The Presbytery of Transylvania has elected Philip Lotspeich, who formerly served as coordinator for church growth for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as its new general presbyter.
The presbytery, which covers the eastern part of Kentucky, decided by voice vote Aug. 6 to call Lotspeich to fill the vacant general presbyter’s position. He earned a master of divinity degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and formerly served churches in Texas and Oklahoma.
Lotspeich also is one of four men from the PC(USA)’s national staff who lost their jobs in June in an ethics investigation involving $100,000 in church grant money from the 1001 New Worshiping Communities program that had been sent to an unauthorized nonprofit corporation created in California. All of the money was returned, and Linda Valentine, the former executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has said none of the four acted for personal gain. The 2012 General Assembly approved the 1001 program – an evangelistic plan for the PC(USA) to create 1001 new worshiping communities from 2012 to 2022.
Lotspeich brings to his new position with Transylvania Presbytery experience in both church planting and revitalization. The search committee report stated it wanted a candidate who could implement a long range strategy “which will require imagination, initiative and the courage to weather risk.”
At the search committee’s request, Lotspeich also wrote a letter to the presbytery explaining the circumstances of his departure from the Presbyterian Mission Agency – describing it as “a long story that continues to unfold.”
That letter offers his view of what happened – something Lotspeich has not previously expressed publicly in this depth. Although he no longer works for the PC(USA)’s national staff, questions of what happened in the 1001 inquiry remain an issue – in part because two of the four who lost their jobs, Roger Dermody (the denomination’s former deputy executive director for mission) and Eric Hoey (who had been the director of evangelism and church growth) both have filed defamation lawsuits against the PC(USA) in state court in Kentucky. (See Outlook coverage of the Dermody lawsuit here and the Hoey lawsuit here, plus the denomination’s response.)
In an August 6 hearing in Jefferson Circuit Court, Judge Judith McDonald-Burkman heard arguments from lawyers about whether the two cases should be consolidated, at least for purposes of discovery (collecting facts and statements from witnesses), but she did not immediately issue a ruling. She also did not rule on the question of whether she should issue a summary judgment ending the lawsuit, as the PC(USA) lawyers have requested, contending in that request that the lawsuit involves “quintessential matters of faith and polity” and infringes on the denomination’s First Amendment rights.
In his letter to the Transylvania presbyters, Lotspeich wrote that he joined the PC(USA)’s national staff in 2008, and that before he was called to that position “church transformation and new church development had become my passion.”
Among other points he makes in the letter:
- The staff of 1001 New Worshiping Communities program had plans to establish six centers around the country – the ones it had already set up in Washington D.C. and southern California, plus new centers in Atlanta, Austin, Seattle and Chicago. “Each of these centers would be housed/partnered with a local Presbyterian congregation for accountability and strength,” Lotspeich wrote. “Each of the churches we approached were asked to manage the finances and provide accountability for any funds given to them by the PMA (Presbyterian Mission Agency) or other entities. We felt that having a council of the church invested and charged with overseeing the work would provide a healthy accountability within the Presbyterian system.”
- With time, “plans around incorporation grew, primarily as an avenue to do funds development with foundations expressing that they couldn’t support general denomination efforts but would support local leadership development and community organizations. By the end of 2013, it became clear that all the groundwork was in place and it was time to file for the official corporation papers” and for nonprofit status. “At the PMA, I developed a budget that would support the work of the centers for the first few years with the amount of funding decreasing as they became sustainable, much like we have done with new church development . . . Throughout all of our work, we communicated our strategy and reasoning for it with our supervisors and the committee on the board to which we reported.”
- In March 2014, Lotspeich had a meeting to discuss a concern one of the employees had regarding a Board of Pensions matter. “It was at this meeting I became aware through our legal counsel that a specific incorporation policy existed within the PMA. We had inadvertently not followed the criteria contained in the policy because we were unaware of it,” he wrote. At that point, all activity involving funding the California corporation stopped; the $100,000 in grant funds were returned; and an internal audit began.
- In the fall of 2014, Lotspeich wrote, a warning was placed in his personnel file stemming from the investigation. “The audit committee research involved no vetting or due process, and we were not shown their report prior to the summary being posted publicly,” he wrote. He continued: “Because I was still employed by the PMA, I remained quiet and did all that I was asked to do in order to continue in the work that I loved.”
- In November 2014, the PC(USA) placed Lotspeich and the other three employees involved – Dermody, Hoey, and Craig S. Williams, who had been associate for Church Growth in the Western States – on paid leave as the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s executive committee hired a law firm to conduct an independent investigation.
- In April 2015, the Alston & Bird law firm reported its findings to the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, but the board did not publicly release the report. “This refusal to release the report continues, inexplicably, today,” Lotspeich wrote. “To date, the PMAB (Presbyterian Mission Agency Board) has spent well over one million dollars on this investigation and its dealings with the four employees mentioned in the report, and the church is no closer to knowing the truth than they were a year ago. I am confident that the Alston and Bird report makes it clear that there was no wrongdoing, deceit or criminal behavior in our work.”
- Dermody and Hoey have filed defamation lawsuits – and the PC(USA) has filed motions in connection with those lawsuits asking to bring third party complaints against Lotspeich and Williams. Lotspeich wrote of the defamation suits that “while I believe their claims are absolutely valid, I have no plans to join them in pursuing justice within the secular court system. If any action is taken by me in the future, it will be in accordance with the Book of Discipline” – in other words, an action brought within the PC(USA) system.
According to information provided to the presbytery, Lotspeich is to begin his new job immediately.