A Four Part Series run from December 10-13, 1995 By Sean Polay
Part I : A fellowship of Fear
The Christian Fellowship Church “destroys people’s lives.”
Its leaders – Wayman Mitchell, Harold Warner, Paul Campo, and others – are accused of leading a Bible-based cult that terrorizes its pastors, associate pastors and members through spiritual intimidation, mind control, and extreme indoctrination programs.
Previous reports about the nature of the church from former members and the families of those still in the churches on Cape Cod and elsewhere – people who, at best, had minimal knowledge of the church’s inner workings. Now the same stories are being told by former pastors – people enmeshed in the church for years. They provide the most detailed view of a system they say has sapped self-esteem, robbed people of their independence and left many spiritually shattered.
“I would have never stepped foot in that church because it destroys people’s lives,” said Richard Montes, who at one time was an associate pastor at the Victory Chapel Christian Fellowship Church in South Dennis. “It destroys people’s marriages. It destroys families.”
These former pastors say the fellowship has evolved into a system that idolizes pastors and leaders instead of raising the kingdom of God. They describe being locked into the church system, and the negative impact it has had on their lives.
Mitchell, founder and leader of the worldwide church network; Campo, pastor of Victory Chapel and area leader for most of Christian Fellowship’s East Coast affiliates; Warner, pastor of The Door Christian Fellowship Church in Tucson, Ariz. Who has started many churches throughout the United States and abroad; and others in the church have always denied such accusations.
They declined to be interviewed for this series.
“I’m sure it’s just another slam.” Campo said. “That’s all the Times ever print about us… You’ve never been fair, and I don’t want to talk to you about it.”
Mitchell refused to answer my questions.
“I’m not interested in answering accusation,” he said.
When interviews in 1988, Campo attributed any controversy to the revival and revolution in his church.
“I decided a long time ago you can’t respond to every rumor or you end up spending all of your time responding to rumors,” he said.
“There’s controversy any time you make a revolution. We are militants for Jesus. We are soldiers in the battle for souls.”
They believe , and preach, that they are “reaching the world for Jesus” and are “on fire for God.” They do not apologize for the strength of their beliefs or the methods by which they deliver the message of salvation and redemption.
These men believe their work is God’s work, righting all that is wrong and battling the devil at every turn. Those who disagree with their methods are simply “lukewarm Christians or, in the extreme, are turning against God.”
“Preachers don’t dialogue,” Mitchell said during one of his sermons, which are routinely videotaped at the Tucson Bible conference in 1990. “Teachers dialogue. Preachers proclaim. This is not optional. This is Kingdom business. The king doesn’t go out and say, ‘What do you think?’
“We’re not here to accommodate our society. We’re here to stir communities, turn them upside down,” he said.
A subtle for of conditioning
IN that respect, they have succeeded, particularly on Cape Cod, where the church has two affiliates; Victory Chapel in South Dennis and Potter’s House Christian Fellowship Church, formerly of Falmouth and now in Buzzards Bay.
The South Dennis church, which grew from four members in 1982 to 300 or more, is one of the crown jewels of the Christian Fellowship organization. But despite that success, critics say its leadership typifies the abusive behavior that pervades many of the organization’s churches.
The former pastors and members interviewed for this series lived, ate and breathed Christian Fellowship for a long time – some for 20 or more years.
All described how they were conditioned on a daily basis to believe they were doing the right thing. If doubts about the church arose – and they did – these pastors attributed them to “the voice of the devil,” or some cracks in their wall of faith.
“The issue is not necessarily the basic fundamental doctrines that they proclaim,” said Lee Stubbs, a pastor in New Mexico, Maryland and Georgia before he left earlier this year. “The issue is: It’s a subtle form of conditioning that takes place over a year long period of time. And if you are attending on a regular basis, and you hear a repeated theme, eventually that theme will be ingrained in you.”
Ross Ragan, a former associate pastor in the South Dennis church who spent seven years in the system, likened it to a biology experiment.
“In biology…you put the frog in a little puddle of water, and stick a Bunsen burner under it, and gradually turn it up, and the frog just sits there. He doesn’t know there’s anything wrong,” Ragan said. “As the heat goes up, the next thing you know the frog didn’t even move because he didn’t think there was anything wrong, and it boiled alive.
