This is the letter than has been alluded to previously, outlining why we left a former church (Harvest Bible Baby Church) and what was communicated to leadership there. "The Elders" referred to here are pseudonyms for the couple who led our small group, Mr. and Mrs. Elder. The husband was also an elder on the church's elder board. For the entire story of why we left Harvest Bible Baby Church, please see the following posts: A Letter to My Friends at Our Former Church The Molehill that Became a Mountain The Feedback My Pastor Labelled "Possibly Aggressive" (or How NOT to Respond to Solicited Feedback) Our Resignation Letter to a Former Church... [this post] ... And Their Manipulative Response
To: Pastor Associate, Mr. Elder, Pastor Senior, Sarah
Date: May 3, 2019
Subject: Follow-up to Small Group Conversation
Dear Pastor Associate, Mr. Elder, and Pastor Senior,
First, my apologies to Pastor Senior for springing this on you. You’ve become peripherally involved and, in fairness to you, I thought it better that we all start talking about you where you can see it (I apologize if info@ was the wrong e-mail to use for this, I wasn’t sure if I had the right address, and this is the one listed on the website to contact Pastor Senior).
After our meeting about small groups Monday night, Sarah and I are sad and confused. I readily confess that Sarah and I are hurting, and that we are viewing things through a lens that is influenced by our past hurt. I apologize for my agitation and defensiveness on Monday which, as pointed out, was visibly evident during our discussion. I also apologize for the ways that I am sure I am not giving you the benefit of the doubt in so many things, especially given I have so little insight into who you are and how you operate as leaders. I apologize for my insubordination in communicating this through writing, even though we were explicitly told to communicate in person. However, given the tone of the meeting Monday where I was repeatedly cut off and corrected, I feel it is too emotionally difficult to try and have this conversation in person and it is important to lay everything out in one go. I apologize if this seems out-of-the blue and if we gave the impression at the end of Monday night that we were ok; we were still reeling from the conversation and hadn’t yet had a chance to talk privately to each other. Lastly, I apologize in advance that some of the critiques in this communication will be pointed. The reason I am so incredibly sad is because I suspect that, after this, we will probably be leaving a church we love, but more importantly that I might be giving up a friendship I was starting to treasure in Mr. Elder.
Here is how we perceive what happened. We approached you asking if there were other small group options for us to try, since the young families format was proving too challenging for us as a couple. Over the conversations that followed, we were given stern encouragement from both the Elders and Pastor Associate that “maybe God is telling you that you need to lead a small group.” We expressed, on multiple occasions, much hesitation, but willingly attended the new leaders training and willingly talked to the two other potential “partner” families Pastor Associate encouraged us to talk to. We finally decided, in large part because of the encouragement of the Elders and Pastor Associate, to commit to leading a small group for a year, and reassessing after that. We were growing excited about starting it up, especially after we met with the Smiths and they expressed similar desires for community together and shared growth in the Gospel. When we emailed Pastor Associate to let him know our plans, his response included, “Before you guys get started, I’d like to schedule a meeting with me, the 2 of you, and the Elders. I realize that may push back your start date beyond next week, but if you could let me know a couple of good days and times in your schedule for the 5 of us to meet (maybe at your house would be most convenient?), I’ll see if I can get confirmation that the Elders can make it too.” We assumed the meeting would be about logistics, how information would be communicated with our current small group, and assignment of a small group coach. So on Monday we invited you into our home, Sarah cooked you a meal, and when the serious part of the conversation started, we were caught completely unawares. We were not made aware that what seemed to be the central purpose of the meeting was to address what seemed to be shared, and previously discussed amongst themselves, concerns of Mr. Elder and Pastor Associate. Had we been aware of this, we probably would have tried to have the meeting without our kids present (both for the logistics of Sarah being able to fully focus on discussion, and because of the heightened emotions of having to address questions about our character in front of our children). We understand that this may not be what you thought you were communicating, but because of the tone and language, and because of later being cut off and “corrected,” we felt as though our character and intentions were being questioned.
