By Barry Flanders
June 15, 2018
Our Pastor sent the following to the writer of the Morning Sun article the day after his interview. We trust it will give a little perspective as to our approach to the issues being raised, our heart in the matter, and the beginnings of a possible way forward.
One other note for now: the Morning Sun article mentioned that ‘current Grace church attendees have been asked to privately share their experiences with Flanders.’ Rather, we have encouraged those who feel an anonymous online post inaccurately portrays them or their situation (there are many) to simply write out their perspective. The second letter posted at the bottom of Barry’s email below is an example of this.
Thank you for the interview yesterday. I wanted to try and bring some clarity and/or light to some of the good questions you asked about yesterday, as you mentioned you would be writing your article Wednesday, to be published Thursday.
You asked me yesterday if I had any idea why these things were all coming up at this time. I thought you were asking me about the timing, i.e. why now? I think I said something along the lines that I didn’t think it would be helpful at this time for me to put forth publicly our understanding of what is happening and why. Though we do have clear evidence and documented testimony about what is going on, and why, and who is involved, we just don’t sense that now is the time to put this into what is already, for the most part, a very one-sided, public display. We simply don’t believe adding to a public discussion at this time is the way Jesus would have us proceed, and we are willing to suffer wrong perceptions for our lack of putting up a defense, if necessary. But I think the question that can be answered is this: Do you, the leaders of Grace Church over the years, and/or Grace Church as a whole, take any responsibility for all the people and all the wounded experiences being brought up? The answer is simply, yes. We have tried to take responsibility in the past, and I (we) are certainly willing and even eager to do so in the present for things we did not handle in a Christ-like way in the past, or failed to even see in the midst of our immaturity, our limitations and wounds as leaders, and sadly, our hubris.
In light of this, I am forwarding you the email I mentioned in the interview, an email that I read just before our interview yesterday, unsolicited, from a long-term Grace Church attender that explains in his words how he feels about the matters before us. It describes my heart almost exactly, so I thought it might be helpful to you/your readers to understand the essence of it. The author of the email was considering posting his thoughts online, if such would be allowed by whoever governs the online site(s). We have encouraged those who have asked us our thoughts about going online and defending us with posts putting forth another a more balanced narrative, to be careful about engaging the online posts unless it is truly going to be helpful to the conversation and written in a considerate, non-defensive, and humble fashion… that it will actually add relevant information, or perspective, to the discussion. For myself, I do not think it is the time for me to do so, fully realizing such silence may convey that I (or folks at Grace Church) have nothing to counteract what’s being put forth. The author of the letter, however, is still considering attempting to post his letter online, but he has not yet decided. It is the first letter at the bottom of this email. If you would like the author’s name and contact, I’m pretty sure he would be willing to discuss his letter with you, though I would have to check. He is a doctor in the area and in light of all the press around this issue, such may not be wise or helpful for he and his family at this time.
One of the examples you put before me in the interview was related to a common theme of family members being encouraged by Grace Church leaders and others to put a priority on church ministry over family obligations, particularly as it related to extended family responsibilities... i.e., the church and its leaders have created a culture where such is expected and approved. I said that such a narrative was not consistent with how, in my opinion, it actually is at Grace. Please read the second letter copied below from Angie Agosta. The situations is clearly one, real-life, current example, from Angie’s perspective, of the online discussion that seeks to represent Grace Church as harsh, cultish and controlling in terms of separating people from their families. Angie and her husband, might be willing to talk to you to verify her accounts and answer your questions, though she may just want her written words to speak for themselves.
You asked me at the end of our interview if there were any questions that I’d wish you asked me. After our two hours together, nothing came to my mind. Along these lines, you said to send you anything that might come to mind after our interview. Having had overnight to reflect, there is one question I wished I could have been asked, and had the opportunity to answer. It is this: What do I/Grace Church think is the way forward for appropriately and compassionately helping heal/reconcile people who have been hurt, and for Grace Church to take responsibility where appropriate for the situations that have been brought up online.
