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Eastview Christian Church faces a long road to recovery

Eastview Christian Church's elders talk to church members on Feb. 26, 2023.
Eastview Christian Church
Eastview Christian Church's elders talk to church members on Feb. 26, 2023.

The allegations of ministerial impropriety, resignation of the senior minister, and announcement of an investigation into potential misconduct that has roiled Eastview Christian Church in Normal this week will have long-lasting consequences.

The scandal that includes new allegations also has spread to another megachurch in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. According to experts in churches that have experienced similar tribulation, there may even be impacts to other congregations in Bloomington-Normal.

The board of elders at Eastview has described it as an investigation into inappropriate sexual behavior, misconduct, and abuse, dating back to 2016 when former Eastview lead pastor Mike Baker’s adult son, Caleb Baker, left his ministerial position at Eastview. According to Central Christian Church in Arizona, the son has now been fired from his position as lead student pastor and associate preaching pastor there amid allegations of sexual impropriety with another staff member.

In a message to that congregation, lead pastor Cal Jernigan saidhe was aware of an allegation against Caleb Baker at Eastview, but Mike Baker assured him it had been "unfounded." Jernigan said Mike Baker asked him to hire his son to give him a fresh start in a new community.

“What has now become blatantly obvious is that I didn’t dig deep enough into the allegation made against him back then," wrote Jernigan. "All that was going on behind the scenes at Eastview was not revealed to me and since I wasn’t aware of it, I didn’t know, or think, to probe deeper. I put too much trust in my friendship with Mike and didn’t put Caleb through the normal interview process. In hindsight, I made a wrong call on this. And yes, I take full responsibility for it.”

Mike Baker, who resigned Saturday, characterized his son’s conduct only as infidelity. It’s an important distinction for faith communities. The word “abuse” indicates the sexual impropriety by a church leader involves a member of the church, said the Rev. Robert Creech, retired professor of pastoral leadership at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary and the author of the book, “Ethics for Christian Ministry: Moral Formation for 21st Century Leaders.”

“There's always a power differential between the clergy and the congregation. And that makes it different than if a clergyman had an affair with someone outside the church, just because there's not a power differential,” said Rev. Creech.

New allegations of unwanted advances by Caleb Baker to Eastview staff members have surfaced, referenced both by Eastview elders and by Pastor Jernigan in Arizona. In the case of Eastview, there also are allegations of a cover-up, which Mike Baker has denied.

“Any time you have, whether it's nepotism or that inner circle of leadership, whether they're related or they’re best friends, they just have a lot of power together. It makes it difficult for allegations to be taken seriously by other leadership. I'm not surprised the father of another pastor wouldn't necessarily fully take seriously the charges against his son,” said Lauren Sawyer, an editor of the new edition of “Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct: A Handbook” put out by the FaithTrust Institute, a multi-faith multicultural training organization.

That can increase tensions among congregants.

“Often, a congregation will split, maybe not actually physically, create new churches, but they'll pick sides. Many will side with the offending or alleged offending pastor or leader, believing that their beloved leader could never do this. And not just not-believe but scapegoat any victims or survivors, anybody who's standing up and saying, ‘No, this thing happened.’ Then you get the other side of people saying, ‘No, we need to listen to the people who have been harmed by this person,’” said Sawyer.

The tension will likely persist beyond the end of the investigation, no matter what the findings are, said Sawyer.

How often it happens

When sexual misconduct happens among ministers, it tends to surprise because those who commit it are expected to be people who hold upright values. Their role, in fact, is to help others live a good and moral life.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock. It might be more accurate to say it’s not uncommon — but uncommon to have it come to light.

According to a 2008 nationwide study with more than 3,500 respondents done by Diana Garland, for whom the School of Social Work at Baylor University is named, in the average American congregation of 400 persons, with women representing on average 60% of the congregation, there are an average of seven women who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct.

Eight percent of the respondents reported having known about misconduct happening in a congregation they have attended.

“In the average American congregation of 400 congregants, there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced clergy sexual misconduct in their community of faith,” according to the executive summary to the study.

“The statistics refute the commonly-held belief that it is a case of a few charismatic and powerful leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” wrote Garland.

Damage done

Regardless of the results of the investigation, experts suggest it will be hurtful for Eastview, and any congregation that has such allegations of ministerial sexual misconduct.

“The sort of secondary victims in some ways are the other women in the congregation," said Creech. "Dr. Garland’s study involved just the women who are still attending church. The level of trust between these congregants and their pastors has been eroded by what's happened to them in the past, and they'll carry that with them the rest of their life. Over time, I think it's terribly wounding to congregations to have had that.”

He also noted that some women who leave the affected church will leave church life altogether. Others may not fully engage or trust in any new congregation they join. If that happens, it could sap the vitality of other churches in the Twin Cities.

“Historically, women have been the most involved in churches, even in the congregations that they can’t actually lead as pastors,” said Sawyer. “There's absolutely that loss of trust when these sorts of misconduct cases happen. They can lead to a loss of faith, not even just in a specific community. They might say, ‘I can't be a part of this tradition, period or this religion that would let this happen,’” said Sawyer.

