This post has been festering inside of me for some time now.
For over one year our family has not had a church home, and I have wondered if I should go public with the details.
To speak or not to speak?
Really, my goal in all that I do is for God to be glorified. Is this goal always carried out? Unfortunately not. Which is why I’ve stayed quiet about this topic over the past year other than making church members aware of a few of the details. Would bringing this up on my blog be helpful to others, or would it simply make myself feel better about what went down? I don’t want this to be about me. After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to share my story, in hopes that it might help someone, anyone, who feels trapped inside of an authoritarian church structure. Specifically, someone who feels compelled to continue sitting underneath an incredibly authoritarian pastor or elder.
During the summer of 2013, my family began visiting a church by the name of Berean Baptist Church, which was supposedly under a co-eldership, but really, Pastor Jerry Slate was the lead pastor. We were thrilled to finally have found a church which appeared to hold fast to the ideals we held dear. Besides a steady stream of sound doctrine being fed to our souls on Sunday mornings, most of the families there held similar convictions as us. The children were homeschooled and pleasant to be around. Really, everyone was pleasant, and held their relationship with The Lord in high regard. At the end of the summer a baptismal service was announced, and since my children and I had never been baptized (other than myself being baptized as an infant in the Catholic church), we decided to be baptized as well…which in turn led to church membership. In truth, my husband was hesitant about this at first. Very hesitant. We had visited another church for over a year without officially becoming members, and so to become members at Berean so quickly seemed a little surreal. But he saw the strong desire that we had to become baptized and agreed for us to join the church.
My first inkling that something was amiss occurred right before the baptism. While I was discussing with my husband what would be appropriate for me to wear (it was to take place at a member’s swimming pool), he suggested that I contact Jerry’s wife to see what she suggested. I thought that was a good idea, and so I did. What I thought was an innocent question turned into a very odd discussion about skirt wearing. I did not bring up skirts at all, but from my blog and Facebook I guess she gathered that we prefer to wear skirts. May I add that while we believe modesty is Biblical, we don’t always wear skirts. In fact, I’m wearing a pair of capris with a tunic top as I write. After I let her know that I was open to wearing just about anything and was wondering what would be best, she shared a story about how a little girl she knew was put into an abusive situation surrounding dress wearing and potty training with an older boy. It really left me scratching my head, and I heartily disagreed with her that the dress was to blame, which is what she implied.
The next problem occurred directly after the baptism. I shared on Facebook that we had joined Berean and were so grateful to be members of a congregation with many other homeschoolers. A random friend commented about how great “family integrated” churches are (which I never implied our church was), and immediately the pastor’s wife responded back with a speech about while by God’s providence many homeschoolers attended the church, they were not family integrated. At about the same time our message box began to light up with messages from Pastor Jerry about the dangers of the family integrated church movement, and he asked to meet with us to discuss this further. What? We didn’t understand why this was being pushed, when it was nothing we brought up or commented about in the first place. My husband and I quickly realized we had made a mistake by joining this fellowship, but felt compelled to remain committed to the church we had just joined. As I said before, Rusty (my husband) does not take church membership lightly. At about the same time it was brought to my attention that one teenager who wished to be baptized was denied after Pastor Jerry’s interview. Her family had six children, the baptism was held at her home, and her younger sister was baptized on that day! I was utterly and totally confused as to why this young woman who wished to make a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ was told no. This very involved family left the church shortly thereafter.
We continued on for a few months, and volunteered where we could. On several different months we arrived early to set up the church (we were meeting at a funeral home), and my husband and son attended men’s meetings and the like. While the people of the church were fabulous, we began to have problems between our children and the other young male children in attendance. After church one Sunday, I found the pastor’s four-year-old son laying on top of my three-year-old son underneath a church pew. Over the course of the next year and a half many other instances occurred. My eight-year-old daughter was hit by another boy who came from a family with several small children on multiple occasions, and my husband walked in on him stealing her Bible and yelling “It’s mine!” in her face. After my ten-year-old son returned to church after having his appendix removed, one of Pastor Jerry’s other sons punched him repeatedly in the stomach after he asked him to stop. My oldest son let me know that a different boy walked into a room where a body was prepared for burial which was definitely against the rules! I mentioned this to Pastor Jerry’s wife, and her reply was that she would tell her boys not to “play” rough with my kids. Play? This didn’t seem like play to me. We began leaving directly after service or I would request my children to sit in the pew instead of running out of the sanctuary with the other children when the service was over. Were my children perfect? Surely not. But I wanted to keep them as safe as possible and out of trouble.