My answer would be to suggest something along the lines of the following: For Christians, but non-Christians can use it as well, Jesus teaches in Matthew 18 that an offended/hurt person take the time to approach the offender one-on-one and explain how they view what happened (what was said, how it felt, etc.) giving the offender a chance share their perspective, their feelings, about the same situation. This is difficult to do, especially in very difficult scenarios, with what appear to be strong opinions/disagreements between individuals who hold different core convictions/worldviews, or in situations that have been attempted to be handled this way in the past that didn’t turn out well. So for people in these types of situations, I encourage them to consider taking the time to thoughtfully write out the offense(s) they’ve experienced, much like they do with an online post, though hopefully done with grace and seeking understanding of the other side, as they seek to be understood. But here’s the difference: rather than post such things anonymously online, I encourage people to send it in an email or other written format directly to the offender alone, giving them a chance to read it, ponder it, and ultimately take the time to respond back directly and thoughtfully to the person. Along with the offended person sharing his offense with the offender in writing, a suggested forum and format to continue the discussion can be offered to the offender. An agreed upon forum and format which both sides feel is safe and satisfactory for a constructive, non-accusatory dialog is essential. This is where each side can continue to state their recollection of each particular situation, and attempt to work through it, little by little if necessary. Granted this is a slow, thoughtful process, but there is much less potential for reactionary/defensive responses. In my opinion, situations handled in this way (or in some similar way) have a greater potential for resulting in a clearer understanding of the situations/offenses, and naturally flow into appropriate and healing apologies and forgiveness for the pain and hurt caused. Through such a process, I and others at Grace would look forward to discussions that would lead to recognizing and taking responsibility for any failures and mistakes of myself, and of anyone in Grace Church, through the years, and making any appropriate amends, seeking forgiveness and restoration. I wish I could tell you I have always been able to follow the process I just described, but I can’t. I am sure, in retrospect, if I would have put forth a more reflective, Christ-like effort in certain situations, or been more prayerful and less reactionary, at least some of the situations being described online, particularly early on in our church history, could have been avoided or remedied/restored.
I would add, though, the process I put forth in the above paragraph may very well be looked at cynically by those who have read some of the most grievous descriptions of situations that are alleged to have taken place through me and/or Grace Church leaders. I am grieved to have to say such online posts have very little basis in fact and are simply designed to put forth a narrative that maligns and discredits the skillful attempts of leaders at Grace Church to gracefully deal with very wounded and complicated issues people sometimes are dealing with.
There are further steps to Jesus instructions in Mathew 18 if the first stepped outlined above does not bring resolution. I can put forth in another email the second and third steps Jesus outlines in his teaching for conflict resolution. And, of course, in the end of going through this biblical-resolution process, the parties involved may just have to agree to overlook one another’s perceived offenses, and agree to disagree and perhaps revisit the situation at a future time.
A few last things:
As I said in the interview, I do not think my use of the term ‘false narrative’ in response to two of the anonymous scenarios you put forth in the interview was appropriate or helpful. Such a term may convey the idea that people are intentionally being ‘false.’ I, IN NO WAY, want to convey such motivation or intentionality to your scenarios, or to all the posted material, nor do I want to convey the sense that the scenarios you were putting forth have no truth to them, or that me (or Grace Church) does not need to take responsibility in some cases for things we have failed to see or failed to address/own up to in the past. I believe that in many cases those who are explaining online how they felt in the past in various situations at Grace Church, that they are posting their experience honestly, describing facts and feelings as accurately as they believe them to be, similar to what I am trying to do in this email. So, a better way for me to put my response to your scenarios, as I tried to revise in the interview, is simple to say that I and others at Grace have a different perspective, and in my opinion, a perspective that may offer a more balanced narrative, as I think you might sense in the letters copied below. Yes, its clearly just my opinion (or that of the authors below), but as such it is still part of the scenario to be considered equally with other’s thoughts posted online.
We have asked folks at Grace who clearly sense they might have valuable insight into any of the anonymous situations being posted online, to consider putting in writing their understanding of the posted experience. As a result, I have a number of helpful letters from people at Grace that bring forth, in my opinion, a more balanced perspective than many of the online posts. I believe such could offer people a helpful perspective for understanding at least some of the situations being discussed online. For now, we simply do not plan on sharing these letters in public, in light of the sensitivity of relationships and situations being discussed, and the efforts these individuals are currently making to reach out and bring about restoration. The one we have offered below from Angie gives you a real life example of some of those sensitivities. Angie and her husband are currently doing their best to move forward in communicating carefully and honestly with Angie’s parents, in her own heartfelt way and in writing, in her attempt to bring about a healthy relationship with her parents. She has chosen in her case to do this publicly since she believes her mother posted publicly… otherwise, she wouldn’t have done so.
