From most perspectives, the Chapel Hill Bible Church is a large and successful church on Erwin Road in Chapel Hill with seats filled weekly by hundreds of people.
A closer look suggests a more complicated picture.
Over the past few years, roughly 200 people have left CHBC due to various concerns, including those of emotional abuse, racism and sexism by church leaders.
The church started out on UNC’s campus in 1971. Current and previous UNC faculty hold positions of leadership at the church, including Steven King, an associate professor at UNC's Hussman School of Journalism and Media and former Kenan-Flagler Business School Dean Doug Shackelford.
Three separate investigations have taken place at the church within the last two years regarding its alleged dysfunction. The latest report was conducted by Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), a consulting organization that specializes in uncovering and responding to abuse in religious settings.
CHBC leaders refused to release the full report to the congregation and instead presented a summary to them during a meeting on Nov. 20.
The GRACE report
In 2021, the church commissioned GRACE to conduct a careful investigation of possible abuse at the church in order to create a safer environment for all individuals. The assessment took over a year to complete.
“They were so overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to offer their testimony that the process took through the summer,” Walker Hicks, a current church member and former elder, said.
The survey GRACE distributed to all current CHBC members and staff received 482 responses. The organization conducted 63 interviews.
After a thorough investigation, GRACE released its 64-page final report and recommendations to CHBC leadership in early November. Instead of releasing it to the congregation per GRACE’s recommendation, only church elders and deacons were allowed to read it. On Nov. 20, King presented a summary of the report to members.
The 18-page summary said the reasons for not releasing the full report were to protect private details about employees and those who interviewed with GRACE and to not violate the church's HR policy.
Many congregants and leaders expressed outrage over the decision not to release the report in full.
“They appear to be hiding their own mistakes and bad behavior,” Debbie Yamauchi, a CHBC member, said.
The summary concluded with GRACE’s 18 recommendations to help address the past, present and future. These recommendations include CHBC acknowledging its failure to care for members and staff, collaborating with the “wounded to determine the best plan for further communication” and developing a task force to address issues and allegations of misconduct, abuse and misuse of power.
Concerns about discrimination in the church
After the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, Lead Pastor Jay Thomas sent the congregation a letter asking for patience and unity regarding the event. He did not directly condemn the actions of those who stormed the Capitol, white supremacy or Christian nationalism — something several members desired.
Many church members were outraged by the letter.
Sarah Whang, a Korean-American and former CHBC member of over two decades, expressed concern and disappointment about the church’s response to the events of Jan. 6.
“It caused many POCs in our congregation to feel vulnerable and unsafe,” Whang said. “I think that started our journey of really starting to push back.”
She said over the last decade, CHBC’s diversity has decreased. Whang cited the lack of support for ethnic ministries and the staff's lack of cultural competence as reasons for the decline.
Specifically, she noted that the proportion of non-white children enrolled in the church's Sunday school program dropped from 20 to 30 percent to less than 5 percent, based on data gathered from children’s Sunday school registration.
After many failed attempts to engage with church leaders about their concerns, Whang and her husband, who served as chairperson of the deacon board and elder at the church, left CHBC.
"It was heartbreaking to observe the dismantling of decades of work building relationships with ethnic minorities at CHBC," she said.
According to a report released in October 2021 by Leighton Ford Ministries, which investigated the church's alleged dysfunction, the events of the past two years “tossed the match into the kindling which has ignited a fire” at the church.
Some members also said they were conflicted about the role of women in the church. Although women cannot serve as elders or pastors at CHBC, some women at the church said it’s deeper than who can serve in leadership.
“The church doesn't believe that clergy can be female, which is not terribly unusual in Christianity, like in many other religions — but the problem is the mistreatment of women,” Yamauchi said.
Amanda Bell, a current member of the church and its former preschool director, said she felt she was often not heard by church leaders.
“If I were speaking about children's ministry or special needs ministry, I felt like I was not heard and respected for what I knew about my field,” Bell said. “But, we felt like it had shifted to where it wasn't just ‘Well, a woman’s not the lead pastor, but women are valued.’ (The culture) was shifting to where it felt more legalistic around women's roles.”
