by Sarah and David
Note: Though primarily in Sarah's voice, this is written by both of us. For the prologue, see the post Is it Gossip? and Other Questions We Asked Before Going Public. And a special thank you to Dee of The Wartburg Watch for first posting our story there.
I realize that current or former members or staff of Sun River Church may read this. To them in particular, I want to affirm that I had many wonderful experiences at the church. I have experienced the love of Jesus from many individuals there as they live out the Gospel in their day-to-day lives.
That makes sharing our story particularly poignant.
So, why write?
Because the kinds of incidents described here don’t happen in a vacuum. We want to open people’s eyes to the reality of what may be going on in their own congregations and churches. As you will hopefully see by the end, and to borrow the words of a particular leader quoted here, this indeed is a “Gospel” issue.
The broad theme that ties our story together is the damage that happens when language is spiritual, but lives are not. As part of that, you will see leadership that demands accountability from others but resists accountability for itself. You will see leadership trying to be something that it is not. You will see leadership applying the wrong test for sound doctrine, and you will see that words matter.
To any who need to see our credentials before listening to David and I, they are available on our blog. But more importantly, here is the story of what we experienced at Sun River Church in Rancho Cordova, CA.
Our First Sojourn
I began attending Sun River Church in 2009. David joined when we got married in 2011, and we stayed there until early 2014. We were active in life stage groups, served on the Missions Committee, and helped with coffee cleanup for a time. I volunteered in the church nursery, and David taught various rotations in adult Sunday school classes. We got to know the senior pastor, the women’s director (who was also the senior pastor’s wife), and the associate pastor through these venues. Our interactions with the youth pastor, Andy, who later became associate pastor and eventually senior pastor at the church, were limited simply because we weren’t involved with the youth group.
We left the church with no hard feelings. David was looking for a church that more explicitly preached Reformed doctrine and was active in the church planting world, and I wanted more intergenerational community. Looking back, we did not always handle our departure in the most mature manner. But the leaders of the church we interacted with during this process were unfailingly gracious. We continued to recommend the church to other people in the area, including our own family members, who later ended up attending.
Our Second Sojourn
Fast-forward five years to May 2019. We had found Reformed doctrine and intergenerational community at two other local churches, but had also been burned by bad experiences there. There was no question in our minds– we both knew that we needed to return to Sun River because we trusted leadership there. As we told more than one person upon returning, we now had a better understanding of what a “healthy church” looked like.
We were received back with open arms.
The senior pastor and his wife (the women’s director) had both left the church recently upon his retirement, as can be a normal and good practice. Our understanding was that, somewhere in the process of announcing his retirement, the former senior pastor had publicly recommended that Andy be promoted to the senior pastor position. A few months after we started attending, Andy was promoted from associate pastor to senior pastor (with a brief stint as interim senior pastor).
At some point after Andy was presented to the congregation as the finalist for the position, before the congregation voted to affirm him as senior pastor, elders visited the adult Sunday school classes to answer questions. At least one of the elders expressed the sentiment that Andy would “mature” into the position. When I heard this, I wondered to myself–after being groomed specifically for the position by the previous senior pastor for (at least) ten years, how much more “maturing” would Andy have to do before he was ready for it?
A Pattern of Dismissiveness, Deception, and Hot-Headedness Emerges
While Andy was still candidating for the senior pastor position, he happened to be teaching on marital communication to our Sunday school class. According to Andy, “effective communication is when the receiver responds as intended.” This is a problematic definition, as it removes the dignity of choice from the receiver and is open to manipulation and abuse on the part of the speaker.
Andy was dismissive of concerns raised by multiple people in class, not allowing himself to be answerable to their critiques of his definition. (For more on this particular incident, see Precision of Language–Definitions Matter.)
A few months later, having been promoted to senior pastor, Andy preached a sermon on “this thing you’ve probably not heard of before, covenant membership.” David and I exchanged a glance, because covenant membership (with particular emphasis on the highly spiritual word “covenant”) had been a defining characteristic of the two churches we’d attended between our different sojourns at Sun River. It had not been the golden panacea that had been promised. Instead, it allowed leaders to set themselves up as authority figures who could not be questioned in the slightest, while projecting a false sense of accountability to the flock (see A Letter to my Friends at our Former Church).
