When Bryan Pickering came to the March 16 meeting of the Elder Council at Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC), he thought the board was going to decide the scope of an investigation into allegations concerning Andy Naselli.
Naselli, a BBC elder and professor at Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), had been accused by 12 current and former BCS students of spiritual abuse. He also had been accused by several BBC members of disparaging and sinning against them and others in the congregation.
At a meeting just five days earlier, Pickering, a former BBC elder and counseling pastor, said he had met with the elders of his campus—the Downtown campus—including Jason Meyer, the successor of BBC Pastor Emeritus John Piper. When presented with the evidence against Naselli, Pickering said some of the elders were heartbroken.
One elder, Kenny Stokes, stated that the matter needed to be investigated, Pickering said. Another elder, and the Downtown pastor for worship and ministry development, Chuck Steddom, was in tears, Pickering said. He added that Steddom read from First Corinthians 13 and stated that because Naselli lacked love, he was not qualified to be an elder.
The consensus at the end of the meeting was that the allegations needed to be investigated, Pickering said. He added that Kurt Elting-Ballard, chairman of the full BBC elder board, suggested outside the meeting that a subcommittee of elders not related to BCS be appointed to do the investigation.
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Yet on March 16, when the entire BBC Elder Council met, it did not commission an investigation. The council instead dismissed all the grievances brought against Naselli, a stunning about-face that Pickering said left him and his colleagues— Pastor Meyer and former neighborhood pastor Ming-Jinn Tong—reeling.
Pickering said he doesn’t know exactly what happened in the days and hours leading up to the meeting. But he said the outcome of the March 16 meeting seemed to have been decided prior to the elders gathering. He also alleged that the elders’ actions showed they were more interested in protecting BBC’s image than protecting its flock.
Yet the image of BBC—a church known internationally because of John Piper’s three decades of service there—is experiencing perhaps its worst public relations crisis since its inception.
Meyer, Tong, and Pickering have resigned from BBC, as have about 10% of BBC’s members. And in addition to reports in Christian media, the Star Tribune—the largest newspaper in Minnesota—ran a story on Sunday about the pastors’ departure and accusations of a “toxic church culture.”
Meanwhile, BBC has been holding numerous meetings on multiple campuses to answer questions from its congregation. But the questions keep coming. And a main question remains: What were the specific allegations against Andy Naselli—and did church leaders properly investigate them?
The March 16 closed-door elder meeting
At the March 16 meeting, the elders first considered grievances against Naselli brought by BBC members other than Pickering, and voted overwhelmingly to dismiss the grievances, Pickering said.
The only ones who voted against dismissing the grievances were Pickering, Meyer, Tong, and Darin Brink, a non-staff Downtown elder. A few elders abstained from voting. But elders like Stokes and Steddom, who had been so vocal about holding Naselli accountable just days earlier, remained silent, Pickering said.
The Roys Report reached out to Stokes and Steddom for comment, but they did not respond.
The elders then took up Pickering’s grievance against Naselli, charging that Naselli had “a pattern of controlling and egregious sin against God and people,” based largely on the testimonies of 12 former and current BCS students.
The elders asked to see Pickering’s evidence supporting the charges. But Pickering said he had brought more than 350 pages of documentation to the meeting, which couldn’t possibly be examined in one night. Plus, though Naselli was present at the meeting, the students alleging wrongdoing, were not. Pickering added that the other BBC members bringing grievances against Naselli were not permitted to be present either.
“When I was being told, ‘Bring out all the students’ stories right now,’ after what I had just seen, I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it. I’m not giving you access to all their stories because I can see you’ve already tilted the ground and are causing this to go to a predetermined outcome,’” Pickering said.
Pickering added that Ken Currie, BBC pastor for strategic implementation, urged Pickering to present the evidence, while simultaneously claiming he had seen it all and there was nothing to see.
The elders then voted to dismiss Pickering’s grievance, with only Meyer, Tong, Brink, and Pickering voting against the motion.
The Roys Report reached out to Chairman Elting-Ballard and other BBC elders for comment about the proceedings involving Naselli. Elting-Ballard responded in an email stating that the elders are focusing “on the needs of our flock” and had no additional comment.
The Roys Report also reached out to Naselli, but he did not respond.
Yet as reported previously, Pickering says Tong called the March 16 meeting “unethical.” And in Pastor Meyer’s July letter of resignation, Meyer wrote: “I continue to maintain that accusations should not be immediately embraced or dismissed. They should be sifted and vetted to determine what is true and what is not. . . . I thought others agreed with me as we talked about taking that approach. But the vote said the opposite.”
The BBC members who submitted grievances against Naselli have shared their first-hand accounts with The Roys Report, as well as recordings of meetings and emails between the parties involved. They say not only do Naselli’s actions show a pattern of sin by Naselli; they also show a pattern of elders excusing it.
That evidence will be covered in a follow-up article.
The Roys Report also has obtained more information about the complaints submitted by the 12 current and former BCS students concerning Naselli, and the way both BCS and BBC handled those complaints. As happened at BBC, the complaints did not result in an investigation by an independent party when submitted to BCS. Instead, BCS conducted an internal investigation, spearheaded by an administrator who reportedly had buried earlier concerns.
The “bulldog who kept everyone in line”
According to Benjamin Lantzer, a 2020 BCS graduate who’s now a senior pastor at a small church in Indiana, Andy Naselli was the “bulldog who kept everyone in line” at Bethlehem College and Seminary.
Lantzer was in a “cohort” at BCS, which had Naselli as a professor. (A cohort is a group of 15-20 seminarians who took classes together for duration of their four-year program,) Lantzer also was one of 12 BCS students who submitted statements to BCS administrators in the summer 2020, accusing Naselli of spiritual abuse.
