An open letter to Rod Stafford, the pastor who baptized me in November 2013. I never imagined I would pen a letter like this, but I need to address a few issues. This addresses authority issues in FCC leadership, holding back information about a sex offender in a position of trust from the congregation, and touching on “A Better $tory.” Some people from FCC have already put a few knives in my back, I still have a few spots for FCC to aim. I also want to go on the record as having notified SNAP about the current situation.
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
“Anyone who doesn’t take the truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”
“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. “
Ephesians 4:25 ESV
This is going to be a personal letter in the sense that I am writing about a church I once called home. Do you remember me Rod? You baptized me in November of 2013. I used to consider Fairfax Community Church (FCC) to be my home church until about a year ago. There were many issues I stumbled into there that weighed on me greatly. This letter is going to address several of them. Its really time for the evangelical Christian church to stop and listen not only to those who left it but those who have struggled with it. I have known a couple of people who have left Fairfax Community Church just frustrated. I never thought I would be on that list but in time a number of situations started to push me away from my church and the first Christian church I got involved in after rejecting Christianity for half my thirties would indeed be short lived.
Rod when I first showed up at FCC it was in 2012. I was an agnostic and in Next you recognized me and asked if I attended earlier. I actually attended about 7 years prior. But in the course of time I had a massive faith crisis and lost my belief in God. When I showed up at FCC I was in a lot of spiritual and emotional pain. I was under intense pressure to attend a Sovereign Grace Church called Redeemer Arlington by an Air Force Captain I knew. I was decimated and destroyed by my doubts with the biggest one being the problem of evil. As I was figuring things out I faced a severe false accusation from that member of Sovereign Grace that threatened my job, my livelihood, and ability to produce income. That false accusation was the darkest season in my life. I honestly thought FCC was going to help me. In the course of time I actually wrote up my story for Dee Parson at The Wartburg Watch. My story has been traded and shared by former members of Mars Hill Seattle and other places. No one heard of someone trying to reconcile with so many people in their life.
In November 2013 I actually was baptized at FCC, you were the one who baptized me. Dee Parsons drove up from Raleigh along with her husband Bill Parsons to watch. I was a vocal and loud agnostic that lit up Christian blogs online who ranted about how Christianity is a cancer. My baptism was well attended by members of my FCC small group to include people like Carol, Mary and others. Since my story also brushed up against Sovereign Grace there were a number of people who used to attend SGM who showed up to support me. This included someone involved in SGM Survivors who persuaded and talked with me to stay away from Redeemer Arlington. As I was walking against and dealing with a false accusation I used my baptism to pray that I could be reconciled with Andrew White as it was one of the only outstanding situations in approaching and seeking forgiveness from 140 people. Peace with Andrew was the deepest thing I craved in my life given the pain the situation caused me. If you want to read the entire story you can do so here, here, and here. At FCC I was involved in the Refuge and poured my life into helping the homeless. I also was involved in small group. I was not a casual commitment Rod, instead I was an individual who poured my life into FCC. FCC was the first church I got involved with as I re-entered Christianity.
My life can be a monument to having been burned and harmed by fundamentalism, Sovereign Grace, Mormonism, and differing sides of Christianity. In my case trust was broken and bruised often. I don’t know why I am not an atheist today. You have no idea Rod how much courage it took me to go to church again. Showing up at FCC when you have been burned by Christianity and church took a lot of courage. It was against this that a number of things started to happen which bothered me deeply Rod. During this time I stumbled across some information online which puzzled me. I found two reviews about FCC with one I believe on Google and the other I believe on Yelp that raised the issue that Eric Nickle was on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry. I knew Eric and I sized up the information with what I was told by Eric himself. I also knew that Eric to be in a position of trust. I was deeply bothered Rod to learn this and I kept it to myself at the time. You see Rod I was dealing with a false accusation that overturned my life. I needed bedrock and I needed stability. When I read this information about Eric Nickle it deeply bothered me. Here’s why Rod….in the past I have been involved with several churches that have been touched by this issue of child sex abuse or how to deal with a sex offender. Fairfax