Pastoring ‘Criminal Pastor’ Chris Avell from Dad’s Place in Bryan, Ohio

Chris Avell & Wife Lisa

A decade ago, my wife Deb and I were able to retire from our respective careers and spend the next decade traveling (other than during COVID) domestically and internationally.  We met scores of people over those years and often the conversation would turn to where Deb and I were from. We would share with them about Bryan, OH, located 15 minutes from Indiana and 15 minutes from Michigan. We would mention Bryan is the home of “Dum-Dum” suckers, and that the “Etch-a-Sketch” was originally produced in Bryan, and that during the time that we were raising our family, Bryan was often listed as one of the top 100 small cities in the USA to live in! I would not be surprised if we had that sort of conversation several hundred times over the years!

Recently though, when having that same conversation with people I have met, they have immediately recognized Bryan, OH from Bryan being in the national and international news currently! And their impression is consistently negative toward the city government! It is quite amazing how big the story of Pastor Chris Avell, Dad’s Place Church, and Bryan, Ohio has become.

I want to provide some context before I share just a few thoughts on the controversy itself.  In the mid-1980’s, my family and I moved to Bryan, OH where I began a ministry at New Hope Community Church (though it would be a few years before that church name was in place). The church averaged about 50 people on a Sunday when I arrived. I was the first full-time pastor the church attempted to support themselves, and this was my first full-time ministry. In many ways, we both took a huge risk on the other!

But God was very gracious to us! Over the following almost three decades, New Hope experienced an outpouring of God’s Blessing. Attendance increased almost every year, reaching around 900 people a Sunday, at our high point. Those calling New Hope their church home was almost double that attendance number. To accommodate that growth, six building projects took place during those decades increasing square footage from around 4,000 square feet to around 50,000 square feet. Amazingly, all those projects were built debt-free as we refused to borrow to build. God was so good to us and did so much more than I possibly could have imagined.

There are so many people stories I could share from those years of people who became a part of New Hope. These words though will focus on a family who began attending in 2009, Chris Avell and his wife Lisa.  Chris had been invited to attend by an oureach pastor who was a part of New Hope.  I can remember the Sunday Chris and Lisa Avell and their family first visited New Hope. I met them in our lobby area and introduced myself. It was an enjoyable time. I had no idea at that time that Chris considered himself an atheist.

Well, the Avells returned the following Sunday, and the next, and the next, and became regular attenders. I became more acquainted with them over those weeks.  Eventually Chris and Lisa accepted Christ as their Savior, and it was my privilege to baptize them. They began to serve in the church. They joined groups. They took classes. In many ways, they epitomized the story I had seen happen over and over with others.

Chris became a part of one of the men’s groups I personally led. I remember being amazed at how well Chris knew the Bible (by this time I knew he had been an atheist). I would later learn that Chris, on his journey to becoming a Christian and afterwards, had basically skimmed the entire Bible a couple of times to personally investigate the claims of Christ and this movement called Christianity.

One day I took Chris and Lisa to lunch, and it was then that I learned about his life journey in far more detail. He told me how that first Sunday when he came to New Hope, he expected to have his beliefs that the church was a scam affirmed, but that did not happen.  He told me on his second Sunday, when I greeted his entire family by their names, that he thought I might be a con artist. He told me that as his family kept attending, he became convinced that I really believed what I was preaching and teaching, and he began reading the Bible to investigate on his own. He told me that in his business, he had given up many of his clients, as their businesses he was assisting them with, did not honor the Lord. He told me that he had thoughts of going into ministry, as he wanted to help others experience the life change that he had. It was a wonderful and encouraging lunch! That was the day I learned a lot about Chris Avell, and the #1 certitude I left that lunch with, was that Chris was sold out to Jesus Christ.

Over time Chris joined a group of pastors from Bryan who had asked me to mentor them. We would meet every other week at Seasons Bistro. Though some of the others had been to Bible College and Seminary, Chris was not intimidated at all. One of the aspects I noticed over time was how Chris would never complain, how he did not criticize others, and just how positive an attitude he exhibited. I think this stood out to me as some of the others in the group tended to complain a lot about their churches and criticize their people.

Over the following years, Chris would accept opportunities to preach at several churches. He became a pastor of a Bryan area small church and served there a couple of years. He accepted opportunities to be the speaker at summer camps, and special events. But during this entire time, I know his heart was focused on the goal of someday starting a church to serve the less fortunate of the Bryan community.

Well, in 2018, Chris launched Dad’s Place Church to accomplish his goal. Deb and I have been financial supporters of Dad’s Place Church. I have taught classes at Dad’s Place Church. We have donated furnishings to Dad’s Place Church. And during the almost six years of Dad’s Place existence, I have watched Pastor Chris represent Jesus Christ selflessly. He has loved people at a level that is exceptional. He has sacrificed his limited resources for the people of Dad’s Place. In fact, I have cautioned Chris on more than one occasion that he cannot care for every person at the level he does without it taking a toll on him. I have worked with hundreds of pastors over my career, and I have never seen someone love his people more than Pastor Chris has!

The above context brings us to where we are today. The City of Bryan over past months has taken significant legal action against Pastor Chris and Dad’s Place. I remember speaking with Chris after some of this action had been taken against him, and Chris being somewhat mystified as to why the city was doing so. I know it seemed like a David and Goliath situation to him with the City of Bryan having all their resources and personnel and departments.

Then the City of Bryan’s action came across the radar of the United States Department of Justice, who then contacted First Liberty (a non-profit religious liberty law firm) to contact Pastor Chris. As I have followed reports regarding this from around the world and watched Chris and his lawyers on numerous national news shows, I have wondered if the David and Goliath roles have been reversed. I have marveled watching how well Pastor Chris has handled himself speaking to audiences of millions. I am confident he never imagined himself in such a scenario, but I have had dozens of colleagues affirm how well he has communicated in each setting and how gracious he has even been toward the City of Bryan within these settings. It strikes me that God is honoring Chris’s love for people throughout this unfortunate time.

I have been asked my opinion on this entire matter several times. When I respond, I do not delve into all the details. I simply respond by stating that with the way I know Chris, I don’t understand why efforts were not made to sit down and meet with him. Many news reports and some court filings state that Chris made several phone calls to the Mayor’s Office requesting to discuss this matter and none of his calls were returned. The Press Release the City of Bryan released does not deny those calls happened. Why the city took the legal steps they did against Dad’s Place and Pastor Chris versus far less adversarial options is something that has not been explained by the city.

Now this entire matter has escalated to the courts, including the Federal Courts as First Liberty has come alongside Pastor Chris and Dad’s Place Church. The extensive court filing First Liberty initiated is both enlightening and disappointing in how it disputes so much of the city’s press release and adds relevant information not found in the press release. There is much in those documents that I do have the ability to verify, but there are some claims the city makes in their press release that seem suspect or overstated to me. Perhaps the trial, if it moves forward in Federal Court, will bring the truth to light. The documents are public so they can be accessed by any of you reading this who are interested in reading those documents.

My experience over the years though is that once the legal arena is involved, one never knows where something like this matter will end up. This could certainly get more out of hand than it is already. That saddens me as I have the firm belief that this entire matter could have been resolved between Dad’s Place Church and the City of Bryan with no court involvement.

I do pray for all parties involved. I pray for all the people that Dad’s Place Church is caring for. And I pray for the day to return that when I am asked where I am from, when I say Bryan, Ohio, that “Dum-Dums” and “Etch-a-Sketch” are all the farther the conversation goes!