“You couldn’t see anything happen,” he said. “It was a gradual subtle increase. You’re just getting used to the temperature, and it’s fine. You think it’s great. It’s the same as it was when you started. And before you know it, you’re dead. I think that’ the best illustration of that church.”
A high level of defection
The church leaders have denied controlling their members. Mitchell has been quoted in several interviews as saying no one is chained to their pews. Members are free to come and go as they choose, he has said.
Not so, critics say. They say the gospel-laced fear tactics used by the pastors and leaders leave the members dependent on the church. And they accuse church leaders of saying one thing publicly and doing another behind closed doors.
“We know there are no perfect churches. We know there are no perfect pastors. We know there are no perfect people,” Stubbs said. “We know that everyone, myself included, I have my faults, my failures, my upside, my downside, and I am not critical of others for that.
“But there seemed to be a growing gap between the public and the private…image,” Stubbs said of his experience in the church. “It just makes you think, you know, how could this be going on?”
These pastors say they are coming forward with their stories not only to provide an accurate insider’s view of the church, but also to warn others of the dangers involved in joining.
“People that have left, I mean, if it were only two, three, four, 10, but you’re getting people now,” Montes said. “It’s not 20, 30. It’s 150, 250, 300. Over the course of time, you begin to see something’s wrong here.
“You’re always going to have people who are unsatisfied. But when you have the same story?” Montes said. “Something’s got to be wrong there, and people need to know that.”
Line blurred between God, group
Rick Ross, an Arizona-based counselor who has helped dozens of people leave the church, said he believes – though he has no specific numbers – there are more former members of Christian Fellowship than there are current members.
“They can no longer pull the numbers through the door to offset the numbers leaving out the back door,” he said. “Mitchell and Campo and the leadership have shown no signs of changing their ways. They may have a different posture to the public, but I don’t see them taking any kind of conciliatory approach to their members, or having any kind of meaningful dialogue to ameliorate the situation.”
Ross said he continues to receive calls complaining about the Christian Fellowship organization.
“Once I was on a radio program, and a member of the church called in,” he said. “The caller asked me how many calls I had received complaining about the church. At the time, it was about 20 per year, and I’d been receiving them for seven years.
“The caller said something like, ‘What’s that – 150, 200 calls? Big deal,'” Ross said. “So I said, ‘Well, the Roman Catholic Church has 50 million members in the U.S., and I haven’t gotten my first call from them yet.’
“I can’t judge their hearts as they judge so many others, nut I can judge their actions to see what their motives are,” Ross said of the Christian Fellowship leaders. “There seems to be a desire for power, money and control. There’s no sense of caring for the well-being and socioeconomic welfare of their members and followers.
“Are they adding to the Christian community, or are they building a kingdom for Wayman Mitchell?” Ross asked. “Is this group pointing them to Christ, and pointing them to God, or is the group in fact pointing them to the pastors or an authoritarian system?”
Ross and the pastors interviewed all believe it is the latter.
“There is a fusing of God and the group in the mind of the member,” Ross said. “There’s a real inability on the part of the member to separate the two. The line has become blurred, and whenever anyone criticizes the group, they are criticizing God. If you question the group, you are persecuting Jesus.”
Many questions for church leaders
When Ross and Trina Ragan began receiving harassing letters from church members of the South Dennis church, they sent their own letter to most of the congregation explaining why they had left in 1991. They cited their monetary problems, unbalanced church financial records – which Trina Ragan said she had access to as a church bookkeeper – the numerous double standards regarding church activities and personal conduct.
Many in the congregation returned the Ragans’ letter to them. One had been burned, and its ashes sent back. Several others were torn to bits. Some were accompanied by short notes and letters telling the Ragans that their reasons were unacceptable, even damnable.
“This is too foul for our trash, so we are sending it back for you to dispose of as a statement of what we feel about what you have done,” one letter stated. “We feel pity for you for the depths you have sunk to.”
“I wished I never read and sent it back, it caused me nothing but problems,” read another, “I did read it and now am rebuking that letter and renouncing the letter in the name of Jesus… I rebuke and renounce the spirits of witchcraft gossip, rebellion, compromise, antichrist (sic) spirit, and every ungodly spirit that came with the letter you sent.”