Eastview is huge. It claims on its website to have average weekly attendance of about 5,500 people. But the experts consulted for this story are not certain whether the size of the congregation affects the level of damage done. In smaller churches, and in culturally homogenous faith communities, everyone may know and have a personal relationship with a besmirched minister. For them, the level of pain may be acute. In a larger church, that close relationship may not be present, but the flip side is there are many more congregants to take sides in a divisive issue and who may lose trust.

“If you got that five-pound rock and you throw it in Lake Erie, it's gonna make a splash. You throw it in a mud puddle, it's gonna make a splash. But you know, it's going to be a different effect in the smaller one than in the larger one,” said Creech.

How churches deal with allegations

The board of elders at Eastview has talked about transparency in announcing a third-party investigation.

Yet, a former staffer who ignited the investigation with a letter to Eastview elders last year has in social media posts questioned the commitment to independence, noting Mike Baker was on the investigation team until he resigned when it became clear the matter would not go away.

The former employee also noted the board urged anyone with allegations to let the elders know so they can forward the information to the investigator. The staffer expressed doubt whether an investigation can be truly independent if the elders are involved. The former worker said if the elders serve as a conduit, it could inhibit others from coming forward.

Eastview Christian Church
Facebook/Eastview Christian Church
Eastview Christian Church is one of the largest churches in Bloomington-Normal.

Transparency could be key to recovery, and not just for Eastview.

“The church in America will not survive in the form that we think of it unless they learn to deal with this,” said Unitarian Universalist Minister Gail Seavey, who has helped two congregations recover from misconduct scandals and lectured on the topic. “I've seen institutions change and thrive by changing. And I know that young people appreciate honesty and authenticity and are more attracted to institutions that are honest about the fact that people have failed and that they are going to have strong ethical standards for their leadership. And it doesn't hurt institutions to do that.”

She also noted insurance companies today demand more structure and procedure, such as the third-party investigator Eastview has engaged. Eastview has not identified who that is.

“I think their insurance company will make them do that. I have to say ministerial misconduct is, just like a lot of abuse in the world, a big insurance suck. You're paying a lot of money for that. And insurance companies don't like that. And it's got to be true for a big church. They got to have insurance. We're all covered up the wazoo as a minister for ministerial misconduct. And that's part of the package,” said Seavey.

There is a tension, though, among the goals of instilling faith in the process through transparency, abiding by human resource rules to protect employees from potential unjustified reputational damage, and safeguarding the privacy and safety of victims.

“The knee-jerk reaction once something like this happens often is to hide it,” said Seavey.

She cited the Southern Baptist denomination that is undergoing a crisis because hundreds of ministers with problems were let go from positions without publicly saying why — only to have them pop up at other churches and re-offend. That pattern may apply to Caleb Baker’s transition from Eastview to Central Christian Church in Arizona.

“We know that doesn’t work anymore,” said Seavey.

“The congregation needs to know there's an investigation into misconduct about a sexual relationship. They need to know that much. Often, they need to be reassured that this didn't involve children. They need to know enough information to be able to feel safe in their community. They don't necessarily need to know the gory details of a case,” said Sawyer.

Institutional change is complicated, Seavey said, and institutional structures differ.

“People are finding out that institutions are healthier, the more transparent they are,” she said.


Once the investigation is done at Eastview and results emerge, leaders there will turn to a different work: calming the trouble that has happened and finding balm.

“There is no foolproof way to heal as a congregation,” said Lauren Sawyer of the FaithTrust Institute.

She said the institute encourages communities to do some sort of service or ritual that feels true to their faith tradition. If music plays a huge role in that community, having a music-based service where there's space for testimony and truth telling could happen.

“I think that transparency piece is huge. And the truth-telling piece is huge. How that is actually practiced within the community needs to be very specific to that community for it to feel like genuine healing and processing and moving on,” she said.

Processing grief and loss though comes in stages and is not linear. That includes the trauma of loss of a leader or leaders, loss of trust in an institution, or loss of the sense of a unified community because of scandal. Like any other grief, healing needs to be repetitive and iterative, not a one and done, experts said. Taking stock of what has been lost happens over time.

“When we grieve a death is we think, well, I've lost a father. But then you find out over the course of a year that I lost the guy that calls me every two weeks to check on how I'm doing, or who fixes my car when it's broken, or who can give me advice about finances, all the things you depend on your dad for. You don't lose them all at once. You lose those things over the course of the year or more, as you take inventory of what you've lost,” said Creech. “You can start in with a congregation of 5,000 people. That’s 5,000 sets of losses. Everybody isn’t the same.”

Creech said guiding the grief process can be done from the pulpit. It can be done in hallway conversations, and in more formal conversations with specific people.

Complicating recovery is the effort to restore trust. And Seavey said the survivors of misconduct can be key to that mission.

“My experience was I found plenty of survivors who are willing to work hard to improve an institution for two reasons. One is a lot of institutions in the past wanted the survivors to disappear. This is true not just in faith communities, but across the board in public institutions. And so, they did not tend to care for those people. They either did not support them or give them pastoral care, or they would not support any legal questions or requests for changed laws or policies or ethics. So, you know, you have people that really want to make things better. It's actually part of healing from trauma to want to make things better, so that future people aren't hurt as bad,” said Seavey.

Though some people will never heal, she said people have ways in groups to hold each other through the difficult work of healing.

“And that's the work of community, always, to hold together this great variety in dealing with life,” said Seavey.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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