By Lesley R. Chinn
Although a peaceful demonstration was called off last Wednesday at the Chicago First Temple United Building, 77 W. Washington, it didn’t stop parishioners from St. Mark United Methodist Church in Chatham from requesting that Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Northern Illinois Methodist Church reappoint Rev. Jon McCoy as senior pastor.
Currently, the question of McCoy’s reappointment remains in the air among St. Mark parishioners. Initially, members who were not pleased that Jung had not returned the church’s phone calls, letters, emails or visits regarding McCoy’s appointment, planned to host a peaceful demonstration outside the Temple for lack of a response from the Bishop. But after later learning that Jung had reached out to them, parishioners agreed to meet in the near future to discuss McCoy’s reappointment.
“We’re satisfied that [the Bishop] responded to us…We’re looking forward to a meeting in the near future,” said Rudy Smith, chairman of St. Mark’s Church Council.
Before becoming senior pastor about five years ago, McCoy began his tenure with St. Mark as an assistant pastor from 1997 to 2000. In the last five years under McCoy’s leadership, the church has grown tremendously with programs such as its martial arts program, soup kitchen, and young adults’ ministry. Based on these accomplishments alone, Smith, said removing McCoy would be “bad timing.”
But removing pastors, when members don’t agree or when it may not be in the best interest of the church, community and members, isn’t just an issue at St. Mark. The issue has occurred before in other churches among different denominations and can spell out controversy when it happens.
A similar scenario occurred when Father Michael Pfleger, who has served as Saint Sabina Church’s pastor since 1981 had his tenure threatened in 2001 when Cardinal St. Francis George had plans not to renew his third-six year term. The standard tenure for pastors in the archdiocese is two six year terms. Despite these efforts to oust him, Pfleger has remained at the predominately African-American church on the South side for 29 years where he has been applauded for doing great things both in the church and in the community.
“Any church or system where there is potential to remove a priest or pastor doesn’t make sense regardless of the racial dynamics especially if that person is still effective in the community,” Nyshana Sumner, chairman of St. Mark’s Staff Relations Committee maintains. She said she doesn’t know if the Conference knows what effect removing a pastor can have on the Black community.
Mark Kuzma, a spokesman for the Northern Illinois Conference, United Methodist Church, said the organization is proud of St. Mark’s work in the community. “St. Mark UMC is a positive environment for children and youth, who desperately need safe places where they can be encouraged and molded to become the leaders of today and tomorrow…St. Mark has also been blessed for decades with many talented, dedicated clergy leaders – men and women, who have served faithfully and [who] have helped people from all walks of life experience the love of God in worship and in community,” he said.
“Bishop Jung has heard the concerns of the congregation of St. Mark United Methodist Church and is considering them as part of the process,” Kuzma added. “The Bishop is putting the appointment on hold pending further discussion and discernment…St. Mark UMC is a faithful and thriving congregation in Chatham that has been making disciples of Jesus Christ since the 1890s,” he said.
While the racial and ethnic makeup of the Northern Illinois Conference, United Methodist Church is 85.88 percent White; 8.65 percent African- American; 3.58 percent Asian; 1.47 Hispanic; and less than 1 percent multi-racial, based on data provided by the conference, St. Mark United Methodist Church, has played an historic role in ending segregation of United Methodist Churches and has an estimated population of more than 2,000 members. It is one of the largest African-American churches in the Northern Illinois Conference, United Methodist Church.
Kuzma explained that clergy serve in an itinerant system and pastoral changes, “are never made lightly or frivolously.” According to him, clergy are appointed to a local church by the Bishop (every five years). New appointments are offered to clergy and they are given time “to pray and consider the new opportunity.” Last year, he said about 20 percent of the conferences clergy were appointed to new assignments.
But Sumner said the process for removing pastors needs to be reexamined and updated. “Parishioners need to be made aware and comfortable with the decisions so that no one is blind-sided,” she said. “We become a lot more attached to our pastors in regards to their involvement that’s larger than spirituality,” Sumner stated who added there have been pastors that have been at churches for 10 or 15 years. “[Before] decisions as it relates to churches in the Black community are made, [the Conference] needs to make sure that they are in touch with what goes in the African-American community,” she stated.