After 16 years serving as a worship leader at Oregon megachurch, Applegate Christian Fellowship, Demian Norvell got saved. Then, he got fired.
Norvell told The Roys Report that working at Applegate under founder Jon Courson drove him to exhaustion. The long hours contributed to his divorce. And to cope with depression, Norvell turned to alcohol and marijuana. Then in 2012, he found Jesus.
But rather than celebrate Norvell’s conversion, Courson covered it up, Norvell said.
“The bottom line, according to Jon, was that my testimony was ‘dangerous,’ that it made people ‘question their salvation,’ and that I was not allowed to share my testimony with ‘his sheep,’” said Norvell in an audio testimony he published online.
Norvell’s story is just one of numerous stories of former Applegate leaders, accusing Courson of a pattern of spiritual abuse and manipulation.
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“My story is an illustration of employee abuse under the guise of service to the Lord,” Norvell said, “but also, and much more insidious, the spiritual abuse and manipulation that is inherent when a man positions himself to be a figurative ‘Moses’ and refuses accountability.”
Courson has been recently accused of sexual misconduct with a church staffer in the 1980s, and a subsequent cover-up. His son, and former lead pastor at Applegate, Ben Courson, has similarly been accused of sexual misdeeds, which were also reportedly covered up.
Jon Courson did not return calls for comment. He transitioned from lead pastor at Applegate to “emeritus” status in 2020, but his name was just removed from the church’s website last week. He still maintains a preaching ministry called Searchlight.
Since news broke of Jon’s and Ben’s sexual misconduct last month, the Applegate survivors’ Facebook group has grown five-fold, from 53 members to 263, said Heidi Smith, the group’s administrator. Some are former pastors who say they’re sorting through their experiences, trying to untangle the extraordinary ministry opportunities from the toxic ones.
“When people left Applegate, essentially, there was no more relationship,” said Loren Anderson, a former Applegate pastor who left in 2004 to plant The Fellowship at Bend in Bend, Oregon. “So, then you look back, and you wonder, ‘what was I?’”
These former Applegate pastors—some of whom are now pastors at other Oregon churches—are hoping their voices can support those of other former church members who are hurting.
Hopefully, other survivors will know they aren’t alone, said former Applegate pastor Jeff Smith. (No relation to Heidi Smith.)
“The problem is, people don’t want to say anything because they think it’s just them or maybe it was their fault,” Smith said. “Or they could have gotten out at any time and they didn’t because there was such a great work going on there in spite of everything that was happening.”
A part of something bigger
Applegate began in the early 1980s, when a small group of Christians invited Calvary Chapel pastor, Jon Courson, to move from California to Oregon to start a church. Within a decade, Courson’s strong Bible teaching and warm “Papa-Jon” style of speaking grew Applegate into a megachurch with a discipleship school, retreat center, camping ministry, and other ministries in other countries, former Applegate pastor Steve Hopkins told The Roys Report.
At its height in the 1990s, it drew some 7,000 people. As many as 100 would line up to be baptized every week in baptisms that would last two or three hours, Anderson said.
“The enticement when you’re in a huge megachurch . . . is a pretty exciting force,” Anderson said. “You feel like you’re a part of something bigger.”
Yet this excitement had a downside. It enabled Courson to mistreat his staff and to lead with little to no accountability, Norvell and others reported.
Courson was also known by his staff for constantly changing things up. He would hire pastors and let them go at a moment’s notice, sometimes sending them to plant a church or to a mission in Mexico, or to the church’s camp at Lake Bradley, said Norvell.
Other staff members “inexplicably disappeared over the years,” Norvell added.
Courson also served in a “Moses” style of leadership, common in Calvary Chapels, where elders led at Courson’s discretion and oversight, said Anderson.
“The simplest form would be if you don’t like your elders, you can fire your elders,” Anderson said.
Smith recounts one day in 1999 when Courson essentially fired, or reassigned, 12 men in one day. Later, Smith and others would call it Black Friday.
In a meeting with his 23 pastors, Courson told 12 of them, they had a choice. They could either plant a church with a year’s worth of funding or leave their job, Smith said.
Smith was sent to start a church with no seminary or knowledge on the logistics or legalities of starting a church. He spent the next 22 years wrestling through his insecurities, studying material on his own. But he also saw God move in important ways in his ministry at Cottage Grove Calvary Chapel, where he remains to this day.
“By God’s grace he used it in spite of me, even though I didn’t feel trained or prepared,” Smith said.
Yet to this day, he wonders: “Was money tight and we need to kind of lay them off? . . . I’m still trying to figure out. Was I sent out? Was I let go? Was I baggage that just needed to go because the church finances were (tight)?”
