minnesota was the original home to both Bev and me. Much of our family lived nearby. We were very satisfied with where we were in our work and in our lives.

It may be interesting to know that I already had perhaps an atypical career with the Church. Given a unique opportunity as an undergraduate, I had eagerly transferred from Pasadena to the Ambassador College campus in Bricket Wood, England. Being in England offered many opportunities to travel on the European Continent and even on to Israel. While at Bricket Wood, I learned a great deal about the international work of the Church and the various offices that served thousands of members in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and elsewhere, including Africa. I soaked in the experiences, perhaps not realizing how that was equipping me for later service.

Fluent in Ukrainian and Russian languages, I traveled throughout the Soviet Union with Plain Truth editor and Church scholar Herman Hoeh during the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. I served as both photographer and translator for the six-week tour. Dr. Hoeh became very influential on me personally, and we formed a lifelong friendship.

When Joe Tkach Sr. rose to power, we became acquainted because of our shared interest in Russian culture and related backgrounds. My language skills later opened doors for me to travel to Eastern Europe, which at the time was confined by the Soviets in the Communist Eastern Bloc. Bev and I were chaperons and organizers of three Youth Opportunities United trips to the U.S.S.R.  We also attended the Feast of Tabernacles three times in Czechoslovakia.

Two years before the call from Joe Jr., Mr. Tkach Sr. sent me on a mission to meet with the directors of Radio Leningrad in Russia to investigate the possibilities of putting The World Tomorrow program on radio. We were also to explore the possible opening of a Feast of Tabernacles site in Russia. Bev and I went to Leningrad while it was still part of the U.S.S.R. Some promising possibilities turned up, but it was decided not to proceed at that time.

In another instance, Mr. Tkach asked me to stay another week after a scheduled Ministerial Refresher Program at Headquarters to serve as a translator. The legendary Russian Kirov Ballet was performing at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, sponsored in part by the Ambassador Foundation. My job was to work backstage with the cast and company translating from English to Russian and vice versa. And in 1978 I helped Mr. Tkach at a specialty Feast site in Pasadena. Back then the Pasadena campus was not designated an official Festival site. Services were conducted for essential workers who had to stay in Pasadena to keep church functions running during the Feast and also to serve the large local elderly population who could not travel to a regular Feast site. As some may recall, back then Mr. Tkach Sr. had the reputation for being the “widow’s minister,” one who excelled at watching out for the elderly in the Church.

As a result, Bev and I were known quantities to that level of administration. But Bev and I were happy serving in Minnesota, very active in the Youth Opportunities United (YOU) teen activities and church life in general. We had no aspirations. We certainly never anticipated moving to and serving in Pasadena.

But this phone call represented something quite different.

Joe Jr. elaborated that the job would be to help him interface with the ministry and answer questions. This would include visiting the ministry regularly and responding to their needs. At that time, there was no administrative platform in the field to supervise and support nearly 1,000 ministers, 400 of whom were full-time (a number of different models had been tried over the years). I was then 42 years old with 20 years of experience in the field ministry.

Bev and I were stunned. What an offer from Joe Jr.!

I accepted Joe Tkach Jr’s offer, but I was still reeling. Why would he choose me for this position? I was not well acquainted with the extended Tkach family but did trace familiarity from the time Mr. Tkach Sr. and his wife Elaine were serving in Chicago. Chicago was the center of the church district that included Minnesota. They were both transferred with their family to Pasadena in 1966, the first year I began attending Ambassador College in Pasadena.

While I was gratified with this unusual offer, I felt unsure of myself. Was I up to this task? Could I do this job at the headquarters of the Worldwide Church of God both for my immediate boss, the Church, and for God? Bev and I knew it would change our lives.

I never was what some might have called a “superstar” minister, as some regarded those then serving at an evangelist rank (a ministerial designation not used in the United Church of God). I wondered if I truly had the skills to deal with so many people and in so many circumstances. There were many notable personalities in the ministry who were great speakers, writers, and scholars. Bev and I looked up to people like that as strong examples.

