Up to 20 Churches Leaving SGM; Mahaney Response Compared to Watergate Scandal

Up to 20 churches have decided to no longer be under the direction of Sovereign Grace Ministries because of disputes over the leadership capabilities of the group's president, Pastor C.J. Mahaney, and its executive board, say former and present associates.

A pastor who was at one time a close adviser to Mahaney compares the behavior by the SGM's leadership team, including Mahaney, during the fallout due to the controversy, to that of President Nixon and his staff during the Watergate scandal of the early '70s.

"I also expect C.J., the Leadership Team, the interim Board and the current Board will all get full pardons like Nixon by those who fill their shoes," stated Brent Detwiler, who has offered his opinion and documented what transpired at SGM in his blog over the last two years. He told The Christian Post on Tuesday that as one of the original leaders at SGM, he was considered Mahaney's right-hand man.

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"Scandals in SGM continue one after another," Detwiler continued in his blog posted earlier this month and echoed in his interview with CP. "The lawsuit is moving forward. A new polity without biblical sanction will be put into place. Cover ups will continue. Nothing has changed. It only gets worse. There are no Charles Colsons in this scandalous story."

Seventeen churches have made it public that they will be leaving SGM, but Detwiler said 20 churches are seceding. Mahaney announced earlier this month that he is stepping down as president of SGM with the closure of his office to make way for an executive director during the church group's organizational restructuring.

The SGM board published a "A Note of Thanks to C.J. Mahaney" the same day its president announced his resignation.

"Our family of churches owes a debt of gratitude to C.J. Mahaney for co-founding and leading Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) to establish and build gospel-centered churches for the past three decades. C.J.'s leadership and example have helped to instill so many of the values that have shaped our family of churches, and none more so than our gospel-centrality. We are grateful for the central role his preaching and personal passion have played in making the gospel more clear and more precious to all of us in SGM," the board stated.

His transition from his role as president is planned for April 12 at the time of the polity ratification vote, according to the board.

Sovereign Grace Ministries is an evangelical, Reformed, and charismatic network founded in 1982 that has about 80 member churches, located mostly in the U.S. SGM also partners with pastors and church-planting networks in countries all around the world.

Mahaney, 59, has been leading SGM for nearly 30 years while also pastoring at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., which led to the network's founding. The minister, who handed over leadership of Covenant Life Church in 2004, stepped down from his SGM office in July 2011 amid accusations of pride, deceit, and sinful judgment. Mahaney, who founded SGM with Larry Tomczak, was reinstated as president a year later after a board review cleared him of the accusations, reportedly borne from fall-outs with previous SGM ministers.

The church network, which moved its headquarters last year to Louisville, Ky., was hit with a lawsuit last November filed by former SGM church members claiming a cover up of child physical and sex abuse, allegedly at the hand of some leaders. SGM has asked a Maryland judge to dismiss the lawsuit, which plaintiffs want to attain class-action status, claiming that the courts cannot get involved in a church's internal affairs. Attorneys representing the network also say the suit should be tossed due to the vague nature of the allegations. Mahaney, Tomczak and John Loftness, who resigned as chairman of the SGM board in February, are among those named in the lawsuit. A judge is expected to rule on whether to accept the case or not in May.

One of the pastors, whose church decided to leave SGM, told CP recently he wanted to make it clear that the decision was made because of a difference in leadership technique between his church and SGM, and not any litigation or biblical differences.

"What's developed over the past two or three years with Sovereign Grace Ministries is not over the gospel of Jesus Christ itself," said Pastor Vince Hinders of Sovereign Grace Church in Fairfax, Va. "For more than 30 years we have benefited from Sovereign Grace Ministries' teaching, multiple resources, and relationships that we have amongst the pastors. In many ways, it has been a fruitful relationship and we continue to share a strong desire to fulfill the Great Commission throughout the world."

Hinders and his church leaders included the Fairfax congregation in the decision by taking a vote, in which 98 percent of the members voted to leave SGM.

"Over the last several years we have been on diverging paths," Hinders said. "We believe it was best to end our affiliation with them. There are two main reasons. The first is leadership practices and the second is the form of governance within Sovereign Grace Ministries as it relates to churches."

He explained that his leadership team favored a more open and communicative style of leading a church than what had been displayed over the years by the SGM core of leaders.

Detwiler, who pastored at several SGM churches before resigning in 2009, said that although his public journal of grievances against the leadership of Mahaney were a part of the reason for churches leaving SGM, it is really what happened after he began his blog in July 2011 that affected people. Other SGM pastors and churches "have been able to watch how C.J. and the inner circle of men he surrounded himself with have responded to all this. With each passing month, C.J.'s response and his inner circle have only discouraged and disillusioned men throughout the movement," he told CP.

"It seems like every week I keep trying to get to the end of my blogging because I want this to end," Detwiler said. "I'm hoping to write next week what will be more or less a final post because it is not my life's ambition to harass C.J. the rest of his life. I've been trying to help him and bring reform to Sovereign Grace Ministries. But over the course of the last two years, once all these men got my documents it really did have the effect of sending shock waves throughout the movement, throughout the ministry."

Nicola Menzie contributed research to this article.

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