Roving journalist Charles Kuralt once called Madison, Indiana, "the most beautiful river town in America." It's a little place—just 13,000 people—across the Ohio River from Kentucky. If you walked along the riverfront, you'd see quaint shops, a marina for passing boaters, and established trees lining the street.
For decades though, the beauty masked an ugly truth. Madison First Assembly of God, one of the town's key congregations, was rife with toxic church politics that hurt and expelled minister after minister. Four successive pastors had come and painfully left the congregation. The church earned a reputation—in their town and denomination—for backstabbing and hypocrisy.
That's hardly news. But unlike many similar stories, there's more to this church's tale.
I first heard of Madison First Assembly after the town's local paper reported on an unusual church service: a reconciliation event in October of 2012. The church called its former ministers back to Madison to ask their forgiveness for how they were treated. The church paid their way, publicized the service, invited the community. The church was open about wrongs done, and serious about setting them right.
One photo from the paper shows Peter Joudry, the current pastor, bent washing the feet of former ministers on behalf of the congregation. An unusual image for an unusual news item, and one that pricked my curiosity. How did the little church go from being a serial "widowmaker" to literally washing the feet of abused former pastors?
Decades of dysfunction
On the phone, Joudry was genial and quick to chuckle. He told the backstory of the service.
"To Sunday morning visitors, we looked like the healthiest church in town. The worship was red hot and the preaching was strong. We smiled a lot. But it all masked decades of dysfunction.
"The roots of the problem went all the way back to the beginning of our church in the 1950s. From the start, there were factions within the congregation. A few influential people in the church—big tithers, and people with big opinions—became increasingly important. Eventually, it was literally their way or the highway for pastors. Their divisive nature patterned the DNA of the church, and no one dealt with it. It festered, and grew, until eventually, it seemed normal."
While turnover can be common in small-town churches, and is never easy, over the decades a pattern established itself. Over the years, minister after minister was faced with a church that welcomed them with a smile, then slowly soured, turned on them, and drove them out of the church on one pretext or another. The issues were minor, but the political power of an elite few in the church was not. While Joudry speaks in generalities about what happened long before he came to pastor there, the church's reputation as a pastor-killer was attested to by the town, the denomination, and by his own experience.
"Every church has conflict and differences of opinion. I understand that," Joudry said. "It can be a healthy, cleansing thing. But this was not that kind of conflict. Where it should have been open, this was covert. Where it should have been discussed, this was hidden."
Its secret nature made it nearly impossible to call out. And as pastor after pastor was chewed up and spit out by a growing pattern of hostility, the church began to have a reputation in the community as a "widowmaker" for ministers.