There's nothing holier-than-thou about Gil Jones
Boring churches have pews, hymnbooks, organs and stained-glass windows. Hip churches have guitars, rock videos, podcasts and piercings that aren't limited to that dude on the cross.
Both in its message and its setting, the Village aspires to the hip, if not the edgy. Launched just seven months ago, the nondenominational church holds services in the Glitterdome, a sprawling warehouse in the RiNo district that's also the practice facility for a roller-derby team, the Denver Roller Dolls. The church's website proudly welcomes "hundreds of prodigals" to its "1st Generation Christ-Centered Community," while its Facebook page declares that the Village is "where Black Sheep gather to receive grace and where White Sheep get humble."
See also: Hear Gil Jones admit he messed up
On this summer Sunday morning, around forty prodigals assemble to pray and praise in an intimate, curtained-off and dimly lit section of the warehouse. There's no altar, just a small stage suitable for improv or a house band. The vibe is casual, the demographic young, with more women than men.
The service gets under way with songs on guitar and a welcome from an associate pastor clad in hoodie, cargo shorts and sandals. Then come clips on a big screen from VH1's Couples Therapy and a music video featuring Carrie Underwood, savagely vandalizing the truck of her cheating ex. All of this is mere buildup, though, to the main event of any Village service: the message delivered by lead pastor Gil Jones, a talk that tends more toward passionate monologue than sermon.
Dressed in a black T-shirt bearing the word PEACE and frayed, paint-stained jeans, Jones bounds to the stage, eager to kick things up a notch. He's 48 years old, tall, slender, with thinning hair. He's also a dynamic speaker, fervent and funny and occasionally profane, a maverick preacher who can keep a room full of questing twenty-somethings enraptured for the better part of an hour.
Today's topic is how to help a friend who's going through a breakup. Jones talks frequently about relationship issues; at the Village, you're more likely to hear about "relationship smashers" and "intimacy killers" than, say, the problem of evil. Divorced for the past six years, Jones weaves Bible verses with tales of his own dating follies into exhortations to be compassionate and selfless.
This morning's message is breezy but earnest. Jones talks about the need to "roll in," to comfort someone who's going through a relationship meltdown in person rather than by text or e-mail. He jokes about his own friends giving him grief about the series of breakups he's been through, grabbing popcorn and watching him "burn the house down," when what he needs are "words of grace and hope and love." Most of all, he stresses helping your friend to accept the breakup and forgive his or her former lover — rather than unloading a "big FU."
"I've got a huge FU in me," he confides. "But the biggest FU you can give anybody is to love and forgive them."
It's an effective talk, delivered in the weary, been-there-done-that tone of an expert in busted relationships — someone whose authority comes, strangely enough, from claiming to be even more of a hot mess than his audience.
And it's timely, too. Although he doesn't mention it today, just a few days earlier Jones had been in a courtroom dealing with the aftermath of one of his own ugly breakups, one that had ended in a humongous FU.
On July 17, a woman named Tabitha Pratt appeared before Denver magistrate Catherine Cary, seeking a permanent restraining order against Gil Jones. Jones was there to object to having such a reproach on his record.
Pratt, 39, testified that she and Jones had been dating "off and on" for eighteen months. The pair had met at a Christmas Eve service at Pathways Church in 2011, when Jones was the pastor there. They broke up several times only to reconnect, until Pratt finally requested a few weeks ago that he no longer contact her. When Jones subsequently texted her, "Love you. Always," she replied, "You must be joking. Go away."
Jones responded with more than a dozen increasingly "aggressive" text messages, Pratt explained. She'd kept them all as evidence. The words weren't exactly hopeful, loving or gracious, let alone pastorly:
You're the biggest mistake anyone could make. Biggest bitch. Ever.
Sleep in hell, Bitch. You have no idea who you're fucking with.
WHORE. 3 Kids. 3 Guys. They left you. For Good Reasons. You. Attract. Shit.
You deserve shit.
Rot. In. Hell.
Pratt considered the texts threatening, particularly the one about how she had no idea who she was fucking with. "I feel unsafe," she told the magistrate. "I don't feel he will stop unless there's a protective order in place. This scares the crap out of me."
Cary studied the texts with a puzzled frown, like an Aramaic scholar trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls. "Why did you break up?" she asked.
