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THE BIG SECRET

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Introduction

3.10.23 - 7:38pm

Neal Preston posted a video on his social account and blog tonight, sharing his rebuttal to these blog posts (it has since been removed but you can watch it here). He also mentions a letter he wrote in the fall of 2018. That letter is a key piece of evidence in a future post. The interesting thing, this chapter you are about to read was written on Monday. It's been passed through a lawyer and editors this week, and now is being released on Saturday morning, 3.11.23. The timing is uncanny. His video rebuttal further emphasizes two things: First, manipulators "flip the script" in order for the abuser to be viewed as the victim, and second, that a narcissist is never wrong (link to article), starting with the quote that begins this chapter....


Chapter 5


Previous Chapters



Two words. They could have been said at any time within the four years. That's all it would have taken to stop the train wreck. Wofford Heights Foursquare Church imploded because I didn't say the two words. But the words won't make sense without knowing the backstory. I won't keep you in suspense for long.


The Move

It was the summer of 2012, and I was parked outside Pizza Factory in Lake Isabella staring at the desert hills in front of me. Stacy and I lived in LA at the time and were visiting her family. We finished a lake day filled with Sea-Doo fun and I was tasked with picking up pizza. I couldn't get out of the car. There was a feeling I had. I don't know what to call it, but in that moment, I knew we were to move to Lake Isabella and pastor a church. I texted Stacy, hoping to freak her out with the idea of moving back to the town she grew up in, and like every teenager, the place she'd vowed never to move back. She responded within minutes of my text. She felt the same thing. Confirmation. It was both annoying and satisfying. Next I called Jerry Ruff, former pastor of the Wofford Heights Foursquare Church. We began a conversation that ended with a twist. He had recently been asked to pastor this local church, again. He was quite literally unpacking boxes in Kernville, moving into a house. He stopped unpacking and told me he believed I was the one to pastor this church. A year later, in June of 2013, we were installed as senior pastors.


Jerry Ruff built Wofford Heights Foursquare Church as it stands today - brick by brick; the gym; the offices; the entire three-story building. Within the walls was his vision, his heart to reach and love people. He was our biggest cheerleader. He gave us his baby. He trusted us. We let him down.


I grew up in the Foursquare denomination, in Salem, Oregon, from the time I was two years old. By middle school, I knew I wanted to be a youth pastor. Throughout high school, I volunteered as a leader in my church. During my college years, I completed my bachelor's degree in Biblical Studies at the Foursquare college, Life Pacific University. The weekend after graduation, Stacy and I married in Los Angeles and drove to Colorado Springs to begin our professional career as youth pastors. Two years later, we moved to El Segundo, California, and continued as youth pastors. Over the next 11 years, we worked with over 2,000 youth. What an incredibly satisfying decade! It was after all this, I found myself outside Pizza Factory in Lake Isabella.


You know the rest of the story if you've read the previous chapters and didn't skim over this one. Within months we would merge with Neal & Amie and begin co-pastoring together.


The Secret

Here is the secret. Ready for it?

We weren't actually co-pastoring. The Foursquare Church's governance (or polity) is self-labeled Modified Episcopalian. That's a fancy way of saying it's a corporation with a hierarchal leadership structure. And that's a fancy way of saying only one person can be in charge of a church.


Here it is: I was the senior pastor. Neal was not.


He was listed as co-pastor under my authority as senior pastor. And you didn't know that. Only a select few did. Why? Because I truly treated he and Amie as equals. I never once brought it up to him. I never once lorded it over him. In fact, I even wrote letters to Foursquare asking them to revise their bylaws to allow for co-pastors. They didn't budge. But neither did I. We were equal in my mind. I promised him that. And I kept my promise.


That said, at any time in those four years I could have said these two words:


"You're Fired."

And he would have been. The end. I'm positive he would have put up a fight. And I'm positive leadership in Foursquare would have as well. They were his "buddies." But at the end of the day, unless Foursquare removed me, it was my call to make. And I didn't make it. I regret it every day.


