Who How healthy was Wooded Hills Bible Church? This looks at the issues that affected it from nepotism, the church operating in a bubble and more. Plus this church did the most outrageous thing I had ever heard in nearly 15 years of evangelical Christianity. It was when Trish Stern sent the youth group to fight a demon in a convenience store close to the church in SE Wisconsin.
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
“Myths which are believed in tend to become true.”
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
Matthew 7:15 NIV
Wooded Hills Bible Church Directory
I dedicate this video to Trish Stern, maybe she should send the Wooded Hills Youth Group to drive the demon from the property.
Wooded Hills Bible Church is a small non-denominational church outside Germantown, Wisconsin in the southeast Wisconsin area. If you exit 41 on County Road 777 it will take you there. Its basically on the corner of 164 and County Road 177. This church was formed from a painful breakaway from Westbrook Church I believe. The longest serving pastor I believe was Joe Jenkins. Today the Senior Pastor is Theo Williams. In 2016 The Wondering Eagle wrote 289 posts. As I wrapped up the year and did a review of this blog’s activities one of the items on my agenda for 2017 is writing more about Wooded Hills Bible and the issues within. You can read about that in “The Wondering Eagle for 2016, the Year in Review.”
The Wooded Hills Bible Church I Remember
As I recall I got involved in Wooded Hills Bible Church in the 2001 to 2002 timeframe. I first heard about Wooded Hills Bible when I attended Garfield Baptist which is led by Chip Bernhard. Today Garfield Baptist is known as Spring Creek Church. Garfield Baptist was very uncomfortable for me and very legalistic. I remember attending there wearing a t-shirt and jeans and feeling the stares from behind me by the Baptists in full blown suits. As time went on I felt more and more out of place about being there, and felt like I didn’t belong. These feelings were especially reinforced with my past in the Evangelical Free Church of America and my background in Campus Crusade for Christ. In a small group I heard about how Wooded Hills had extravagant worship events that would attract people from across Wisconsin. I was intrigued and I decided to check it out. The first Winds of Worship I attended was in the 2001 time frame. I was taken back and very much enjoyed it. Just watching Kevin Bryum jumping up and down on stage was a sight to see. As I recall I went to a couple of Winds of Worships over a half year period, I then decided to check out the church. At the time I was a grad student at Marquette University in Milwaukee and the drive from downtown Milwaukee to Colgate was a long haul. After I graduated I moved to West Allis and the drive became much easier. I remember shortly after I got involved when Michelle Van Loon left. I liked and deeply respected Michelle. Today from Washington, D.C. I can’t tell you what a joy it has been to watch her writing career blossom and thrive. I do enjoy reading her blog from time to time and checking out her posts at Christianity Today. Michelle last year penned a great article which I wrote about in “Michelle Van Loon at Christianity Today on Blogging about Spiritual Abuse.”
There is so much I remember about Wooded Hills that I want to reflect on . I recall Kirk and Sue Bailey and hearing about the Bailey’s mission trips. I did the Purpose Driven Life campaign with Jeff and Gayle Barnhard in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I liked Jeff and found him to be a great individual. Then there was also Ken and Carol Birkeland. One thing that touched me deeply was when I left Milwaukee and moved to Washington, D.C. in March of 2005 the Birkeland’s reached out and we had Thai food in Pentagon City a couple of weeks after I moved here. Bruce and Kay Bong also were quite active, I remember from time to time Kay praying on the stage. A real asset to Wooded Hills was Bill and Karen Dushek. This blog was born out of an act of spiritual abuse, but as I recall the Dushek’s were deeply hurt by spiritual abuse from a Methodist Church in West Bend, Wisconsin. For that I deeply grieve because quite simply you will not understand spiritual abuse unless you have had to deal with it firsthand. Then there was Linda Gavin and the singles group. I checked that out once when I was 26 or 27 for a singles event. There was a musical South Pacific and dinner in nearby Germantown, and I had no idea of what I was going to get involved in that evening. When I checked it out I was stunned by how far apart the ages were. Having a 27 year old go out with many singles in their 50’s and 60’s was a riot. When my parents heard that they couldn’t stop talking and joking about that for the longest time. But Linda Gavin has a great heart. Then there were the Gierachs and Gonzales. The Habeth family had a large presence at Wooded Hills. As I recall it was Bryan Habeth who interviewed me when I became a member. Then who could forget Bob Hennes? Bob and I were a part of a spiritual warfare Bible study as I recall. We both attended a retreat in the Upper Michigan peninsula. Then there was the Lonski family, and as I recall Bill Lonski recruited a lot of youths that had difficulty and had them work in his garage.I honestly thought that was very neat to be quite honest. I also remember Scott McCardell playing the keyboard on the worship team on stage. Another experience I remember was being involved in Rich Ranicke’s John Eldredge’s men’s Bible Study. We did “Wild at Heart“ at his home. Another dominant personality at Wooded Hills was Trish Stern. I recall talking and interacting with her often and observing her sing in the worship on Sunday mornings from the stage. Then there were also the Voisin family.
