The Bed We Make
How Vineyard Culture Helped Create the Gatlin Crisis and Why Vineyard’s Fixes are a Smoke Screen
TL;DR: Crises such as the alleged coverup by the Gatlins (and their unwillingness to comply with an investigation) invite us to examine whether our system is contributing to the likelihood of this sort of behavior. My own experience points to this reality. We need a better way forward than Jay’s proposal to give the national office more power. Further, to promote organizational power mechanisms as a “prophetic” word is problematic and self-serving.
Disclosure: In the Fall of 2022, I announced to my church that I was stepping down as Senior Pastor. A part of my reason for resigning relates to my disillusionment with VUSA and their treatment of me and other pastors who have raised substantive questions. This is a movement I have been part of since 1985 and have served professionally since 1993. I have been the Senior Pastor of the Sugar Land Vineyard since 2009. I am currently working on a doctorate in Organizational Leadership.
This was written in the Spring of 2023. I originally opted not to post this, given my transition. However, there seems to be ongoing interest, evidenced by the numerous and continuous inquiries I've received about a follow-up to what happened after my previous post. I admittedly have not been in the loop with recent decisions, nor have I heard updates from the recent National Conference.
How did two of the most visible leaders in the Vineyard movement, who both serve at the highest levels and inner circle of leadership and influence, perpetuate a cover-up of egregious actions for so long? My heart goes out to the victims whose stories were covered up in a cloak of spiritual abuse by trusted leaders of the church and of the movement. In the wake of this catastrophe, Jay Pathak issued a “prophetic” statement that called for the expansion of Vineyard control over churches. Is this really the answer? Is this even appropriate?
My proposal is that Vineyard control might actually be contributing to the problem manifesting itself in the current crisis.
Family Systems Revisited
A good family systems counselor will tell you that behavior in families doesn’t really happen in a vacuum. If you are unfamiliar with this idea, here’s a summary from sciencedirect.com:
According to a family systems perspective, an individual's functioning is determined not so much by intrapsychic factors as by a person's place in the system(s) in which he or she finds himself or herself, subject to the pushes and pulls of the system, including competing emotional demands, role definitions and expectations, boundary and hierarchy issues, coalitions and collusions, loyalty conflicts, family and institutional culture and belief systems, double binds, projective identifications, and systemic anxiety. In addition, self-correcting and self-reinforcing feedback loops in a system can either facilitate or hinder pathology or health, breakdown or resilience.
I am no expert in family systems, though I’ve studied it at a graduate level in counseling and family ministry courses in seminary. Also, organizational theory holds that these kinds of system dynamics manifest themselves in organizations as well. What I am presenting here is not a definitive statement but an invitation for exploration. Could the behavior of Michael and Brenda Gatlin have been cultivated in Vineyard USA’s culture? Is this heinous coverup a part of a culture of protecting power? I have reason to believe so. Please, ask your own questions. Though, my experience is that questions are met with disdain and even punishment.
These are important questions. If you read no further than this or find that my evidence below is not compelling, please at least explore and consider family systems and decide for yourself whether it is worth asking deeper questions about the culture we have created in the Vineyard and if our power structure helps or hurts.
The Bed We’ve Made
I have written in the past about my critique of Vineyard’s expansion of power in the recent ReOrg. In the wake of Vineyard Anaheim’s departure, part of the National Office's response was to leverage the crisis as a reason why Vineyard needed more control over churches and boards. This is developing into a pattern. Crisis … statement of shock … statement of why the VUSA National Office needs more power … over pastors … over boards … and these things won’t ever happen again if only VUSA national leaders are given more control. What VUSA has not offered is self-reflection about the culture of Vineyard that is the seedbed, the family system, that has fostered the dysfunction. I suspect that self-reflection might threaten some assumptions about the fruit of Vineyard’s power structure and so it is avoided. “Transparency” and “openness” seem to be euphemisms for “spin” and “self-protection.”
This article is not about discussing the details of the scandal at the Duluth Vineyard. This is about a culture within the Vineyard that made it possible for the people closest to Jay Pathak and at the highest levels of leadership in our movement to believe that they were justified in their behavior and refuse to participate in an investigation that might further expose them to liability … a culture that left significant victimization in its wake.
What I submit here is a personal encounter with this culture. I have prioritized documentation of specifics, so this might seem tedious at points. However, I invite you to wade through the details and ask questions. This is on us if we knowingly give a pass to a toxic system. We will then become complicit with the abuse that is the by-product. God have mercy.
