A prominent church near the campus of the University of North Carolina (UNC) is embroiled in controversy and bleeding members following allegations of spiritual abuse, abuse of power, racism, and sexism.
Chapel Hill Bible Church—a church of about 1,000, including several former and current UNC professors—has reportedly lost about 200 people over the past several years.
The church also has been the target of three investigations. The result of its most recent one, conducted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment), has not been made public despite calls by members to do so.
On Saturday, church elders responded to the growing unrest by telling members that if they don’t trust the leadership, they should leave.
In an email to church members, the elder board stated, “We will no longer refer or respond to the group that identifies as Concerned Members or Concerned Congregants. We will, of course, continue to engage with any individual that wishes to meet with us.
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“Unfortunately, some of our disagreements have been pushed into the public sphere by a handful of individuals likely because trust is broken,” the email continued. “Though we seek to rebuild that trust and we deeply lament their hurt, we recognize that The Bible Church may no longer be the best place for them to worship. We encourage these individuals to find a church community in which they can grow and thrive in peace without mistrust.”
Multiple current and former members say the message was simply another attempt to gaslight members into disbelieving that the church could be enabling emotional and spiritual abuse.
Concerns prompt 3 investigations
Chapel Hill Bible Church was founded more than 50 years ago on UNC’s campus and several of its current leaders are UNC faculty.
The church is now located less than five miles down the road from the university. Its lead pastor, Jay Thomas, who has written for The Gospel Coalition and other Reformed outlets, took the helm in 2011.
The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’sstudent newspaper, first reported the alleged abuses and dysfunction in an article published last week.
Multiple former church leaders and employees alleged in the report that the church has for years ignored concerns raised by women and minorities; enabled bullying and emotional abuse; and tried to hush up at least one former employee with a non-disparagement agreement.
An external investigation last year by a local attorney reportedly found the church’s then-executive pastor, Eric McKiddie, had acted “dismissive” and “demeaning” toward women on Chapel Hill Bible’s staff. That report determined McKiddie had emotionally abused both staffers and members of the church.
McKiddie resigned in April 2021 with severance when the investigation was finished.
However, the actions apparently did not satisfy all the concerns church members had. And in June, church leaders announced they would hire GRACE to assess how leadership responded to complaints and communicated with congregants. The church also commissioned Leighton Ford Ministries to look at the church’s governance structure and suggest solutions for problems it found.
But shortly afterward—before GRACE had started its work—the church reportedly fired one employee without explanation. The employee was offered three months’ severance on condition that she sign a non-disparagement agreement (NDA), the Daily Tar Heel reported. The woman reportedly chose not to sign.
TRR obtained a copy of the severance agreement dated Aug. 4, 2021. It states “she will not disparage or defame the Church, or any of the Related Parties,” and “she shall not reveal the existence of this Agreement, nor any of its terms,” except under certain narrow circumstances.
Advocates have previously told TRR that NDAs and similar contracts have no place in Christian organizations. TRR asked Chapel Hill Bible’s elders whether that language was standard in agreements with departing church employees, and how many such agreements were in effect, but we did not hear back.
Leighton Ford Ministries released an initial report to congregants in October 2021, and another one this past February. The reportnoted that leadership roles at the church were poorly defined. Leighton Ford Ministries is continuing to work with Chapel Hill to develop a new governance structure and implement it.
GRACE’s assessment began in September 2021 and was more comprehensive—evaluating the church’s communication and policies through a trauma-informed lens and recommending changes to create a safer church.
In February of this year, four elders resigned from the 38-member elder board. In a letter obtained by TRR, the elders explained why. They said church leaders were putting more priority on “loyalty, legal protections, reputations, community standing, membership numbers, and budgets” than on Gospel truth and caring for church members.
GRACE finished its assessment in November and provided a 64-page report to the elders. GRACE recommended the findings be released to the church.
However, the elders at Chapel Hill have refused to release GRACE’s full findings, citing privacy and employment-related concerns. Instead, elders published an 18-page summary.
According to the summary, the church had not been transparent or collaborative when it changed or eliminated ministries led by lay members. Some former employees had been offered or were under NDAs, the summary indicated.
Chapel Hill Bible had sometimes undermined its own teachings about women’s value, the summary stated. The church’s efforts to respond to racial and ethnic tensions had also been “plagued with challenges.” And though leaders offered several apologies, their statements “frequently questioned whether harm was really caused,” GRACE reportedly concluded.
According to the summary, GRACE also singled out Thomas as having a pattern of putting others down using “humor and innuendo.”
GRACE recommended a number of steps to show “sincere repentance” and ensure church staffers and congregants are better prepared to identify and respond to abuses.
Elders released the summary November 19. The next day, Thomas apologized for hurting people by the way he used sarcasm and teasing. The livestream video from that sermon was changed to private sometime Tuesday afternoon, and the apology was cut from the version posted to Chapel Hill Bible’s website, but TRR has obtained a copy of the videotaped apology.
‘A parade of gaslighting’
One longtime member, Debbie Yamauchi, resigned last week after the elders chose not to release the GRACE report. She told TRR that withholding the report was the last straw for her.
Yamauchi, whose father founded Chapel Hill Bible, wrote a letter with her husband to the elders. In it, the couple said their decision to leave came after five years of trying “to bring about positive change in the church.”
Yet, church leaders “were actually abusing their position of power in the organization to further their own interests,” including in refusing to release the GRACE report, the couple wrote.
Yamauchi and other church members decided to speak with news media “because we just really want people to be safe, and we do not want people to be harmed,” she told TRR.
Elders claimed in their email on Saturday that local news coverage “was inaccurate and misleading,” but they did not specify what they believed was inaccurate. Elders also did not respond when TRR asked for clarification.
“They didn’t refute anything we said,” Yamauchi told TRR.
One of the four elders who resigned earlier this year said he was “pretty shocked” by the elders’ claims of inaccuracies.
“They seemed to imply in their note that there was misinformation in there,” former elder Walker Hicks told TRR. “I’m pretty sure that’s just not true. There’s no misinformation that anybody knows of.” The elders’ weekend email was part of “a parade of gaslighting,” Hicks added.
Elders did not respond to that allegation when TRR reached out.
One example Hicks noted: The elders denied any physical or sexual abuse had happened at the church, but no one has alleged that, to his knowledge.
Yamauchi added, “I think (the elders) don’t really see spiritual and emotional abuse as abuse—I think that’s some of it.”
Hicks also pointed out that a group of more than 80 “concerned congregants” had communicated with the elders about a year ago.
As far as he knew, they have not done so as a group since. But the elders’ email made it sound like the group had “been continuing to agitate constantly,” Hicks said. “That was just completely a misrepresentation.”
Dee Parsons wrote at The Wartburg Watch that Chapel Hill Bible—her former church—essentially told concerned members in their latest communication to “get lost.”
The church had formerly been a “thoughtful church” receptive to members’ ministry ideas, Parsons told TRR. But it became authoritarian after Thomas took over, she added. She and her husband left in 2014.
Parsons told TRR she opposed Thomas’s hiring at the time, fearing he would bring an authoritarian New Calvinism with him. She said the elders’ recent email, telling those who disagree with leaders to leave the church, “was exactly what I expected.”
Sarah Einselen is an award-winning writer and editor based in Texas.