An open letter to the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) Superintendent of the Eastern District Eddie Cole. This open letter reviews both Eddie’s career and some of the history of Salem Church. Plus it looks at his leadership in the Eastern District of the EFCA. In addition it also looks at his efforts and work at resolving the situation in Steve Estes’ Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. This is intended to be an affirming letter to the leader of the Eastern District who is affectionately known by a few of his pastors as “Bishop Eddie.”
“I have learned the value of a church family. I have been spiritually spoiled my whole Christian life. I met the Lord in a church that was just on fire for God and people were getting saved. I literally saw people who were physically healed from diseases they were going to die from. I saw my family made new. I was loved by that church they brought me in, they brought me close…the end”
Eastern District Superintendent Dr. Eddie Cole at Salem Church, Staten Island October 18, 2015
“There are very few Norwegians remaining, but in many ways we stand on the shoulders of these early Scandinavian men and women who followed Christ. Today we have about 25-30 cultures represented at Salem and we are still reaching newer Americans.”
Eddie Cole on the History of Salem Church
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds
Proverbs 27:23 NIV
Praying for the new Eastern District Superintendent at Carlisle Evangelical Free Church
This is posted in the spirit of the Salem Church live Nativity scene
As the situation with Steve Estes Community Evangelical Free Church continues to unfold and as you work the issue I want to write an open letter to you. Eddie its my understanding that you come from Eastern Tennessee. You accepted the Lord when you were young and the experience led you to change colleges and enroll in Liberty University. You eventually earned a degree from Liberty Theological Seminary. When you started in ministry you bounced around a number of places. Its my understanding you were a Youth Pastor at a Baptist Church in Georgia, and then you served in many different roles. You were doing Urban Ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio when you got your call to be the Senior Pastor at Salem Church on Staten Island, New York. Salem Church has its roots in John Lunde who was a Norwegian speaking man. On November 20, 1905 Lunde began befriending many Norwegian immigrants and in the course of time he began to share faith with them. Several men converted and they settled on Staten Island to found the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church Mission which consisted of eight members. You can learn more about the history of Salem Church right here. For more on the history of the EFCA, I would direct you to “A Brief History of the Evangelical Free Church of America, plus the History of the First Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles.” While there have been a lot of shepherds at Salem Church let me mention a couple that led the church over the years. In the late 90’s you had Ivar Overgaard who led the flock for five years. Ivar from what I understand eventually moved to Norway. Then you had Nathan Clayton who led Salem for two years. Nathan was the Senior Pastor at the church when September 11, 2001 occurred. Let me say the following as a guy who once studied academic history in grad school. Its my sincere hope that the EFCA sat down with Nathan and did a historical intake and documented the role that Salem played in the community in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. I hope all that history was not lost by the EFCA. Then you entered the picture Eddie. Then I believe John Wellborn followed you to became the Senior Pastor of Salem Church on January 10, 2016.
Salem Church Era
From 2003 until 2015 you pastored and led Salem Church. I don’t know if the Eastern District knows this but I would love to share something I learned about you which I believe speaks quite a bit about your heart and pastoral skills. Your first day as the Senior Pastor was February 27, 2003, and on that day as one of the worst blizzards in New York City history descended on the area you braved the elements to visit a family who brought in their youngest daughter into the world. Against a massive snow storm you took 2 Metropolitian Transit Authority (MTA) buses to get to the hospital on the other side of Staten Island to show such love. There , with an infant daughter, you prayed for her, wished the family well, and forever endured yourself to a family from Salem. Eddie while I’ve heard some amazing stories about you, I have to say the following. I’ve been around evangelical Christianity for a long time, and I myself have heard a lot. But what you did during that blizzard is one of the kindest acts I have heard. Eddie that act of love speaks to your pastoral heart. It reveals why you were meant to be a pastor. It speaks volumes about your tenderness and the dedication of a shepherd to their flock.
While you were at Salem Church you obtained your doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). I have the deepest amount of respect for you in that education endeavor. After obtaining a MA from Marquette I can’t imagine education beyond a masters. The time and effort that went into that doctorate from DTS especially while working full time must have been taxing on you and your family. Plus its my understanding at Salem Church that you were known for the Live Nativity scene on Staten Island. Each and every Christmas was particularly memorable because of the efforts that were put into that effort which benefited the community.
Some pictures of Eddie becoming the Eastern District Superintendent
Eastern District Superintendent and Your Farewell at Salem Church
There is another point that needs to be made. In regards to the Eastern District, Salem appears to be a key church. It has been the doorway in the past to a leadership role in the Eastern District. This occurred with Paul Meiners who led Salem since the 1960s who eventually went on to became the Superintendent of the Eastern District. That history repeated itself Eddie when the door opened for you to become that of Eastern District Superintendent. From what I heard that decision came about quickly. What is neat is the amount of support that you had, especially with a number of people from your congregation travelling out to Carlisle, Pennsylvania to support you. Its about 185 miles, or 3 hours to drive from Staten Island deep into Pennsylvania. The fact that you had so many people who came out to offer support really shows how many people love you and your family. After you became District Superintendent at Carlisle Evangelical Free people prayed for you. That is the picture that is leading this post. Your last day at Salem Church was October 18, 2015. You gave a farewell talk which people can listen to here.
