Corrections & clarifications: Megan Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson are from Indiana. A previous headline for this story misidentified their state of residence.
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — The first time the two women came forward to disclose allegations of pastoral abuse, they were 18. They were told to keep quiet and that speaking up would be bad for their reputations.
Recently, they tried again to speak up, and once again, they were urged to stay silent.
Their accusation: The top candidate for lead pastor at First Baptist Clarksville in Tennessee manipulated them both into secret relationships – one of them sexual – while he was serving as their youth group leader in 2002.
The two women say their calls for action by the church have gone unheeded, not just when the abuse happened 17 years ago, but again today, with the chairman of the FBC pastoral search committee continuing the cover-up.
'In the Dream House': Carmen Maria Machado powerfully explores trauma of abuse
Megan Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson, who are both from Evansville, Indiana, told The Leaf-Chronicle in separate interviews that Wes Feltner — now lead pastor of preaching and vision at Berean Baptist in Burnsville, Minnesota — engaged in this pastoral abuse at First Southern Baptist Church in their hometown of Evansville, Indiana.
Their claims came to light recently when the chairman of FBC's pastoral search committee, Paul Batson, reached out for information about Feltner's past, and spoke with another pastor who was friends with both Feltner and the two women at that time. That pastor has confirmed their accounts to The Leaf-Chronicle. Ultimately, their conversations with that pastor led the two women to talk with Batson, and then to write detailed statements about their relationships with Feltner, which they sent to Batson.
Batson responded in a statement to The Leaf-Chronicle, saying in part: "The intent was not to downplay the events, or sins as we call them in church, except to say that they were in a dating context. ... The important thing to know is that if there is any angst at this point in the process, point it at me, not at the church."
Neither FBC nor Berean Baptist officials have responded to Leaf-Chronicle requests for official comment.
Feltner, in a statement to The Leaf-Chronicle, emphasized that the incidents happened 17 years ago when he was single and working as a youth leader.
"I agree with some of the facts alleged in the statements and deeply regret the hurt I might have caused to the women. But some of the allegations are not true and do not reflect who I was 17 years ago nor who I am today."
Counseling shifts into sex, woman says
The two say the abuse started when the women were 18 and still members of Feltner's youth group. Frey was a high school senior when Feltner began counseling her after a breakup. She said it quickly progressed into a sexual relationship.
"I remembered that at maybe the second counseling session, he hugged me. It was a long, tight, close hug and caught me off guard. It made me uncomfortable," Frey said.
"It went on to meeting at the Starbucks at Barnes & Noble. Then it progressed to meeting at his house, but I was not allowed to park there. He said it would look bad if my car was parked at his house. That progressed into having a bubble bath ready one evening," recalled Frey, who said that within a month or so, the two were engaged in a sexual relationship that Feltner insisted must be kept private.
Battle with addiction: Demi Moore's daughter reveals her mother's battle with addiction was like 'a monster came'
"I was told we couldn’t tell anyone right now because he had a public girlfriend, and it wouldn’t look good to the church if he went from one relationship he’d been in a long time into another," Frey said. "Also, since I was in the youth group and had just turned 18, it was that fuzzy line.”
Frey said the two even went to Las Vegas alone together.
Soon, she had a pregnancy scare, and said Feltner's reaction was troubling: “He was very terrified. He said it would take care of itself, and we would work it out.”
But that wasn't the only thing that troubled her.
"When we returned, I started questioning things. I paid more attention," said Frey, who said Feltner promised to take her to meet his parents even as she started to harbor doubts about him. "I noticed a brown bobby pin and an earring lying near each other next to his bed. I questioned a lot. I was very wary of nights that I wasn’t there (at his house)."
She says she now knows that some of those nights she wasn't there, Feltner was engaging in another secret relationship with a fellow youth group member.
Second secret relationship
JoAnna Hendrickson said her relationship with Feltner started after she interned with him the summer after her senior year. Hendrickson had also just ended another relationship, and said Feltner called her into his office and told her that he was interested in pursuing a relationship with her, even though he was publicly dating another woman.
“When he first met with me, he really played on my past relationship. I had broken up with the guy I was dating because I felt like we weren’t on the same path as far as ministry and just long term, and it wasn't going to end in marriage," recalled Hendrickson, who said Feltner used the same logic to persuade her that his public relationship was also doomed.
She said Feltner said all the right things to make her trust him, including assuring her that fellow church leaders had given him their blessing to pursue her.