"I found out Gil was dating four other women," Pratt said. "We were talking about getting married."
She'd since been able to compare notes with a couple of the other women, she added, and discovered that Jones had made similar declarations of love to them, the texts shooting out "to some of us at the same time with the same exact message."
When it was his turn to testify, a somber Jones — much subdued, compared to his Sunday persona — denied that he'd ever threatened to harm Pratt or had any further inclination to contact her. Yes, he'd wanted to marry her, but he disputed the idea that their relationship was supposed to be exclusive, since she also had "an ex in the picture" at one point. He'd texted that he loved her as part of yet another "repair attempt" for their volatile romance, but then had felt betrayed when she turned around and forwarded his message to other women.
"I got very, very upset," Jones said. "My anger was big. It was immature and petty and infantile and a tantrum, but I have zero desire to threaten Tabitha. 'Rot in hell' is more of a hope than a threat.... I was sparring. It was immature. I'm very, very sorry I did that."
"It's challenging for me to even see him here," Pratt told the magistrate. "I feel he's a bully and he needs boundaries around him."
After much deliberation, Cary declined to grant a permanent protective order, noting that the texts contained no explicit threat of physical harm. She removed the temporary order that Pratt had already obtained and told Jones he was free to leave. "A protective order is far too great a consequence for this type of behavior," Cary said. "It's out of proportion to this lapse of judgment."
But some people who have known Jones for years regard his dust-up with Pratt not as a lapse but as part of a disturbing pattern. He has a history of harsh breakups both with women and with churches, personal cataclysms that have brought his conduct under intense scrutiny and diminished his flock.
A decade ago, Jones was the rising star at Flatirons Community, a Bible-based, nondenominational venue in Lafayette that he built into one of the Front Range's premier megachurches. But in 2005, Jones left Flatirons amid rumors of an extramarital affair with a female member of the congregation — a transgression he's since acknowledged from the pulpit.
He found a home for several years as the lead pastor at Pathways in Denver, a church that grew steadily under his stewardship. But Jones resigned that position last fall under pressure from the Pathways board of elders. The church's annual report states that Jones's departure came after "multiple attempts to help him with character and integrity issues around his social and leadership practices," and that his "misbehavior" created an unhealthy environment for staff and volunteers. One woman who'd been highly active in the church provided the elders with a written account of her tumultuous sexual relationship with Jones and other alleged improprieties.
"He was basically doing the exact opposite of everything he would teach," she wrote.
Three months later, Jones started his new ministry, the Village. Several dozen former Pathways members followed him to the new venture; estimates of the Village's current active membership range from 125 to 200 souls. It's a smaller crowd than he had at Pathways, and Jones says he took a substantial cut in his salary (formerly $10,000 a month) to lead the fledgling operation. In recent weeks, the Village has been rocked by the Pratt episode and related events, including the abrupt departure of some members of its leadership team amid calls for Jones to step down and enter an alcohol treatment program.
Jones denies having a drinking problem. He insists that the very behavior his critics denounce — which he characterizes as honest mistakes on his path of personal growth — is essential to his success. "My mistakes are what caused Flatirons, Pathways and the Village to grow," he says. "People want to know that their lead pastor is human."
In the past Jones has admitted to his congregation that he has "struggled" with alcohol, but he denied being an alcoholic. "If I didn't know Jesus, I'd probably be dead," he said in one sermon last year. He's confessed that he "screwed up" by having sexual relations outside of marriage at Flatirons and again at Pathways, but he's also insisted that he has repented for his actions and that his past doesn't define him, that God's grace cleanses all sins.
Ray Crum, a recent arrival at the Village, says the pastor's failures and missteps are what allows him to connect so powerfully with his flock. "Gil's not some hypocrite in the pulpit who acts like he's sitting at the right hand of God and then goes out and does things in secret," he says. "He's just been through some things some of us haven't been through yet."
It's not difficult to find people who consider Jones a gifted preacher and an inspiring leader, someone who's changed their lives for the better. It's also not hard to find those who believe he's caused great trauma to spiritually hungry and vulnerable people and think he shouldn't be running a church. That these two viewpoints can be held simultaneously by people who've worked closely with him for years is an indication of the predicament facing the Village faithful.
