Plaster Rock church leader inspires fear, devotion

The New Brunswick Telegraph Journal/March 5, 2001
By Bob Klager

Plaster Rock -- A picture of extraordinary pastoral control is emerging in the Village of Plaster Rock, as residents grapple with a church controversy that touches many in this rural community of 1,200. More than eight decades after the First Apostolic Pentecostal Church's roots were planted in the Tobique Valley, a defamation suit filed against its current leaders has triggered new accounts of the sect's ultimate authority over its members.

Quiet speculation in Plaster Rock has for years surrounded the church's influence in the community and with its congregation of about 450 - many of whom are believed to have moved from as far away as Middlesex, a small community about 25 kilometers southeast of Moncton. However, revelations of church members bound by authority so strict they follow dictates against jewelry and toss wedding rings into collection plates, of parents so fearful their children will be damned to hell they enroll them in the church's Apostolic Christian School and of public humiliation or shunning are drawing parallels to something beyond the love of God. It's that very shunning, says one former church member, that leaves people afraid to speak publicly about their concerns.

"The church is split down the middle; there are those who idolize [Pastor] Dana McKillop and there are those who...are scared to open their mouths," she said. "At one time, I would have done anything that Dana McKillop told me to do. I am scared of the power that he has." "It's a scary situation for those of us who are not of that congregation who live in Plaster Rock," said another long-time resident of the community. "Mr. McKillop is the Alpha Omega in that church."

Both residents, consenting to interviews on condition of anonymity, are among several people who have recently come forward, but refuse to be identified for fear of reprisals from the church and within the community. Darren McKillop, son of the controversial church leader, last week renounced the allegations surrounding his family's Plaster Rock organization. Speaking on behalf of his father, he continued to decline requests for interviews. "You prove that [concern] is widespread in the community - with names - and I'll give you an interview," said Darren McKillop, adding "...time is on our side."

He said the congregation has advised its leadership not to rebut the accusations, which have included claims of extreme control and unorthodox financial obligations. There are reports, however, that congregants themselves have been ordered not to discuss their views of the controversy.

Founded in the late 1920s by Pastor William Rolston, an Irish immigrant, the ministry now known as the Apostolic Pentecostal Church has evolved from tent crusades and early revival in rural New Brunswick to become a powerful independent church body headed by the McKillop family. Originally affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church, the McKillops broke away from that governing body in a bitter split that still simmers in congregations across New Brunswick.

The recent civil suit brought by a former church member - its allegations have all been denied by the McKillops - points to Dana McKillop's undeniable authority and influence over members who followed him from the split. The claims within the defamation action have not been proved in court and no trial date is set in the case. Rev. Robert Pardon, executive director of the New England Institute of Religious Research near Boston, Mass., says the Plaster Rock situation seems to mirror a culture of "aberrant" church doctrine growing more prevalent in today's society.

Considered one of the United States' foremost experts on the Western world's religious landscape, Mr. Pardon was recently interviewed on NBC's Dateline about his organization's involvement in the case of a Massachusetts church group whose connections stretched into the State of Maine. "This really sounds, unfortunately, like what we deal with all the time down here," said Mr. Pardon. "When you've got no accountability, then you've got all kinds of perversions that go on. "The Bible speaks a tremendous amount about God's grace and of provision in Christ, but what actually occurs in these aberrational organizations is it's law that rules. Even though they talk about grace, it's law that rules."

When Plaster Rock congregants are prohibited from questioning the pastor's authority, when Mr. McKillop preaches against having to answer to a greater church organization and, from the pulpit, calls Bible schools that ordain mainstream pastors "the great orphanages," there are signs for concern, said Mr. Pardon. "It's similar to a number of groups we work can't speak against the pastor or the leader or the elders, they control the information that you're able to access, you can be humiliated publicly," he said. "There are so many of these kind of independent models that are out there where, essentially, somebody has a direct pipeline to God - no accountability."