I didn't have to endure all the "movements." I didn't have to put up with the belittling, harassment, name calling, and shaming. I didn't have to make all those damn t-shirts. I could have stopped it all. So many families hurt and mistreated. So many leaders who left in pieces. I am culpable. I am deeply remorseful. Neal and Amie didn't cause the collapse of Wofford Heights Foursquare Church; I did by allowing them to stay in power.


Summer of 2017

"This isn't working for me anymore. If things don't change, I'm leaving, and half this church will go with me." Those words rang in my ears. I couldn't believe I just heard Neal say them. I didn't understand what had changed. He returned from vacation and was fired up. I asked for a reason. His response: he hit a ceiling, felt claustrophobic, couldn't lead the way he wanted to lead.


Reminder - at this point, he was a full time paid employee of the church, bringing home a salary larger than most in this valley, and had very little day-to-day responsibility. He was touring churches that Foursquare put under his care, and he was building the On Track discipleship program. What was holding him back? I was. That's what he told me. My ego was holding him back. My ego and pride that wouldn't surrender the title of senior pastor to him.


In 2017, I had no idea what the term "gaslighting" meant. But I was being gaslit something fierce by a professional narcissist. I defended myself, "I'm not leading out of ego, I don't look at myself as the only senior pastor, Neal, you know that. We are in this equally." It wasn't enough for him. He asked me to prove it by signing over the senior pastor role on paper. He assured me nothing would change, no one else would know, it was a loyalty test. A test to see if I really was acting prideful and egotistical. He told me I'd had the title for over four years, it was his turn. I wasn't aware of the process that Foursquare required to make this change. I simply thought, "Well, I have been the one on paper as senior pastor, and I don't care about that solo title, so why not let him have it for the next four years?" I left that meeting letting him know this: I'll sign it over.

Fatal mistake.


He left the meeting with a smile. He was confident and calm, assuring me that this move showed him how much I loved him and Amie and how I truly was a team player, an equal. I actually felt good as well. I loved knowing that I could tangibly show them both how much I wanted this to work. I would do anything to keep the church together and running "smoothly." I wouldn't lead out of pride and ego. And if that's all it took, so be it.

I was so naive. I was doing my best to appease a narcissist.


Dr. Maria Sirota says it this way,

The narcissist will fight to wield more power and influence; to bend more people to their will, but it will never be enough. The narcissist doesn’t understand that more and more of the wrong solution doesn’t eventually make it the right solution.

Resign?

Within a month I was on a FaceTime call with James Ranger and Bill Chaney. Character recap: James Ranger pastors (currently) one of the largest churches in Bakersfield and was our Foursquare Area Supervisor. Above him, Bill Chaney was our Foursquare District Supervisor, the main boss. Both have since removed themselves or been removed from the Foursquare Church. This FaceTime call was infuriating. In order to "sign over" the leadership role to Neal, I would have to officially resign from the church and Neal would have to rehire me as a co-pastor. I was livid. This was not the plan. It didn't seem right to me, I wouldn't agree to it. Both of them reinforced their belief that Neal was the one to lead the church into this next season. They asked me if I wanted my pride to stand in the way of what Jesus was doing. I fought them on it. They told me it was ego and pride. I ended the call. The next few hours were an intense struggle. I knew it felt wrong to resign but at the same time, who am I to not listen to wisdom from my elders?


Bias

I wrote this out, I couldn't publish all of it. Let me explain.

Here's the deal. Each week I wrestle with what to include and what to omit from these posts. There are a lot of things that would make so much sense if I could just publish them. Legally I could. But my own moral and ethical standards stop me. After publishing the first post, I sent a message to Neal and Amie (through one of their followers) and let them know this:


"Please let the Prestons know that I will not be sharing any stories about their children or anything we did personally together or any compromising stories they ever shared or vulnerable insecurities, etc. It is only my story and how I was emotionally and spiritually abused. From my point of view and opinion."


I wanted them to sleep well at night knowing this isn't TMZ. I'm not trying to air everyone's dirty laundry. Quite frankly, they've done a very public job of airing it themselves. So, I redacted part of the above paragraph because it's right on the line. And that's too close for me. Know this, it was bad. And Neal knows exactly what I'm talking about.