I also have many memories with the Jenkins family. I remember when Joe Jenkins cried from the stage when he dropped off Josiah at the airport. Josiah was on his way to Iraq as he was involved in the Wisconsin National Gaurd. I also remember Joe telling the congregation when Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq as well, and the church clapping and being excited. I found the Jenkins family to be nice, lovable and kind. I recall when I had my wallet stolen at Wooded Hills during one of the Winds of Worship, and on the spot Joe offered me the money he had in his wallet as I didn’t know how I was going to be able to get gas or buy groceries. Sometime later my wallet reappeared and I was relieved that it did. The Jenkins family played softball and I helped coach the team at the time. I have many fond memories of playing softball with Joe, Josiah and others. I wrote a post about Joe Jenkins which I still stand behind and believe. Nothing has changed in this regard. You can read it in “Tribute to a Pastor I Loved: Joe Jenkins from Wooded Hills Bible Church.” Despite all the positives there were some serious issues at Wooded Hills. Some I caught at the time and others bother me deeply as I reflect back on this church. Wooded Hills had many aspects that were far from healthy and that is what this post is about at The Wondering Eagle.
“Demon Aisle Five, Demon Aisle Five”
I have been involved in many different churches over the years. I have been involved in the Evangelical Free Church of America, Church of God in Anderson, Indiana, Assembly of God and several non-denominational. Out of all the years I have been involved, and continue to be involved in evangelicalism one of the most incredible conversations took place in an office at Wooded Hills Bible between me and Trish Stern. I couldn’t believe what I heard in 2004 or so, and here in 2017 in Washington, D.C. it still remains the most outrageous thing I ever heard. In the previous post you can read the letter that Joe Jenkins wrote to his family that was turned around and given to new members of Wooded Hills Bible Church. That was how I got a hold of it, it was given me to when I became a member. In “A Season of Third Wave Theology at Wooded Hills Bible Church in 1997-1998 in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin Area” you can read about all the demon activity going on at the church and people going around trying to deliver demons from people.
Well here is what happened, with the adults going around and chasing down demons eventually in the course of time the youth group wanted to get involved in the act. As Trish Stern told me they wanted to grow up and also participate in deliverences. So what Trish Stern told me in an office setting at Wooded Hills Bible is that she sent that youth group to a nearby convenience store where a demon supposedly existed in an aisle. The youth group then went inside that convenience store to drive it out. I was flabbergasted to hear this and thought that it really showed why Trish Stern and this side of the church that chased and pursued this kind of spiritual warfare lacked the ability to practice discernment. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. But there are many problems that Trish and that side of Wooded Hills exhibited. Let me also state that today I have no idea where this convenience store is at, was it a 7-11 or something similar? After stating that story here are a few points to consider.
A massive and horrific child sex abuse scandal happened at Elmbrook Church in 1999. When reported to police, Daniel Varga who was a sexual predator who groomed and then abused people fled. He ended up in West Baraboo, Wisconsin where he locked himself in a motel room and committed suicide. I wrote about the incident at Elmbrook in “How I Learned Evangelical Christianity is Struggling with Child Sex Abuse: An Incident at Milwaukee’s Elmbrook Church in 1999.” After that incident occurred in Elmbrook its my understanding that several of the victims families ended up at Wooded Hills. They were devastated, broken, in profound pain, and trying to figure out a way forward. Then as that was occurring this outbreak of spiritual warfare took place which made Wooded Hills incredibly unstable. In pursuing all these acts of spiritual warfare in the course of time Trish Stern, and those in that camp basically kicked the least of these to the curb in wanting to chase demons. It bothers me deeply that Wooded Hills which was supposed to function as a church ignored the intense pain of those who were hurt from Elmbrook. At no time as the church pursued spiritual warfare did the church stop and consider those needs for those who were hurt. By creating a very unstable environment they weren’t given an environment to heal. Their need for a stable environment was neglected. This was incredibly selfish of Trish Stern and that side of the church which drove that issue.
