The successor to John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis this week resigned in what appears to be a major shake-up at the church amid allegations of toxic and abusive leadership.
Piper’s successor, Jason Meyer, is the fourth pastor to resign from Bethlehem in the past four months.
The others who have resigned include Bryan Pickering, former pastor for care and counseling; Ming-Jinn Tong, former pastor for neighborhood outreach; and Richie Stark, former director for youth and family discipleship. (According to Pickering, Stark’s resignation was not solely due to issues at the church.)
Meyer, Tong, and Stark did not respond to requests for comment.
However, Pickering said in an interview that he resigned over the pattern of abusive behavior by Bethlehem leaders, especially elders, that he witnessed and experienced.
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“At Bethlehem . . . there’s harm being done,” Pickering said. “There’s unethical behavior. There’s domineering. There’s bullying. . . . cultural, damaging behavior that’s being done, and has been done, for a long time.”
In a statement from Pickering that elders read to the congregation last Sunday, Pickering further explained:
I have seen several congregants (current and former), elders (current and former), and a former administrative assistant profoundly mistreated by elders in various ways. I have also seen leadership act in ways I would describe as domineering. I have also seen patterns of deception among our elders that are deeply concerning. I have tried on several occasions since early 2020 to speak up to others about these patterns of behavior. Increasingly in 2021, especially and intensely since March, I, too, have experienced what I would call bullying behavior. It is now clear to me that it is best for everyone for me to resign.
The Roys Report reached out to Bethlehem Baptist Church and to Kurt Elting-Ballard, chairman of Bethlehem’s Council of Elders, for comment but no one responded.
However, in an email to congregants on Wednesday, announcing Jason Meyer’s resignation, Elting-Ballard and Bethlehem Pastor Ken Currie said they felt “regret” and “a deep sense of loss” over Jason Meyer’s resignation as Pastor for Preaching & Vision at Bethlehem’s Downtown Campus.
Similarly, in a blog published on Bethlehem’s website, Dave Zuleger, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem’s South Campus, acknowledged the difficult time the church is experiencing.
Bethlehem, a church of about 4,600, has three campuses—Downtown, South, and North. In 2012, well-known author and pastor, John Piper, retired as Bethlehem’s senior pastor. He now serves as pastor emeritus but is not a member of the official pastoral staff or Council of Elders.
“I could try to sugarcoat the troubles of my soul (and probably many of yours), but that wouldn’t be real or helpful . . .” Zuleger wrote. “This is another painful and confusing moment for us. It’s confusing and painful corporately because Jason took the mantle from Pastor John Piper . . . It feels jarring.”
Exodus follows push for reform
According to Kyle J. Howard, a preacher and racial and spiritual trauma counselor, the pastors’ exodus follows a push for reform at Bethlehem regarding the way the church treats minorities and women.
Howard said that in January 2019, Bethlehem brought him in to teach a full-day, staff intensive on racial trauma in the church.
Howard also attended an all-minority dinner with congregants that Pickering had arranged, according to Janice Perez Evans, a former member of Bethlehem who’s half Latina.
Perez said the dinner was the first time many of the minority members of Bethlehem had been gathered, and it was a special time to share openly without judgment.
Howard said his visit at Bethlehem made it “abundantly clear” that Bethlehem had “challenges” surrounding race issues.
He added that prior to coming to Bethlehem, he had spoken with several Black pastors in Minneapolis, who all referred to Bethlehem as a “white church within a Black space that doesn’t actually engage . . . or relate to the Black community.” Howard said he also had spoken with several people who had been negatively impacted by John Piper’s theology of “marital permanence,”* a theology maintaining that divorce is never justified, even in cases of abuse.
Howard said he shared his concerns with Pastors Meyer, Pickering, Tong, and Stark, who all supported what Howard was doing.
Shortly after Howard’s intensive, Evans said she and several others proposed to the elders that the church establish a task force to examine whether the system at Bethlehem was racially biased. One of the main concerns, Evans said, was that few minorities sat on Bethlehem’s Elder Council. At the time, four of the 40-member Elder Council were minorities, she said.
Evans described the meeting as “excruciating,” saying the elders grilled both her and others about the proposal. Yet after the meeting, the elders commissioned a “Racial Harmony Task Force,” which Evans said she co-led with Pastor Meyer.
“It will probably go down in my life as one of the sweetest times I’ve seen the Holy Spirit come and work,” Evans said of her experience working with other task force members. “There was such a unity—and it wasn’t in a sense like we all agreed on everything. But it was safe in the sense that we were able to have disagreements as team members and talk through it.”
However, Evans said during this time, she began hearing from congregants and students at Bethlehem College and Seminary that elders were speaking against her and other task force members.
