Chapter 13

Breaking Ground

From the book Raising the Ruins
By Stephen Flurry

“God’s headquarters has moved numerous times since the days of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. … Therefore, if any departmental moves occur, they won’t represent the first time headquarters operations have moved ….”

— Joseph Tkach Sr.

Pastor General’s Report, December 19, 1989

My father staunchly supported the changeover from Mr. Armstrong to Mr. Tkach in 1986. He arranged for all the church members in his Oklahoma City congregation to sign a card encouraging the new pastor general to carry on with the work. He also invited Mr. Tkach, if he could fit it into his schedule, to visit the Oklahoma brethren.

After making church visits to Phoenix, Big Sandy, Chicago and Anchorage in early 1986, Mr. Tkach accepted my father’s invitation and stopped in Oklahoma City on June 7, 1986. According to the Worldwide News, quoting my dad, Mr. Tkach’s sermon was “the type of sermon that is good for the ministry and can pave the way … for the type of sermons we need to be preaching to God’s people. It left all with the feeling we need to become more on fire for God’s work, inspiring us to be more enthusiastic and involved.”1 Coordinating the special weekend, my dad arranged for the churches to present Mr. Tkach with an oversized greeting card that played “Hail to the Chief,” a fanfare often used for greeting U.S. presidents. The church areas also presented Mr. Tkach with a gold-plated, brass centerpiece as a gift of appreciation for his visit.

Certainly, my father was not against Mr. Tkach’s appointment as pastor general. Even after my dad first began to notice disturbing changes coming out of Pasadena, he tried to push these concerns out of his mind. He firmly believed Jesus Christ was Head of the church. And if leaders at headquarters needed to be corrected for any of their new teachings, Jesus Christ would take care of it.

In the third year of Mr. Tkach’s leadership, sometime in 1988, my dad’s thinking began to change.

The Laodicean Era

Before Herbert W. Armstrong died in January 1986, the wcg membership had been warned many times about the final prophesied era of God’s church before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—called Laodicea in Revelation 3. This era is characterized by spiritual lukewarmness—God says the people are “neither cold nor hot.”2 They trust in material things “and have need of nothing.”3

Dr. Herman Hoeh wrote in his 1959 booklet A True History of the True Church: “This frightful condition lies now ahead of us. Just as the remnants of the Sardis era of the Church exist side by side with the Philadelphia era, so we will continue our work to the very ‘end time’ when another group will appear ….”4 As that statement reveals, we believed another group would appear separate from the wcg—though undoubtedly composed mostly of former wcg members.

But Mr. Armstrong had not ruled out the fact that the wcg itself might turn Laodicean, as the following statement indicates: “But, the bad news, as it appears today, my dear brethren, is that we, undoubtedly of the Philadelphia era … are in serious danger of becoming also the Laodicean era. I am personally much concerned about that.”5

It wasn’t until 1988 that my father began to see this as a distinct possibility. In studying Revelation 2 and 3, he realized that most of the time, church eras do go astray. And once he accepted that historical fact, his discernment sharpened. He then noticed many more teachings coming out of Pasadena that simply did not square with the Bible. By the end of 1988, he was fully aware of the evil lurking within the Worldwide Church of God headquarters.

At the outset of 1989, my father began searching the Scriptures for God’s perspective on all the changes. Why were they happening? Where was it leading? What should we do?

Transfer to Big Sandy

The first time I ever remember my dad expressing dissatisfaction with headquarters occurred sometime in January 1989. As a freshman at Ambassador College, Pasadena, I had given some thought to possibly transferring to the Big Sandy campus for my sophomore year. I knew how my dad felt about the idea. Although he would have supported my decision either way, he had always wanted me to stay at the headquarters campus. Since that is where most of the top ministers in the church were assigned, he felt I could learn more in Pasadena.

During one particular phone conversation about Big Sandy, however, I was surprised to hear him encourage me to apply for the transfer. “Dr. Meredith is over Big Sandy,” he told me. “I think he’s more conservative than some of the ministers in Pasadena.” He was careful not to say much more than that.