"He said all these people are in agreement this could be a very good match, that both of us together would work well in ministry and that they supported it. That was a big push for me … for him to use people I respected."
Hendrickson said their relationship also quickly got physical but never progressed to sex.
"There were several times that I would bring up to him my concerns about our relationship, about the physical side and how it was progressing and also spiritually," Hendrickson said. "He would make me feel very small in those circumstances. He would manipulate it in a way to make me feel like I was immature, that I was not ready for this kind of relationship, that I needed to be an adult in this situation and that I shouldn’t question him in regards to his judgment ... and that I shouldn’t try to tell him how to lead spiritually. He would make me feel my questions were just showing my immaturity."
Despite her misgivings, Hendrickson said she also felt flattered Feltner had chosen to pursue her.
“At the time, he was a very well-respected person in our church, and he’s telling me that he wants to pursue me for marriage," Hendrickson said. "In my heart I wanted to pursue ministry. For me to have this well-respected individual in the church come to me and tell me that he sees this in me. It was flattering to say it’s not just me that sees this calling in my life; he’s acknowledging it and saying he wants me to be alongside him in this."
Secrets unravel at youth retreat
The women say everything came to a head at a youth retreat, in which the other pastor who was friends with them all figured out Feltner was carrying on secretive relationships with Frey and Hendrickson at the same time he was publicly dating his girlfriend.
They all said in their statements they vividly recall Feltner's reaction, saying he referred to himself as a "dead man" whose ministry was over. When they returned home, the women and their parents met with the lead pastor.
"There was no empathy. We were all in (the pastor's) office together, telling our story. He cut us off and told us we needed to protect the church because us telling our story would only make us look bad and would only let the church see us for what we really were," said Frey, who said the pastor's reaction left her feeling upset and ashamed.
“I was angry and ashamed at the same time. Now, that makes me angry that I let him make me feel ashamed,” said Frey, who said she remembers hyperventilating in the parking lot afterward and then spending years trying to forget. “I did a really good job of blocking it out, but it did send me down a road of depression."
The lead pastor “stressed to us when he met with us in his office 17 years ago that he was trying to protect the church and he was trying to protect our reputations," Hendrickson said. "But he didn’t really listen to us. We sat down in his office, and he controlled the conversation. We tried to start sharing, and he felt like the best way to handle it was to remove him from the church and to keep it quiet.”
The women say Feltner was allowed to quietly leave the church – complete with severance pay and paid vacation time – and went to Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. They tried to warn that church, but say they weren't listened to.
Baptist churches tackle pastoral abuse
Now, 17 years later, the women feel empowered to speak up.
“We started reading about pastoral abuse," Frey explained. "It was very hard to read, and made me realize what it was. For 17 years, I had blamed myself thinking I had chosen a bad relationship, I made a bad choice. That was the last thing I told myself before I shoved it away. The mental harm that it’s done has been hard to reprogram.
“He used his power over someone he knew was coming to him for help and was already in a vulnerable state," Frey said. "That was the hardest part to come to grips with, that it was abuse and that I was used. But 35-year-old eyes see things differently than an 18-year-old. I’ve had a lot more experiences in my life.
"There was basically a playbook that he followed for JoAnna and myself. I want to know, is that a playbook he created for us? Or is that a playbook that had been used before us, and he continued to use?"
They said initially, they had hopes First Baptist was finally going to do the right thing.
After all, the controversy comes as Southern Baptist churches continue to grapple with a widespread sexual abuse crisis.
Earlier this year, media reports found sexual misconduct allegations against hundreds of Southern Baptists who held formal church roles. Many were convicted of sex crimes, and some were still in prison, but others continued to work in churches.
In response, top Southern Baptist leaders advocated for changes. But critics say the changes did not go far enough.
New resources were created to help make churches safer places. At the annual meeting in June, delegates voted to create a committee to handle misconduct allegations. They also took steps to make it clear that addressing sexual abuse is part of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church.
But the evangelical network of churches, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., emphasizes the authority of the local church, making top-down policy changes a challenge. In fact, they consider the autonomy of the local church a key belief in Southern Baptist life.
The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, which oversees the daily operations of a network of Southern Baptist churches in the state, does have resources available for churches seeking help with their pastor search, said Chris Turner, spokesman for the mission board.
The resources include a handbook for search committees as well as in-person training. The mission board also emphasizes the need for thorough, multi-layered background and reference checks, he said.
Women called 'adversaries' by church leader
Frey and Hendrickson said in communicating with Batson, they soon realized their stories were again being swept under the rug.