Pickering said he heard other elders express that they felt the task force had “Marxist” and “woke” tendencies, and possibly was driven by Critical Race Theory—a controversial academic movement seeking to explain issues of race and justice.
“That’s fear-mongering,” Evans said. “That wasn’t what drove us. We’re reading Scripture. We’re reading the Word. And we’ve been trained by all of you (the elders).”
Evans said she and the members of the task force put in over 800 hours researching the dynamics at Bethlehem, as well as other churches that had successfully become multi-ethnic. She said in the summer of 2019, the task force presented its 85-page report to the elders. (Evans said the task force had wanted to present the report directly to the congregation, but the elders insisted that the report go directly to them.)
However, instead of prompting change, Evans said the elders responded with silence. Months passed and the elders took no action, she said—and one-by-one, members of the task force left the church.
Then in 2020, Howard said he was disinvited from a conference sponsored by a ministry connected to Bethlehem, called City Joy, because the elders at Bethlehem decided Howard was “too controversial.”
Howard said that after he pushed back, asking the elders if canceling him weeks before the conference was “really the optics that you guys want,” the board reversed their decision.
Yet Howard said all the elders who were supportive of him—Meyer, Pickering, and Tong—have now left Bethlehem. Similarly, he said he doesn’t know of a single task force member who remains at the church.*
“It should be alarming when you have a multitude of pastors or leaders leave all within a very short period of time,” Howard said. “But what I would want to caution us from is to not only look at the power figures but to recognize that these leaders are the overflow of a congregation loss. There have been numerous people who have left that church, especially minorities, and . . . a lot of women, a lot of battered wives . . . (who) are still healing from that space.”
“Systemic” problem extends to college & seminary
According to Pickering, Howard, and Evans, the issues at Bethlehem Baptist Church are systemic and extend to Bethlehem College and Seminary (BCS), where John Piper remains chancellor.
This sentiment was also expressed in a tweet this week by Johnathon Bowers, a former philosophy professor at BCS, who also served the Racial Harmony Task Force, according to Evans.
“Back in October, I resigned from a ten-year career teaching at Bethlehem College & Seminary because of the school’s toxic environment, particularly among the leadership,” Bowers tweeted on Thursday. “My family and I withdrew our membership from the church in December for the same reason.”
Three of BCS’s 11 trustees serve as elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church.
As recently as August 2020, Jason Meyer also served as both a Bethlehem elder and a trustee at BCS, according to an archived BCS webpage. But by September 19, 2020, Meyer had stepped down as a BCS trustee.
On September 18, 2020, the BCS Board of Trustees “voted unanimously” to hire Joe Rigney as president, according to an article on the BCS website.
Rigney is controversial due to his close ties to Douglas Wilson, someone whose comments on race and women have drawn much criticism. In his pamphlet Southern Slavery, As It Was, Wilson argued that slavery “produced a genuine affection between the races.” Wilson contends his comments in Southern Slavery have been misunderstood.
Wilson also once wrote that wives who don’t do dishes should be brought before church elders for discipline.
Rigney received a Master of Studies degree from New Saint Andrews College where Wilson serves as a senior fellow in theology and a permanent member of the board of trustees. Rigney also calls Wilson a “mentor.”
The Roys Report reached out to Rigney for comment but did not hear back.
Like Bethlehem Baptist, BCS has also experienced significant turnover. In the past 12 months, at least five faculty and/or staff have left the school, including Pickering, who taught counseling classes, and Bowers. Others who have resigned include Travis Myers, former assistant professor of church history and mission studies, Daniel Kleven, former director of admissions, and Barb Waldemar, former dean of women.
Complicity or resistance?
Pickering says the issues at Bethlehem church and its schools come down to “misunderstanding how to steward power in a God-honoring way.”
“It’s a cultural thing,” Pickering said, adding that as a leader, he believes he “bear(s) a measure of culpability and complicity. . . . This where I was at when I resigned. I mean, it’s like, I have done all I can in terms of speaking up. It’s not changing. My resignation now is the last thing I can do to say, ‘This is wrong. You guys need to change,’ and to warn the congregation, ‘You’re all in trouble because elders can’t hold each other accountable.’”
Howard agreed and added, “I hope the leaders who have left do speak up. To whatever extent they stayed in the midst of people being wounded . . . there is a culpability there that requires them to speak.”
*UPDATE: Bethlehem Baptist no longer officially holds to Piper’s marital permanence theology, but allows for divorce in several cases, including when one spouse commits adultery or abandons the other spouse.
Also, though Howard said he doesn’t know of any Racial Harmony Task Force members who remain at Bethlehem, several do, including three elders: Rod Takata, Darin Brink, and Chuck Steddom.