That church leaders ostracize former members ought to make people wonder about the fellowship practices and intentions, Stubbs said.
“Why should I be afraid of a church?” Stubbs asked. “If I was working for IBM and I said, ‘You know what? I don’t like the way this company is being run, and I think the president of IBM is a jerk, and I’m going to leave,’ It might not look good on your resume, but why should anyone be afraid of a church or the potential to be threatened?
“Why are they worried about what I have to say?” Stubbs asked. “Do you have something to hide that you don’t want me to make public? Is that why you don’t want people to talk to me? Have I seen and heard things that the general population in the church hasn’t seen or heard, you don’t want them to know that, and that’s why you don’t want them to talk to me?
“Have I found out that I can and I do, go to another church, and I am still a Christian, and I am still serving God?” he asked. “And I’m finishing my college degree, my marriage is intact, my children still live me, I hope. Is that what you don’t want the other church members to find out? If they lived on the east side of town, they could just simply go to an Assembly (of God) or good Baptist church, or a Lutheran church. I don’t care, and love God and serve God, and still make it to heaven, and got to that church? Is that what you don’t want them to hear? Those are my questions.”
Part II : Way to salvation leads to indoctrination by Sean Poley
El Paso, Texas – Entering the Christian Fellowship organization is no big deal. But leaving is hell.
To understand why it is so hard for those in the church to leave, it is necessary to understand how they got there in the first place – and why they stay.
All of those interviewed for this series can look back at their experience in the Christian Fellowship organization and pinpoint the times and places they had their doubts about remaining in the church.
They can tell you why, in the next instant, they would attribute their doubts to a “lying spirit whispering in their ears.” After all, their pastors would say, the devil was responsible for their doubts: If the church was wrong, then Christ was wrong. And how could Christ be wrong?
For Richard Montes, it started with music.
Friends, members of The Door Christian Fellowship Church in El Paso, Texas, told Motes to check out a cool band at their church.
The 17-year-old guitarist heard songs that he’d listened to on the radio. But the lyrics had been changed to communicate a message of salvation.
“I thought that was a pretty subtle approach,” he said. “I said. ‘Wow, that’s kind of neat.'”
Montes never intended to get saved. He just wanted to jam.
“I went there simply because they needed a guitar player,” Montes said. “And it was a real good way to meet girls…It was just a church with all girls, so I knew that I had to go to that one. But I didn’t go because I wanted to experience God or anything. I just went for other reasons.”
But on that night, Dec. 12, 1980, Montes answered the alter call. He went to the front of the chapel, prayed., and received Christ into his life.
His life would never be the same.
After the service, Montes’s cousin introduced him to Paul Campo, the pastor of the El Paso church.
Campo was “The Man.” He spoke the kids’ language and could play a mean guitar.
“He let me pick up his guitar and start playing it,” Montes said. “And he said, ‘Wow, you keep that up, and you can use that talent for the Lord.'”
Later, Campo took Montes to Denny’s. The next day, people from the church came to Montes’s house to pick him up for a day of church services. That night, they took him out to pizza.
“It was like ‘Hey I’m going to latch on to this guy,'” Montes said of those first few days. “It’s what they call fellowship. ‘Hey, let’s fellowship with him. Let’s lock him in.’
“Those were the key words,’ Montes added. “‘We’re going to lock him into the Kingdom. Lock him into the church.’ And they locked me in that way.”
Years later, when Montes was a pastor of a Christian Fellowship church in San Antonio, Texas, he’s use the same techniques to “lock” people into his church.
Once someone has been saved in a Christian Fellowship church, that person more than likely wants to join the ministry. Whether it’s being part of a music group, leading a prayer group or wanting to become a pastor, that person wants to be involved.
“…When you’re a brand-new Christian, you tend to want to do something, you know, about the Gospel and about telling others. And so there’s a real tendency among what we call new converts to want to be a pastor or even an evangelist or a missionary,” said Ken Haining, a 15-year pastor who left the Christian Fellowship organization more than a year ago.
“And, in what I would call a normal church, that’s filtered out,” Haining said. “In other words, only those who really want to press through and do that, and then there’s various means of doing that like Bible schools or programs that you go through.”
But in the Christian Fellowship organization, there is no program. In fact, it’s a source of pride.
“We had reality, experience,” Haining said. “We weren’t a religion.”