Here is another point that bothers me deeply as I reflect on all this. Wooded Hills became a culture of where many people believed that every act was due to a demon. It was almost to the extreme where some people believed that there was a demon in every closet, under every bed, and every nook and cranny. This created many problems as it also deferred responsibility. After all is the alcoholic responsible for his addiction or is a demon responsible for the problems? But it also could have had major problems that could have led to people getting hurt. Let me explain with an example. When a lot of people were chasing demons for the next few years what would have happened if a severe mentally ill person ended up at Wooded Hills during this time? Would Wooded Hills have told that person that their mental illness was the result of a demon and discouraged and denied him proper medical treatment? Could someone have committed suicide or been tipped over the edge? Could someone be dead today because of toxic theology? These were the questions that were in the back of my mind as I was at Wooded Hills Bible from 2002 until 2005. And yes this comes from personally witnessing a mental health crisis years prior in someone that I love. That is why I am asking these difficult questions.
Here is another thing with Trish Stern sending the youth group to go fight a “demon.” That action took away from practical and healthy activities. There were so many things that could have been done, from regularly helping in the Milwaukee Rescue Mission to helping out at a nursing home and visiting the aged. It was a supreme waste to have the youth group engaging in such activity. The behavior by Trish Stern and that faction of the church was absolutely reckless and could have harmed people in the end. From creating an unstable environment that ignored the “least of these” from Daniel Varga’s situation at Elmbrook to its fixation with spiritual warfare; so much harm could have been done. For me personally this made parts of Wooded Hills to be almost cult like in many ways.
Concerns Over Influence of Mike Bickle’s Kansas City International House of Prayer
When I was at Wooded Hills’s Mike Bickle‘s International House of Prayer had influence over this church. When I was there as I recall, Wooded Hills even sent two people to participate in the Kansas City International House of Prayer. I have a lot to say about that disturbing development, but before we can continue we must ask, what is the Kansas City International House of Prayer?
After becoming a Christian Mike Bickle moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Kansas City to start the Kansas City Fellowship in November of 1982. Kansas City Fellowship eventually became Metro Christian Fellowship. Eventually Metro Christian Fellowship became a part of the Vineyard movement in 1990 and remained involved until 1996. Mike Bickle allegedly pastored a group of men that became known as the Kansas City Prophets. In 1999 Mike Bickle left Metro Christian Fellowship and started what was known as the International House of Prayer. Its prayer meetings have lasted 24 hours a day 365 days a year and have been ongoing for several years since September 19, 1999. The International House of Prayer also established a Bible college and an active internship program.
One thing that is important to note is that Mike Bickle’s organization has been continually dogged by allegations of being a cult. Issues of controlling behavior and even an alleged murder or suicide have plagued the organization. You can read about the suicide or murder of Bethany Leidlein in November of 2012 in the following articles:
- Atlantic Magazine’s “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult.”
- Rolling Stone’s “Love and Death in the House of Prayer.”
- Kansas City Star “Exorcism preceded confession in 2012 death involving International House of Prayer, defense says.”
In addition to the sensational allegations of either a murder or a suicide there are blogs and webpages that talk about the issues at Mike Bickle’s organization. As I read and looked at some of them I noticed certain themes that run through them. Here are some of them. Mike Bickle’ twisting and abusing authority to keep people motivated. People withdrawing from families and when they got out of the International House of Prayer struggling to reenter their family or engage them again. People having their lives adversely affected and devoting time and effort into something and then afterward not having the skills or training to enter the workforce. Another disturbing indicator that the International House of Prayer is a cult deals with controlling what people can listen to and shut out outside influences. These are a few of the webpages that deal with this issue:
- Blaise Foret “Why I Left IHOPKC and How I was Treated When I Left // MY STORY.”
