Embattled Pastor Albert Tate faced accusations of lying, opaque governance, paying “hush money,” mistreating staff, and spiritual pride at a contentious “Town Hall” meeting Sunday at his church in California.
An estimated 300-350 people crammed the fellowship hall at Fellowship Monrovia and spilled into the lobby, desperate for answers after the seeming implosion of the once booming multi-ethnic church. Another 248 people watched a livestream online hosted by an Instagram group, Hope for Fellowship.
“I can’t allow lies to continue to be perpetuated,” said Tate, taking aim at a recent online letter from concerned staff with multiple allegations of misconduct against Tate and his board. “And all of our staff—they believe it. All of our staff didn’t believe me. Some staff that are here in this room right now, looking at me saying, ‘This dude’s a liar.’”
“You are a liar!” shouted someone in the crowd.
“This man say I am?” Tate responded. “. . . I am not a liar, bro.”
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Outbursts like these peppered the two-hour-long meeting I witnessed in person. The meeting was moderated by Tate and two of Fellowship’s five board members — Obed Martinez and Christian Washington.
Martinez is a pastor and member of the lead team of the scandal-plagued Association of Related Churches. Washington is the former pastor of the now-shuttered Upper Room in Houston and runs a faith-based consulting business. Neither men attend Fellowship, prompting some congregants to refer to them as “absentee landlords” in private conversations.
Over the past five months, 31 church employees — more than 60% of Fellowship’s original staff — have either resigned or been laid off.
Attendance has dropped precipitously too, from an average of 800 to 1,000 adults a week to just over 500 last Sunday. Vatche Kelartinian, who counts attendance each week for Fellowship, told TRR that Sunday’s attendance was a decrease of 100-150 from just last week.
Ostensibly, the issues at the church began in January, when Tate confessed to the board he had engaged in an “inappropriate” texting relationship with a woman other than his wife. This was kept from the staff and congregation for about nine months, until rumors forced the board to address the situation publicly and place Tate on a leave of absence.
Since then, the situation between the church staff and top leadership has deteriorated dramatically, resulting in massive turnover.
As previously reported by TRR, an anonymous letter from “concerned staff” was posted online, accusing Tate and the board of using designated funds to pay “hush money” to resigning staff. The letter also accused the board of failing to “thoroughly investigate” multiple HR complaints about Tate’s alleged “manipulation, malice, sexual harassment . . . and failure to meet the moral and character standards of pastoral leadership.”
Despite this, the board brought Tate back from his leave of absence after just six weeks and refused to give details about his “restoration plan.”
On Nov. 5, a tearful Tate apologized to his congregation for his “inappropriate text messaging” and the “hard” work culture at Fellowship. But he made no mention of the other allegations against him and the board.
Similarly, on Sunday night, Tate and the board did not mention the events of the previous tumultuous week. Fellowship’s entire staff Interim Leadership Team (ILT) called for the board to resign, after which the board immediately disbanded the ILT.
What caused ‘collapse’?
At Sunday’s meeting, Tate attributed much of the problem at the church to COVID, stress, and staff “inappropriately taking things outside the building.”
“Unfortunately, some of the staff began to take internal conversations and confidentiality and even listed names and content and began to put pieces out in public,” Tate said. “So, you have these fragments of things that aren’t contextualized. So . . . some people say, ‘Well, I’m gonna stop giving . . . Well, that then perpetuates the problems that we’re in because as giving decreased, personnel and payroll has to decrease.”
Board member Martinez attributed the “collapse” to an insufficient “infrastructure.” Rather than having three levels of leadership — overseers to care for the pastor, trustees to approve budgets, and elders to provide spiritual direction — Fellowship had only a single board, Martinez explained.
“The collapse happened because the infrastructure could not support the system,” Martinez said. “The system was so big; the infrastructure wasn’t.”
But according to a letter sent last Tuesday from the ILT to Fellowship’s board, and obtained by TRR, the collapse happened for completely different reasons.
The letter outlined 16 board actions that have had a “profound impact on where we find ourselves today.” These include “falsely” communicating that the board hired a third party to investigate Tate’s inappropriate texting when it never did, and reneging on an agreement to keep Tate on leave for at least 60 days, according to the letter.
The letter also accused the board of approving “the unethical use of our Fellowship Relief Fund to pay for severance payments. Some of which were connected to NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements).”
And it noted that despite Fellowship’s dire financial situation — and layoffs trimming its $6.5 million budget to $3.5 million — the church recently spent $30,000 to hire crisis management company KITH.
To raise money, the board had “Zoom meetings with top donors,” the letter continued. “These meetings resulted in only one $25,000 gift and some of the donors you’ve met with have since left the church as a result of the unsatisfactory answers you provided.”