"There were times when I thought God was speaking to me through Gil," says Jim Beaber, the Village's former operational director, who recently left the church after his own bitter exchange of text messages with Jones over his treatment of Pratt. "When he left Pathways, I was one of the first to go with him to form a new church. I didn't realize what was going on. He's following a trend he established at Flatirons — and I became the enabler-in-chief."
Beaber compares Jones's conduct with women in his flock to "a polar bear checking out the baby seals." "He targets women in the congregation," he says. "He's gone so far as to tell them that he thinks God means for them to get together. And at any given time, he's going after three or four."
Pratt says that she was willing to give Jones the benefit of the doubt because he seemed so forthright about owning up to his flaws and mistakes. But at some point, she suggests, all the talk about prodigal sons and ever-abundant forgiveness began to wear thin.
"I'm a new Christian," she says. "But it's not true that we always get God's grace. Gil is a man who hasn't been held accountable, and he continues to repeat the same pattern. I played my part, for sure. But I don't think he should be in a ministry at all."
At the Village, Jones says, he's surrounded himself with counselors and mentors who do hold him accountable. "I know there are standards for leadership," he says. "I get it. If I didn't think I was growing, I would take myself out of there."
But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. — 1 Corinthians 7:9
Nobody stands in between me and my man, it's Me and Mr. Jones. — Amy Winehouse
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 10 percent of American adults now describe themselves as "non-specific" Christians, meaning they feel no identification with a particular denomination. Such people have a growing number of alternative churches to choose from outside the Protestant mainstream, from big-box evangelical arenas in the suburbs to small, inner-city gatherings focused more on Bible study than empire-building.
"We're seeing a gradual drop-off in the number of self-identified Protestants," says Deborah Whitehead, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "It's in the megachurches and seeker churches that we're seeing an area of growth."
"Seeker" churches appeal to people who are uncomfortable with organized religion, Whitehead says; either they grew up without exposure to a traditional church, or they drifted away years ago. Many seeker churches court a young demographic by stressing a lack of pretension or hierarchy; some proudly claim to be filled with misfits and outcasts, like Denver's own Scum of the Earth Church ("O Scum All Ye Faithful," December 21, 2010). Members often describe themselves as "broken" — they're struggling single parents, divorced or estranged from family, in recovery from substance abuse, or otherwise emotionally battered by life and seeking spiritual renewal.
Seeker churches tend to be built around a charismatic leader who doesn't "preach" in the conventional sense, but talks about the kind of real-life issues his congregation battles every day. That can be enormously appealing, Whitehead says, but can also invest a tremendous amount of power in one person.
"Ideally, there's a board of elders or some sort of leadership team who exercise oversight in conjunction with the pastoral team," Whitehead says. "But in some cases, a very gifted pastor can become isolated from the rest of the leadership team, and sexual misconduct and financial impropriety can become issues. It can also be a difficult balance for a pastor to seem 'authentic' to a prodigal group and still maintain moral authority."
Karen Thacker, a Lafayette psychotherapist, found out firsthand the kind of influence a charismatic preacher can wield in a seeker church. When the leadership of her megachurch learned of her clandestine romance with the married pastor, she was treated as a spiritual pariah. Last year, Thacker published a book about the experience, Surviving the Scarlet Letter; while she takes her share of blame for the affair, she also examines the ethical quandaries that arise when a pastor, single or married, becomes intimate with someone under his spiritual guidance.
"There's an inherent belief that this person has your best interests in mind," she says. "When you find out that's not true, it can be rather baffling. It can be very difficult to get your feet back on the ground again."
Thacker's memoir doesn't name the church and refers to the pastor by a pseudonym. "Ethan" became the lead pastor of her "seeker-friendly church" in 1996. He's charming and funny but can also be harsh and demanding — and inclined to demeaning jokes about people behind their backs. He begins a flirtation with Thacker that turns into a hush-hush five-year affair. When Thacker's husband finds out about it and informs the church elders, Thacker and her husband are asked to leave the church. But "Ethan" stays on as pastor for another year or so. He refuses to stop seeing Thacker and is finally let go.