I emailed Andy, shared some of our story and why we had questions/concerns, and asked if we (he, David, and I) could meet. He graciously agreed.
The week of our meeting, the kids and I came down with nasty sinus infections. I emailed Andy and asked to reschedule the meeting. We also canceled the birthday party we had scheduled for our eldest that weekend. The following week, our state went into COVID lockdowns.
I dropped the ball. I never followed up with Andy to reschedule the meeting.
Covenant and Congregational Membership Gone Wrong
During the summer, the church held its annual congregational meeting to approve the next fiscal year’s budget and to vote on new elders. (Jonah–Gospel Shaped Mercy, 8.9.20, see brief reference to a business meeting following the service at minute 50:20) Elders had term limits and rotated on and off the board. To the best of my recollection, elders were nominated by a committee made up of congregation members, presented to the board who had to approve the nominees, and then to the congregation at large, and voted on by the congregation. The meeting went smoothly, as was typical for the church. The congregation voted to approve the proposed budget and all three elder candidates. David and I attended the meeting but did not vote, having not yet gone through the membership process again after our time away.
Having served on the Missions Committee, David wondered why the church was cutting back the missions budget. It was explained that the church needed to tighten its budget due to reduced giving and was cutting out everything that was not currently being spent. This sat a bit uncomfortably for David, since the approximately 500,000 for pastoral salaries remained untouched, even though there were only 4 full-time pastors in the church instead of the 5.5 positions from the previous fiscal year.
The very next Sunday, Andy announced that the worship pastor was being let go, that the entire pastoral staff was going through a reorganization, and that the church was heading in “a new direction.”(Jonah–Gospel Shaped Mercy, 8.16.20, starting around 49:55)
We were shocked. None of these are decisions that were made in the space of a week. Reorganizing the pastoral staff (which included layoffs) has a direct influence on the budget which the congregation was supposed to approve. For example, a $500,000 line item for now only three full-time pastoral salaries. The information was withheld before the previous week’s vote, and the congregation was denied the opportunity to make an informed decision and vote accordingly. A process that had been enacted in the church constitution as a check on leadership’s authority was circumvented. We are baffled as to where the elder board was in this decision to withhold information. Instead, leadership signaled that the congregation did not not need to be meaningfully involved in such critical decisions about the direction of the church or the budget. Ironically, leadership which was shifting church membership toward a contractual “covenant” membership (we assume including submission to elders) clearly showed that they were ok disregarding the original constitutional contract requiring congregants to be involved in budgetary decisions as a means to protect from financial indiscretion.
A few Sundays later, a former member of the congregation who had already left the congregation was formally and retroactively excommunicated from the church. David and I were present during the announcement. The former member was not directly named. I have no idea who it was, but the whole situation was very awkward, and I wondered what the point of it was. From my perspective, it felt mostly like posturing on the part of leadership to show how “Biblical” they were being. Neither of our two former churches that practiced “covenant” membership had ever gone that far during our times there. [I cannot find record of this on the church’s website, but there are also a couple of sermon videos missing from around this time.]
David and I were seriously concerned at this point. We were seeing signs of heavy-handedness and deception on the part of leadership. But we were loath to leave behind community that we felt was just beginning to form with other Sun River attendees, and also didn’t want to make waves that could reflect poorly on our family members who attended the same church.
The Tipping Point
The tipping point came not too long afterwards. Andy repeated COVID misinformation from the pulpit during a sermon (Foundation Plan, 9.13.20, starting at minute 51:05). He actually mis-quoted the misinformation, which demonstrated to me how unfamiliar he was with the topic. Thanks to a blog post from Warren Throckmorton two weeks prior (About that Quiet CDC Report of Deaths From Covid), I was already aware of the rumor.
