Weeding out the "bad people"
Jon, you need to leave, go home.
Sunday, March 11, 2018
I arrived at the church, set up for music practice, but Neal came in with a mission. He had just returned from a cruise vacation and there was a fierce look in his eyes. This was month five of Neal as the actual senior pastor of the church, we were no longer co-pastors at this point (I will share the hostile takeover story in a future chapter). He said we needed to talk immediately, outside, I was a child in trouble. I'll never forget it. He walked quickly out the front doors of the church, I followed. "You and I have a problem". I asked what the problem was. He was pacing back and forth. Then began to tell me he had heard a rumor....about a former church member...who was telling a friend that....wait for it...he and Amie were leading a cult. He was furious. At me. Why? Because my wife Stacy and I were still friends with that person/family (it was the Moss family, we aren't holding details back here) and had allowed them in our house. The Moss family is a respected family in the Kern River Valley. They've served on school boards, work in our school districts, and have held many volunteer church positions for years. Stacy and I went to Bible college with their daughter Brianna and she and Stacy were roommates. They've been lifetime friends. This family, Mike and Diane, and separately their now adult children, had left in January of 18, after meeting with Neal and having issues with his lack of financial transparency, how he treated people, and how he required complete loyalty. It sounds absurd, but it's now been over 4 years of these things happening. Neal said something like, "If they are still in your camp, you can't be in this camp. You need to go home." In his mind we were causing division by allowing life long friends into our home for dinner. I tried to clarify: you are asking me to leave church because someone in the community has an issue with...you...not me? "Yes, you need to take care of this" I very clearly let him know it was his issue, not mine. "Go home." I asked him not to do this. His mind was set. It was definitely my fault through his lens. He added that none of this would have happened had I just loved Jesus the way he told me to. He sent me home that morning, enraged, because how dare someone say something in the community against he or his family, they were the voice of God. And by golly, it sure wasn't his issue to deal with, it was mine. I was causing division. A cult leader can never be wrong, they hear directly from God. And just like that, another line in the sand. Another layer of spiritual abuse added. Another person, well family actually, added to the list. He then went on to preach a very "passionate" indoctrination message with questionable theology (my opinion) that can be found here. But if you don't want to watch the whole thing, here's the most interesting 27 seconds...
"I will fight you if you try to divide. And because, if you fight me, I guarantee you're fighting against the living God." - Neal Preston, March 11, 2018
I am fully aware that I view life through my own perspective or lens. There is only one way I can really know if the way I see myself is the same way others see me, I have to ask, listen to them, and correct my course. Otherwise I run the risk of believing all my own sh*t (this is a family friendly blog).
Years ago I worked in the film industry and on one particular day Ben Affleck was at our studio prepping in hair and makeup, for LIVE interviews. Of course it was "bring your wife to work day" as Stacy insisted on being there...for some reason. I'll never forget, as he sat in the prep chair he kept looking in the mirror and saying,
"I'm a movie star, everyone loves me."
Over and over. Now, he was joking. But, for years I was surrounded by celebrities who surrounded themselves with "yes" people. It's a dangerous place to live. But...
There's one way to guarantee you will only be surrounded by "YES" people. Send home all the ones that tell you "NO".
I've studied stories for years, and without a good villain, usually it's a lame story. And what makes a villain exceptional? Here is the secret: they don't believe they are the villain! They believe they are fighting for what is right, good, and everyone else is wrong. And dare I say, even God is on their side. Now I have definitely been that villain many times. I have hurt people in the name of all things holy and it grieves me. It has kept me awake at night and caused me to spend countless hours asking for forgiveness from so many people. You'll hear two of those stories in this chapter. But I guess that's because I also know I can be wrong, a lot.
It's also a very scary thing if you believe you are the closest person to God. You are his mouthpiece and everyone else should listen up. It's a god complex. In reference to the "god complex" licensed clinical social worker De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson, LCSW says the following:
"They feel they're the smartest person in the room, they know best, and their reality is the reality—their experience is the experience,"
Since stepping out of any type of church a year and a half ago there are several things I was accustomed to hearing that now sound foreign. One of them is this phrase, "God told me _______". I'll never utter that phrase again. There really isn't an answer to it. When someone pulls the "God told me" card, it's game over. It's any number times infinity. You heard straight from the big man himself and nothing can be higher.
There were a lot of "God told me" cards pulled over the years at what we began to call the church: Faith Community. Let's travel back to the year 2014 and pick up where we left off in the last chapter to find out what led to March 11, 2018.
I won't lie. 2014 with the Prestons was really fun. We laughed, cried, and grew closer together through time shared in our home, building a "movement", traveling to our denominational (Foursquare) events, and just living life. I don't ever want to paint a picture of "only bad" because if it was, why stay? What drew me in was the love, care, attention, and common ground. It felt almost right. It was the honeymoon phase. There were flags, even red ones, but I quickly overlooked them because I felt loved and cared for. I didn't realize until later it was...show loyalty to us...we reward you with attention, acceptance, praise, and so much "love". It was transactional love, which isn't love at all. The order was so clear, even then, I just didn't see it. I was being groomed into a "good boy", rewarded when I obeyed.
