As 2020 nears, I have realized that I’ve been “in ministry” for about 20 years. My oldest child is now 10. I decided it was time that I write out some of what I have learned so that my children (in the future) can read my words about my experience in churches. My hope is that from these trials my children and others can see that pain and suffering is part of the human experience, and that God’s grace can sustain you in times of hardship.

In January of 2000 I went to work at Williams Creek Baptist Church in Axtell, TX. I was 19, and was hired as the youth minister. The pastor was a few years older than me, named Matt Baker. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I felt there was something odd about the guy. Years later Matt Baker was convicted of murdering his wife Kari. Those events eventually became the subject of a book, a 48hrs episode, and part of a netflix show. I’d like to tell the story from my side. I wasn’t part of the intrigue around the murder, but I do remember the family well – as I spent several months working side by side with Matt. Up front I want to say that Kari and the girls always seemed great.

Kari was always the life of the party! My picture from 2000.

I met Kari’s parents a few times, and they seemed like good people. The story that follows isn’t about them, it’s about dealing with Matt.

The first time I met Matt, I remember him getting out of the car and I immediately thought “that guy doesn’t seem like a pastor.” I dismissed the thought because I was 19, and figured that I had a lot to learn. Besides, it wasn’t anything in particular it was just a feeling about a look in his eyes.

After I was hired, I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He was a forward-thinking guy. He wanted the church to grow. He made friends in the community very easily, and attempted to show me how to gain influence as well. It was exactly this point that bothered me. Matt didn’t seem to genuinely desire to be friends with these people, he seemed to have another motive. Later I would decide that he was the sort of person who used others to get what he wanted. But at 19, I didn’t understand. I just knew something seemed “off.”

Then it happened. One Sunday he stood in the pulpit and announced that another church had offered him a position he couldn’t refuse. He phrased it in terms of being better for his family, and being able to minister to more people. But to me it was a shocking move. It seemed like he was asking our church to match the offer from another church. To my surprise the committee on committees (this was an old-style Baptist church) decided to increase his pay to keep him.

It was around this time that Matt had been elected to the Axtell School Board. This too seemed odd because he wasn’t the sort of guy I envisioned making wise decisions for an entire school system. He yelled at referees during games. He yelled more at the referees louder than he yelled for the home team. It wasn’t the sort of protest that arises when there is a clearly missed call. It was the sort of berating that I later learned comes from a deep-seated anger. In the meantime this sort of referee bashing continued to help him gain friendships. People thought of him as a “down to earth” kind of guy. They said things like “he’s a real sort of person who doesn’t act too holy.” Those comments bothered me. I’d grown up around men of God who acted with grace and humility (See Phil 2:3-5 “Now finally, all of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble”). Matt Baker did not fit that mold.

Sometime in that summer or early fall of 2000 Matt and Kari announced on a Sunday that after a lot of prayer and consideration they would be moving to another church… It was the same story, second verse. This time the church leaders called their bluff and let the Bakers walk. About a week or two later, Matt called me and tried to talk me into going to the church he now worked at in Riesel, TX. He talked about how it would be “more money,” etc. Only this time he used a phrase that soured me. He said “it’s the kind of job that’s the next step up the ladder for you.” Those words infuriated me and I told him “no thanks, I’m not into that.” I asked him not to call me about that sort of stuff again. He didn’t.

Several people who attended the church where I still worked now faced a decision that they never should have faced. Matt was actively trying to recruit them to a church about 12min down the road, and away from his old church. One lady made the mistake of telling 19 year old me that Matt had asked her to go with him. I plainly told her to leave. That was one of the best things I have ever done in anger. I didn’t say anything mean to her, I just told her “if that’s how you feel you should leave.” She looked at me in shock then. I never saw her in the church again.

Over the next few years, things at Williams Creek Baptist Church improved. Many people still stayed in touch with Matt. More did eventually leave. After a few years, when I graduated from Baylor, I left to go to Fort Worth. I kept in touch with a few folks, but many of those friendships faded.

In 2006, I started getting phone calls from Axtell people again. They were telling me “the news” about Kari. She had been found dead, they wanted to let me know. I counseled with a few of them on the phone. Then later one Axtell family let me know that Kari’s parents thought Matt had done it. I kept up with the developments in the news. I told anyone that would listen that I was going to reserve judgement until the trial was finished. That attitude did not win me friends. People quit calling.

When Matt was convicted I was not surprised. By that point I had learned that the “weird feeling” I had when I met Matt was the Holy Spirit telling me not to trust the guy (Scripture is pretty clear about the way believers should act: “8 Now finally, all of you should be like-minded and sympathetic, should love believers, and be compassionate and humble”). I just wasn’t mature enough to know what was going on. If I had understood in that moment, I would not have gone through the somewhat hurtful experiences in the church that I did. The strange thing is, I think that going through that time of hardship helped me understand that churches are made up of all kinds of people. Some are good and some are not. God’s grace is enough to sustain us (me) even in the hard times when we have to deal with church people who are not good people.

Now let me say something that will shock some of you. If Matt Baker were to repent of his behavior and start really following Jesus I would help him. I wouldn’t like it, but I’m called to help people who want to follow Jesus learn how to do it. If Jesus can change the apostle Paul, he can change Matt Baker.

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