Disturbing Allegations of Spiritual Abuse at James Walden’s Acts 29 Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina

This is the story of alleged spiritual abuse at James Walden’s Acts 29 Riverside Community Church in Columbia, South Carolina. This involves James Walden’s alleged ethical violations as pastor and Matthew Boedy’s eventual in-appropriate church discipline, excommunication and lawsuit.

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”

Daniele Bernock

“Psychological invalidation is one of the most lethal forms of emotional abuse. It kills confidence, creativity and individuality.”

Abuse Quote

“Yesterday people were screaming and yelling a lot of hate. Here people are yelling out praises of God and lifting each other up. I think that’s encouraging. I think that reinforces the faith that Christ is doing something real here.”

James Walden quoted in the press

Mockers hate to be corrected, so they stay away from the wise.

Proverbs 15:12

walden

Riverside Community Church Pastor James Walden

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Riverside Community Church logo

Riverside Community Church originally started as a church plant. The church that helped plant Riverside is Coquina Fellowship (today called Coquina Community Church) in St. Augustine, Florida and Creekside Community Church in Gainesville, Florida. The efforts to plant a church occurred in 2007 and in 2009 Riverside Community Church held its first worship service. On June 15, 2010 this church joined the Acts 29 network. This Acts 29 church falls in Acts 29 SE which is led by Brian Lowe who is an Acts 29 pastor in North Carolina.  The founding pastor is James Walden who deserves a comprehensive overview.

An Overview of James Walden

James Walden graduated from the University of Florida in 1997. He participated in a volunteer program in Austria and then returned to the United States where he enrolled in the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He graduated in 2001 with a Masters in Divinity. While in seminary he met his wife Stacy who also was a student as well. James and his wife then moved to Gainesville, Florida where he had an internship at Creekside Community Church. While at Creekside  he was mentored by Dr. Richard Parker who is today at the Chapel in Gainesville. James was the interim assistant pastor at Creekside from 2002 until 2004 and then became the permanent assistant pastor in 2004. James left Creekside to participate in another plant in Columbia called Columbia Crossroads Church. This was an Evangelical Free Chruch plant which in time left the denomination. I believe that James Walden was subsequently fired from this church plant. If anyone out there knows the reason why I am quite interested. It might help me understand the spiritual abuse at Riverside Community Church. James is the area coordinator for Acts 29 South Carolina and leads Carolina Greenhouse. This is a network of church planters aiming to revitalize the South with church-planting. James was quoted in the newspaper for participating in a prayer vigil at the capitol when they Confederate flag was removed. James has published nothing at 9 Marks or The Gospel Coalition. That said he has an active Twitter account and he writes a blog called Theology on Tap.

The Wondering Eagle will be telling Matthew Boedy’s story over the next two weeks. I have all the documentation and correspondence which will be published. That includes statements by other pastors in the area regarding Matt’s situation to Glen Schrieber, Brian Lowe and former EFCA President William Hamel. This is a story that highlights many of the problems that this blog has been writing about in regards to the Evangelical Free Church of America. The first part of this story can be read in the previous post called, “Matthew Boedy on Evangelical Free Church of America Autonomy and the Need for Transparency.”  With that I will turn the remainder of this post to the narrative of what happened at James Walden’s Riverside Community Church to Matt Boedy. Thanks guys know that you are loved!


The Specifics

I sued the EFCA church in Columbia SC, Riverside Community Church, and its lead and founding pastor, James Walden.

My pastor demanded as part of submission to church leadership that he be allowed to break a self-admitted pastoral counseling confidence and speak to my professional therapist (I was seeing both as part of a disintegrating and now ended marriage). Over the course of many months I refused, but the pastor contacted the therapist anyway. He did this without telling me beforehand and refusing to tell me the specifics afterward.

Despite the dismay and negative opinions of seminary professors, fellow pastors, professional counselors who are also pastors, and even the former president of the pastor’s seminary and people who helped write the Code of Ethics for Pastors by the National Association of Evangelicals, (whose opinions I have collected), the church and Mr. Walden have refused to admit they did something wrong.

