Church of the Highlands Quietly Advances Controversial Pastoral Retreat Center

The Roys Report [Chicago IL]

October 17, 2022

By Jessica Etturalde

Although public information on The Lodge Retreat Center has lessened since the public announcement in September 2021, updated photos shared with MinistryWatch show that construction is underway on Alabama’s Church of the Highlands Grants Mill campus.

The Lodge, funded by the church’s Legacy donations, is a $4.5 million retreat center where pastors, leaders, and their families will be, according to an original pamphlet, “mentored, counseled, refreshed, and restored.” The program is the vision of Highlands Senior Pastors Chris Hodges and Dino Rizzo. Both are co-founders of the Association of Related Churches (ARC).

The project sparked concern over how Highlands and ARC reinstate morally-fallen pastors to the pulpit with seemingly minimal consequences. Some questioned whether the goal to extend forgiveness and redemption to fallen leaders would result in The Lodge becoming a “safe place” to harbor and enable unrepentant sin.

A former staff member told MinistryWatch that when congregants voiced doubts, leadership likened approaching Hodges to the Prophet Nathan confronting King David: Only people of equal or higher spiritual authority may question what God impresses leadership to do. Another member shared a similar account in an independent interview and added, “We believe these people literally hear from God.”

The vision for restoration started when Hodges sought to restore Rizzo, who in 2012 admitted to an extramarital affair while serving as senior pastor of Healing Place Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hodges claimed he could not find a strategy to follow. “I so desperately wanted there to be a model here. It is a message of hope to those who have experienced some sort of moral failure or whatever,” he told Ministry Today in 2014.

Among those who have undergone the restoration process are several pastors who stepped down after accusations of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or rape. Cases include those of Josh Mauney, Caleb TreatJason Delgado, and Hodges’s son, Michael, who was removed from his ministerial position at Greystone in 2017.

The most referred-to example is Micahn Carter. Carter relocated to preach at Highlands as part of his restoration process after being accused of rape by a staff member at Together Church in Washington State. After the lawsuit escalated, Carter resigned, and Highlands severed ties and affirmed they were “no longer involved in the restoration process.” However, Carter preached with accolades last July at an ARC church in Orange County, California.

While there is no public, detailed explanation of the restoration course, it may echo Hodges’ original restoration plan for Rizzo’s reinstatement to pastoral ministry. In 2013, Hodges worked with overseers and counselors to create 31 benchmarks for Rizzo to follow, beginning with stepping down from ministry and a year of leading with supervision. In addition, the measure included downtime and counseling by Emerge Counseling Ministries.

When Ministry Today asked him about the benchmarks, Hodges said he could not give specifics but shared some benchmark categories: “One was in personal finance, getting your financial house in order. There were some in physical health, counseling, and marriage. A lot of them were educational. There were seminars he had to attend and books to read.” Furthermore, they were required to receive a health assessment and a complete physical. 

A former staffer told us pastors get “well taken care of.” Multiple sources told us that besides providing rest and counseling, the organization cleans up their reputation, occasionally pays for relocation expenses, and gives a salary supplement to assuage their income loss.

At ARC’s Gather 2021, during a message covering depression, comparisons, loneliness, and spiritual warfare, Hodges spoke of a fellow pastor that took his life. Alluding to burnout and depression, he stated, “Dino and I are in the middle of about 20 pastoral moral failures and restorations—right now.”

Not everyone views the Pastoral Retreat Center as alarming. One member said the objective is not so much focused on restoration as ministering to these pastors in a loving way that would prevent any need for restoration. Another commented that they support The Lodge concept if leadership attempts to make restitution with victims, report assault, and cooperate with authorities when applicable. Only then, one stated, would they support “providing counseling and career training to help these ‘fallen’ pastors deal with their guilt and to transition to new careers.”

Since the backlash of concerns, public details of The Lodge construction have been minimal. The Center was briefly mentioned at Dream Team Night last August, but detailed reports are reserved exclusively for Legacy members, a top-tier level of financial contributors. The next private report is due this autumn in time for Legacy Sunday, which is usually the second week of December. 

MinistryWatch contacted Highlands via phone and email for comment. Highlands replied to us and issued the following statement: “Church of the Highlands has a mission to help pastors and their families strengthen their marriage, ministry, and integrity. The Lodge at Grants Mill is designed as a retreat environment for these families – providing a place for prayer, rest, fellowship, personal development, and training. The Lodge will also be used as an event space and as accommodation for guest pastors visiting the church.”