Tuesday, April 21

Highly critical report targets valleybrook church eau claire

A downtown Eau Claire church is picking up the pieces after a scandal that tested the faith of the congregation and led to the resignations of the entire pastoral team amid allegations of “spiritual abuse.”
Four Valleybrook Church pastors left after widespread claims surfaced about them pushing members and staff to reject their families, matching unrelated pairs of parishioners into “knit-together” relationships to replace biological family, sharing personal information gained in confidence, and abusing their authority by demeaning and shaming others.
At the heart of the allegations sits Doug Lebsack, the charismatic former lead pastor who was Valleybrook’s spiritual leader for the past decade.
Converge Great Lakes, a denomination with evangelical Baptist roots that helped start Valleybrook 21 years ago in the former Hollywood Cinema, sent a crisis intervention team to Eau Claire last month to investigate claims made by Grant Schultz, another former Valleybrook pastor. Schultz indicated in a letter that he resigned when it became clear to him that the abusive practices were inappropriate and pushing the church away from God.

After the team spent more than 28 hours interviewing 57 current and former Valleybrook members and attendees, it issued a final report highly critical of practices at the church, which occupies several prominent buildings on the 400 block of South Barstow Street.
The report, which recently was read aloud to the congregation, indicated the fundamental goal of the team’s investigation was to determine whether the pastoral staff used their positions and authority to cultivate dysfunctional trust, manipulate people and violate the code of ministerial ethics.
“The overwhelming answer is yes,” the report states. “There is a clear and widespread pattern of spiritual abuse led by the former lead pastor, embraced by the former co-lead pastor, the former teaching pastor and the current executive pastor.
“This abusive approach to ministry was taught to others. Some of the overseers, whether intentional or not, also participated in this abuse at worst and at best were silent when it was taking place.”
‘Misuse of power’
After reviewing the report, Charlene Burns, chairwoman of UW-Eau Claire’s philosophy and religious studies department, characterized Valleybrook’s past pastoral practices as clearly unethical.
“It’s misuse of power in a very damaging way,” Burns said.
Such wayward practices turn up in churches every so often, she said, and typically are triggered by folks psychologists label as social predators.
“Unfortunately, it’s not rare. This kind of thing does happen in all religions,” Burns said, noting that Christians are particularly susceptible because of their predisposition toward forgiveness.
Still, she called the extent and depth of the abuse at Valleybrook “pretty shocking” and said the behavior displayed “elements of cultlike activity.” She recalled a student last semester confiding that he left Valleybrook — and realized the situation was dangerous — when staff demanded he cut off connections with his family.
Burns said she is thankful the behavior came to light now — before it elevated to an even more damaging level.
The tumultuous situation at Valleybrook also led to the resignations of three of the church’s overseers.
Lebsack did not respond to several attempts to reach him for comment, including messages left at the Texas church where he is believed to have moved.
Report questioned
Mary Clark, one of the assistant pastors who resigned in the wake of the allegations, said in an email that she was troubled about the process of the investigation that led to the report.
“The investigation team did not seek to verify any of the information they gathered,” Clark said. “I know of some specific allegations that could be easily proven as false, but no one took the time or even minimal effort in seeking out the truth.
“The week before the report was shared half of the remaining staff and overseers resigned because they could not in good conscience continue on with the presenting of a report that did not follow due diligence.”
Valleybrook’s transitional officials did not respond to emails or telephone messages seeking comment about the allegations but did release a statement indicating the church values transparency and integrity in the pursuit of living a Christian life.
“That is why it has saddened the leadership of Valleybrook Church to become aware of a pattern of dysfunction and spiritual abuse which started with its pastoral leaders and overseers and worked its way down to the congregation,” the statement said.
The statement added that the church, with the help of Converge, has begun the process of confronting key pastoral staff and is reviewing personnel policies and procedures “to make sure these kinds of issues never happen again.”
“With the help of a transitional leadership team, we aim to restore the heart of Valleybrook Church and once again be a light in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” the statement continued.
Cultivating loyalty
The church’s tipping point came when Schultz wrote a nine-page letter in February exposing the manipulative practices and announcing his resignation. In the letter, widely distributed among parishioners, he explained that he was vulnerable when he came to Valleybrook and in need of a mentor to steer him in the right direction.
“Enter Doug Lebsack. Doug was strong, direct and exactly what I needed,” Schultz wrote. “I couldn’t trust myself, but I could trust him. And now I realize that he exploited my trust in him, along with specific deep wounds and past sin, to keep me dependent on him, to keep me ultimately loyal to him alone, and to control my beliefs and implementation of those beliefs, even as it veered into cult-like mentality and belief, focused not on Jesus Christ, but on Doug and his life and the ‘things’ he would ‘see’ from God.”
Schultz, who didn’t respond to emails seeking further comment, detailed in his letter how, early on in their relationship, Lebsack cried and complained how much Schultz had hurt him by expressing fears of crossing inappropriate boundaries.
“Then, after shaming me, he soothed me, told me he loved me, told me no one had ever invested in me but that he would invest in me, and if I would be loyal to him, he would take care of me,” Schultz wrote, adding that several times over the years Lebsack told Schultz he was unemployable anywhere else.
But when Schultz approached Lebsack and the co-lead pastor about the inappropriateness of their use of profanity and slang in sermons, Lebsack lit into Schultz and called him “full of the devil” for questioning him, according to the letter.
“That was the biggest crack for me to that point, that this church I’ve poured my heart into, where I came alive, now operates as a cult, where people are spiritually, emotionally, mentally, verbally, psychologically abused into trusting Doug instead of trusting God,” Schultz wrote.
Divine inspiration claims