Thacker says that churches like the one in her book treat the pastor as a star and are reluctant to dispense with such a key revenue generator: "People can have conduct that's inappropriate for the field they happen to be in, and if they make enough money for the organization, people will turn a blind eye," she explains. "I was expendable. I didn't serve a role at the church that brought people in the doors, but the pastor did — in a very magnetic way."
According to Thacker's account, her relationship with "Ethan" continued until 2008. Both got divorced from their respective spouses, but it didn't help. Her lover lamented that there were "too many cracks in the runway" of their romance, while Thacker tired of his belittling remarks and "win or go home" approach to life. When she finally broke off all contact, she writes, she felt nothing but relief.
For legal reasons, Thacker declines to disclose the true identity of "Ethan." But the timeline of her book coincides with the period Gil Jones spent at Flatirons, serving as lead pastor from 1996 until 2005. After the book's release last year, some women at Pathways contacted Thacker online, saying they'd recognized similarities between the character and their own pastor. And Jones outed himself in a sermon last summer, after Pathways elders urged him to publicly address the controversy the book was causing.
"This girl I had an affair with wrote a book about our affair," he explained. "It's on Amazon. I guess it was memorable."
The pastor admitted that he had "double screwed up" and that "big-time life lessons were learned." The offhand tone of the confession is characteristic of Jones, who's offered fleeting glimpses of his past trials by fire in numerous talks over the years. Longtime listeners know that he's from a small town in southern Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. His parents were nonbelievers, and he's said that heavy drinking is "in my DNA."
Although he excelled at school and sports — he was a top-ranked tennis player in high school and later played basketball overseas — he says he "felt very empty" until he started studying the Bible in college. He worked at campus ministries in Illinois and rose quickly to prominence after taking the helm at Flatirons.
Formerly known as Boulder Creek Community Church, Flatirons had a congregation of fewer than a hundred people when Jones arrived in the 1990s. The church began to attract young seekers with a blend of contemporary worship music and the unpreachy but passionate messages of its new pastor. By 2002, membership had leapt to 1,700 a week; the church kept expanding, adding services and moving into larger facilities. When Jones left, in 2005, average weekly attendance was close to 6,000.
Jones says he had many supporters at Flatirons, even after the emotional and spiritual upheaval of his affair. "I think they were hopeful that I would get counseling and the marriage could be mended," he says. "But it couldn't."
A Flatirons spokesman won't comment on the circumstances surrounding Jones's departure. But Flatirons has continued to thrive under new management and now claims weekly attendance of around 13,000, making it the largest megachurch in Colorado. (New Life Church in Colorado Springs, which also survived the departure of a charismatic leader after the Ted Haggard sex-and-meth scandal, is the only other serious contender for that title.)
Jones was able to rebound from the split, too. After his divorce, he began serving as a counselor, teacher and guest speaker at Pathways, a nondenominational church that had three sites, one off East Colfax and one in the Washington Park area, with a third starting in Highland. The sites eventually turned into separate operations, and in 2009 Jones became the lead pastor of the Uptown church. Weekly attendance rose impressively over the next three years, from 450 to 1,200 to more than 1,500.
Pathways was a different animal from suburban Flatirons, a gritty inner-city gathering of loners who expected their pastor to be what Jones calls "raw and real." He's proud of the homeless ministry the church supported and the kind of broken congregants who found succor there. "Pathways became a teeming destination church for thousands of singles who were looking for meaning and purpose," he says.
But whatever good Jones accomplished at Pathways must be weighed against what the church elders describe in their annual report as the "long-term emotional damage" caused by his tenure there. Pathways elder Laurel Messer estimates that the church lost half of its congregation in the aftershocks of Jones's departure last fall; some followed Jones to the Village, while others became disillusioned with the whole experience or split off to other churches. Attendance declines during the summer at many churches, and Messer concedes that there are other factors involved, but Pathways appears to be in worse shape now than it was before Jones arrived, with an average weekly attendance of 200.
"Recovery and healing is a slow and painful process," says Messer. "It has been difficult for the congregation and for the leadership."
Jones suggests that the blame for the collapse of Pathways after his departure belongs elsewhere: "I would have loved to stay at Pathways. I think 98 percent of the congregation would have loved to see me stay, too."