I didn’t give much thought to his comment at the time. I was just excited that he was happy for me to apply for the transfer.

Getting the PGR

When Larry Salyer explained in the pgr why they discontinued Mystery of the Ages, it upset my dad terribly. But to read Mr. Tkach’s own words two weeks later, in the February 14 report—how the book had “peripheral or incidental”6 errors and that it was outdated—was just too much. He had to vent.

He received that issue of the pgr on a Friday and then called me that night, February 17, 1989. At first, he was careful not to seem too upset. After a bit of prying, though, I got him to reveal how he really felt. He said, “Some of the things ministers are saying today would have gotten them fired if Mr. Armstrong were around.” I listened in disbelief. Could it really be that bad? He went on to explain that they had discontinued Mystery of the Ages because of “minor errors” and “money.” This was the first time I had ever heard that. Here I was at headquarters and no one—none of the ministers, faculty, student leaders—had ever told me that Mystery of the Ages was discontinued. My father later said, “We may very well be in the Laodicean era.” He also encouraged me to read the Old Testament book of Malachi—saying that some of the prophecy in that little book may be happening right now.

All of this was a lot for an unbaptized 19-year-old to digest. I tried to piece together my father’s comments with other things I was aware of. Four weeks earlier, during announcements at services, Mr. Tkach told the brethren how upset he had been recently, when he discovered that one of his assistants had been going “behind his back,” complaining about “changes” in the church. Mr. Feazell followed those announcements with a sermon titled “Eternal Truths.” In it, he discussed a number of changes in the church, but reassured the brethren that some things would never change—these so-called eternal truths. A week later, on January 28, Dr. Herman Hoeh gave a sermon on “change.” A number of us students had wondered if something big was about to happen.

For me, something big did happen on that night of February 17. The man I trusted more than any other human being on Earth had just told me the church I had grown up in was now headed in a dangerous direction. It scared me.

Beginning of Malachi’s Message

A few weeks after our phone conversation, my father began working on a manuscript to explain, from a biblical perspective, why the wcg was making so many changes. He now believed the church had indeed moved into the Laodicean era and that a number of Bible prophecies explained how and why it was happening.

We continued our occasional phone conversations, talking about school, family and areas of Scripture he had been studying—usually the minor prophets. But he never mentioned his paper. When I told him I was accepted to Big Sandy on April 4, he was glad to hear that I would be coming home toward the end of summer—and that I would only be a few hours from home during my sophomore year. More than that, he was glad that I would be getting out of Pasadena—the seat of the anti-Armstrong liberalism, so far as he was concerned.

He and my mom arrived in Pasadena on May 16 for my sister’s graduation. Once again, he made no mention of the manuscript. No one, except him, knew about it—not even my mom.

Meanwhile, rumors had been flying around campus that the church was going to put the Pasadena property up for sale. On Memorial Day, May 29, a few friends of mine went to a Dodgers game with Fred Stevens, the wcg accounting manager who assisted Leroy Neff, the church treasurer. I happened to ask Mr. Stevens about the rumors to sell the headquarters property. He said, “If anything like that ever happened, Mr. Tkach is not so dumb as to keep it a secret.” He brushed aside these rumors as a “bunch of lies.”

My Dad’s Initial Feedback

On Friday, July 14, I flew to Oklahoma to spend the rest of the summer at home. My dad picked me up at the airport and we drove directly to Robbers’ Cave in southeastern Oklahoma, where my dad’s congregation was sponsoring a youth campout for the Oklahoma area churches. It was a three-hour drive I will never forget.

For four months, my dad had been working on his paper, telling no one about it. He occasionally worked on it at home in his office, but that was inconvenient and nerve-wracking with my mom around. His favorite work place was a vacant building in Enid, Oklahoma, where he pastored a small second congregation of about 100 people. The church area rented a room in a vacant building for services and Bible studies and the owner liked the congregation so much, he just gave my dad a key and said he could use it whenever he wanted. Thoreau had Walden Pond—my dad had a remote second office in a small Oklahoma town. He may have looked funny hauling a typewriter in and out of that vacant meeting hall, but it worked well for him. He wrote the bulk of his manuscript at that secluded location, about an hour and a half from home.