I emailed Andy and politely requested the source of the COVID information. I started the email by expressing appreciation for “in particular your emphasis on communicating with grace, gentleness, and patience with people we disagree; you’re right about there not being enough of that going around lately.” I said that the COVID information he shared had caught me off-guard, so I’d researched it, as he had encouraged individuals to do in his sermon. (I had confirmed Warren Throckmorton’s evidence and did some additional research of my own using other sources before emailing Andy.) I said that I thought he (and whoever his source was) had inadvertently misunderstood the information, and asked where he had originally come across it. I also pointed out discrepancies in his timeline of when the information had been updated. Throughout the email, I provided numerous source citations, like any decent researcher would.
I did not tell Andy that I had already known about the misinformation, because I wanted to give him the opportunity to come clean and didn’t want to come across as a know-it-all. In hindsight, I’m not sure if this was the right decision.
Andy totally misunderstood my email. “You found the information that I referenced… directly recorded on the CDC website however most/if not all media outlets are skewed… At the end of the day there is only one true source that I believe people should be pursuing[,] God’s Word.”
Andy did not name his source, but implied that it was information he had come across himself. Which I find very hard to believe, as the statistic Andy was referencing was buried on the CDC’s website (COVID-19 Provisional Counts, Weekly Updates by Select Criteria), and not likely to be something someone casually stumbles across. Andy’s email to me was very heavy in the spiritual language, but very lacking in transparency. He even went so far as to introduce “pursuing God’s Word” as a red herring. Like his actions in the Sunday school class regarding marital communication, Andy was resisting accountability for words he spoke publicly while acting in a leadership capacity.
In my response, I clarified what I meant, providing additional support that Andy was misrepresenting the data and asking again where he had originally heard the misinformation.
Andy’s reply was completely inappropriate. He was dismissive and defensive. He also outright lied, claiming that he had prepared his sermon several weeks in advance when I pointed out discrepancies in his stated timeline. While that may have been technically true, it was clear from his mannerisms that the part of the sermon in question had been ad libbed and not scripted “weeks” in advance. He outright stated in the email that “I [Andy] noticed different numbers last week” on the CDC website, which, as I’ve noted above, is highly unlikely.
Furthermore, Andy weaponized scripture to imply that I was too much “in the World” and not enough “in the Word.” He included his “cliff notes” version of what God was teaching him from Psalm One, for my edification: “We need to be SEPARATED from the World and its influences… We need to be SATURATED in God’s Word… We need to be SITUATED in God’s presence” (emphasis original, including bold, underlines, all-caps, and font color additionally in red). Apparently, God really needed to get Andy’s attention. Personally, I had been reading the Bible daily for two years at that point, even though it was not part of my full-time, salaried occupation. I also had hardly any time for social media. And the Bible has nothing to say about COVID or the CDC, but social media sure did.
Yet Andy claimed he didn’t “spend a lot of time researching media or websites to get information because anything from our culture or world is not free from bias or dishonestly [sic] or the ‘schemes of the devil.’ Most of my time is spent reading, studying, and preaching God’s Word as truth. This is my calling and I am a fallible person.” Andy was ticking off all the right spiritual phrases (I am fallible, most of my time is spent in God’s Word, etc.), but his overall tone and attitude were anything but.
Andy also warned me against my emails becoming “an opening for Satan to bring a wedge between us.” RUDE. And a thinly veiled threat.
Even though Andy had encouraged the congregation to be gracious and gentle with those with whom we disagree, he demonstrated a distinct lack of this in his communication with me. He also displayed a disturbing lack of media literacy. We don’t want pastors to be quoting Pelagians or Arians, known heretics. A pastor should easily be able to apply similar principles of critical thinking to something as easy as reading the news.
To be clear, it is not the topic of COVID specifically that bothered me. If Andy thought that the CDC was lying about it, he could present his evidence, and we could have a conversation. It was the lie (which Andy repeated) about the CDC lying that bothered me. It also bothered me that Andy had parroted a piece of information from the pulpit and backed it up with his authority as pastor without verifying its accuracy.
People are entitled to make mistakes. But instead of recognizing his mistake and making up for it, Andy doubled down and attacked the messenger. His response frankly shocked me in its level of intensity. It infuriated my husband, who rightfully perceived his wife’s character being unfairly criticized.
