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Church Changes Led Miers to Join a Splinter Group

October 07, 2005|Scott Gold and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

DALLAS — For 30 years, there have been two keystones in Harriet E. Miers' life -- her job and her church. Both are in flux.

While Miers waits to learn whether she will be confirmed as the latest justice of the Supreme Court, she is also consumed with a more private matter that, friends say, could have an equally profound effect on her life. She is among 200 people who have broken away from the Dallas church that has long been the nucleus of their community.

At 10 a.m. Sunday, the splinter group will gather for a fifth week as spiritual nomads. Operating without a name or a worship hall, they will meet for services in a rented ballroom at a Doubletree Hotel in north Dallas.

The schism reflects a tension that is playing out in churches across the nation as they struggle to balance tradition with calls to modernize and appeal to a younger flock. This time, it just happens to involve the church -- Valley View Christian -- where the Supreme Court nominee was baptized, became a born-again Christian and has called repeatedly for congregants to pray for the president.

The split has been "hard on her. It's hard on all of us," said Miers' pastor and friend, Ron Key, who left with the splinter group and will lead services Sunday at the Doubletree. "It's a real struggle. We're praying that something is going to come up, that we're going to be able to find a place to worship."

With a laugh, he added: "We're looking for something with very low overhead."

The dispute is one over style, but it has political undertones too. Some of the more traditional members of the church fear that its effort to be more contemporary could dampen its emphasis on social issues, including its teachings against abortion and homosexuality.

Miers has attended Valley View, a conservative, evangelical church with a congregation of about 1,200, for nearly 30 years, and considers it her "home church" even though she spends most of her time in Washington. She has served in a host of leadership roles there, including a seven-year stint on its missions committee.

The church has historically devoted an enormous percentage of its annual budget -- about $500,000, or more than 35%, Key said -- to foreign missions. Miers helped shape several outreach programs, including Bible translation and the sponsorship of Christian schools and orphanages.

That emphasis began to change recently.

Much of the money that had been spent on foreign missionary work, the elders decided, was to be routed back into the church itself -- a decision that disappointed Miers and her longtime companion, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht.

"It was about emphasis and direction," said Hecht, who has also left the church where he once played the organ, taught Sunday school and served as an elder. "The group that has left, most of them think that more money should be devoted to missions rather than spent on ourselves."

That was one of many changes the church has gone through in an effort to reach out to an "emerging" generation -- a younger crowd that could represent the future of the congregation.

That is an effort that is underway at numerous churches, said Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, an evangelical institution. And the changes are never easy, he said.

"Christianity is always contextual," Johnston said. "Whenever our cultural situation becomes conflicted -- old and young, modern and postmodern, multi-ethnic -- conflicts arise regarding how to best express our praise for God. It's natural."

Key, who had served at the church for more than 30 years in a variety of roles, had been preacher on Sundays. Two years ago, attendance and giving were in decline, and Key said the elders blamed, in part, his restrained preaching style.

They brought on Barry McCarty, a charismatic and influential minister. This summer, they wanted to make McCarty the church's senior minister. But according to the church's bylaws, such a move required a full vote of the congregation. The elders sidestepped the bylaws by creating a new title, naming McCarty "lead" minister, Key said.

"Now you have someone in charge of the church that the congregation has never voted on," Key said. "That was a major problem."

McCarty could not be reached for comment.

A young Bible college student has been hired to modernize worship services. The final straw, for some, was the talk of using video streaming and computer graphics during services -- even of setting up a rock band.

"The group that left is looking for a simpler and more traditional worship service," Hecht said. "The group that has separated has actual care and concern for people who need help -- and not so much for a high-octane display on Sundays."

Valley View elders said the overall message of their service would not change, just the way that it was delivered.

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