In late March, I reached out to Brian White, then the executive director of Great Commission Collective (GCC), urging him to investigate how churches and leaders within his organization had handled the situation described in this article. White said he would do that. About three weeks later, he concluded his investigation without talking to Anne Frers, the woman alleging wrongdoing. He told Frers in an email that GCC was not responsible for what happened to her and encouraged Frers to have the elders at her church contact the elders at Fairfax Bible Church (formerly Harvest Bible Chapel Fairfax), a GCC church, if she wanted to pursue the matter further. An elder from Frers’ church contacted HBC Fairfax Pastor Jeff Hoenshell and requested a meeting, but Hoenshell refused to meet. As a result, I decided to investigate the situation with the help of a friend and colleague, Patti Townley-Covert. This is the second of a two-part series. Click here to read part one.
From 2008—2015, Anne Frers’ husband served various pastoral roles for churches in Harvest Bible Fellowship—Harvest Bible Chapel’s former church planting network, which dissolved in 2017 and then re-formed independently as the Great Commission Collective (GCC). And for all those years, Frers said her husband abused her—physically, sexually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Frers, who goes by her maiden name, said she reached out to Harvest leaders numerous times for help but never got the help she needed. In their defense, these leaders, who now hold prominent positions in GCC, say Frers didn’t call her husband’s behavior “abuse” until near the end of his employment at Harvest.
But Frers says she exhibited all the tell-tale signs of abuse, which Harvest counselors and pastors should have recognized. And even when the abuse became evident, these leaders left her to fend for herself and didn’t respond to her repeated pleas for help. The leaders admit they did not respond to Frers, but say they were justified in doing so. One leader, however, who is no longer associated with Harvest or GCC, expressed regret over what he had done.
Frers Alleges HBC Davenport Ignored Signs of Abuse
According to Rob Willey—senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel (HBC) Davenport (now Coram Deo Bible Church) and chairman of the GCC board—he and his leaders first became aware of problems in Frers’ marriage in March 2012.
Frers’ husband (whose name Frers asked us not to use for fear of retribution) worked at HBC Davenport from 2008—2012 as the young adult pastor. And Willey said during that time, the couple seemed exemplary and Frers’ husband seemed an exemplary pastor. “Not a single person has come to us, either then or now, who was on staff or in leadership in our church, saying that Anne indicated to them that something was wrong with their marriage,” Willey said. “It looked to us as though they had an exemplary marriage. There were no indicators otherwise. Absolutely none.”
When I relayed this to Frers, she gasped. “I’m shocked he could say that,” Frers said. She said she repeatedly told leadership at HBC Davenport about issues in her marriage and that she didn’t feel comfortable with her husband serving as a pastor. Frers said she never told them that her husband hit her or forced himself on her. But she said she repeatedly let certain leaders know that everything was not okay.
Frers said one of the leaders she confided in was Becky Willey, Rob Willey’s wife. Frers said she confessed to Becky that she felt like a hypocrite because she and her husband’s marriage didn’t resemble what Frers’ husband taught about marriage. Frers said Becky Willey never seemed concerned about what Frers shared, so Frers dropped the matter.
However, Frers said in 2012, she told Becky Willey that she was afraid to join her husband who had three months earlier moved to Fairfax, Virginia, to plant a church. Frers said Willey dismissed her concerns, saying that all she had to do was sleep with her husband and things would be fine.
Frers said this answer was typical for Becky Willey. Frers said in meetings with other pastors’ wives, Willey would teach wives that their number one role as wives was to give their husbands what no one else could—sex. Frers said Willey told wives that it was a sin for women to refuse their husbands sexually. This was one of the reasons Frers said she didn’t tell leaders at HBC Davenport about her husband’s sexual abuse. “I feared (my husband),” Frers said, “but I feared God even more.”
Angie Walters, whose husband helped plant HBC Davenport with the Willeys and served as a pastor from 2004—2012, said she never heard Willey explicitly say it’s a sin to say no to a spouse, but said the teaching was implicit in the culture at HBC Davenport. Walters said Willey put an inordinate emphasis on encouraging pastors’ wives to have sex with their husbands frequently and to be submissive. She added that wives were told that whenever they had problems with their spouse, “use sex to get over it. If you’ve had a fight, have sex.”
