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?
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 ...