Acts 29 Network CEO Steve Timmis Removed Amid ‘Accusations of Abusive Leadership’

Image: Quanah Spence

As CEO of Acts 29, Steve Timmis was an effective and respected leader. During his seven years at the helm, the church planting network rebounded from the fallout around its co-founder Mark Driscoll and expanded from 300 mostly US churches to 800 around the world.

A gray-haired British pastor with sharp Bible teaching and deep passion for mission, Timmis was known for the model of intensive gospel community developed at his 120-person church in the middle of England, The Crowded House. He emphasized “ordinary life with gospel intentionality.”

But while his international reputation grew, some who knew Timmis in his ordinary life—who prayed, fellowshipped, and evangelized with him in living rooms, offices, and pubs—saw a different side.

“People were and are afraid of Steve Timmis,” said Andy Stovell, a former elder who led alongside him for 14 years at The Crowded House in Sheffield.

Fifteen people who served under Timmis described to Christianity Today a pattern of spiritual abuse through bullying and intimidation, overbearing demands in the name of mission and discipline, rejection of critical feedback, and an expectation of unconditional loyalty.

In a letter to elders when he left in 2016, Stovell said, “I am not persuaded by the explanation that this is a case of strong leadership inevitably leading to some feathers being ruffled. People have been bruised by Steve’s style. People have become cowed due to it.”

Two weeks ago, internal reports raised similar concerns about Timmis’s leadership in Acts 29, and the board voted on Monday to remove him as CEO. Acts 29 president Matt Chandler announced the news in a video sent out to the network the following day, saying, “For where we’re headed next, we needed to transition Steve out of this role.”

The organization confirmed the allegations of spiritual abuse in a statement to CT. “A little over two weeks ago, the Board of Acts 29 was made aware of some accusations of abusive leadership against our CEO Steve Timmis,” it read. “The Board launched an investigation of these claims and found evidence that he should be transitioned out of the CEO role immediately. Where there needs to be reconciliation, we are prayerful and committed to seeking it.”

Under Timmis, Acts 29’s global headquarters was located alongside The Crowded House in Sheffield, which also draws a string of missionaries, interns, and university students. They come expecting—and wanting—to be part of a different type of church, the all-encompassing, always-on-mission culture of The Crowded House’s small groups, called “gospel communities.”

Steve McAlpine, an Australian pastor and church planter, moved to England back in 2006, hoping to learn the model so he could recreate it back home. He ended up contributing case studies for the popular book Timmis and his partner in ministry Tim Chester co-authored on the subject, Total Church.

“Since that time, no expression of church we have done has met the depth of life-on-life, ‘eyeball-to-eyeball’ experiences we had there,” McAlpine wrote on his blog a decade later. “Yet at the same time no expression of church has stung as deeply either.”

With a church that demands such high levels of involvement and buy-in, anything seen as taking away from that mission may be deemed selfish, sinful, and cause for discipline. “It’s gospel gaslighting,” McAlpine said.

He recalled being berated for making travel plans without consulting with Timmis first. He was told he was rejecting discipline and choosing to be “a law unto himself,” a signature Timmis phrase (originating from Romans 2:14) that former members repeated in multiple stories.

Little things that pastors in the average church wouldn’t care about were treated as big things by Timmis, they said.

One couple said they were confronted for missing an impromptu barbeque with their gospel community in order to spend planned family time with their kids. They were accused of not putting the mission of the church first. Several who took interest in ministry opportunities outside the mission for their gospel community—which could shift or change under Timmis’s orders—also received pushback, told not to pursue an outside Bible study or social time or not to volunteer with a local coffee shop or summer camp. Students in the university town were discouraged from returning home to their families over the summer—it was seen as a sign that they weren’t really committed to the life of the church.

From the inside, this kind of heavy shepherding seemed by design, with Timmis seeking to mentor and disciple his flock into a church that operated “24/7” and spanned all areas of life. At the least, Timmis implied these expectations set them apart from other congregations in a good way.

