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A Prayer Denied

Photo By Andrew Neuhues

On a recent Sunday, the pews at Hollywood First Presbyterian Church’s morning service are barely half full. Sermons and prayers beseeching God and members to heal the “split in the life of our church” appear to have been rejected. The pastor now talks of the dire need for money.

“We have received $1.1 million for next year,” says the Rev. Scott Erdman to the scant crowd of mostly older people. “It was half as much as we hoped. We might have to trim and downsize our ministry. We are asking for more money.”

Groveling for dollars may be part of the Sunday script at many churches, but it used to be different here. Hollywood First, located on Gower Street, was once considered one of the most prestigious and influential evangelical pulpits in the Presbyterian Church. Home of renowned preacher Lloyd Ogilvie, who presided over the pulpit for 23 years and started “Let God Love You,” a weekly television program before he became the U.S. Senate chaplain in 1995, it boasted more than 10,000 members in good times.

It was the launching pad for Billy Graham’s ministry, and the church still attracts high-profile entertainment types including Everybody Loves Raymond’s Patricia Heaton, talk-show host Leeza Gibbons and rocker Bono. But the congregation is undergoing change of biblical proportions these days, brought on not only by the increasing tension between traditionalists, who like lethargic hymn singing, and the under-30 crowd, who embrace Christian rock, but also by the dismissal of two of the 102-year-old church’s popular pastors, Alan Meenan, 59, and David Manock, 58. Their tenure was marred by allegations of financial mismanagement, which led to a $697,000 deficit in 2005.

No one’s accusing the fallen ministers of dipping into the collection plate. It’s more of a case of expecting a miracle to balance the books. “We needed a better grip on how money was spent,” says one of the four pastors, the Rev. Charles Suhayda. “There was oversight, but it was not sufficient.”

To make ends meet, the congregation chose to sell three Gower Street properties for $5.8 million to the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency. Plans call for building permanent housing for the homeless. The toll of the theological storm has been substantial: a 40 percent decline in attendance, the resignation of six elders and a turnover in the church’s lay leadership. The two departed ministers are pursuing their own paths; Meenan gathers his faithful every Wednesday in a conference room at a Holiday Inn in North Hollywood to study The Word is Out, his Bible study text. Manock started an Internet ministry, The Titus Walk. Other splinter groups have set up their own Sunday services.

It’s not just music and money that created the chasm. Old-timers didn’t like the pastors’ modern-day preaching and management styles. The more liberal members preferred their wordly approach to evangelical teaching. Now, the spat threatens to dismantle one of Southern California’s historically rich sanctuaries from the pain and suffering in the world. Some members started a Web site called savehollywoodpres.com, which was flooded with dozens of letters condemning the church and its governing body in acting against the pastors.

“The whole thing is really sad to me,” said Jon Thomasson, who left the church over the matter. “There was a lack of due process and no fundamental fairness. This church will not recover.”

Meenan, a boisterous Irishman, already had earned a reputation for boldness when he arrived at the church in 1997 as chief of staff and senior pastor. He added two more Sunday services, including the popular Contemporary Urban Experience (CUE), which drew a more eclectic crowd for Christian-rock performances at an area nightclub. It was the fastest-growing service at the church, with more than 300 members, featuring a band and singers leading prayer songs to a rock beat. He did this for more than heavenly rewards. His earthly, annual pay, with included salary and a housing allowance, came to $120,528.

Manock, the pastor of programs and ministries, became his right-hand man in 2000. He managed 11 departments and earned a compensation package of $107,568. Before joining Hollywood First, Manock was senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Altadena.

Both pastors sought to expand the congregation’s original focus from the Hollywood area to the world. They hired staff and sought to buy properties “in anticipation of new ministries and to prevent the Church of Scientology from acquiring them.”

Last year letters of complaint began pouring into the Presbytery of the Pacific, which oversees more than 50 churches in Southern California and Hawaii. Forty of the church’s 2,700 members said they were disappointed with their leadership and stewardship of the $3 million annual budget. “People had been writing secret letters for three years,” says Marta Gardner, a former church clerk. “People were meeting at homes.”