“(Batson) seemed to try and guide me," Frey said. "He kept pointing me back to, ‘Well, don’t you think a man can repent and be forgiven, and we can just move forward?’ "
Hendrickson said: "I remember him asking if I felt like Wes Feltner had changed in 17 years, and do I feel like this disqualifies him now? He kept wanting to focus on who he is now, and if God has changed him or redeemed him."
Batson followed up with emails to the two women, telling them they should control the information and saying they "have more at stake than any of us. It becomes an element of your internet footprint that Google reveals to your kids and future employers."
That's when the women decided to go public, even going live with a website, BroughtToTheLight.org, that Frey designed featuring their stories, photos and email communications from Batson.
Now, the two want the FBC community to hear their words of warning, which they believe Batson has been trying to downplay, including Sunday when he stood up before the congregation with this message, which they watched streamed live online:
4/4 So much wrong with Paul Batson's message to the church @FBCT_Voice this morning. This kind of justification is why abusive pastors remain behind the pulpit. #metoo #churchtoo #allsurvivorsday #pastoralabuse #SBCtoo pic.twitter.com/1nIkae51nv— Meg Frey (@mrsdafrey83) November 3, 2019
"Turns out there's a handful of people who oppose this guy. ... Of everyone that's opposed, I've had the same question, and that is, have you talked to him in the last 17 years? And the consistent answer is no. ... He has a few adversaries, but he's in good company."
Said Hendrickson: “I was very angry. It’s just the mishandling of these types of situations, especially in pastoral abuse, of put on that face and sweep it away and move forward. ... Instead of correctly addressing when sin comes out, they allow it to grow … because those leaders are allowed to move on to other churches."
Said Frey: “We love Christ, we love the church, and the whole reason this is coming about is because the church needs to be saved from people like this. It needs to stop, and we’re definitely not adversaries.”
Batson said in his statement: "My biggest regret from the pastor search update ... was the inadvertent use of the word adversaries. From my notes I meant to say “has people opposed to,” and instead I said “has adversaries.” ... It was wrong, and I am sorry for how it might have portrayed them."
17 years ago, a Southern Baptist church told two just graduated 18 year old girls to be quiet about abuse they experienced from their youth pastor.— Joe Donahue (@PastorJDonahue) November 4, 2019
Today, another SBC Pastor Search Chairman from https://t.co/ziYSAom4ff called the women "adversaries."https://t.co/k7Zab1nW6r
Feltner calls for resolution
Feltner advocated a Bible-based direct approach to resolving the issue.
"The Bible directs God’s people to take their grievances first to the person accused and, if that person won’t listen, to try again and bring a witness; and if the person still won’t listen, then to take it to the church (Matthew 18:15-17). The group circulating these allegations did not bring them to me, rather, they took them directly to the church and, not being satisfied with the church’s response, they have taken them to the general public."
Feltner said he has reached out several times to meet with the women, including with a mediator if they wish, but they have declined.
"Meanwhile, not having spoken with me for 17 years, they have organized to destroy my reputation and my career," he said.
"I remain willing and eager to fully and fairly address the concerns of the two women. I care deeply to resolve them and make any apologies and amends that are necessary anytime they are willing to talk."
Frey said using the Scripture of Matthew 18, as the church advocates and as Feltner himself suggests, as the best way to handle incidents of abuse is simply wrong.
“It is kind of a way for abusers to hide behind and keep things secret. It says if you have a grievance with your brother to take it directly to them," she said. "(Feltner) abused his power. But staying silent is worse than speaking the truth."
Women say it changed their lives
Talking about it all still makes Hendrickson cry.
“After everything happened, I felt like he had used me up and my hopes for ministry had been ruined. I know that’s not true, but that’s how I felt. That was a huge thing for me. Moving forward in my marriage, the gut feeling of being lied to, or manipulated, or used would always filter into corners of my life," said Hendrickson, choking back tears.
Frey said for years, she's struggled with physical ailments, from depression to hormone imbalances, to autoimmune diseases for which she saw specialists from Chicago to North Carolina. She now believes those symptoms were caused by abuse-related stress.
“I’m starting to feel alive again," said Frey, who said speaking her truth has also made her more confident. "I would apologize all the time. I don’t feel the need to do that anymore. I am confidently me, and I can speak for myself.”
Contributing: Holly Meyer, Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle
Follow Jennifer Babich on Twitter: @jennbabich
This article originally appeared on Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle: Baptist church pastoral abuse claim: 2 women speak up on Wes Feltner