A Year Later (for context)

In October of 2018, Bill Chaney came to Faith Community Church (Wofford Heights Foursquare Church) to "encourage" people to buy into Neal and Amie's vision for transforming the church into a training center. His philosophy is captured in the clip below. The following month, James Ranger doubled down and spoke (mentioned in a previous chapter) about being "under authority". In my opinion, it shows the bias and double standards these two leaders walked out with Neal and Amie. Bill's entire message can be viewed here.


"As your supervisor I implore you to make more messes, we'll clean 'em up. Just make more messes. Tidy churches are boring churches." - Bill Chaney, Foursquare District Supervisor, October 28, 2018

There were so many additional messes made: with people, with finances, with the facility. Each time, those messes were swept under the rug due to this Foursquare leader's philosophy. With the church under his direction, it's not a mystery how the spiritual and emotional abuse was left unchecked for years. In talking with previous Foursquare Area Supervisors, I learned they had received close to a hundred letters of concern from former church members, council members, ministry leaders and paid staff. One hundred different letters that spelled out concerns involving unethical, immoral, and illegal activity. "We'll clean 'em up." James and Bill cleaned up Neal's messes for years.


Side Note

Since the publication of this blog, over 50 people have come to us to share their own stories of abuse at the hands of this couple. Every kind of abuse. It is absolutely heartbreaking to hear. Some have felt alone and isolated for years. But there is finally light coming into their darkness. Many have shared how they blamed "God" for this abuse and had turned away from either church or faith. As they read, they felt encouraged to know the blame belongs with the abuser using the name and authority of God, rather than with God himself. Healing is happening. It's beautiful to participate in the journey. I share this because I want you to know it's not all bad. After a fire, there is new growth, and this growth is sprouting from the soil of scorched faith. I also want you to know there is real help if you need counseling. Emmaus Road Counseling Center has offered spiritual and emotional abuse counseling via tele-health (computer/zoom). Read more about it and sign up on our homepage.


The Agenda

Today, I can see these "unbiased" leaders actually had an agenda when they asked for the Senior Pastor title. But at the time, I listened to them. Respectfully then, and now regretfully. Within three hours of the meeting, I had tendered my resignation to Bill. But not without heavy reservations. Read them here.


(click on each arrow to expand)

Resignation Letter 2017
Reading it in 2023

October 2017

The ball is rolling and it's rolling fast. Bill called to let me know he would be coming to install Neal and Amie as the Senior Pastors in front of the church. I was confused. I thought the paperwork was a formality. Nothing externally would change. Neal embraced this move. Narcissists will never turn down an opportunity to be praised. I had to go along with it now. I had resigned. Also, I was not going to be rehired as a co-pastor, but rather with the title Connect Pastor. Whatever that meant. I was assured it meant nothing different. Again, I was naive. I hate watching that service on video. I tried so hard to convince myself it was all ok. Nothing about this was ok. I wanted to hide. I wanted to snap my fingers, go back in time, and fire him. I was trapped. And it only got worse from here.



"This day is not about us..." -Neal Preston

THE BIG SECRET (revisited)

In four and a half years very few people knew that Neal and I weren't truly co-pastors, but within minutes of he and Amie's installation ceremony, everyone was made aware I was a "connect pastor", and he was my superior. Plus, I was asked to share that news. Power hungry people can't share power. Not even for a minute. Neal stated in the above video,"This day is not about us...". Yes it was. He asked for it. He needed it. He put the ultimatum on the table: if my title doesn't change, I'm leaving and half this church will go with me.