The church leaders said everyone had a “calling” in the church.
“When I first got saved, it was really hard to find anyone in Harold Warner’s church (in Tucson, Ariz.) that wasn’t called either to be a pastor, an evangelist, or one of their wives,” Haining said, “and they boasted that this was a sign of revival. Well, what it did was, everybody was anxious to get what they called ‘sent out.'”
The only way to be sent out was to be “discipled,” which meant the person wishing to get sent out followed the teachings and mannerisms of the pastor.
So when a person gets sent out, he is no longer Ken Haining or Richard Montes. He is merely a carbon copy of the discipling pastor.
Montes was into the fellowship. He started telling high school buddies about this place where the pastor was cool, the music was great and kids were being “saved” left and right.
“John Lennon had just died,” Montes said. “It was around that time. Brought a lot of my musician friends. Paul did a sermon on John Lennon. He was a big Beatles freak.
“Boy, I’d say within the first two to three weeks when I started going, I brought about maybe 50 kids from our school,” he said. “Not al of them stuck, but a lot of them did.”
As the year went on, and Montes turned 18, he felt a part of something greater than himself.
“I felt good,” he said. “Something touched me. I had an experience with Christ. I really did.”
He began to be discipled by Campo, and his spirit was thriving. But Montes, the musician, still had a dream. With hopes of possibly gaining entrance to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he had also begun putting together demo tapes of his guitar skills.
He decided to ask his pastor’s opinion.
“I remember telling Paul about that,” Montes said. “…And he said, ‘Well, God’s got something better for you. If you go to college, you’re going to leave Christ. You’re going to leave God. You’re going to backslide. You’re going to go back into the world. You’re going to destroy your life.'”
Pastor’s word is law. Whatever doubts Montes had were squelched by his desire to be a good Christian and follow the desire of his pastor.
That was the turning point for Montes. He submitted to the will of his pastor. At that moment, he became a true member of Christian Fellowship. In less than six months time, the indoctrination was complete.
The fellowship’s members often are ripe to have their personal control taken away. Most are baby Christians recently “reborn” in the church. Like any baby, in the church’s view, they require nourishment, teaching and guidance.
When that growth as a Christian is guided by charismatic pastors who can move people and get their followers to do things for them, it becomes subtle conditioning not unlike the growth process of one’s son or daughter, said Lee Stubbs, a fellowship pastor for 14 years before leaving the organizations earlier this year.
“It’s not some maniacal thing of someone demanding blood, but the leaders have a very persuasive power over people,” Stubbs said. “There was a system of things in place that directed our lives.”
Members don’t doubt the church’s sincerity when they first join, Stubbs said.
“But that sincerity can open you up and make you vulnerable,” he said. “If someone introduces you to a good thing, you trust them. It’s good for you. When you have kids, they know nothing. You give them things…and they don’t think you’re going to hurt them.”
Part III : Intimidation keeps members in flock
They save you, and then enslave you.
That’s what many say about their experience in Christian Fellowship Church, including its Cape Cod affiliate, Victory Chapel in South Dennis.
Why didn’t they just leave?
Fellowship founder Wayman Mitchell and other church leaders declined to be interviewed for this series, but they have made it clear in prior interviews and in sermons that members are free to leave.
“The door is right there,” said Paul Campo, pastor of the South Dennis church, during a 1988 interview with the Times. “If you don’t like what I’m preaching you can leave. Go pick any church you want. There’s some dead churches here for years; they’d love you.”
But those who severed their ties to the church say leaving was the most difficult thing they have done.
The hardest part? Most interviewed for this series agreed that finally thinking for themselves was their biggest challenge.
“One of the things you have to realize is you’re talking to us after we’ve gotten out, and our brains are starting to work again,” said Ken Haining, a pastor for 15 years before leaving the fellowship last year.
“If you’d talked to us (before), you’d perceive us just like you’re going to perceive Paul (Campo),” said Sandi Haining, Ken’s wife, during an interview at their Albuquerque, N.M., home. “Well, probably not exactly the same…”
“We’d be brash. We’d cut you off,” Ken Haining said. “We wouldn’t let you speak. We’d jam things down you r throat. We would pull you into a situation where you would be on the defensive.”
