When a collaborative church planting network chose Jennifer’s city for a new faith community, she and her husband were excited. They had enjoyed being involved in another church plant years before in another city.
However, they were realing from experiencing toxic leadership in a church they had been attending in their new home. She explained,
Ben ended up on the elder board in an attempt to right a sinking ship. But how do you change a church that is all theology and no love? How do you tell people who think they have all the right answers that you can’t treat other human beings that way? How do you combat the culture wars, a them vs. us mentality, when it is part of the very DNA of the church? How do you let the women in the church know they matter when they are belittled and ignored and corrected but never listened to and never given a voice?
Despite the experience, Jennifer and Ben saw real promise in this new group of young believers. She said,
We first met with the lead pastor of the church, in February 2015, before he even moved to town. This new church plant was a joint venture between two churches in other towns. Their MO was to pull together a “launch team” and send the entire team to a new town to plant the church. By the time the launch team arrived Ben and I had been wandering in the wilderness a bit, church-wise, and I had been asking God to show us where we might be needed. The pastor welcomed us with open arms and since we were in our early 50s, it seemed that our experience might be of use. I think maybe three or four people of the 25 person launch team had actually hit 30.
They were energetic and the pastor was a real evangelist. There did not appear to be “culture wars” in the teaching that demonized their hurting neighbors. Rather, they were an outward-looking congregation seeking to befriend and engage the downtrodden next door. Jennifer recalled an early sermon when the pastor exclaimed,
Those people out there in Oltan aren’t your enemies. Go out and love them.
She said it was very different from the hyper-pious separatist ideology of their former church and many of the churches in her denomination that they had attended.
However, the image of the church and unified agreement of all parties involved took precedence over pastoral ministry. She said after six to nine months she started noticing some things that troubled her.
While the church really wanted our service (in set-up, tear down, nursery duty, parking lot duty, etc.), it didn’t seem to want our input.
After attending for a few months, Jennifer decided to become a member and asked for a meeting with the pastor. He had preached earlier that he wanted those attending to come alongside their community and he would meet with anyone to help them join up.
He said he wanted to minister to them.
When setting up the appointment, the pastor said he wanted Ben to come along as well. Jennifer thought that strange and Ben was still hesitant to join over some theological differences. He was not ready to take that step. But, Ben agreed to come with her to the meeting anyway.
As soon as introductions were made, the pastor said, “I probably know your story, Jennifer” and turned to Ben. For the rest of the meeting he “tried to talk Ben into being baptized.” Several months later, when meeting with the pastoral team to express her frustrations with the lack of pastoral care for the congregation, she told the pastor she was disappointed in their meeting about membership. She had been the one to initiate the meeting for a full membership interview and yet he had shown no interest in her whatsoever and had focused solely on her husband.
It was painful. She felt like she didn’t matter.
Jennifer explained, “He halfheartedly apologized and then very harshly said that I needed to stop projecting my bad experiences onto him.”
It stunned her.
In that same meeting I shared with him that the young college students (2 of which were living in my basement) were struggling and feeling forgotten by the pastoral staff and I wanted to encourage the pastors to come alongside the college students. He, again very harshly, told me I was dangerous and that I had the power to be divisive. Apparently a couple of discouraged 20 year-olds, sharing their hearts with me, made me dangerous.
Jennifer was “demonized for going to bat for someone who needed support pastoral.”
Jennifer saw this become a pattern. A church member would be going through a difficult season with the leadership and the pastor would suggest to the member, “You just had a bad experience.” It was a way of “discounting the problem without dealing with the truth of it.” He seemed to just blow off the concerns of his congregation.
He would never ask what he could do to alleviate the hurt or seek to determine his own failures. Rather than humbly acknowledge his own responsibility for ministry breakdown, the pastor needed to place the blame somewhere else.
Disagreements with the pastors were simply deflected.
Get ‘Em In the Door
Jennifer became convinced that the pastor did not really want to shepherd people. He was only concerned about getting people in the door…not caring for them once under the church’s authority.
After the original pastor left, a new pastor was sought out by the leadership team. Members were encouraged to ask questions of Pastor Carlen who was later called as their Senior Pastor. Jennifer had seen pastoral abuse and had come from an abusive home. She asked very specific questions of the candidate and was satisfied by his gracious answers.
However, following his hiring, Pastor Carlen was soon making sweeping changes in the vision and expectations of the church. The church plant was in tough financial shape but no one was told. Sadly, Jennifer noted, his sermons got more and more harsh in tone.
