Congregation members of the Vineyard Church in Kansas City’s Northland were expecting regular worship services on the weekend before Thanksgiving, but they got troubling news instead.
The acting president of the church’s board and three executive pastors, sitting on stools, announced that beloved senior pastor Fred Herron, who had helped build the church over nearly three decades to the point where it now has four campuses and as many as 3,000 worshippers each weekend, had gone away.
“Fred is suffering from various health issues, including addiction and dependence issues,” the congregation was told. “The extent of some of these issues has only come to light in the last 7 to 10 days, even to his wife, Janet.”
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Herron, who led so many people to Christ, was at an unnamed treatment facility away from Kansas City. The leadership had placed him on an indefinite leave of absence because he could no longer do the job as pastor.
Herron, 57, also had confessed “moral failure” to his wife of more than 30 years, who was said to be surprised, bewildered and overwhelmed.
“When you serve with somebody for 11 years you get to know them pretty well,” pastor Tony Wilks told the congregation, his voice breaking. “But there’s stuff I found out that I had no idea. This has wrecked my world, from the whole aspect of dealing with anger, betrayal. I’ve wanted to deny it. This can’t be real. And the pain just kind of comes in.”
For the church leadership, the decision to be straight with the membership came naturally. They even posted video of their 40-minute announcement on the church’s website and its Facebook page for the world to see.
“The decision to be open and honest about everything really goes back to our core DNA,” acting president Norm Rasmussen said in an interview. “Most of the people that have come to the church have come from a place of brokenness.... It was a natural extension for us to say we’ve got someone here that’s walked an (errant) pathway and we want to help restore him.”
Church members reacted not with scorn but with compassion. Scores of comments on the Facebook page were universally supportive.
“Thanks for handling this with grace and love, just as Jesus would want us to,” posted church member Emily Maasen.
The news came as a surprise for most, although some people knew something wasn’t quite right with Herron, who started the Northland Vineyard church with Rasmussen in 1990. He had traveled to Ethiopia and baptized hundreds of people in a river earlier this year. Maybe that had affected his health. It turned out to be something more than that.
“I want to read you a statement today, as we’ve been watching and praying for Fred over the last several months,” Rasmussen told the congregation. “Dear church family, do you ever have a time when things are confusing, answers are hard to find and circumstances way different than you assumed? We are at just such a crossroads right now.”
The statement did not specify the nature of Herron’s addiction and Rasmussen later declined to elaborate, saying that “when you’re in Christ, God does not keep a list of all your sins.”
Roger Sodsod, pastor of adult ministries at the church, spoke for many when he said, “Human beings are flawed, we are broken and we make mistakes.”
Still, he described his reaction upon learning of this situation.
“When I heard this news on Wednesday this past week my heart just broke,” Sodsod told church members in the sanctuary at 12300 N.W. Arrowhead Trafficway. “When Norm was unpacking this to the executive team I had to ask him to stop because I felt like I was going to be sick. I’ve had a few days to process this. I still feel hurt and betrayed, but I still love Fred.”
Vineyard is an evangelical “mega church” with a modern and casual feel. Worship music comes with a rock-and-roll flair. It offers youth programs as well as classes, games and other activities. They stock a food pantry and this week were boxing up holiday meals and gifts for the less fortunate.
“We’re not a perfect church,” said Wilks, “but we are a perfect church for imperfect people.”
Rebecca Edwards, who described herself as a quiet church member for 15 years, wrote on Facebook that she knew “something wasn’t right with Fred.”
But Haley Anise Hartland said she was almost speechless.
“I had no idea he was struggling,” she wrote. “I hope he can find some sort of peace from all of this.”
Mary Pulse said she would love and support Herron through his healing process, however long it takes. “And we want you back when you are ready,” she posted.
Herron is expected to be away from the church for months. Rasmussen cannot contact him while he is in treatment, but Herron calls in periodically for a few minutes. He is aware that the congregation knows the situation because that’s the church’s process.
“If you can’t find freedom in church where can you find it?” Rasmussen asked. “This has got to be the place where broken people can come and we can walk it out with them through redemption and into freedom. We’re committed to do that with Fred and we’re committed to do it with anybody.”
One congregant reportedly became sober after 15 years of alcoholism, inspired by the message he heard from church leaders regarding the senior pastor.
“This is not a story about a failure,” Rasmussen said. “It isn’t. It is a story of hope. It is a story of mercy.”