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Fired megachurch preacher in St. Louis illustrates familiar journey

Fired megachurch preacher in St. Louis illustrates familiar journey

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ST. LOUIS • Shepherding a megachurch is tied in many ways to America’s celebrity culture. There’s a push for big-stage events and around-the-clock access through social media to a pastor’s life and thoughts.

It’s a formula that amplifies the message and multiplies the flock, in congregants who show up on Sunday for worship and in tens of thousands more followers online.

High visibility can also set pastors on a correction-course with humility that evangelical Christians call getting right with Jesus.

The Rev. Darrin Patrick, 45, of Webster Groves, is one of the latest on such a path. Elders at The Journey, a popular megachurch he founded with his wife in 2002, fired him a few weeks ago for what they viewed as pastoral misconduct.

Among the allegations:

• Lack of self-control.

• Manipulation.

• Misuse of power.

• History of building an identity through ministry and media platforms.

• Not adultery, but “inappropriate meetings, conversations and phone calls with two women.”

Reached by telephone, Patrick said he didn’t have more to say other than what The Journey outlined in a three-page letter to members, heavily footnoted in Scripture.

“I have four kids, little kids,” Patrick said, voice cracking. “I am trying to protect my family and figure this out.”

Patrick had to give up all ministry affiliated with The Journey, including being chaplain for the St. Louis Cardinals and vice president at a high-profile church planting group called the Acts 29 Network.

Now Patrick and his family are being counseled and ministered to by friends, elders and PastorServe, a national organization that sweeps in to work with fallen church leaders and those still on the precipice.

“We live in the day and age of the superstar pastor,” said Jimmy Dodd, of Kansas City, founder of the organization. “We like pastors to have a big front stage. The more the front stage grows, the more pastors fear allowing their church or their friends to know the back stage of their life.”

Dodd, a former preacher, said a pastor might share 95 percent of his flaws and protect the rest.

“A lot of pastors have really learned to play that role well,” Dodd said. “I talk to multiple guys every day. They long to be real and open. There is just that fear — ‘If I do it, I might lose my job.’ It’s heartbreaking to hear these guys.”

‘Respecting their journey’

Patrick founded The Journey with 30 people and led it through year after year of wild growth. Today, it has an $8 million budget and 100 employees spread across six campuses in the St. Louis region.

About 4,000 people recently attended weekend services at the interdenominational church that’s affiliated with the Missouri Baptist Convention. Much of the growth was fueled by Patrick’s gift for reaching a young generation less prone to weave their parents’ religion into their own lives.

Patrick did it by meeting people where they were, sharing some of his own hardships while putting the message in a Biblical context.

Contemporary live music and video are parts of The Journey’s DNA. The church blasted the wall that tends to exist between Protestants and booze. Its “Theology at the Bottleworks,” is a beer ministry that meets once a month at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood.

“We want to go where people are,” Patrick, who has a doctorate degree in ministry from Covenant Theological Seminary, once told the Post-Dispatch. “We don’t expect them to come to us.”

It worked well. In addition to bread-and-butter ministries, 48,000 people follow him on Twitter. He’s written several books, including “The Dude’s Guide to Marriage: Ten Skills Every Husband Must Develop to Love His Wife Well,” which is co-authored with his wife.

On center stage March 13 wearing jeans and a red flannel shirt, Patrick preached a sermon titled, “Loving God in a Hostile Work Environment,” according to an online video post.

“Our jobs, friends, are like this constant reminder that there is more to life … that we need to repent of our own sins,” he said. “Our jobs are this constant exposure to our own rebellion and if we are always blaming, if we are always talking smack … that’s just not going to honor God.”

Elders must have been reeling hearing his words, particularly with respect to workplace behavior. They’d been confronting Patrick for what they would soon describe as “deep historical patterns of sin.”

Even with the heat, Patrick was a successful preacher. In February, he was profiled in a Post-Dispatch sports column as a popular chaplain for the St. Louis Cardinals. As a young athlete from the southern Illinois town of Marion, he’d grown up “a mess,” he acknowledged in the column.