Fellow British pastor Melvin Tinker said while teaching a training program alongside Timmis, students from other evangelical traditions began to complain that Timmis was “dismissive” toward those who brought up other views of church life. Tinker, vicar of St. John’s Newland church in Hull, met with him at the time to address their feedback. Though Tinker had known Timmis for over 30 years and considered him a close friend, Timmis’s response to the meeting ultimately led to the end of their teaching together.

“If Steve is challenged in any way, which he always takes as a threat, then the tables are turned and the challenger is made out to be the one at fault,” said Tinker, who saw the same pushback emerge during the decade his son, Michael, was a member of Timmis’s church. “This is classic manipulation.”

Within The Crowded House, despite their closeness, some were too intimidated to question Timmis’s decisions. Though Timmis previously stepped down as pastor due to his Acts 29 obligations, he remains the church’s leader and senior elder and no successor at The Crowded House had been named. According to its website, the church’s four-person elder team currently includes Timmis, his son-in-law, and two other younger leaders.

“Steve had very clear patterns for dealing with conflict and would not hesitate to bring these conflicts to a crisis point in order to highlight where members were not living up to what he called ‘the high bar of discipleship,’” said Rowan Patterson, a former Crowded House elder who now serves at an Anglican church in Sydney.

“These standards were often based upon secondary and sometimes extrabiblical matters … and you would be called to trust him, his experience, and age,” he said. “If you did not, you would be called a law unto yourself.”

Former member Ben Murphy said he spoke up to disagree with Timmis over what to do about a non-Christian acquaintance who lived in a different area from their gospel community. Murphy and most of his group thought they should continue to build a relationship with her anyway. Timmis told them to refer her to a different church.

In follow-up conversations, the dispute heightened, and Murphy said elders told him that if he stayed he would enter a process of church discipline for his pushback. After he left The Crowded House last year, he texted the woman to follow up and apologize.

They are now part of a small but growing community of Crowded House “refugees.”

“There’s a high turnover of staff, elders, and members at The Crowded House, often leaving having ‘fallen out’ with Steve,” said Michael Tinker, a UK singer who was a part of The Crowded House from 2005 to 2015 and then spent two years at one of its nearby church plants after that. “There is such an emphasis on ‘vision’ that if you have issues with that then you are encouraged to leave.

“On one level that’s understandable—every church has a particular direction it wants to go in, and so it makes sense to find a church where you agree with that,” he said. “However, in reality it means you need to agree with Steve’s mission and vision. And the sense in The Crowded House that it is the right or best way to do mission and be biblically faithful means you are left with the feeling that if you disagree you are somehow disagreeing with the Bible, or somehow falling short of God’s ideal, or not really giving up your life for Christ.”

That perspective also skews members’ views of those who leave—that they didn’t have what it takes or are no longer really committed to mission.

Michael Tinker said some at The Crowded House were led to believe that he and his wife were walking away from their faith. Paul and Sharon Goodwin, who left in 2011, listed the elders’ characterizations of them leading up to their departure: divisive, unpastorable, disobedient, “not loving Jesus enough,” “always been troublemakers.” It was misconstrued enough that the Goodwins wrote a 3,400-word letter to friends describing their real reasons for leaving.

To go from being inside a highly relational, tight community to being considered an “ungospeled” and rebellious outsider can be traumatic. “We at one point thought it was easier to leave the country than the church,” said Murphy, who belonged to The Crowded House for more than 13 years. It felt impossible to avoid his former church community in day-to-day activities like school pickups and neighborhood walks. (His family now has plans to move to Belfast.)

At other churches in Sheffield, former members of The Crowded House might run into each other, and it’s not long before a look, a tearful eye, or a reference to “the Timmis experience” puts them on the same page. For a long time, most didn’t realize how common it was.

“Leaders like Steve Timmis are very adept at making you feel you are the ones in the wrong and that you are isolated problem makers,” wrote Paul Goodwin. “The more ex-[Crowded House] people we met, the more we realized that this pattern of behavior was something many had also gone through and their experiences were very similar to ours, even going back to the very early days of [The Crowded House] before we joined.”

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Source: Christianity Today

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