Almost two years ago I wrote an article HERE (It has 8.5 thousand shares and 167 comments) exposing some problems with a sermon I heard at Berean Baptist in Burnsville, MN. I didn’t write the name of the church at the time because I wasn’t trying to embarrass a church. I didn’t write the name of the man who preached the sermon because I wasn’t trying to embarrass a man. I simply wrote what was said in the sermon, step by step, and how that kind of sermon comes across to victims of abuse sitting in the pews.
My goal was twofold. First, I wanted to help victims recognize the manipulation of God’s Word so they don’t get quite so swept under by the strong current. Second, I wanted to give the leadership at this church, which I was attending at the time, the opportunity to recognize how they are subtly enabling abusers while shaming victims. I assumed a Christ-loving, people-loving church would want to know.
I always go into things giving Christian leaders the benefit of the doubt. Trusting they are as spiritually (and emotionally) grounded and mature as their position implies. But the older I get, the more I realize I’m naive to do so, as this case may indicate.
This morning I opened my phone to this article: https://www.theleafchronicle.com/story/news/2019/11/05/first-baptist-clarksville-pastor-abuse-wes-feltner-berean-baptist-claims/4158696002/
(You can download a PDF copy HERE.)
I believe Megan Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson. I believe they are brave, and they are telling the truth, and I believe their stories are not isolated. Men who abuse their power sexually typically don’t change without serious, long-term intervention.
And because it’s pretty disgusting when church leaders and communities use the Word of God as their cloak and dagger, now seems like the right time to share openly about my own private experience with Wes Feltner, which I believe demonstrates that he perhaps has not had a changed heart, but rather has grown more sophisticated and covert in his power and control.
After I published the article HERE about the sermon Wes Feltner preached, I sent an email to Wes Feltner and the others on the leadership team at Berean Baptist. Here is that email:
May 1, 2018
Dear staff of Berean Baptist,
I have been attending your church for over two years, having been excommunicated from Bethlehem Baptist for divorcing my emotionally and spiritually abusive ex-husband of 25 years.
Brent Birdsall was kind to call me a few months ago and reassure me that I was welcome to worship at Berean with my children. I appreciate having been given a refuge from the treatment I experienced at Bethlehem.
I am a writer, business owner, life coach, and advocate for women of faith in abusive marriages. I work full time with hundreds of abuse survivors online in groups and in private coaching. I’ve read over 150 books on the subjects of emotional and spiritual abuse and interact with thought leaders in this field. I’m writing a book this year on the subject of abuse and the church.
I attended this past Sunday’s 11:15 service, and what I heard alarmed me enough to write an open letter to you on my website. I didn’t name your church because frankly, what I heard is the kind of stuff preached from pulpits all across America. It doesn’t really matter what the specific name of the church is, and I didn’t just write it for you. I wrote it for all conservative churches.
But mainly, I wrote it for 100 women who were sitting in the pews with me on Sunday. I wrote it because I care about their hearts. I wrote it because they left your church bleeding, and I’m going to assume that wasn’t your intention.
If I thought you would respond like Bethlehem did, I would have walked out Sunday and never come back. Maybe I’m a sucker for punishment, but I’m hoping you’ll take what I have to share seriously, because the spiritual, mental, and physical well-being of hundreds of women and children in your church are at stake. That’s not hyperbole. That’s just pointing out the tip of a massive iceberg that mostly lies hidden beneath the surface of every conservative church in America.
I made a video of my message just for you so you can “meet” me – rather than just read my words in an article. When you’re done, I’d like to invite you to to go over to my website where the article is published and read the comments from long term Christian victims of intimate partner abuse who were kicked in the gut by their churches when they tried to get help.
I put this article up yesterday, and as of this email there have been over 7,000 views, almost 90 comments, and over 700 shares on social media.
I strongly believe this is a front line spiritual battle on planet earth that is as old as time, but right now, God is doing a tremendous thing all over the world in this area. I remember reading a book once where the author said, “If you want to do God’s work – look where He’s working and GO THERE.”
I’m inviting you to go there.
Wes, I realize my article will be hard to read. It might be mortifying, and I hope it is – in a good way. I have respect for you, and this doesn’t change that, assuming you just don’t understand this dynamic. It’s understandable. Most pastors and people helpers don’t, and that’s not the problem. The problem is when they don’t WANT to. Hence the population of comments on the article.