Specifically, Mr. Elder opened the serious part of the evening by asking “where our hearts were at,” then specifically addressed my wife (as she was holding our fussing preschooler in one arm and cooking said preschooler a bowl of oatmeal with the other) and mentioned three incidents of communication from her, described that “they were yellow flags” indicating “a pattern.” Furthermore, it was elaborated that they thought that she might have trouble “submitting to leadership and training.” Understandably, she felt blindsided. As conversation continued, she had to leave for a time so she wouldn’t completely break down in front of our children. Ironically, we have loved the church and submitted to its leadership even when we had concerns. We submitted to leadership in trying out the young families small group, even though we explicitly communicated several times that we wanted to be in a small group that we could attend as a family. We submitted to leadership by serving in the areas where the church had great need, even if that area (Sunday set-up) was not something I was excited about. And we submitted to leadership by instead of addressing our concerns to others, communicating those concerns to leadership through means we thought were appropriate. And we submitted to leadership, by when others communicated concerns to us about the church taking on this amount of debt to finance a building purchase, defending leadership’s decisions and directing those individuals to the videos put out in the weekly church email. And lastly, we were planning to joyfully and enthusiastically submit to church-provided small group coaching even though we have nearly 20 years of small group and church leadership experience between the two of us and have seen and led some very healthy and successful groups, despite our most recent experience at a different church where we were wounded.
The three incidents Mr. Elder mentioned Monday are as follows:
(1) A text and e-mail exchange between Sarah and Mr. Elder that took place in December about a minor incident where Pastor Senior misspoke during a sermon. Sarah readily acknowledged this issue as minor, but was curious to know if there was an appropriate process for addressing it or to provide insight to enhance the further communication of the Gospel. That exchange ended in December and Mr. Elder summarized in person to Sarah, “I enjoyed the conversation,” then checked to make sure that he and Sarah were “good.” Sarah explicitly remembers the wording because she found it awkward. That said, she thought it was a done incident, and she decided to drop it even though the responses left both of us unsatisfied and concerned. Needless to say we were shocked when this came up again as a concern about Sarah’s heart. I am going to include the full exchange as an attachment, because when I tried to summarize it on Monday night I was repeatedly “corrected” by Mr. Elder, including for misremembering aspects that I actually correctly remembered.
(2) The second incident involves an awkward phone conversation that took place between Sarah and Mrs. Elder. Mrs. Elder had offered for Sarah to take more leadership in the current group, and Sarah was not interested for a number of reasons, the biggest being because at the time we were really uncertain ourselves what we wanted. When Mr. Elder brought this up on Monday, Mrs. Elder quickly interjected that Sarah and her had talked about that exchange and they were “ok.” Sarah and Mrs. Elder had talked later in person about the exchange, Sarah apologized for not communicating her heart well, they clarified where they both were coming from, and Sarah had reason to think it was resolved. We are perplexed as to how a private miscommunication between two individuals, that both individuals felt had been resolved, has become a reason to question Sarah’s heart. Isn’t this how mature believers should handle conflict?
(3) The third incident involves a lengthy message Sarah sent through the online feedback form on the church website regarding the new building. I assume the response is readily available for review if any of you want to see it. In the conversation Monday, it was said that this could have been perceived as aggressive if they had not known Sarah’s heart (which is ironic, given that Monday’s meeting started off by questioning Sarah’s heart). I read the feedback before Sarah submitted it. While I can clearly see pointed critiques, I also see a heart for church leadership to succeed, a care for individuals of the congregation, empathy for the difficult search process, and agreement that this building seems ready-made for the church. Ironically, this was honest feedback that church leadership solicited. More ironically, among Sarah’s stated concerns were that you were not really listening to and responding appropriately to concerns, and that you were not providing an appropriate mechanism for people to give the type of honest feedback that could help you love the church well as you so desire to do: “Also, I understand logistical reasons of requiring people to attach a name to any feedback they provide. But I think you are intelligent enough and even-tempered enough to be able to weed out anonymous responses of people who simply have a chip on their shoulder from those of people who may have valid concerns but are intimidated by the thought of seven ‘spiritual giants’ putting them under the microscope for voicing a dissenting opinion.” How did Sarah’s statement become prophetic?
After Sarah briefly gave a distracted response to these “yellow flags,” I took it upon myself (perhaps as an overly defensive husband who felt his wife was blindsided) to try and summarize that I did and do have significant concerns about some aspects of leadership, myself. I tried to explain that I was glad to submit to leadership but still had concerns and fears about what the church could become, given patterns that emerged in our last church that we’ve seen as possible indicators in Harvest Bible Baby Church. I also tried to explain that I was unsatisfied with the outcome of the text exchange between Sarah and Mr. Elder (which, again, is attached in its entirety).