We chugged along as I worried more and more each day about our church situation. My blog and Facebook page was heavily monitored, and I received email complaints whenever writing or posting something which was deemed “worrisome.” Let me give you an example. Pastor Jerry’s wife posted an article titled, “Have You Thanked Your Pastor Today?” I admit I might have rolled my eyes when this passed through my newsfeed since this type of article is wholly inappropriate for a pastor’s wife to share, but I was brought to tears when Pastor Jerry shared the self-same article. Is this humility? Is this servant leadership? A few hours later I posted a verse about humility on my personal page along with a sentence saying that no matter what our station…be it parent, teacher, missionary, or pastor, we need to remember to be humble. Immediately we were messaged privately by Pastor Jerry Slate accusing us of “publically rebuking our pastor” and demanding an apology. We were flabbergasted! My husband responded back stating that I had done no such thing, but Jerry insisted that given what he had posted followed by what we had posted, others in the church would see it as a public rebuke. We argued that if church members could make such a connection, than he was wrong for sharing such an article. He disagreed. The following day Pastor Jerry left message after message on my husband’s phone, and the two finally had a discussion deciding to agree to disagree the following evening. At this point both my husband and I were done with this Pastor, but under my husband’s leadership, decided to stay due to the fact that we adored the co-elder and his family and thought the members of the church were golden. If it were up to me, we would have left. I blamed Facebook for this problem, and closed my account for a time…until I realized that truly, I wanted to keep an eye on what my Pastor posted and had a right to know if he was sharing anything unseemly.
Let me pause for a moment and say that this whole experience was a test for me in more ways than one. I am not one to hide my opinion, and it was hard to remain as a submissive wife when every fiber of my being wanted to leave Pastor Jerry behind, but my husband wanted to stay. At the time I wanted out, but my husband continued to humbly and quietly remind me of the commitment which we had made to the church. We made this commitment before God, and he did not take it lightly. Rusty tried his best to shield me from Jerry, and I know the whole ordeal was incredibly tough for him. While we did leave after trying our best to stay for over a year, in the end, my husband knew without a shadow of a doubt it was time for us to leave for the best of myself and our children.
Shortly after the “Have You Thanked Your Pastor?” incident, we attended our first business meeting. At this meeting we discovered that outside of paying for rent and paper supplies for the once a week church services, all of the offerings were given to Pastor Jerry and his family as a salary. I’m talking about $40-50,000 annually. No monies were allocated to missions unless noted on a check. No monies were given to community charities. I left the church service in tears. How could this be? This isn’t the purpose of the church. Besides, our church consisted of only 6-8 member families. Pastor Jerry’s complaints of having to “labor” occasionally in the construction field began to stick out like a sore thumb, as did the times he attended only to stand and say, “while I’m here in body I’m not officially being paid this week, so if you need anything, please talk to Pastor David.” Pastor David did not receive a salary. What?! Complete and utter bewilderment along with total loss of respect for this man followed. I could hardly bring myself to give a bare minimum to this church, if any at all.
As I mentioned earlier, I was contacted frequently whenever I posted anything “controversial” on my heavily monitored blog. I shared about how our family handles finances in one post, and Pastor Jerry’s wife took great offense when I mentioned that since our church doesn’t give to charities, we give to those separately. I pointed out to her privately the church budget, which had allowed $0 in donations to charities in the past three quarters, and only a very small amount to a church member in need the quarter prior to that. Refusing to be bullied, I left my post as is. This particular email exchange continued for quite some time, leaving me yet again with a debilitating migraine with vomiting…all while pregnant.
One of my favorite parts of the service was an exhortation time, in which the men of the church were welcome to expound on a portion of scripture read. A young man who was the co-elder’s son did so beautifully, and one time he shared about a doctrinal mistake a leader at the Christian college he just graduated from made in a grace-filled fashion. The next week much to my surprise, the same young man stood up to apologize to the congregation. Apparently, he had been called out for “rebuking” a pastor, and it wasn’t his place to do so. Out of utter sadness, I rushed from my seat and ended up in the bathroom in tears. As members of the body of Christ, we are ALL called to speak truth! This small situation mirrored what I was experiencing with Pastor Jerry and his wife Angela perfectly, and I mourned for this man. I mourned for myself. Most importantly, I mourned for this church. I returned to my seat determined that what Jerry was doing wasn’t right. It was sinful. The verse “not all are called to be teachers,” had been touted one time too many, and I was done. Only a few weeks later, this time of exhortation was conveniently removed from the service, which effectively silenced the men.
At this time I was pregnant with our seventh child, and the stress of dealing with Pastor Jerry and his wife was getting to me. I had migraines constantly. I stopped blogging so much in order to keep “controversy” down. The church so graciously threw me and another church member a baby shower during this time which I appreciated greatly. It was held directly after service at a member’s home, and so we rushed our youngest children to my MIL’s beforehand to keep the trouble with a few of the younger male church members at bay. After that sweet event I resolved to yet again, “keep trying.”