PAUSE: NUMBER 3

I know what some of you will probably be thinking. Especially if you're a Preston follower. Jon is an editor. He can easily manipulate video to tell a very specific narrative. Yes I can. But at the end of the day, week, month, or year, what is the track record of those in question? There is a phrase found in the bible that Neal quoted often, "You will know a tree by its fruit." Is there good fruit or bad fruit? Is the fruit ripe or rotten? Regardless of the narrative I am sharing, look at the fruit. A church that once had 300-400 people hovers around 30 (mostly family members). Hundreds of people have similar stories. Stories of abuse, harassment, bullying, and shaming. We've been hearing victim stories over these past few weeks like never before. I could easily edit the above video and splice together clips of ME saying how much I love the Prestons, value their vision, and submit to their leadership. It doesn't change the outcome, the carnage, the current state of devastation. The fruit is still rotten. No matter who says what, the fruit is still rotten.


This is extremely hard to write. I need to let you know I've worked through a lot in therapy, but this part of the story, I'm still processing. I'm angry. At myself. Deep breath. Time to run...better. Running helps.


The Mass Exodus

Over the next two months leading up to Christmas, so many families left the church. We were under "new ownership" and that ownership was not widely accepted. It made me so sad to see people whom I loved, leaving in droves. I couldn't do anything about it. They would set up a meeting with the new Senior Pastor, Tip of the Spear, CEO and he would drag me into it as well. I would then sit and listen to my friends share how they had been hurt, betrayed, swindled, demeaned, talked down to, and overall just didn't trust Neal and Amie. The meeting would end, they would leave, and Neal would blame me for it. Rinse, repeat. Over and over. The same stories, different people. I was trapped and Neal was deflecting. It can never be the narcissist's fault. There is always someone else to blame.


Case in point: Throughout the release of this blog many people have come to us and let us know that Neal and Amie are telling any who will listen "they are being attacked" right now. The devil is out to get them. They are the victims. Here's what is missing: There isn't an apology, self reflection, admission of guilt or wrongdoing. It's not possible. Why? Because admission of wrongdoing on even one thing brings down the entire house of cards. When you build a career as a victim, it's impossible to think you might be the abuser.

Back to the story: The end was near.


The Squeeze

Shortly after I was demoted to "connect pastor" my work responsibilities shifted dramatically and my voice was all but silenced. Initially I was told "connect pastor" meant I'd be out in the community, connecting with people, speaking at Sunday services, and meeting with church members. For four years Neal and I would switch off speaking at church, every other weekend. Now, Neal was primary and I would fill in as he saw fit. I had weekly office hours that could only be fulfilled by sitting in the office. I wasn't allowed to leave. Example. I once scheduled a lunch with a fellow pastor in the community and upon my return was promptly chewed out for not getting permission to leave the office to have lunch with him. It felt like a prison.


During this time I was also being used to create the On Track video training course that went along with their On Track Journal. This was a paid online course that could be purchased by those who wanted to "get their life On Track". That phrase still makes me twitch in disgust. I was asked to use Wofford Heights Foursquare Church time (as well as my own time) to create video content for On Track, a separate "company" that ran through either Enforum or Asha Faith James. Both were owned by Neal and Amie. Where did those profits go? Not to the church. They also told me I'd be a 1/3 partner in all On Track profits. As you can probably guess, I never saw a dime.


Socialism

What a weird title. Just wait. Here we go...


Socialism Definition: a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.


Now that the definition is out of the way, let's get into it. This is the last part of the chapter, but it's so weird.


A brief history. When Stacy and I moved to El Segundo, CA back in 2002 I quickly connected with George. George was a leader and pastor at our church. George is also the Senior Vice President of Operations for The Switch in Los Angeles. A Live Video Production facility. He is the main reason I fell in love with film and video production. I started at The Switch holding cue cards for crazy celebrities and when I left, 11 years later, I was producing and directing everyone from Weird Al to Channing Tatum. Of course with Channing...Stacy insisted it was "bring your wife to work" day. I had the opportunity to film on the red carpet at the Academy Awards and travel to amazing locations. It was a blast. I won't lie.


At that time I also started my own video and technology company, Total Media Solutions. In addition to pastoring, I had found what I loved to do. After moving to Lake Isabella in 2013 I decided to dissolve the company and focus all my attention on this community. I would use film/video in the church, but didn't want the business of it to distract me from pastoring people. Things changed mid 2017. I began to see how I could use my abilities and talents in creative ways to help local businesses. And slowly began taking on side jobs to help them. The reason was two fold. First and foremost I wanted to help the businesses. Second, the church was hurting financially. People were leaving. And when people leave, money leaves. How could a church support two "senior pastor" salaries of 82K each? It couldn't. I was actively finding ways to reduce my financial impact on the church. I believe Amie was jealous.


