Sumner, Will

Soft Exit

I hope this letter will help you understand why we are making the decision that follows.  I will avoid using names below. The alleged child abusers mentioned below are already widely known.  I do not wish to embarrass or offend anyone else by what follows. In several places, people are starting new Sunday morning meetings attended only by people who share our concerns. If that opportunity becomes available anywhere near us, we will gladly travel for healthy fellowship.

Please understand we have also been helped in our existing meetings over the years and still recognize many caring individuals there.  We simply desire fellowship with more joy and peace, free from division, and unburdened by false doctrines and the commandments of men.  We are no longer willing to compromise our integrity to just fit into the way things already are. We understand this will almost certainly be different for you based on your own experiences and circumstances in your own meetings, and that’s ok. Some people are referring to what we are looking for now as a “soft split” similar to the east/ west divide that has existed for many decades.

At this point AFTT has gathered information on 700+ alleged, and the FBI’s involvement has been ongoing for several months. Approximately 40% of the 700+ alleged are said to have been in the work, multiple times greater than the percentage of us that have ever been workers. Assuming as I do that people who start in the work or this fellowship generally have good intentions, what systemic failures are in our practices that are leading to this issue?  Is it unchecked power, opportunity, coverup to protect the system, false doctrines, or is it both unscriptural and unhealthy to enforce an unmarried ministry?

I believe it is likely a combination of many factors including those.  I am under no illusion that any one significant change would be easy, fix everything, nor would I expect it to happen quickly, but I do expect any true Spirit led ministry to honestly reflect, and consider significant changes in a collaborative way. It is both unfair and illogical to expect older brother workers to create the change that will mitigate this crisis, certainly not by themselves. 

Jesus himself didn’t bother trying to fix the religions of his day.  No wonder thousands of us couldn’t fix the issues yet these past 11 months though we’ve been trying in our various ways. Even though difficult, the battle has felt worth fighting.  In wisdom, Jesus called people away from religions to himself.  Many already free people, followed by concerned people like us have put away most fear of what others think, and have been trying the best we can to care for the wounded. More than just thoughts and prayers are required of us who are able.  The professionals I’ve talked to, whether professing or not, men and women, do not feel like their advice is being listened to by most ministry in this region.  The men currently in charge here, have shown through inaction and silence that they support no further changes.  There are thousands of survivors, and our little experiences this year are hardly worth mentioning in comparison to theirs.

Most organizations with this level of abuse would be liable for damages into the billions. Because of that, most organizations would decisively expel alleged predators, and enact safeguards to prevent further abuse. Many “worldly” organizations have been cleaning up their act with more wisdom, integrity, and professionalism in recent years than this fellowship has been able to muster so far.  That’s not for lack of thousands of people just like us getting involved and trying to advocate for needed changes in many different ways. It’s normal for people to stubbornly resist change, but further change is both inevitable and necessary in response to this crisis.

We have learned that there are multiple (5+) volunteer based meetings set up in the houses of alleged pedophiles in our region, including for a man said to have 30 CSA victim-survivors.  We find this to be completely against I Tim 3 advice for elders and alternate elders or for establishing meetings in homes.  It also ignores 1 Cor 5: 9-13.

Many of the people we met with have been led away to fellowship there on occasion.  A man and his wife said, “people seem to enjoy it” and “his testimonies are spot on” regarding meeting in the home of that man. They asked us to rethink our stance against it in spite of what the Bible says.  Some of those alleged people likely lead the meeting in their house, though not in the local situation.  An overseer would not answer that question when asked by a respected elder over the phone.

Where is the wisdom and love of God and neighbor in decisions being made?  Too many people are showing by their actions that it is more wicked in their eyes to be divorced and remarried (not a crime) than it is to be an alleged pedophile with multiple survivors (violent crimes, see Romans 13). By the actions of some individuals, they have shown they prefer to hear the alleged criminal’s thoughts in a meeting setting, than a remarried person’s, or our neighbor’s.  Where is discernment or wisdom in this? 

I’ve heard good advice to focus just on our home, and our meeting.  I understand how that would be easier for me personally as a coping mechanism, but even when I have been addressing alleged people who have been in our home (2), it has not been received well.  It is almost certain there are many more volunteer meetings (5+) and alleged CSA/ SA offenders than we are even aware of (16+, many still in regular meeting settings) in our region CA/AZ/NV. 

As we expressed our concerns these past 11 months, one of the common responses we got from people with responsibility was silence.  One overseer recently sent ~15 of us an email saying he talked to other workers and decided it would be “unwise” to meet with our group which included some elders, professionals, and others. He said to go ahead and submit our concerns in writing.

