The First Elders of Metropolitan Community Churches
Central to the well-being of every church and the success of its God-given mission is leadership. Jesus called it “servant” leadership. He said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.” (Mark 10:43 NLT) The Apostle Paul said, “If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.” (Romans 12:8 NLT)
During the earliest days of MCC Los Angeles, we were blessed with a number of people who brought vital gifts and skills of leadership to our congregation. Among them were three leaders who would carry out key roles in the early growth of MCC as a church and a movement.
Rev. Richard Ploen came to us in the earliest days while we were still meeting in my home. Like many others at that time, he heard about MCC through The Advocate newspaper. Richard was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He had served as both a pastor and missionary. He was well educated, with both Master of Divinity and Master of Christian Education degrees. He was a dean at Chapman College, a Christian school in nearby Orange County. As such he had access to information and resources helpful to me and our church.
With people coming into MCC from so many different church backgrounds, I knew we had to be ecumenical. Richard showed us how to be ecumenical. Richard also helped us to set up church ministries to serve the needs of people in our congregation and the community. He also helped set up programs to train people to serve in those ministries, including our church deacons.
Rev. John Hose was a skilled pastor who had served previous congregations. But he gave up pastoral ministry when he accepted his homosexuality. He became a successful business man and was living a comfortable life with his partner of many years. Following publication of an article in The Advocate about MCC LA moving to the Women’s Club in Huntington Park, they visited our worship service. In the coffee hour and meeting that followed the worship service, this distinguished older man stood up and said to me, “Tell us what we can do to help you.” From that moment on they were part of MCC LA.
At that time, there were very few people in the congregation over the age 30, myself included. Rev. John Hose was gifted as a pastor. Younger people looked up to him. He brought a new measure of maturity, stability, and wisdom to our ministries. Soon he was affectionately known as “Papa John” Within months he was our Assistant Pastor.
Louis Loynes and his partner, Lee Rubio came to the second service of MCC LA in my home. A young couple in their mid-40s, they immediately had great influence in our church. Lou had served as a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. He was a business executive with a large paper company. As such he brought essential management and organizational skills to our church. Together, they had a prospering real estate development business. Lou served on MCC LA’s first Board of Directors. Lee was the first Hispanic member of our church. He was a true “people” person and became the social director of our young congregation. Each of them, in their own way, helped us to build a vibrant congregational life.
Ploen, Hose, and Loynes were also among the nine members of the Board of Directors of MCC Los Angeles. Their knowledge and experience gave major support to the success of our ministries. Our mix of talents and different personalities strengthened each other. As leaders, we were better together.
As our young congregation continued to grow it became clear to me that this ministry would expand beyond MCC LA. There would be more MCC congregations. I asked Richard, John, and Lou to join me as a committee to explore creation of a structure for a larger body of churches. We researched the types of government in a variety of other Christian church bodies. We saw ourselves more as a movement than a denomination. We rejected the idea of hierarchy and bishops. For one thing, at age 29 I felt too young to be a bishop. We decided that, first and foremost, we should be a fellowship of churches.
As we talked about what to name this new fellowship, John Hose suggested we use the word “universal” to convey that we a part of the Christian church universal in the world. So, we chose the name Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Christian Churches. Richard Ploen, from his Presbyterian background, suggested that we term our leaders “elders” rather than “bishops.”
Now, one of the things that I’ve learned in my long lifetime of ministry in churches is that they all have fights. Church fights are as old as the New Testament. In fact, most of the letters to churches in the Bible were written to deal with conflicts. MCC is no exception.
At MCC LA, one of our earliest conflicts was about our basic purpose as a church. I felt called to preach the good news that God’s love excludes no one. In MCC LA’s first worship service I said that our message would be of a three-pronged Gospel: salvation, community, and social action. For almost two years we had been preaching and living that Gospel. In the summer of 1970, our social action became the focus of conflict.
In June and July, I was very active and visible in speaking out for LGBT civil rights. We were fighting for the right to have the first Gay Pride celebration parade in Los Angeles. I and members of MCC LA were in that parade on June 28, 1970.The next week I was publically observing a fast in front of the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles. I was protesting against the laws that discriminated against homosexuals.
But five members of the Board of Directors were opposed to this public social action. Unknown to me and the other Board members they met privately and decided to give me an ultimatum: stop the fast or they would stop my salary until I did. Further, they planned to call a special meeting of the congregation to prevent any future involvement in “secular gay activism.” Three of those five Board members were Richard Ploen, John Hose, and Louis Loynes.
Well, the next Sunday in our morning worship service, I called for a meeting of congregational members to be held two weeks later. I announced that there would be three items on the agenda: A vote of confidence on me as Pastor; a vote of confidence on the Board of Directors; and a vote on whether to give the Pastor a raise in salary and an annual paid vacation. A deacon would preside over the meeting. There were 121 voting members at the congregational meeting. The result of the vote of confidence in the Pastor was massive; 110 to 11.They also voted for a raise in my salary and a paid vacation of three months each year (but I never took much vacation).
The vote of confidence on the Board of Directors was much more difficult. Many were angry and wanted to remove the Board members. I asked to speak to the congregation. I urged them not to do so. I said, “Some of this is my fault. When the Lord speaks to me to do something I’m not very good at asking other people for permission to do it. I should have spoken with the Board members more about the importance of this action.” The vote of confidence was 70 to 51, so all the Board members remained in place.
MCC’s first General Conference, held a short time later in 1970, permitted me to name the three individuals that would join me to make up our first Board of Elders. I had so deep valued my work with Richard, John, and Lou that they seemed like obvious choices. But could I trust them? It seemed clear that they had just betrayed me; might they do it again? I believed that these three men were good people. I knew that I and we needed them. But I still had doubts.
I prayed that God would show me the way forward. In the weeks that followed, one by one, each of them came to me to apologize and confess. As it turned out, the three had one experience in common. Each had been a victim of painful persecution when they were “outed” as gay. They feared that our public activism could provoke similar experiences for themselves and others. I had my answer. We needed to trust in the way of Jesus to follow a path of forgiveness and repentance as the way forward.
So John, Richard, and Lou joined me on the UFMCC’s first Board of Elders. We were growing rapidly. Seven new congregations were added in 1970 and another 20 in 1971. As the first Elders in the UFMCC, we were creating new processes, programs, and structures as we went along. We had to design ways to recognize new churches and credential new clergy. By late 1971 and into 1972 we began to develop geographic districts so churches could connect with one another.
MCC would not have become the transformational movement that it has been without the gifts, wisdom, and dedication of our early leaders. Today, we stand on their shoulders. And they stand with that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to urge us on as we work for God’s reign of peace, prosperity, and justice in our world.