Within the span of 9 months —from August 2022 to May 2023 — the church we knew and loved was torn apart by the actions of our former pastor until it was ultimately dissolved.
I shared parts about the story on social media and wanted to publish them together here to memorialize it all.
What I hope folks will see is the fact that this wasn’t just a rogue pastor issue — it’s a systemic issue in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). While our ruling elders did what they should have done to keep our former pastor accountable, they found themselves swimming against a strong current.
This former pastor, TE James Kessler, who was caught spinning a web of deception, was considered as a pastoral candidate at another church in the denomination, North Shore Community Church in Oyster Bay, NY, and was ultimately offered the role and approved for transfer by his new presbytery in NY.
Pattern of Deception
The first signs that things were terribly wrong at our church was last fall. The leadership team my wife was on and the elder training team I was on were told by our former pastor, TE James Kessler, that he had been caught in a pattern of deception. Over the course of several months prior, Kessler had been involved in a sensitive pastoral care situation that he had been strongly advised not to be a part of. Nevertheless, he continued meeting with the person. Then, when his wife got wind of the fact that he was planning to meet with this individual again, she pressed him about it. Our former pastor preceded to weave a lie that one of our ruling elders was supposed to be there with him at the meeting. His wife called his bluff and got the ruling elder on speakerphone. Kessler tried to get the ruling elder to lie over the phone, but the ruling elder wouldn’t budge. Kessler had been caught not only in a lie but in an attempt at making someone lie for him too.
Though our two groups received more details than this, at its core, that should have been the confession of his offense. This is why we were shocked a few months later when in a congregational meeting moderated by commission from presbytery, our former pastor read a substantively different confession that was more about control and arrogance and a vague sense that he had lied to his elder. In fact, someone at the meeting even stood up and genuinely asked, “What are we supposed to be forgiving you for?” Yes, the general sense that day was clear as mud in terms of what the substance of the confession was.
Fast forward to May 2023 and we begin to learn that this pattern of deception continued, as is seen in the example of a secret credit card, lacking transparency about the real financial position of the church, and pastoral malpractice. It was told to us that Kessler had gone through the correct process in presbytery, but it didn’t add up for those of us who were in those two groups. We had heard the confession months before, but this public confession was substantively different and vague regarding his offenses. It also removed the severity of his actions based on the nature of it (lying about meeting with someone who expressed romantic interest). This is why his “you could have asked” excuse was so, so troubling. Had no one asked, would he have continued and not been caught?
A Secret Credit Card
Last summer, our church was beginning to do poorly financially, so we couldn’t afford to send our former pastor to general assembly. But then all of a sudden he said he found a way to make it work. We thought nothing of it until we began to dig into our church’s finances.
Apparently several years ago, our church had been doing poorly financially and was on the verge of not making payroll. Kessler decided to open a credit card under his name as an additional revolving line of credit to be reimbursed by the church. He did this to no one’s knowledge or authorization. He used this new credit card for various church expenses to make payroll, but then did not pay off the credit card. Rather, a balance on the credit card remained for several years accruing interest while minimum payments were being made. Again, no one knew about this, and it was never on the church’s books as a revolving line of credit.
Then last summer, Kessler used this secret credit card to pay for his expenses for general assembly. This was his way of “making it work.” Our financial team then stumbled upon this credit card and realized there were thousands of dollars on it due to the fact that only minimum payments had been made on it for years. From that point on, it became very clear that our church’s financial health had been artificially inflated for many years.
We were already doing poorly, but this was the nail in the coffin. Yet all this time, there had been talk about lower giving in the church. This secret credit card was opened under the former pastor’s name and was being reimbursed by the church to no one’s knowledge. In any other sector, that would be considered a severe offense. Yet, Kessler and his supporters tried to minimize the nature of the offense as simply “poor management.” And that we all could have known about it if we had “just asked about it.”
A Broken Process
Our former pastor utilized PCA BCO 38–1 to make his offenses known to presbytery and have the courts render judgment without process. Sounds great, except that the “written confession” provided to presbytery was so vague and people were prevented from elucidating further details.