Jason Tubbs will be forwarding what he can pull together (of what you asked for in the interview… stuff I didn’t know with accuracy off the top off my head). I will cc him on this email and then send him the email you sent to me today. You should get most of it some time today or tomorrow. As you can imagine, we are trying our best to prioritize the people in our church, friends and family in our community, and trying to gain/give some humble clarity in our responses to such people, as well as satisfy your good requests.
Thank you for reading this and it was a privilege meeting with you yesterday.
I find it difficult to read and hear of such widespread complaints and accusations toward this church, our leadership, and our congregation. I have attended Grace Church since very early on. I have served in ministry with many of these individuals who have written these posts, but have lived life with the majority of the others. That is why reading these posts has been particularly difficult. These are people that I love.
I have also noticed in reading these posts that they primarily fall into two categories: those who are genuine with their concerns with an ultimate goal of reconciliation and healing of relationships, and a second group who is unfortunately bitter and not looking for anything other than the elimination of Grace Church. It is only to the group which is genuine in their concern and love in sharing that I address below, and let me say first and foremost, that I am sorry this was your experience with our church body.
Many of the posts I have read date back to the earlier days of our church, back when we were known as The Young Church. We are now, and have always been passionate Christ followers, something which has always been a reason people have been drawn to our church body. You see, like many others, I came to know Christ during those early years of this church, but unlike the posts I have read, this was a powerfully positive experience in my life. I found Barry Flanders to be a mentor and a friend. He would run with me in the morning during my last few years in school, and even traveled to Big Rapids twice a week while I was completing an internship to make sure I felt supported and loved. Twenty years later, Barry is just as supportive, just as available, and even more of a faithful friend in Christ. I am not a deacon or elder in the church. I have not been raised up by Barry from a young child. I have not been manipulated, coerced, or abused in any way. I have not been brainwashed. But I have been loved, guided, coached, and even redirected or called out when I was off in my behavior or conduct. I thank God for that. If it is appropriate for a parent or a coach to challenge and spur on a child or athlete to greater things, why not a pastor. It is the job of the church body to grow and sharpen each other as we all, together grow up into maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:15).
In reading the posts online, it has been clear that in the eyes of many who have posted, the only appropriate response from Barry and our church is to 100% agree with all accusations and to publicly apologize and ask for forgiveness. Some think the leaders should “step down” until an investigation can be made by a third party. In fact, they have done a really good job in making it sound like any other option would be somehow wrong or unethical. The problem is, there are always two sides to every story and every interaction. Has Grace Church been 100% perfect in conduct, absolutely not. We would be the first to admit that. Like all of you, we are human, and we make mistakes. We have all fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). I dare say that no church exists where mistakes have not been made. I have been wronged by people in the church and I am sure that I have wronged others. The healthy response is to take this offense back to that person privately (Matt 18:15). I have practiced this, and it has restored relationships and brought reconciliation. This is a practice which has always been encouraged at Grace Church.
I am sure that with the sheer number of accusations which have been presented, there does have to be some truth, and for that, we are ready and willing to acknowledge our shortfalls, as a church and as individuals, and clearly and humbly offer our sincere apology, asking forgiveness. Young leaders, and possibly mature leaders, have made mistakes in the past and I am sure will do so in the future. Not out of malice, not out of anything sinister, simply due to the imperfection we have this side of eternity. What I can assure you is that from the pastor, to the elders, to the volunteer leaders, to the rest of the congregation, all has been done from a genuine motivation of love and obedience to Christ. This may not have been the impression some of you came away with in the heat of a certain interaction, however, I have a perspective which spans two decades, and I know the hearts of these people.
