Hi and welcome back! The other day, we checked out a megachurch facing a mutiny. Not to be outdone, another megachurch has decided to air out its own extremely-dirty laundry. During Sunday services a couple of days ago, Sarah Berger, the wife of Grace Chapel’s former
high priest lead pastor, Steve Berger, grabbed the mic to rant at length about how her husband had been hard-done-by in the change in leadership. In her rant, though, Sarah Berger said something that really caught my eye. Today, let me show you how an authoritarian leader pulls rank to force compliance from followers.
Grace Chapel: A Spirit of Disorder.
This was a mess, and we may never really understand exactly what kind of disgusting hypocrisy Grace Chapel is caught up in. Friendly Atheist put together some extremely unsettling information about one of the dramas they’re trying to keep quiet. I definitely recommend checking it out if you want more info. (I’ve no time here, but it is whoa.)
Even without that situation to consider, this is some serious drama.
Grace Chapel, a Tennessee megachurch, has long been known for its conservative posturing. Its founder, Steve Berger, ruled that roost with his wife Sarah. Heck, even the governor of the state attended that church! Double heck, Steve Berger even delivered the invocation of that governor!
As for the church itself, Grace Chapel is huge, with the usual multiple locations and slick website we expect. As we saw with the megachurch from last time, it’s not easy to drill down to exactly what they believe, but eventually we discover they’re the usual culture-warrior bigots we expect. According to this news site’s writeup, they’re a member of the Calvary Churches denomination. But they say they’re non-denominational.
How Steve Berger Lost Grace Chapel.
About six months ago, Steve Berger got into some serious trouble. He’d gotten himself tangled up with the insurrectionists who tried to destroy our government on January 6th. He claims he had nothing to do with the attempted overthrow. However, he did share rumors that antifa forces were responsible. (In reality, the Capitol attack was largely the doing of QAnon-addled white evangelicals. When evangelicals realized the coup had failed, many of the cowards turned tail to try to claim it wasn’t them at all.)
His church seems to have been quite divided over how to deal with their pastor getting caught up in this lunacy. I even caught wind of a Change.org petition demanding his firing. As of now, it’s sitting at 1594 signatures. The creator of the petition, Sofia Noel, references a “25 minute long video posted on January 6th” in which Berger apologizes, but, she says, refuses to take responsibility for his behavior. (It’s referenced here.)
One of the signers, Gracen Hill, claims Berger was once her pastor — but that she left Grace Chapel after Berger’s preaching shifted to “hell fire reigning down.” Another signer, Christine Fekete, notes that her friends “have suffered emotional and spiritual abuse by this man’s ‘teaching’.” She warns ominously, “He is a clear and present danger to the community.”
Somewhere in all of that, Grace Chapel hired a new pastor, Rob Rogers. (Rogers, incidentally, claims to be an ex-heroin addict cured magically by Jesus. Too bad Jesus doesn’t give a sloppy wet slap about the other 50k-ish overdoses every year.)
I can see why Grace Chapel thought they needed this second-hand boost in Jesus Power.
Grace Chapel and the Awful No Good Terrible Transition of Power.
In the news writeup of his leaving, Steve Berger declared on January 20 for realsies that he totally wasn’t “quitting, retiring, leaving, abandoning, we’re not running the other direction because of recent conflict.” Really! No, it was the opposite!
Afterward, Berger loped off to Washington, DC. There, he started some kind of coaching business aimed at
brainwashing training future Congresscritters to be TRUE CHRISTIAN™ culture warriors. Considering he’s accused of being in cahoots with out-and-out treasonous domestic terrorists, it’s a striking new gig. Their webpage writeup is creeptastic and smarmy as all get-out too.
I don’t think it’s doing very well, though, because apparently Berger still can’t keep his paws off Grace Chapel. The news writeup indicated that he planned to run services there once a month and “advise the church’s leadership team.” It also sounds strongly like the former ruling couple intended to meddle in the church’s social business after handing the reins to the new guy.
What I describe here is always really bad news for authoritarian groups. Authoritarian groups can have only one master. They fall apart in infighting and backbiting when two people try to run things as equals.
Why the Grace Chapel Transition Stumbled.
New authoritarian leaders tend to resent being told how to run things, and the former ones always bristle when someone changes anything they used to do. I’ve been there myself, I’m afraid, though at the time I didn’t realize my group was authoritarian.