David responded the following day. The email was respectful but also outlined a number of specific critiques.
For example, David said:
I am sorry for painting this in such a black and white way. But the truth matters. And when you speak things as truth from the pulpit it is important that they stand the test of reason. It is even more critical when you openly criticize false sources of truth (i.e. the news) and then try and present a false claim as a true fact. If you recklessly compromise your credibility by dispensing false claims, how do you expect people to respect your credibility when it comes to the Bible? [emphasis added]
Andy, I am not trying to label you as a liar. I honestly believe you simply communicated unknowingly false information in a way that supports an agenda I don’t personally support. I also believe you blew off criticism without carefully examining it.
David also pointed out that Andy was acting more like a cult leader than a pastor at times, with both his inability to accept critique and his stated preference to control people’s sources of information:
Perhaps it most saddens me that the only real wrong you admitted to was this: ‘However, you have helped me to see that I made one crucial mistake on Sunday. What I should have said was ‘you can go look at the CDC website for yourself however don’t waste your time, it is far more useful for you to spend your time reading and studying the truth from God’s Word.’ [emphasis, both bold and italic, original to Andy’s email]
Please note that the only addition was the ‘don’t waste your time’ verifying the claims from the CDC website. Really? Are you really telling people they should not waste their time verifying claims you made? Is it really ok for you to consult the CDC, but not us? If pastors are making factual claims from the pulpit they can be tested. They are not immune to truth tests. If pastors make Biblical claims from the pulpit, they should be tested by other faithful congregants who love Jesus and love his word. Do you care about maintaining the integrity of the pulpit and the witness of Christ’s church? In humility you should crave correction and growth of understanding of both the Gospel and God’s created order. Are you a cult leader? I know you are not, but those seem to be the only ones saying don’t waste your time considering outside influences and questioning what I say.
David copied the entire elder board on his email.
Andy’s reply a couple days later was more subdued. He did offer an apology. However, the thing he apologized for was my chosen method of communication, not any of the words he chose to write. The entirety of the body of his email is: “Our written discourse lacks body language, facial expression, and dialogue that bring understanding, which has become a mess of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I am truly sorry and saddened about the way this has played out. We will honor your desire not to meet in person. Yet we value you as part of Sun River. If you change your mind and want to meet with the elders, we are willing to do so.”
I would point out that meeting in-person does not necessarily provide documentation for what was or was not communicated and eliminates a reliable witness. Andy had already shown his cards. He was not willing to hold himself accountable for his words in writing, nor for concerns brought up in person in a class. Meeting with him, and those who also showed little concern for holding him accountable, would not be productive, especially in person where observed patterns of hotheadedness and dismissiveness would only be more threatening. David had considered coordinating a discussion with a more mature, well respected third party (perhaps one of the previous pastors), but the complications of COVID stood in the way.
To his credit, one elder reached out to David with a phone call. The elder acknowledged that he had also seen a problem with the COVID misinformation and approached Andy directly about it. This was encouraging. But the elder reported that Andy dismissed his concerns as “not a Gospel issue,” which, as David’s email to Andy should have made clear, is a red herring.
The elder wasn’t sure how to proceed from there. He said that he was still a fairly new believer and brand new to the elder board, and wasn’t sure what else he could do. (I wondered at the wisdom of placing a fairly new believer on an elder board in the first place.) The elder did not bring up Andy’s outsized and inappropriate reaction to my emails, and did not acknowledge that the words Andy chose to write and then send to me were high-handed and not appropriate coming from a shepherd to a member of his flock. It is also concerning that Andy was so openly dismissive to me (and others, we have since discovered) who raised concerns even after challenged by an elder.
It is extremely concerning that a member of the elder board felt unable to hold a pastor accountable. What is the point of having an elder board, then? David thinks this young elder was been caught up in the familiar mantra that elders need to protect the flock from a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Perhaps it would be wise to reread Acts 20:29-30 and ask, “Does the flock need to be protected from wolves in sheep’s clothing, or from wolves in shepherd’s clothing?”