When he picked me up on July 14, he had a rough draft of Malachi’s Message tucked away in his briefcase, in the trunk of the car. During the drive, he told me about a number of other things going on in the church—again, things I was totally unaware of. He said several ministers in the field were disgruntled with the changes coming out of Pasadena. And adding to his comment months earlier, about the church being in the Laodicean era, he said he believed the church was headed toward a “definite split.” He later said he wanted me to read something he had written that explained all of this. He had kept this conversation bottled up inside his mind for four months. I could tell that he was relieved, just having gotten it off his chest. The thought of reading his paper made me nervous.

What if, after all, my dad was wrong? What if God was behind all of the changes in the church? Whether I read the manuscript or not, I knew, based upon what he had already told me, that I needed to study more on my own. I needed to prove for myself who was right and who was wrong. I didn’t want to just take my dad’s word for it.

I put off reading it until Sunday morning, two days later. We had planned to head back home that afternoon. As I read, I could tell my dad was anxiously awaiting any kind of feedback. He was very fidgety—constantly in and out of the cabin, trying to “keep busy” while I took the time to read.

I got through about half of it before we had to gather our things to leave. “So, what do you think?” he asked when I stopped reading. “Well, that definitely will get you fired,” I responded. Its content certainly rang true—it was inspiring in fact—but I couldn’t yet commit to accepting the material without first digging into Mr. Armstrong’s foundational teachings. How could I say the church had fallen away from the truth when I hadn’t yet fully proven the truth in the first place? I was 19—interested in baptism—and had so much to learn.

He agreed that the content would undoubtedly get him fired. But believing it was from God, he fully intended to deliver the message to church leaders in Pasadena—perhaps in January of 1991—the end of the work’s third 19-year time cycle. That was still a year and a half off, I thought. In the meantime, I had some studying to do as a sophomore in Big Sandy.

We talked about his paper most of the way home. Even with my limited understanding, I felt pretty sure about one thing: that we were now in the Laodicean era. But was it my dad’s place to warn headquarters and the church about this? This is the question I wrestled with most over the next several months. Why not some other minister? Shouldn’t a high-ranking minister from headquarters do this? Why couldn’t my dad just tend to his flock in Oklahoma and let someone else lead the fight?

“This Church Is Laodicean”

Mr. Tkach was in Big Sandy for my orientation on August 14. He gave an odd introductory message—considering it was the kick-off to another exciting school year. He seemed paranoid and defensive. He was upset that some people were criticizing him. He then proceeded to criticize Mr. Armstrong, saying that in the past we had focused too much on prophecy.

Later that week, I met a sophomore whose dad also happened to be a minister in the wcg. From what I could gather, it seemed like his dad was upset about the changes too. I remember feeling good about that—like I wasn’t totally alone in this.

The next week, on August 22, I got a part-time job in the college library. For the most part, I was responsible for organizing and storing sermon, Bible study and forum cassette tapes. Many of the older tapes, by Mr. Armstrong and other leading ministers, weren’t even available to students. But as tape librarian, I had access to the archives. This wonderful collection proved invaluable as the semester wore on. As changes worked their way into the church, I often made side-by-side comparisons between what they were preaching and what the church taught when Mr. Armstrong was alive.

On Sunday night, October 1, I called my dad to chat about college and church subjects. During our conversation, he told me that his assistant, John Amos, had heard headquarters intended to remove Dr. Meredith from his position as head of the school in Big Sandy. My dad went on to say that he wondered if I should continue on at ac after my sophomore year. That comment shook me more than the Meredith rumor.

