Local News

Saturday, Mar 03 2012 10:30 PM

Pastor resigns, citing stress, porn use

BY JILL COWAN Californian staff writer jcowan@bakersfield.com

Citing stress and issues with pornography, a longtime pastor of a major northwest Bakersfield church stepped down, by some accounts abruptly, earlier this year.

Although his board urged him to stay on, Pastor Dave Champness left RiverLakes Community Church after explaining his situation to his congregation on Jan. 22.

His message was posted on the church's website for more than a month, until last week, and word of his departure was shared among members and nonmembers of the church, but the news has not traveled widely.

RiverLakes, a nondenominational Christian church, has about 1,500 members and attracts up to 2,500 people to three services every Sunday, Champness said.

In a brief interview, Champness said he had been under stress and was dealing with loneliness and insecurity. He said as a way of coping, he found he was prioritizing his ministry over his family and had been looking at pornography on the Internet.

Those issues factored into his decision to resign from a three-decade tenure as a pastor at the church.

"Just to continually strengthen my family and in my own walk with the Lord, it was beneficial to step out of ministry to address how I deal with pressures," Champness, 58, said Thursday. "I've done (pastoral work) passionately for 30 years. I have time right now to focus on my family, kids and marriage, kind of being outside that realm."

Champness said he served as youth pastor at the church for 10 years and adult pastor for seven years. Finally, he took on the role of senior pastor about 13 years ago.

The decision to resign, Champness said both Thursday and in his Jan. 22 farewell sermon, which was also shared on the church's Facebook page, was strictly his own -- not one made under pressure from church leadership.

"This is mine and mine alone to own," he said in his farewell, stressing on several occasions that "this is not about (his wife)."

Church leaders reached via email and phone over the past week declined to comment directly on the resignation. Multiple interview requests went unanswered.

Current executive pastor Steve Downs expressed strong support for Champness in a phone message, calling him a man of great integrity and "a man who has committed his life to Jesus Christ completely and totally." Downs could not be reached for an interview and asked a reporter not to contact staff or congregation members, saying it was an internal matter.

In the video, RiverLakes board chairman Gary Been is seen emphasizing the board's continuing support for the pastor.

Near the end of the service, Been, along with other church leaders, some dabbing tears, joined Champness on stage.

"Without going into great detail, you need to know what transpired (with regard to the porn usage)," Been says to the congregation. "At the time of the last incident, Dave brought it to the attention of his accountability partners and then to the board. He offered to tender his resignation and placed himself at the mercy of the board. His confession and repentance was real."

After what Been said was "almost two months of deliberation and seeking outside counsel, the board could find no reason to disqualify (Champness) from leadership -- primarily due to (his) complete transparency."

Church leaders would not elaborate on the nature of the incident referred to by Been.

Champness' desire for transparency extended to the whole RiverLakes community, he said.

"I haven't had an affair, real or emotional -- physical or emotional -- I haven't looked at anything illegal," he told a full auditorium during the farewell service. "I've sought to try and be real before you."

In the 39-minute video, which had been viewable publicly on the church's website until Thursday, Champness candidly explains his choice, citing longstanding issues and stresses as contributing to his use of porn.

In the interview on Thursday, he said pressure to "be more than you can be to people" had a detrimental effect on his marriage.

That kind of pressure is something that often leads to self-destructive behavior in spiritual leaders, said Lisa Fullam, associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University.

"We look at some of the stresses that are put on ministers. It sounds to me like this fellow has been reacting to the substantial stress in pastoral ministry," she said.

As in many high-stress professions, addiction -- whether to alcohol, drugs or porn -- can become an easy form of stress relief, Fullam said, adding she did not personally know details of the situation.

Furthermore, the Internet means all kinds of pornography are only a couple of mouse clicks away, said Julie Albright, a licensed therapist and digital sociologist at the University of Southern California.

Albright also spoke generally and did not have personal knowledge of the RiverLakes events.

"It's a mistake to think that viewing porn online is a rare experience," she said. A survey of about 150,000 people found "75 percent of men admitted that they had intentionally looked at and downloaded porn on the Internet, so this is not unusual in the larger Internet population."

In the case of someone like Champness, a respected authority figure, she said, it "seems to be a large transgression of a social role."

Fullam said that in conservative Christian churches with a potentially "strong anti-porn strain," the guilt for "sexual sins" can compound problems.

Other religious officials offered varying views on the situation.

Dave Kalahar, media director of Valley Baptist Church, said he couldn't speculate about Champness' resignation directly.

At Valley Baptist, he said, "We put hedges in place," including "Internet filtering on all our computers."

That, he said, is just one of the measures necessary to combat temptations "in this day and age."

One leader at a large church acknowledged that pastors are under a lot of pressure. Briefed on the RiverLakes situation by a reporter, Trammel Orr, the young adults pastor at Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga, was sympathetic.

"I think that (a porn proclivity) is something you could be able to work through," he said.

While Abundant Living might handle a similar situation a little less publicly, Orr said he could understand how such issues would stem from "the actual pressure that comes with pastoring."

Ultimately, said Fullam, the theology professor, the fact that Champness appeared to have taken a step back "before he's done something that would irremediably harm his marriage or himself" is "extraordinary."

"What many people do in this situation is they continue until ... they hurt someone or themselves," she said. "I hope he (returns to ministry) because that kind of honesty is very, very admirable."

The church's Facebook page is filled with support for Champness.

"Thank you Dave for the past nine years," wrote one commenter. "I have always loved your transparency and willingness to be vulnerable as you deliver God's word each week."

About a month after his resignation, Champness said he's "still dealing" with many of his underaddressed issues and working on his marriage.

"I can just say for me it's a good step," he said Thursday. "I'm a human. I'm just a man who's seeking to be honest and move forward."

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