After I published my last paper critiquing the over-reach of VUSA post-Anaheim, a crazy series of events unfolded. At its epicenter is a letter I received from a “neutral third party” stating that the Sugar Land Vineyard had an “unworkable relationship” with Vineyard USA. He was commissioned by Jay and Joel to investigate our region and why it was problematic. That we had an “unworkable relationship” and that our region was problematic was news to me. I suppose raising questions and challenging leaders is characterized as an unworkable relationship. A perplexing census of ten people was collected to assess our region. This was a tragic and misguided process, one which I will document at another time.
What I want to focus on is an interaction I had with Jay (the only conversation I had with him during this entire process lasting around a year). This interaction happened in a meeting between me, Jay Pathak, Joel Seymour, Jim Herrington, and Rachel Conner in Sugar Land. After confirming with participants present in the meeting and some subsequent fact-checking, I made a charge against Jay that he leveraged his power to make false statements in that meeting that were hurtful to me and toxic to relationships in our region. I used the expression: “abuse of power.” I don’t wish to try Jay in the court of public opinion regarding my specific charges related to this meeting. They are important, but this is not the scope of this paper. What I wish to highlight is the way the charge I made was handled. What is at stake is whether there is evidence that power is protected in the Vineyard hierarchy … or is there at least enough concern to warrant further exploration. Is there a firewall that protects leaders from scrutiny?
Jay replied to my charge, stating, “Your accusations of abusive behavior are serious ones. I am a man under authority (as are you) and so I'll be including our Vineyard trustees team to investigate your claims and make recommendations as to next steps.” I didn’t know we had a board of trustees or who was on it. A Google search produced nothing nor did a search of the Vineyard USA website (try it). When I asked, they presented a list. I was surprised to hear who was on this board pieced together as a provisional power structure after the ReOrg and not included in the bylaws. The bylaws prescribed a power structure that no longer exists post ReOrg. However, I was hopeful that this matter would be investigated and righted as the facts came to light. Each party involved in the meeting had verified that Jay made the statements I was referencing. I have email evidence of this. This is the last interaction I’ve had with Jay, primarily because I will not meet without a disinterested third party. My specific statement was, “I will not have any further dialogue with you." I believed Jay to not be trustworthy in representing facts accurately. I stand by this today.
Though to be honest, an apology and offer to make things right could probably have ended things there. We’ll never know. By this point in a long, tumultuous journey with VUSA, trust was in very short supply. Joel Seymour accused me of escalating and said, “It appears you choose to view words, actions, and even a delayed reply through a negative lens. Again I am disappointed with your response.” Yes, words, actions, and delayed responses were at the heart of the issue, and I did view them with a negative lens based on our history. The immediate reply from Joel was to not consider my claims but to defend Jay and castigate me for raising concerns. This is after Joel verified that what I was charging had occurred.
I subsequently received an email from Tom Campion and Michael Gatlin, two members of the board of trustees, asking for a meeting to review the charges. I responded that I would be happy to interact if we included a disinterested third party to mediate the conversation. I did not want any possibility of misrepresentation of the meeting. Tom and Michael rejected this. Tom pushed back again stating that he would be the third party. Somehow the idea of a disinterested third party was misunderstood.
After their rejection of a third-party mediator, I conceded that I would submit a written statement if each party would submit a public written account as well. That way, we would all be clear and have a point of reference. Details matter. Michael and Tom rejected this proposal as well. Each interaction was filled with commitments from them to bring reconciliation but ultimately ended with them unwilling to hear anything other than a summary statement because of stipulations designed for my protection.
They also asked my Executive Pastor (Rachel) to interact with them. She responded that she would do so but only with a third party mediator or other protections in place.
For some time, I heard nothing further.
I then received a report from Tom and Michael presented to the rest of the board of trustees regarding my charge. In that report Michael and Tom stated:
Reagan responded quickly and Rachel took until Friday to respond. Reaganʼs emails were wordy and defensive. It was evident that he lacked trust with the national team and that he was apprehensive in communicating with Michael or me verbally. Reaganʼs emails were addressed to me, and he would not copy Michael in his responses. Rachel did respond but her response was defensive and suggestive of a lack of trust. She had a list of contingencies that needed to be met in order to have a verbal dialogue.
Reagan is implying that there was an improper use of Jayʼs position as the National Director, which he found to be abusive. However, this was not supported by Joel and Jim as they shared their perspectives.