As I said earlier, many (though not all) of these accusations are from early on in our ministry, and we have often publicly and privately acknowledged our focus at that time weighed too heavily in the area of getting the work of ministry done, versus faith and grace. We were zealous for our God, but at times out of balance. There was no malice or ill intent in this, but our expectations were too high for ourselves as well as others. Our church has learned from this, and our expectations are more balanced and measured. We have matured; we have grown. I do not recognize the church currently being posted about online. It neither represents or current church, nor does it represent a balanced view of our past church.
I am aware that this response may not be sufficient for some of you, but hopefully you can begin to see this is a church with humble leadership, who are available to the congregation, who have always been available to me and my growing family. I am convinced God has something for Grace Church in all of this and hopefully for those who have posted their stories as well. As a church we hold no malice toward those who have posted, in fact, we are saddened for you and that this was your experience within the walls of this church body.
As always, people have the right to believe what they choose. I am sure more will be posted, some with a measure of accuracy, others less so. All I know is that I have never felt so loved, so encouraged, so built up anywhere else. My family and I will continue to attend Grace Church because I know the level of surrender and humility to Christ present from the leadership down to the most recent member. Perfect we are not, but we are diligently striving for Christ-likeness.
To all those who have posted, to the one whom one of my children has been named after, we love you…I love you. We ask for God’s blessings upon you. We ask for healing in your lives and ultimately that all of us would be drawn close to our Father in heaven.
To Whom It May Concern (In response to the surprising and anonymous post of my mother on Reddit):
Hi, my name is Angie (Antkowiak) Agosta, and I have lived in the Mt. Pleasant community for the past 13 years and graduated from the DPT program at CMU. I want to share my experience at Grace Church with you. I have attended for around 11 years, and have been involved in various ministries. Through my experience at Grace Church I have developed many good friendships and grown as a person in many ways, including developing leadership skills, as I am currently leading a team in Little Church.
It has come to my attention that some people (including my mom) have suggested that Grace Church cuts people off from their families. Since I have firsthand experience at this church, I want to share my personal experience with you, and specifically address the accusations raised by my mother.
First of all, my relationship with my parents (particularly my mother) has been challenging, even from childhood. Although I love my parents, we tend to disagree on many things. More recently, different relationship dynamics have made it difficult to have a peaceable conversation with my parents. As with any difficult relationship, it has been hard to navigate. I know I have not dealt with this perfectly, but I have been at a loss as to how to move forward. Everything we have tried has not seemed to work. All this, coupled with a busy life for us of working multiple jobs, schooling, raising kids, etc. have made it hard to find the time and energy to engage with this consistently over time. So, for a while, my husband and I had not responded to frequent attempts at communication. Yet, more recently, we have begun taking some steps to try to move forward in our relationship with them.
In this difficult situation, of course I/we have sought counsel from others, including those in the church as to how to navigate a difficult relationship. We want to extend love, honor and respect to all of our relationships, including our extended family. As we have, indeed, sought out counsel from church members, including church leaders, they have not attempted to drive us away from our families; rather, they have encouraged us to pursue a good relationship with them! As I previously stated, we have come up against walls in our relationship with family that have made it difficult to move forward. That is the reason for our lack of communication, not because someone else has discouraged us from speaking with them.
On May 14, 2018 around 3:00 pm, my parents showed up on my doorstep, unannounced. Due to the nature of our current relationship, I have often felt bullied and intimidated by them. Since my husband was not home, I did not feel safe letting them into my house.
No one has told me to not let my parents see their grandkids, or that I should not speak to them without my husband present. Rather, those in the church who I have confided in seemed rather surprised at such seemingly rigid boundaries. Again, these have been my personal preferences at this time, based on the context of our relationship (with my parents), and that I’m uncomfortable with certain behaviors of theirs.
Despite all of this, I am praying and hoping that one day we will have full reconciliation, or at the very least are able to peacefully agree to disagree. Again, I love my parents and I want to have a good relationship with them. Honestly, if I had not been a part of Grace Church and encouraged to live as the Bible instructs, I may have turned away from this relationship some time ago. It is the love of Christ, as well as the encouragement from others at the church to love like He has loved me, that has, indeed, kept my heart turned with love toward my parents and kept me willing to pursue reconciliation with them.
Angela Agosta, DPT