And in regard to a membership covenant, the church’s behavior was justified under Hebrews 13:17. In fact my willingness for this contact was deemed a “requirement” and “expectation” [citing from a letter they sent me] under a covenant I never read or signed.

A Narrative

I met with the pastor individually and with my ex-wife until she no longer was part of the church. During that time, I began to believe the pastor was not just unsupportive of me but also unwilling to address issues in his own life that made it difficult to accept his guidance. I told him he came across as emotionless and distant. I suggested he did not show brotherly concern for me, as a peer in the faith (we are less than 10 years difference in age). I told him his unwillingness and inability to understand my situation was erasing any credibility he had from his title. I told the pastor specifically that I sought out professional therapy because of the pastor’s tone, lack of relationality, and lack of understanding and support.

Once we began attending counseling it became clear to me that the pastor was ‘in over his head.’ In short, he seemed distracted by the other aspects of the job. But it went further or deeper. His methods and practices had no “bedside manner.” I stopped seeing him because of this. I laid out my concerns in a series of emails, and face-to-face. Those concerns were dismissed.

A few facts: this church was a church plant, started by this pastor, and he alone was the only “elder” well past the day I left. [They installed the first elders about a year after I left.] My ex-wife and I gave a short testimony to the pastor as a membership requirement, served in the nursery, attended weekly small group meetings, and served on a missions committee.

From the beginning of our counseling, I was never given in writing nor told about any counseling policies including common policies such as how many meetings we would have, what the level of privacy I had, or who besides the pastor would be told of what was said in the sessions. I was never offered any documents about how this counseling was required under church membership or what “discipline” might be for not taking part or refusing directives from the pastor about it. In short, there was nothing that was agreed to by me or offered by him. I trusted the pastor as many would their own. I sought his counseling as many Christians do. I was naïve both about him and his role.

In one of the many email conversations we had, Mr. Walden did state “we want you to be assured that we don’t discuss [my situation] outside of the leadership team.” This promise turned out to be an inaccurate statement. The pastor and the other leaders discussed my situation with a church member who they were grooming for leadership, but who was not and never did come onto the leadership team. It also discussed my situation with a group of advisors in many states – who I never met nor know the names of – that had been offering advice to Mr. Walden as a church planter. He also personally talked about my situation to his mentor in pastoring who lived in another state.

I was never informed about the contents of these conversations. The first was never told to me – it got back to me ‘through the grapevine’ because that presumed leader told his wife who then told mine. The second and third were revealed to me in a letter ex-communicating me.

During my time seeing the professional therapist the pastor did offer out of the blue for the church to pay for some of the professional sessions. I demurred for a while but as the bills piled up, I took his offer. All he asked for was a summary of my financial state as evidence of need.

Once I said I would like the money, the bait-and-switch became clear. I was told if I got the money, I was to allow the pastor to properly “shepherd” me, i.e. resume meeting with him.

I replied very strongly that this requirement was not part of the original offer and I was a member in good standing and needed the money based on the monthly expenses I submitted. I was told in reply that my request for money “exposed” something amiss in my theology. The pastor wrote me:

“Your responsibility to the church, in turn, was spelled out in your membership vows, which express the biblical principles of ‘life together’ in the body of Christ as we understand them. If you are seeking support from the church as one submitted to the authority of Christ and his people as embodied in this local church, then we are very glad to serve you in this way. However, if you are seeking finances from us with no interest in submitting to the church or to our shepherding oversight in particular, then the matter falls under what we would call “one-time benevolence” (rather than member care). No funds remain in that category.”

This may have been my first red flag, if I had been paying attention. Notice here the lack of specifics – no rules, no boundaries, nothing, other than the “shepherding.” I was being called to submit to vague words and people who used them.

After my rebuttal of these new requirements, a check was sent to the therapist without any further conversation or any mention afterward by the pastor of his new requirements. The money paid for 3 sessions out of many I attended over the course of two years. I thought I had met whatever requirements the church had. I was wrong, without being told so.

Sadly, the money increased the problems. The requests to speak to my professional therapist increased. The initial justification for such a request was to “coordinate care,” another vague phrase that was never defined. When I said no, I was told again I was not allowing the pastor to shepherd me properly, not submitting to his leadership. I repeated my criticisms that were disregarded again. He simply did not address any of the mistrust he had built up.