Because it has become important, here are my biggest concerns briefly stated:
(Concern 1) I fear that Harvest Bible Baby Church will allow extremely gifted pastors and elders to become arrogant and possibly have a public failing and/or hurt multitudes of people along the way towards “growth.” I say this partly as a positive affirmation of the extreme giftings and passion I see in leadership. I think that in his powerful preaching, Pastor Senior is much like James McDonald or John MacArthur, to whom I am sure he owes very much [Pastor Senior is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and Harvest Bible Chapel’s pastor training program]. In fact, there are many aspects of his style that I appreciate more that these men. However, I fear that that like them, his reasons for confidence will become arrogance and that the leaders who obviously and appropriately love him and respect him will lose their ability to challenge him when necessary. I don’t want to see the leadership of Harvest Bible Baby Church have to resign like Harvest Chicago’s leadership is doing this week. I don’t want it to happen that some day an outside review board will find leadership at Harvest Bible Baby Institute guilty of creating a culture of fear and intimidation, like an external accreditation board did when they put The Master’s Seminary on probation recently. (Sarah has more than a passing familiarity with WASC accreditation. While working at a local community college, she was appointed to its College Strategic Planning Committee, volunteered on the Planning/Research/Institutional Effectiveness Committee (“because it’s fun!”), and served as a tri-chair on one of the self-study writing teams for their college’s most recent accreditation visit. She said she was shocked and dismayed when she read the accreditation report, then doubly dismayed at MacArthur’s response.) It concerns me that in casual conversation with Mr. Elder in the past about why Harvest Bible Baby Church is not going to become like Harvest Chicago, the answers have included things like, “our elders just got back from an elder conference at Masters” (while being unaware of credible accusations of a culture of fear and bullying there). Or in conversation on Monday that a response to the same question is that Harvest Bible Baby Church had a Harvest Chicago consultant come exhort the elders to keep Pastor Elder in line back in 2014 (seemingly unaware that the leadership issues at Harvest went back far before 2014, bringing into question anything this particular elder may say about effective eldership). Because there was so much emphasis placed on leadership and doctrine during Monday night’s conversation, I asked if Harvest Chicago had sound doctrine and if they were being biblical. The short summary of what I heard was that Harvest Chicago was not Biblical because the pastor appointed elders (like his sons) but that Harvest Bible Baby Church was Biblical. This is even though information on Monday about how elders are selected at Harvest Bible Baby Church was murky at best and included that having outside consultants made it ok. Even Mark Driscoll had sound doctrine and a long-distance accountability board (including Paul Tripp, who later went on record as saying that this method of accountability did not work, and in the irony of ironies the recently disqualified James MacDonald). And we all know how that ended up. My response about Harvest Chicago is that they were doctrinally sound in terms of theology, but in practice they were being unbiblical. And I think their being unbiblical has more to do with their personal character and their humility, or rather lack off, when addressing “concerns” of others. Perhaps you can imagine, then, why I am frightened for Harvest Bible Baby Church based on what we have experienced and seen in your response to others sharing concern. As Sarah briefly alluded to on Monday, there is some drama going on in her family right now. Even though Sarah’s family is generally healthy and functional, this is causing Sarah to examine and address what may be unhealthy patterns that she’s learned from her family of origin. Is Harvest Bible Baby Church doing the same, given that the places top leadership has received the most pastoral training are going through so much conflict that the outside world is taking note?