In the course of the report, after Tom and Michael’s unwillingness to meet fair conditions for our interaction, they made derogatory assertions about me. I was accused of being “emotional,” “lacking self-awareness,” “defensive,” “hypersensitive,” and “exaggerating.”
“Without self-awareness, itʼs unlikely that the defensiveness will dissolve as Reagan continues to look outwardly as a victim and less inwardly to what changes he can make to better a situation.”
(I suppose I am wordy. Though I’m surprised to hear that this invalidated my claims. Preachers beware!)
The issue was resolved by the word of people on the VUSA payroll. Jim is touted as a neutral third party while repeatedly being used to promote VUSA ReOrg agendas for pay.
Meanwhile, the specifics of my allegations were never addressed. In fact, Jay’s demeanor was defended (I’d never claimed the contrary) but there was no mention of the false statements at the heart of my accusation. It appears these were not evaluated at all and whether they were indeed spoken and whether they were substantive, damaging, and an abuse of power/position.
They refused to investigate the matter with reasonable protections in place to ensure fairness.
They never addressed the issue/charge being presented except in generalities.
They impugned me and attacked my character.
Without knowing the full details of the Duluth Vineyard situation, the three points above are indicative of coverups like were alleged of the Gatlins, though certainly nowhere near the scale or consequence. What it illustrates is a potential pattern.
Resolving Conflict by Circumventing the Senior Pastor
After this report, Joel Seymour attempted to contact my board of directors at the Vineyard Church of Sugar Land by email. Unfortunately, the letter went out partly to random people in my church (not serving in any leadership capacity). You may imagine my surprise when a church member approached me on Sunday morning with a strange email she received from Joel. Further, Joel did not include me in the correspondence.
I expressed my disdain to Joel by email that he would do this and asked him not to engage my board. His justification was that he wanted to offer help in the pastoral transition and that he would write directly to the board since we had previous conflict. Further, since I mentioned that our future involvement in the Vineyard would be a matter of discussion, he was justified in his direct contact of my board. My board replied by issuing a gracious formal statement that they were not interested in correspondence. When Joel reached out to them again, I sent as precise of a letter as I could muster stating that I was the representative of our church and according to our bylaws, I was fully empowered to interact on behalf of the board on these matters. I asked him to cease any further interactions directly with the board.
Joel replied to my request:
While I understand your perspective, you should note that the church’s bylaws are designed to, and do - in fact - govern The Vineyard Church of Sugarland, TX (“Vineyard Sugarland”), and not Vineyard USA. Vineyard Sugarland and Vineyard USA are different organizations governed by unique bylaws for each. For that reason, you should understand that any requirements between you and your board are irrelevant to my communication with your board. Moreover, I am informed that Vineyard Sugarland is in the process of looking for a new lead pastor and hopes to “remain in good standing as an Associate of Vineyard USA…” (quoting from your email). As such, it would not make sense to disregard communicating directly with Vineyard Sugarland when Vineyard USA will have an ongoing relationship with the church and its board.
We may continue to copy any correspondence with you to the Vineyard Sugarland board, but we are not offering to copy you on all of our correspondence with the church’s board. If you hope to remain informed of our correspondence with them, it is up to you to pursue that information with your board directly.
It should be noted that I reached out to your board after almost a year of dialogue with you in order to ask for help in our relationship, to follow up on your comment that leaving the Vineyard was on the table, and to offer my help during pastoral succession. It seems odd that after accusing Vineyard USA of being autocratic, of controlling dialogue and lacking transparency you would want us to restrict communication with a local church board. 
(emphasis and footnotes mine)
Joel’s assertion is that he (VUSA) will continue to communicate with my board despite my request. Further, he was not obligated to even include me or let me know. So are we to assume that if a pastor has disagreements with VUSA (not moral charges, not ethical lapses, but simply disagreements/conflict) that the pastor should be bypassed in order to solicit the goodwill of the board … potentially leveraging weight against the pastor?
I will leave this for you to judge whether his response was appropriate or not. I’m sure, however, that you can imagine how this would not breed trust into the situation. Further, this reveals the long play of the ReOrg to further disempower local pastors. Not only do pastors have no formal method of influence in our structure (all power structures and policies are determined by a small group of people who are only accountable to themselves), but they seek to disempower local pastors in their own church, regardless of the self-determined government structures documented in their bylaws. Because VUSA deemed my positions problematic, they leveraged their power to assert control.
Further, Joel defended Jay’s actions by trying to find offenses against me in my region, looking for evidence to discredit me.