At least 3 of us did write him, as some of us had already done on previous occasions. All of us were ignored.  That does not indicate care for survivors, or interest in rebuilding trust with thousands of concerned people. In fact, one survivor said, he’s been ignored by that same overseer 8 times now.  We get the sense that to fix this division of Biblical proportions, ministry in this region currently prefers the approach of waiting for thousands of concerned people to just leave. Are some actively working in a coordinated way to accelerate people like us leaving? My wife and I think so.

Another common response from workers was a quick note that answered no questions and did not address our concerns, sometimes giving no indication that our email was read.  Another typical response was: instead of addressing the concerns raised, the person raising the concerns is attacked.  For example, when asking an overseer if I had the right to tell one of these alleged he was not welcome in our home per the new regional policy, I was told “you might deserve a millstone around your neck for offending a little child of God” (the alleged CSA groomer at that time, now with more serious CSA allegations). 

Verses in II Cor 2 were referenced that indicated I should “forgive and comfort my brother (the alleged), reaffirming my love for him lest he be too sad.” We later saw in writing to the regional ministry staff where the same overseer continued this reference to include the 9th verse where it says “these things I write unto you to test your character to see if you are obedient in all things.”  My conscience kept me from obeying that overseer. Our family serves God, not that man. 

I later personally informed the relative families and kicked the alleged man out of our home.  During this same attempted intervention with 7 of us present (4 ministry), I heard from another worker “your job is to trust, not investigate”, “it’s like you don’t trust ministry and elders now”, “we’re almost more concerned about a bad Spirit now than CSA”.  In that intervention they reluctantly agreed to have an elder notify close unprofessing relative families with children per my request, but afterwards talked to the alleged and agreed to do nothing instead.

That was the week my trust in ministry here was broken, the first week of July 2023. I walked away wishing I had recorded it.  I didn’t think my wife would believe what had just happened. We’ve had multiple other strange encounters since, including one where we were convinced the purpose of the worker’s visit was to discourage us so we would choose to leave on our own, and quickly. Mission accomplished. 

On a separate occasion at the end of a 2 hour “visit” we didn’t ask for, a worker changed the subject and called our children troubled. Our children are not troubled (I am), and we are not fooled when they are used to manipulate us. On another occasion an elder used our youngest child’s name repeatedly with our children upstairs asking if our 10 YO had “raped someone underage after getting drunk at a party, would we still want him in meetings”?  This was done to make a point that us being against child predators in meetings didn’t make sense to him in spite of 1 Cor 5, a portion of which we read to him out loud. 

Once, we had a worker explain to us that in spite of multiple CSA allegations spanning years and the use of a gun where the alleged threatened to kill himself if the survivor wouldn’t comply – that “it happened when the survivor was of legal age and was by consent” solely based on the timeline and word of the alleged above that of the victim and their parents. They did not talk to anyone but other workers and the alleged before coming to that conclusion.  An elder said the alleged was “exonerated” by the ministry.

For years they have not sufficiently addressed concerns regarding this same man in spite of multiple (7+) elders raising concern. That same man has remained in fellowship meetings with children this entire time (not in our home since we learned of it), and even been returned to full fellowship in gospel meetings etc. recently, to my understanding. An elder in another state with troubling conduct advocated for that man’s reinstatement.

No wonder several families around there broke away this year, just like we are now. Months ago, I personally informed his elders of his most serious allegations, knowing ministry there likely wouldn’t do it, but received no response.  Spring of last year, we had heard that 14 people quit coming to meetings surrounding the mishandling of this man’s situation, before they were even aware of a primary victim-survivor.  Eleven of those had meetings in their home.  Why would keeping one alleged person in fellowship be worth that level of collateral damage? 

We are left feeling our schools, sports teams and work places have more wisdom and integrity than the overseers of this fellowship in our region.  This would not be the case if we were truly following the Bible or if we had a mechanism for accountability like most other organizations. If we had a functional fellowship with more equal footing like Acts 6 or Acts 15 or a healthy perspective like Romans 13 or the Ephesian church in Rev 2, this wouldn’t be happening.

In our fellowship most elders are afraid to even talk to other elders about issues, they’ll only listen to workers. Over the months, I personally informed 11 elders of alleged sexual predators in their home meetings, sometimes aided by other elders.  Only one of the eleven had the courage to respond months later after careful consideration (understandable to take time to consider).  Fear of judgemental people too often controls decisions and people in unhealthy parts of our fellowship.  Not love.  Not safety for children and other vulnerable people.