She would constantly make comments about how she could make money in photography, graphics, interior design, etc. But she was too focused on "the mission at hand."


This is how we get back to the section title: Socialism. November 2017. I was called in for a meeting. A surprise meeting. Neal and Amie were very good at surprising me with meetings out of nowhere. After a lot of counseling I now understand this is one way manipulators work. The meeting was in my former office, now theirs. On the third floor of the church building. I walked in and saw a white board full of lines and arrows. It was a new "business plan" and they were both so excited to share it. It took Neal quite a bit of time to explain. Business lesson number one: The Elevator Pitch. If you can't share a business plan in the time it takes to ride an elevator, it's too complicated. Let me try to sum up the plan.


Snapshot

As I'm writing this I am smiling. It's a very large smile. It's the kind of smile you give when you're embarrassed to tell a story because of how dumb you know it will sound.


The Plan

At this time the "inner-circle" had dwindled down to only include the following players: Johnny (Nash), Ashlie (Nash), Jon, Neal, Amie. The plan was we would each bring all the money we made (outside the church) into a giant pool and distribute it equally. Jon would bring all the money he made from Video/Web Design/Technology. Neal and Amie would bring all the money from their On Track Program sales. And Johnny and Ashlie would bring all the money they earned selling gelato at county fairs during the summer/fall months. And then, we'd give it a good mix and distribute it equally. 20% each. 20 to Neal, 20 to Amie. 20 to Johnny. 20 to Ashlie. 20 to Jon.


Let me take a moment and share that I'm not an idiot and I shot this down instantly. First of all, Neal and Amie hadn't made any money from On Track anything. Second, Johnny and Ashlie (and I love this couple) hadn't started working at any fair selling any Italian ice cream. Third, I was bringing in quite a bit as I worked on reducing my church salary. For those of you non-number people, this is what the business plan was actually "proposing." Jon, you work all these extra hours and bring in all this extra money and we'll let you keep 20% of it. For the mission! I'll take "Hell No" for 200 Alex.


I filled that plan with so many holes it would sink even if made from styrofoam. I ended with, "This sounds like socialism." Oh boy, that made the new boss mad. He then took even more time to re-explain it to me, because obviously I didn't get it. My fault. And after another half hour, it sounded even more like socialism. Because it was. But guess what? I was labeled selfish and greedy by Amie. Even though I was actively working on reducing the salary I took home from the church. That will be explained in an upcoming post. Right now, I had to get out of this meeting. I had only three options. One door and two windows. We were on the third floor. I still considered the windows. I told them I needed to "talk to Stacy about it". Amie's response, "Why? *She's not part of the business plan." I kindly explained to Amie that Stacy is my wife and I wouldn't make any big decisions like this without her input. She just shook her head. I walked out of the room, through the door.

*Some of you may be wondering, "Where was Stacy?" At this point, she was hated by Amie. I'll explain more in next week's post, but for now, we'll just say she was smart enough to step off the crazy train before I did.


Modified business plans were pitched over the next month until they finally realized I wasn't going to budge on any of them. Enter their next plan: Shame and Separation.


"Jon, you owe this church a debt for how badly you've run it over these years. You will work 40 hours a week at half the pay."

Another surprise meeting. This time the gloves came off and it wasn't pretty. It wasn't about the money, it was about what came next. I was told the unthinkable: to serve God correctly, I needed to leave my wife...



Christian-ish Footnote (feel free to ignore if you're not a Christian)

This is a very long Christian footnote. And it's not for everyone. But I've been asked the same question now, twice, by very loving and caring people. It leads me to believe there are more who might be thinking the same thing, so I'll address it here. The premise of the question is simple: Why are you not "Matthew 18-ing" this and instead posting it all publicly? If you're not a Christian or just have no idea what the Matthew 18 reference is, I'll explain, even though I warned you not to read this footnote (smile). In the Bible there is a book called Matthew. In chapter 18, it says the following:


Matthew 18:15-17 NIV

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."