I did have several experiences and a track record that, again, was somewhat atypical. Besides my pastoral duties, I wrote for the Worldwide Church of God’s Good News magazine and regularly for Youth and an article for The Plain Truth. The PT, as it was sometimes called, then had a monthly circulation in the millions and several different international versions were produced in French, German, Spanish and other languages. For Youth (which included the year of publication in its title – Youth 81, for example) the editorial staff asked me to write a monthly question-and-answer section on then-key issues of young people. I provided that service for three years.

So evidently Bev and I had a sufficient reputation to be considered for this all-new position.

The Move to Pasadena

A few months later, Bev and I moved to Pasadena in late May 1990. Little did we know where life would take us. But at the time we were excited and ready to take on this challenge. This was an idyllic moment in our life. Immediately, we saw that Joe Tkach Jr. and the Church Administration staff were very personable and functioned like a family.

We thought we were all on the same page, fulfilling the Mission of the Church, which included every aspect of our life: spiritual, personal, and vocational. We felt safe and secure as we enjoyed being in each other’s company.

Most importantly, my relationship with Joe Jr. at that time was excellent. We had adjoining offices on the third floor of the Hall of Administration with an impressive view of the Auditorium and egret fountain. The campus we worked on was beautiful and so was the weather, especially compared to Minnesota.

From the very beginning, I found that Joe and I could openly and freely talk at length about what needed to be done. He always seemed to have time to discuss matters thoroughly in answer to my questions. I found that he genuinely cared about the ministry and treated them with dignity and was generous towards them in his words and actions.

Joe Jr. was a hard worker. Other executives and staff remarked on his incredible stamina. He was in the office every day by 7:30 am and was busy on the phone or writing.   He was an avid reader. He would often tell me about a book (or two) that he had read the night before. He took time to answer letters from ministers and sometimes members with boldly astute reasoning. We would comment that he inherited that ability from his mother, who was of Greek descent, her maiden name being Apostolis.

Immediately in the Headquarters environment, I became better acquainted with the then-luminaries of the time, such as Dean Blackwell, a long-time minister of evangelist rank. We worked side by side in Church Administration, and he and his wife Maxine traveled what seemed almost every Sabbath to visit pastors around the country. At that time, more than 120,000 people were attending Worldwide Church of God services each Sabbath at many, many congregations around the world.

Mr. Blackwell had been on the faculty at Ambassador College in Big Sandy, Texas, and often referred to visits in the field to former Ambassador students whom he called “my Texas sons.”   Mr. Blackwell and I spoke often, and with his deep experience he was par excellence in pumping energy, wisdom, and common sense into the field ministry. He loved being in the vicinity of our work group, which included Debbie Nickel, Elana Sargent, Guy Swenson, Randy McGowen, Joe Jr., and me.

There were many others who we were in regular personal contact:  Dr. Herman Hoeh, Mike Snyder, Larry Salyer to name a few.

The Church Administration Department had about 20-25 employees. The Festival Office, with its five employees, and a Department who served people who were deaf were part of our oversight.

I never had the slightest questions about what we believed regarding our core doctrines. We were on the same page.

Humbled but invigorated, I took to my work with great relish.

From the outset, Beverly became part of much of what I did and most always traveled with me. Bev has been a great asset and companion throughout my entire career to this day. I credit her for her deep care and follow-up with the pastor’s wives, especially after difficult meetings. Our aim was always restoration and reconciliation, and that often took intense discussion and effort.

Joe Jr. immediately assigned me on trips to pastors and their families. Sometimes, the purpose of the visit was to encourage and support the pastor and their families in matters relating to their work, their family, or health. Those were the best visits. But sometimes the issues revolved around the overwhelming gravity and stress of what ministers are called upon to do: weekly speaking, counseling, managing events, and much, much more. Many of our ministers had teen children and they needed support and encouragement. Pastoral assignments rarely lasted more than five years before a transfer to another assignment was in order. That added to the stress of serving.

At the time, the average age of our pastors was in the mid-forties. When I graduated from Ambassador College in 1969, the announcements in the weekly ministerial newsletter focused on ministerial marriage, babies, and ordinations. Now, it was the marriages of their children. As the average age of some of our pastors has crept towards age 70, the announcements have changed to prayer requests for health, retirement gatherings, and obituaries.

Bev and I have had the privilege of experiencing and serving in this entire spectrum.

