Updated: Mar 8
“The difference between a cult and a religion, of course, lies in extremity.” -Benjamin Wittes
It all started with a parade and a phone call.
In June of 2013 our family moved to Lake Isabella California. A small mountain town about an hour northeast of Bakersfield. We were installed as pastors of Family Life Center a Foursquare Church in Wofford Heights, one of a handful of communities that surround the lake. I take all responsibility for what happened next.
I reached out to Neal Preston within the first week, having previously met him during a vacation to visit my wife Stacy’s family who lived in Lake Isabella. The Preston family's roots run deep in the Kern River Valley, which sits in the mountains an hour outside of Bakersfield. Currently their family owns a local grocery store, laundromat, restaurant, local radio station and other businesses. The Preston family had an Enforum (their business name) parade float during Christmas. We hit it off immediately and it wasn’t long before Neal and Amie shared their vision for Enforum, one of many words they use that can’t be found in any dictionary, but at the time sounded intriguing and exciting. They shared how much they love this community, but at the same time, how most of the current churches were against them. That should have been my first red flag. But they painted themselves as victims and underdogs. And who doesn’t want to partner with marginalized unsung heroes? Within weeks we invited them to live at our house. An upgrade from the RV their family had been calling home. See, their story was they had sold everything, given up power, money, and family wealth for “the mission”. It wasn’t until much later we realized that was not entirely true. We spent many nights planning how church would look, together, and before long pitched the idea that we should merge our two churches together: Enforum and Family Life Center and co-pastor. This was met with the first round of pushback and warnings from elders and leaders.
I ignored them all. I often look back and wonder why? Here’s the best thing I can come up with. They gave me something I lacked in myself: Confidence and value. They were connected, attractive, funny, and gave so much encouragement, at first. I felt like a “cool kid” being around them. A popular boy and a pretty girl were giving me attention. That’s the best way I can explain it. My ego ate up every minute of it. And the little kid in me that was picked on finally felt accepted and loved. So all I wanted to do was please them so I could receive more love and praise, confidence and value. Sounds pathetic, right? But in the time since, having been through a lot of counseling and reflection, I can see what was happening. It’s classic manipulation and grooming.
One phrase that was constantly in rotation: Are you in or out?
For us or against us? Loyalty, not to a cause or to Jesus, but to them. And loyalty meant absolute and unwavering commitment that needed to be proven with actions. “You protect your own”. Even if that meant lying to do so. Honesty ended when it came to protecting the family. And that included protecting the family reputation.
At this point, even though it had only been a few short months, I would do anything for them. It was like I was hooked on a drug and addicted to their attention and approval. This might sound very foreign to some, but for those who have walked through abuse, it’s probably like reading your own story.
One of the first big ways I was persuaded to show my loyalty was to break ties with and go against the very person who brought my family up to the lake to pastor. Pastor Jerry Ruff. He encouraged me, believed in me, and went to bat for me in both the church and community. And he was not a fan of Neal and Amie co-leading a merged church. I did my best to convince him otherwise, but he had his own story and his own reasons.
So I had to choose: the mentor and pastor who cared for me and literally gave me his own job, or the new exciting mission that came with addictive attention from the cool kids.
Looking back I often wonder why it had to be such a hard line? Why couldn’t a compromise allow for both options. It was never Jerry Ruff that drew those lines. See the compromise option was presented to merge the two churches, I would remain as lead pastor of the Foursquare church and Neal would be second in command, with a great salary to go with it. But that was abhorrent to him. I still remember the anger in his voice when it was suggested. And so the line was drawn, merge the two churches and both equally have leadership or part ways. I take full responsibility for the decisions made next. And I have spent years of time and countless hours, meeting with people and apologizing for the actions that followed. My actions were very wrong.
Some memories are so clear that every detail of them is burned into my brain. This is one of those memories. The time: a week before we merge churches. The place: the pastor’s office on the third floor of the Foursquare church. Pastor Jerry and his wife were meeting with me and the topic became very clear. “Please don’t give away this church to them.” It wasn’t just an ask. He was on his knees, with tears in his eyes, in the office he gave to me, begging me as my mentor and elder, to listen to his wisdom. I sat there, stone cold. Thanked him for his advice, and ended the meeting. A week later we would merge. How I wish I could go back and listen to that advice, in fact, I wish that meeting didn’t even need to take place. But that’s not the worst of it.
Up to this point, after the pastoral transition took place and Jerry handed the church over to me, I asked him to stay on and mentor me. He was amazing at it. He sat in the pews every Sunday and encouraged me. On the day before the merge was to take place I received a phone call from Neal and from another pastor friend of Neal who pastors a church in Bakersfield. Both trying to convince me to test my loyalty by banning Jerry Ruff from attending the church. Jerry had been very honest with me, stating that if a church member asked him his thoughts on the merge, he would tell them the timing seemed off, but Foursquare approved it. That wasn’t good enough for Neal. He tried to convince me that Jerry would bring division and that his role was now over. I really didn’t like this idea, gave alternatives, but in the end, it was a test of loyalty. The phone call that followed was difficult. I called Jerry and let him know he would not be allowed back at the church. The church he pastored for so many years, the church he built with his own hands. The gym we had just recently dedicated to his name and legacy with a plaque, naming it “The Ruff House”. I remained cold and determined on the phone with him, hung up, and cried. My heart was torn. But I had made the decision, no one forced it on me. And the next day, in front of a huge crowd, we officially merged the churches together and I proved my loyalty, as Jerry sat at home.
Jerry became the first person on the list. I’ll reference the list often in this story. It was a list of people I was asked to not associate with. It eventually grew to over 30 people. People that had somehow “wronged them” were “against them” were on “the out and not the in”. I’ll also be using the word cult to describe the current state of their church throughout this story. That is my opinion based on cultish behaviors and practices I witnessed firsthand. And while it might seem like an exaggeration at first, as the extreme behaviors and tactics of manipulation unfold, it will show how there isn’t a more accurate word that describes what they are leading.
If you are reading this and currently a part of their group, please know that I’m not slamming you and definitely not against you in any way. I am not discouraging you from attending their functions or establishments. In fact, I was in your shoes for 5 years. And I imagine my name has been added to your list of people that you’re not allowed to communicate with. It’s ok. I don’t hold any ill will against you, but am here to talk the minute you move from “in to out”.
We did eventually restore relationship with Jerry and Sandy Ruff. We apologized, wept, and have rebuilt relationship with them over the years. I have shared these words with Jerry and Sandy and they encouraged me to speak my heart.
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