(RNS) — When Michelle Wilbur first visited Christian Fellowship Center in tiny Madrid, New York, a short hour from the Canadian border, in 2003, she was so dazzled by the church’s close-knit, spirit-filled community that she moved north from Massachusetts to call it home.
“There was something about the culture that I just loved,” Wilbur said in a recent phone interview. “They had big families that they presented as being amazingly strong, the music was incredible, and it just sucked me in really quickly.”
On Sundays, families with five, nine or twelve well-behaved children spoke in tongues at the nondenominational, Pentecostal church in Madrid, one of five CFC churches in the area led since 1981 by Rick Sinclair, the senior pastor.
“People adored the pastor,” Wilbur said. “I did feel very loved when I got there, at first.”
Wilbur has since renounced her CFC membership and is speaking out to hold community leaders responsible for pressuring her to remain in an abusive marriage, which she claims put her kids at risk. She isn’t alone in seeking to hold CFC pastors accountable.
On May 29, 2022, the sanctuary in Madrid was filled with church members who had come to discuss a news article, published a week earlier, reporting that Sean Ferguson, a husband, father and faithful CFC member, had been charged with first-degree sexual abuse of a child. Days later, Ferguson’s sister tweeted that CFC had known about Sean Ferguson’s abuse five years prior, in 2017.
Police records indicate — and New York state police confirmed — that Ferguson was charged in 2022 with having sexually abused his two young daughters in 2015. Ferguson’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
At the May meeting, Sinclair defended his decision not to report Ferguson’s abuse to police, child protective services or to the broader CFC community. “His entire approach to addressing this crisis was the claim that he’s under no moral obligation to report unless someone can conclusively demonstrate that to him from Scripture,” said a CFC member who attended the meeting.
“There was this bizarre collection of semi-legal arguments and ethical arguments that ultimately amounted to, ‘I have no obligation to report child sexual abuse if someone approaches me in a repentant manner about committing it,'” the member said.
In an email to RNS, Sinclair declined to discuss Ferguson’s case but wrote, “I have never ‘covered up’ any abuse or sought to keep someone in a situation against their will. God hates abuse and desires to see health and restoration in the lives of those involved.”
But Sinclair says his process in regard to “those caught in sin, including those sins that have potential criminal bearing,” includes “repentance, cleansing, deliverance, and reconciliation through the cross.” He added that his “priority is to see sinners experience the healing and restoration that Jesus provides, to do what Jesus would do if He were present.”
Sinclair’s knowledge of Ferguson’s abuse prompted seven former members to form CFCtoo, a group of advocates who published an open letter on May 31. “We are survivors of abuse at Christian Fellowship Center,” the letter reads. “We have experienced spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of CFC leaders and members.”
The group offered first-hand accounts from those who allege abuse at CFC. According to Abbi Nye, a CFCtoo advocate who attended CFC until 2005, 18 individuals have shared stories of physical or sexual abuse with CFCtoo.
“For me, I see this as the latest incident in a pattern of covering up or minimizing abuse over many decades,” Nye said, referring to CFC’s alleged mishandling of Ferguson’s abuse.
Most of the eight current or former CFC members interviewed for this story said loyalty to the pastor is a defining feature of the insular church community. They also point out that three of the six CFC pastors are members of the Sinclair family.
“My family was what I’d term an ‘insider family,’” said Nye. “There were different circles of influence in the church, and the more loyal you were to Rick Sinclair, the more influence you had.”
Rick Sinclair’s daughter, Julia Sinclair, a recording artist who goes by Sinclair, agreed. “In my teens, I think I started to kind of notice that there was a whole lot of worship of my dad, which even from a biblical perspective, I saw that as a red flag,” she said.
Justus Martin, a part-time lead pastor at CFC’s Moira location from 2016 until 2020, told RNS he was fired after he referred to men he’d appointed to help him lead the Moira church as elders. The title was officially reserved for a group of 18 elders — some of them pastors — responsible for leading all CFC locations.
Martin said Sinclair expressed full-throated support for his ministry until February 2020, when a miscommunication over a fundraiser at CFC Moira prompted Martin to ask Sinclair for a meeting. When they met with the Moira leadership team on March 2, 2020, according to Martin, Sinclair harshly questioned Martin’s leadership abilities and reprimanded the other leaders.
“At that meeting, I shared some needed correction,” Sinclair said at an August 24 congregational meeting. “Justus had clearly failed by identifying these men as elders … I wanted there to be absolute clarity, leaving the meeting, that they had not been set aside as elders.”
After additional meetings and email exchanges, on April 28, 2020, Martin was told it was time to part ways with CFC. Some of Martin’s congregants then formed a new church, with Martin as pastor, which drew fire from Sinclair and the other CFC pastors, who asked Martin to repent for intentionally splitting the church. They also removed children from Martin’s church from the CFC-affiliated Christian Fellowship Academy, an enrichment program for the community’s many homeschoolers.