In your talk you said a number of things that I want to highlight. You spoke about your past in Tennessee, and eventually ending up in New York. In the sermon you discussed the importance of church family and referenced your own, as well as the Salem Church family. As you continued you also said that it is important to have the counsel of others. After all pride comes before the fall, and humility leads to exaltation. People in positions of power and authority need both encouragement and accountability. Then you turned and spoke about how sin is destructive. You said something that I think is key which I want to talk about below in detail. Eddie you said that pride kills peace and that it stunts spiritual growth. After you concluded your position on Staten Island you moved to the Camp Hill area which is just outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the course of time the Eastern District would become busy under your leadership. There was the Eastern District conference which took place. Coming up in early March of 2017 will be the Preaching Refresher at Windsor Chapel in New Jersey. Plus the Eastern District re-vamped its website and entered the social media realm both through their blog and an active Twitter account. But there is an issue that would be dropped in your lap and as a young District Superintendent which would be quite challenging for you.
Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson
Eddie I remember the first time I was contacted about Steve Estes church. One of the former members emailed me in December 2015 and they asked to speak with me. I heard this outrageous story as I was driving here in the DC area talking on my blue tooth. I heard about an alleged sexual assault, brandishing a loaded firearm, and of a corrupt church which excommunicated an alleged rape victim while defending the alleged rapist. I had a hard time hearing this and I asked myself could this have happened in modern day Pennsylvania? In time other people also contacted me and I talked with them as well. Then documentation was given to me and I studied and looked at everything. I eventually decided to drive up to Elverson to study the church and attend the place. I like to study, research and read a lot Eddie…I guess its a legacy of academic work. When I attended Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson I went there and sat through two services. I listened took notes, and observed. I had heard so much about Steve Estes that I wanted to listen to him preach. On a side note Eddie the entire story saddened me as I heard the story of Joni Erickson Tada when I was a student leader in Campus Crusade for Christ. In between services Steve Estes came up to me shook my hand and wanted to speak. I spoke with him for a couple of minutes and I was pressured to attend lunch there, and I was stunned by what that pressure felt like. As fate would also have it I sat next to Steve’s wife Verna Estes. Verna shook my hand and was incredibly warm and loving. Today Eddie I have to say that I feel a profound sense of sorrow for Verna. I think Verna is an amazing person who is in a difficult spot. She is stuck between the alleged actions of her son Brock, and the missteps of her husband Steve. I pray for her from time to time because I think Verna is in a difficult position.
In between services at Elverson I studied the church. I grabbed all the literature I could to read later and then I went to the library. Eddie you can tell a lot about a church by studying the library. You can see how much of an issue literal creationism can become, or you can see if prosperity theology is a problem. Then you can see which celebrity pastors are held in high regard, or you can find out if the church is Arminian or 3 point or 5 point Calvinist. As I studied the books in the library I realized the Free Church in Elverson was theologically hijacked around the 2001 – 2003 time frame. What gave it away for me? This was the clue….I noticed that while there was Philip Yancey material it ended around the 2001 to 2003 time frame. His newest books were not there, and yet I was seeing Randy Alcorn instead. I wrote about Neo-Calvinists disregard for Philip Yancey in “Why Do Neo-Calvinists have a Problem with Phillip Yancey? Plus Mike Hellum of Westmark Evangelical Free in Loomis, Nebraska Promotes “Disappointment with God.” In addition I also noticed Carolyn McCully as well. Carolyn McCully goes to Redeemer Arlington which is the former Sovereign Grace Church that factors in my story. You can read about Carolyn McCully here. I remember after that service meeting with a few former members and discussing the experience. Eddie I want you to know that I have not enjoyed writing about Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson. It has been profoundly hard. The details have been hard to process and I have learned things about domestic abuse and reckless endangerment that I didn’t know before hand. While I have written about many things this story remains one of the most troubling things I have heard. And the alleged situation with Brock Estes pointing a loaded gun at his wife is deeply troubling. Eddie, you know there have been times I have dreamt at night about the situation? It has been hard to let go and the fact that a church leadership downplays it is frightening. Eddie its my understanding that you once served in the Marine Corps. As a veteran of the Corps you no doubt are aware of how to handle a firearm. In this story I have learned that those who have been former military are deeply troubled by the allegations with Brock Estes. But Eddie there is another thing I need to say and I think you know this. When Steve Estes practiced church discipline on an alleged rape victim the EFCA took a major hit. So did the Eastern District and the Christian community in Elverson and Morgantown. In how this was handled and practiced Steve Estes also sent a chilling message to women as well. But the Christian faith took a major hit due to Steve Estes actions.