Portions of the fellowship are far from healthy right now. As an elder, I’m told who will come to my meetings and can take part or not, it’s not something ministry asks for or listens to input on, at least not from me.  Our neighbor taking part just happened organically because we invited her one Wednesday morning after she told us she was looking for a new church, and said nothing before she arrived thinking that she wouldn’t come. We did not want to share this shame of the abuse crisis with our neighbor, but we did anyway, right after that very first meeting. She has been understanding and kind, open to discussion about both her struggles and ours. When she spoke the first time in the meeting not knowing how things usually work, we did discuss it with multiple workers over the months, before the most recent one was the first to raise concerns to us directly indicating we had created this awkward problem.  I wouldn’t dare inflict some of our older workers on this neighbor.  Before even meeting her one of them implied she’s shallow, holding false doctrines, just looking for something that pleases her human reasoning, proud, etc.

People say, “the way is perfect”. No let’s be clear: Jesus is perfect, and Jesus is the Way. That Truth is in the Bible. I’m done hearing those words used in a double speak manner in meetings—false doctrine has crept in and has been widely accepted. Exclusivity (belief this practice alone leads to salvation), living witness doctrine (thinking a person can be saved only if they hear through the workers. See Eph 2) and idolatry (putting people’s thoughts above God’s word/the place they should have relative to Jesus, etc) have been with us for over 100 years now.  To be fair, several other fundamentalist religions also have those same issues. We didn’t begin to understand those things until this year.  The results of those false beliefs are evident to us now.  

The ministry Jesus established doesn’t abuse people. Too many in our ministry and of our elders do. We’re left feeling like this practice has become a legalistic (practices confused with doctrine and rigorously kept) form of self-righteousness (religion), that is missing the power it could have because collectively we are unwilling to accept that we as a group need to search scriptures and realign with Christ and his teachings.  We should be actively searching scripture together seeking understanding and revelation. 

If the practices we already have are as set forth in the New Testament, we would not be in this mess, or mishandling it this way.  There is no logical or scriptural basis for thinking our fellowship is already perfect (Rev 2).  This should be a time for correction as individuals and as a group, restitution for victims, change, rebuilding and healing, but 11 months later just a few thousand of us are still clamoring with the leaders for the basic principle of fellowship uncorrupted by sexual predators (step 1).  My wife and I have completely lost hope that meaningful changes will be made by this generation of ministry currently controlling our region.  

We can name 3 workers in the previous generation on our staff that cared deeply for survivors at great risk to themselves.  We can name 5 who currently care as much as we do, but are no longer active in the work in our region as of recent months/years. Those people remain a model of integrity…doing for others at risk to themselves and aligned with their conscience. 

Today, I cannot name one who has been brave enough to speak up publicly, and is still active in the overseer ruled ministry in our region.  Those people may still exist, but I either haven’t heard of them, or they have to first overcome fear of losing place before they will have the courage to speak up in a larger setting.  Where is the moral courage to stand for what is right regardless of what people think, like Jesus and Paul had in front of the multitudes?  Ministry like that is critical at a time like this to help people see, especially those who are stuck in the unhealthy mindset of valuing the worker’s decisions above God’s word.

Recently we have noticed signs that an individual is working behind the scenes to influence people in our meetings against us.  We heard they did the same thing to a family in their last field.  We were recently told by 4 workers that there are now multiple people that have issues with my part in meeting.  I believe it after double checking with a couple of you, but there were no details offered yet so that I could change.  I have become numb to these petty things after a brutal year of bad news. That said, I do want to be correctable. I recently offered to give up my part and the meetings in our home.  I had offered my part several months prior as well to our previous elder. I did so again to our new Sunday elder. I haven’t been participating in the meetings to hinder anyone. 

Four workers declined to take the meetings or my part at the time it was offered, wisely calling Wednesday gospel meeting instead to avoid the appearance of taking anything.  I reiterated explicit permission to remove the meetings or my part.  My wife and I had already talked about that before they arrived, and had prayed for the words, wisdom and calm before the visit. The visit felt unusually respectful, and we were glad for that. We heard also that they are troubled by our neighbor taking part in the meeting. I want no part in offending my neighbor by removing her part just because she is new to our practice.  What do you suppose it was like in NT times as thousands believed at a time?  Isn’t “love your neighbor as yourself” one of the 2 greatest commandments Jesus gave?  Where’s the love in being cold to someone new? Shouldn’t we instead spend time helping them understand?  We both have, after every single meeting she has attended.

