Those words were spoken to me a few weeks prior to 9/11 while I stood in the pastor’s office at New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C. I was using the office during the Sunday morning Bible study hour to put some finishing touches on the sermon I would preach in view of a call to become the church’s next pastor.
The church had dwindled to less than 20 regular members, though that morning we were expecting between 30 and 40 as the congregation gathered to hear the young seminary student whom the search committee had recommended for their consideration. The sanctuary had been built to accommodate 400, so there was plenty of room for growth. The church also had a full baseball field in a neighboring lot, a basketball court, and stood near some of the busiest intersections on that side of Fayetteville. Fort Bragg was an 8 minute drive away.
About 30 minutes before the service was scheduled to begin, a layman named Mike Rhodes came to the office to wire me with the lavalier microphone.
“So nobody has really explained to me what happened to the church,” I said to Mike as he clipped a microphone to my lapel.
“You mean they didn’t tell you?” he asked, incredulously.
“Tell me what?” I responded.
“The preacher’s daughter. She had sex with those boys.”
“What? What boys?”
“In the school. They were 14, maybe 15 years old. She’s went to prison. Made the national news,” Mike told me.
The thud of that realization landed on me hard. How had I gotten to this point in the search process without any disclosure by the committee? Why hadn’t I raised the question of the church’s decline during one of two interviews? I simply had no grid through which to process the information I’d just received, almost casually.
My immediate predecessor, Rev. Carl Rehrer, had been forced to resign the church by the remaining members after the church’s precipitous loss of membership and associated difficulties in the wake of a sex scandal involving his daughter. Years earlier, New Hope Baptist Church had started a private Christian academy. When I became pastor, not a single teacher was certified and there were approximately 30 students in grades K-12. At its zenith, the school had more than 180 students, many of whom had been expelled from the county’s public schools or nearby private schools. New Hope was their last chance to earn a high school diploma.
In 1997, Rehrer hired his 32-year old daughter to teach 9th graders despite the fact she had no teaching degree or certification. In April 1998, the police showed up and arrested her. She was charged with 3 counts of statutory rape, 3 counts of statutory sex offense, and 3 counts of indecent liberties with a juvenile. The daughter, Christian Laurie Rehrer, had met teenage boys through the academy and began hosting some of them after school hours at her home. It wasn’t before long that the boys began talking among themselves and word got out that Rehrer was Fayetteville’s version of Mary Kay LeTourneau.
Originally, Rehrer denied the allegations and her father allowed her to keep her teaching job. But when the arrest happened, she was fired and given two weeks severance. Her father issued public calls for people “not to condemn” the church but to “pray for [his] daughter and her children.” When all the evidence was presented, however, Laurie Rehrer capitulated and pled to lesser offenses. accepting a six month prison sentence with five years of supervised probation. She also had to register as a sex offender.
The church never paid a settlement to or got sued by the families of the teenage victims.
The day Carl Rehrer resigned, the church had lost nearly 100 members in the wake of the sex abuse scandal. Rehrer’s wife stayed as minister of music, and continued in that role for nearly one year into my pastorate. Rev. Rehrer became pastor at another church in the Fayetteville area.
About six months into my pastorate at New Hope — where I was also given the official role of headmaster of the church’s academy — I received an anonymous note. In simple words, the note told me to look into the military record of the school’s only male high school teacher. He was, the note explained, hiding something.
That is where things got wild.
First, I went to look in the office for employment records, both for the the church and for the academy. There were none. In fact, I discovered that some parents had been paying cash for their children’s tuition, receiving handwritten cash receipts, but the amounts did not correlate with deposits to the academy’s account.
It appeared that somebody was embezzling. I thought maybe I was about to discover a long history of financial fraud at the school, and that New Hope would be dragged into another terrible news story. I had inherited a mess, to be sure, but I had no idea how big it was.
One afternoon, I went to the home of Jim Hobbs, an older deacon in the church. Hobbs, who was not only a charter member of the church but also the general contractor for the building, sat me down in his living room. His wife, Evelyn, went to get us something to drink.
“He had some issues in the Navy,” Mr. Hobbs told me. “I’m not quite sure what happened, but I know he was discharged. It was all very hush, hush.”
I started to get a sense of what was going on a few days later when I overheard another teacher in the academy tell her colleague that the high school teacher in question had been having “slumber parties” at his house with some of the senior high boys. I contacted the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis and discovered that with a signed Form SF-180 I would be able to access the complete military service record for a consenting veteran.
I told no one of my plan.
The following week, I scheduled an “all-faculty, all-staff” after school meeting at the academy. We had not been keeping adequate employment records, I told them; then I distributed a few forms that each employee needed to fill out so the church could “update our records.”
Included in that stack of forms was an employment application that I asked everyone to complete in the conference room. The form included a section concerning prior military service.