Four days later, Mr. Tkach, via telephone hook-up, announced that Dr. Meredith was being “transferred” to Pasadena to “write articles.” He was replaced by Dick Thompson. Gary Antion would move in from Pasadena to replace Mr. Thompson as dean of students.

The whole announcement was upsetting. But I couldn’t help feeling excited as well. The rumor Mr. Amos heard was, in fact, true! To me, it indicated that there were some rumblings of dissatisfaction among the field ministers around the world—it wasn’t just my dad! If there indeed was a split in the church, hopefully the majority would stand up for the truth, or at least maybe it would be a 50-50 split.

That night, I happened to be eating with a student named Rick. After everyone at our table had left, half joking, he told me the church had drifted into a “lukewarm attitude.” Once he saw that I didn’t disagree, he quickly turned serious. “This church is Laodicean,” he said. “I don’t care what anyone says. The same thing is happening now that happened in the 1970s, only this time, I’m old enough to see it”—this from someone I had just met! I immediately thought to myself, “Now here is someone I need to spend more time with.” When his friend Chris joined us in mid-conversation, I politely changed the subject. Rick interjected, “Oh, don’t worry, he thinks the same way I do.”

This was too good to be true! Sure, the overwhelming majority of students thought Dr. Meredith’s transfer was nothing more than “business as usual.” But for me to stumble upon two students who were terribly upset by the news and felt that the church was Laodicean seemed like a miracle from God. I really needed those two guys. The three of us started listening to old tapes together. We dug up old literature in the library to get a good grasp of what Mr. Armstrong taught on all the church’s foundational teachings. For the rest of the semester, the three of us were practically inseparable.

Our Last Feast

My family came to Big Sandy for the Feast of Tabernacles in mid-October. My sister read my dad’s manuscript during that Feast, giving us lots to talk about. She told me that while she couldn’t refute anything in the paper, her only concern was, why did it have to be Dad? She and I were struggling to get past the same obstacle.

Before the Feast started, I gave my dad a copy of a video Rick had gotten hold of a couple weeks earlier. It was Mr. Armstrong’s taped sermon from the 1985 Feast. This was the one preceded by the 20-minute segment about the uniqueness and importance of Mystery of the Ages, with footage of Mr. Armstrong addressing the sophomores. My dad added a couple of points from that video to his Feast sermon, given the fourth day of the festival, October 17, 1989. It was the last Feast message my dad would give in the Worldwide Church of God.

Later that Feast, when Mr. Tkach announced that the church would be donating $100,000 to victims of the earthquake in San Francisco, I distinctly remember my dad saying, “They can afford to make a huge donation for the earthquake, but they can’t afford to print Mystery of the Ages.” He was disgusted.

Getting Turned In

Soon after I read the paper over the summer, my dad began discussing the disturbing direction of the church with his assistant pastor, John Amos. Mr. Amos was also upset with the church’s direction and didn’t know how God intended to fix the problem, until after reading the manuscript. He was so gung-ho for what my dad was studying and writing that it inspired my dad all the more to press on with the project, confident that God would back him in the end.

There were also several members in my dad’s church area who were upset about the changes. But he was much more guarded around them—telling them nothing about his manuscript and only that “God would work things out.” Three individuals, however, persisted in asking my dad to explain what was going on with the church: Don Avilez and Stuart Powell (both local church elders), and a deacon named Dan Elliott. My dad finally agreed to meet with them, along with Mr. Amos, on Sunday, November 5. (Mr. Powell and Mr. Elliott also brought their wives). During the meeting, which lasted for several hours, he told them why he believed these changes were happening. He later issued copies of the manuscript, suggesting they study it first before meeting with him again a few weeks later.

On the way home with Mr. Amos, my dad expressed concern, wondering if he had done the right thing. Much of the feedback at the meeting was encouraging—even enthusiastic. But it was clear that the five of them were shaken by my dad’s explanation.