Some of the letters and e-mails describe Meenan as having a dysfunctional relationship with his staff and being “intolerant of disagreement.” His leadership was called “narcissistic and ham-fisted,” and staffers felt “intimidated and browbeaten and pressured into supporting the pastors.” Church decisions were made in a “dictatorial fashion” and church elders were “bullied into becoming a ‘rubber stamp’ for Dr. Meenan.” The pastors were blamed for the financial woes. They were accused of hiring friends and family and for not informing the congregation about the rising deficit.

“There was so much waste,” says Tanya Almor, a former ministerial assistant. “There was massive irresponsibility and huge expenditures across the board.” Almor said that some of the letters were sent by angry staffers who accused Manock of forming a team to look into staff cuts after the financial woes surfaced last year. “It caused everyone to be worried,” she said. “Eventually the names came out and people demanded time to speak.” Manock was also criticized for hiring his friends, who ended up hiring Manock’s wife. “It caused ripples,” Almor said.

Some ex-congregants, including Thomasson, believe most of the conflict centered on Meenan’s CUE service, which attracted younger people who sported tattoos and preferred Christian rock music. “There was a significant minority who were suspicious of the services,” said Thomasson. “They were consistently accusing Meenan of spending more money on that worship service than the classic worship service.”

Others point toward a former elder who was voted out as the clerk for the church’s governing body but who also was the vice moderator of the Presbytery and a member of the committee that looked into the allegations. Also, choir members disliked Meenan’s newly hired music director. “They were feeling like their voices weren’t being heard,” says Dr. Frankie Cotton, a former church member. “It is a lifestyle for people. They can get vocal if they feel that their territory is being stepped on.”

On December 11, after the pastors accepted severance packages, church members voted to accept their resignations. The judicial arm of the Presbytery is looking into formal complaints against the two pastors. If the pastors are found guilty by the church court, it could lead to revocation of their ordinations. The judicial arm has one year to investigate the charges. An administrative commission assigned to get to the heart of the church’s finances found them in “severe disarray” and “highly at risk” and that numerous financial records were missing, incomplete or incomprehensible. The church, which had an operating deficit that ranged from $200,000 to $900,000 during four of the past five years, depleted its reserves and didn’t fund pensions for nonordained staff. The committee also questioned why the pastors spent $14,000 on an India mission out of an operating fund that was already in deficit.

While Meenan accepts ultimate responsibility for the financial woes, he said the business manager failed to keep a close eye on the finances. (The former business manager did not return L.A. Weekly’s calls). When he attempted to remedy the situation, Meenan said he was stopped in his tracks by the Presbytery.

“There were all kinds of agendas that happened to coalesce and bring about this debacle,” said Meenan. “The tragedy here is that this was a thriving church, accomplishing a great deal, broadening its appeal to the community and, basically, the Presbytery botched up.”

Members of the CUE service started their own ministry called Ecclesia Hollywood, led by CUE’s former host, Brandon Dickerson.

“We didn’t believe that the process was working or something we wanted to be part of,” said Dickerson. “It went awry.”

On Sunday morning, several blocks from the landmark church, 100 people gather in a warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard. Ex-members of Hollywood First are joined by reality-TV star and former Partridge Family member Danny Bonaduce. With coffee and muffins in hand, they sway back and forth as Ecclesia’s Christian rock band performs “The First Noel.” A few minutes later, Dickerson, an ordained minister, begins his sermon on Mary, the mother of Jesus, as the crowd of mostly 20- and 30-somethings listen and laugh at his comedic and modern approach to teaching the Bible.

“If we knew what we were going to get into, we wouldn’t have done it,” laughs Dickerson. “But it ended with a separate story. So many people got hurt. It was sorrowful to see all that go on. For a little bit it was about helping people understand. Then all these new people started coming.”