I’m hoping you will not be offended in a way that causes you to reject the message. I’m praying God will break your heart and bring you to your knees in sorrow. When I said that at Bethlehem, I was accused and defined in appalling ways – so I’m fully braced for more of the same, and I’m good with that, too. (You lose everything once, and you get sort of kamikaze because you have nothing left to lose.)
But I don’t think you will respond in arrogant defense. I think you’re going to want to know more. And if that’s the case, I’d like to work WITH your church on my book. Because my target audience is you. I’d like to pick the brains of your team and find out what they know, what they don’t know, and what they want to know. I’d like to write a book that tells them what they NEED to know. [Side note: I did go on to write that book, and it’s called Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse.]
I’d like to see your church be a catalyst for change. To set an example. To be a leader in this battle on the side of righteousness rather than the side of the enemy. This is not an easy, cut and dried issue that can be solved by attending a seminar. It’s complex in ways that are mind-boggling. It’s a satanic stronghold that requires extreme amounts of humility and compassion. I hope you’re up for investigating further.
Thank you for your attention. The video message for you is a private link (it is not available to the public) HERE. The article with comments is HERE.
Nobody on the leadership team responded (the silent treatment is common in these kinds of situations. I don’t take it personally anymore, but it can tell oodles about who you’re really dealing with.) However, within a few hours, Wes sent me this email without copying any of the others.
Thanks for the email. There is a lot I’d like to say but I do not believe email is the wisest forum for this discussion. If you are sincere in wanting to dialogue about what was said, what was not said, what was meant, and what I truly stand for, then I am inviting you to have a face-to-face meeting to discuss this issue.
Biblically, if I said something that truly offended you, we should have met personally before you tried to represent who I am, what I teach, and what I stand for. That said, would you be willing and available to meet at the church this Thursday night at 6:00 or 6:30? I assure you I am sincere about addressing this issue in a godly manner. Please let me know if this Thursday will work for you.
I’m going to do some speculative analysis for the benefit of those who have dealt with church abuse before or are dealing with it now, but first I need to give a very important disclaimer. Here it is:
I can’t say anything factual about Wes Feltner’s personal motives or thoughts or intentions in my analysis. Nobody can do that. However, I can use his emails (in which he uses common, standard covert abuse tactics) to reveal objective tactics commonly used by people who abuse their power. These tactics have been written about in many books and articles and are well known in the survivor community at large. Is it possible his use of tactics was totally mistaken and innocent? Sure. He could be a humble, Christ-like man of God accidentally tripping into abuse tactics unknowingly. Sort of like he may have accidentally tripped into the having sex with girls in his youth group as Megan and JoAnna have claimed. It would be odd, and I’ve never come across this before, but stranger things have happened on planet earth. Nevertheless, since he did use certain tactics, I will draw attention to them.
You need to know I’ve received letters like this before. And I’ve read dozens of letters survivors have received and sent to me for analysis. They all predictably use the same tactics. It gets kind of same-old, same-old. I really wish someone would spice things up a bit.
“Let’s Not Have Anything in Writing or Recorded, please.”
“I do not believe email is the wisest forum for this discussion.” I wonder why? Because it leaves a paper trail? Because you can’t get away with bullshit when you’ve got words on paper? Notice the use of the word “wisest.” This assumes an email conversation is unwise, but it’s only unwise if you’re trying to manipulate someone. If you are in danger of being manipulated, it’s always wisest to keep communication in writing. Survivors, take note.
“I Want to Be Face-to-Face with You.”
Their power increases when you are face-to-face, and they know it. They are skilled at looking and sounding charming in person while using subtle intimidation tactics that let you know they are bigger and better than you.
I made the mistake of meeting with religious leaders in the past. They could say anything they wanted to, and I had no proof. Finally I got smart and insisted on the meeting being recorded. They refused. They didn’t want to be accountable for the conversation, so I left and never looked back. People who don’t want to be recorded or to have their words in writing are telling you something. Listen carefully and believe them.
“If You Are Sincere, You Will Do What I Want.”
