I wasn’t surprised by the letter, but as I held it in my hands, my stomach tightened. It read, “Regretfully, in light of the recent decision of the Pastor’s Committee regarding the participation of your church in the Crusade, we are sad to inform you that you are not eligible to serve as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade. . . we certainly hope that the Christian Life and Witness Classes will be of benefit to you in your personal life in the days ahead.”
They didn’t want me, because they didn’t want my church. The small committee of pastor’s who were leading Portland’s efforts to prepare for an upcoming Billy Graham crusade had determined that our little church was no longer welcome to volunteer to serve in the crusade. Who gets kicked out of a Billy Graham crusade?! As a co-worker remarked, several years later, “Wow. That’s really a trip, Kenny. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham! But you did—you should save that.”
A pink slip is a notice of dismissal from a job, and I had received one from one of the most tolerant, welcoming Christian organizations on earth. Throughout his long, illustrious ministry, religious and denominational leaders had often criticized Reverend Graham for his policy of inviting Christians from all denominational and doctrinal backgrounds to join him as he sought to bring the citizens of their cities to the Christian faith in his Crusades. The distinctions and distrust between Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, conservatives and liberals was simply neither acknowledged (at least not openly), nor allowed to become a barrier to participation in the city-wide crusades that had made Billy Graham one of the most popular, recognized figures around the globe. Many Christians volunteered their time, dollars, and energy into creating a successful Crusade. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham.
Preparations began years before Graham arrived in the city for a series of large, public events that would fill arenas. After the he left town, the genuine hope of all churches was that some of those who responded to his preaching would convert to Christianity and join a church. I don’t think any churches ever exploded with growth after a Billy Graham crusade—and I never sensed that churches were depending on their involvement with Graham to significantly increase their numbers, but they could always hope. . .
My small, fundamentalist, bible church was no different. Upon hearing of the plans for the 1992 Portland Crusade, our pastor shifted our church of 40 members into high gear. We met regularly to pray for the crusade’s success, and attended workshops for training to help new Christians become established into the faith. We flooded the local crusade office with offers to volunteer to answer phones, stuff envelopes, and empty waste baskets.
How strange it must have seemed to the crusade office managers to see members show up early, work long hours, and return the next day for more of the same. They might have wondered, Do these people have lives? What about their kids, their jobs, their schedules. . . the rest of their lives? They didn’t realize that we were perfectly suited to make such all-encompassing, consuming commitments to volunteering for the crusade—because we were members of a high-control, cult-like church that demanded that level of commitment and sacrifice from all its members, all the time. After selling homes and cars, liquidating retirement funds and savings accounts, and giving our time exclusively to the programs, classes, and schedule of our little church—dropping the kids off with a babysitter and spending an eight-hour day answering phones or assembling mailers was a piece of cake.
But then, just a few months before the crusade, trouble came knocking.
The father of a former member of the church reported to the Pastor’s Committee that our pastor had attempted to seduce his daughter, a single-woman in her twenties. His daughter also told him of other young women and the church whom he had also approached. Phone calls were made, letters were exchanged, accusations denied (vehemently), victims were hated (by us), and our volunteers began to note a distinct chill in the air at the crusade office.
I don’t recall if we requested a meeting with the committee, or the committee requested a meeting with us, but a meeting was scheduled. I didn’t think it strange at the time that our pastor demanded that he, his associate pastor, his brother, and his deacons (of which I was one) all be included in the meeting, but that was his demand, despite the committee’s desire that he meet alone with them to address the allegations. So there we were, the leadership team of our little church—striding into the crusade office to meet with the committee. The dark suits we all wore that warm June day were very uncomfortable and given the jeans and business-casual nature of the Pastor’s Committee, were out of place. I suppose our pastor thought such a presentation was a type of show of force.
The meeting was awkward, forced, and very uncomfortable. It seemed clear to me that the committee members did not want to discuss specific allegations about our pastor in front of those of us he’d brought to the meeting. Our point was that the Pastor’s Committee had not followed the biblical direction for confronting a fellow believer whom one suspected of sin. They should have privately contacted the pastor, we argued. They should have ensured that not a whisper of scandal was allowed in the office. Our pastor had been wronged, and so we were wronged. His reputation and good standing in the community was under attack by religious professionals, and worst of all—they refused to divulge just who it was that had lodged the complaint. We felt it was a matter of fairness that the identity of our pastor’s accuser be made known—and that they confront him openly, along with his accuser. (Note to self: When the pastor of a church of 40 people says he can’t figure out which former member has lodged a complaint of sexual harassment or assault against him, he’s lying.) So, we sat through the meeting, which lasted all of a half-hour or so. There was no conclusion, no decision, no next step, etc., just a goodbye, thanks for coming in, we’ll be in touch.
A very strange thing happened to me in the moments after the meeting. As we were leaving the meeting room, one of the committee members, the pastor of a large church in Portland, pulled me aside. He was a very soft-spoken man, and very kind. No one noticed that he’d singled me out, and the office around us appeared to me to become very still and quiet. He shook my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “Ken, I really like your spirit. I appreciate your heart. Thank you for coming in.” He paused. “You’re a good guy, Ken.” Then, the room became animated again—we were walking out of the meeting, typists were typing (is was 1992!), papers were being shuffled, and phones were ringing. We walked out of the building into the summer heat and drove home, to the large house where several of us lived communally with the pastor.