There were good people and bad people and that was it. In 2014 we were the good people. And it felt really good.
I need to pause. I need to let you know as someone who is reading this chapter that these are not just distant memories subject to time, exaggeration, and prejudice. I have incredibly detailed journals, emails, notes, and relationships with people who I reference for this content. And it has been difficult. I would much rather just move on and forget this all happened. But it did happen. And it still affects so many people.
And soon you'll hear how it has done 3 things: it has AFFECTED, EFFECTED, and INFECTED so many people. That last sentence is a very "inside the cult" reference. But if you've wondered why their church is named "Triple-fect" church...these are the 3 "fects" and again, these are their words with their own definitions, that I believe promote inclusive thinking and harmful behavior. Side note, typically when something affects you, effects you (sorry english teachers) and infects you, you go to the doctor to remove it. But this is another cult attribute, and that is covered in the next chapter.
The tone of this post may seem a bit different than the intro and chapter one.
If you are sensing sarcasm, humor, and wit, you have great reader's intuition. I began writing the intro and chapter one with such heaviness. I didn't want to do it. I felt every sentence was painful and took emotional and even physical exertion. But a shift happened. After I posted it, I have been overwhelmed with readers who have encouraged me, thanked me, and shared their own stories of pain and hurt in life. And while that might sound really hard, especially for those introverts out there, it has helped me realize how this is changing people in a positive way. And if there is one thing that brings me to tears, it is knowing that I'm possibly helping someone. It's the reason this site has a forum for you to share your own story. It's also (probably) the reason that the Foursquare Denomination came to our house this week and asked us to send everyone with a similar story to this email address (I will definitely tell the details of that meeting later) so they can share their story. I entered this week's post with a sense of hope. Hope that you the reader, as bad as your situation might be, can also find a renewed spark of hope and healing. But for now, let's talk about Mary and Mary and how they were weeded out and shunned.
Mary is an incredibly sweet woman. Anyone who has spent time with her knows this about her. She was the church administrator when I was appointed at the Foursquare church back in 2013. Every person has a reason "why" they work at a church. Mary's reason: she loved this community and it's people. Her heart bled for the disadvantaged and marginalized. And we were close, at first. We ate lunch together everyday, read books, talked about life, laughed, and began a friendship. And then I was very unkind and cruel to her.
The Prestons were not fans of Mary or her husband Mark who was also a church council member. He asked the tough questions and they didn't like that at all. Don't question the leader who hears directly from God. Mary took the brunt of it through me.
I've seen something over and over with leaders who abuse their power. They try to intentionally sideline those that ask the hard questions. They challenge their reasoning for judgment calls. Minimize their voice. I call it intentional exclusion. This happened with Mary and Mark.
There were many offices on the third floor of the Foursquare church in Wofford Heights. The office at the end of the hall was mine. It was huge. Two levels separated by a step, with the lower section having a living room, couches, and a fireplace. An upper area housed builtin bookcases and a large wrap around desk with beautiful views of Lake Isabella..when it was a lake. It was in this office so many great meetings happened in 2014. Additionally we heard very sad stories of how the Prestons had been abandon by past church members, entire church communities, and even some of their family. How they had overcome so many obstacles and had stepped out in faith to make this valley a beacon of hope for the world. And now together, we were going to be a part of building this vision to reach the world for Jesus. Behind a closed door. A door that Mary was on the outside of. One that she was not allowed in. She wasn't part of the "inner circle". That circle consisted of the Prestons, Nashes, Feldschaus, and Atchisons.
Sidebar: Why that group of 4 couples?
Feldschau / Preston was obvious. Nashes had come with Neal, Atchisons had come with us. Sidebar 2. I am someone who loves when people question me. When they ask me the hard stuff. Why? Because I am fully aware that I am not God. OJ Atchison questioned me from the beginning. Before I was ever appointed as pastor of the Foursquare Church he called me as a council member and asked about my past (public) history with pornography, etc. (Stacy and I shared this history/story with a national publication prior to pastoring in Wofford Heights). When OJ called and asked me about my own personal accountability and recovery...I knew I needed him close. Why...again? Because I believe people who aren't afraid to ask the hard questions keep you on track and honest. And if I don't have those people I'll believe my own sh*t. Back to Mary...
This week I spoke to Mary about all this.
Through tear filled eyes and trembling sentences she re-lived those hurtful moments with me as I listened again to her story. Her story is hers to tell and not mine, but it's powerful. My part in it was this: I listened to the demeaning and critical words Neal and Amie used against her behind closed doors and I believed them. It affected how I treated Mary. We grew apart. All that is my fault. She felt like the black sheep, excluded, and isolated. And she worked just outside that office. I see things clearly now. There was a pattern beginning to form. Even within the church there were good and bad people. You could still be considered outside, even while on the inside. There were true believers and Pharisees. And, based on how you treated Neal or Amie, that decided which one you were.