Lebsack turned Valleybrook into a fringe church with an isolationist mindset and coached the pastoral team into believing it was the only valid church in the area, possibly in the world, Schultz’s letter said. The letter went on to say many of Lebsack’s teachings came from what he claimed were direct revelations from God, and then the pastors would twist Scripture to fit the theology.
“New things, new revelations, new truths. All false, all heretical, all manipulative. With just enough truth, and just enough fruit, to make us focus on the good, and distract us from the growing darkness,” wrote Schultz, a pastor at Valleybrook for seven years who expressed regret he did not act on his misgivings sooner.
Similarly, Lebsack claimed God gave him the structure of the knit-together relationships that created much friction among parishioners and their families, the letter indicates.
Every now and then Burns has heard of small nondenominational congregations that make too much of the knitting concept, which she said comes from a misinterpretation of a Bible passage.
“It’s making way too much of a passing phrase,” Burns said.
Clark, the former Valleybrook assistant pastor, maintained the concept was not new to her, although she previously had not heard the term “knitting” associated with it.
“In the churches I grew up in, there were often older, more mature Christians that came alongside younger believers,” Clark said. “We would have called that spiritual parenting or mentorship.”
The Converge report reveals that the pastoral team’s pattern of tearing down, building up and creating dependence was repeated with many Valleybrook parishioners and staff members.
Multiple people told investigators stories about pastors telling them they were special and would play a significant role in the future of the ministry at Valleybrook. But later, when they resisted Lebsack’s guidance, they reported being shamed.
Many people also reported that Lebsack would get them to divulge intimate details of their lives and then later use that information against them, the report says.
“People reported that after tearing them down and pointing out all their faults in a very harsh way, the former lead pastor would then tell them how only he loves them and only he has invested so much into their lives,” the report states.
The crisis intervention team’s conclusions are all backed by stories from numerous sources, and a significant number of the people interviewed provided written documentation of their claims, according to Converge Great Lakes, which has 114 congregations in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Madison-based organization is a branch of Converge Worldwide, which changed its name from the Baptist General Conference in 2008.
“It really is amazing to me just how classic this stuff looks,” Burns said. “It’s just the classic cycle of abuse.”
Families targeted
Matthew Mitchell, a former Valleybrook staff member, is one of many people claiming Lebsack successfully pushed him to sever ties with his family.
Through a process Mitchell labeled “drinking the Kool-Aid,” Mitchell said Lebsack sent this message: “Whether you know it or not, your family has abused you, and you need us.”
And Mitchell admitted that he initially fell for it, succumbing to Lebsack’s personal appeals. Mitchell recalled Lebsack making such statements as “The more time you tell me you spend with your mom, the more I sense you hate me,” and “God is telling me you’re not supposed to visit your family this weekend.”
“He wanted total dependence on him, and the way he achieved that was by ripping everything else down. He was using God’s name to get people to do what he wanted them to do,” said Mitchell, who has written a series of blogs about his Valleybrook experience titled “Tales from the Cult.”
Schultz’s letter also alleges that Lebsack used similar manipulative tactics, attempting to turn Schultz against his family and especially his father by saying things like, “He’s never valued you; they don’t know who you are, but I know who you are.”
Clark’s sister, Naomi Vogel of Madison, said she noticed that Clark steadily pulled back from family connections in the years after Lebsack arrived at Valleybrook, finally cutting off contact with their parents last summer.
“It has incredibly affected my parents,” said Vogel, who spent part of her childhood in Eau Claire and even attended Valleybrook for a while.
Clark denied severing ties with family, but said she put some strong boundaries in place with one family member.
“No one at Valleybrook encouraged, pushed, coerced or even had input on that decision,” Clark said.
But Vogel, who has read the Converge report, said allegations of similar actions in many families suggest Lebsack manipulated people to reject their families.
“What was happening at Valleybrook goes way beyond normal church stuff. A lot of the stuff in the report seems very sick and messed up to me,” Vogel said, adding that she wants the word to get out so other families don’t have to go through the same strife as her family.
Still, Clark stressed that Valleybrook was a positive force in the lives of many area residents.
“I've had an outpouring of people reaching out to me to tell me how grateful they are for Valleybrook Church and the positive, life-changing, relationship-healing experiences they had there,” she said. “Those experiences include restored marriages, healed family relationships and freedom from addictions. They feel burdened that those occurrences aren't being shared.”
Looking ahead
Despite all of the upheaval, Maggie Krippner, who has attended Valleybrook for about eight years, said she still loves the church, which at times has attracted more than 1,000 parishioners to Sunday services. But she acknowledged the climate got “creepy” on Lebsack’s watch.
Krippner, who described Lebsack’s sermons as being theatrical and often punctuated by tears, said the allegations have rocked the congregation.
“Nobody can believe it really all happened,” she said. “I feel violated, my spiritual self, and I think a lot of people feel that way.”
Yet newly installed interim lead pastor Tim Haugen described an attitude of hopeful anticipation as the congregation seeks to move past the scandal and leadership aims to restore Valleybrook’s health.
“There is a united core of people who are resolved to pursue meaningful community with one another, while also seeking to be a blessing to others in the Chippewa Valley,” Haugen said in an email.
For Valleybrook to move forward, the crisis intervention team’s report calls for a total renovation of the church’s leadership culture and for a professional review or audit to be conducted by an outside entity.
The report also recommended that the former pastors’ ordination and licensing be stripped and their clergy status removed if they refuse to submit to a restoration process that would include writing confession statements and seeking professional counseling.
Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 oreric.lindquist@ecpc.com.

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