June 7, 2023

Duluth's Vineyard Church suspends youth pastor during police investigation into alleged assaults

on Feb 19, 2023

DULUTH — An assistant pastor at Vineyard Church has been suspended and his father, the church's senior pastor, has been put on leave while authorities investigate allegations of abuse and coverup.

In a video posted to Vineyard's YouTube page on Sunday, church member Gerry Nierengarten said officials from the church went to law enforcement after they received anonymous reports of the assistant pastor's misconduct — but that the investigation was stalled until victims came forward on social media.

The Duluth Police Department confirmed that it is investigating complaints of assault — and encouraged anyone with a similar experience to call 911 to file a report or to call 218-726-1931, the helpline for Program Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA).

Nierengarten did not address specific allegations or the number of potential victims, but said they were from "several years ago."

"We need to preserve the integrity of the investigation, as well as protect the privacy of the reporting victims," said Nierengarten, who is part of a four-person in-house special committee looking into the reports, along with an independent Virginia-based nonprofit Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.

The Star Tribune generally does not name the accused until they have been charged.

Former church member Myrissa Overfors said on Facebook that she was sexually assaulted by the assistant pastor in 2007 — when she was 16 years old and her father had just died. Overfors said she went to the assistant pastor's mother, who was then also a senior pastor at the church, but now works for Vineyard USA. But Overfors' claims were ignored by the leaders, she said.

"I was accused of having issues," Overfors wrote.

In another post, she said the details of the sexual assault will remain private — for now. She is working with investigators and plans to tell her story later.

"I think this may be a long battle for me and his other victims," Overfors said. "Send us all positive thoughts and prayers if you believe in the upcoming months. I'm sure we will all need it.

"If you have been a victim of this predator, you are not alone," she wrote.

Overfors declined to comment beyond what she has posted on Facebook because she doesn't want to interfere with the investigation, she said.

Vineyard Church is a national movement that started in the mid-1970s. It claims a casual, contemporary, spontaneous approach to spirituality. The Duluth branch, on Arrowhead Road where the pastors worked, has a coffee bar on site and its Sunday music is performed by a rock band. Set lists are sometimes posted on Facebook, with links to Spotify playlists.

The church is promising transparency during the investigation, with updates posted on its website.

"In the midst of things, you have to make sure you have your priorities right," Nierengarten said. "We are committed to Jesus Christ. We are committed to the truth and we are committed to putting victims first."

According to Vineyard USA's website, there are a handful of branches within Duluth and surrounding communities.