At some point after my repeated denials for this “oversight” I was summoned to a meeting with the church leadership. I made clear to the leaders beforehand that at this meeting the pastor must address in some manner the criticisms I have made, how they and his denials of them have damaged our relationship, and how he plans to restore the trust broken by these things. The absence of such would cause further distrust and be a severe impediment to any future conversation.

That meeting was a total waste of time. The pastor apologized “if” (a direct quote) he had done anything to hurt me, “if” he had said anything hurtful. After I angrily protested this non-apology, he repeated virtually the same sentence without the “if.” I laughed sarcastically and then was chastised for ‘disrespect.’

It was clear the pastor came to the meeting with nothing to repent of, trying to appease me without any change on his part. He refused to apologize specifically about the “blind spot” another leader wrote about in a follow-up letter to me: “We are grateful for the chance to help James see some issues in his life, which he was previously unware, more clearly… We believe his mistakes stem from not being entirely honest with himself about how much he can handle and the limits he needed to and needs to continue to set in his own life.” [That same leader also asked me if I would like the pastor’s wife to get involved to get the pastor to see more clearly these issues. I had no idea why I was being offered this, as some sort intermediary to their marriage, and said no. I have no idea if this was also offered to the pastor.]

I had been critical of this man for months and others now confess for him on an issue that implies some level of self-deception. Yet I was told this criticism had “gone on long enough.”

I left this meeting frustrated and any hopefulness that came from the follow-up letter was destroyed by a letter from the pastor which accompanied the letter from the other leader. The pastor made no mention of his dishonesty, how long it had been occurring, its depth, and of course its effect on our relationship, specifically his ability to offer counsel. Instead, he wrote he was upset with me because my expectations were “unreasonable and unreachable,” adding all my criticisms were not “clearly specified in a way that I am able to comprehend.”

To that incomprehensible claim, I offer this: at the meeting, the other leaders forced the pastor to share his “emotional state” with me at the beginning of every communication with me from that moment on. [No acknowledgement came from the pastor that he had not been doing this nor why this was needed.] Mr. Walden didn’t do it on the first time out – an email summarizing the meeting and asking I come to another. Once I pointed out this lack to the other leaders, the pastor suggested in another letter to me that my expectations were “unhealthy.”

Not long after this letter was sent to me, unbeknownst to me a copy of this letter was sent to my professional therapist. My therapist informed me of the contact during the next session two weeks or so later, telling me he was both insulted and stupefied. He asked for my permission to destroy the letter as it meant nothing to him and his counseling of me. I consented without reading it. I sent an email to the church and later reiterated my anger at this contact in a phone call with a leader. The pastor never talked to me. I was told by the person on the other end of the phone I must forgive.

I learned through the lawsuit that the pastor had attached a hand-written note to the letter above. I do not know to this day what was in that note. The church did not keep a copy of this hand-written note, but they suggested in the lawsuit that it centered on the “breakdown” of the relationship between me and the church leadership. It also seemed to have implied a second justification for the contact: the church somehow thought they needed to inform the counselor that they would not be paying for any more sessions, though they had not been for months.

Shortly after I suggested this contact was unethical and therefore sinful, I was ex-communicated through a final letter for having an “unforgiving” spirit. Secondarily I had violated the membership covenant that mandated I submit to church leadership and by my specific refusal to allow the pastor to speak to my professional therapist, I was not submitting. I was then told that not only would the church be told about this, but so would my wife, who by then had been no longer a member for months.

What is most interesting to me is that while the church denied a lot in their response to the lawsuit, it did not offer a denial to this question: “Has Defendant [Mr. Walden] in his capacity as pastoral counselor ever revealed information gained during pastoral counseling to a third party? If yes, describe under what circumstances.” Its answer was a legal “no comment:” “Defendant object to this interrogatory on the grounds that it is overly broad and unduly burdensome.”

If this sounds like a personal battle between me and the pastor, that is true but also limited. The pastor, as in many churches, ruled. This particular church, as noted above, had only one leader essentially. So any problems with “church leadership” was then by definition a problem with him.