Thompson don’t preach
Why did Westminster Presbyterian Church’s popular reverend step down, then sever ties with his church?
The wind kicked up and, before the Rev. Dr. David Thompson could get a grip on them, it blew his papers off of the makeshift pulpit and onto the concrete. Thompson, his trademark snowy hair tussled by the gust, stopped his sermon, stooped down and collected his notes. The outdoor setting wasn’t like the grand weatherproof sanctuaries he’s accustomed to, but he kept a sense of humor.
“Jesus preached sermons on a mount and from a boat, so I can preach in the park,” laughed Thompson as he juggled the microphone and papers.
The attendees that August morning, about 30 people sitting in their own soccer and beach chairs at J. Neely Johnson Park, chuckled guardedly; it was, after all, a sad day for the group.
It didn’t take long for Thompson to break into the spirited oratory that made him a lightning rod:
“We can send a man to the moon, but we cannot end the evil of homelessness in Sacramento. Why? Because we won’t take political action,” Thompson said. “We are stopped dead in our tracks by abstract ideologies that harm the homeless and protect private property, and city ordinances like no-camping bylaws.”
The audience nodded their heads in silent agreement.
Thompson, who months earlier had resigned as pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, had been scheduled to preach the sermon that August morning at Grace Presbyterian Church in Arden Park. But five days before the scheduled sermon, the Sacramento Presbytery sent Thompson a letter barring him from preaching at any Presbyterian church until June 2010. Thompson responded by “renouncing jurisdiction,” essentially resigning his membership entirely from the Presbyterian Church USA and severing any authority the presbytery held over him. In the days following his resignation, a few of Thompson’s fans quickly organized the park service.
Thus ended a months-long dispute between Thompson and the Sacramento Presbytery, a bitter public battle that managed to fracture the historic Sacramento congregation and temporarily silence one of the city’s most outspoken pastors.
Back in January, the presbytery—the body overseeing dozens of Presbyterian churches in the Sacramento area—sent an administrative commission to oversee affairs at Westminster Presbyterian Church, where Thompson had served as pastor since 2001. The exact reasons behind forming the commission were never disclosed publicly.
Thompson maintains that his stance on various social issues—especially those in support of gays and lesbians in the church and involving Proposition 8, an initiative that banned gay marriage in California—angered some members of Westminster and the presbytery.
Thompson cites specific actions he took while serving as pastor at Westminster that may have landed him in the presbytery’s cross hairs: He ordained two openly gay men to service positions at Westminster. He also spoke out against two Sacramento Presbyterian churches that wanted to split from the national church and join the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian denomination.
Carolyn Knight, clerk of the Sacramento Presbytery, told SN&R in March that the commission was not concerned with Thompson’s political positions but were investigating matters related to “finance, personnel, worship and ministry of healing and reconciliation.”
In an interview last week, Knight said the commission was prepared to disclose to Westminster’s governing elders the reasons behind Thompson’s requested resignation as pastor, but Thompson’s attorney intervened, saying they could not disclose that information. She also said that the commission was made up of people across the political spectrum. Thompson denied that his attorney blocked the disclosure, saying that instead the presbytery agreed to keep that information confidential if he resigned as pastor.
As has been the case since the administrative commission took over in January, the story at Westminster has been an exchange of he said/they said. Even now, two months after Thompson resigned jurisdiction from the denomination, those in the know won’t talk, leaving dozens of unanswered questions.
In May, Thompson was placed on administrative leave. Soon after, by unanimous vote, the commission recommended that Thompson resign his position at Westminster.
Thompson said he had planned to appeal his case to the synod, the governing body a step above the Sacramento Presbytery, but he had already spent $23,000 on attorney fees and didn’t think the case was worth fighting. Thompson submitted his resignation as pastor at Westminster, but he accepted invitations to “fill the pulpit” at other local congregations—including a few Presbyterian churches.
But Thompson’s continued preaching was causing problems for the presbytery, Knight told SN&R last week.
“Wherever [Thompson] would be going, it was proven—it was documented fact—that many members from Westminster were following him there,” explained Knight. “It was the belief that in order for the congregation to engage in the healing process that they should not be fragmented by some of them going to hear David.”
The fallout affected more than just Thompson. In June, one church elder confessed that she had mailed out the report of the administrative commission to some church members, a report not intended for circulation. As a result, the elder was placed on a one-year “exclusion from the exercise of ordained office.”
In August, to help heal the rift at Westminster, the presbytery instructed Thompson to refrain from preaching, as well as “visitation in hospitals or convalescent hospitals, counseling, officiating at weddings and presiding at memorial services.”
Thompson quickly renounced jurisdiction, completely severing his ties with the Presbyterian church.
Now Thompson and Westminster have both agreed to move on.
“The congregation has begun the healing process,” said Knight. “Out of these ashes, a phoenix is rising.”
However, Knight said that Westminster will not begin a search for a new pastor for at least another year.
The Rev. Thomas Oxtoby, hailing from Michigan, took the reins last Sunday as interim pastor at Westminster. Oxtoby, who has spent the last 20 years specializing in “interim ministry” at 15 different Presbyterian congregations across the country, told SN&R that he expects his term at Westminster to last at least two years.
“The first year will focus on healing and rebuilding the community,” Oxtoby said from his new apartment in Sacramento. “The second year will focus on redefining the vision of the church.”
Oxtoby said a major part of the healing process involves “a lot of listening and hearing people’s stories on what happened.”
Oxtoby said that while he is coming into Westminster with few details about Thompson’s exit, he has prior experience taking over congregations where pastors have departed under similar circumstances.
“I’m listening, but mostly it’s about helping people to listen to each other,” Oxtoby said.
Meanwhile, Thompson has started a weekly interdenominational service called The Experience at Club 21, a downtown GLBT-friendly bar. The service will regularly feature religious rites from various spiritual traditions; most recently, attendees participated in a Lakota smudging ceremony. Currently, his service draws around 30 people each week.
“I just feel free to do in my heart the most appropriate thing to do,” said Thompson. “I’m tapping into this new spirituality.”
Thompson is well-known for his interdenominational work; he still serves as president of the Interfaith Service Bureau and was honored with the Building Unity award in 2008.
He said he harbors no ill-will towards his former flock.
“I still support the national church and Westminster,” Thompson said.
“I’m just focusing on the future,” he said.