Community would be the third church I would be involved with that would struggle with this issue. When are evangelical Christians going to be honest and admit that evangelical Christianity is in a crisis due to child sex abuse? Its not limited to the Catholics Rod. Actually I would suggest that the problem of child sex abuse is worse in evangelical Christianity. Why do I say that? Simple…it has to do with Protestant authority and churches breaking off and starting anew, and lacking the ability to screen properly. The first church I was involved in that struggled with child sex abuse is Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee. They were rocked by a youth minister who sexually abused a number of boys before committing suicide in central Wisconsin. I wrote about that here if you want to read that post. I also was in another church where I had a Bible study leader tell me his story of having an affair with someone under age and dealing with the legal system. Then I had to contend with being invited to Sovereign Grace against the largest lawsuit in evangelical history that dealt with child sex abuse. The fights I had over child sex abuse and SGM culture with an Air Force Captain were unlike anything I had experienced before and nothing I want to experience again. I never clashed like that before with another person. Then when I was involved in FCC I stumbled across the information about Eric Nickle and I was deeply troubled by it. I examined the Google review that raised the issue about Eric Nickle with Dee Parsons who checked it out and was equally disturbed. Then a couple of days later I went back to check the Google review and I noticed that it was removed, the comment gone. I asked myself “is it me?” So I asked Dee Parsons to check it out and she confirmed, that the Google review was gone. It bothered me deeply becuase I now had to contend with knowing that my church I was attending and getting involved with was trying to hide the information. Trust is everything when it comes to a church Rod. And trying to hide this information only created more problems. It illustrated to me that my church is not being transparent. Plus in the course of time I would realize that my church also put children at risk.
That weighed on me Rod. What it did was made me wonder how to respond. A person who called his Sovereign Grace church “the healthiest church I ever knew” already created enough damage and pain for me to last a lifetime. I didn’t know what to do with the information about Eric Nickle so I kept it to myself. When I was in my FCC small group I made a comment about how the SBC has problems with child sex abuse and a former member of the SBC said it wasn’t as much of a problem. I sat there in someone’s living room thinking about how FCC was struggling with this issue after knowing the information about Eric Nickle. I was in knots Rod. I paid close attention to Eric when I showed up at church because I was concerned for people’s safety. The burden of this information was so heavy Rod. Since this information was held back from the congregation maybe the banner of FCC should be in a WWJD wristband. What does WWJD translate to? In the case of FCC it would mean “Who Would Jesus Deceive?” There are two types of dishonesty, intentionally misleading and sins of omission. The information about Eric Nickle was withheld from the congregation Rod, it was a sin of omission.
Despite your statement as someone who was involved at FCC I want to write about some of what I saw when I was at FCC.
- Eric Nickle did greet at the door.
- Eric Nickle did help run Group Link, he actually gave me my number/instructions when I attended.
- Eric Nickle prayed with people at the cross with families and children nearby. It was at the end of the service and it was dark. I prayed with him once knowing the information that I stumbled across on the internet. This troubled me.
- Eric Nickle at one point told me he was arrested for prostitution. Later on I stumbled across the information about the sex offender registry. So either he was arrested in addition to the child sex abuse, or wrong information was misfed to me.
- The sex addiction group did met in one of the children’s classrooms when I was there. Yes it was after hours, yes there were no children around. Plus I thought nothing of it at the time but later on when I learned the information about the sex offender registry I grew concerned. But the sex addiction class Eric Nickle led did have access to the classroom.
- I did see Eric Nickle walking around freely in the lobby.
Against all this Kathleen Othcy made a comment to me about some of the people who show up at FCC from nearby Sovereign Grace Fairfax and I was concerned about this issue in addition because Sovereign Grace Fairfax was rocked by child sex abuse problems as well. Plus I also analyzed a Google review and knew that the “cult around the corner” is Sovereign Grace Fairfax in the eyes of many people. Many people from Sovereign Grace are broken and hurting and I became deeply concerned about them getting involved in another church and being hurt again. In many ways I can relate to some of these people as I was in a lot of pain Rod due to Sovereign Grace. Trust can be broken in an instant Rod and it can takes years to rebuild if it can be rebuilt.
