Maryland Megachurch Secedes From Sovereign Grace Ministries

Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., announced Sunday that it is leaving the Sovereign Grace Ministries family of churches after a number of disagreements pertaining to church leadership and direction caused a rift between the two organizations.

"For the past 18 months, Covenant Life Church has been going through a time of testing which we see as an expression of the Father's loving discipline ... One of the most difficult aspects of this time has been realizing we find ourselves going in a different direction from that of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM), the organization that was launched within our church and whose leaders have played a foundational role in the life of our church," says a statement from the Covenant Life Church pastors on the church's blog.

The idea of disassociating with the denomination, which is led by President C.J. Mahaney, was brought before the megachurch's members during a Nov. 4 meeting. On Dec. 12, the congregation affirmed the decision with 93 percent of voting members in favor of the separation, The Courier-Journal reports.

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Formerly located on the Covenant Life campus, SGM relocated its pastoral training program and offices to Louisville, Ky., earlier this year, citing economic difficulties and location, among other things, as reasons for the move. Covenant Life, which Mahaney served as pastor over for 27 years, is just one of several congregations that have ended their partnerships with SGM during the last several months.

But despite their differences, both the church and SGM seem appreciative of each other, and have publicly made positive statements about one another as they go their separate ways.

"We believe this gospel partnership has been extraordinarily fruitful, which makes it all the more difficult to see it end," Tommy Hill, SGM's director of finance and administration, told the Courier-Journal in a statement. "Though no longer in formal association as we would prefer, we nevertheless remain inseparably linked together in the same gospel mission for the glory of God and pray for continued fruitfulness for both as we pursue this mission in the days ahead."

The pastors of Covenant Life Church agree, saying the link between the two organizations is "deeper than institutional association," and that despite their differences they are bonded by their faith in Jesus Christ.

The exit of Covenant Life Church is just one of a number of struggles SGM has been forced to deal with in recent months and years. In June 2011, Mahaney took a leave of absence from his role as president after being accused of having characteristics including "pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy" by former pastors and leaders from SGM.

But after an interim board of directors was installed and an outside organization evaluated some of the accusations – especially those of former SGM board member Brent Detwiler – Mahaney was eventually found to be fit to serve and was returned to his leadership role.

In a blog post about the church's split on Sunday, Detwiler described SGM as having "an increasingly corrupt and abusive leadership culture." He formerly served on the board of directors for 25 years, but left the ministry in August 2009.

Detwiler believes God has been disciplining SGM, but says its leaders haven't yet embraced His discipline as they should.

"As a result, we've seen ... the reaping of consequences (Gal 6:7-8) and today it multiplied with the monumental departure of Covenant Life Church – the flagship of SGM," wrote Detwiler.

Another issue the ministry is facing right now is a civil lawsuit which claims SGM both suppressed and mishandled information it received about instances of child sexual assault and abuse, which allegedly occurred in the 1980s and '90s.

The suit doesn't claim the abuse was committed by SGM pastors or staff, or that it was done on church property, but it does allege that the church gave harmful advice to victims and their families. It also claims church leaders attempted to keep information about the alleged abuses from law enforcement officials.

An SGM statement released by Hill last month says the suit "contains a number of misleading allegations, as well as considerable mischaracterizations of intent." The statement also says the ministry considers taking care of children an important and serious issue, and that its leaders only provided confidential pastoral guidance "as is a right under the First Amendment."

SGM is made up of a family of about 90 churches in the U.S., Canada, Bolivia, Mexico, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. The organization also operates a Pastors College and is a major proponent of church planting.

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