The letter, which was sent from the email of Executive Director of Operations Tristan Gist, ended with a call for the “immediate resignation” of the board.
The board responded with a letter, announcing its decision to “disband the ILT effective immediately.”
TRR reached out to Fellowship’s board and Tate for comment about the ILT’s letter and the board’s response, but did not hear back.
None of this was mentioned at the Town Hall on Sunday.
And during the meeting, many congregants expressed confusion, anger, and skepticism toward church leadership. Numerous congregants told me that prior to this debacle, they didn’t even know who was on Fellowship’s board.
Were non-disclosure agreements signed?
In the question-and-answer period on Sunday, a congregant asked whether Fellowship had executed any non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs.
Tate and Martinez went back and forth several times, as Tate indicated to Martinez to take the question. Martinez looked at Tate, seemingly looking for direction.
The congregant reiterated her question and Tate responded, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and looked to Martinez.
Martinez, seemingly answering the question, said, “Yeah.”
Tate quickly interjected, saying to Martinez, “No, no. I’m saying, ‘Yes, answer the question.’”
“Oh, oh, oh! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” Martinez responded, explaining there were “confidentiality agreements.”
“We all know what they are,” the congregant responded, as the audience began to murmur.
“What? No!” Tate responded and then explained that Fellowship had a “non-disparaging clause” that was offered to anyone who’s left “that we paid a severance to.” But Tate argued that the clause “is not enforceable,” and “if it was hush money, nobody’s hushed.”
Martinez then noted that multiple churches offer these agreements, which he claimed were not “NDAs.” He said the agreements simply aimed to keep confidential information that “broken people” and “broken families” may have shared with staff from being spread.
“They’re not NDAs,” Tate claimed. “They’re non-disparaging clauses, among other things. And it’s a mutual agreement that we would not sow discord in the body.” But he added, “No one is invited to leave Fellowship with this muzzle on them. They are not muted. What we’re inviting is a mutual respect for one another . . .”
Tate then urged congregants to follow Matthew 18 if they have a problem with leadership, going first to the person with whom they have an issue. Then, if they’re not heard, they should take another person with them, Tate said. And if that doesn’t work, “Let’s take it out,” he said.
Someone in the audience yelled, “We did!”
Tate then admonished congregants not to take their disagreements online, but to “grab a group of us and let’s reason together.” He then defended himself and the board.
“You all, we have not practiced abuse with our staff. We have not,” Tate said. “It has been a frustrating place. Some answers were disagreed with. Some answers — you’re right, came way too late. But we are not monsters and abusive. You were just frustrated and you didn’t like it.”
Evidence of six-figure ‘hush money’
Just prior to Sunday’s meeting, TRR received screenshots of financial spreadsheets which seemingly indicated that at least one Fellowship staff member, who resigned in October, had received a six-figure severance.
According to the documents, former Executive Pastor Scott Hitzel received $117,812 in severance and another $13,000 for vacation. The documents also show that Fellowship made payments in October and November to former Chief of Staff Michael Field. Field resigned last July.
According to an excerpt from Fellowship’s employee handbook obtained by TRR, severance “is only possible in situations that include personnel layoffs,” not for employees who resign.
TRR reached out to Hitzel and Field for comment, but neither responded.
However, at the meeting, I confronted Tate with this information, asking if Fellowship paid a six-figure severance to at least one of its employees who resigned. I also asked why Fellowship had paid severance to an employee who resigned, in violation of church policy.
Tate said he would respond to my statement, but added, “I don’t want to give you any more time tonight because you’re a journalist, and this is not a gathering for a journalist.”
Tate then stood up from the stool he was sitting on and stated, “From the beginning, when we had staff transition off, whether they resigned or laid off, it has been our practice to try to be a blessing to them. . . . So, those severance agreements and those gifts weren’t isolated to only people that do this and no. No, it went to as many people as we could, to our own peril.”
Below is my interaction with Tate, including his assertion that my previous article, reporting allegations against Tate outlined in the letter from “concerned staff,” was “not true.”
Internal investigation clears Tate of sexual harassment, additional texting allegations
During the meeting, Tate emphatically denied allegations he had sexually harassed anyone on staff.
“Whenever you see sexual harassment, that is not true,” Tate said. “And just because it’s printed on the internet, does not mean it’s true.”
Christian Washington, one of the moderators, also stated that Human Resources Manager Lara Diramarian and Board Member Dorothy Hammond had investigated sexual harassment complaints against Tate. Hammond is an HR business partner with Netflix.
“It was just one person,” Tate claimed.