This is a covert manipulation tactic to get you to automatically agree to their terms. You are sincere, so it follows that you will do what they say. But, no. It doesn’t. Because I was sincere, and I didn’t agree to a face-to-face meeting. On the other hand, if he was sincere, why wasn’t he gentle and kind in approaching me as an abuse survivor who is trying to help others? Caring, empathic people ask others what they are most comfortable with, but he didn’t. I wonder why?
Spiritual abuse starts this way. “Well, the BIBLE says…” and then comes the control part. (This is a dead give-away.)
“If I Offended You, You Should Have Done What I Say You Should Have Done.”
That’s what abusers say to victims all. the. time. Seriously, if controllers want to continue to get away with crap, they need to read up on this so they can get better at their disguise. There’s just too much information out there now, and it’s going to get harder and harder to stay under cover. I know. It’s so hard to be like Jesus and the devil at the same time. (Maybe I should re-title this article…?)
“I Do Things in a Godly Manner.”
Here’s the thing. In my 53 years of life I’ve learned that godly people just act godly. They don’t talk about how they act godly. Enough said.
So here’s a better response to a survivor who cries out on behalf of herself and other survivors. Just for fun. See how easy this is?
Thank you for taking the time and emotional energy to come to church, listen carefully, take notes, and then respond. Thank you for showing me where I am not seeing my sisters and their pain so I can do better. So I can consider them and filter my messages through their eyes and hearts when I am preaching. Thank you for sharing what you learned with your readers so they and other pastors can learn from my mistakes, and I appreciate that you graciously and tastefully did it without exposing me or my church in the process.
My team and I are interested in learning more. Would you be able to put together a group of women who have experienced this type of abuse and meet with our leadership team so we can hear from you about how we can better meet your needs as well as use your stories to reach others with the love of Jesus?
Gosh, what I wouldn’t give to meet a pastor like that. Now back up and compare this to Wes Feltner’s email. I had to respond to what Wes actually wrote, and here’s the email I sent back to Wes:
Thank you for your response.
My goal wasn’t to represent or expose you or Berean, personally, nor did I do that. I’m attempting to communicate to you and other religious leaders the vast difference between what you say and what abuse survivors hear. My hope was to bridge that gap.
I’ve taken a typical message preached in churches across America (it happened to be yours because I happened to be in your pews) and exposed some of the nuanced ways that message impacted survivors. It wasn’t the truth of what you said. I agreed with that. It’s how you said it and what you left out. My goal is twofold. First, I purpose to help survivors. To tell the truth about their experiences when they can’t – because they are terrified of religious leaders, and you can see from the comments (I hope you read them) that their terror is not without foundation.
Second, and most important, I purpose to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ in whatever opportunities God gives me. When the weakest and most vulnerable are being abused in the name of God, that’s a problem. I hear the stories every single day. Many of these women and children have left the church completely. They love Jesus. They fear the church. This is not the gospel.
I’d like to accept your invitation to meet with you, but first I need to know what your goal is. When the conversation is over, what do you hope to have accomplished? What would cause you to feel that it was a productive use of your time? If we have similar goals, then I’m open to meeting. I’m not free this Thursday night, but I do have availability next Monday and Thursday evenings. My husband, Tom, would like to be part of our meeting as well.
Wes responded within a few minutes with the following:
Thank you for your reply. In regards to your questions:
What will the conversation be about? Clarity over what I said in the sermon and how it was represented. While I do not want to go into details through email, I believe strongly that your characterization of what I said is grossly out of context. If you truly respect me as pastor, as you said in your email, then I believe you owe me the opportunity to clarify what was said. And honestly this should have been done before you posted a blog based on Matt 18.
What do I hope will be accomplished? Reconciliation. It is clear you felt offended by the sermon and it is clear that I feel I’ve been grossly slandered (even if not mention by name). If the two of us are Christians, then we must biblically seek reconciliation.
Until these two goals are met it will be difficult for us to continue with the important and necessary dialogue you originally emailed me about. That’s a dialogue I am more than happy to have but not until there is been Christian reconciliation.
Your husband is more than welcome to attend and please know that I will have an elder (and possibly my wife) attending with me. Please let me know what time next Monday or Thursday you would be willing to meet. Thank you.