However, Becky Willey denied that she ever taught women that it was a sin to say no to their husband’s sexual advances. Willey said she often teaches on biblical submission and sexual intimacy based on 1 Corinthians 7, which encourages husbands and wives to fulfill their “marital duty” to one another. But Willey said she prefaces her teaching by saying that submission is not submitting to being physically or emotionally abused. Willey added that she doesn’t remember Frers ever mentioning any problems in her marriage.
Another person to whom Frers said she divulged marital issues while at HBC Davenport was former associate pastor, John Cochran. Frers said she told Cochran that she and her husband fought frequently, and that her husband would “corner her” and would not allow her to go out, spend money, or ask questions. Frers added that during their time in Davenport, Cochran saw Frers cower at her husband and exclaimed to her husband, “Look at her! She’s terrified of you!”
Cochran said he couldn’t remember saying those words to Frers’ husband. He said he may have said something like that after the couple left Davenport in 2012, but not before. Like Willey, Cochran maintains that Frers never said anything while at Davenport that indicated her husband was abusing her and added that her husband appeared to be a model pastor. However, Cochran said even after he learned of problems in the couple’s marriage, he never suspected abuse. When I asked him how he could have mentioned that Anne was terrified, yet not suspected abuse, Cochran said, “I think every couple that’s having marriage issues comes through that at some point . . . At some point, there’s tension or whatever.”
Bob Brueggen, who served as HBC Davenport executive pastor from 2008—2013, said he was surprised Willey and Cochran would describe Frers’ husband as “exemplary.” Brueggen said he didn’t know about any abuse. But he said Frers’ husband didn’t do well in any of the roles the church gave him, especially ones that required shepherding. Yet, since Willey thought Frers’ husband was a good preacher, Brueggen said the church decided to send Frers’ husband to Fairfax, Virginia, in January 2012 to plant a church.
Both Brueggen and Angie Walters questioned Willey’s ability to recognize and assess abuse because they both claimed Willey maintained a “toxic” and abusive culture at HBC Davenport. Brueggen said Willey pushed him out at HBC Davenport because Brueggen raised concerns about Willey’s leadership in an elders’ meeting. Walters claimed Willey ruled the church with “an iron fist,” and described Cochran as Willey’s “hatchet man” and “a recovering binge drinker who should have never been elevated to ministry.”
When I asked Cochran, who’s no longer at Coram Deo, about Brueggen’s and Walters’ assessment of him and Willey, he said, “That’s their opinion and I can’t speak to their opinion.” But he added that the church has since made changes, and that he has been sober 31 years.
More Indications of Abuse
In June 2012, Frers’ good friend, Jaime DuBard—wife of Mike DuBard, pastor of an independent Harvest church in Chattanooga, Tennessee—said Frers broke down and told her about serious problems in her marriage while both were attending a Gospel Coalition conference.
Jaime DuBard said Frers told her that her husband used Scripture against her. “Something was majorly wrong,” Du Bard said. “There were physical things and spiritual and definitely high-emotional abuse. ‘You can’t do this; you can only do that. You can’t say this; you can only say that.’ There was a lot of dominant, overpowering behavior.”
Yet DuBard said that back then, Frers didn’t understand what constitutes domestic violence. Frers agreed with that assessment and added that she often felt guilty whenever she told someone about her husband’s abuse. As a result, Frers said she’d try not to talk about the abuse—and when she did, she’d sometimes retract what she had said.
DuBard said she was deeply disturbed by what Frers had told her at the conference, so she told her husband about it. Mike DuBard, who previously had worked at HBC Davenport, said he called Willey and relayed what Frers had told his wife. “I made sure (Willey) understood and that he knew,” DuBard said. “And I assumed that he would take care of it.”
Willey said he doesn’t remember DuBard’s phone call. And Cochran said Willey never mentioned any concerns that DuBard had raised to him. However, Willey said that by June 2012, HBC Davenport leaders had already “started hearing rumblings” about Frers’ marital issues.
Angie Walters said that by that time, she also had heard of Frers’ alleged abuse from both Jaime DuBard and people on staff at HBC Davenport. She said she heard people use the word “abuse,” but said she didn’t know any specifics about the couple’s marriage issues.
In October or November 2012, Willey said Cochran and his wife began meeting regularly with Frers and her husband by Skype. And in November 2012, Cochran and Willey, who were the acting HBC Fairfax elders at the time, recommended that Frers and her husband attend Soul Care’s intensive counseling.