I would have preferred to bring this issue with Eric Nickle up with the staff at FCC but several issues happened that prevented that from occurring. One was the increasing run around I would get when trying to meet with FCC staff. There were times Rod where I emailed a couple of pastors and they would not respond. Or they would pass me off back and forth between differing people and nothing would happen. FCC could be more bureaucratic than the Department of Veteran Affairs. These problems are only going to grow Rod as FCC grows. If you think otherwise than you are being foolish. While those experiences were frustrating, I also had a couple of situations with Andy Gingrich that bothered me. One time I wanted to raise a couple of concerns about Lysa TerKeurst. I knew the story of what was happening in Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. That included manipulating baptisms, and a pastor who built the largest house in North Carolina, and a Sunday school curriculum that really belongs more in Pyongyang, North Korea than a church in Charlotte. The Charlotte media has been all over this issue. Plus there are a lot of Christians in Charlotte deeply concerned about Elevation Church being a cult, or cult like. Against this Lysa TerKeurst I later learned is entangled with Elevation Church and supporting it. I raised this issue about Lysa TerKeurst’s material being used and promoted at FCC with Andy Gingrich and he dismissed the concerns. Actually he really would not listen…so here was this guy who practiced enough discernment to push back from Mormonism, see the issues in Sovereign Grace and be up to my eye balls in agnosticism/atheism and realize that atheism is a faith system; and yet I would be dismissed by Andy Gingrich. Later on another issue was when another Care Group Leader (CGL) reached out to me and Andy came down so hard I was stunned. It left me confused, the other CGL scared, and when I ran the emails by Dee Parsons she was rightfully concerned that they were controlling. I couldn’t believe how hard Andy came down on people. Against his order not to contact this other CGL I reached out to her to make sure she was okay. I was angry that she was frightened. No one should live in a state of fear in the church. Are you hearing me Rod? Andy Gingrich runs the small group ministry at times like Joseph Stalin governed the Soviet Union. I don’t know what Russia’s goals are in the Ukraine, but if Vladimir Putin needs a governor you have a fine candidate in your small group pastor. It was because of all these issues…pastors not responding to email, getting the run around, and an obsession with authoritarianism that I realized that I could not approach FCC leadership about the information I stumbled across on the internet about Eric Nickle. If FCC can’t handle the small problems how are they going to be able to handle the major ones? I was going to be dismissed or the system in place would react harshly like I saw already. So in the course of time I left…I stayed committed until my small group fell apart and then I left. What Andy Gingrich needs to understand is that being a pastor is a privilege and not a right. I would venture to suggest that Andy has forgotten that its a privilege to serve the sheep. Each sheep that walks through the doors of FCC is precious in the eyes of the Lord, and should be taken care of and cared. Andy Gingrich needs to understand that fact.
I was out of FCC when I heard about the “A Better $tory” campaign. Had I listened to those sermons in person I would have been deeply concerned Rod and I would have left. Let me ask you this…why does FCC want to grow when you can’t even manage what you have now? Like I previously said all of these problems that you are struggling to deal with now are only going to get worse. The bureaucracy will get worse and more people in need are going to fall through the cracks. But what deeply bothered me was watching how Nehemiah was manipulated. You didn’t allow the text to speak for itself, instead you twisted the meaning. I wrote about it in detail in this post here. I honestly hope this twisting was done un-intentionally…as I want to give you the benefit of the doubt Rod. But what deeply bothered me was when I saw the video of a 24 year old Aleathea Hensley talk about how she is going to empty out her savings account and give to a “A Better $tory” That is wrong Rod. At 24 years old she like other people of her age have a lot of student loan debt, and are trying to get their career launched. Mom and Dad have probably helped her out a few times when an emergency has happened or the car breaks down. What would you do Rod if your son Zach approached you and Donna and was in financial need and you were helping out your son monetarily occasionally when you learn that he is emptying out his saving account to give to a church building campaign. As a father and a Dad, wouldn’t that bother you in the least? Imagine this you’re financially helping your son out from time to time while he’s emptying out his savings and giving to a church growth campaing? Is that right? “A Better $tory” campaign is deeply flawed Rod. I am not opposed to growth as I remember the building on Hunt Road. But you went from one extreme to the other.
So even though I left FCC I still struggled with the information on Eric Nickle. All I knew is that I didn’t want to read in the Washington Post one day and hear about a child sex abuse situation. So I struggled with this information. What should one do? I mean what if something happened and I kept this information to myself. That would be an awful thing to live with Rod. So when Dee Parsons, who I affectionally call my East Coast Mom was in Baltimore in June I raised this issue with her. She looked up the situation and she noticed that Eric was in a position of trust and that it should be addressed. Plus she remembered how I struggled with this information over the past couple of years.