In this email he doesn’t indicate a desire to listen – but to defend himself. Pretty common for controllers. Again, he plays on the idea of respecting him. Also, I owe him. Also, I disobeyed the Bible. (They can really pack a lot of crap in one short email, am I right?) But he wants reconciliation (on his terms). I don’t even know this guy – but if I want to be “biblical” I need to reconcile with him? Um, we have no relationship to reconcile. I had to swallow a bit of bile that came up in my throat when I read this.
BUT – I loved this next part – so he’s more than willing to talk about my concerns after we are reconciled for the offense of my bringing up those concerns. I literally laughed out loud when I read this. Coffee might have spurted all over my countertop. Maybe some of that leftover bile. I can’t remember.
And then finally, he wants me to know my husband can come, but he’s gonna one-up that and bring out one of his elders and maybe even his wife. (Oh man, I would have liked to have gone to that meeting just to meet her and slip her a note letting her know about our community.)
Well, I couldn’t be a snark to him, although I was sorely tempted. Here’s my response:
Let’s pretend you are a medical doctor who just gave a medical talk to a room full of people, some of whom have a medical condition that makes your advice dangerous to follow.
Now let’s pretend someone brings several nearly-dead people to your office the next day along with reports of an epidemic breaking out – caused by some of the advice you gave in your talk.
They beg you to look at the patient and consider the symptoms of hundreds of others in your city so you will be able to help solve a problem.
Here’s how you responded:
Before we can talk about these dying people, I want clarity over what I said in the talk and how it was represented. I believe strongly that your characterization of what I said is grossly out of context. If you truly respect me as a doctor, then I believe you owe me the opportunity to clarify what was said. And honestly, this should have been done before you went public and tried to help anyone.
Is your goal to help a few people? My goal is reconciliation. It is clear you felt offended by the lecture and it is clear that I feel I’ve been grossly slandered.
Until I get to clarify myself and you get to repent of your bringing up a problem, it will be difficult for us to continue with discussing the problem.
Your husband is more than welcome to attend and please know that I will have a member of the hospital board (and possibly my wife) attending with me.
Shepherd, instead of looking at the problem and hearing the bleats of the sheep over on my website, you’ve chosen to make this about yourself.
This isn’t about reconciliation. Contrary to your assertion that I’m offended – I’m not. You didn’t sin against me in your sermon, nor did you sin against anyone in your congregation. (I’m not going to reiterate here what I’ve already written about what you DID do. Please refer to past emails as well as the article for that.)
You are saying I have “grossly slandered” you, but that’s untrue.
Slander: the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.
I’ve not mentioned you or your church publicly, and I haven’t attacked you or your character. I’ve critiqued the words of a public sermon and tried to demonstrate how those words sound in the ears of an abuse survivor. I’ve brought a problem to your attention.
It’s tragic that you haven’t heard their voices. Tragic for them. Tragic for the gospel. And tragic for you.
I’m incredibly busy with my work, and I imagine you are as well. Our goals for a meeting aren’t the same, therefore it would be a waste of our time.
I wish you the best,
Then, because this entire conversation was held behind the backs of his leadership team, I sent them a follow up email which included the conversation so they would know how their senior pastor handled things.
A few days later, Brent Birdsall, the missional strategies pastor, ran interference on behalf of his senior pastor and called me on the phone. We had a wonderful conversation. Brent was a good listener, kind, and respectful. After about an hour, we hung up, and I felt at peace with things. Did anything get solved at Berean? No. I think Wes is running that ship. (Although, if this big church in Clarksville hires him in spite of the allegations, I may consider Berean to be a safe place to return to. There are some amazing people there. We’ll see what happens.) But I felt I had done my part, and at least one person acknowledged my hurting sisters and me as human beings. I knew that was all I could expect at that time.
I left Berean after that. I couldn’t stomach watching him preach anymore. (I had a hard time before this, quite honestly. I never let him shake my hand at the door because I watched how he ogled pretty women, and maybe it’s just my personal hang ups and I need to be more understanding and open-minded, but I’m uncomfortable with that in a pastor.) And of course, now that some women are coming forward saying he had a problem keeping his unit in his pants in the past (while he was a pastor), I’m glad I kept my hand shake to myself. Just in case.
You can listen (or download the transcript) to my commentary on this experience in episode 43 of the Flying Free podcast: When Abusers Demand Reconciliation
Fly Free Beautiful Butterflies,
UPDATE: These women have their own website where they tell their story in greater detail. You can read it HERE.