The vagueness of the written confession cannot be disconnected from the level of censure that was issued by presbytery (admonition). It also in effect “closed” the case with not enough information so that the only way to “re-open” the case is through a complaint.
In fact, an earlier permutation of the written confession that had full details of the offenses was changed into the version that was set before presbytery. Several parties saw this version of the written confession, including one of our ruling elders.
During a congregational meeting, the moderator from presbytery, TE Steve Resch, used the fact that that case had been “closed” to claim that we should consider it closed. He also silenced our ruling elder mid-sentence when he tried to provide further details about this.
In other words, presbytery had not ruled on the full matter of the facts (which included pastoral malpractice, financial mismanagement, patterns of deception). In fact, we as a congregation had to put in more due diligence to ask these questions during the congregational meeting.
Per PCA form, the moderator, Resch, lectured us about “order” and compared us to “children” while he and the presbyters were like “adults” who can’t let children be privy to details. Yet, we persisted and asked many, many questions for several hours, because we believed that we deserved to know the truth. This was *our* church, after all.
Resch also told us that we could file a complaint, but only after telling us that we’re all sinners too and that if we dug down deep enough in our hearts, we’d find the same things we saw in our former pastor.
After the congregational meeting, Kessler sent out an email communication to the church suggesting that our ruling elders had stirred up a mutiny of sorts in our church, rather than what it really was — an attempt to hold our former pastor accountable for his patterns of ungodly behavior and to bring about greater transparency within the leadership of the church.
After our former pastor resigned, presbytery decided to dissolve our church. Why? “Schism.” Not the moral failures.
No, instead, the buck was passed back onto us, the congregation, for daring to keep our pastor accountable. It was made to sound like it was our fault — we were the cause of “schism” in the church, rather than our former pastor’s actions.
The deep irony about our church’s case is that our ruling elders did what they should have — they pushed for transparency and accountability. They continued to ask for Kessler to relinquish financial controls. They called him out on the ways in which he tried to give pastoral care out of his wheelhouse instead of referring to a specialist. They graciously asked him to step down — either entirely or down to bivocational in order to save the church from greater turmoil. But our former pastor dug his heels in. He also had a commission from presbytery who continued to take his side — in fact, this commission never took the time to meet our congregants but frequently met with the pastor only. One of them even runs a business consulting pastors (can you say conflict of interest?).
Our elders brought things to presbytery, who ended up botching the case because they used a truncated confession letter instead of the full details of the offense related to serious deception — lying, creating a fake story, and trying to get one of his elders to cover his rear.
For all intents and purposes, our ruling elders went above and beyond to do what they were called to do as our elders to protect us from a rogue shepherd. But the system prevented them and also punished them for doing the right thing. The cult of personality reigned supreme over accountability.
Again, the PCA claims to be presbyterian and robust in terms of accountability structures, but clearly they are not if the system protects wrongdoers, punishes the right doers, and makes the path to truth an impossible upstream swim. Kessler can claim all he wants that this was a mutiny led by his elders. But the fact of the matter is that our elders were being more presbyterian and ultimately more faithful to accountability and truth than the commission and our former pastor.
So let me tell you this without any sort of hesitation so that you are warned — the PCA is not a safe place. The systems of accountability are not just broken but protect dysfunctional and abusive leaders. If you find yourself in a “good church” — like what we believed we had found in our previous church — it is a fragile place to be. Within 9 months, our church went from a safe, good, healthy church to revelations that all of that was hiding an underbelly of deception, pastoral malpractice, and a resistance to true accountability.
They will always, always, always talk about process, order, BCO this and that because that gives them a reason to trample over lives, tear down churches, place the blame back on the sheep, and then just pass problematic pastors from presbytery to presbytery.
You can do what you want with this story, but what I can definitively say is that it’s the same old, same old in the PCA. Doesn’t matter if it’s well-known author pastors or pastors of small churches like ours was. Peace out, PCA.
Note: this article has been updated with names and rearrangement of sections for organization and clarity.