(Concern 2) You use terms like “Biblical Eldership” to allow for a top down approach that doesn’t properly appreciate the insights and gifting of those who are not leaders or personal friends of leaders. I appreciate Pastor Senior’s intention in saying that Harvest Bible Baby Church is “elder led” rather than “top down.” Not to toot my own horn, but I have read books, written papers, and preached sermons on church eldership and I endorse the concept that a having a plurality of elders is the most Biblical approach to church leadership. I also believe that at times that model can become top down, especially as elders disconnect themselves from the congregation and make important (non-doctrinal) decisions in a bubble. When people say “we think you are top down,” they are not expressing confusion over what the two concepts mean. When people use the phrase “top down” they are implying that they are disconnected or feel left out of the decision making process. And these decisions are big and have life altering implications. And, even more, they have implications about people’s trust and confidence in their leadership. Several months ago, Mr. Elder shared in a conversation with me that you were looking at two buildings (one very close to the one you will probably ask for). I gave feedback, including that people will probably leave if you go there and that people would feel it is outside of the stated radius given to congregation, so there might be push back. For people not to perceive you as being top down, you have to do a better job of communicating where things are at, and I strongly believe you should do a better job at eliciting feedback more formally and regularly. In a congregational church, leaders have to ask permission before making decisions, and I ultimately believe this is unhealthy because it enables all kind of power plays and it makes moving forward difficult. I would challenge you that as elders you GET to ask for insight and permission. If you would have communicated broadly months ago how difficult and intense the search process was and that you considered things outside of the search radius, people would have given you insight, permission, and greater freedom in making the decision. If you don’t think there is pushback, I think you are not listening. I heard it clearly on both Sunday evening services. I have heard it from others talking while leaving services. I don’t think you will lose a lot of people, but you will lose some people. And even if you don’t lose people, I still wish that rather then trying to convince people that moving is good, and that “a church alive is worth the drive,” that you would instead listen and encourage. Focus on things like: You love the people in the church. You hope they come with us. You hope they attend a place where they can grow and hope that Harvest Bible Baby Church is that. And also allow people to leave and find churches alive that don’t involve a drive if necessary. Free people who don’t want a 40 minute commute to find other places they can grow. If you really think Harvest Bible Baby Church is the only place where people can grow, and the only Biblical church in the area, I think you are already far down the path of my first concern.
So those are my primary concerns. As I tried to communicate those concerns, I personally felt not listened to and was frequently told “you should trust us” and we are being “Biblical” (without the actual citation of scripture to provide support). I was also cut off, fact checked, and felt like I was not the only one being defensive. I was accused of parsing words, while Mr. Elder himself also seemed to parse words in describing how Pastor Senior’s relationship with the elders is more doctrinally sound than James McDonald’s was with his.
When we submitted to the Harvest Baby Bible Church Covenant, we submitted to a covenant that explicitly mentioned Matthew 18:15-20. We read it, we took it seriously. I would suggest, that if there was fault to be found with Sarah’s comments on the building feedback form, she should have been approached individually first, not blindsided in front of another church leader, a friend (Mrs. Elder), and her husband and kids. The clear implication when the conversation started was that the “yellow flags” suggested Sarah might be at fault for not having a submissive heart. Regardless of the fact that I disagree with this, if you believed this you should have considered confronting her (or us) in a more loving, graceful, and yes, Biblical manner. It was stated that these were “yellow flags,” but that since you knew Sarah’s heart you thought maybe she didn’t mean to be aggressive. This bothers me because it implies that the same honest communications from one of the 100s of people you don’t know well would have been been considered aggressive. If feedback that is less than 100% supportive is automatically rejected as aggressive, that saddens me greatly.
Over the course of the evening, Mrs. Elder, Mr. Elder, and Pastor Associate challenged us to consider the lens that we were looking at things through. We were challenged that the lens tainted by our past hurtful experiences was causing us to unfairly project unwarranted concerns on leadership. We were challenged in this way even though none of the three had bothered to ask us to share the story of our past experience before making this judgement. But I must admit, their (at the time uninformed) assessment is at least partly true, and I apologize. And this insight is Biblical. In fact, as you know in Matthew 7:1-6 we are exhorted, before judging others, to take the plank out of our own eye so that we can see more clearly to take the speck out of our brother’s eyes. Sarah and I are making efforts to deal with our deep hurt from past experience. We have, and we will, continue to seek Godly counsel for healing and grace. But can I ask you, please, before you automatically assume that only our vision is clouded, to consider that in being so convinced that Harvest Bible Baby Church is great, that you are unable to accept honest criticism and are quick to assume that those that might seem to oppose you are actually concerned for the same Glory you are? And that your fears over losing members over the move may have been projected onto us and our critiques? Harvest Bible Baby Church can be great, but only as they focus on a Glory that is not of themselves.
