An Alabama church's $4.5 million "pastoral recovery center" raises so many red flags
Pastor Chris Hodges won't say what happens at this Christian rehab facility
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One of the more problematic Christian pastors in the country recently launched a multi-million dollar rehab facility for problematic Christian pastors… with no clear indication of what that money will be used for and how clients will interact with church members.
To understand why this is so concerning, it helps to consider the case of Micahn Carter.
For several years, Carter and his wife ran the Together Church in Yakima, Washington. They grew the congregation and made people feel welcome. According to Mary Jones, who worked there for seven years as an assistant to Carter, the “community of family” at the church “saved my life.”
But that changed for Jones when Carter began making sexual advances. He told her he had “dreams” about her. She said he began “grabbing my backside sexually.” Jones later said she was raped by Carter.
… on April 29th, 2019, during a leadership event right before leaving for dinner, my pastor raped me in my office while most of our staff, teams and my family stood just outside the door.
He attempted to grab me before the event started, more aggressively than the previous time, and I felt like my feet were frozen still. No conversation led up to it. We were talking about what glasses I was going to buy for pete’s sake. What was happening didn’t make sense to me and my “please stop” whispers didn’t throw him off in the slightest. When he stopped, I remember feeling sick and knowing I had to quit. I felt heartbroken for the father relationship I had lost, I felt angry, and confused. I wondered if I truly had a spirit of sexuality on me and if I would ever get it off. During the event, he hugged me and apologized and asked if I was going to act weird around him…
Because she didn’t want to interfere with his career or family life, she didn’t go public with her story. Four days after that attack, however, Carter told the church he was stepping down because he participated in “an inappropriate incident” that he blamed on having bipolar disorder. (Carter still denies the rape allegations. Last October, he sued Mary Jones for defamation. That case is still ongoing.)
Later that year, however, Carter joined the staff of Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s the state’s largest church, with a weekly membership of over 50,000 people, spread over 22 campuses. Yet the congregation was never told about what led Carter’s family to move across the country. In fact, in mid-2020, when Carter gave his first sermon in front of the megachurch, Pastor Chris Hodges introduced him with absolutely no reference to the alleged sexual assault.
He only said Carter had “pastored previously” and that his wife was in remission after being diagnosed with cancer (“to God be the glory”). Hodges added: “I’m a teacher. You’re getting ready to hear a preacher.”
The only way all that would have been forgivable would be if Hodges knew nothing about Carter’s past.
But that wasn’t the case.
After Mary Jones’ post went viral in 2021, Church of the Highlands announced that Carter had resigned. But in making that announcement, they also shared how he came to be hired:
“In 2019, Micahn Carter’s Pastoral Overseers from Washington state asked Church of the Highlands to assist them in directing a ministerial restoration process for him,” the statement said. “Highlands agreed to do so, and since then we have been working with Micahn and his family. Recently, Highlands received correspondence raising new allegations about events that occurred over two years ago in Washington state. When we shared this information with the Carters, they resigned from their positions on staff to work through these issues themselves. Highlands is no longer involved in the restoration process.”
The full statement sent to church staffers added: “We are not asking you to do anything with this information, we just wanted to make you aware.”
So they knew something he did at his previous church required restoration, though they didn’t say anything about it to the congregation. Did they know everything? Maybe not, but there was no way to offer restoration without at least some awareness of the details.
Ultimately, they allowed Carter to work at the church for two years, presumably in contact with women, without telling anyone key details about his past. Even after he resigned, the church didn’t say much more. There was no mention of Mary Jones, no mention of a rape allegation, no mention of anything that may have been useful information for church members. For all they knew, he was struggling with some addiction and needed time to recover.
That is how Chris Hodges handled the “restoration” of a pastor accused of sexual assault.
It didn’t help that Hodges had his own problems. In 2020, he “liked” a bunch of racist and conspiratorial posts on social media. He also has close ties with the evangelical Green family—the Hobby Lobby founders behind all the criminal activity at the Museum of the Bible. They donated $20 million for two dorms at a college run by the church.
Neither of those things are criminal, obviously, but Hodges’ résumé includes one bad decision after another.
Hodges told the crowd at a church leadership event in 2021 that he and Highlands Associate Pastor Dino Rizzo were “in the middle of about 20 pastoral, moral failures or restorations right now.”
“I love doing that,” Hodges said at the time. “I want to be known for that.”
While offering forgiveness and second chances to people who want to atone for their “sins” may be admirable, there are serious concerns about what this entails. Reporter Anna Claire Vollers at Al.com explains why people close to the church are raising red flags:
“My biggest concern is, are they being transparent with the congregation and staff about who will be at the Lodge?” said Lauen Shackleford, a former employee and member of Church of the Highlands. “How often would (the pastors undergoing restoration) be around other people? Are they teaching? Are they leading small groups? Are they dangerous?”
“If they’re restoring pastors who are struggling in their lives with something (like depression or suicidal thoughts), that’s admirable. But we don’t know. I feel like the people who are at Highlands deserve to know who’s there with them.”
If there’s an alleged sexual predator in the midst, church members who interact with them should know about it.
If someone was caught pulling a Josh Duggar, children need to be kept away from him.
Are there licensed therapists and psychologists and other professionals who will be working with the patients… or will completion of the program fall solely in the lap of someone whose only skill is saying “Jesus” multiple times in one sentence?
And in the case of someone like Carter, what would the diagnosis even be?
“What worries me,” said Dee Parsons, who writes about church issues on her website and who has followed Highlands’ pastoral restoration efforts since visiting the church a few times with family, “is that I’m not sure they understand that a pastor who has had an affair with a church member, it’s not an affair, in my opinion. It’s clerical abuse.
“If they’re going to take these guys, splash some cold water on their faces and tell them to get back in the pulpit, I think you’re going to see problems.”
So often when a pastor steps down from the pulpit for emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse, you see a similar game plan. They’ll issue some vague apology to their congregations, say they’re going through some kind of restoration process for the Problem They Will Not Name, and then reemerge a little while later (perhaps having written a book) ready to preach again. It’s an open question, every time, as to whether they’ve actually changed their behavior.
Is there any reason to believe a pastor who visits the Lodge won’t be restored, regardless of what he did?
How much of the Lodge is really just a way for badly behaving pastors to say they went somewhere to get help, so they can eventually return to their old jobs?
Why isn’t Hodges making any effort to help the victims in these cases?
Why is Hodges involved with this at all given his own history?
You won’t see any answers to those questions because Hodges refuses to address them:
Representatives from the Church of the Highlands declined repeated requests from Reckon in 2022 and 2023 to share details about the Lodge, the pastoral restoration process and what kind of issues it is intended to address.
Church leaders have not spoken publicly about what types of moral failures or personal issues their program addresses, how pastors are accepted into the program or whether participants are kept separate from congregants.
Without being transparent about what sort of rehab the Lodge is offering, who’s involved in the therapy, what the timelines are for the various programs, etc., there’s no reason anyone should trust the outcomes.
Without more information, this place is just a Christian diploma mill for pastors who need to lay low for a while after committing some kind of major sin.
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