“All I wanted to do was have sex with girls, get high and not work,” he said. “I know what it’s like to live on the other side of the tracks, so I have zero judgment for people who are struggling in any area of their life, because we’re all in a process. And that’s really my story. I’m just trying to help people flourish, while respecting their journey and process, and at the same time trying to call people to be what they were created to be … .”

While Christianity is filled with people who reclaimed their lives by forgiving others and themselves, Patrick apparently didn’t take the key steps of going beyond that. Elders said he’d been given opportunities to improve before allegations surfaced about interacting inappropriately with two women. They said they continue to investigate.

“These patterns and lack of turning away from these sins,” elders wrote in the letter to congregants in April, “reveal that Darrin has not been pursuing a personal walk with Jesus in a manner that reflects his pastoral calling and position as an elder in the church.”

‘The priesthood of the believer’

The Missouri Baptist Convention, a network of 1,900 autonomous congregations that pool resources to start new churches and for other ministries, helped get The Journey off the ground in 2005 with a $200,000 loan. That December, the church bought Holy Innocents Catholic Church west of Tower Grove Park for $1.65 million and spent an additional half million on renovations.

The Rev. David Clippard, a former executive director of the convention, in 2006 complimented Patrick, saying The Journey was an ideal new church. The average age was 29 and the flock was growing fast.

Not long after Clippard sang Patrick’s praises, he was canned for what an investigative committee at the time called “rumors affecting (Clippard’s) character.”

An attorney for the organization, the state arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Post-Dispatch then that the reasons for Clippard’s firing “ran the gamut from morale in the Baptist building to comments and conduct and the perception of unprofessionalism to poor administration, management and judgment made over the last two to three years.”

The Rev. David Tolliver, who replaced Clippard at the convention, resigned in 2011 “due to immoral behavior with a woman.”

Patrick saw others close to him fall.

He was vice president of the Acts 29 Network, a church planting organization founded by the Rev. Mark Driscoll, whose Seattle-based megachurch, Mars Hill, imploded in 2014.

As a Methodist bishop, formerly in charge of 600 pastors serving in northern Alabama, Will Willimon said that half his time was spent protecting congregations from toxic pastors, the other half protecting pastors from toxic congregations. He said he removed 30 pastors from ministry between 2004 and 2012.

“It’s ironic, most of the pastors that I had to remove, I did with great regret because they were some of the most effective and creative pastors,” said Willimon, a professor at Duke Divinity School who teaches church leadership. “It was kind of their creativity and innovative spirit that got them into trouble.”

Bishop Willimon, rather than a group of elders, personally removed pastors in a Methodist conference of multiple congregations.

“I have a certain sense of admiration that the lay people themselves organized and decided to remove their pastor, particularly their founding pastor,” he said of The Journey. “That has to be tough to do that, which suggests the process will be painful and not taken lightly.”

Missouri Baptist Convention spokesman Rob Philips said it shouldn’t happen at all, but it does.

“Probably there are situations where it needs to happen and doesn’t, but we want to respect the priesthood of the believer and the autonomy of the local church,” he said.

Philips said Patrick’s departure isn’t supposed to shame him, rather restore him to “proper fellowship with Christ.”

Patrick seemed to agree with that. The Journey gave him the last word in the recent letter to congregants. He seemed to address it like another sermon:

“We are desperately clinging to God’s promise that He loves us completely in spite of our sin, delights in us when we are at our weakest, and that He is, indeed, the restorer and healer of all brokenness.”

Like any church that goes through this, The Journey will find out soon if the church was overbuilt around its pastor, rather than Christ, experts said.

In the few weeks since Patrick’s departure, attendance and collections at The Journey has generally been unchanged, said lead Pastor Jeremy Bedenbaugh, 36.

“We see this as an opportunity to fix the things that are broken in the church and take the things that were already great and make them better,” he said.

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