- The Pitch “Former IHOP member explains why he left the church.“
- Talking Point Memo “A TPM Investigation: Inside the International House of Prayer.”
- Stop IHOP Cult “Stop IHOP Cult.”
- Sola Sister’s “Former IHOP Member Explains Why IHOP (International House of Prayer) Is A Cult.”
I could go on but I believe I have made my point. Mike Bickle is no different than Joseph Smith or Brigham Young when you consider all the false prophecies that failed to occur. And yet, people still follow him. While many of those stories I posted above happened after I left Wooded Hills the red flags and the warnings about the Kansas City International House of Prayer was there in the 2001 to 2005 time frame. Despite those warnings Wooded Hills still had a favorable view of the Kansas City IHOP. Plus they also hosted a couple of conferences and used the Kansas City IHOP material. Even more disturbing, and I can’t remember their names but against all the red flags about Mike Bickle’s organization Wooded Hills sent two people off to Kansas City with prayer and blessing. If that is not a “whiskey tango foxtrott” then I don’t know what is. But the way many parts of Wooded Hills Bible Church reacted to and endorsed parts of the Kansas City international House of prayer show that the leadership struggled with discernment and critical thinking skills. But what troubles me deeply is that the leadership would expose the sheep of Wooded Hills to a wolf in Kansas City.
Other Concerns about Wooded Hills Bible Church
There were many other issues at Wooded Hills that made this church far from healthy. Without going too far into the details one thing that I noticed is that there was too much control and influence by one family on the Elder Board and thus the church. Nepotism is a major problem in evangelicalism and the issue poisons many churches. Nepotism tends to reveal itself in one of two ways. The first is that a Senior Pastor could use his influence to bring on family members to other church positions and as a result the church becomes a family business. The second way is what I noticed at Wooded Hills and I do not know if this is an issue today. One family as I recall controlled the Elder Board and had a lot of influence. This could also make the church unstable. I think this issue affected Wooded Hills by turning family meetings into business meetings without the congregation’s knowledge. Plus due to family connections objectivity was often clouded. If Wooded Hills wants to see how nepotism can poison a church than this blog has been writing about a dark situation in an Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. Outside Philadelphia the Senior Pastors son allegedly raped his wife and pointed a loaded gun at her. The church which had family that controlled the Elder Board covered up their relatives alleged illegal activity and practiced church discipline and an alleged rape and domestic abuse victim who know she could be dead. You can read that story in “Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania: A Painful Story of Domestic Abuse, Inappropriate Church Discipline, and Failed EFCA Polity.”
There was another situation at Wooded Hills that I believe made the church unhealthy. This story involves Kay Bong and something she did after church one Sunday morning. After the service like I often did I went up to the stage for prayer. Kay Bong was the person I got one morning. And before she prayed for me she turned around and lectured me. She proceeded to tell me that being single at my age (at the time I was 27 to 29) was a sin. Kay hit a nerve in me and made me livid. I restrained myself from responding. But this is something that I have waited to say for 14 to 15 years. What Kay did was inappropriate and toxic. Not only did she tap into an anxiety I have but her theology was warped. Would Kay Bong have told the Apostle Paul that he was in sin for being single? With this going around and being said from time to time did this make others uncomfortable and create problems for them at Wooded Hills? Would the Apostle Paul have been welcome at Wooded Hills? These are questions I honestly wondered after that experience. When Kay Bong pulled that on me, even today I remember driving back to my apartment in West Allis, Wisconsin griping the steering wheel livid over what happened. After that incident at Wooded Hills I did my best to avoid Kay for the remainder of my time there.
One other contributing factor that made Wooded Hills toxic at times is how insular it became. Wooded Hills was like a bubble and it lived and viewed life in that context. At Wooded Hills arrogance reigned at times, and the church was very condescending on the Christian community around them. Wooded Hills both believed, and acted as if they were the only ones who understand the Gospel. This was especially true with their obsession with spiritual warfare. As if they were the only ones who got it “correct.” This made Wooded Hills cult like in many ways and it lacked objectivity which it desperately needed. Christianity as I understand it requires humility and when you spend your time looking down on other churches around you in your corporate practice of worship then, you have a deep problem.