(I also trip on stuff in plain sight. Dad nicknamed me “Flutterbudget” for a reason. It’s beyond comical how bad my real-world perception can be when I’m not paying attention. So, I try to be gentle on myself for not realizing I kept getting into groups that leaned authoritarian cuz that’s what was most comfortable for me back then. You do the same if you’re there with me, okay?)
Religion News tells us that indeed, the Grace Chapel transition was not going well. The two pastors found themselves at loggerheads as the weeks crawled past. Rob Rogers says he “pushed too hard and fast,” causing Berger to become offended and skeptical of the new guy. And Berger’s reactions, in turn, sound like they were anything but meek and humble, loving and peacemaking.
Their conflict got so bad that both Rob Rogers and the church’s executive pastor, Mark Bright, offered to just resign. And remember, this was months after Berger officially faffed off to DC to run his (ahem) ministry.
And then, this happened:
The Grace Chapel Showdown.
Holy cow, this was amazing.
Okay. So on August 29, Grace Chapel was having its usual Sunday morning services. Blah, blah, blah. Big performance, singing, lights, etc. They were also livestreaming.
At some point, Rob Rogers took the mic to apologize to the church because of his ongoing fight with Steve Berger. The restive congregation got a little rowdy, with one person demanding prayers of repentance (it’s not clear who they thought needed to do this).
Right after that demand, Berger’s wife, Sarah, grabbed a mic, got on the stage herself, and began yelling at Rogers. She claimed he needed to repent “for sinning against my husband.”
In addition, Sarah Berger ranted about how hard-done-by she thought her husband was in the transition and said she and her husband now planned to leave Grace Chapel for good, look what you made me do!
Eventually, someone in A/V realized what was happening and cut the stream. But someone filmed the last bit of Sarah Berger’s rant before the livestream ended. I thank Saint Dymphna for providing her footage on Twitter.
Video Clip Technicals.
Here’s the video:
Again, many thanks to the Tweeter who provided this, Saint Dymphna.
The label across the video reads “Live 1:02:53.” So this probably happened just before the preaching started, but after the worship music and money collection/church schedule announcement stuff.
Church services run a bit like that old story from Bloom County where the Rolling Stones showed up to play the local elementary school’s dance. Between the first and last acts (music/business being first and preaching last), a lot of evangelical churches allow for testimonies or other such impromptu guest speaking. I can easily imagine Grace Chapel was in the habit of handing mics to audience members to gush about stuff or ask for prayers.
This time, oh boy, oh boy, did we ever get some impromptu speaking. Betcha they revisit that policy now!
I don’t think anybody’s transcribed this short but meaty rant (and wow, there’s an adjective I’ll just never use again). So, I wanted to do it. See, this lady says something early on that really, really, really grabbed my attention. Guess what it was!
Transcription of the Sarah Berger Rant:
[Transmission begins midway through a sentence. Sarah Berger is a middle-aged blonde lady dressed informally in a long green tunic and jeans. She starts her speech in the audience seats, probably where she was sitting.]
— of this transition, it has been made manifestly evident that there’s been an endeavor to cancel the founding pastor of Grace Chapel. That might not mean something to those of you that have only been here for 8 months. But I would expect those of you that are listening to this right now would hear what I say.
[Interesting: a dark-haired woman gets up from behind Sarah Berger and walks away, her hands to her face. You can see her in the thumbnail to Berger’s left, looking up at her.]
Do I have any authority in this place after 26 years? Do I have any authority? [Cheers and yells from audience.]
Let me just tell you. [Starts walking onto the stage to scattered applause.] There is no way we can remain in this congregation knowing that at the very helm Rob Rogers and Mark Bright have been working behind the scenes to literally cancel us.
The tipping point was not when Mark Bright resigned, you guys. The tipping point was when a maligning letter went out from [and she points to her left here] Rob Rogers and Mark Bright to all of the elders and the financial board maligning my husband as being a Christian extremist. [She points outward.] That is the truth. You need to know the truth —
[Transmission ends. Sudden loud bright jangly Christian worship instrumental-type music.]
“Do I Have Any Authority?”
Did you catch what I did? Yes. Early on, Sarah Berger asks:
Do I have any authority in this place after 26 years? Do I have any authority? [Cheers and yells from audience.]