This interaction with Andy, in which certain works of the flesh were far more apparent than fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5), and the apparent lack of accountability from the elder board solidified our sad but resigned decision to leave Sun River.
A Catalyst for Division
Two months later, while preaching through a series on Revelation, Andy included an “8th Letter to the Church at Sun River” in his sermon:
To the church at Sun River write, the words of the One who is unified, holy, and true. I know your fears and desires. You desire to obey My word and fear Me as opposed to fearing man, but the enemy is pressing against you from all sides and infecting you on the inside. There is a spirit of division among you, and a judgmental spirit that is fueled by either fear or pride. Wake up! Don’t you see that you are conforming to the world? Where is your light? Where is your salt? Maybe they have been quarantined.
Return to faithful worship of me in spirit and in truth. Repent of the atrophy that is weakening My body. Your mask mutes my explicit gospel to a lost world. Come together in fellowship, be unified, set apart from the world, and defend the truth.
To the one who fears the Lord will come wisdom, honor, and glory.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. [emphasis original]
Andy furthermore emailed this letter to the entire church’s mailing list (which I happened to still be a part of, which is how I learned about it) a few days later on December 3, 2020.
As my sister pointed out when I forwarded this to her in disbelief, if a mask can mute the gospel, maybe you have the wrong gospel.
In a country and a church community that was experiencing high levels of tension and division, the senior pastor picked an extreme faction of a specific side and used politically charged, fear mongering language from the pulpit to get the rest of the church over to his side. Without nuance. Without acknowledgment that “true” believers can see arguments to be made for either side and remain faithful to the Word in deciding how to navigate the politics of the day.
How is this anything other than divisive?
[For some reason, both the original sermon and the previous week’s are missing from the church’s website.]
A year later, California was having a heated gubernatorial recall election. David was still part of a messaging app that the Sunday school life stage group we were in had used. One of the guys posted to the guys group how he was voting. David chimed in. He pointed out that there were a variety of viewpoints represented in the group but all could still “glorify God and influence society enabled by the love of Christ.”
Andy, who was also in the group, made some very heated remarks in response to David’s message, including phrases such as “It’s a defining mark of a true followers [sic] of Jesus…. The true Christian proclaims [one particular viewpoint]… Please don’t vote [for the other viewpoint] and say it glorifies God!” And “Make sure you vote… it’s pretty simple… there is only one vote that is right in Gods [sic] eyes.”
David responded that this particular candidate had openly said that the political issue Andy had so heatedly brought into the discussion was not even on the candidate’s priority list. David pointed out that “things like character and caring for the oppressed are very valid considerations. California needs changed hearts, more than changed votes. Hearts are not going to be changed by the arrogant, abrasive way you have treated my wife, myself, and others I love who have dared to offer a differing biblical perspective. Please don’t treat people this way and say it glorifies God. We have chosen not to be part of a narrowmonder [sic] fear-mongering faith like that peddled at Sun River.” David then removed himself from the communications platform used by the group.
To his credit, Andy reached out via text individually to David later. Andy apologized for how he communicated and said, “It is 100% my fault and I want you to know that in no way was I inferring or meaning to infer that you are not a true follower of Christ… I have communicated the same thing [to the group who saw the discussion].”
The very next Sunday after this communication, David’s dad (whom David had told about the communication as a trusted advisor and who still attended the church at that time) told us that Andy had mentioned the interaction in his sermon. Naturally, I went and listened to it online. Andy stated, in the context of unity within the church, “I tell you, even this past week, I’ve made mistakes to other brothers and had to go back and say, ‘I’m sorry. You’re a brother in Christ. I was out of line. It’s the Spirit of God that convicts me.’” (Blessed Assurance, starting minute 33:50)
But listening to Andy’s words in that sermon left a bad taste in my mouth.