We learned recently that undocumented immigrants here are no longer allowed to partake of the emblems.  I’ve raised that cold, ignorant and unscriptural practice with workers and elders, but haven’t seen any change yet.  On more than one occasion I’ve seen the false god of ministry (an idol to some) when people reply, “if the workers decided it, then that’s good enough” for them, regardless of what the Bible says about it. 

 Our numbers here have dwindled at least 50% since the 1980s. There’s good reason to think we’re in the process of losing several thousand more over the next year or so in North America.  Several families we remain close to have left this year.  Look around you in the Wednesday and Sunday meetings.  Due to the mishandling of this crisis, our grief has been added to this year until there was only one remedy remaining.

Yes, I have responsibility for my feelings because I was brave enough to see the suffering and tried to say and do something about it.  I have zero desire to pass by on the other side like the Priest and Levite just because it would be easier. Now that our family has left, will our neighbor stay?  What about others in the meeting?  What will it look like in 10 years when the oldest among us have passed on?  Is it comforting to think it will remain no matter what?  We’ll be “smaller, but stronger” as one worker put it hopefully.  That’s nothing special. The fundamentalist Mormons have some leaders in jail for CSA and confused people still follow those same leaders. 

There are a handful of understanding and loving individuals in this area who we felt safe sharing our struggles with, and we remain very grateful for them. I appreciate that those we met with have patiently put up with me as I struggled this year. We have shared our struggles with other concerned people openly and publicly in a way we did not feel free to do with some others. We have been guarded about who we’ve felt safe sharing with.  We have also shared privately with some that we knew would not be open to receiving it in the interest of advocating for change.  Please forgive me if you are a safe person to share with, and I just failed to recognize it. Perhaps you felt mostly alone too, and I’m sorry for that—we’ve been searching for you locally for nearly a year. 

The things expressed here are not at all new to many other concerned people we’ve talked to.  Those people who are true friends of ours remain our friends in spite of these struggles we share. You may hear things about us in the months that follow along the lines of “they’re bitter”, “Satan got ahold of them”, “they were feeding on the wrong things” or similar one-line ignorance. Those hollow words explain nothing about us or the reasons we are taking this difficult step.  We encourage you to think deeper.

We have no desire to raise our children in this dysfunction. Over generations in this fellowship, we’ve collectively added precept upon precept, line upon line, until it became something that no longer serves our families’ spiritual needs. We will miss our familiar culture and people. This is not the outcome we wanted and stuck our necks out for these past 11 months. People in the New Testament were able to find God in many different places and situations. Yes, we found Christ here as many people have and will continue to do, but now Christ dwells within us. Yes, there are people here who have the indwelling of the Spirit, love God and their neighbors like Jesus commanded, but we’ve met people like that in our community too. 

We feel the signs could not have been clearer the past few months in leading us out to new pastures. We kept asking one another, what further sign are we waiting for?  If we follow him, we hope our peace will be restored and there can be healing. Perhaps this will also aid you in your own fellowship that is free from division. The division has taken a toll on our physical and emotional health.  His yoke is easy and His burden is light.  We do not yet comprehend the extents of His fold. We do not know where to go from here, but we are beyond ready to go seek him in a peaceful place so we can heal.  When tension got out of hand, Jesus often chose to look for refuge in a quiet place. We have been spiritually hungry and tired, and yearning to be free.  

If you want to talk, we’re here and willing to discuss with those who honestly want to understand. There is no need to suddenly fear speaking with us. I’ve laid my heart bare to you.  I don’t like everything I see there either—it’s okay. I’m a work in progress just like you are. This is what moral courage looks like for us in this crisis.  For others who remain friends of ours, it may look different, and that’s understandable and ok. There are many who already have healthier fellowship than I’ve described.  We have gone as far as to consider changing jobs and moving to find healthier, more familiar fellowship. After consideration, we intend to stay here, but healthier fellowship is exactly what we are now searching for.  If you are searching for that too, please reach out.

Many of us are feeling each of the 5 stages of grief these days, and that includes people on both sides of this divide. I am ashamed and sorry for my words and actions that have caused hurt to any of you as I grieved this year.  We need to separate to a place where we can find healing and peace as a family, to raise our children with balance and meaningful values. To the very few who might feel inclined to write or call with judgement—do us all a favor and don’t bother. We’ve already had more than we can handle. Until individuals have understanding, or need a safe place to seek help, no further overseer-ruled ministry contact from this region please. Please remove our contact information from all ministry contact lists.

With regret,
Will Sumner
March 9, 2024