This leveraging of power is what Jay is proposing that we need more of. Instead of reflecting upon how Vineyard handles conflict and the pattern of coverup and control, Vineyard is using the situation to double down on a system that produced the loss of our flagship church and the coverup of one of the most egregious abuses of power in our movement’s history.
I am asking Vineyard pastors to take a closer look at what we are giving VUSA permission to do and what the fruit of this has been.
Once again I am asking VUSA to pause all further development of control and boundary marking policies until a well-defined participatory structure is put in place including the ability to vote on any proposed changes to our statement of faith, ordination process, and any other official policies regarding the ability of churches to govern themselves. 
Further, stop leveraging crises to further the agenda of the ReOrg and the national team. It cheapens the claims for compassion and care and wreaks of opportunism. This should be a time of critical reflection on the system whose leaders feel they are above scrutiny and a system that protects people in power while reaching for more power.
I propose caution around the Guidepost inquiry of how Vineyard enforces ordination and proposals around direct access to local church boards. This will functionally end autonomy and give VUSA full control. As we’ve seen, Vineyard’s claim to this prerogative has already resulted in over-reach.
Let’s resist using the word “prophetic” to add weight to a personal opinion and organization/political aims. Jay’s use of “prophetic” to promote agendas that have been telegraphed since the beginning of the ReOrg is abusive and cheapens prophecy. Self-serving prophetic words have no place in the Vineyard.
While my disagreements with Vineyard USA and its representatives is a complicated story to tell, my central issue through every conversation has been a critique of the devaluing of local pastors and their inability to have any formal say in any decisions being made by a small group of people. Perhaps this will be met with further attempts to discredit me with personal attacks. I hope not.
 Jim Herrington offered a more technical definition for this expression. I don’t recall the specifics but the gist, as I remember, is that there is an impasse in our relationship.
 To investigate our region they chose three current pastors, five Vineyard USA staff members, and two people who had never been a Senior Pastor in our region but were former staff members of mine for about two years. Many of the regional leaders were not included. It appears that the census was developed to support a narrative rather than hear from Vineyard pastors in our region. I raised this objection but the investigation proceeded.
 Adam Russell, John Kim, Michael Gatlin, Phil Strout, Todd Hunter, Tom Campion
 A “disinterested third party” refers to “a person not concerned, with respect to possible gain or loss, in the result of a pending course of examination” (lawinsider.com).
 This was Michael Gatlin’s response to an outside investigation at Duluth as well, according to public reports.
 I suppose this could be contested. However, Jim has throughout this process represented the interests of VUSA. Jim does not meet the criteria of disinterested third party. Further validation of this claim will be included in my report of VUSA and Jim Herrington’s investigation of the former South Central Region and its pastors.
 Let me add a bit more context. My interactions with VUSA (primarily Joel Seymour) have been long and complicated and not very fruitful. At one point in our interactions, in response to Joel’s continued defense of Vineyard USA’s overreach, I proposed that our future involvement in the Vineyard USA was on the table.
 From the Sugar Land Vineyard Board of Directors: “Given that the primary focus here is between individuals within leadership rather than involving this board or our congregation at large, we don’t see a need to intervene at this point as an active participant, ….”
 This is in response to the following statement in my letter asking him to stop contacting my board:
Bypassing me and going to my board was, and remains, offensive. You have illustrated again that you will bypass senior pastors in order to leverage power. This has been my charge against VUSA from the very beginning of these discussions.
 I asserted that “Jay has created a firewall around himself and has never responded directly to the charges I made." Joel disputes this by stating my uwillingness to meet with Jay. I was referencing the fact that Jay only pushed the charges to the board of trustees who performed a sham investigation.
 I concluded my previous paper thus:
The long-standing Vineyard governmental model has given VUSA and its officers autocratic control over Vineyard assets. This has historically been balanced by local pastors’ ability to choose whether they want to be in the association. Local churches are autonomous and free to leave the association depending on their own convictions, bylaws, and local church commitments. VUSA’s recent ReOrg process is signaling a take-over of this autonomy and has left local pastors with no mechanisms for participation and influence in the association. Theological definitions, polity, pastoral succession, and more can be determined solely at the discretion of the national office and its officers. This autocratic control could include removing our ability to opt out. The recent departure of Vineyard Anaheim could justify and accelerate this process. The assertion of this letter is that we should not allow the continuation of this trajectory without wide scale facilitated grassroots two-way discussion and built-in mechanisms giving local pastors legal influence and representation regarding decisions determining our ability to maintain our “associate member” status in the association.