By Dave Tombers
A Christian and Missionary Alliance congregation in Paramus, N.J., is facing a forced removal from a debt-free building the congregation has owned since 1929 this weekend, and they are blaming their own denominational officials for the impending ministry doom.
The Metropolitan District of the C&MA has filed a lawsuit, invoking a "reversionary" clause in documents they claim link the Paramus congregation to the C&MA. This clause, they say, allows them to step in and take over all assets of a church and their demand of the court is for the judge to order the church's shutdown.
According to court documents the district wants the assets of the Paramus church to use to further its mission among other churches.
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Pastor Joseph Smaha tells WND that the congregation built the building from the ground up without one penny of help from the C&MA, yet now stands to lose it all to them in the disturbing situation.
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Well over a half a million dollars worth of real estate, owned free and clear by the congregation, could be turned over to the C&MA if the Community Alliance Church of Paramus doesn't find a miracle this weekend.
So far the courts haven't been very helpful.
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A judge has ordered that the C&MA can change the locks and evict the Paramus congregation, which is set to happen in just a matter of hours, or days at the most, following a brief reprieve so the congregation could celebrate Christmas in its own building.
"Under the theory of separation of church and state, the court has been taking an ecclesiastical legal approach to this matter," says E. Allen Macduffie, the Paramus congregation's attorney.
"Basically, if the church denomination says they can do this, the court prefers to agree and let the denomination handle its own matters," Macduffie told WND.
"If the court would simply apply natural law, there'd be no question that this small congregation would win."
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According to Smaha, the small church took a vote to become affiliated with the C&MA denomination in the 1990s, although he tells WND that there are huge questions on whether the process was ever fully completed.
"Representatives from the [Metropolitan] District office came to the church before the congregation voted, and then never came back," Smaha told WND.
"We thought we'd get some certificate, or letter. Anything from the C&MA welcoming us to the group. … Instead we never heard a thing."
Smaha says the small church was out-of-sight-out-of-mind until someone from the district realized what a nice, valuable piece of property the Paramus congregation had built up.
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|Church in Paramus, N.J. (Image by Jeremiah Smaha)|
"Suddenly the district tells us we're not a viable congregation, and they are invoking the reversionary clause," he tells WND.
That's despite growth in recent years from a low of about 20 in attendance to the current nearly 100. The church also provides a separate service for a Hispanic congregation, it has money in the bank and no debt.
Smaha said the denomination never has contributed a penny to the work.
He tells WND that back in 1996 one elder questioned the district representative about the so-called "reversionary" clause.
"He was a nice, old World War II vet, who wanted to make sure our congregation wasn't being taken advantage of," Smaha tells WND.
"The district told him, 'that clause will never, ever be invoked' except in an extreme case such as a congregational split, false teaching, or if the church just closed its doors one day," Smaha said.
Instead, just a few years later, the church stands to lose everything, because of that very clause.
WND has repeatedly tried to reach the District Superintendent, Bruce Terpstra, who has declined to respond.
WND spoke to Dan Wetzel, the interim vice president of church ministries for the C&MA, which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"I don't have anything to do with the Paramus situation," he told WND.
He told WND that the district superintendents are the overseers of all matters involving churches, and not the national headquarters. When asked if he provides any oversight to the district superintendents, he replied, "No. We are not a hierarchical body."
"Each district acts independently."
He told WND that there is never a case where the national headquarters for the C&MA would "ever step in" to help a struggling pastor or church.
"We provide no direction or oversight to our districts whatsoever," he said.
"If we're invited to, we may consult with the districts," he added.
Smaha tells WND that the 82-year-old church has been through a lot over the years, and that in the lean years post-9/11 he even took a full-time job as a local firefighter so the congregation didn't have to pay his salary.
In 2006, he offered to purchase the parsonage he and his family had access to, so the church could use the proceeds of the sale for much needed renovation of the sanctuary.
In 2009, a few years after the renovation, a district representative paid the pastor a visit after being called for spiritual guidance on a disciplinary matter, and according to Smaha, "was shocked at how nice the church now looked."
"The district had no idea we had even fixed the church up," said Smaha.
Not long after that, the district launched its action to close the congregation down. In fact, Smaha said the conference cited the fact he offered to pay the building's electricity bills several years earlier as a sign it was in trouble now.
"I begged the district to come see what the Lord is doing in our church," he said. "They told me it doesn't matter."
That's when Smaha and a few others did a little research, and made a disturbing discovery.