The Birth of Hope in Elverson
Eddie when I met with, talked and discussed the situation at CEFC in Elverson with many former members in the early part of 2016 this is what they said. They spoke of an EFCA denomination that can’t deal with a church covering up allegations of illegal activity. They were angry that the situation went all the way up to the leadership in Minneapolis and that it was eventually dismissed. They asked if the EFCA cares about allegations of criminal activity in their own churches? Many people in the Elverson and Morgantown area were in shock, dismayed, upset, and disillusioned. Some of the phone conversations and emails were heavy to wade through. There wasn’t hope in the Elverson area, instead the feeling was more of despair. Eddie you are a pastor and you know what scripture says about hope deferred makes the heart sick on Proverbs 13:12? That is the case here. Then in the course of time something slowly started to happen.
As you worked the issue and tried to get Steve Estes church to come around you poured a lot of time and effort into it. You got Minneapolis involved and met with people and in the course of time I believe reached out to Hurit’s family and apologized about what happened. Over the year of 2016 your demeanor became more humble and pastoral. I had heard from one of the members from Salem Church that the Holy Spirit was working in your life and that you were growing spiritually. That was really neat to hear Eddie. As I communicated and talked with many of the former members of Steve Estes church the most remarkable thing started to happen. Many of the former members felt and believed that you cared and that you were listening to them. I started to hear stories of people you spoke with and discussed the situation in Steve Estes church. Discussions that were fruitful and encouraging started to occur. As you sought further help from Minneapolis and continued to speak with former members many people grew to like you. They began to respect you. I started to hear about phone conversations you had with people. In the process you showed how pastoral and caring you are. Eddie to watch and hear this change over the course of the past year has been most encouraging. And I hope you find this touching because it means that you are growing into your job and making a difference.
The reality Eddie is that the EFCA can try a lot of things and Steve Estes can still refuse your counsel and guidance. And yet if that happens at least many people in the Elverson community will know that the EFCA worked hard at trying to diffuse the problem.If that happens the problem will not be with the EFCA it will be with Steve Estes. That is very different than being apathetic and indifferent to the situation, which is how the EFCA appeared early on. Steve Estes church is very corrupt and this is a challenging situation for the denomination. There are three options I think exist after Steve Estes allegedly blindsided the EFCA. The first option is that the EFCA could kick Steve Estes church out of the EFCA. A second possibility is the EFCA using the loan from Minneapolis to force its will. But what I am hoping for is the following… I hope the EFCA will call in the loan and force the Community Evangelical Free Church to close its doors for good. If this church goes independent then they will be accountable to no one. What would happen if another similar situation to what happened to Hurit occurs in 2022 and this church is independent? In that situation nothing can be done. I believe the best option would be to close the doors so that this will not happen to another person. A precedent has been set by Steve Estes that could make this a possibility in the future.
Why the Eastern District is Fortunate to Have You
Eddie on October 18, 2015 in the capacity as the Senior Pastor of Salem Church you gave the final sermon ending your career there. You spoke about the importance of church family. In Elverson as you know that church family has been shattered by Steve Estes. There are many families who are divided because of what Steve Estes has done. Its my understanding that you even have a case where one marriage is not doing well because one person is inside of Community Evangelical Free and one person has walked away from it. Realizing that the Elders there have lied they will no longer “trust the Elders,” and its affecting their marriage. There are a lot of people in Elverson who lost their church home. They are losing their church family, and friends because they drew a line in the sand and decided to stand against Steve Estes and the Stoltzfus leadership. They are to be commended, as their faith is beautiful in many ways. But Eddie you have spoken to many of these people and have heard their stories. I would ask that you and the EFCA keep working until this is resolved and Steve Estes church does not hurt another person. And if it comes about due to the church being closed, then I believe that can be the best option. Christians need to pull the plug on unhealthy institutions. But there is more..in your talk Eddie you also spoke about how pride kills peace. When you stop and reflect on it…can there be any greater example to illustrate what you taught in Salem Church in October of 2015 then that of Steve Estes and the leadership of Merle and David Stoltzfus? Here you have a professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who can’t even say that he screwed up. All this talk about a high respect for scripture and Steve still can’t even admit that he is wrong. Then you have the cases of Merle and David Stolztfus. They can’t admit that they were wrong in covering up the allegations of Brock’s criminal activity. What this means in the end is this situation where the church leadership in their pride can destroy a church and tear apart a community. Pride does kill peace, all I have to do is present Steve Estes and Merele and Dave Stoltzfus. Your sermon at Salem Chruch Eddie was spot on and it applies well to this situation in Elverson, Pennsylvania.
Eddie you have grown a lot in the past year. I know you still are figuring things out and this is a challenging situation in Elverson. But your work and effort is to be commended and thanked. There are many people who want to see you succeed. Your church family at Salem does, many former members from Community Evangelical Free do, and this blog does as well. I believe you have a lot of potential based off what I have heard in interacting with people who knew you in differing stages of your own career. Eddie its also my understanding as well, that some of the pastors in the Eastern District lovingly refer to you as “Bishop Eddie.” I hope you find this post as a mean to encourage you. After all “Bishop Eddie” there are many people who believe you can go far. It will be interesting to watch your career continue to blossom and grow over the next few years in this capacity. There are many people who believe in you and who care for you. If you apply yourself in this situation and work hard as you did in Elverson and then I firmly believe that the Eastern District is in good hands.
Please take care of yourself,