“Have you ever served in the United States military, and if so, what branch?” the form asked. Then the second question: “Were you discharged honorably?” followed by a box to check “yes” or “no.”
When I collected the forms at the end of the meeting, I pulled the one teacher’s military service disclosure form to see how he’d answered. The line was left completely blank. I called the teacher to my office and showed him the form he’d failed to sign. I handed him a pen, and asked him to sign it.
He quickly checked the box indicating he had been honorably discharged, and that’s when I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out Form SF-180. Handing it across the desk, I told the teacher I needed him to sign for me to get a copy of his military service file from the Navy’s archives. He refused.
That’s when I told him that he would either sign the form or I would place him on immediate administrative leave pending an investigation. He grew angry, and told me that he had nothing to hide.
“So sign the form,” I told him. Then I showed him the acknowledgement he signed on the employment forms that stated in no uncertain terms: “The falsification of employment records is grounds for dismissal without compensation.” If he had lied by checking “honorable,” he could be terminated. The only way for me to verify his discharge status was to get his complete military record.
I then asked him if he’d been having students from the school over to his home without their parents’ supervision. That’s when he got very quiet and just stared at the wall of my office.
I reached into my desk and pulled out another document. This time it was a letter of resignation I had drafted for him. He had only two options: (1) Sign the Form SF-180, at which point I would place him on immediate administrative leave with pay pending the production of his military service file; or (2) Resign immediately and receive pay for the remainder of the school year, which was around $6k.
He chose to resign. I produced a severance agreement I had prepared, which we both signed, and I escorted him to his office to retrieve his personal things. I did not allow him to access his computer or remove any files. Then I escorted him out of the building and handed him a notice that he was not to be on the church or academy campus during school hours, nor was he allowed to contact students. Additionally, he was barred from discussing the circumstances or conditions of his resignation with anyone. Failure to abide by those guidelines would constitute a breach of his severance agreement and the cancellation of any pending payments.
It turned out that he left the military as one of the early enforcements of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. His dishonorable discharge included allegations of assault on a fellow naval officer, but there was no criminal conviction. There were never any allegations of sexual improprieties with academy students, but reports of his unsupervised interactions at his home with teenage male students were grounds for dismissal without needing a more thorough investigation.
I felt I had dodged a bullet. Within a few months — and with the help of Drs. Greg Lawson and Ken Coley from Southeastern Seminary — I recommended the church close the academy altogether. A circus of a business meeting, complete with parent protesters, handouts, and lots of name calling, ended with a near unanimous vote of the church to affirm the terms of closure I outlined. A few months later, I received a message that the former teacher had been hired at a larger church in the area working as a music associate in the youth department.
“Here we go again,” I thought, and called the church pastor to inform him that his new employee was not allowed to work with youth in our church but that no formal complaint about his conduct had been made during my tenure. He thanked me for the information, and I let the matter die. Somewhere in a locked file closet at 3675 Rosehill Road in Fayetteville, N.C., is a folder containing a full report of the events I’ve just described. If, that is, the file has not been destroyed since my departure in 2003.
The whole experience taught me a few valuable lessons as a 25 year-old pastor. First, I saw how easy it was for lax employment practices to expose a church to otherwise avoidable scandals. Second, I saw the degree to which well-intentioned ministers — thinking they “err on the side of grace” — will knowingly place unqualified and unvetted leaders in positions with access to children. Third, I saw how angry some members of a church can become when they believe the pastor has been “unfair” by terminating a popular employee for matters that you cannot disclose to them.
I also learned this valuable lesson: Keep contemporaneous records and meticulous personal notes.
Today, New Hope Baptist Church still only has about 40 active members. In the wake of 9/11, the church grew significantly and we baptized a number of servicemen who were deploying in the lead up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the one year anniversary of 9/11, we hosted a vigil service that had a great turnout, but the church never seemed to live down its reputation in the community. When I would talk to prospective members, I was always asked why we didn’t have any youth in the church.
I could never bring myself to tell them the truth: New Hope had seriously bungled a case of child sex abuse that became national news. The church culture — and the leadership — had provided an opportunity for further abuses. Nobody in their right mind would bring a child into such a context. We did everything to enact policies that would prevent abuse in the future, or at the very least discourage serial abusers from finding safe harbor in ministry leadership at our church.
But the fact is this: Churches and conventions that are careless in this area not only allow, but quite literally invite predators into their midst. It is better that a church have NO children’s or youth ministry whatsoever than to have lax standards for recruiting, training, and monitoring ministry workers.
I should probably add one more detail that is so bizarre I had no option but to laugh.
The Sunday morning the congregation voted to affirm me as their new pastor — and thirty minutes or so after I’d just learned about the cloud of sex abuse that hung over the church — a member of the choir sang a solo before I preached.
“He touched me.”
To this day, I cannot hear that song without cringing.