ARGYLE Pastors leave legacies that don't usually include
words such as hurt and betrayal.
But so it has been for Oak Hills Community Evangelical Free
Church for the last nine months since its pastor, Jon
Warnshuis, was accused of molesting children.
Since then, church members have taken turns in the pulpit,
too hurt and mistrustful to accept a substitute pastor while
cautiously looking for a permanent leader.
"We kind of looked at the situation and said, 'Our pastor
betrayed us. If we're going to be a church, then we're going
to have be a church by ourselves,' " said church member Joe
Goetz, chairman of the search committee. "So we started
ministering to each other."
After a careful search, the members this week voted 29-1 to
hire Arlington resident Mark Piland to lead the church.
"We've got a new preacher, and we're walking on air," Mr.
Mr. Piland, an associate pastor at Park Springs Bible
Church in Arlington, said he is pleased and excited to take
"I spent about a week to 10 days meeting with people [at
the church] prior to the vote and felt like they had gotten to
know me, and my wife as well," said Mr. Piland. "I felt very
comfortable with the people. The people at Oak Hills are very
kind and warm, and we felt very accepted there."
The search was not easy. Of the 25 qualified applicants,
about a third withdrew after learning the church's history,
Mr. Goetz said. Many felt they didn't have the experience to
deal with the church's problems, he said, but Mr. Piland
accepted the challenge.
"It was my wife that said it best: It wasn't the people
that are at the church now that committed this crime; instead
they are the victims," Mr. Piland said. "They have accepted us
to a great degree, and we are very pleased with that. But I
feel like I need to continue to model my pastoral behavior to
build their trust and confidence."
Out of limbo
The selection of Mr. Piland ended a period of limbo for
the small congregation. Church leaders decided to have guest
speakers rather than hire a temporary minister; Mr. Warnshuis
began as an interim pastor at the church. They didn't want to
bond with a pastor who was going to leave in the end.
"It was like getting out of a bad marriage. We didn't want
to jump into another bad one," said Kim Eagleton, a member of
the church who also served on the search committee.
Several churches, including one in Corsicana, stepped
forward to help. But the members decided to take control.
Matt Meister, youth minister since December 2000, helped
the church's young people deal with the situation.
"The students have grown a lot," he said, "not only out of
the reality of the harm and sin of the world, but also out of
their compassion for the people of the world. It's been an
accelerated growth process that forced them to mature and see
When the first young man came forward to a youth pastor
with allegations against Mr. Warnshuis, church elders had two
choices: Fire the man quietly and move on or turn him in and
weather the storm. The board made a quick, conscious decision:
Call the police.
Mr. Warnshuis was arrested Aug. 18 and was indicted in
November in connection with the molestation of three boys.
Police said evidence collected at his home led to allegations
that he had sexually abused at least five boys in Argyle,
Grapevine and Laredo.
A month later he was sentenced to 40 years in prison under
an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual
assault of a child and two second-degree felonies.
The church members' choice to alert authorities damaged
then ultimately strengthened the church, members said.
"Our church kind of felt isolated when this whole thing
broke," Mr. Goetz said. "We recognized immediately that we
were going to be the ones on the news and in the newspaper. We
knew that we were going to be 'that church' in the community
and that parents were going to yank their kids from our
program. But we also recognized that we had to do the right
Many students were taken out of the church's programs after
the revelation. Some members feared the church might not make
it at all.
"I had come from a church [before joining Oak Hills] that
had just kind of died and I was one of the last guys there,"
Mr. Goetz said. "That's one of the most depressing things I've
been through to see a church turn out the lights and go.
"I felt for a year before he [Mr. Warnshuis] was arrested
that this church was on its way. But I felt somewhat more
encouraged after he was arrested within a month our core
membership had crystallized."
Not an option
Mr. Goetz admitted that the quick-fix thing to do would
have been to attend another church. But that was not an option
for him, or for other longtime members.
"Twenty years from now this will be a memory and looking
back, how could I leave a church like that?" he said. "I
wanted to stick by my church, and I think that's why many
people stayed. You just don't desert your Christian friends
when they're getting their teeth kicked in."
But renewal, restoration and rebirth slowly followed.
"In a lot of ways, we're through the process of grief and
we're learning to live again," Mr. Meister said. "I would be
naοve to say that the grief is gone in nine months, but you
have to learn live in the grief, if that makes sense."
The church and community will continue to feel the
aftershocks of Mr. Warnshuis' betrayal for years, members say.
Finding a new leader is only one step in the process of
recovery, they say. The lessons learned may not have been
worth the pain, but the members of Oak Hills Evangelical Free
Church have learned nonetheless.
"We are no longer a trusting, Pollyanna crowd," Mr. Goetz
But confidence and hope has restored the church, and, they
predict, will sustain them.
"In Romans 5, Chapter 5 it says: 'And hope does not
disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our
hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us,' " Mr.
Meister said. "In a way, this has given us a new, restored
confidence in God that even though this happened, he still
loves us and is still working through us."