By now you are probably wondering…who is Dee Parsons and what is the Wartburg Watch? Dee was a Sunday school teacher in a 9 Marks, Southern Baptist church in Raleigh called Providence Baptist. There was a child sex abuse situation and she was involved in confronting the leadership who tried to cover it up. It gave her blog direction. Her blog has had over 18 million views and her ranking is higher than Rachel Held Evans. Over the last few years she has written about the issues of corruption in Sovereign Grace Ministries and her blog has been a platform for Susan Burke. She was one of the first people who wrote about Mark Driscoll and the problems with Mars Hill Seattle. Recently she clashed with Matt Chandler and The Village Church when it was learned that Karen Hinkley annulled her marriage to a pedophile, and child pornography addict, and faced “church discipline” for doing so. Dee actually clashed with Matt Chandler himself on Twitter. During that time when Matt Chandler and the Village Church was being written about Dee’s alexa ratings were as high as John Piper’s Desiring God. Dee doesn’t like to talk about stuff like this so I’ll toot her horn a little bit in this post. She actually cries herself to sleep at night because of the emails she receives from people who have been deeply wounded by the evangelical Christian church. But that’s what FCC ran up against.
So with that I had this information about Eric Nickle and it still weighed on me heavily. In a perfect world Rod I would have sat down with FCC staff and asked questions and discussed this with you when I was involved. But as I no longer attend, and since I had the experiences I did with FCC staff and observed that as well I also knew that wasn’t an option. So what do I do with this information? This tore me apart and weighed on me Rod.
I eventually decided to reach out to SNAP and Amy Smith through email and notify her about this situation. I finally had to get it off my chest. So again let me re-iterate I was the one who contacted SNAP and passed on this information about a Care Director in a position of trust. I did so because I thought of all that I saw and witnessed at FCC and I was deeply concerned. As a Christian, I do believe that the church is for the least of these, and I do believe Eric has a place in the church. But I don’t believe its in the current position. The risk is too great, and in the scheme of life things can and do happen. I’m 40 Rod and I have seen a number of things, and its with that wisdom that I did what I did. Contacting SNAP wasn’t easy but I believe it was the right decision to make. After Amy Smith wrote this, then I wrote this post. Writing this was a major relief Rod…as I felt like I got all the pressure off my chest. However I also wonder if any of this information about Eric Nickle being discussed in FCC would have happened had I not contacted SNAP, and had not Amy Smith intervened. Motivation is everything Rod, and I wonder if the reason why FCC moved heaven and earth is because they feared this disrupting a $16 million dollar church campaign.
But even I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to witness next. I couldn’t believe the level of hate that was directed at me, and the vitriol was unbelievable. I don’t know why I am surprised in the scheme of things I should not be surprised. Watching individuals from FCC attack and go for the jugular was stunning. Is that in the “Sermon in the Mount?” I must have missed it. I thought I had seen it all, but I realized in observing this that I had a lot more to see. Sadly I realized that FCC was just one in a long line of churches that I had gotten involved with that had deep issues. But you know what stunned me Rod? Having people from FCC who attacked me while behind the scenes getting some feedback by an atheist or two who were shocked in watching people from FCC attack me. The atheists were more concerned for me in the end. Is that how Jesus is supposed to operate Rod? The Christians attack and the atheists love? What is wrong with this picture? I honestly would like to know. After I pulled all the knives out of my back I got into my trusty Nissan Sentra and drove to FCC at about 1:30/2:00 in the morning last Saturday night and cried a little in the parking lot and thought about how I wished FCC could have actually worked out. But the behavior by people from FCC really stunned me. For those people who attacked me online let me say that I forgive them. I forgive their hate, vitriol, and malice.
Oh and by the way Rod, Dee Parsons believes it was Pastor Dave from the Clarksburg location that went after her online. Why does she believe that? It was due to the log in information, and the IP address. Dee told me that in all the times she wrote about Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Steven Furtick, Mark Dever, Matt Chandler, etc… no pastor ever went for her jugular like Pastor Dave did. She is going to be writing more about this in an upcoming post in the next couple of weeks. So if it was Pastor Dave I think FCC Clarksburg actually owes Dee Parson an apology as well. But Rod I am honestly embarrassed to see that kind of behavior from my former church. As a pastor you should be ashamed also.