My Pharisee Definition: a super Bible word that is often used by power hungry pastors to describe any person who disagrees with them. Those deemed as Pharisees by the Preston's were acting in spiritual rebellion and carried a "religious spirit" that was considered evil. Bottom line, it's spiritual abuse.
It felt like middle school all over again. There were the "cool kids" and the outcasts. Mary was eventually let go and soon after she and Mark left the church. People were not kind to them and it was so undeserved. We were destroying people. Add them to the list.
Mary #2 : Show me the money
Mary number two goes by the name MJ. And she's a firecracker. MJ was hired to oversee finances and now it's 2015. She didn't last long. But at this point Neal was overseeing the finances of the church and MJ reported directly to him. Regardless of whether churches admit it or not they need a lot of money to continue operations, it's a business. This church was supporting two "co-pastors" and each of us had an equal salary. It was substantial. And because I don't want to hold anything back, I'll tell you exactly what it was. $82,000 a year. Yup. Wofford Heights Foursquare Church hired me at that salary and when we merged churches with Enforum, Neal produced financial documents to our local Foursquare church board (called a council) to prove Enforum's value based on estimated donor income. He was way off. In no way did Enforum have nearly enough for the church to pay an equal salary. But we pushed for that equalization quickly. Mainly because up to this point his dad had been paying his church salary and insurance as if he was still a grocery store employee. So "leaving everything for the mission" didn't mean leaving all dad's money, just the day to day grocery work.
As the short months went by, I remember many meetings where, Amie especially, kept pushing that we stair-step the Preston salary up to the amount I had been hired on with. She told me over and over that money equals value and because they were not getting paid the same amount I was, they were being looked down upon and undervalued. It was such a difficult thing to navigate. I wanted so badly for them to know how valuable they were, yet the donations they claimed to bring in just weren't there. And so it began. So many twists and turns with Excel spreadsheets (that no one could understand,) but Neal had almost convinced the board of two things: First, that he had found a way for us both to be paid equally, and second, that he should oversee finances. Why we all (the church board) agreed to it, I'll never know. But now we each grossed $82,000 a year and this small town church was eating through their savings account in record time.
MJ knew this. She gave the reports to Neal that showed how the $30,000+ savings account was being drained at an alarming pace. Neal's solution was to alter the reports the board/council would see so it didn't show the actual bank account balances but rather whatever numbers he input. Do I believe he was intentionally trying to hide things during this entire process, no. But his rationale for how he presented numbers just wasn't fiscally accurate and it didn't make logical sense. Numbers don't lie. MJ vocally opposed this but wasn't in charge.
Soon the church had less than $3,000 in liquid assets. Neal was furious. Blamed MJ of course. A meeting with Neal, myself, and MJ was set. Neal was late, not a big deal at all. I was in MJ's office talking with her, waiting for Neal to arrive. As he came in, with his son in tow, MJ was jokingly saying "Neal will be late to his own funeral". Now, I'm not sure why this was not seen/heard by Neal as a joke, but he was furious. He accused her of talking about him behind his back and demanded an immediate meeting. Just he and her...and his son. His young son. MJ knew his tone, was familiar enough with him to realize confrontation was happening. And she asked for his son not be present. Neal insisted he stay, "he needs to learn how adults handle things". MJ told me the next part was difficult. She was accused, blasted, and ripped apart. But before he could finish, she left the room and told him she quit. I saw her leave the office, visibly upset, I couldn't stop her even though I tried. I helped her carry her things downstairs to her car as she vocally told me she was disappointed that I didn't stand up to this. I knew she was right. I really didn't know how, but it wasn't a good excuse. I allowed the intentional exclusion of both Mary & MJ. I wish I could say that was it. But the list of those who left as a result of power plays is extensive. More stories will be shared and it grieves me to even admit that. How quickly I had become a minion under their control. I thought I was a leader. But I had so much fear. I feared the threat that was both spoken and unspoken: the Prestons would leave if they couldn't do what they wanted to do...and they would take most people with them because everyone was on their side and loved them. I believed that lie as well. That was the opposite of what we had wanted when merging, we wanted love, peace, growth, and to see this community thrive. And this was only 2015. The real push for power came next...
Footnote: Stacy and I have a good relationship with Mary, Mark, Atchisons, Mosses, and MJ now. We have worked through all of this with them and they have read this post and agreed to it's publication. Also, after we left the "cult" in Wofford Heights, we made a list of everyone (that we could remember) whether person or family that had exited during our tenure. We have met with all of them that would allow a meeting. We have listened to their stories, apologized/repented, wept with them, and even with some, have rekindled friendships.
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