That intensive counseling took place in the Chicago area and was led by Garrett Higbee, former executive director of Biblical Soul Care at the main Harvest in Chicago, and now the director of pastoral care for GCC. Also attending the counseling as “advocates” were Cochran and his wife.
Frers said she described the same behaviors to Higbee that she had described to Jaime DuBard. But she said Higbee did not address her husband’s abusive behavior.
Instead, Frers said that after her husband mentioned that Frers had threatened to leave him if his behavior didn’t change, “Garrett Higbee told me that if you bring that up you were essentially not cooperating in your marriage. So, I was basically made to feel like I was the problem that weekend, that it was my fault for wanting to leave.”
Higbee would not discuss any specifics that happened during the session. However, he said that in general, “We hold men to a very high account on treating their wife with love and respect and care and if we see dynamics—which I knew there was controlling dynamics there—we call the guy out on that.”
Frers said after the intensive counseling, her marriage was “a thousand times worse” because her husband was angry about how much she had revealed.
Higbee said Frers never reported to him directly that she was being abused. However, in an email to Frers in 2019, Higbee said that following the intensive, he told “HBF leaders,” including “the advocates”—John and Jamy Cochran—and “those who will pick up the counsel”—HBC Fairfax elders—about Frers’ husband’s “controlling tendencies.”
“We hold men to a very high account on treating their wife with love and respect and care and if we see dynamics—which I knew there was controlling dynamics there—we call the guy out on that.”
Frers said the abuse continued and more than two years later, she sent an email to Willey and Cochran, once again appealing to them for help. She wrote that due to her husband’s view of headship/submission and its implications, she did not feel “comfortable in the role/position he has in the church.”
According to Frers, nobody from the church ever contacted her in response to that email. Instead, she said HBC Davenport told her husband about her email, which enraged him. Frers said this escalated the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse.
In February 2015, Willey and Cochran delegated oversight of HBC Fairfax to an inaugural group of local elders—Mark Tyler and Scott Muchow. Tyler, who no longer attends the Fairfax church, said that the night before he and Muchow were installed, Willey and Cochran told them about some issues in their senior pastor’s marriage.
At this point, Cochran said he and Willey recommended that the Fairfax elders seek the input of a professional counselor, which they did. A multi-week investigation resulted. Though Frers said she was never given the results of the investigation, the counselor who was involved later wrote a letter for Frers’ divorce proceedings that confirmed a diagnosis of abuse. The counselor wrote that Frers’ husband was “untrustworthy, dishonest, manipulative, and emotionally abusive towards (Frers) in his attempts to control her and essentially ‘own’ her.” He added, “I am afraid for (Frers) should she remain in the home with (her husband). He is an intimidating, domineering, and hyper-controlling man.”
Frers Hospitalized for PTSD
According to Frers, on July 28, 2015, the HBC Fairfax elders told Frers in front of her husband that her husband had resigned effective the following Sunday. The elders then sent the couple home—together.
Frers said the next 48 hours were the worst days of her life. She said the physical and emotional abuse was so bad that she was vomiting several times a day and thought she was going to die.
“This is domestic violence 101,” said Frers who now volunteers at an abuse shelter. “After revealing abuse and confronting an abuser, you do NOT send the victim home with the abuser. Not one person checked in with me in the 48 hours. There was no ‘safety’ plan put in place. It was and remains (in my mind) a nightmare.”
“This is domestic violence 101 . . . After revealing abuse and confronting an abuser, you do NOT send the victim home with the abuser. Not one person checked in with me in the 48 hours. There was no ‘safety’ plan put in place.”
Frers said no one responded to her email. And two days later, Frers checked herself into Inova Hospital in Fairfax, VA, for self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Frers said doctors there quickly recognized that she was an abuse victim and diagnosed her with PTSD due to her husband’s prolonged emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical abuse. Frers remained in the hospital for a month, receiving care.
Frers Told to Move Back in With Her Husband
Around this time, Frers said Rick Donald, former assistant senior pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, got involved. Frers said when she was dismissed from the hospital, Donald had arranged for Frers to live with her husband and children at a house next to a Harvest church in Lancaster, PA (now called Mission Church). Frers said Donald communicated that HBC Lancaster pastor, Jamie Mitchell, would counsel the couple.
