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Bachmanns’ new church has ties to their Christian counseling business

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/07/MahurinReligion_Thumb.jpgWhen John Becker of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit that “fights anti-gay religious extremism,” recently went undercover as a conflicted gay man seeking “ex-gay” therapy from the Christian counseling center that presidential contender Michele Bachmann co-owns with her husband, Marcus, he made a few things up.

Becker is gay; he’s just not conflicted about it. He’s been married to the same man for the past five years and they live in Vermont. But what he told Bachmann & Associates therapist Timothy Wiertzema at the center’s Lake Elmo, Minn., location was that he had just moved to the Twin Cities area and was looking for a church to go to. Wiertzema’s only recommendation to Becker was Eagle Brook Church, the same Baptist mega-church the Bachmanns relocated to in June shortly after the Minnesota congresswoman officially declared her candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

“When I learned the Bachmanns had moved [to Eagle Brook Church], I was curious,” Becker told The American Independent.

As it turns out, both Eagle Brook Church and Bachmann & Associates refer out to each other. Becker said Wiertzema told him Eagle Brook was “a good solid church,” well-known and well-attended. The Eagle Brook Church website refers church members seeking marriage counseling to Bachmann & Associates on its Marriage & Family resources page. The church recommends only one other counseling center in the area: Family Innovations.

On a Marriage & Family blog post from April 2009, Marcus Bachmann posted a message stating:

Bachmann & Associates Christian Counseling is honored to be in the marital healing and restoration business. We are trully [sic] seeing couples restored, Christ is transforming peoples lives with a work of our skilled counselors and the principles of God’s word. Christ is the Almighty Counselor and we are in awe of what man would call irreparable, God brings wholeness and healing.

Thank-you for allowing us to partner with Eagle Brook.

Marcus Bachmann

In a statement emailed to The American Independent, Eagle Brook Church explained that it has partnered with Bachmann & Associates since 2003 and only refers attendants seeking biblical counseling to the Bachmann business and Family Innovations due to positive opinions from church members.

From Eagle Brook Church:

The Eagle Brook approach has been to choose a few strategic partners in all ministry areas. We partner with organizations who are experts in what they do so that we can remain effective at what we do — reaching people for Christ. Bachmann & Associates was chosen as a partner in 2003 after many of our attenders reported that they were pleased with the level of care and counseling they had received there. We continually monitor all of our relationships with outside organizations through feedback provided by those who have used them.

Requests for comment were not returned by Bachmann & Associates, or Bachmann’s campaign. (At a recent National Press Club event, the Minnesota representative stated she would continue to refuse to answer questions related to her family business.)

Church controversy

Following the revelation that Bachmann and her family formally withdrew their membership from the Salem Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minn., on June 21 — then she officially declared her presidential candidacy in Waterloo, Iowa, six days later — speculation as to why they left began. One immediate theory was that the Bachmanns wanted to sever ties with Salem Lutheran’s larger affiliate, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), whose stance on the Pope is considered controversial and potentially alienating to Catholic voters.

The explanation offered to the press — by the Bachmann campaign and Salem Lutheran — has thus far appeared to diffuse the initial controversy. The Atlantic published a story on July 13 in which a WELS spokesman clarified the organization’s use of the term “Antichrist” -– “false Christ” as opposed to Satan — for the Pope, saying it “has never been one of our driving principles.”

On July 14, Religious News Service reported that the Bachmanns had formerly ended their membership after a church leader had questioned the family’s two-year absence. A few days later, The New York Times reported that after leaving Salem Lutheran Church, the Bachmanns started attending Eagle Brook Church, “closer to their new home in another Stillwater neighborhood.”

Then the blog Spiritual Politics pointed out:

[C]ontrary to what the friends told [NYT reporter Sheryl Gay] Stolberg, not one of the campuses is actually closer to the Bachmann’s new home on the eighteenth green of the Stoneridge Golf Course than their old Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) church, Salem Lutheran, was. The drive from their mini-mansion to Salem is just eight miles, as opposed to 19, 28, 29, and 29 miles respectively to Eagle Lake’s facilities at White Bear Lake, Lino Lakes, Spring Lake Park, and Blaine.

Eagle Brook and ex-gay therapy

The 60-year-old Eagle Brook Church currently has a weekly attendance of 13,000 people spanning across its four locations in Blaine, Lino Lakes, Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake. Eagle Brook spokeperson Johanna Price told TAI that a fifth location is due to open in Woodbury on Sept. 10. According to a church statement emailed to TAI, Eagle Brook’s mission is “reaching people for Christ.”

