Northview Church defends hiring pastor accused of leadership abuse

Christian Post [Washington DC]

July 3, 2023

By Leonardo Blair

Northview Church in Indiana is defending the hiring of CJ Johnson to serve as their senior pastor in 2021 despite former members of the now defunct Southland City Church in Minnesota, where he served in a similar role, accusing him of leadership abuse in an environment that also lacked financial transparency.

The allegations against Johnson were first highlighted in a report by Current in which a number of former members and employees of both Southland City Church and Northview Church raise concerns about what they characterize as a troubling pattern of abuse by the megachurch pastor.

Johnson, 38, is accused of “speaking dishonestly from the pulpit, lacking transparency about church finances and threatening or manipulating those who questioned his ideas or leadership” according to Current.

Johnson’s alleged abuse allegedly forced a majority of Southland’s staff to quit without new jobs lined up within a couple of weeks in late 2020. 

When asked by The Christian Post about the allegations raised in the report, Jason Pongratz, executive pastor at Northview Church, said elders of the congregation had conducted a “full due diligence” and worked hard to ensure he was the person God wanted them to hire. 

“Everyone involved worked hard to ensure that the selection of the senior pastor was someone they could confidently stand behind as the person God has for the church for the next chapter in Northview’s history. The leadership of Northview Church did not take this task lightly. Northview’s elders conducted a full due diligence process regarding Pastor CJ,” Pongratz said in a statement to CP that was previously shared with Current.

He further framed the allegations against Johnson as a “distortion of truth” by some former staff members at Southland City Church.

“Recently, members of Pastor CJ’s former staff have reached out to own their parts of the distortion of truth and have begun reconciling with Pastor CJ.  However, we believe that it is in the best interest of all involved for our church to respect the former staff members’ privacy and give them the space to heal with Pastor CJ,” Pongratz said.

A spokesperson for Northview Church also told CP that they plan on addressing the allegations against Johnson “more directly” next week.

Michelle Creasman, who served as an elder at Southland from 2018 to December 2020, told Current that Johnson ran Southland into the ground, and she is speaking out now because she wants to hold him accountable and sound the alarm for the 8,800 people who worship across Northview Church’s 12 campuses weekly.

“My motivation is not to aid in a hit piece on CJ but rather hold him accountable at his new church and also educate the congregation so they can make an informed decision on where they call home,” Creasman said. “His actions impacted many people who are still recouping from what happened whether it be emotional, spiritual or financially, so I wanted to make sure this was brought to light.”

Josh Johnson who attended Southland with his family for several years in the 2010s, explained in the report that when Southland moved into their own building in 2017, members were constantly pressured to donate money to the church which made him worried about how the funds were being spent.

“I went directly to CJ, questioning how the monetary donations (were) being distributed within and outside of Southland,” he told Current. “CJ directed me to Ryan Fox, who was in control of the church’s finances. He would not return my calls, texts, or emails. I would get crickets. When I would corner them in person, they would deflect or refuse to answer questions regarding money.”

Former Southland members recall hearing Johnson once claim from the pulpit that a member had donated $1 million to the church which wasn’t true. Johnson used the claim, according to the report, to influence church members to donate and it worked.

Creasman told Current that she was shocked by Johnson’s claim because the $1 million was not a gift but a loan that was made to the church by her family and the money was expected to be repaid.

“Several times CJ got up on that platform and he told the congregation that someone gave them a million dollars. So that’s when we were first like, ‘Oh, that’s not correct. Why is he saying that?’” she said. 

Southland’s former volunteer head of security, Bob Clatterbuck, said when he questioned the $1 million loan from Creasman’s family he was threatened.

“The next thing I know, I get called in by CJ, and he wants me to come into the church,” Clatterbuck said. “He basically threatened to kick me out of the church. His words were something to the effect of, ‘I’ve asked people to leave for less.’” 

Creasman said she and her husband were invited to join Southland’s elder board after their family made the $1 million loan and they got a behind the scenes look at what was happening at the church, including in late 2020 when many employees quit.

She said she and her husband reached out to the Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God, which oversees Southland’s denomination in the area and during a review of the church’s operations by the Assemblies of God, she decided to step down because denomination officials refused to place Johnson on a leave of absence.

“I resigned because I saw the Assemblies of God, all they cared about was their name,” Creasman said. “They’re supporting CJ. They’re not even doing any discipline.” 

She said her husband decided to stay on the board because he wanted to make sure the church did an audit and was willing to fund it but Emmanuel Christian Center, another Assemblies of God church, decided to do it as a part of a takeover of the church when it became unsustainable for Johnson and his team.

Southland was removed as a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in 2020 for not meeting the requirements of the organization that provides accreditation to Christian nonprofits that comply with standards for accountability, transparency, fundraising and board governance.

Several former Northview employees and attendees told Current that they believe Northview is on the same trajectory as Southland under Johnson’s leadership. One former employee who requested anonymity compared Northview to the Titanic.

“We are on this thing that feels (comfortable), yet those who are in the belly of the ship know that we’ve hit something and there’s water gushing in, but nobody’s acknowledging it,” the former employee said. “I care about Northview, and I don’t want it to sink. But I think it’s sinking, and if there’s not enough humility, grace, and willingness to have this conversation, it’s going to go down.”