Their follow-up meeting had been set for early December. This time, when my dad and Mr. Amos arrived at the old building in Enid (the same one where much of Malachi’s Message had been written), the two wives weren’t there—only the three men. (Conversely, Mrs. Amos, who was now in full agreement with her husband’s support of my father, decided to attend.) Don Avilez had taken the lead among the three men, saying that my dad was way out of line to criticize Mr. Tkach Sr. and headquarters. Though not completely shocked, my father and Mr. Amos were both deeply disappointed. My father asked the three men to return their manuscripts, which they did, and assured them that he would eventually deliver a completed copy to Mr. Tkach. Until then, he asked that they keep these discussions confidential.

Later that week, Don Avilez called Arnold Clauson in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. (Mr. Clauson had been the pastor in Oklahoma City before my dad replaced him in 1985.) Mr. Clauson then called Joseph Tkach Jr. in Church Administration on December 6.

The cat was out of the bag.

Moving Headquarters

Ironically, I actually saw Joe Jr.’s dad in Big Sandy the same day Joe Jr. saw my dad in Pasadena. (The big difference, though, was that I didn’t fire his father.)

On December 7, 1989, Mr. Tkach Sr. was on campus for a groundbreaking ceremony. The day was cold, cloudy and damp—which, as I look back on it now, seems fitting—considering what finally came of their big ideas for Big Sandy.

The church and the college had been going through so many changes—reopening Big Sandy, pursuing accreditation, closing Pasadena, etc. More and more of the church’s focus had centered on the Big Sandy campus. Mr. Tkach wrote in the December 19, 1989, pgr:

Under careful study is also the possibility of moving one or more major departments of the work to Big Sandy, where costs of construction are significantly less than in Pasadena, and cost of housing would be considerably more affordable for our employees.7

They actually gave strong consideration to moving headquarters from Pasadena to Big Sandy. He continued, “If God leads me to see that some parts of the work should be relocated in Texas, sale of any resulting unused facilities here would also help in the costs of building there.” As it turns out, there actually was something to those rumors we had been hearing in Pasadena earlier in the year. Mr. Tkach even acknowledged the rumor mill in his column: “Now I realize that such moves may sound drastic at first to some (though I understand rumors have been circulating for months).” According to the report, Mr. Tkach had commissioned a “careful and detailed feasibility study” on the possibility of such a move back in the spring of 1988.8No wonder rumors had been circulating.

Later, Mr. Tkach said, “Big Sandy has served as a second headquarters for decades,” which wasn’t true. It might have been a second Ambassador College campus—but certainly not a second headquarters. It became obvious where Mr. Tkach was headed. “I believe God is now leading me to see that a consolidation of as many of our resources, personnel and operations as possible at our less expensive facility may make good sense in preparation for the bumpy economic times ahead,” he said. The church was, after all, in the midst of a financial crisis in 1989.

He went on to explain that Mr. Armstrong himself moved headquarters from Oregon to California back in the 1940s. “God’s headquarters has moved numerous times since the days of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness.” Thus, “if any departmental moves occur, they won’t represent the first time headquarters operations have moved.”9

Indeed, plans for this move were already well underway by the time Mr. Tkach informed the church of the “possible option” in December of 1989. The wcg had been busy buying parcels of land around its 1,600-acre campus in preparation for the massive move. Numerous buildings were being designed by architects. In 1990, the church hurriedly built nine new structures in Big Sandy, including five student residences and a 350-seat lecture hall.

But the centerpiece of this building program was the Hall of Administration—a three-story office building situated at the end of the main entrance on campus. This building, once the move was complete, would become the church’s new headquarters.

What I find most remarkable about this history is that the very day Mr. Tkach broke ground on a new headquarters in Big Sandy, the church’s headquarters actually did move—but not to Big Sandy. On December 7, 1989, the real ground-breaking ceremony took place in Pasadena, California—inside Joseph Tkach Jr.’s office. On that day, Tkach Jr. fired my father and John Amos.

That’s the day headquarters moved from Pasadena, California, to Edmond, Oklahoma.

Continue Reading: Chapter 14: First Sip of a Bitter Cup