Because what Andy didn’t say to the congregation was “I was harsh and abrasive with my words. So much so that this family has left the church because of how I’ve treated them when we disagree.” He did not say, “In my anger I wrongfully preached to a large group of people a false gospel, saying voting [a certain way on one issue] is a mark of true Christian”. Instead, Andy was using this example to show how he ostensibly promoted unity within the church. Yet in the original text exchange, it was David who promoted unity. Andy did the exact opposite. Andy’s apology, which was the focus of this illustration, was a mere bandaid to a Monty Python-esque “flesh wound” of division within the church. Division that Andy was a catalyst for.
The pattern of deception, hot-headedness, and only apologizing when others saw his overreactions had continued.
What Starts with the Best of Intentions
I was disappointed by the elder board’s lack of response to Andy’s emails to me. With the “new direction” being talked about at the church, leadership spoke a lot about accountability. I don’t have a problem with two-way accountability. But when accountability turns out to be one-sided, that’s not a church. That’s a cult. (If I may be so blunt.)
If there was any accountability going on with Andy from the elder board, whether with the decision to withhold timely budget information from the congregation, to pass an unsubstantiated covid rumor from the pulpit, to lose his temper via email with me, or to loose his temper again and tell my husband that a “true follower of Christ” only votes one way, David and I certainly did not see any evidence of it. Instead, his unwise decisions were allowed to continue unchecked and be a driving force for division.
As events unfolded over the summer of 2020, I happened to be listening to the interview Warren Throckmorton did with Sutton Turner and Dave Bruskas, former executive elders of Mars Hill Church. (Blog Theme: Mars Hill Church–Interview with Dave Bruskas and Sutton Turner, Part One) And I kept wishing that the elders and pastoral staff of Sun River Church would listen to the interview, too. To see that what can start with the absolute best of intentions can go so horribly wrong.
I don’t use the word sin lightly, because I have seen it misused and abused too many times. But unrepentant, unrighteous anger, such as that demonstrated by Andy, is a sin. Deception simply to preserve one’s image or ego, especially when done “in the name of Jesus,” is a sin.
One does not put an individual in a position of spiritual authority over dozens, if not, hundreds, of people hoping that they will “mature into it.” That does a disservice both to the flock and to the individual who is not mature enough for this kind of responsibility.* It is our opinion, backed up by the documented evidence we have presented here, that at a minimum Andy is in over his head as senior pastor and is perhaps unfit to be in any position of church authority.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had any of the positive experiences others seem to have had with Andy. His struggles to maintain control and function in the role of senior pastor are damaging himself, are damaging the flock, and are damaging the name of the church. If I sound passionate about this, it is because I personally know people who have left individual churches, have left the church entirely, or have even abandoned their belief in God because of the kinds of situations described here. And that is not OK. Church, we need to do better. Sun River, you need to do better.
Moving Forward Must Begin with Truth
In spite of our experiences, there is still hope for the future of Sun River Church.
As I’ve stated previously, I am not a professional. But when we look to experts in the field of spiritual abuse, we see a clear path forward.
Diane Langberg, internationally recognized psychologist and counselor for trauma and spiritual abuse, points the way in her book “Redeeming Power, Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.”
The power of a person is found in likeness to Jesus Christ. It is not found in brilliance, gifting, knowledge, position, verbal power, reputation, or fame. It is found when a mere person, such as yourself, flings open the corridors and closets of their life so that they are full of the light and love of God. [pg 171]
“God is Light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we know him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6)… The entrance of light anywhere exposes reality. Light brings truth. The person of Christ is Light. We, God’s children, say we have a relationship with this God who is Light. Then we should welcome his light. He says, “If you say you know me and yet walk in darkness, you are a liar” (1 John 1:6). That is crystal clear. We cannot deal in darkness while claiming a relationship with light. [pg 165]
It seems clear that God is calling us, as he did the Israelites, to see, to listen, and to stop believing deceptive words that somehow lead us to hide or silence abuse and call it protection of the church. [pg 194]
The first step is a return to Jesus. Not to a pastor, not to a church, but to Jesus. Whom we then allow to shine a light of radical honesty and openness in the dark recesses of our institutions and souls. After all, when we read the Gospels we consistently see that the people Jesus saves his harshest words for are religious leaders who abuse the system and misconstrue scripture.
