Eric M. Simpson

California Mennonite Brethren minister ‘abused position,’ but church denied sexual abuse. Minister and church sued

In 2018, Eric Simpson (b. 1967), a former pastor at The Bridge Bible Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Bakersfield, California, was found by the church to have “abused his position, disqualifying him from holding a position of authority and leadership in the church” after a woman in the congregation reported abuse by Simpson in the context of a counseling relationship. She reported that both she and her husband had been manipulated by Simpson over an extended period of time, including that he had encouraged the couple to separate, and that when the woman was most vulnerable, he had groped and otherwise sexually imposed on her using spiritual justification.

Although the church acknowledged that Simpson abused his position, saying the “[counseling] relationship became an extremely inappropriate one, with both emotional and physical connection,” and “when confronted … Eric was deceptive and lied to cover up the depth of the sin,” Bridge pastor Jeff Gowling told the congregation that it had “stopped short of sexual connection.” Church leaders later acknowledged privately to the woman that Simpson had admitted the sexual contact she described.

The church allowed Simpson to resign and reportedly gave him a substantial severance and “outside financial support” (see complaint #52). They additionally hired Pastorserve to restore him to the congregation (see #50). The woman who had told church leaders about Simpson’s behavior, however, was reportedly subjected to “repeated interrogations by men for the purpose of classifying the sexualized behavior as a consensual affair rather than sexual abuse” (see #120), and was not informed of her right to an independent investigation by the denomination or that what she had reported was clearly defined by the denomination’s own sexual misconduct guidelines:

Misuse of authority and power as Sexual Misconduct. Sexual misconduct is a breech of trust that uses one’s ministry or professional role to gain advantage over an individual and exploiting that person in an abusive and unjust manner. It is also a violation of personal and professional boundaries … including … the misuse of one’s role or position to exploit a child, youth, or adult for one’s sexual gratification.

Abusive sexual misconduct refers to any unwanted or unsolicited sexualized behavior against a person. It includes any … act that forces an individual against her or his will to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention. These acts may be overt involving actual physical contact of a sexualized nature … or covert, as in sexual innuendo or inappropriate disclosures of a personal nature regarding sexual matters.

The church offered to pay for limited outside counseling for the woman and her husband, and it was in that counseling that their licensed Christian therapists helped them understand the nature of pastoral grooming. When the woman later met with Pastorserve, with the impression “that the outside company would be conducting an independent investigation,” she was reportedly “subjected to another round of questioning by a group consisting only of men,” who “claimed to have never heard of the [term sexual grooming]” (see #48).

The couple’s therapists then requested a meeting with the church elders to facilitate sharing additional information, and they relayed their understanding of Simpson’s actions as clergy abuse that was indeed sexual. They also relayed the couple’s repeated request that the church notify the congregation and other organizations where Simpson held positions of leadership.

Despite the therapists’ efforts, and despite the church leaders’ receipt of educational materials, there is no indication that they corrected the information given to the congregation or made any other notifications. They reportedly “stood firm on their claim that the relationship had been an affair between two consenting adults” (see #47).

In March 2019, while the woman who had reported Simpson’s behavior continued to ask the church to correct misinformation given to the congregation, Simpson started an organization called Hopester, through which he worked with continuation high school students and emancipated foster youth, among others. Through Hopester, Simpson reported having officiated at a marriage ceremony in 2019. Simpson also reported on starting a Bakersfield Re:generation program, a 12-step religious program that pairs people struggling with vulnerabilities such as sexual abuse with local support. As of this publication, Simpson’s wife was a Re:generation facilitator through Hopester, and Hopester was an implementing partner at CarePortal.

Simpson also continued his more than 17 years of work in ministry at Hume Lake Christian Camps and service on the board of the Kern County Network for Children. He was nominated as an officer of that board in October 2019.

Reporting to the denomination

Denominational guidelines of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (USMB), which were prepared in 2015 and updated in 2017, and which were available on the denominational website at the time the Bridge church learned of Simpson’s misconduct, state that allegations of sexual misconduct by a minister shall be reported by church leaders to the district minister. Further, if “it is deemed by those involved that a formal process would be more suitable [than an informal process], a formal process can be started by filing a written complaint” with the district minister.

Bridge church leaders reportedly did not contact the denomination regarding Simpson’s misconduct, nor did they notify the woman about the denominational guidelines and her right to an investigation (see #45). After learning about the guidelines independently, the woman contacted the district minister, listed online as Gary Wall, to formally request that the denomination process her report according to their guidelines.

Editor’s note: Although Gary Wall was USMB district minister at the time Simpson resigned, he had announced his departure earlier that year after being charged in Fresno County with solicitation of prostitution. Read MAP’s case for Gary Wall.

Interim district minister Dennis Fast replied three weeks after the woman’s inquiry, stating that as a result of leaving ministry at the Bridge, Simpson’s license from the Pacific District was no longer valid. Fast concluded, however, that “the Pacific District office does not become involved in these matters unless a church requests assistance from the Pacific District office.” USMB national director Don Morris also replied, concluding that “USMB would respond only if the church and the appropriate district conference both request such involvement. In other words, this is a situation that is out of USMB’s pre-determined purview.”

After the woman questioned the denominational leaders on their lack of an appeal process and was again denied their assistance, she sought legal assistance. Attorneys notified Bridge leadership and Simpson of viable charges of sexual battery by Simpson and negligence by the church and then filed a civil suit in July 2020.

Bridge leadership commented in local media coverage to say that although they were named as a defendant in the suit, they believed this to be a “private matter” between the plaintiff and Simpson. Coverage in Mennonite World Review noted the lawsuit’s claims that “rather than reporting the alleged sexual misconduct to the [USMB’s] Pacific District Conference, as outlined in denominational prevention and response guidelines,” church leaders “determined the incident was a private, consensual matter to be handled only by the church.”

More than a year later, in February 2022, the civil suit was settled. While the terms of the settlement are confidential, California law prohibits non-disclosure agreements that would prevent parties from sharing the basis of the claim.

In April 2022, Simpson was hired as director of the CityServe Educational Collaborative, a partnership program with Bakersfield College that “hosts education programs for adults seeking reentry into the workforce or higher education programs.” Local news coverage reported on some of the Educational Collaborative’s work, as described by Simpson, including a project offering “certification programs and eventually employment opportunities for those struggling to find work, whether the person is a veteran who’s struggling with re-entry to civilian life, someone who was recently incarcerated or someone experiencing homelessness” and that also helps students “who’d like to progress toward academic goals through the college.” Simpson shared broader goals for the program as well, including finding new partnerships throughout the community.

Pastor Wendell Vinson at CityServe reportedly did not return a request for comment from a local news reporter who asked about their employment of Simpson. MAP contacted Bakersfield College as well as CityServe for comment on their hiring practices and what policies they might have in place for employees with histories of sexual misconduct, but did not receive a reply.

Church-related positions

  • Ministry at Hume Lake Christian Camps, approx. 1988–2008, with ongoing consultation
  • Pastor of Community Transformation, Bridge Bible Church, approx. 2009–2018
  • Board member, Kern County Network for Children, 2013–2019
  • Missionary to Abundant Life Home Ministry, Thailand, Summer 2016
  • Sexual education volunteer for Kern County Department of Public Health, 2016
  • Founder and executive director of Hopester, including work with Tierra Del Sol High School, Dream Center, and Cityserve, March 2019–present

Documentation

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