For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. — Hebrews 4:15
I'm not cut from this pastoral cloth...but God has a great sense of humor. — Gil Jones
Stephanie Engels had been attending Pathways for only a couple of weeks when, in early 2011, Gil Jones invited her to lunch so that he could hear "her story." The two talked for three hours. Soon after that lunch, Jones began to send her flirty text messages. Lunches became dates, then something more.
Jones stressed the need for discretion, Engels recalls, saying that he valued his privacy. She was surprised at how aggressive her pastor was in his pursuit of her — and how mercurial. Jones could be utterly devoted, then ignore her messages for days; tender, then given to fits of temper; encouraging, then "bombard me with all the reasons I had failed him."
"We'd been together for about a month, and he was talking long-term, getting married, all that stuff," Engels says. "We definitely had sex a handful of times, and as a pastor, he teaches everyone not to do that outside of marriage. Then he would break up with me for the most ridiculous, weird things. At the time, it was confusing."
That spring Jones broke up with her by text message, accusing her of sitting in the lap of a male friend at a party after Jones had gone to bed. Engels denied it and accused him of being passive-aggressive. Jones texted back: "If I just come out and say Fuck You will that take the passive-aggressive shot out of the equation? Ok, then. Fuck You. Better?"
The couple reconciled, but Jones broke up with her again over Memorial Day weekend, only to appear on her doorstep two weeks later. Later, by tracking texts and e-mails and talking to other women at Pathways, Engels learned that Jones had been cultivating relationships with other women — in some cases, women fifteen or twenty years younger than he was — and dating them during the breakup periods. Engels is in her forties, and she suspected that Jones kept returning to her because she was a more "age-appropriate" companion in the eyes of the elders.
"The elders of the church knew about me," Engels says. "I was an acceptable person for him to date."
Not long after they started seeing each other, Jones invited Engels to join in the Sunday-night "campfires," a gathering of the Pathways inner circle for drinks and socializing; it was Jones's way of unwinding after the exhilaration of the Sunday services. Engels says she and Jones "came out" publicly as a couple at a singles' retreat in the fall of 2011. But he broke up with her abruptly right before Christmas — a baffling development to Engels, since they had once again been talking about marriage and looking at a house to buy online. For his part, Jones seemed eager to move on; it was around the same time that he began seeing Tabitha Pratt.
Like Engels a year earlier, Pratt was a brand-new member of Pathways — and somewhat perplexed to be immediately asked out by the pastor. As he had done with others, Jones insisted on dating her on the down-low — no Facebook postings; no public displays; dates in places far from Pathways, such as Lafayette or Boulder. If they were in downtown Denver, Pratt says, Jones had a habit of walking several feet in front of her. "I feel like your mistress," she complained.
Pratt and Jones broke up and reconnected several times. One blowup came when Jones was involved in a campaign called "25 in Change," in which members of Pathways vowed to adhere to a humble diet of rice and beans for 25 days in order to call attention to world hunger. "We were at a bar, and he ordered food and drinks," Pratt says. "The bartender was a Pathways attendee, and I didn't think Gil was setting a good example. He dropped me off at home that night and wouldn't talk to me for days."
Although she soon learned of Jones's involvement with Pratt, Engels continued to attend Pathways. "I was heavily involved in the church, so I opted to stay," she says. "It was painful. I could see who he was dating and hear these stories of multiple girls. Then he reached out to me again. He seemed like he was genuinely humble and wanted to make amends."
In May 2012, Jones asked Engels to go to Buena Vista with him for a brief retreat. She says he again asked her if she would marry him and urged her to assure the board of elders that they were a "solid" couple. But Engels was tired of "dating in the dark" and pushed for a more public acknowledgment of their relationship. This led to another quarrel, she says, during which Jones told her, "If we broke up today, I would be unapologetically dating someone else tomorrow."
The soap opera bubbled over last summer. Jones resumed dating Pratt, who changed her Facebook status to "in a relationship" — much to the pastor's consternation. ("He threw a fit," Pratt remembers.) Engels decided she couldn't stay at Pathways while Jones was there.
"He had just started a relationship series, where he was basically saying that if you're with someone and you need to text someone else, you shouldn't be in a relationship," she recalls. "He was also saying that you should take a year off every time you have a breakup. I honestly couldn't listen to him anymore, so I left the church."