Toxic patterns at Applegate
According to former Applegate pastor, Steve Hopkins, Courson treated church staff like they were expendable.
In 1994, Courson told Hopkins to leave his role in music and teaching ministry to become the children’s director, even though Hopkins had no desire to do so.
“Essentially he said, ‘take it or leave it,’” Hopkins said. “Jon’s feeling was—and he made the statement numerous times—is that ‘as quickly as a hole fills up from my finger in a glass of water is how quickly you can be replaced.’”
Hopkins confronted him on the changes. And a couple months later, Courson essentially fired him, Hopkins said, though Courson presented it as an opportunity to plant a church in Green Springs, Oregon.
“I was the guy that was known for standing up to Jon, which is probably one of the reasons why I left or was asked to leave or how we downsized, however you want to play it out,” Hopkins said.
These former Applegate leaders mentioned other patterns in Courson’s leadership—micromanaging, painful chastisements, manipulation, narcissism, and silence by Courson after they left. People followed, though, because they also saw Courson as a spiritual father.
“There was just a sense of feeling from people that I talked with that when you listen to Jon, you were listening to the voice of God,” Hopkins said. “And to disagree with him was to disobey God.”
Meeting God as Father
Norvell grew up going to church and assumed he was a Christian. But in part, because of the way Courson led, Norvell said he came to see God as a boss and not a father.
Courson demanded 55- to 60-hour work weeks, Norvell said, and gave him time-consuming tasks as tests of obedience.
Norvell added that pastors were shamed for not attending every service. And when Norvell objected, an associate pastor reprimanded him, stating that requests from leadership were not optional.
Under ministry stresses, Norvell’s personal life unraveled until one day a friend told him he seemed to see God as a boss and not as a father. The observation shook Norvell—until it finally saved him.
“I had believed in (God), I had worked for Him, but I didn’t know him,” Norvell said. “I surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ . . . August 1, 2012.”
Publicly, the church said Norvell lost his job because a new opportunity pulled him away from Applegate. But Norvell said that’s not true.
“I lost my job at a church because I had made the decision to follow Jesus,” Norvell said. “I understand that there are implications to my testimony. It points out that there was zero accountability and zero discipleship. Jon’s ministry ethos implies ‘follow me as I follow Christ,’ so if you’re on campus at ACF (Applegate Christian Fellowship), you must be following Christ.”
No response from megachurch
Courson has not publicly talked about the allegations made against him. But he’s been consistently preaching on Searchlight. He preached this week about the importance of staying silent in the face of accusations, like Jesus did with Pontius Pilate.
“What you say about others reveals way more about you than the others that you’re talking about,” he said.
Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.
35 thoughts on “Fired For Getting Saved? Former Pastors at Oregon Megachurch Reveal Toxic Culture”
I was saved at a Calvary Chapel in Northern California 23 years ago. I stayed for 20+ years not seeing just how abusive and toxic the culture was there. Hyper-complementarian. Moses model of leadership. Many more Calvary Chapels need to be exposed. I believe it will happen.
Moses led. Per google. Basically God talks to pastors then pastors talk to flock then flock goes thru pastor to speak to god. Sorry folks. That’s Catholicism. And not being negative. Just that’s how I was taught growing up Catholic. Yikes. Way to many narcissist in the family of god. One guy said he only takes advise from fellow prophets. Exactly what actual prophecy’s these prophets have shared is beyond me.
sadly, far too common an experience for many leaders/pastors/people under a charismatic, controlling, spiritually abusive personality… I had one pastor share with me that an abusive pastor he worked with, had over 30 pastors come and go over the years that he was aware of… and of these 30 or so, only 2 or 3 were still in ministry due to how they were treated, and the pastor that shared this with me was one of the few still in ministry…
After reading Fear: trump in the White House he appears to have gone to the trump school interpersonal relationship. Good read and scary that these evangelicals still fawn over the trumps or the courson types. I never blame the bully’s. I blame the sheep who have no courage and discernment. Greg Laurie did a great sermon on why and how the scripture judge least you be judged is so misquoted and abused. It’s on you tube.
Was this article about a president? I didn’t see that, maybe you need to take a step back and a deep breath. Politics sure makes an ugly god.
I’m noticing a theme in all these stories: no accountability.
Christians need to understand what authority is and how it should be delegated. I think there’s some basic principles with diverse applications.
They are usually churches of Paul and use/hide behind Romans 13 to justify their actions.
Thx for the link.
I’m glad that I don’t spend any money on pop megachurch nonsense. And, Carolyn MacLaren, you are right, there is a big problem with Calvary Chapels. None of them had any independence from the will of the late Chuck Smith.