On occasion relationship impasses broke open between the elders and their flock. Bev and I were often tasked to intervene and work to heal. We found that these situations were often best resolved within the presence and involvement of pastoral spouses. Involving the feminine element was crucial to solving many challenges, and Bev was most kind and helpful in this. We worked to improve communication in sometimes subjective situations and sought out mutually agreeable plans for genuine reconciliation. It was both humbling and gratifying that these challenging tasks produced lasting understanding, a change of mind, and reconciliation.

Bev’s and my guiding scripture was always: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24 KJV).

We wanted our pastors to focus on being helpers of people’s joy in the Holy Spirit, rather than be sheriffs (having harsh dominion over others faith and behavior). On occasion, “Sheriffs to Shepherds” actually became our mantra. This was a healthy change and we both informally talked and spoke in forums about it constantly in ministerial conferences. It was quite an admission and change from some previous times in the church back then.

But to achieve reconciliation in some cases took more than lecturing. It required a loving approach to those who had overstepped the boundaries of service to help them understand how they negatively affected people, and then embrace change. For those who had become harsh and viewed as domineering, we did not want to come down on them with the same approach that they used on others. I felt that we had good success as we built lasting goodwill that has lasted to this day.

Those were often tough assignments. But there was a balance to those that were easier. In those early days, working in Church Administration was a humbling privilege.

Manuscript Review

After about a year on the job in Pasadena, Joe Jr. invited me to become part of the Manuscript Review Team, often referred to as the MRT. Its purpose was to review the literature that was publicly distributed and bring it up to date. The Worldwide Church of God had multiple dozens of booklets and reprint articles sent out by the multiple thousands.

The initial intent was to make stylistic changes to sound more contemporary. It was a great project! I was very enthusiastic to have an opportunity to serve on the MRT committee.

Some of our literature was replete with ALL CAPS and exclamation marks, a style that was somewhat common in inspirational literature and advertising in the first half of the 20th century. With advancements in printing and communication, that style was no longer as productive and effective as it once was. Also, some of the examples used in church literature were dated. Fresh content reflecting current times needed to be created.

Our committee were given assignments, which were worked on throughout the week. We then convened weekly for collaboration. The committee included Joe Tkach, Jr., Mike Feazell, Dr. Kyriacos Stavrinides, Ronald Kelly, Greg Albrecht, Larry Salyer, Randal Dick, and a few others, some linked from Big Sandy by phone.

One of the first projects was a review of Why Were You Born?

Over the years this booklet has been an influential and highly requested piece of literature. Herbert W. Armstrong originally wrote it. When we first started working on this review, there was no aspersion about the content; mostly it was the style that all of us agreed needed updating.

Doctrinal Committee

As I was serving on the Manuscript Review Team, I was subsequently asked to participate on the Doctrinal Committee. This was a more of an intensely detailed review of what we taught. Often, the discussion revolved around biblical details, such as details about the ride of the Horsemen in the Book of Revelation. At the time, all this was good. It’s always good to review what you believe and should be able to defend.

I came on the Committee shortly after the Worldwide Church of God had produced its first comprehensive Statement of Beliefs booklet. In all the years of the Church, there had not been such a comprehensive document published. This was 1992. The Church had always explained what we believe in an expository sense, but not in the form of an official doctrinal summary. Ironically, this first edition of Statement of Beliefs eventually became the foundation for the Fundamentals of Belief document in the United Church of God, which also followed the original format.

It was all good…back then

Working at Headquarters starting in 1990 was exciting, joyful, meaningful, and forward-looking. With all of the challenging but satisfying work, life for Bev and me couldn’t get any better. One of our family’s personal blessings was that my son Michael was able to attend Imperial Schools, a church-sponsored K-12 private school. He still praises his Imperial School experience to this day. Also, both my brothers Oleh and Eugene were then serving among the 400 full-time pastors in the Worldwide Church of God field ministry. The three of us talked often, sometimes a few times a week. What a joy it was then to have three brothers in the same ministry!

But then, unknown to Bev and me, the dream was quietly moving toward an unexpected end.

In my next chapter, I’m going to talk about how, in this beautiful environment, tremors started, and cracks appeared.

Posted in Ground Zero.