After an elder contacted her to ask why she'd left, Engels provided the board with a detailed account of her relationship with Jones. She'd read Thacker's book, she wrote, and recognized that "the patterns of behavior that I witnessed had long been in place.... He very much uses his ministry and 'all that God is doing' to keep girls from coming forward and speaking the truth about their interactions with him."
Jones disputes the accounts Engels and Pratt give of his relationships with them, insisting he never intended to mislead them. Asked if he sees any ethical dilemma in dating women in his congregation, he pauses for long seconds and then just shakes his head. "Being a single Christian in Denver is difficult," he says. "Being a single Christian leader is almost impossible."
The dating drama wasn't the only issue coming to the attention of the elders. Staffers complained that Jones seemed to be distracted, dropping the ball on meetings and fundraising campaigns. Some felt that his hiring policies were divisive and that he lavished too much attention on certain female staff members.
"Gil can be withdrawn and pull away from staff," one former Pathways leader says. "There were times when he was almost nonexistent, really complacent. He was a huge encourager. But he often picked people for jobs who were 'great to hang out with' but not good workers. He wouldn't own that decision; he'd make someone else let them go. He always had to be the good guy."
Rachel Evans was more puzzled than flattered by the kind of compliments Jones started paying her after she began working as a volunteer events coordinator at Pathways. Not only was there a significant age difference — Evans was in her late twenties — but he was the pastor. "He was kind of singling me out in groups," she says. "I was surprised that he was coming on to me, but it turned out a lot of women in the church thought he was the bee's knees. I always thought it was a bit weird."
Evans says Jones flirted with her, texting messages such as, "I really like you, you're just too young." But he also kept her at arm's length. The two never dated, Evans says, and she insisted on a strictly professional relationship once Jones hired her as his administrative assistant. Six months later, someone else was given the task of telling her the job had been eliminated by budget cuts. She and Jones remained friends, but she eventually had enough of the text messages he fired her way while seeing other women.
"He just wasn't consistent in his actions and his words," she says. "I was done."
No one was accusing Jones of doing anything illegal or misusing church funds. Yet the accumulating complaints — particularly Engels's admission that she'd had sex with Jones — put the elders in a tough place. There was no serious objection at Pathways to a divorced pastor dating members of his church. And if that dating should get a bit intimate, well, seeker Christians seem to tolerate a certain amount of "messing around" and "sleepovers" among committed couples. But even in a church dedicated to black sheep and prodigals, sexual intercourse outside of marriage is still regarded as wrong — especially for the relationship expert in the pulpit who's preaching against it.
On the first Sunday in October, Jones announced to the congregation that, at the elders' urging, he was stepping down as pastor. He was going to "take some time out" and "rewire" his heart. He hoped to return to Pathways before long and asked the flock to pray for him.
But Jones never came back; he says the church elders made it clear to him that he wasn't welcome to return shortly after his farewell speech. Three months later, he started the Village, inviting several Pathways staffers, volunteers and congregants to join him there, further draining the attendance of his former church. Mike Sares, co-founder and senior pastor at Scum of the Earth, was one of several area pastors who wrote to Jones or his backers, urging them not to embark on a new ministry so quickly after the collapse of his last one.
"The gist of the message was, 'You shouldn't be doing this right now,'" Sares says. "I think it's significant that a number of pastors in the city tried to bring accountability and healing to the situation."
Sares says Jones thanked him for his concern but declined to meet with him. More than his earlier ventures, perhaps, the Village was conceived as a place where sinners would feel welcome and no one would be shunned, a judge-not place where the all-too-human could make mistakes, be forgiven and get hugs.
"He basically set up a church around his being able to behave badly," says Engels.
Jones disagrees. "I had a hundred people urging me to start the Village," he says, "people looking for a community full of imperfect people. When you're going through a divorce, you want to get advice from someone who's gone through a divorce and made every possible mistake. My mistakes haven't been in vain. I'm doing everything I can to grow."
Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. — 1 Timothy 3:2-3
Nobody's perfect.... Moses was a murderer, you know? David was an adulterer. Samson had a narcissistic personality disorder.... Redemption and transformation come through failure. — Gil Jones
Like many of the supporters who followed Jones to the Village, Jim Beaber thought that his friend had been unfairly treated by the Pathways leadership, and that many of the accusations swirling around him were either unfounded or exaggerated. What was needed, he figured, was simply a fresh start.
