Ongoing disputes with some church members finally wore her down, Williamson said Tuesday, two days after stunning many of her followers at Renaissance Unity Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship in Warren by announcing that she will step down as pastor on Jan. 1. "When I was just writing books and giving lectures, if people disagreed, they just didn't buy your book or attend your lectures," Williamson said. "But, if you're leading a congregation, people feel they have the right to tell you what you should or shouldn't talk about. And that hasn't always been easy for me."
She added that, in the past, "I've always said, 'If I'm not your cup of tea, just don't come back.' "
However, that approach didn't work in a congregation of about 2,500 where many longtime members became disillusioned with Williamson and weren't about to leave their church, said David Wenger, a Detroit attorney and a leader among Williamson's critics in recent years. "I think she is announcing her resignation to pre-empt the possibility that she's going to get fired," he said.
Church officials have declined to release financial details about the church, which was known until last year as the Church of Today, but Wenger said he believes "the church is in deficit and she's laid off three-quarters of the staff." Williamson denied that there is any financial crisis. "There's nothing dire," she said. And the church may get a shot in the arm from an Oct. 5 spirituality conference for women at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. "Oprah is coming to town for that." Oprah Winfrey has been a friend since the talk-show host promoted Williamson's 1992 book, "A Return to Love," and helped to turn it into a national best-seller.
Williamson has written eight books and about twice a month travels to lecture about spirituality, sometimes in other countries. "I believe that today, we need to apply spiritual principles to the greater issues of our time, not just individual issues, not just personal issues -- but collective issues, global issues. It's absolutely imperative. And that's in many ways where my passion lies," Williamson said.
Given these larger concerns, she was surprised at how much local disagreement was sparked in her congregation by some of her messages on social justice, her decision to rename the church and her unsuccessful attempt early this year to leave its parent denomination, the Association of Unity Churches.
At that point, Wenger and other disgruntled members threatened a lawsuit, if the church left the denomination. "I touched a nerve that I didn't know was there," she said. "And I regret that so much energy went into what should not have been considered such a big issue. If I had known the nerve was there, I would not have touched it."
Becoming a pastor sounded like a good way to experience the day-to-day lives of hundreds of people and would be helpful in her work as a spiritual guide, Williamson said. Now, she realizes, "I'm an author. And writers write books. And writing books is a full-time career."
She said she chose Jan. 1 for her departure, because, "I'd like to do the New Year's Eve service. I thought that would be a lovely last thing to share with people." After that, Williamson said she'd like to return to the church periodically -- but only as a guest speaker.