It is not too late to correct the course, for either Sun River or Andy personally. While I am not trying to claim that Andy is a narcissist, I think the book “When Narcissism Comes to Church, Healing your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse” can still provide insight and direction for recovery from spiritual abuse, even for perpetrators. Licensed therapist and professor of pastoral care Chuck DeGroat reminds us of the following:
We are complex, a vast immensity, a mystery to ourselves, known only and ultimately by a God who seems fearless in the face of our complexity, capable of loving each of us and all of us in our beauty and brokenness. And because of this, I can believe that someone who has been diagnosed as narcissistic is seen and known to his depths by a God who refuses to reduce anyone to a label, who both confronts sin with an utter seriousness and offers grace with utter lavishness. [pg 149]
[Quoting the novel “Glittering Images” by Susan Howatch, a conversation where a priest is confronted about his false self, his “glittering image,” by a spiritual director] I’m becoming interested in this other self of yours, the self nobody meets. I’d like to help him come out from behind the glittering image and set down this appalling burden which has been tormenting him for so long… [W]hen a traveler’s staggering along with a back-breaking amount of luggage he doesn’t need someone to pat him on the head and tell him how wonderful he is. He needs someone who’ll offer to share the load. [pgs 152-153]
It won’t be easy to change, but it’s not too late. We believe in a God who changes human hearts and works miracles for the good of all people. He can do this at Sun River and with Andy, too.
Wade Mullen, professor, researcher, and advocate reminds us of community responsibility in his book “Something’s Not Right, Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from Its Power:”
Abuse is not someone else’s personal and private matter that we can ignore out of a concern for minding our own business, nor is it a matter to be only attended to by a select few in leadership positions. Abuse is a community concern. Therefore, the question must be asked of each of us: In what ways am I perpetuating an abusive culture through my silence or tacit endorsement of those who are in the wrong? It is not a question of simple beliefs or values but a question of practice. Practically speaking, what kind of people should we be once a secret is out? Do we ignore what is behind the curtain because we want the show to go on? How long do we continue to provide abusers with the very things they use deception to gain? Do we keep handing them our money? Keep sitting at their feet? Keep following their lead? [pgs 178-179]
Because abuse breeds in secrecy, confronting it is doing the opposite of what it wants you to do: confronting abuse is seeing it when it wants you to look away; making sense of what you are facing when it wants you to accept confusion; opposing it when it wants you to remain converted; speaking when it wants you to be silent. Confronting is choosing. More than anything, abuse takes away your agency – your ability to choose for yourself. Finding that agency is an important step toward freedom and recovery. Certainly, there will still be fear – for me, every decision I made after speaking out against our church leadership was fraught with fear. But I cannot describe the depth of freedom I felt when I finally started to advocate for myself. [pgs 173-174]
I saw Andy at a local restaurant a few weeks ago; he was out with one of the elders. I didn’t see them until they were already walking past my table. From where I was sitting, it would have been hard for them not to see me. It was just me and the kids, so David (who is both my security blanket and stalwart defender when it comes to dealing with paternalistic pastors) wasn’t there.
And I realized that I wasn’t afraid. Which was a wonderful gift. So wonderful that I splurged for dessert with the kids, even though it meant we had to be there longer.
*Note: I just finished listening to Boca Raton’s Church Planting O.G., Bonus Episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, with Christianity Today. While waiting for this post to publish, a comment struck me in particular. Mike Cosper said, “This moment in David Nicholas’s story is not unlike that of so many older leaders who were part of [Mark] Driscoll’s ministry during the Mars Hill [Church] years. They saw a kind of raw talent in his way with words and the culture of the church in Seattle and his commitment to the right doctrines. I can’t imagine they were blind to the faults of pride and arrogance and exaggeration. But they saw so much potential in what could be if he were mentored and matured, they invested anyway. In hindsight, it raises two questions. The first is whether any such potential is worth overlooking the obvious red flags. The second is whether we should have any confidence in our ability to mentor and mature young leaders with questionable character. In other words, is there some measure of hubris in seeing someone with this level of immaturity and thinking, ‘I can get them ready to lead?'” (emphasis original)