Yet Frers said doctors had recommended that Frers not have any contact with her husband and instead get a protective order against him. Frers said she pleaded with Donald and HBC Fairfax elders not to make her move back in with her husband. She said she also asked them to provide counseling in Virginia so she wouldn’t have to uproot her children and undergo counseling with Mitchell, with whom she didn’t feel comfortable.
I called and texted Rick Donald for comment but he did not respond.
Mitchell said he did not know about the abuse and would not have suggested that the couple live together had he known. He added that he doesn’t do marriage counseling and was not planning on counseling the couple. Mitchell was removed from his church in 2016. Mitchell said the reason for his dismissal was a moral failure that had occurred off and on during the two years leading up to his dismissal.
Harvest Withdraws All Support
Frers said that because she refused to submit to Donald’s plan, Harvest withdrew all support and the Fairfax elders instructed her husband to move back into the family’s Fairfax home, which he did. Frers said she then sought the help of an attorney and a domestic violence center. Frers said she feared if she moved out immediately with her children, her husband could use it as grounds to seek custody of the children.
In March 2016, Frers’ attorney gave her the go-ahead to move out. And in early June, Frers filed for divorce based on cruelty. Soon after, Frers’ husband filed a motion for custody of the children, claiming that Frers suffered “severe mental health issues.” The motion also stated that Frers had rejected “the leadership of her former church, who attempted to emotionally encourage and assist her.”
Frantic that she might lose her kids, Frers sent emails the day before a custody hearing to Harvest leadership, including Mitchell, Willey, Cochran, and HBC Fairfax elders—Mark Tyler and Scott Muchow. Frers pleaded with the men to testify on her behalf, appealing to compassion and justice. “I have lost my church, my home, have no access to our finances, and now am standing to lose our children . . . all because I reached out 7 years ago for help,” she wrote. Mike DuBard said he also wrote Willey and Cochran, urging them to help by writing a character reference for Frers.
Frers said none of the men responded other than Mitchell who chastised Frers for “removing herself from spiritual oversight” and submitting “this situation under the authority of the government” by filing for divorce. When asked recently about their non-response, Willey and Cochran said they didn’t respond to Frers because HBC Davenport had already turned over all of Frers’ care and support to the Fairfax church.
Frers said none of the men responded other than Mitchell who chastised Frers for “removing herself from spiritual oversight” and submitting “this situation under the authority of the government” by filing for divorce.
During the months-long battle for custody, Frers repeatedly asked the Fairfax elders to tell the court why her husband had been asked to resign, but they did not respond. Frers also reached out to Higbee to testify on her behalf. Higbee said he didn’t get involved in Frers’ legal issues because he had no authority outside of the church campuses in Chicago. He added that though he occasionally consulted with HBC Fairfax, he didn’t know what was going on with Frers and her husband.
As a result of Harvest leaders’ inaction, Frers—now a single mom struggling to make ends meet—said she had to spend more than $51,000 defending against her ex-husband’s allegations. She said she also had to pay about $11,000 for depositions and a court-ordered psych evaluation, which confirmed her PTSD diagnosis and concluded that Frers was capable “to fulfill the parenting role.”
Frers said she would have subpoenaed the Harvest leaders but issuing the subpoenas and deposing the men was expensive. And since she had limited finances, Frers said she had to be very selective.
On November 2, 2016, Frers was granted residential custody of her children with her ex-husband sharing legal custody. On July 17, 2017, she was granted a divorce.
Frers said when she left her husband, she felt like she was leaving Christianity because that’s the message Harvest communicated. She said she’s involved in a church now but is still trying to disentangle true Christianity from what she was taught and experienced.
In preparation for this article, Frers reached out again to Mark Tyler to confirm what she knew to be true—that her husband had been dismissed with cause. On May 1, 2019, Tyler wrote a letter, saying that Frers’ husband’s “resignation was not a sudden event, but was acted upon after a multi-week investigation into the nature of (their) marriage and specifically (Frers’ husband’s) conduct toward Anne. . . . (Frers’ husband) resigned as senior pastor because of serious areas of sin in his life. . . The public announcement also stated that these areas of sin were at a level that his full attention was needed to work on his marriage.”
Tyler said he wished he had sent the letter to Frers sooner. But at the time, the HBC Fairfax elders had agreed to withhold that information.
Patti Townley-Covert is an award-winning freelancer, who lives in Southern California. She is currently working on her memoir: The Windblown Girl: A Love Story about Self, Sex, and Social Justice. For more information, see ptcovert.com