The stories are impossible to reconcile. A founding worshipper, volunteer bookkeeper, council member and sometime board member at New Spirit Community Church, Carol Ann Kyrias describes her gay-friendly congregation as "more open and more real" than any other she's ever known. She calls New Spirit's pastor, Bradley Mickelson, a visionary leader and an inspiring theologian. In large part, he's why Kyrias makes the 45-minute drive every Sunday morning from Wheeling to the small, handsome church at 542 S. Scoville Ave.
"He just gets the possibilities for God's love and how that love can grow in this world," Kyrias said. Lori Fox feels the same way. One Sunday last month, she stood in front of fellow parishioners and offered an emotional reckoning of her devotion to New Spirit. By the time she returned to her seat, Fox was fighting back tears. Church musician Dan TeVelde, meanwhile, can sum up his feelings about New Spirit in less than 10 words: "I love this church; it's a wonderful place."
But that's not the New Spirit Craig Dresang remembers. A former board member who left the church almost three years ago, Dresang describes shouting fights that escalated into shoving matches during contentious board meetings. He recalls church leaders hectored into silence whenever they questioned Mickelson's decisions or challenged his ideas, or asked him about church finances. In fact, Dresang insists, it was Mickelson's bizarre temper and bullying tactics that finally drove him away from New Spirit after seven years of worshipping in its sanctuary.
"That place isn't right," Dresang said.
He's not the only one who says so. Former board treasurer Peggy Tracey remembers going home in tears after more than one shouted rebuke from Mickelson. Former church musician Greg Petit said Mickelson's outbursts and ever-increasing demands finally overwhelmed him, too. Other departing parishioners have also complained about Mickelson's behavior, which ex-congregant Joanne Hoagland described as "erratic." Pointing to a $490,000 mortgage on New Spirit's property, some say that Mickelson's grandiose plans for the small church have pushed it into dangerous financial territory, a claim that Mickelson and current church leaders flatly deny.
Nevertheless, this spring, those complaints reached the ears of denominational higher-ups at Metropolitan Community Church headquarters in California. At that time, New Spirit was an MCC-affiliated church. According to Rev. Jim Mitulski, MCC's director of clergy development, theological education and seminary relations, the denomination launched an investigation into Mickelson, dispatching officers to Oak Park in search of information and firsthand accounts. Specifically, Mitulski said, MCC leaders were interested in sussing out allegations of "financial irregularities" at New Spirit.
"MCC takes it very seriously when people raise questions about a minister," Mitulski said. "That said, we place great importance on respecting congregational prerogatives, so it takes an extraordinary circumstance for us to intervene."
At New Spirit, though, MCC never got much chance to intervene. Mitulski's investigation halted without reaching a conclusion when Mickelson resigned his MCC credentials and the church withdrew from the denomination.
"Not more than two weeks passed between us launching the investigation and the minister resigning his credentials," Mitulski said. By the first week of June, it was all over.
According to Mickelson, New Spirit's decision to leave MCC was the result of a unanimous congregational vote that had more to do with a desire for self-determination than anything else.
"We're an independent, liberal, progressive church," Mickelson said. "We disagreed with some issues of governance with MCC. MCC has more of a patriarchal structure. We wanted a congregational-authority structure that leaves us free to pursue the ministry we're called to do as the congregation sees fit."
Two weeks ago, New Spirit marked its 11th anniversary. Worshippers organized a rummage sale and a dinner dance and a silent auction. People turned out in their Sunday bestâ€"and even betterâ€"to eat and dance and celebrate.
"It was truly joyful," Kyrias said. "Just wonderful to see how far we've come."
After all, Kyrias was there at the beginning. On Sept. 25, 1994, she and Mickelson and a handful of other worshippers gathered in a rented Oak Park chapel to pray. A longtime rank-and-file MCC parishioner, Mickelson had finally found his calling, and after making his way to the Chicago Theological Seminary, he set about founding his own congregation in the gay-centered mold of MCC. (The denomination was established in 1968 as a haven for gays, lesbians and transgendered parishioners who found themselves less than welcome at traditional churches. Today, there are nearly 300 MCC congregations in 22 countries across the globe.) Mickelson christened the new church MCC of the Incarnation, a name that was later changed to New Spirit MCC.