According to SpiritualPolitics, Eagle Brook belongs to the Baptist General Conference and is the largest church in Minnesota. It is a member of the Willow Creek Association (WCA) based in Illinois, whose board chairman is Bill Hybels, the founding and senior pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church (WCCC) in South Barrington, Ill., a seven-campus mega-church.

WCA spokesperson Nancy Gruben told TAI that the nonprofit group offers resources and training to any church that aligns with WCA’s mission to help churches “make disciples of Jesus Christ” (from Matthew 28). She said WCA serves 10,000 churches a year, 4,000 of which are in the United States. Any church that either partners formally with WCA for a $249 annual fee (about 200 churches, according to Gruben) or that joins in on WCA-sponsored ministry events must align with the association’s “statement of faith.”

Gruben would not comment directly on WCA’s position on homosexuality or “ex-gay” therapy — which is at the heart of the controversy surrounding Bachmann’s Christian counseling business. “We believe all people matter to God, and so all people matter to us,” Gruben said.

But a church that in recent years has taken a stand on “ex-gay” therapy –- albeit in a quiet, indirect way -– is WCA founder Bill Hybel’s Willow Creek Community Church. In the midst of last month’s revelation of the Bachmann church switch, a few blogs picked up on the fact that WCCC at one point referred members to Exodus International, the world’s largest ex-gay ministry.

WCCC severed those ties in 2009, but that fact was only brought to light this past June by Ex-Gay Watch.com. The mega-church’s relationship with the ex-gay ministry ended a year after meeting with Soulforce, the Abilene, Texas-based Christian gay-rights organization that in 2008 began a project with other LGBT-rights organizations called American Family Outing. This was a campaign to open peaceful dialogue about faith, family and the LGBT community with influential mega-churches that might welcome gay and lesbian people into their churches but still support the idea of reparative therapy. Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in 2008, the American Family Outing groups met with six churches identified as having a big cultural and political influence on Americans through ministries and media. Willow Creek Community Church with its vast network of mega-churches throughout the country, was among them.

“We knew if we could have an impact in those churches, we could have an impact nationwide,” Soulforce Executive Director the Rev. Dr. Cindi Love told TAI.

Jay Bakker — pastor of Revolution Church in New York City and who was part of the Soulforce team meeting with Hybels in 2008 — said he doesn’t think the American Family Outing can take full credit WCCC splitting from Exodus. But he told TAI they likely had some part in the decision.

“It is definitely a push in the right direction,” Bakker said. “The times are changing.”

Bakker said the LGBT group was trying to send all the mega-churches a message about the dangers of the ex-gay movement and the value in affirming LGBT people and allowing them to be members or to work for the church. Among the mega-church pastors who would actually meet with Soulforce, Hybels was the most open and positive, Bakker said, though he refused to meet with all of the gay and lesbian families, as was the intention of the campaign. Bakker said that instead, the LGBT leaders and Hybels and some of Hybels’ staff talked briefly about scripture over deli sandwiches. Children of the same-sex couples were forced to take their lunch away from Hybels, in a different room.

“It was a very tense meeting,” he said. “But it was a good meeting.”

Jeff Lutes, a licensed professional counselor in Austin, Texas, was the Soulforce executive director at the time. Like Bakker, Lutes was impressed by some of Hybels’ comments, such that many of the Bible’s “clobber passages,” which are sometimes used by some religious figures to condemn homosexuality, were no longer relevant. Where Hybels was hung up was on the Genesis verse that defines marriage between a man and a woman, Lutes told TAI.

“I remember that, at the end of the meeting, Hybel’s second-in-command said: ‘Jeff, I want you to know that our problem is with the sexual relationship that you have with your partner. But what you are doing with your three children, God is in that.’ I feel they have made progress, but they are not an affirming church,” Lutes said.

WCCC denied TAI’s request for comment about the events that led it to end ties with Exodus.

The church response to Ex-Gay Watch regarding the cutoff was brief: “After a recent review of our affiliations we determined that, moving into the future, we no longer intend to be affiliated with Exodus International.”

Christianity Today received more explanation:

Scott Vaudrey of the elder response team said in writing that Willow Creek’s decision was not intended as a social or political statement, but rather an indication of “a season of reviewing and clarifying some of our affiliations with outside organizations.”

Exodus International President Alan Chambers told Christianity Today that the WCCC move was political, suggesting the church’s support for ex-gay therapy lives on:

“The choice to end our partnership is definitely something that shines a light on a disappointing trend within parts of the Christian community, which is that there are Christians who believe like one another who aren’t willing to stand with one another, simply because they’re afraid of the backlash people will direct their way if they are seen with somebody who might not be politically correct.”

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