Most of the church members were waiting for us—eager to hear of how the meeting went, what they said, and what we said, and what the conclusion of the whole affair might be. They had gathered for prayer during the time of the meeting. Would our pastor be vindicated? Would the committee see that he’d been set up, that the devil was doubtlessly attacking our little, faithful church, to thwart the goals and hard work that had gone into making the crusade a success? Would these pastors and seminary professors see the obvious attack on our pastor, by a disgruntled ex-member!? We reported back to our church our recollection of the meeting, making ourselves sound very much in control and full of confidence. We presented the committee as less-than-knowledgeable, and even a bit intimidated by our bearing, our comments, and our dark suits.
Within days our pastor crafted a tome that rivaled any of the epistles of the New Testament and mailed it to the committee. In the letter he chided the committee members for their unbiblical approach to the issue, their slander against our pastor, and he reminded them of the great sacrifices of service being made by our volunteers in their office. It was quite a document; just biblical enough to dodge overt criticism, and angry and defensive enough to rebuke the committee. We all praised the pastor for the letter he’d written. I certainly joined in the applause. But deep down, I was a bit embarrassed of it. All in all, it was very defensive, and seemed certain to further alienate our church from the crusade.
Within a week all of our members who had volunteered for the coming crusade, each and every one, received a letter from the Pastor’s Committee, notifying us that we had been identified as belonging to a group of which grave allegations had been made, and that, while our support thus far was much appreciated, we were no longer welcome to volunteer for the crusade. We were fired from the most welcoming, ecumenical, Big Tent ministry on the planet. All kinds of Christians were welcomed by the Billy Graham team, for goodness sakes. . .! Not us, however.
The expulsion of our church had a very profound effect on our church, and on me. As a church, the pink slip was jolting. We knew we were a bit out there, that we were more demanding than other churches, but never dreamed we stood out that much! The letter also ushered in a deeper level of sadness regarding our church. Many of our members, myself included, hoped that the crusade, and the new members that we hoped would join our church because of the crusade, would lead us out of the past few years of isolation and discouragement. Rumors and reports were running through the church of our pastor’s forays into drinking, drug use, and questionable contact with both single and married women in the church. While these accounts were vehemently denied by the pastor and his friends and family, the stories were out there, and didn’t seem very hard to believe. After the committee’s decision to exclude our church from the crusade, he withdrew further into what became his addiction to opioids and alcohol and seemed more flagrant in his abusive behaviors. Many in the church also gave up, and followed him off the moral cliff he’d led them to.
I think he was relieved at the pink slip. It temporarily brought relief from the fear of the exposure of his secret crimes. For besides the adultery, drunkenness, strong-arming members for money, running rough-shod over the church and making everyone generally miserable, he had been molesting young girls, the daughters of church members. He is now in the Oregon State Prison, serving a twenty-year sentence.
For me, the pink slip had a profound effect, and marks the time when I began to experience an inner deliberation to leave the church. When I was, in effect, fired by Billy Graham, I was ashamed and embarrassed. My dream of one day becoming pastor of a church evaporated. I abandoned all such hopes.
I did attend one of the crusade services one warm evening when it came to town that summer. My 9-year old daughter and I stood in a high-school football field, the overflow location for the nearby stadium, watching Billy Graham on a huge screen put up in an end-zone. It was surreal—having envisioned myself as serving a part in the crusade—angsts all resolved, life cleaned up, leading a bible study, or going to seminary, or preaching, etc., but instead, there I stood, dazed, in a field, watching the whole show go on without me, on a screen.
But then, I remembered what happened after the committee meeting, in the hallway, when that pastor stopped me to speak to me, and the whole world around us seemed to be thrust into suspended animation.
“Ken, I really like your spirit. I appreciate your heart. Thank you for coming in. You’re a good guy, Ken.”
As I reflected, tiny seeds of both doubt and confirmation planted by that pastor, and even by the pink slip I’d received, began to send out some tiny roots into my soul. By that time I knew that our pastor was certainly guilty of all he’d been accused of by his unidentified victim. I knew he was a cad, an abusive, addicted, self-absorbed man. But, who was I? Where did I fit into the whole mess?
Ken, I really like your spirit.
I began, increasingly, to view myself as outside the church. I was present there physically, but emotionally and psychologically, the train had left the station, carrying me far away from church that functioned as a cult. Once I began to think like that—it was only a matter of time before my wife, our children, and I, walked out the door, and into a life of spiritual and physical health and freedom joy.
Churches that abuse their members create an atmosphere that is toxic and smothering—to the point that their members fear leaving, and hate staying. The control and the countless emotional hooks serve to traumatize members, until they start down that mental path of simply imagining life outside the church, away from the abuse. That’s what I began to imagine, and in a short time, my imagination guided my thinking and planning, and even gave me courage to walk out the door. Before he even arrived in Portland, Billy Graham played a part in me leaving the abusive church.
“Whoa, that’s really a trip, Kenny. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham! But you did—you should save that.”
Well, it was a trip. And I certainly don’t know of anyone else in the world who’s been turned away from volunteering at a Billy Graham Crusade. And I did keep the letter, a pink slip to be grateful for.