But Beaber's appointment as operational director allowed him to see up close how the new church functioned, and he quickly became concerned about what he saw. He was astonished how much of the church's budget went to cover Jones's salary — and how little, in Beaber's view, the pastor did to earn it. Jones didn't seem to be all that involved in fundraising or community outreach, and Beaber had heard complaints from members who'd tried to schedule appointments for counseling with Jones that he wasn't always responsive. (Jones says he's spending more time with his four children and no longer working "seventy-hour weeks," but he denies shirking any church duties.)
Beaber was also uncomfortable with the continuing saga of Jones's dating disasters. He knew several of the women involved and had introduced Jones to Tabitha Pratt. When things blew up between them two months ago, Beaber found himself in the crossfire.
Pratt says she broke up with Jones twice last fall but reconnected with him after he started the Village. He told her he was "done and done" with other women, but in June she discovered otherwise.
"It was the same story, but the actions weren't lining up," she says. "He was juggling three or four different women. I found out he invited three of us to the same event. The same night he tells me he's done with all these girls, he goes and has a sleepover at one of their houses. The next night I'm with him and having a sleepover at his house. How does someone manage that?"
Pratt broke off contact with Jones. That led to the flurry of nasty text messages from Jones that Pratt produced at her restraining-order hearing. The night she received them, Pratt also sent the messages to Beaber, who shared them with another member of the pastoral team. Before long, Jones was sending even more vituperative texts to Beaber, accusing him of betraying him and wanting Pratt for himself:
I hope you marry Tabitha. You're such a dick.
I'll fucking kill you.
One. Sorry. Mother. Fucker.
Go to hell.
You deserve each other.
I had no idea you and Tabitha and [two other women Jones was seeing] were so tight.
Neutered me. Happy?
Beaber dished out as good as he got, calling Jones a liar and accusing him of being drunk. (Jones denied it.) The next day, Jones texted an apology: "I'm a guy and I get angry and sometimes lose it. Just like you...I just lost the girl I wanted to marry and like I said felt abandoned and ganged up on. And for good reason."
But Beaber wasn't willing to let the matter go. Just days before the text explosion, he'd been pushing the Village leadership team to do something about Jones's erratic behavior, which Beaber blamed on his drinking. Now he sent screen shots of the messages Jones had sent him and Pratt to the entire team, hoping to spur them to take action.
"The texts he sent out would not be acceptable behavior for a pastor of any church I have ever known," he wrote in a letter to the team. "I personally do not see any good ending to any of this. The very best possible situation would be for Gil Jones to enter an alcohol recovery program, but I don't know if the church could survive what would be a lengthy absence."
In fact, Beaber added, the Village leaders had already attempted to issue an ultimatum to Jones, but had failed: "On June 11, 2013, the executive council of The Village Church met with Gil Jones, and he was told that he needed to enter a treatment program...he announced he needed more time to research programs and would give an answer on Monday, June 17, 2013. This was delayed further, and he then stated he would attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but cancelled attendance twice.
"The reality is that there is absolutely no accountability for the actions of Gil Jones to anyone or to The Village Church itself," Beaber wrote.
Jacob Stagner, a member of the Village leadership who was also at that June meeting, denies that the team issued any kind of ultimatum — and Stagner doesn't see a need for one. "People make mistakes," he says. "Gil's been very honest with me. When you take ownership and try to do better next time, that's all anybody can do."
Jones says that at his meeting with the leadership, he merely agreed to "take a look at anything in my life that could be a cause of concern," and is now working on his personal issues. That's not good enough for Beaber, who's left the Village; he doesn't expect things to change, he says, as long as the pastor and his church are so closely identified with one another.
"Pretty much, the church is Gil Jones," Beaber says. "I would just love to see him get help. But the fact that he says he has a problem doesn't mean he's going to do something about it."
When he admitted his affair at Flatirons to the Pathways congregation last year, Jones fought back tears as he talked about the importance of loving someone at his or her worst moments. He repeated several times a kind of mantra about Christian grace: "Nobody is perfect. Everybody is welcome. Anything is possible."
Those words could well be the cornerstone of his new church. Nobody is perfect. Everybody is welcome. Anything is possible.
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