“Self-righteous,” Sandi Haining explained. “You can’t talk to somebody in the fellowship without thinking ‘God, they’re just so full of themselves.’ Mostly, you very rarely run into somebody humble.”
“But we don’t think we’re full of ourselves,” Ken Haining said. “We think we’re full of God.”
“Yeah, the Holy Spirit,” Sandi Haining said.
“And so when you come against us, you’re coming against God,” Ken Haining said.
And that gets to the core of why members of the church find it so hard to leave. The pastors literally put the fear of God into their congregants. It is as if God is speaking directly through them.
“See, you can’t think for yourself,” said Richard Montes, a former pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who went on to be associate pastor in the South Dennis church before he left the organization in 1987.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, they make their own decisions. Oh, yeah we let them do what they want. They’re free thinkers,'” Montes said. “But when they preach over the pulpit, and they begin to say things like, ‘Thus sayeth the Lord,’ and whatnot. They put this fear in you. It’s just a subtle way of them using mind control, overpowering you.
“Paul (Campo) used to say, ‘When I’m speaking, it’s as if Jesus is speaking here,'” Montes said. “And so, people buy into that.. And he’d preach on fear and hell. If you have a beard, you’re a rebel. If men wear earrings, or women pierce their nose, they’ve got some type of spirit in them that’s not godly because it’s wrong. It you have a TV, you can forget it. If you got to the movies, it’s wrong…What he says goes. He’s the God. He’s the man. If you don’t agree with him, you’re out.”
“The repetition of certain themes that pile layer upon layer on your conscious and subconscious,” explained Lee Stubbs, a longtime pastor in the fellowship until he and his wife, Connie, left this year. “I’ve preached for 14 years for them, and I’ve used the term myself. ‘You ought to be here every time the doors are open. Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night. You need to be here.'”
It’s an isolated society. New members are showered with love and attention to make sure they will want to stay in the church. But should a person even mention thoughts of leaving, that person is instantly cast as a “rebel” or “backslider” and made to feel like and outcast.
“The glue that holds this church together is domination,” said Ken Haining, who studied psychology before he was “saved” in a fellowship church in Tucson, Ariz., during the 1970’s.
“…A lot of what they do is what I call Christian voodoo,” Haining said. “They curse people. They teach that. You curse their finances. You curse them. You curse anything they’re trying to do, because they believe that’s right. Jesus said, ‘Bless those that persecute you.’ They say, ‘Curse those.’ It would seem to me to be an obvious contradiction, but they…don’t see it that way. They take other scriptures.”
Critics say it all amounts to a Bible-based cult.
“The simple Christian, Bible-based doctrines are in place,” Stubbs said. “They’re the same as you’d find in any other church. The same basic planks are on the platform. But it’s the undercurrent that distorts it and gives you a warped perspective of how things work.”
Most associate the word cult with the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Fellowship leader Wayman Mitchell won’t rant and rave, ask his people to take up arms against his oppressors, or lead his followers into a South American jungle to drink poisoned Kool-aid because the apocalypse is upon them.
But he does espouse same us-against-them philosophy. Those men were persecuted for their beliefs in the eyes of their followers. Mitchell and Campo preach the same.
“This is why we’re about this evening – disciple-making without apology,” Mitchell preached during a 1990 Bible conference. “In the face of Jim Jones, in the face of Bob Mumford, in the face of the whole world, I an a disciple-maker.”
In his book “What Happened to the Fire?” J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, wrote that the Christian Fellowship Church has developed its own mutant form of sectarianism that has become “infected with the poison of elitism.”
Grady wrote that the followers’ blind faith in the leadership leaves people vulnerable to exploitation.
“We are always encouraged to read our own Bibles, and we were always encouraged to have our own lives with Christ,” Sandi Haining said. “That’s not where the error was. The error was in the social system, in the social structure of it.”
It’s a social system bent on isolating itself from the world, from other Christians, and, sometimes, from a church member’s family and friends.
“What you and I are involved in this fellowship, in any fellowship that is moving in the dimension of the spirit of God, it is in direct opposition to the religious community, in case you haven’t realized that,” Campo preached at a recent Bible conference, tapes of which were obtained by the Times. “And so why are you trying to make peace with all of them, when what you possess is a spirit of God?…There is no way what you have can mix with what they have.”