The summary is this: go to your "brother or sister" (a fellow Christian) and talk to them directly about the issue you have with them. If they don't listen, bring others. If they don't listen to the group, bring it to the church as a whole. If they don't listen to the church, treat them as if they weren't a Christian.


People have asked me if I've done this with Neal and Amie. Short answer, yes. Multiple times. I even took it up the chain of command to the current president of the Foursquare Church. They refused to investigate. So for years I've treated them as "pagans" if you will. But I don't believe this is the correct passage to apply in this situation. See, the Matthew 18 passage is about dealing with someone who believes the same about God, Jesus, etc. Let me be very clear on this: I don't believe Neal and Amie are preaching and teaching the same Jesus found in the Bible. I believe, based on their own sermons and printed material, they have created a different "gospel" (Christian word for teachings of Jesus) that focuses the attention on themselves and their agenda above the teachings of Jesus. While they would never admit to this, it's self evident in their teachings and written material. The passage I believe more applicable is found in Galatians 1:6-9. It says this:


Galatians 1:6-9

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!"


I believe this is a lot bigger than abuse and possible financial fraud, which is enough, in and of itself, to justify these posts. I believe they are perverting the teachings of Jesus and therefore are heretics by definition. A heretic is one who has a very different interpretation of scripture from what is generally accepted. And heretics need to be called out for what they are. My tone in this isn't anger, it's based on biblical study and personal relationship with them for years. Many will never see this side, thank goodness. But I have, and others have as well.


I will say this, I believe they are accidental heretics. I don't think they are intentionally perverting scripture for their own benefit. They just don't know how to teach the bible. They have no formal training or biblical education in their background. No degree, no seminary. Had they attended even one year of biblical higher education they'd have been introduced to these words: exegesis and eisegesis.


A Brief Explanation of Exegesis & Eisegesis from GotQuestions.org

"Exegesis and eisegesis are two conflicting approaches in Bible study. Exegesis is the exposition or explanation of a text based on a careful, objective analysis. The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of.” That means that the interpreter is led to his conclusions by following the text.

The opposite approach to Scripture is eisegesis, which is the interpretation of a passage based on a subjective, non-analytical reading. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” which means the interpreter injects his own ideas into the text, making it mean whatever he wants.

Obviously, only exegesis does justice to the text. Eisegesis is a mishandling of the text and often leads to a misinterpretation. Exegesis is concerned with discovering the true meaning of the text, respecting its grammar, syntax, and setting. Eisegesis is concerned only with making a point, even at the expense of the meaning of words.

Second Timothy 2:15 commands us to use exegetical methods: “Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” An honest student of the Bible will be an exegete, allowing the text to speak for itself. Eisegesis easily lends itself to error, as the would-be interpreter attempts to align the text with his own preconceived notions. Exegesis allows us to agree with the Bible; eisegesis seeks to force the Bible to agree with us."


Now, if you're still hanging with this footnote, I commend you. It's a lot. But it helps to understand why (in previous posts) when I added video clips of either Neal or Amie, and they were quoting God or Jesus, it sounded really off. Neal said, "If you fight me, I guarantee you're fighting against the living God." That is eisegesis. He interjected his own meaning to a verse, so it agreed with his point of view. When Amie mentioned, Kick people to the curb...Jesus modeled that. I believe she was also twisting scripture to fit her narrative. Eisegesis. They are sincere in what they are saying, just sincerely mis-interpreting scripture. That is what a heretic does. Whether intentionally, with a diabolical plan, or accidentally by lack of knowledge and education. Either way, it's a different gospel.


All this to say, I take all this writing very seriously and it has nothing to do with a grudge or getting back or being "un-Christian like" towards people. This is about calling out abuse in all forms. With people, with finances, and with God's word. That's what Christians call the Bible...I know you probably know that, but still, I said I'd explain the insider language (smiling again). End of serious footnote.







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