"Bradley always had a calling," Kyrias said. "He just ignored it for a long time. ... He has a vision, and when he explains his vision, I just sit there dumbfounded. I've been around a lot of preacher types in my lifeâ€"I've been involved with churches since I was 5 years oldâ€"but Bradley really gets it."
In 2001, with a membership approaching 100, soaring outreach and increasingly cramped quarters borrowed from Pilgrim Congregational Church on Lake Street, New Spirit happened upon an opportunity. Just south of Madison Street, at Scoville and Adams, Oak Park UCC had a church it couldn't fill. Membership had dwindled to around 40 people, only 20 of whom showed up on Sundays. Things looked bleak.
"The church was shrinking, and we knew it, but we were trying to hold onto it," said Tracey, who was a member of Oak Park UCC for 15 years before she joined New Spirit. "Finally it got to a point where we decided we had to disband."
That's when New Spirit congregants proposed an unusual merger: if Oak Park UCC would give their itinerant congregation a place to worship, then New Spirit could offer a flock of worshippers to pray with. Oak Park UCC gifted its property to New Spirit, and the two churches coalesced. Mickelson moved into the parsonage next door.
"We had a building, and they had a congregation," Tracey said. "We decided to give it a try. So they came and worshipped with us, and what happened between our two churches was so incredible. There were problems, of courseâ€"we lost some of our older folksâ€"and everyone was apprehensive, but it was magical, too."
For Dresang, who had helped broker the months-long donation of Oak Park UCC's property, the new building and the new congregation held vigorous promise.
"I mean, we got permission from the national UCC denomination to hand this church over to us totally debt-freeâ€"you don't hear about stuff like that happening very much," Dresang said. "They gave us furnishings, a savings account. The only thing we had to worry about was next month's utilities. And it's one of the prettiest churches in Oak Park."
The euphoria didn't last, according to some ex-congregants.
"It was so wonderful to see people coming to church," Tracey said. "And then it all went downhill."
Rancorous arguments cropped up, she said, usually over money. According to Dresang, Mickelson wanted to take out a loan to fix up the church. Believing the church couldn't afford the debtâ€"and that it didn't need extensive repairsâ€"Dresang says the board opposed the idea. (In addition, Dresang and Hoagland said, board members questioned some of Mickelson's proposed expenditures. At one time, according to Dresang said, Mickelson suggested renovating the parsonage to accommodate his hairdressing side business. Dresang, Tracey and Hoagland all claim Mickelson did open a salon there, without a license. However, although the Oak Park phone book records a Bradley Mickelson Hair Design at 538 S. Scovilleâ€"and Village Hall has no business license on file for that addressâ€"Mickelson explains that his is a house-call hairdressing business. He travels to clients' homes, rather than outfitting his own home with a salon.)
After Dresang left the church, Mickelson took out a mortgage for $350,000 in 2002, raising the amount of the loan to $490,000 in December 2004, according to documents from the Cook County Recorder's office.
Mickelson said he borrowed the money with the full support of the board in order to fund some urgently needed sprucing.
"We made lots of improvements to the property," he said. "The church needed a new roof, new windows, new guttersâ€"it was leaking everywhere."
In addition, Kyrias said, former worshippers need not worry about New Spirit's financial stability.
"I'm involved with the bookkeeping, and I see every bill," Kyrias said. "And I can tell you from the horse's mouth: our vendors, our utilities, our mortgageâ€"it's all up to date. Is it tight? Yes, of course it is. We're a church. What else is new? But we're not incurring fees and late charges. When have we not paid a bill? ... I'm very excited about the way things are going. Frankly, I think the church is in the strongest position it's been in since I've been here."