You know what also stunned me Rod is having the history I do at FCC and seeing how this church responded to this mess. FCC seldom if ever changed their sermon series for issues that came barging through the door. For example when there was the Navy Yard shootings, here in the DC area FCC plowed ahead and acted like nothing happened. The ring master of the circus that morning was none other than John Falke. I was stunned as to how FCC could be so cold and non-responsive to so much pain in the community the church is claiming to serve. When I walked away from FCC that morning the question ringing in my head is “Why does a church like FCC exist if its not going to care and work with a hurting city or community?” Yet when all this information came out about Eric Nickle amidst a $16 million dollar church campaign that included building expansion FCC moved quickly to address the issues. So let me ask the question…why did FCC respond so quickly to the information about Eric Nickle amidst the “A Better $tory” while ignore and not address the grief and the pain of Navy Yard shootings? Is it because the information about Eric Nickle posed a threat to the $16 million dollar campaign? If so can it be stated that in the end Fairfax Community Church is more of a business than a church? This is just an honest question Rod. As Deepthroat told Bob Woodward in an Arlington parking garage during Watergate….”follow the money.”
I really wanted FCC to work out Rod. I really did, I never imagined or thought that I would pen a letter like this to the pastor who baptized me. It hurts to write some of this, but some of this must be stated. Plus before anything is said this is not me just being bitter or waging a campaign or vendetta of my own. This is me just asking some honest questions. I’ve learned in my life that healthy organizations do not fear questions, while toxic or un-healthy organizations fear questions. You know how I learned that Rod? It was my experience in Mormonism in college. The questions I asked created problems and revealed that what I was being taught about Joseph Smith and the LDS faith is not true. Healthy organizations embrace and encourage questions. There is much more about FCC I would like to write in the course of time. I am even wrestling with the idea of writing an open letter to Andy Gingrich and expand upon what I have written above. The next thing I am going to write about is that letter that was delivered by Loretta Cooper to Amy Smith. That needs some in depth analysis.
Why can’t FCC say “we screwed up, we’re sorry!” Didn’t Jesus say the meek will inherit the earth? Didn’t Jesus say the first will be last and the last will be first? Didn’t Jesus speak about love your neighbor? And didn’t Jesus say to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? Humility goes far yet its missing in so many parts of Christianity today. Why is it so hard so say we screwed up? Mistakes are opportunities Rod, and in the economy of God all mistakes can be redeemed. Even this mess that began with a church that was being disingenuous with information and holding it back from the congregation. Here’s probably the final point I want to stress as I wind this letter down Rod. By holding back the information on a sex offender in a key position you showed that you are more knowledgable than psychologists, the justice system, law enforcement, etc.. We have a sex offender registry for a reason today Rod. This wasn’t a case of a 19 year old guy and a 17 year old girlfriend. No…this was about a child who was violated. The leadership clearly believes they can make better decisions than members or parents involved in FCC. In the process you took away many parent’s rights to decide issues of safety for their child. There is a cancer in evangelicalism today that deals with abuse of authority. And this issue touches on that Rod. This issue of Eric Nickle touches on deeper leadership and cultural issues that I touched on above. In a perfect world me and the FCC leadership could have met in a room and discussed these issues as I first stumbled across them on the internet. No instead I get dismissed in raising other issues which teaches me that I can’t raise this one. It should be noted that many evangelical Christians needlessly create their own problems. Some believe that gay marriage and homosexuality are the defining make or break issue for the church today. I disagree….after being around the block and observing evangelical Christianity from both within and a far, I would say the greatest threat to the Gospel today is internal corruption. Its men like Mark Drisocll, CJ Mahaney, Steven Furtick, and churches that cover up child sex abuse that pose the greatest threat to the Gospel. I am a believer of the Gospel Rod, but I am not a believer in cheap grace. If this were a story about grace why not use it to teach the church? Heck why not use it to show the world what grace is? Do you want to read some stories of incredible grave? Read about Eric Smallridge and Renee Napier down in Florida. Read about Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida. Or read about Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel in Minneapolis. Now that is grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned about cheap grace if I remember correctly, if the story of Eric Nickle is one of grace…why is it hidden?
So Rod I started this post of a video of you on Youtube eating the hottest pepper, but I’d suggest that by having a violent sex offender as defined by Virginia law in a key position of trust, well I’d say you have a hot potato instead! So can I recommend you post a video on Youtube of you juggling a couple of hot potatos? So in closing I want to leave you with Lou Reed singing New Sensations. I hope you like it as I know how you are about Harley Davidsons. Hope you enjoy it! In closing I’ll quote you by saying, “See You at the Party!”