The Bible says a pastor should not be a novice (new believer) so Norvell no longer met the Biblical standards. That being said, how he was shoved out is sickening.
Mark Reeder, just to clarify, I was a staff worship leader / studio operator. I was never higher than middle management, and was certainly never a pastor. Although I would support the case that anyone on the platform should maintain leadership qualifications as outlined in 1 Tim, Titus, et al.
As believers, how do we stop the trend of toxic church leadership’s when so many congregants are fooled by it? I too had to witness my husband getting fired (by a different pastor at a different church) after 7 years of ministry, right in front of our children. It was traumatizing for them. The reason was that my husband didn’t align with the pastor’s “vision”. He the. hired his best friend to replace my husband.
How does this behavior in churches ever become unacceptable by the congregation? So many are fooled.
Read 2 Thessalonians 2, it helps. We can start by holding leadership to Christs standards, not Paul’s. Most Pastors run to Paul in order to justify their behavior and in my opinion most congregations have been conditioned under Romans 13 not to question “leadership”. If you raise any concerns you attack God’s will, then church leadership they will publicly call you out as an apostate and play the victim card (DARVO) regardless if your concerns are valid.
Paul is the champion for lowly servant leadership. Those people turning Romans 13 into hammer for church leadership are grossly and ridiculously misinterpreting that passage, not even a million miles from Paul’s intent. If you think you’re following Christ’s standards but not Paul’s, you are following neither, because the same Jesus inspired both standards and there is nothing contradictory about them. Of course, 2 Thessalonians, which you cite as a help in understanding this, was written by that same Paul whos standards you say you’re not following. Back to the drawing board.
Money in my opinion plays a major role in all this. When the church gets rich then the pastor gets wealthy it becomes a business not a ministry.
April, I don’t think toxic leadership in the church will ever disappear. However, if individuals, like you and me, begin to understand the difference between toxic and healthy leadership, and leave the toxic leaders for healthier ones in healthier systems, and leave behind “emotional” bonds for “spiritual” (read Bonhoeffer), I think that little by little the evangelical church in America might get a little healthier.
Andrew and Paul, you make excellent points! So much wisdom there. Thank you!!
April Larson – you asked a really great question: “How does this behavior in churches ever become unacceptable by the congregation? So many are fooled.” The answer is that we all must become wise as serpents. Nobody naturally wants to understand exactly how evil seeks to infiltrate the church but nevertheless it’s the job of everyone to learn. I can highly recommend a series of messages on this very subject: https://unholycharade.com/recommended-sermon-series/ – Steve Nelson
Nepotism at its finest. Dad and both sons at the helm. What could possibly go wrong. Dad retires rich and the son doesn’t even want the position but takes advantage of it by (allegedly) being a sexual predator. The divorce announcement from the church platform and publicly crucifying the ex wife was the first clue. They made sure to be loud about that but now they’re in hiding. Who took over this church?
The problem is we have made up a leadership position “pastor” and imbued it with authority that does not exist in the New Testament. Quite naturally, toxic people will be drawn to that position and foolish people will be drawn to such a person.
I saw someone previously said “pastors are not to be new believers.” I assume they mean well and am not saying they’re wrong, but the Bible does not say “pastor” in that passage in 1st Timothy. It says “overseer” or “bishop” depending on the translation. Those are not synonymous with “pastor” and they are typically referred to in the plural. In other words, when the New Testament talks about authority in the church, it appears to be talking about several gray heads, people who’ve learned some humility, acting as a group with checks and balances, always subject to being called out in public by the people if they get off track themselves. It never refers to one main person with a supporting cast of elders. The word “pastor” appears once in the singular in the entire New Testament, 4th in a list of 5 spiritual gifts useful for the Church (Ephesians 4). Is there anything there indicating great authority given to one man?
Why should we be surprised that God’s people want a king (other than the Lord) to rule over them? There’s precedent for that going back 3,000 years. But when you ask for such a thing, don’t be surprised when you get a Saul and he sends your sons off to war, forces your daughters to serve his vanity, takes your stuff and makes you his slaves (I Samuel 8). Sounds like exactly what went on in Oregon specifically, Calvary Chapel generally, and throughout modern Christendom.
Robin Wiggins, your comments are spot on. Well said.