But Washington responded, “It was one person, representing two or three.” Washington said that Diramarian and Hammond found that the complaints were “valid,” but did not rise “to the level of sexual harassment.”
“There have been no people who have been put in a position where their job was in some way put in jeopardy because of sexual favors or something they would or would not do,” Washington added. “There is no one whose compensation was affected by something they would or would not do — physically, sexually, or, or what have it.”
However, according to California law, something doesn’t have to include the threat of losing one’s job or compensation to qualify as sexual harassment. According to the California Attorney General, sexual harassment is “both unwelcome sexual advances, or other visual, verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature and actions that create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on an employee’s sex.”
Washington also stated that Diramarian and Hammond had investigated a second instance of alleged inappropriate texting between Tate and someone in the church.
“What was there was not something that was substantive and was not something that actually, in the context it was given, led us to any conclusion that any sexual impropriety, or anything wrong, had actually happened between a pastor and a member,” Washington said.
Given the rampant mistrust between staff, congregants, Tate, and the board, Mike Truong, a congregant and associate professor at Azusa Pacific University, called for an independent investigation.
“I think we all can agree that trust has been broken,” Truong said. “And when we hear things like the board has investigated the situation. You have concluded that there was no fault. There is no trust in that result anymore . . .
“I think we deserve the right to have a non-biased party summon a result that we can trust, because at this point, we cannot trust the people that have been in charge.”
Washington responded by asking, “Do you speak for the entire congregation?”
This was met with resounding yeses — but also some nos.
“I hear some nos,” Washington said, adding that he would not commit to an independent investigation. He then appealed to congregants to trust in Capin Crouse, which allegedly audits Fellowship’s finances.
Washington also asked, “Do you people not trust (Human Resources Manager) Lara (Diramarian)?”
Numerous people shouted, “No!” in response.
Tate then took the floor.
“What we cannot allow is for people who have walked in integrity, and have a history of integrity — and just because you feel like you don’t like something, or you’ve got a piece of information — that now their personal and professional integrity is now brought into question . . .
In a raised voice, Tate suggested that if he claimed some misconduct and publicly called for an investigation, everyone in the room would assume the misconduct had actually taken place. “That’s wrong. We can’t do that!”
Tate urged people to bring evidence of any wrongdoing to him so they can “reason together. . . . I think the more information you find, you will see that this has not been malfeasance. It has not been stealing. It’s, it’s just the way finances go.”
‘They’re not willing to change’
Throughout the meeting, a vocal minority applauded Tate’s and the board’s responses throughout. Near the end of the meeting, one congregant passionately confronted the congregation for “gossiping” and “bringing down the pastor.”
“This is a crucifixion,” she said. “This is not restoring because some of you all don’t want to see him restored!”
But the majority of the congregation seemed dissatisfied with Fellowship leadership.
At one point in the meeting, Tate defended coming back from his leave of absence so soon, saying, “I’m not sure if a month would have made a difference for (his critics). And I unfortunately, I feel like this is still my church.”
This prompted pushback. “It’s our church!”
“Still our church. I apologize,” Tate said. “. . . I say it’s our church all the time, c’mon.”
After the meeting, Truong said that Nov. 19 would be his family’s last Sunday at the church.
“Tonight was a very clear message, a clear conclusion for a lot of people that this is not the right church because the posture of the board and the senior pastor . . . they’re not willing to change,” Truong said. “They’re not willing to do anything different.”
Truong added that Tate and the board were in “fight mode” and not listening to the congregation.
Similar complaints had surfaced during the Town Hall. One congregant, named Gloria, complained that she had written the board three times but had not gotten a response.
“On the website, it says, ‘We will respond to you in 72 hours,’” she said. “That has not happened. So don’t publicize it.”
Another congregant, Micaela Flores, told TRR, “It just felt like it continued to be non-answers. There continues to be a lot of spinning and circling around things with no true accountability.”
Many expressed profound sadness over the state of Fellowship Monrovia, a church they say they once loved dearly.
Congregant Herag Haleblian told TRR after morning services on Sunday that this was his family’s last Sunday in attendance.
“We don’t feel like we’re leaving the church,” Haleblian said. With dozens of staffers gone, he noted, “the church has left us in a way, right?”
“Those were the ones who knew us,” said Haleblian’s wife, Lisa Haleblian. “Those were the people who had an impact on our lives, on our children’s lives. So yeah, that’s what makes it hard and extra sad.”
Fellowship Monrovia – Town Hall Meeting – Nov. 19, 2023
Julie Roys is a veteran investigative reporter and founder of The Roys Report. She also previously hosted a national talk show on the Moody Radio Network, called Up for Debate, and has worked as a TV reporter for a CBS affiliate. Her articles have appeared in numerous periodicals.