"Closing down congregations, taking over their assets and selling everything off, under the guise of the reversionary clause, seems to be a trend with the C&MA," Smaha says.
James Sundquist has researched the subject and has produced a DVD documentary that explores what he calls the hijacking of churches in a title called, "Making Merchandise of Men's Souls."
He documents many similar cases on his PerfectPeacePlan.com website.
Sundquist points to a number of congregations that have had the C&MA step in, seize their assets, padlock the doors, and sell everything off.
"It's interesting that they only close down 'debt-free' congregations," he says. "You don't usually see them take this action with a church that rents space every Sunday."
"Bernie Madoff has got nothing on these guys," he tells WND.
WND also spoke with Pastor Joe Broz, of Chester, Pa.
His congregation was targeted by the C&MA, but through some legal maneuvering he was able to thwart the hostile takeover.
Not that the victory amounts to much more than an empty building, however.
Because of the fight, his small church, now renamed the Independent Bible Church of Chester, has been struggling to reattract the congregation that was scared off thinking the church was going to close.
In the midst of his battle with the C&MA, Broz was in a serious car accident that left him in critical condition. His son, an EMT, emailed C&MA District Superintendent Wayne Spriggs asking for prayer for Broz, saying, "it doesn't look good."
Broz tells WND that Spriggs later admitted to him that he never passed on the prayer request, because unbeknownst to Broz, Spriggs had revoked the pastor's credentials due to the property battle, saying, "We didn't owe you any prayer."
Broz tells WND that removing a pastor's credentials and decimating a congregation seem to be standard for the C&MA during one of these "takeovers."
He said he remained silent for a long time because of concerns of how the infighting would look to nonbelievers. But he said now he believes it's better that the activities be exposed.
Smaha tells WND that indeed, his pastor credentials have been revoked.
Smaha also says that the C&MA bylaws declare that a church be given 9-12 months to "fix" whatever the perceived problem is before the denomination acts on the reversionary clause. His congregation was denied even one day.
Broz said his congregation tried to help out before, when another church was being told to close.
"My congregation had to raise money to support a pastor and his 8-month pregnant wife in Malvern, Pa., after the C&MA evicted them from the parsonage, seized the church property and sold it to another church," Broz tells WND
At least in that case the pastor was given a week to get out. Broz tells WND that he was threatened with being evicted within an hour after he refused to cooperate with the "reversionary scheme" in his church.
Broze said when he declined to turn over the property deeds to Spriggs, he was told by Spriggs, "Joseph, I have full constituted authority over you. I can remove you as pastor, evict you and your family from the parsonage, dismiss the church board, change the locks, and you'll be out on the street."
Broz has served his inner city church for most of his life, many times in great peril, like the time he was mugged on the church steps and lost sight in one eye. He fell to his knees in prayer.
He tells WND that he called Wiggins seeking help, and was told that he was on his own.
He says this was Wiggins' response.
"In a few months I will be out of this denomination position so I will tell you why. If I help Joseph Broz in this problem with Rev. Spriggs, people in this church will side with you and there will be division. The money that is coming to pay district workers and headquarters workers salaries like mine will be cut and money to the Great Commission Fund could be adversely affected.
"It would be far better for you and your family to be on the street than mess things up here."
Broz tells WND that he started to cry and asked Wiggins one last time for help.
"God will have to help you."
Broz tells WND, "That $38 million a year fund was far more important to the denomination than a poor, half-blind pastor and his wife."
Meanwhile, those who have seen the actions of this denomination up close wonder how the Christian and Missionary Alliance church reconciles its current actions with that of its founders' vision back in the 1880s.
The history of their beginning goes like this:
The Alliance movement began in the 1880s when our founder, Dr. A.B. Simpson, witnessed the physical and spiritual plight of New York City's homeless, downtrodden, and marginalized populations.
Moved by his great love for Jesus and lost people, Simpson devoted his life to sharing Jesus' light – in word and deed – with the city and, ultimately, the nations.
Our calling remains unchanged. We are committed to being points of light – sharing good news to the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives and releasing prisoners from darkness – all in Jesus' name.
As for the Paramus Community Church?
The court may defer to the denomination, and allow the 82-old church property to be acquired, but the congregation of people will go on.
Other churches in the area have offered their sanctuaries for use, and many secular buildings have been made available as well.
Smaha tells WND, "Even if our fight doesn't help our church, maybe we can help some other congregation avoid a similar fate."
He suspects many congregations will review the relationship they have with their denomination after hearing about his plight in Paramus.