The Battle for a Missouri Megachurch After Sex Abuse

A band plays at First Christian Church of Florissant on Sunday, May 31, 2015, at the beginning of worship service. (Lilly Fowler, lfowler@post-dispatch.com)
A band plays at First Christian Church of Florissant on Sunday, May 31, 2015, at the beginning of worship service. (Lilly Fowler, lfowler@post-dispatch.com)

A nine-piece band plays inside a church auditorium, and three projection screens hang overhead, including one in the center that flashes lyrics. The band’s repertoire consists of Christian songs that could easily be mistaken for mainstream pop music. First Christian Church of Florissant members stand, clap and sway in response.

Yet, as he prepares to deliver his sermon, Pastor Steve Wingfield apologizes for the small crowd at the long-standing megachurch.

Wingfield has strawberry blond hair and is dressed in a black, long-sleeved, buttoned shirt and gray khakis as he digs into the current series of sermons focusing on the “Path to Restoration.” Today’s message is about broken relationships, a hardship afflicting even the closest knit families, including church families.

“If you want to be part of an imperfect church family, where flawed people are trying to figure this thing out together, you’re welcome here,” Wingfield tells a half-filled auditorium, while revealing details about his home life, including his role as a grandfather.

Members of the church are trying to figure things out, though whether the congregation has managed to do that in any kind of unified way is up for debate.

The church is still reeling from the recent conviction of Brandon Milburn, a former youth minister at the church who in March was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys.

Many members accuse Wingfield of mishandling the sexual abuse crisis at the church. They claim the pastor failed to report Milburn even after members brought the youth minister’s questionable behavior to his attention, that he has done little to reach out to victims or seek out other potential victims, and that church leadership has done a poor job of communicating with members.

“I am beyond frustrated at the way this has been managed and heartbroken that the church I once called home and love deeply has mishandled this situation so severely,” Titus Benton, a former student minister at the church, said in a recent letter to church leadership. “First Christian has invited suspicion.”

Congregants further claim that the mismanagement of the situation is part of a larger pattern: Wingfield’s authoritarian style leaves little room for discussion, and key staff members and dozens of families have fled.

In fact, Wingfield sued several critics of the congregation in April, asking that they retract alleged false statements from social media. The defamation lawsuit was ultimately dropped so that an independent Christian mediation process could begin and as “a sign of good faith,” according to court documents.

A further indication of just how complicated (and ugly) the situation at First Christian Church has become came in May when Doug Lay, a critic of the pastor, resigned from his position as professor of English at St. Louis Christian College. The resignation came after Paul Wingfield, Steve Wingfield’s brother, a pastor at White Flag Christian Church, near Arnold, pulled funding from the college.

And just last week, Dawn Varvil, a vocal critic of the church who knew Milburn well and who was sued by Wingfield, threatened to sue the pastor unless he issues a letter of apology, provides victims with financial assistance for counseling, reviews the church’s sexual abuse policies and reimburses her legal fees.

Wingfield took over First Christian Church five years before the death in 2012 of his father, Charles, a former pastor with a strong standing in the community. Wingfield’s mother, Ruth, is still active in the congregation that at its height included more than 1,200 members.

Wingfield would not comment for this story, but in an April letter to the congregation apologized “for any inadequacies in our best intentioned but imperfect response. We hope that the church never has to go through something like this again, but we will work to improve our response.”

Church leaders also indicated that they were working to secure additional counseling resources for those directly affected by the abuse.

And there are members of the congregation who think Wingfield is being treated unfairly.

Kitty Streiler, a longtime member and deacon, said many people, not just Wingfield, were fooled by Milburn. Although Streiler admits the crisis has caused attendance to drop, she believes the congregation is on the mend.

“Whatever had been lacking for a period of time, it’s back,” Streiler said. “The Holy Spirit is here in this church.”

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SOURCE: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Lilly Fowler

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