That's a sentiment Mickelson echoed.
"I think we're healthier now than we've ever been," he said.
Likewise, current New Spirit worshippers don't recognize the Mickelson ex-parishioners describe. Petit recalled that a letter of resignation he tendered after deciding to leave New Spirit to play piano for another MCC church provoked an "absolute rage" from Mickelson.
"He cussed me and tore the music books out of my hands. It was very embarrassing," Petit said. "I left and never came back."
Dresang and Tracey, meanwhile, remembered a board meeting debate with Mickelson that turned alarmingly hostile and left both of them shaken and Tracey sobbing. For each, it would be a final straw.
"I left there feeling like, 'What have I gotten myself into?'" Dresang said.
After parting ways with New Spirit, Tracey said, she was unable to step foot in a church for two years. She still doesn't attend regular services.
"I've never been treated like that," she said.
Kyrias can't imagine what she's talking about.
"Were we in a different room?" she said. "I mean, it's like we didn't have the same experience at all. That happens, you know. With me and my sister, you'd think we grew up in totally different families. I guess my question is, why are we just hearing about this now? Why didn't we hear about it then?"
Fox, who began worshipping at New Spirit two years ago, said she knew there was "a split in the church" a year and a half ago when Mickelson bumped up New Spirit's outreach and hired a consultant to help "make it a more inclusive church." But the shouting fights sound completely foreign to her.
"I feel that a big part of the struggle within the church organization was that some people didn't want things to change," Fox said. "I can understand that, but to have a healthy culture you have to have the ability to speak freely and have conflict. It's incredibly healthy to argue and debate and challenge one another. But some people don't feel that way. ... Strong leadership is about making difficult decisions, and that's what Bradley does."
For New Spirit vice moderator David Olszanowskiâ€"a founding congregant who's been on the board "almost forever"â€"the experience of worshipping at New Spirit "has been one of great joy and great compassion and great learning. It has been a place to realize who I am as a gay person, and that God loves me," he said. "That's something that's often missing from mainstream America. From Bradley, I learned acceptance of myself, of who I am supposed to be. I'm not controversial; I just am who I am. ... I like to say I went to New Spirit as a boy and grew up there to be a man."
Similarly, Kyrias suggested that the most sacred mission for Mickelson and all of New Spirit is one of spiritual rescue for those outside heterosexual norms.
"There are so many people who think God doesn't love them," Kyrias said. "They've been beaten up by the church, and that's why we have to be there. That's why I drive an hour and a half in rush-hour traffic to get to council meetings, and that's why I spend all day on Saturday and Sunday at this church. Bradley understands how to share God's love with people who don't think they can have it."
Petit, Dresang and Tracey couldn't disagree more, claiming that New Spirit was hemorrhaging members when they left. (At a Sunday service in early September, roughly 35 congregants turned out; Mickelson puts the current membership at something less than 100.) Citing an ad hoc support group of sorts for New Spirit ex-worshippers that meets at a nearby suburban church, Petit said, "Many gay people have negative experiences at traditional churches, and a church like New Spirit is supposed to protect people like us. But it didn't."
"From Bradley, people were hearing stuff we'd heard our whole lives," Dresang said. "We came here because it wasn't supposed to happen here. These are people who already have so much brokenness in their lives."
Mickelson doesn't deny that New Spirit has seen its share of open debate, but like Fox, he takes debate as a healthy sign, so long as it's face-to-face. "Every organization has conflict, and we're not different," he said. "But we handle it according to Matthew 18:15-20. ... In other words, we do direct dealing."
It was in that spirit that Mickelson took to the pulpit the following Sunday and spun out a sermon that wounded ex-parishioners might have taken as an answer. Paraphrasing the Gospel, which offers four-part instructions for dealing with a neighbor who has offended, Mickelson concluded, "We can't always mend fences, but we must try, and when we fail, we can still love [those who have offended us] as we love ourselves. We can treat those who sin against us as God treats us, with mercy and compassion. The rest is between God and them."