Wooded Hills is also a church that is skin deep. In many ways it validates Mark Noll’s thesis about the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” If you want to read about Mark Noll I just wrote about it in “From Mormonism in Montana to Sovereign Grace in the Washington, D.C. Area; The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Comes Full Circle.” Wooded Hills like many other evangelical churches had a permanent identity crisis as it went from fad to fad. I observed the Purpose Driven Life fad, saw the church struggle with the issue of spiritual warfare, and the issue I would bet still plays out today. Wooded Hills was a church that lacked depth. At Wooded Hills many people looked at mainline Protestantism with hostility. Plus when I was there many people did not understand theology, Christian history or even the Bible well. But I find this in many churches as some people just don’t take the time to learn what Charismatic theology or Calvinist theology is. Wooded Hills as a church, like I said at the beginning of this paragraph, is skin deep. As I write this I reflect on how Bob Hennis was willing to throw away a 15 year friendship recently over a mere disagreement. That is common in Wooded Hills as people tended to be disposable. But then again that tends to happen in many evangelical churches. Its what makes the movement hollow and deeply flawed.
One Thing I Appreciated Years Later
As a former member of Wooded Hills Bible there is one attribute of this church that I appreciated. Sadly it came in the darkest season of my life. When I was at Wooded Hills we used to have events known as “Yea God” where twice a year people gave testimonies. When I was there I heard a high school student give a testimony of how he endured a false accusation from a neighbor. He spoke about how it affected his life, family and even ended up in court defending his name for a crime he didn’t commit. This testimony happened in the 2003 to 2005 time frame as I recall. I had no idea what that testimony of that false accusation would mean to me almost a decade later.
As I had a profound faith crisis in Washington, D.C. that was brought upon by struggling with the problem of evil, and at one point drinking too much John Piper kool aid something happened that deeply scared my life. It’s what launched this blog and drives it hard. I had a co-worker who was into Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, John Piper and more. He knew about my faith crisis and how my faith exploded and me being into Christopher Hitchens. He tried to recruit into the final Sovereign Grace Ministries church plant in the Washington, D.C. area before the denomination erupted in scandal in 2011. The church was Eric Simmons and Jordan Kauflin’s Redeemer Arlington. Then the unthinkable happened which thrust me into the darkest season of my life. This guy who was evangelizing me, an Air Force Captain named Andrew White, triggered a false accusation. This military officer who wanted to befriend me, have lunches, dinners, and pursue me turned around and allegedly claimed I was a threat to his family. I couldn’t believe what transpired and overnight my world shattered. While former military leadership at work spoke to me about stalking, Andrew White turned around and started to recruit another co-worker to his former Sovereign Grace church. While Andrew recruited another co-worker I lived under the threat of being reported to law enforcement for a crime I never committed for 13 months. My job was threatened, my ability to earn income was on the line and the harm that came to me is indescribable. An attorney who looked at the situation believed I was sitting on a defamation of character lawsuit. The people reading this from Wooded Hills will have no idea how many tears I cried over a three year period as I tried to find a way forward. Often times those tears came in the middle of the night. The most horrific aspect of the false accusation is that I learned first hand why rape and sexual assault is a serous problem in the United States military. Its about abuse of power. An Air Force Officer abused his power, so did several former military officers who are supervisors abuse theirs. Military protects military and that is why rape and sexual assault will always be a problem in the United States military. In this dark night of a false accusation I stumbled upon that older testimony given at a Yea God Sunday a decade prior and I listened to it daily for almost a year. As I drove to work I listened to that sorry of what someone endured and how their false accusation was resolved. I so desperately needed hope and in that context I found it. For me it was an unexpected source that helped me in an emotionally painful time. You can read that transcribed testimony and about the false accusation in “How I Managed a False Accusation Given Birth to by a USAF Captain and Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington for 408 Days“
Wooded Hills was a very complex place and I have mixed feelings about it. You either fit in or you didn’t. It had pluses but it had a lot of minuses as well. Today as I look back I shake my head on some of what I was involved in at times. Over the years I have spoken to a few other people who told me that there was a lot of Kool Aid drinking going on there. For the record let me state that at the time I was also a Kool Aid drinker. But it was a church that had serious systematic and systemic issues that I observed. It was very peculiar in many ways and had some interesting and strong personalities as well. Today in looking back I would have reconsidered getting involved there. Well that’s it for the day, thanks guys and know that I love you.