On Monday we felt judged. We felt like our hearts were not trusted while at the same time being reminded that we should trust leadership. Based on the outcome, we are incredibly saddened to say that we feel it is hard for us to trust leadership at Harvest Bible Baby Church, and are withdrawing our names from membership. Even if the outcome of this unfortunate email is a joyous reconciliation, we also realize that it would be time for us to move on to a community closer to us where we know we will be able to grow and thrive in the ways we feel God calling us.
Our hope and prayer is that as you read this, you can own your own faults, and that you can bask in God’s forgiveness. In fact, as long as I am seeking to be “Biblical,” my ultimate Matthew 18 concern is that we can experience personally the vastly overwhelming treasure of forgiveness given to the servant in Matthew 18:21-35. I pray that as all of us acknowledge, accept, and repent of our own sin and faults, that it would compel us to radically love and forgive others and celebrate the Gospel.
As an addendum to this, I am attaching the entire exchange that took place between Sarah and Mr. Elder. The whole thing started as a simple question about something that was indeed a molehill. Even as we discussed it on Monday, it was suggested that Sarah and I were making a mountain out of a molehill. But the more that there continued to be denial and defensiveness about the the existence of said molehill, we started to see concerns that became a mountain. You may or may not agree with our assessment of this exchange, but I would urge you to carefully consider it. It should have been a molehill. But somehow it became a mountain for us, and perhaps a mountain for you since it was a “yellow flag” that caused you to question Sarah’s (and by implication my own) ability to submit to leadership.
Let me be clear. I have faults. I have had sinful attitudes in this exchange. I also think Pastor Associate and Mr. Elder acted inappropriately and not out of submission to God’s word. I don’t think any of these things are disqualifying for eldership. In fact, even as I am agitated, I love you, respect you, and greatly desire to see your growth. However, we are greatly concerned by things that Sarah and I experienced both in the exchange that follows, and especially in how Monday night played out. If these types of reactions are typical, and if there is not admission of fault and continual repentance, they could quickly become disqualifying. Ultimately we won’t be around to see how it plays out, but I hope and pray that I won’t one day read a newspaper or blog about the great failings at the Biblical church in XXXXX and that I won’t find myself the one offering comfort to others who have been hurt by failed or abusive leadership.
Lastly, please know that this e-mail has been incredibly hard to write, especially since we hate conflict. It would have been a lot easier to leave the church silently, or to come up with a mostly true statement such as “Sarah and I are leaving to attend a church where we can better serve together.” That said, we didn’t want to leave this way, because we thought we had some potentially important insight to offer, and we also feel that Harvest Bible Baby Church, you all, and more importantly the Lord’s Glory, are worth fighting for.
Briefly put here a few reasons that Harvest Bible Baby Church is worth fighting for:
*You have an incredibly welcoming atmosphere. We were blown away by how loved and welcomed we felt from well before we even made it into the doors of the cafeteria.
*We really appreciate how the pastors, Pastor Senior in particular, make an effort to recognize and reach out to newcomers.
*We really appreciate the strong emphasis on prayer.
*We really appreciate the love and wisdom both Mr. Elder and Mrs. Elder have poured into us and our small group. It encouraged me to hear that Mr. Elder has taken late night phone calls from members of the group to love them in time of crisis. Mrs. Elder has encouraged Sarah on countless occasions. And when Sarah and I reached out to them a few months ago for suggestions about challenges we were encountering with the young families small group format, we were incredibly humbled by their receptive and encouraging response.
*We really appreciate the strong preaching from the entire pastoral staff.
*We really appreciate the insight from the pastor chats and both Pastor Elder and Pastor Associate’s willingness to tackle some of the challenging questions Sarah has offered through the “Ask a Question” form.
*We really appreciate the wisdom with which you handle finances and are impressed by how much savings you already have for the new building.
*We both (and Sarah especially) appreciate that you recognized the gifts of some key women as you made them deacons, and that you affirm Mrs. Children’s Director’s dedication and gifting in letting her “run the show” of baby dedications.
*We really appreciate your efforts to keep a crystal clear focus.
*And despite some of the blindspots we see, we really appreciate and are impressed by how many things you are doing so well and understand why you have experienced the tremendous growth we have seen.
With love and agitation,
David and Sarah