“We believe that Justus willingly and knowingly caused a devastating church split. He knew what was going to happen,” Sinclair claimed in the August congregational meeting. “We tried to appeal to him. We tried everything we could to try to prevent it and to reach out to him.”
Former CFC members told RNS the community can seem idyllic if you follow the CFC prescription for Christian living, which includes approval of corporal punishment — CFC pastors taught spanking techniques at annual conferences, they said — and what some characterize as an adherence to a “Quiverfull” ideology.
Kathryn Joyce, who wrote a 2009 book on the Quiverfull movement, told RNS that the movement is about “leaving your fertility in God’s hands.” In practice, said Joyce, it’s characterized by large families — think the Duggars — who often share other informal lifestyle elements, including homeschooling, purity culture and female submission.
“I think it was understood that we were a little army,” said Julia Sinclair, who attended CFC’s Madrid location from 1990 to 2010. “Building the Kingdom by proxy of creating new humans, that was definitely part of the calling.”
The CFC model also includes a strong rejection of divorce, support of male headship and the belief that Christians should not identify as LGTBQ. This became a problem for Julia Sinclair when, in 2010, she realized she was gay. She told RNS that her father eventually asked her to resign her CFC membership so he wouldn’t have to excommunicate her.
“There is an attempt at cutting members off who aren’t behaving properly,” Julia Sinclair told RNS, “and punishing them so they feel like they’re in a position where they need to either come crawling back to the community or they have to start anew and start their lives over again, which is what happened to me.”
For years after making the move to CFC’s Madrid location in 2003, Michelle Wilbur did her best to fit the CFC mold. She married in 2005, became an art teacher at Christian Fellowship Academy and adopted three kids.
But in 2006, Wilbur told RNS, her ex-husband assaulted her and in July 2012 drove drunk with their kids in the car. In November of 2012, she said, he physically abused her and her oldest daughter. She called Rick Sinclair, a nearby neighbor, immediately after the first assault. In November 2012, she said two CFC pastors came bursting through the front door to pry her ex-husband off her.
Attempts to locate Wilbur’s ex-husband for comment were not successful. Though he was charged with “yelling obscenities and acting disorderly” in July 2012, no other charges were brought at the time.
Wilbur also met with Sinclair in his office to discuss the abuse on several occasions. She told RNS that each time, he urged her to forgive her husband.
“With Pastor Rick, it was explicit,” Wilbur recalled. “Do not get a divorce. Even though my husband was out of control, still submit to your husband. As the woman, as the wife, you are not to take control, and take over … The woman is to submit, and God will take care of the rest.”
In an email to RNS, Rick Sinclair said he bases his counsel on Scripture and encourages “relational restoration as much as possible under the circumstances.” He also said that when discussing divorce, he provides “an overview of the enormous theological complexities of divorce” and encourages them to be “very cautious in making a decision of that magnitude,” while ultimately clarifying that it’s a decision they alone must make before God.
But in late December 2014, Wilbur later alleged in a complaint to police, her ex-husband molested two of her daughters. When she ultimately asked him to move out, she said the CFC pastors disapproved. At CFC pastor Ben Levendusky’s request, she met with him at the Madrid location in spring 2015.
“I finally went in and said, ‘Pastor Ben, my husband cheated on me. He molested my child, that is cheating. I have a Biblical reason to leave my husband.’ Pastor Ben started crying, and he’s like, ‘That is not cheating’ … And he cried and begged me, ‘Please, keep your family together,’ knowing that my husband at the time beat the crap out of me, that he drove drunk in our car with our children, that we lost an adoption placement because of him, that he molested three of our kids. All of it.”
Levendusky told RNS in an email, “I never try to keep someone in a situation against their will; if they feel they are in an unsafe situation and need to leave, I try to support them as much as possible.”
Wilbur eventually left CFC and, she told RNS, filed charges in 2015. Her ex-husband was charged with two counts of felony first-degree sexual abuse, but the charges were dropped in October 2016 after the district attorney’s office failed to prosecute him in a timely manner.
Joyce told RNS that she was unsurprised to hear that several former CFC members had alleged abuse at CFC. While abuse can happen anywhere, she said, hierarchical groups with leaders who have “a strict sense of authority” can make it “pretty easy for abuse to go unchecked.”
CFC members estimate that at least 10 families have left CFC since May. In sharing their stories, Wilbur and others hope the pastors will recognize their own complicity — and that current CFC children can be spared from harm.
“I want (CFC members) to know that even if you’re this far in, you can still rescue your children and yourself, and you can get them out,” said Wilbur. “There is a life outside of CFC.”
This story has been updated. Paragraph six now shows that CFC had known about Sean Ferguson’s alleged abuse since 2017. A previous version said Sean Ferguson reported the alleged abuse to Rick Sinclair in 2017.
Since our original reporting of this story, Michele Wilbur has amended her recollection of the night in November 2012 when she alleges she was attacked by her then husband in her home. Wilbur now says that while Sinclair visited her later the same evening, he was not among the church leaders who stopped the alleged attack.