“You need to stand with righteousness, even if it’s against your own flesh and blood,” Campo said during another Bible conference sermon.
Fellowship members become fearful of leaving; afraid to face what might await them on the “outside.”
“You get the fear of thinking, ‘…Are our lives going to fall apart now that we’re here, now that we’re away?'” Trina Ragan said.
“They put such a fear into you at a young age,” Richard Montes said. “That’s way they clamp onto young people. They put such a fear in you, especially those who are looking for something. You’re afraid to take a stand, or to say, ‘Hey, wait, I don’t agree.’ In fact, if you can say I don’t agree, it says you’re rebellious. That’s why I left. I disagreed, and they asked me to leave.”
Ross Ragan, husband of Trina, worked closely with Campo for several years. He said he thinks Campo might suffer from the same fear.
“I don’t think he knows what’s right any more,” Ragan said. “…The bottom line is that he is just a very deceived person. He’s trying to do what’s right, but he’s been deceived in the process, and he’s a person that has taken a lot of people down with him.
“I think at some point he was able to see exactly what we saw, but was, again, faced with the fear,” Ragan said. “Wouldn’t dare came against his leadership to correct the problem…”
Those who leave fell they have nowhere to turn.
“They program these people to be so dependent on them that most people do self-destruct when they leave,” Ken Haining said. “A lot end up being drunks, divorced, messed up, and then they’ll say, ‘See, that’s what God did to them for leaving us.’
“And that’s not what happened,” Haining said. “What happened was the way they condition them. Again, I hate to use a catch phrase, but they’re dysfunctional. They’re short-circuited. They’re mentally, spiritually short-circuited. They become so overly dependent.”
Those still in the fellowship won’t have anything to do with those who have left, adding to the sense of loneliness one feels after leaving.
“The people that were our friends, the people that said they loved us and that they were behind us and that they trusted in us, those people today are people that won’t, if we saw them in the supermarket, they would be afraid to talk to us,” Ross Ragan said. “Because they’re afraid that we’re possessed of the devil or that some kind of evil will come upon them because of their contact with us.”
For many, that turnabout by old, dear friends is what makes leaving so hard. The gamut of emotions one faces after leaving the fellowship makes the experience a painful one.
“It’s why so few people actually can work it out. It’s too hard. I don’t know how we actually ever got out,” Sandi Haining said. “Sometimes it amazes me that we got out. I don’t know how we got that far that we were able to get out. We were so immersed.”
Part IV : Pain follows those who leave
Albuquerque, N.M. – Sandi Haining is in pain. Pain caused by the friends who will have nothing to do with her and her husband, Ken, since they severed ties to Christian Fellowship Church last year.
Pain from the regret she fells from wasting more than half her life in a church that, she says has destroyed so many people’s lives.
And then there is the pain of being wrong.
For years she recruited people for the fellowship, bringing them into an environment that she believes hurt them psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally.
“It’s very difficult to work through, because it’s so painful,” she says. “You know each step you take in your mind, it’s another step farther away, and you’re having to admit, ‘My God, I was wrong.'”
That self-evaluation is a large part of the painful process Sandi Haining and many others have worked through after leaving the fellowship.
“It takes a lot of re-education and a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of really being honest with yourself,” she said. “Because not only do you say, ‘Look at them. They’re all messed up.’ You have to say, ‘Look at me. I was a part of this. I loved it. I was just as abusive and domineering, and just as believing of it as anyone else. I was part of it. I’m guilty.'”
The emotional pain is real. “You feel like you’re writhing on the floor in agony,” she said. “Cry day after day after day after day.”
“Everyone that has gotten out says the same thing,” she said. “All our stories are the same. It’s all horribly traumatic. It’s also just regret for 20 years. It’s my entire youth. It’s my entire perception of life. It’s everything I perceive…”
“I felt like I didn’t even know who I was anymore,” she said. “And to try to grapple with that when you’re 37, 38 years old is horrible. And here I am with young children, and I want them to grow up happy and healthy, in love with life, and I feel I have so little to offer them because I am so ravaged.
“And having every love and every care that I’ve ever given out just dashed in my face,” she added. “…Even if they didn’t rebuke me publicly, or by letter, or by phone, it was their silence. Their silence is so eloquent. It made me not want to live.”
It’s a story told by each former pastor interviewed for this series.