“He was beating people down. They weren’t getting it ‘right.’ Not being good enough.”
Jennifer said when Pastor Carlen would be confronted by anyone, the “hammer would come down. He would blast you in a sermon.” [see blog] One member wrote a letter exhorting the pastor and he called it “demonic.”
The church finances were “in the toilet” and various people on staff were barely scraping by and Jennifer explained, “His only regret was that we didn’t have money to give to missions.” She said he was “rather critical of people who leave the church or attend mainline denominations.”
Then, Pastor Carlen announced that the church was getting a new name. The congregation had no input whatsoever, but were supposed to raise $10,000 to make up a shortfall and pay for all the new branding.
Loyalty, allegiance, and fidelity
The big words for Pastor Carlen were “loyalty, allegiance, and fidelity.” Disagreement was from Satan. Authority was found in the pastor. Any dispute with the leadership meant a deviation from God’s authority inherent in his position of pastor.
All decisions were made by him.
At one point, Jennifer asked to whom the pastor was accountable. Pastor Carlen explained that there was an “advisory council.” She asked, “Who appoints the council?” He replied, “I do.”
The pastor had no accountability.
But the wounds she bears have left her feeling outside the church.
“A few weeks later the Pastor emailed Ben a copy of the ‘Membership Covenant’ to sign. We became alarmed as this Membership Covenant was not at all the one I had signed when I had become a member in 2016. This one was more specific and more cult-like and really more of what you might see if you were a missions sending organization.”
Then the pastor preached a sermon that made Ben “scratch his head.” He came home from church and told Jennifer, “I think the Pastor was preaching about you.” It was a sermon about
“weak people and wolves and how sometimes the people who look weak are really wolves and they don’t even know it and then used all sorts of criteria for what the weak and what the wolves look like and it was things like speaking out on social media about the church (I do and I have a blog), and going to community group but not church (OK, then, I won’t go to community group either), and talking about hard emotional things (I speak often about anxiety, depression, trauma, abuse, etc.), and on and on. He used the example that if you are in your 50s, you have no business in the kiddie pool. I was one of a small handful of people in my 50s.”
The pastor denied that the sermon had anything to do with Jennifer and said that if she thought it did, then she was just in a spiritually dark place..
They met once again sometime later and the pastor would not answer questions about the “membership covenant.” They discussed trust and the pastor said,
If you are not trusting me then you are not trusting God. God worked out for me to come here and so God has divinely ordained me to be authority over you and will have to give an account for you.Pastor Carlen
A dangerous ideology.
Jennifer and Ben left the church.
As COVID hit, depression set in. Where she and Ben had found their “family” in the church, they felt homeless. In addition, Jennifer said, “You are leaving a burning building and leaving people behind who matter to you.”
When talking to those who are still currently in the church, Jennifer sorrowfully noted, “Like an abuse victim, you have to let them figure it out.” Some want to fix things from the inside and must be given the freedom to make that choice. But it is disheartening to watch them suffer unnecessarily under Pastor Carlen’s leadership and the toxic culture of the church.
Jennifer also said she has struggled to even read her Bible. The connections the words on the pages have to the spiritual abuse she suffered are numerous. She said, “Its so hog-tied to my experiences.” She added, “Sometimes you just have to tear down the house and start over. I have to relearn a lot of stuff.”
A Little Healing
So, Jennifer has read a lot of books. In fact, some of her recommendations are on the PAS “Resources” page. She has needed to find grace through books like This Too Shall Last, written by K.J. Ramsey. Jennifer has found help and healing in some of the excellent books that have come out on spiritual abuse and toxic church cultures by authors such as Diane Langberg, Wade Mullen, Scot McNight, Chuck DeGroat, and many others.
“These books have given me the words to put with the experiences I have had.” It has been important for her to know others have faced the trials she has faced.
And came out alive.
In the end, she now understands Ezekiel 34 where the prophet calls the religious leaders to account for “feeding on the sheep” rather than caring for them. And, she finds comfort in knowing that God is on the side of those who suffer under their oppressive behaviors. She is not the crazy one.
“The farther I get away from these experiences, the more I understand what happened and just how damaging it was, not only for me but for almost everybody in the church. Ministry steeped in a culture of accomplishment, numbers, and success does incredible damage as does a ministry built on theological precision but not love. Somewhere along the way Micah 6:8 gets lost in the shuffle and the church ends up looking nothing at all like Jesus.”
God says, “No!” resoundingly to these leaders who do not represent Him, the Good Shepherd.