Metropolis: Wednesday, February 27, 2003
Chorusof Protest

Discontent with Day preceded the minister’s decision to leave a major downtown church.


When senior minister Dr. K. Wayne Day announced Monday that he was retiring from First United Methodist Church, Bishop Ben R. Chamness told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the departure was voluntary.

It may have been, technically. But Day had some help from members of his congregation in getting out the door.

Long-simmering discontent with Day was brought to the surface recently by the firing of a popular choir director. In the wake of that firing, over half of what was FUMC’s Chancel Choir left the church in protest, and some members of the 10,500-strong congregation called for Day’s removal. On Feb. 23, the committee that oversees staffing matters for the church met with Bishop Chamness to discuss whether or not to continue Day’s appointment. The following morning, Day announced that he was resigning effective June 1.

When Dr. Steve Simons, who served as director of the chancel choir for 18 years, was fired from his part-time position in January, he was told it was due to a budget shortfall. Youth minister Rick Whisenhunt and Richard LaBoon, the producer of the church’s televised services, were let go at the same time. Writing in the Nov. 22 edition of the FUMC Reporter, Day explained that a decline in foundation revenue led to a shortfall in the church’s $3.6 million budget, including $100,000 for building maintenance spending and $45,000 for salaries. Additionally, Day wrote, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the church’s insurance costs had risen by $40,000.

Day came to the church eight years ago following a scandal involving sexual improprieties by longtime senior minister Barry Bailey that had cost the downtown church over $3 million. Many church members found Day remote and aloof. Under his leadership, they complain, communication within the church has been poor, and decisions to hire and fire have been arbitrary. “I think it’s possible that one big reason for the budget shortfall is that a lot of people aren’t supporting Wayne,” said former choir member Mark McNair.

On Jan. 8, a delegation from the 110-member choir met for an hour and a half with the Staff Parish Relations Committee to hear the reasons for Simons’ termination and voice their disapproval of the action. The choir members questioned the financial benefit of firing Simons when the church had recently hired students from Texas Wesleyan University to replace the choir’s existing section leaders, at a rate of $300 a month per singer for a total of $28,800 a year — more than Simons’ $26,000 annual salary.

Choir members also asked why they weren’t included in the discussion regarding Simons, in the same way that singles group members had been given the opportunity to contribute financially to the hiring of a singles minister. Larry Wheeler, who heads the SPRC, said he believed it was inappropriate to allow church members to “pay for people they like.”

Some choir members rescinded their annual pledges to the church to protest the firing. “We polled choir members anonymously to see how many were considering rescinding their pledges,” said former choir president Jerri Hoaldridge, “and the amount totaled $36,000.” The minister from another Methodist church convinced a few of the choir members to leave their pledges intact, telling them that if they rescinded their pledges, they’d no longer have a voice in church business. Wheeler confirmed that losses from rescinded pledges exceeded Simons’ salary. “If we had known the impact [the firings] would have,” he said, “we’d have taken a different approach.”

After Simons’ final Sunday service, 70 choir members met with him to sing at Texas Wesleyan, where he is a faculty member, on a night when choir practice was scheduled at FUMC. “We had contacted Steve the previous Sunday,” said Hoaldridge, “and [new FUMC choir director] Mark Burrows’ invitations for Wednesday night didn’t arrive until Tuesday.” Simons, who has since been hired by the music department at Arlington Heights United Methodist Church, said that when choir members contacted him, he initially discouraged the meeting, but later relented.

“We were sad and angry, desperate for closure,” Hoaldridge said. “There was no one to minister to us, so we ministered to ourselves.” Sixty-five former chancel choir members, including Hoaldridge, have since left First Methodist and are now singing with Simons at Arlington Heights, but Simons denied any intention or effort on his part to lure them away. “Steve encouraged us to go back to First Methodist and sing,” said Hoaldridge. Simons declined to comment further for this story.

Part of the choir members’ discontent stems from their belief that Day has had a vendetta against Simons and their choir for years and was looking for an excuse to fire Simons. This perception dates from an incident in 1997 when 40 choir members were rehearsing at the church during an ice storm that had cancelled most other church functions. When Simons invited Day to address the choir, the senior minister surprised them all by telling them that their performance was not adequate for the televised service. A new choir would be formed to replace them for the service, Day said, adding that choir members would be allowed to audition for the new choir and that Simons could apply for its directorship.

Hoaldridge said that when she spoke with Dr. Kennon Callahan, the church management consultant who supposedly recommended the proposed changes, he was full of praise for the choir. “He said that we were lucky to have a college professor who was willing to serve as our part-time choir director,” she said, “and was very complimentary about the quality of the music.” Day subsequently reversed his decision after meeting with choir members.

The 2000 edition of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, the document that details the church’s administrative policies and procedures, states that “the pastor or any member of the staff under consideration shall be notified prior to such a meeting at which a pastor’s or clergy staff member’s continued appointment or a lay staff member’s employment is discussed and brought into consultation immediately thereafter.” Yet Simons was not informed when the SPRC discussed his situation in December 2002, and a letter he sent stating his case to the committee went unanswered, according to a source who asked not to be named.

Whisenhunt’s firing is complicated by the fact that Day allegedly signed a handwritten document promising him a five-year term of employment and agreeing to pay private school tuition for Whisenhunt’s two teen-age sons. Lawyers consulted by the SPRC disagreed as to whether or not the contract was binding, said Bruce Terry, a church member who attended the meeting.

Day declined to be interviewed for this story but said he would consider answering written questions. In the end, however, rather than responding to the list of questions sent to him, he provided a short statement. “Staff reductions of good and competent people because of difficult economic times are always painful, especially in the church. Our lay leadership has insisted on a balanced budget. The staff reductions made in the summer of 2002 made that possible for 2002. Staff reductions in 2003 are meant to achieve that same goal.”

He leaves First Methodist in much the same shape in which he found it — in need of healing.

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