After waiting several weeks after the birth of my seventh child, I returned to church, determined to try harder to make this work. Rusty and I joked about how anytime we missed a service Pastor Jerry immediately questioned us on our Facebook page, causing his buddies to laugh at his expense since our Pastor “held a tight leash.” I jumped in, offering our home for the location of the January get-together, bringing food to a family who had just moved, and deciding to take it upon myself to get the church involved in the community if the pastors weren’t going to do it. (To be fair, another new church member did bring in an awesome homeless shelter ministry which many members participated in.) I visited our local crisis pregnancy center and became a “church liason.” Little did I know this was the beginning of the end…
A few weeks later, I noticed that Jerry and Angela’s daughter had a birthday party and every girl and woman from the church received an invite but us. My daughter was devastated! Through Facebook (yet again), a short discussion ensued and we received an email with an apology. Apparently, the party was partially a Jamberry nail party and through reading my blog Angela gathered that I do not like Jamberry nails. Um, no. I posted once about the topic of discretion months prior and mentioned that as a personal preference I didn’t care for mismatched fingernails, but this wasn’t a reason to exclude one little girl from a party. I told her that she could have worn a plain wrap and likened it to Paul. If it came down to it, while we are able to enjoy certain freedoms, if a freedom infringes on someone else’s conscience, we should forgo it and not exclude a single little girl from a party. The whole thing was entirely ridiculous to me, because I didn’t have a freedom issue per se regarding these nails! Angela agreed with me and apologized again.
The next day, my husband received a phone call from Pastor Jerry. Apparently, I had no place speaking to his wife in such a way and if I was a man, “he would have asked me to step outside.” Furthermore, we were to meet with the elders about being put under church discipline for leaving directly after church services without staying to fellowship, and “concerns” they had with my blog. They were going to examine our motives, and if us leaving directly AFTER church stemmed from pride, we would be disciplined. They told Rusty this: “Your desire to fellowship with other believers should take precedence over any safety concerns regarding your children.” They had already spoken to sister churches about us.
Meanwhile, Pastor Jerry Slate posts Hebrews 13:17 to his Facebook page, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you,” During the phone conversation, Jerry admitted that this post was specifically intended for our family to see. When the one in authority posts a verse imposing his own authority this should instantly send up a red flag, This clearly comes from a proud heart. A desire to lift up oneself and impose one’s own authority.
What?? Thankfully, after hearing all of this my husband believed it was a clear signal for us to be on our way. This wasn’t about our “sin,” but about Pastor Jerry’s inability to control me as he would like. I mourned, but at the same time, was so relieved. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. Pastor Jerry refused to release us. He wanted to speak with me in person, but my husband wouldn’t allow it. He said the man and his wife had put me through enough. After a four hour phone conversation, during which Pastor Jerry screamed at my husband in anger, he agreed to let us go. But, we would never be recommended to another church. I reached out to the co-elder’s wife, desperate. She let me know that she was happy to see us go since we were so perfect. Perfect? If we were perfect, why were we up for discipline? This complete opposition of ideas really pointed out that the problems truly lied with the fact that I wasn’t afraid to speak truth! I mourned all night.
While I had never grown very close to other families because distancing myself from Jerry distanced me from others as well, I hurt because they were wonderful people who loved the Lord. So I did what any blogger would do…my husband and I sat down together and set up a private page stating what had happened from our perspective. We shared Biblical reasons as to why Jerry Slate was not qualified for the eldership. The following Sunday, each and every church member unfriended us on Facebook over the course of two hours. Oh, how I cried! I wondered what was said…I knew something was amiss for it to happen that way.
A few months later, I saw a glimpse of sunlight. One the most prominent church members, a true man of God from the church reached out to us. He had left. He wrote us the most heartfelt apology I have ever received, and again I was moved to tears. But this time they were happy tears! He wanted to bring us dinner to make up for his actions, but of course I said no. He was only doing what he thought was right at the time, but he confirmed something felt wrong when the Pastor instructed every church member to defriend and avoid us! So that’s what happened. He said he was on the lookout for a new church home without an authoritarian pastor, and again apologized for listening to Pastor Jerry’s “unwise council” regarding our family.
Looking back, there were so many warning signs. We weren’t the only family to leave (probably four or so did during our time at Berean Baptist Church), but we were the only ones who were threatened with discipline for something completely unfounded. We heard more horror stories similar to ours after we left. The situation was really almost akin to a controlling boyfriend. Everything seemed fine until we committed to the church, and then each aspect of our life was put under a microscope. This situation has scared me…I hate to say that I’m afraid to trust churches now. This church seemed….well, just about perfect to us from the outside, and then look what happened. This could happen again. It really seemed like the Pastor was somehow threatened by me and my little blog. Imagine that!
I love the Lord so much, and this situation hasn’t changed that in the least! Now, I really mourn for the people who are continuing to sit underneath such a man. I pray the Lord opens their eyes. My oldest son especially misses a few of the friendships he made there with both young and old. I miss having connections with some of the most fabulous people in the community as far as I’m concerned. I’m thankful the church isn’t a building or a denomination. For now, the scars still run deep.
If this small testimony helps just one person, I’m so happy I shared it! If you are sitting underneath an authoritarian pastor, run! God desires this position to be filled by true servant leadership.