That is so shockingly authoritarian that it surprises even me. It had to be a real shock as well for the Rogers/Bright faction. What a power grab! It’s just breathtaking! Watch that out loud voice, gal!
She knows that the new people in the church won’t really be swayed. They’ll only know Rob Rogers’ pastoring. They won’t be as familiar with Steve Berger — or his wife, who clearly enjoyed a great deal of power herself, even if only because of her association with him. Further, newer people take a while to get themselves fully submerged in a church’s gossip mill. Many never do. (I didn’t, myself. Heck, I’m still hearing about stuff that went down in my first church while I attended it that I never even knew about.)
So she’s talking mainly to the old-timers here. They’re the people who will recognize and be long familiar with her power. And they have likely been participating as members of one of the two factions at play here.
Grace Chapel and the Cord That Needed Cutting.
In my admittedly-limited view of the situation, I don’t think Sarah Berger can affect much — but she can cause a lot of ruckus. Her video reveals that Mark Bright did resign already, not just threaten to do so as Religion News indicated. However, the elders stand very much with Rob Rogers here. It sounds like they were over Steve Berger’s antics years ago, which is when (and likely why) those transition plans began.
The most that Sarah Berger can do is make some long-time members demand Rogers’ firing or else leave, and they might well leave in the end. But that, too, won’t be a bad thing for Grace Chapel. Clearly, there’s a big enough pro-Berger faction at work here to allow this transition to drag on for months past its expiration date. Losing them will only unify the church more.
As I said, I’ve been here. In gaming groups, I’ve been the Rob Rogers in that equation, and yes, I faced a Steve & Sarah Berger problem. I had a pro-Berger faction to deal with too, and I didn’t know then that I needed to do with them what Grace Chapel needs to do here with their Bergers and Berger faction.
In time, I turned into the Steve Berger who left but wouldn’t go fully away, and y’all, the situation wasn’t pretty then either. But eventually, I worked out what had gone wrong both times. Grace Chapel still hasn’t, but maybe they will.
What Grace Chapel Needs to Know.
Once someone assumes leadership of an authoritarian group, there’s no real way to go back to just being a player again. But the flocks tend to want a leader just like their last one — even if many of them hated a lot of the things that leader did. Either way, it’s just not possible.
Megachurches themselves, being so dependent on the charisma of their top leaders, probably have a worse time with transitions than any gaming group ever has. They tend to attract extremely authoritarian people who get off on the amount of power a megachurch can offer.
Though these churches try hard to protect themselves from takeovers through bylaws, we saw the other day that these efforts aren’t always effective.
Probably the most delicate time a megachurch faces is a power transfer, especially if it occurs between two different families (in other words, not an adult child inheriting the throne, though even then these things don’t always go well).
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if most megachurch transitions run about this dysfunctionally. They’re all authoritarian in nature, some more than others, and yet none of them can admit it so they can freely frolic in feudalism like they really want.
We got a rare glimpse of the sheer venom and backroom politicking that these churches contain in this video, and I’m very thankful that someone released it.
I probably don’t need to mention that there is absolutely nothing reminiscent in this situation of what Christians like to call “the Christian virtues,” but I’m gonna anyway.
Churches get revealed, once again, as running like very ineptly-run businesses. Because that is what they are. No gods stand at the center of any of them to help them run more harmoniously.
I hope the congregation of Grace Chapel (and yes, I’ve held off on remarking on the sheer irony of that name till now — because wow, it is ironic) understands that it’s not just Grace Chapel that operates this way. The backbiting, gossip, and drama generated by almost every church in this country is nothing new or unique. Instead, it’s exactly what I expect when people afflicted with magical thinking form authoritarian groups and then expect an imaginary friend to make it go smooth, as Malcolm Reynolds said.
Cuz things never do run smooth in that situation.
If they habitually did, well yes, that would make me sit up and take notice. It’d be weird. Unexpected. It’d be attention-getting — well, almost as much as an ex-pastor’s wife interrupting a Sunday morning service to lash out at her enemies during a church service meant to honor the very god of love and justice she says she worships.
And such a strange situation might just dismantle my opinions rather than confirming them.
NEXT UP: It’s so strangely easy for struggling or malignant Christians to fake fervor and sincerity — and their fellow Christians never seem to figure it out themselves. We’ll wonder why that is tomorrow. See you! <3
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