Dr. Steven Lambert is an ordained pastor and author who has spent the past 25 years studying authoritarian abuse in churches across North America. Based in Florida, his ministry focuses a commitment on revealing Christian truth. But it also sits in a hotbed for the type of "discipleship-shepherding" control that was eventually exposed within the charismatic movement during the 1970s. Leaders of independent churches in Florida and beyond are frequent guests behind the pulpit in Plaster Rock. The First Apostolic Pentecostal Church Web site provides direct links to several of those organizations. And combined with a vulnerability in the Pentecostal realm "much greater in Canada" to unorthodox teachings, Dr. Lambert said the Plaster Rock situation is disconcerting. "I think it's absolutely a concern, and I don't think it's just abstract," he said. "I think it's very real and it certainly has the potential of controlling a lot of people. "I think people would be very shocked to know that this sort of thing is going on and that it's not innocuous," said Dr. Lambert. "It's much more widespread than what even people in the church could possibly imagine."

In his book Charismatic Captivation: Authoritarian Abuse and Psychological Enslavement in Neo-Pentecostal Churches, Dr. Lambert addresses a religious domination he says has snared many believers. The uncanny power of leadership in Plaster Rock, the fear of open reproof, the threat of lost salvation and apparent economic obligations that draw, among other things, 15 per cent of members' net family incomes fall into some of the more than a dozen common control mechanisms he identifies in the book.

Wary of his work being used as a tool to attack churches like Plaster Rock, Dr. Lambert said the presence of a few of these techniques doesn't mean church leaders have knowingly embraced authoritarian doctrine. "I caution not to always view it that way," he said. "But if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck..."The fact of the matter is these very characteristics are manifest in a lot of places that no one would consider them a cult," said Dr. Lambert. "But yet their structure, their government, the way they run it - it is indeed a cult."

An almost stoic "under-siege" mentality church leaders often bestow upon their congregations when under public scrutiny, is also a text-book response, he said. Being aware of speculation, the way leaders attempt to keep the sheep in the fold, so to speak, is to pre-empt the questions. "They tell the people what other people are saying about them, and then try to counter it with all kinds of spiritualization," said Dr. Lambert. "The fact of the matter is there is great credence in what is being said. "Primarily, I think they know they have a lot to lose. And you can just hang your hat on the fact that, ultimately, we're talking about money somewhere here," he added. "It's inevitable. These things become their private little kingdoms. They become their business."

Mike Kropveld, executive director for Info-Cult, a Montreal-based resource organization for education, support and research into cult-related problems and cultic thinking, says his organization received two calls about the Plaster Rock church last year. But he warned against quick labeling. Be it images of evil and danger or theological deviation that the word cult invokes, "people toss it around too quickly," he said. "You have to look at what's going on," said Mr. Kropveld. "And to understand the level of abuse or risk of harm, you have to look at the structure of the group and the role of the how cultic or how closed or how controlling is the group or the environment." In the absence of supervision or a church hierarchy, the potential exists for problems, he said. "One should not be surprised at the possibility of this," said Mr. Kropveld. "If the pastor is the top person, you don't have that mechanism and you run the risk of [experiencing] more problems. Especially if the individual believes he has a hold on the truth. "And anyone can believe that," he said. "It's the actions, however, that point to the risk for abuse."

That many former members of the Plaster Rock church are reluctant to be identified as they recount their stories isn't surprising, said Mr. Pardon. He said leaving situations like that which appears to exist in this community doesn't necessarily mean escaping the burden such experiences place on people's lives. "It's horrific," said Mr. Pardon. "The biggest issue is helping the individual come to a point where they're able to trust once again and [when thinking for themselves] don't believe that they're speaking out against God. "Even though, intellectually, they might know that this is not a healthy organization, that's not where they live emotionally," he said. "It's always a very, very painful experience and some people never recover from it. They're damaged. Badly."

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