Grace and the Warrior: The Rev. Don Armstrong

MARK BARNA Updated: April 24, 2009 at 12:00 am • Published: April 24, 2009

For many people, it is black and white.

The Rev. Don Armstrong is either saint or sinner, inspired religious leader or inspired swindler.

The disparity suggests the complexity of Armstrong, at the center of a trial that concluded March 11 for the $17 million Grace Church property downtown, and who also may face criminal charges of financial misconduct before the end of June.

Supporters say Armstrong is a magnetic leader with a gift for pastoring who transformed Grace Church into a dynamic ministry respected by the Episcopal national body, the U.S. arm of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He is also revered for his Christian counsel and visiting the sick and bereaved at all hours.

Yet Armstrong is also a polarizing figure who gave fiery sermons against his own Episcopal denomination and is sometimes gruff with staff members.

"I am actually a pretty abrasive, offensive personality," Armstrong, 60, said. "I get things done, like $6 million in fundraising to renovate Grace Church, but I can also hurt feelings."

Since May 2007, police detectives have been investigating allegations made by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado that Armstrong misappropriated about $392,000 in church funds. Within two months, detectives expect to present findings to the district attorney's office, said police spokesman Lt. David Whitlock.

Other questionable practices by Armstrong surfaced during the church property trial. Some alleged he impulsively fired church staff, and some contended he and his family used four autos leased by the church for personal use.

"A lot of it has been so untrue and mean-spirited," Armstrong said. "But obviously there are some people on the other side who have great contempt for me, and I would imagine that somewhere along the way I gave them reason to have that contempt.

"I know I've made mistakes in my life," Armstrong said, "but I've always tried to do the right thing."

From Army pilot to priest
Raised in the Episcopal Church, Armstrong felt a calling to be a priest, but the Vietnam War sidetracked him. At age 19, he volunteered to join the Army and became a helicopter pilot. "It was the honorable thing to do to join with my peers to do the heavy lifting required to live in a free nation," Armstrong said.

Some say his take-charge personality and calmness in difficult times were born during his flights over Vietnam. During a sermon some years ago, Armstrong jokingly said he learned his approach to adversity while training as a helicopter pilot. I "come in low with guns blazing," he said.

After his honorable discharge, he studied business at the University of Arkansas, but still felt called to the priesthood. After earning his business degree, he attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained at an Episcopal church in Arkansas.

In 1986, while serving at St. Michael and St. George Episcopal in St. Louis, Armstrong interviewed for the rector position at Grace Church. Grace senior warden Unk McWilliams was smitten and offered the job to the 37-year-old priest almost immediately.

"He had a magnetic personality," said Jere Joiner, a Grace member at the time. "He seemed to be the person who could lead the church into the future."

"He introduced a vitality that hadn't been there," said Terence Lilly, a church member since 1985 who served on the vestry, or church board of directors, with Armstrong from 1998 to 2001. "He turned the church around."

Armstrong controversy
Lilly also noticed disturbing traits in his rector.

"He has charm, but he also has a very rough side," said Lilly, who remembers high staff turnover under Armstrong.

Armstrong also had sweeping control over the vestry, Lilly said. At vestry meetings, Armstrong would solicit for rector benefits, such as having the church pay the full mortgage on his house and the lease on his car, Lilly said. At one point Armstrong, wife Jessie, and their two children, Melissa and Zachary, were using four church vehicles for personal use.

"Maybe we should have spoken up," Lilly said. "Hindsight is wonderful. But when someone you trust tells you something reasonable, you believe it."

"Don's vestry was a rubber stamp," said Edward Brown, a vestry member from 2002 to 2004. "He can be convincing so long as he controls the information."

Questions about finances came up. "There were a lot of financial loose ends," he said. "We never were clear on how money was being spent."

"It was difficult to analyze financial data," Lilly said, "because it was never presented in uniform format from meeting to meeting."

But other vestry members say meetings were democratic, financial matters received vestry approval, and any rector benefit Armstrong was given was within the diocesan clergy salary guidelines.

"He is a strong leader and listens to the vestry wonderfully," said Marge Goss, vestry member from 2004 to 2006.

Edwin Montgomery, on the vestry from 2003 to 2006, said he never felt "railroaded" during a meeting. "Don could be prickly at times, but so was John the Baptist," Montgomery said.

As for he and his family using four leased cars, Armstrong said he occasionally volunteered to take over monthly lease payments on an otherwise idle car to use it for himself or a family member.

"The vestry always thought that was far better than the church absorbing the cost," Armstrong said.

Montgomery recalled a meeting in which Armstrong agreed to take over payments of idle leased autos.

"The whole issue with the autos leasing is just an example of how once a seed is planted (of financial misconduct), people will not investigate for the truth," Montgomery said.

The parish splits

By 2000, the atmosphere at Grace Church - which had a weekly attendance of about 900 congregates, most of whom were theologically conservative - was getting intense as the Episcopal Church pushed forward its progressive interpretation of Scripture.

When, in 2003, gay priest Gene Robinson was consecrated as Bishop of New Hampshire, Armstrong's sermons took on a combative nature, Brown said, which didn't sit well with some parishioners.

But the real blow to the health of the parish came in December 2006, when Armstrong was placed on leave by the diocese for alleged financial misconduct.

Barred by the diocese from speaking with Armstrong, vestry members led by senior warden Jon Wroblewski met furtively with the embattled rector in public parks and parked cars, reportedly discussing the parish's possible secession from the Episcopal Church.

On March 26, 2007, the vestry voted to leave the church and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a conservative province within the Anglican Communion, with Armstrong as rector.

While hundreds of members followed Armstrong to CANA, others elected to stay with the Episcopal Church. The CANA parish continued to worship at the North Tejon Street church, while Grace and St. Stephen's worshiped at another location downtown.

Lawsuits were filed to determine ownership of the church property, resulting in a trial and an order by a Fourth Judicial Court judge on March 24 for the CANA parish to vacate Grace.

The order also meant that Don and Jessie Armstrong must vacate the rectory, the house they've lived in for 12 years in the Skyway area, by May 8. Most of the Armstrongs' furniture is currently in storage, and they will live with friends until they find a new residence, Jessie Armstrong said.

Guns blazing
Since Palm Sunday, the Episcopal diocese has worshipped at Grace while the CANA parish, newly named St. George's Anglican Church, has met in a building in the Mountain Shadows area.

Despite the sudden transition and loss of the property trial, St. George's Palm Sunday congregation, numbering about 600, was in excellent spirits, for which Wroblewski credits Armstrong's leadership.

"He is the primary reason for the positive outlook," Wroblewski said.

Armstrong's ability to weather the scrutiny and allegations over the past two and a half years have not gone unnoticed by Montgomery.

"I have been very impressed with his fortitude," he said.

Armstrong says his strength comes from the Bible.

"We know from Scripture that persecution isn't all bad, and people are strengthened by persecution," he said. "These past two years have been phenomenal in that I have had to grow a lot in my faith and my temperament."

But upon mention of the possibility of his being charged with financial misconduct, Armstrong is ready, with guns blazing.

"I look forward," Armstrong said, "to engaging my accusers face to face and dealing head-on with the remaining disputes."
 -
Call Barna at 636-0367. To read more of Barna's interview with Don And Jessie Armstrong, go to his blog, the pulpit, at gazette.com.

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