Lee Stubbs had been a fellowship pastor in New Mexico, Maryland and Georgia before he and his wife, Connie, severed their ties to the organization earlier this year and moved back to Tucson, Ariz., their hometown. They experienced many of the feelings described by Sandi Haining. Connie Stubbs also experienced several panic attacks.
The couple eventually sought counseling from John Cepin, a certified marriage and family counselor who is director of Biblical Counseling Associates in Tucson.
Cepin, with the Stubbs’s permission, described the couple as having many symptoms experienced by those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
They have a difficult time forgetting the experience, Cepin said. Their symptoms include depression, anxiety, stress, sleep disturbance and difficulty concentrating. And their responses to those symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, anger and hypervigilance.
Cepin explained that the Stubbs’s did not experience any single traumatic event, so their symptoms cannot be attributed directly to the disorder. Instead, they caused similar symptoms caused by a series of events over a period of time.
“Whatever happened to them, wherever they were, it appears there was a lot of withdrawal of relationships with those close to them,” Cepin explained. “That really, really hurt them. I think it’s safe to say that we’re looking at something that’s going to be with them for a while.”
Cepin said the Stubbs’ made good progress over the course of six visits they made to his office. His recommendations to them included getting into a support environment and slowly building friendships. He said they should also pursue dreams and move into areas of their life that they had not previously explored.
That’s exactly what they and others have done. The Stubbs’ have returned to the University of Arizona to pursue college degrees. They and the Hainings and others have found new churches, renewing their relationships with God and Jesus.
Ross Ragan, another former associate pastor in South Dennis, and his wife, Trina, are both working and attending church in Virginia Beach, Va., and have put their lives back together.
They have disproved fellowship leaders who prophesied their demise.
“Once we came to grips with the truth and stopped playing games, we began to see how wrong we were,” Ross Ragan said. “To this day we still have some struggles here and there, because it hurt. It really hurt.
“But we’re fine,” he added. “We made it. We’re stronger Christians than we’ve ever been, but we have a proper viewpoint…”
Richard Montes, a former pastor in Texas who later was an associate pastor in South Dennis, is running his father’s pest-control business in El Paso, Texas.
He said he is doing very well with his business, but he wonders what he’s be doing now if he’d been able to pursue his dream of going to music school.
“I’m happy doing what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong,” Montes said. “But I think of what could of been if I would have known what I know now. I would have never stepped foot in that church because it destroys people’s lives. It destroys people’s marriages. It destroys families.”
After leaving the fellowship, Montes went to a different church for about three months. Now he carries on his relationship with Christ outside the confines of any church.
“I saw too many similarities, and since then, I’ve never been back,” he said. “…I can’t even hear a TV preacher.”
“I still talk to my kids about Christ,” he said. “I study with them a lot. But after what I’ve been through, the way they lied to me, used me, just literally took advantage of my youth. I just can’t. I can’t go back. It’s like a divorce. It’s hard.”
For now, all of these people continue to move on with their lives.
“If we could just get past the emotional turmoil, and we need new friends,” Sandi Haining said. “We need to know normal Christians that have healthy, happy lives; that know a God that we don’t know that much about. You know, a loving, kind God. I’d like to get to know God all over again.
“We want the opportunity to do all that. It’s just that we’ve got to get out of this bad place so we can start again,” she said. “Probably part of it is talking to you, you know. Saying that it’s over. We’re out… We’re going to start over. It’s not part of our lives anymore.”
“People look at what I lost – my living and my church – …and they say ‘maybe they’d have been better off to stay in,'” Ken Haining said. “And I was contemplating that one day, and what I thought of was some poor soldier with his toes freezing off and his stomach empty at Valley Forge, thinking, ‘Was the tea tax really that bad?’
“But see, there was a lot more at stake than just the tea tax,” he said. “There was the whole issue of freedom.
“And even if I do suffer for my decision (to leave the fellowship), I wouldn’t trade my freedom, because that’s what makes human life worth living,” he said. “And I really cherish the freedom I have now, even though I spend a lot of days in pain. And a lot of days I’m in tension, financial turmoil, confusion, difficulty making decisions, getting organized.
“It’s almost like an atrophied muscle,” he said. “you’ve got to keep working and it gets stronger. I’m getting better.”