Another theme I see in these stories and so many more… a guy with zeal but not much else, goes off and starts a (or more honestly… “his”) church…
I don’t see much changing until serious, mature american christians stop going to churches started by these guys … but instead return to mature, established churches (ie Denominational accountability!) AND young zealous men who do have some leadership skills also return to mature established churches (ie Denominational accountability!)) and learn to ply their personality and spiritual gifts in those settings FIRST…
Most of these stories don’t/can’t happen, if that’s happening. Things will begin to change when that begins to happen. It won’t solve everything, but the pre-screening for such positions will catch things more often and earlier than what is happening in the present.
Andrew Zook, you mention “mature, established churches (ie Denominational accountability!)”
I know of several situations where mature, established churches and their denomination superiors hide the truth and side with pastors who abuse, manipulate, lie, deceive, among other corrupt things.
The problem is there is too much money and power in the church institution to do the right thing, the honest thing. it simply costs too much.
the sacrificial system is alive and well in the christian church — human beings and what is ethical are sacrificed for the sake of money, power, careers of those with power.
and it’s all contrived as ‘biblical’.
These are fair points, Andrew. Another issue is there a lot of young would be church leaders and planters with zeal primarily for their zeal, enamored primarily with their own passions and “dynamic” speaking style and “keen” insights, who no more know Jesus than the man on the moon. They are blind and full of themselves and exist primarily to lead other blind ones straight into a ditch.
Robin Wiggins, I don’t print things out but I might just command P what you’ve written here… this is a keeper. Thank you for organizing this thought clearly.
Thank you. I wish I didn’t know these things. The knowledge comes from very painful experiences at multiple churches over the course of the last two decades.
Robin Wiggins Thank you for that insight about the term “pastor.” I feel lighter.
Is Rebecca Hopkins, the author of this article, related to Steve Hopkins, and possibly attended Applegate Christian Fellowship herself? Please clarify any relationship. I am quite uncertain whether this is a fair and balanced review, if relationships and disclosures are not made up front. Please clarify whether or not you are related, so that readers can know and take that into consideration.
Rebecca Hopkins has no relation to Steve Hopkins and has not attended Applegate.
Anyone here watch Jon Coursons YouTube postcards recently? They are excellent. They help me find hope and clarity. God Bless Jon. God Bless you all.
Well this is interesting because I’ve been watching search light and in truth enjoyed it. This saddens me. Jon is a very good speaker. But if these accusations have any truth to them the church should be in investigated for financial abuse. Because Jon is worth 6 million and his son is now worth over a million! It’s sad tho. But the church should judge the church not just gossip.With out facts I’m afraid that’s all it is. How ever sadly I believe you. My experience with churches has been very negative!
Not seeing anything terrible here, except long hours? They’re not saying what the manipulation was.
I was there when they sent out those pastors to start churches, it was an exciting time I thought. Isn’t planting churches a good thing? Those guys could have just gone out and got a job instead, that’s what the rest of us have to do.
I highly recommend the book, When Narcissism Comes to Church, by Chuck De Groat. It is life-changing.
Jon Courson is an excellent Bible teacher, as good as the best. But he wasn’t a good administrator and should’ve left that job to others. A few of his associate pastors weren’t very good either. Jon’s alleged ‘misconduct’ was cured when he got married. The message of God’s word doesn’t diminish due to complaints. I’ve listened to Jon’s teaching for 45 years, long after leaving ACF which I wish I’d done earlier. There’s good & bad with every Church. One can listen to Jon’s teaching without the drawbacks of attending ACF.
Peter, my understanding of Jon’s misconduct was it happened when he was married to his first wife. I don’t know if she ever knew but my heat broke for her with 3 small kids. I will never understand how a pastor can do that and truly believe.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I feel vindicated. About three years ago a friend took me up to listen to Jon Courson preach at Applegate. About half way through the sermon I stood up and accused Courson of preaching false doctrine concerning his favorite topic, the pre-tribulation rapture. I was rudely escorted out of the church by two men, a large ‘goon” and a small man holding a hostile German shepherd dog on a heavy chain. I was already leaving voluntarily when this pair showed up and the smaller man with the dog was shoving me as I was leaving. Then they followed me outside and tried to find out what my name was. I’ve lived near Applegate for 30 years and Courson’s radio broadcasts were a daily staple on the local Christian radio station and every Sunday also. I always knew that there was something wrong with Joh Courson. I got saved years ago in a Rescue Mission. They had excellent Bible teaching there. Since I had that kind of humble beginning as a Christian God sort of gave me a kind of spiritual antennae, I could could sniff out phonies pretty easily. Something about Courson didn’t “smell” right from the start. His sermons were always lukewarm, feel good sermons for the wealthy and elite in this valley who attended his church. It must have been the Lord who led me to the Roys Report to find this information about Jon Coursen and his family. I feel relieved, vindicated at last from a very dark, bad experience. Bless you.
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