The battle for First Christian Church of Florissant
FLORISSANT • A nine-piece band plays inside a church auditorium, and three projection screens hang overhead, including one in the center that flashes lyrics. The band’s repertoire consists of Christian songs that could easily be mistaken for mainstream pop music. First Christian Church of Florissant members stand, clap and sway in response.
Yet, as he prepares to deliver his sermon, Pastor Steve Wingfield apologizes for the small crowd at the long-standing megachurch.
Wingfield has strawberry blond hair and is dressed in a black, long-sleeved, buttoned shirt and gray khakis as he digs into the current series of sermons focusing on the “Path to Restoration.” Today’s message is about broken relationships, a hardship afflicting even the closest knit families, including church families.
“If you want to be part of an imperfect church family, where flawed people are trying to figure this thing out together, you’re welcome here,” Wingfield tells a half-filled auditorium, while revealing details about his home life, including his role as a grandfather.
Members of the church are trying to figure things out, though whether the congregation has managed to do that in any kind of unified way is up for debate.
The church is still reeling from the recent conviction of Brandon Milburn, a former youth minister at the church who in March was sentenced to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing two young boys.
Many members accuse Wingfield of mishandling the sexual abuse crisis at the church. They claim the pastor failed to report Milburn even after members brought the youth minister’s questionable behavior to his attention, that he has done little to reach out to victims or seek out other potential victims, and that church leadership has done a poor job of communicating with members.
“I am beyond frustrated at the way this has been managed and heartbroken that the church I once called home and love deeply has mishandled this situation so severely,” Titus Benton, a former student minister at the church, said in a recent letter to church leadership. “First Christian has invited suspicion.”
Congregants further claim that the mismanagement of the situation is part of a larger pattern: Wingfield’s authoritarian style leaves little room for discussion, and key staff members and dozens of families have fled.
In fact, Wingfield sued several critics of the congregation in April, asking that they retract alleged false statements from social media. The defamation lawsuit was ultimately dropped so that an independent Christian mediation process could begin and as “a sign of good faith,” according to court documents.
A further indication of just how complicated (and ugly) the situation at First Christian Church has become came in May when Doug Lay, a critic of the pastor, resigned from his position as professor of English at St. Louis Christian College. The resignation came after Paul Wingfield, Steve Wingfield’s brother, a pastor at White Flag Christian Church, near Arnold, pulled funding from the college.
And just last week, Dawn Varvil, a vocal critic of the church who knew Milburn well and who was sued by Wingfield, threatened to sue the pastor unless he issues a letter of apology, provides victims with financial assistance for counseling, reviews the church’s sexual abuse policies and reimburses her legal fees.
Wingfield took over First Christian Church five years before the death in 2012 of his father, Charles, a former pastor with a strong standing in the community. Wingfield’s mother, Ruth, is still active in the congregation that at its height included more than 1,200 members.
Wingfield would not comment for this story, but in an April letter to the congregation apologized “for any inadequacies in our best intentioned but imperfect response. We hope that the church never has to go through something like this again, but we will work to improve our response.”
Church leaders also indicated that they were working to secure additional counseling resources for those directly affected by the abuse.
And there are members of the congregation who think Wingfield is being treated unfairly.
Kitty Streiler, a longtime member and deacon, said many people, not just Wingfield, were fooled by Milburn. Although Streiler admits the crisis has caused attendance to drop, she believes the congregation is on the mend.
“Whatever had been lacking for a period of time, it’s back,” Streiler said. “The Holy Spirit is here in this church.”
Members and church officials agree that Wingfield learned about the concerns some had years before Milburn was arrested but that no one offered proof the youth minister had acted inappropriately.
Varvil said she met with Wingfield in 2012 and informed him that she had caught Milburn spooning with a young boy, that Milburn had bought the boy gifts, and that Milburn had exposed his genitals to a group of young men. Varvil also told Wingfield that her therapist called the authorities after hearing about Milburn’s behavior.
And yet critics say Wingfield did nothing.
Members also say the church has neglected to provide victims with any substantial relief, either in the form of paying for counseling, or in the case of at least one family, simply reaching out to inquire how it might be able to help. Varvil also says she knows of others victimized by Milburn who have yet to come forward.
“This is a stumbling block for them,” Varvil said, referring to the victims. “They have left the church. Some of them are using drugs. Some of them are using alcohol. The faith community owes them some action.”
“To see them no longer having any relationship with Christ is I think, well, it’s the most abusive part of what happened,” Varvil continued. “Because they came to him (Milburn) to begin with because they were broken and vulnerable from situations. It was the perfect time for them to embrace their faith.”
Boz Tchividjian, executive director at GRACE, an organization that educates faith organizations about how to prevent sexual abuse, says pastors too often ignore the victims and disregard suspicions about predators because they conflate the “earthly consequences for criminal behavior with our position before God.”
In a distortion of Christian faith, Tchividjian says, ministers focus on forgiveness, rather than victims and those who have committed crimes.
RESTORING THE MISSION
According to the bylaws of First Christian Church, the purpose of the congregation is to fulfill Christianity’s “Great Commission,” as described in the New Testament: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
More than 300 members of the church have joined a public Facebook group dedicated to restoring the mission of the church, which they believe has been lost with Wingfield at the helm. They’ve also established a website that details the Milburn saga.
Matt Mueller, who has attended the church for about 15 years, is a leader in the effort to restore the church. Mueller says Wingfield has become preoccupied with his status as a megachurch pastor.
“Our growth was a result of what we were doing by spreading the Gospel,” Mueller said. “When Charles (Wingfield’s father) retired, in my opinion, the purpose of our church changed to doubling attendance. Growth became the purpose and the stated objective.”
“It is my opinion that unless we have a change in leadership, we’re not going to have a full restoration of our local church. That’s just my opinion.”
Scott Seppelt, a 26-year member of the church and a fire chief in Florissant, who is part of the effort to restore First Christian Church, says splitting from the congregation feels like a divorce.
“That’s how much pain I’ve felt,” said Seppelt, who was baptized by Wingfield. “I just feel like Steve is not the right guy to lead the church right now.”