Lantzer said one time, he went to Naselli after class and brought up a counter-point to something Naselli had said in class. Lanzter said Naselli responded that Lantzer shouldn’t “go there,” and if he did, Naselli would “destroy” him.
Another time, Lantzer said an introverted student commented on something Naselli said in class. After saying, “Shhh,” several times to the student without effect, Naselli told the student to “Shut up,” Lantzer said.
These kinds of “disproportionate” and “disrespectful” responses were common from Naselli, Lantzer said. However, one incident stands out.
In May 2020, the entire cohort joined a Zoom call, where each student was supposed to present their capstone papers.
Lantzer said a couple of his classmates presented papers arguing for infant baptism—a controversial position because both Naselli and BCS oppose infant baptism. According to Lantzer, Naselli “roasted” the students and told them he was concerned for their souls.
Lantzer’s paper was controversial, too, because it argued that that Scripture permits women to serve as deacons, elders, and preachers, which Naselli and BCS also oppose.
Lantzer said Naselli had approved the topic of his paper. But when Lantzer began presenting his paper on the call, Naselli confronted Lantzer for his view and asked Lantzer why he had adopted it.
Lantzer said he told Naselli that one factor was seeing the way women are treated at the seminary.
Another student on the Zoom call who spoke with The Roys Report was Daniel Kleven, former director of admissions at BCS. According to Kleven, Lantzer also expressed that he didn’t trust Naselli.
At that point, Naselli demanded to talk with Lantzer about issues Lantzer had with him in front of the class, both Kleven and Lantzer said. They said Lantzer repeatedly asked to speak with Naselli in private about the issues and to continue his presentation, but Naselli insisted.
After multiple attempts to evade Naselli’s demands, Lantzer said he “let loose” and confronted Naselli for the “sexist” and inappropriate ways he had seen Naselli treat others.
Lantzer said the rest of the call was “a blur,” but he distinctly remembers Naselli refusing to take any blame for the altercation and telling Lantzer that his comments were “sinful to the core.”
Lantzer said the class then took a break, and when they returned, Naselli’s wife was on the call, telling the class that Naselli was a good husband and father and treated her well.
Naselli did not respond to repeated requests for comment about this incident and others.
Tip of the iceberg
According to Pickering, who counseled nearly all the students who submitted statements concerning Naselli’s alleged abuse, Lantzer’s experiences were the tip of the iceberg.
The accusations included “being belittled in the classroom in front of fellow classmates, name calling—significant name calling, like being called ‘a damn heretic’—when debating particular positions,” Pickering said. He added that students claimed Naselli would pound his fist on the desk in frustration, especially if he felt he was being disrespected. Students reported a “hyper-competitive environment” where “mocking one another’s positions . . . was encouraged,” Pickering added.
Pickering said he couldn’t tell specifics of other students’ allegations because of confidentiality concerns. But he said the allegations involved students in multiple classes over several years.
Some of these students said they reported Naselli’s concerning behavior to Dean Brian Tabb, but Tabb did nothing, Pickering said.
The Roys Report reached out to Tabb for comment, but he didn’t respond.
Pickering said the first BCS student came to him with concerns about Naselli in February 2020, wondering if what he described qualified as spiritual abuse. When Pickering told him that it may be abuse, the student said he knew of about a dozen other students with similar stories. Pickering said that over the next few months, many of those students, and others, told Pickering their stories.
Because BCS is affiliated with BBC and Naselli is a BBC elder, Pickering said Jason Meyer urged BBC Elder Chair Kurt Elting-Ballard to determine a process for investigating the allegations. Yet Pickering said Tabb demanded that the matter be delegated solely to BCS, and that Tabb be allowed to lead an internal investigation, which Elting-Ballard allowed.
The BCS internal investigation concluded in August 2020 after Tabb interviewed three of the 12 students who submitted statements, Pickering said. Many students submitted their testimonies anonymously, but more were coming forward to speak with Tabb when the investigation ended, Pickering added.
In an email to Pickering and three other BBC elders, Tabb stated that the investigation did “not find sufficient evidence to corroborate the charge that Naselli has been ‘spiritually abusive’ . . . or has intentionally sinned against his students.” As a result, the administration expressed its “full support for Naselli.”
The email also appeared to confront Pickering for counseling the students and encouraging them to report to BCS administrators.
“Andy knows that these students sought out a Bethlehem pastor (though he does not know whom) to share accusations and concerns about him,” Tabb wrote. “I recommend that Bryan Pickering contact Andy directly and offer to meet with him to discuss his role in fielding these concerns from students and alumni.”
At the end of 2020, Pickering resigned from BCS where he had taught counseling. In his resignation letter, he stated: “My perspective of student complaints that surfaced last year is that they are egregious. . . . (T)hey were actions done repeatedly over time to students by a professor-elder who is charged with teaching them how to interpret and apply the Scriptures and teaching them how to shepherd others.”
Pickering added, “I do not believe this was handled well—and many of the students deeply regret asking for help. This grieves my heart on so many levels. It looks like we have valued the institution and its reputation over caring well for ones we’ve wounded.”
The allegations concerning Naselli might have ended there had it not been for what happened soon afterwards.
At a congregational meeting on January 31, 2021, Naselli stated that he would resign as an elder if members passed a motion distancing the church from comments made by BCS President Joe Rigney and controversial pastor, Doug Wilson. Then, Naselli said and wrote things to the elder council, all BCS staff, and church members, discrediting the church members who brought the motion—Steven and Janette Takata—according to the Takatas and witnesses who spoke with The Roys Report. When confronted for his actions, Naselli offered what the offended parties considered partial apologies—all with support of the elder board.
Those events will be covered in the next article on this developing story.