According to the 2021 Leighton Ford Ministries report, there is “unresolved concern about the place of women in the church leadership.” The report explained that instead of being heard and affirmed, the women interviewed felt “dismissed and uninvited to speak.”
Concerns about leadership
In early 2021, members and staff raised concerns regarding Executive Pastor Eric McKiddie.
Within the next few months, Hicks said an independent attorney conducted an investigation of McKiddie and presented their findings in a report based on interviews with each CHBC staff member.
Hicks said McKiddie was a “blunt” and “aggressive” person and was “dismissive” and “demeaning” when engaging with women on CHBC staff, according to the reported findings.
The report found McKiddie abused his power and emotionally abused staff members and congregants. After the report was released to McKiddie’s supervisory team, he was forced to resign in April 2021 and was offered severance pay.
But tensions still remained at the church even after McKiddie was gone.
Hicks said some agreed its leadership problems weren’t limited to McKiddie — Thomas, the lead pastor, was also at fault.
“Jay’s leadership, participation and role in this was super significant in that he was one of the key sources of the dysfunction that Eric perpetuated,” Hicks said.
Multiple people felt concerned over Thomas’s judgment in bringing McKiddie to the church as a candidate for hire and said they believed he enabled McKiddie's behavior over the years.
Bell said McKiddie and Thomas worked closely together.
“If I had a concern with Jay, he would direct me to Eric,” she said. “And if I had a concern with Eric, he would direct me to Jay. They would just direct me back and forth.”
Thomas declined to comment to The Daily Tar Heel regarding the situation.
Some members also noted concern about King, who became the chairperson of the elder board in March 2021.
Hicks said King is at Thomas’ “right-hand” for many decisions and is the primary voice of the CHBC leadership.
“He has been the very face of the church leadership, more so than the lead pastor — more so than Jay — more so than anybody else,” he said. “It appears he is essentially calling the shots in the church."
King did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
Hicks added that he, and other concerned members, are not attempting to "ruin people's careers."
"These are people we’ve known for a long, long time, and we love them," Hicks said in an email. "We want the truth to help our congregation repent and heal and follow Jesus more authentically."
Bell resigned as the preschool director in March 2021 due to concerns about the abuse of power of leadership, as well as racism and sexism.
When Bell quit, she said she thought the church leaders mishandled the situation. They asserted she was leaving due to “personal reasons,” which Bell said was not true.
“They knew that I had quit because of my concerns about the leadership, but when they went to the elder board, they presented to the elder board that the issue was that the preschool was having financial problems,” Bell said.
In August 2021, Crissie, whose last name will not be disclosed for safety, was fired from her position as an administrative assistant without any prior warning or communication.
“I have had 16 years of employment here," Crissie said. "I've never had an issue with anybody.”
After she was fired, Crissie was asked to sign a non-disclosure severance agreement for three months of pay. She declined to sign the document.
She said she still does not know why she was fired besides claims of "violations of integrity" despite asking for clarity multiple times.
“If you are not a woman that is the cheerleader and willing to support every decision (top leaders) make and do what they want, if you had any ideas of your own or some pushback on something, then you became a target — and that would have been me,” she said.
In September 2021, over 80 congregants signed a letter requesting that church leadership be more transparent and honest. The letter specifically mentioned Crissie’s sudden termination as an example of the “ongoing dysfunctional culture” at CHBC.
“Each firing, ministry cut, separation agreement, new hire, by-law change, budget increase, etc. has been presented as a separate incident, yet together they reveal troubling, ongoing patterns,” the letter said.
Hicks and three other elders resigned from their positions at CHBC in February 2022.
In his resignation letter, Hicks noted “hurtful attitudes and racialized statements towards people of color, dismissive and demeaning treatment towards women and thoughtless, callous, dishonest, and even unethical treatment towards employees and other leaders” as reasons for his departure.
“I and others were part of suggesting GRACE for an investigation and have been vocal about the need for one, and now that it's finally out, it's not actually being allowed to be as effective as it could have been,” Bell said.
According to Colin Rowley, the communications director at CHBC, details of the ongoing process of "healing and reconciliation" can be found on CHBC's website.
"We lament that members of our church have been hurt or are continuing to feel hurt," Rowley said in an email. "We have acknowledged that we need to equip ourselves to care better for our church family."
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