CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- A Southern Baptist Church has chosen as its top candidate for pastor a church leader accused of abusing two teenagers, at least one sexually, when he was a youth pastor 17 years ago.
Wes Feltner of Burnsville, Minn., is considered the top candidate for senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Clarksville, Tenn., church leaders have announced. Two former students who attended Feltner's youth ministry have accused him of pastoral abuse by enticing the students into secret intimate relationships during his term at First Southern Baptist Church in Evansville, Ind., in 2002.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which employed Feltner as an adjunct professor before the allegations came to light, suspended him Wednesday, SBTS President R. Albert Mohler said in a statement.
Feltner is senior pastor of Berean Baptist Church, a non-Southern Baptist congregation in Burnsville. Berean is investigating the accusations, it said in a statement Wednesday, using "outside, neutral and experienced professionals to perform this due diligence."
Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Feltner served as senior pastor from 2008 – 2013, has established an internal hotline for members and attendees to connect with a female chaplain to discuss any allegations, although the church did not say the hotline was established because of Feltner's tenure.
Alleged victims, identified as Megan and JoAnna, tell their stories at broughttothelight.org. Megan, identified on Twitter as Meg Frey, alleges a "sexual relationship" in 2002 when she sought counseling from Feltner, at the time her youth minister, at age 18.
"The counseling soon transformed into him having a bubble bath waiting for me in his upstairs bathroom 'so I could relax' after coming from work and school, thereafter offering a massage. [What I thought was] a relationship progressed, and many nights I would stay until 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning," Frey said at broughttothelight.org. "Wes quickly told me that he wanted to be with me, loved me and wanted to marry me, but had lists of reasons why we had to remain a 'secret couple.' … The sexual relationship began before I graduated high school."
JoAnna, identified in the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle as JoAnna Hendrickson, said her story began in the fall of 2002 after she served as a summer youth intern at First Southern Baptist under Feltner. He told her he felt "God leading him to pursue" her, even as he was trying to end another relationship, she said at broughttothelight.org.
"It did not take long for Wes to initiate the physical side of our relationship. As things were progressing and lines were being crossed, I remember questioning him about the spiritual health of our relationship especially since our relationship was not public … and worrying about things going too far physically," Hendrickson said. "His responses to me anytime I would question him was to dismiss my concern and make me feel childish about questioning things about our relationship."
Feltner agrees with some of the allegations, but disagrees with others, he told BP Thursday, but did not specify which allegations he asserts are true.
"I agree with some of the facts alleged in the statements and deeply regret the hurt I may have caused them," Feltner told BP. "But some of the allegations are not accurate."
The allegations are being used by "a small group" working "to prevent the [Clarksville] church from recruiting me," Feltner told BP Thursday.
"They accuse me of 'pastoral abuse' based on events that occurred 17 years ago when I was a single young man working as youth leader in a church in Indiana. They have widely circulated statements of two women whom I dated with the permission of their parents when they were 18-years-old," Feltner said. "My family and I are facing a withering barrage of online attacks and personal threats."
Feltner will respond to the specific allegations once his church completes its investigation, he told BP.
Both women have declined to meet with Feltner, he said.
"I, and others, have reached out to them several times seeking an opportunity to hear their grievances and answer to them. I proposed a meeting with a mediator to ensure that all concerns would be fully heard and understood," he said. "They declined to talk saying, 'the use of Matthew 18 [Matthew 18:15-17] as a means to try to silence your victims will not stand.'"
Both women said they and their mothers reported the allegations to First Southern Baptist Church in 2002, but were told to not discuss it with anyone. Feltner then resigned.
The current senior pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, David Cullison, began leading the church in 2008, years after Feltner left. As such, he told BP, he is not familiar with the allegations.
"I really don't have any comment," Cullison said. "You can't speak to that which you don't know, and I really don't know anything about it."
SBTS President R. Albert Mohler learned of the allegations Monday, he said in the statement.
"Immediately, I sent the information received to our response team, and within an hour it was determined that credible accusations of misconduct had been presented," Mohler said. "Accordingly, all teaching responsibilities for this individual were suspended and classes reassigned to other instructors.
"When the charges became known to us, I asked that the individual's dissertation be withdrawn from public circulation and reviewed," Mohler said. "The review found nothing within the dissertation that would prevent public access, which will now be restored as soon as possible."
He invited the public to send SBTS any information "that should inform" the seminary's handling of the matter.
"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."
Berean takes the allegations "very seriously," the church said in its statement.
"We are performing due diligence and this will take some time. This due diligence is an element of due process and it does include fact finding; it will be complete and it will be prompt, but it will not be hasty," Berean Baptist said. "When this is complete, we will assess the implications and potential remedies and decide together as elders what is appropriate."
Tabernacle Baptist expressed sadness upon hearing of the reports.
"The hiring process of Pastor Feltner in 2008 included third-party criminal background checks and due diligence was used in exploring his moral character through given references with no improprieties being found," Tabernacle Baptist said. "Also, our personnel team has no knowledge of any allegations brought against him during his tenure as pastor."
The church is concerned with abuse of any kind, it said.
"We want to help those who have been involved in situations that are damaging physically, emotionally or sexually," Tabernacle Baptist said in its statement. "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."
First Baptist Church of Clarksville did not respond to BP's request for comment by press time Thursday.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor.