A Pastor Accused, a Congregation Torn

At Trinity Lutheran in Ventura, the Rev. David Hall faces allegations of crude jokes and actions. He refuses to step down and members have taken sides.

Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2003.

By Andy Olsen

When the Rev. David Hall dons his robe and steps to the pulpit, he delivers the Word with a passion that has fortified his parishioners for years.

But now, threatened with losing his career, the leader of Ventura’s Trinity Lutheran Church is spending a lot of time talking about healing.

A controversy over allegations of inappropriate behavior by the pastor has shaken the 1,000-member congregation. Worshipers are leaving, an associate pastor plans to resign and a possible lawsuit looms.

At a time when the conduct of religious leaders is being scrutinized more closely than ever, the difficulty at Trinity illustrates the problems that Protestant churches can face with ministers who haven’t broken any laws but may have violated church rules and breached a congregation’s trust.

Church members contend that Hall, 51, has made jokes about oral sex in front of women and has given unwanted hugs to some congregants, and that five years ago he played a sophomoric prank on a female education minister.

Bishop Dean Nelson, who heads the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, asked Hall to resign in June. Hall refused. And, under the denomination’s rules, there isn’t much church leaders can do about it.

Leaving “may be an easy thing to do, but for the healing of the church I want to be there,” said Hall, who has been pastor at Trinity for nine years. “I don’t think it ever helps to run away from situations.”

That stand has left the congregation divided. Some members say they will leave if Hall stays. Others say they will leave if he leaves.

“I don’t feel supported,” said Karen Cherry, one of seven congregants who gave signed statements to Nelson and other church leaders concerning Hall’s behavior. “I won’t go [back to Trinity] if Dave’s there.”

On the other side, Luther Tolo, Trinity’s 65-year-old former pastor and a member for 24 years, said, “There are a lot of people who are on his side and say if Dave goes they’ll go too.”

Hall said he regretted making remarks with sexual innuendo and hugging female parishioners who felt uncomfortable with such actions. He acknowledged behaving inappropriately when he gave a “wedgie,” a sharp tug on the waistband, to the former education minister, according to a report from the Oakland- based Center for Ministry, an interdenominational organization that provides training and counseling for evangelical pastors.

But Don Kelley, Hall’s lawyer, said that the allegations leveled against his client were false or exaggerated and has threatened to sue the church for “gross overreaction.”

“There are a few people — and when I say that I mean less than five — who have wanted for years for Dave to resign,” Kelley said. “This was an opportunity for them to get him out.”

Lutheran bishops may suggest that a pastor resign, but church rules prevent a bishop from removing a pastor unless the pastor faces criminal charges or a disciplinary committee proves he or she has violated codes of conduct.

The policy assumes that the pastor will do the right thing and follow the bishop’s recommendation, Nelson said.

In his tenure, Nelson has advised four pastors to resign. This is the first time one has refused to do so.

“The authority of the bishop comes more in a moral persuasion than of a legal power,” Nelson said. Hall, he said, “chose not to respect that authority.”

The standoff “raises a question that we as a church, and everyone, is becoming more interested in: How do we organizationally remove a person who’s ordained and called by a congregation into ministry?” said Kevin Mannoia, dean of the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University.

“I don’t know of a denomination in the United States that has not had to deal with this issue,” said Mannoia, former president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, an organization of nearly 43,000 churches.

In churches that are strongly hierarchical, such as the Roman Catholic Church, bishops have the clear authority to remove pastors. However, many Protestant churches lack that structure.

By contrast, most nondenominational churches and some denominations such as the Baptists treat congregations as self-governing businesses.

The Lutheran church and some others fall in between, having a central hierarchy but giving considerable authority to individual congregations.

The controversy at Trinity began building in January when Nelson visited the church to investigate alleged administrative misconduct, including the sudden firing of staff members without explanation, according to Nelson and other church officials.

In April, Nelson asked the church to grant Hall a three-month paid leave of absence while the accusations were investigated. When the bishop asked congregants to comment about Hall, some women such as Cherry felt they could finally share their concerns about his behavior.

“Typical of being an abuse victim is you think you’re the only one,” Cherry said of why she didn’t come forward sooner. ” ‘Who would believe me?’ I told the bishop.”

When Nelson told the congregation about the sexual harassment claims, many did not believe them. “That was a complete surprise to us,” Tolo said. “Most people probably felt that the charges were not true.”

Rumors spread that Nelson, Associate Pastor Jon Christenson and other congregants were working together to oust Hall. Some churchgoers dismissed the accusations as lies.

Christenson, who said he plans to leave Trinity, admits that he disagreed with Hall about the way some staff members were let go, but denies any organized effort to have the pastor fired.

“I’ve been called a disease, an infection that needs to be removed,” Christenson said. “I’m becoming a divisive issue in the church and it’s affecting my credibility. I told the bishop, ‘I’m gone.’ ”

Cherry, one of a dozen congregants who shared information with Nelson, said she believed the church council listened too passively to her and other women’s grievances.

“I’m assuming since they’re not asking me about my story that they don’t care,” said Cherry, who has since left the church. “To me it seems like a done deal, so those of us who have been damaged — well, I’ll have to find a new home for my faith.”

Despite complaints such as Cherry’s, the council has decided for now to keep Hall as head pastor, provided he undergoes additional training and counseling. Nelson invited him to another hearing with the synod Monday to address the allegations and other concerns about his leadership. Kelley told the bishop that his client would not attend the hearing.

Earlier this month, Hall, who grew up the son of medical missionaries in South Africa, choked back tears as he preached to the congregation for the first time in three months.

“I deeply regret and apologize for any insensitivity I’ve had, for any actions … that may have hurt anyone,” he said. “These past few months have been a jail for me.”