News reports that a pastoral candidate for a Southern Baptist church in Kentucky is accused of misusing his authority to sexually abuse two teenagers 17 years ago prompted a review of his doctoral dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Seminary President Albert Mohler said Wednesday afternoon on social media he became aware two days earlier of allegations made against Wesley Leon Feltner, who has taught at Southern Seminary as an adjunct professor in fields of pastoral and organizational leadership.
Within an hour, he said, Mohler’s leadership team determined that accusations of misconduct were credible and suspended Feltner from all teaching responsibilities.
Mohler said he asked that Feltner’s 2009 doctoral dissertation – which is titled “The Relationship Between Pastoral Influence Tactics, Follower Outcome Levels, and Types of Congregational Change” – be withdrawn from public circulation pending review. The review “found nothing that would prevent public access,” Mohler said, and by Thursday morning the paper was accessible online.
Mohler’s statement comes days after he announced his candidacy to become president of the Southern Baptist Convention. If elected he would succeed North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, whose two-year presidency has been dominated by #MeToo allegations against SBC leaders and newspaper reports revealing an ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
Mohler apologized in February for his past support of a longtime friend publicly accused of leading one of the largest sexual abuse and coverup scandals ever reported among evangelical churches.
In 2018 Mohler accepted the resignation of David Sills, a professor of missions and cultural anthropology, and confirmed last month the departure involved a report of sexual abuse.
The Clarksville (Tenn.) Leaf Chronicle – part of the USA Today newspaper network – published a story Nov. 5 about two women accusing Feltner, the top candidate to become pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church, of manipulating them into secret relationships while he was their youth pastor at First Southern Baptist Church in Evansville, Indiana.
Megan Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson told the newspaper in separate interviews that Feltner initiated physical relationships with them during counseling after they had broken up with a boyfriend.
Both were 18 and members of Feltner’s youth group. He was 24 and publicly dating someone else. Hendrickson said her relationship with Feltner was sexual and included a trip for drinking and gambling in Las Vegas.
Both women were told to remain silent, the article said, and Feltner quietly moved on to another church. Today he is lead pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, recognized by Outreach Magazine as one of the fastest-growing churches in the country.
The women say they were empowered to come forward by similar stories exposed earlier this year in newspaper reports documenting hundreds of abuse allegations and victims in churches and organizations within the Southern Baptist Convention. Since 2002, the duo said, they had been blaming themselves for their abuse.
Defending Feltner’s nomination as pastor in Tennessee, the chairman of the pastoral search committee initially described the women as “adversaries,” but later apologized for his choice of words.
First Baptist Church has not yet commented publicly on how they will handle the allegations against their pastoral candidate. Elders at Berean Baptist Church said on Facebook they are taking the charges seriously and “performing due diligence” with the help of neutral and experienced professionals from outside the church.
Feltner, 41, told the Leaf-Chronicle that some of the allegations are untrue and “do not reflect who I was 17 years ago nor who I am today.” He accused the women of organizing to destroy his reputation and career.
According to his online biography, Feltner received both an M.Div. in theology and a Ph.D. in leadership from Southern Seminary. His doctoral dissertation studied how the use of power and influence are expressed in pastoral leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the 165-page paper, Feltner concluded the most effective tactics or strategies used by senior pastors in order to influence the actions, decisions or behaviors in churches with congregational polity are those that empower individuals.
Ineffective leadership practices, he said, “mistreat” people. They include pressure, defined as the use of “demands, threats, frequent checking or persistent reminders” to do what the leader wants; “coalition tactics,” using others to persuade the person; and “legitimating,” appealing to formal authority or governing documents.
In his Nov. 6 statement, Mohler asked anyone with knowledge related to the handling of the matter to contact the seminary.
“Our first institutional knowledge of this situation came by social media,” Mohler said. “In the case of any kind of misconduct or suspected misconduct, it would be very helpful if information would be sent directly to us and to any other institution or ministry that might be involved, and to law enforcement authorities as appropriate.”
According to the vita attached to his doctoral dissertation in 2009, Feltner served as a student pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky, in 1996-1998, and Bethlehem Baptist Church in Gastonia, North Carolina, 1998-2000.
During 2003-2008 he listed himself as associate pastor at Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. On their website, Brought to the Light, Frey and Henderson said families and the head of deacons from Evansville informed Oak Park Baptist Church of what happened at their church and that Oak Park should not hire him. “The church did not listen, and he served there for over four years,” they said.
In 2008 Feltner became pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Decatur, Illinois. Tabernacle Baptist Church issued a statement saying Feltner served there as senior pastor from August 2008 until November 2013. Church leaders said Feltner’s hiring included third-party background checks and contacting his references and that the personnel team has no knowledge of any allegations brought against him during his tenure there.
“The leadership of TBC takes abuse of any kind very seriously,” the statement said. “We want to help those who have been involved in situations that are damaging physically, emotionally, or sexually. Because of this we have set up an internal hotline for members and attenders of TBC. This hotline will connect people with a female chaplain that can walk them through their situation and assist them to receive the help that they need.”