The man who has led First Christian Church’s pastoral needs for nearly six years planned to share with the congregation Sunday his story of drug addiction and efforts to get clean, and announce his resignation.

Instead, senior minister Justin K. White’s arrest Friday on felony criminal charges of insurance fraud and contributing to the delinquency of a minor left church elders with the task of explaining details of the situation and their plans to move forward, while also assisting members who were upset and concerned by the developments.

Steve Wiggins, chairman of the church’s elder board, addressed worshipers at two Sunday morning services of the Columbus church at 531 5th St., after the opening organ prelude and the singing of “Amazing Grace” by the congregation.

During his address, which lasted about 11 minutes, Wiggins explained that White, 38, requested a meeting with the elders the evening of March 12, when he submitted a letter of resignation. Afterward, the elders accepted the resignation, effective March 13, he said.

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“When Justin made this decision, he was looking at what was best for the church and for him in the future,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins apologized to worshipers Sunday for not informing them sooner, explaining that White’s resignation was submitted just as the two-week school spring break was beginning.

The elders thought it would be best to wait on an announcement until the March 26 services, when larger attendances — the church normally averages 700-800 worshipers weekly — would be expected, and members could learn personally from White what he’s been dealing with for about two years, Wiggins said.

“It was a bad decision to delay it, and I apologize to you for that,” Wiggins told the congregation.

During his interview with The Republic, Wiggins said that the elders had agreed to allow White to speak Sunday because he seemed to be meeting certain stipulations they had set.

Wiggins told worshipers that White’s arrest Friday was why he was standing before them instead. White had been informed of the change in plan, he said.

Addiction and recovery

The elder explained that in July 2015, White was granted an extended leave of absence to deal with an opioid addiction that started soon after he was prescribed a prescription pain medication by a doctor he was seeing for headaches.According to the probable-cause affidavit that led to filing of criminal charges Friday, White told detectives that on July 27, 2015, he overdosed on heroin and that the drug-overdose antidote naloxone administered to him by police saved his life.

After the overdose, White’s family and church elders arranged for White to receive help at a Hazelden addiction-treatment center in Minnesota for about a month.

After completing the program and returning to Columbus, White eventually demonstrated to elders that he was ready to resume his role as senior minister, Wiggins said, but under strict requirements:

Weekly professional counseling with a counselor who specializes in addiction

Weekly accountability meetings

Random drug testing

Weekly monitoring of the situation with the elders

Wiggins said elders saw White getting healthy.

“Over the next 18 months, Justin thrived in recovery, and God used his preaching and teaching in a deeper and more effective level than we had seen before. His recovery became a blessing for him and the church,” Wiggins said.

Burglary reported

On Dec. 18, 2016, White claimed that his home had been robbed while he was at church preaching. He said a television, Xbox consoles and games and computers, and money from his daughter’s piggy bank were stolen. That resulted in an outpouring of support — including replacement of the TV — by church members and friends.“It was astonishing for us as elders to watch how the family of God at First Christian Church responded to the Whites’ needs and to care for them. You exhibited great love and generosity to them. You guys exhibited the true love of Christ to them,” Wiggins said.

However, on Dec. 24, White advised the elders that he was being accused by police of planning the robbery, Wiggins told worshipers.

The probable-cause affidavit accuses White of having the help of a minor in the burglary, and having the minor come to the house and make it appear that he stole the items.

During an interview with detectives, White denied planning the burglary, the probable-cause affidavit states.

The elders met with White and listened to his explanation, and decided it was appropriate to keep White in active ministry, but monitor the situation, Wiggins said.

The elders chairman added that because of the stress of the investigation and that White thought he was unjustly accused, the senior minister first turned to alcohol and then sustained a second drug overdose.

The elders placed White on an indefinite leave of absence in mid-January, Wiggins said. The elders also set up a plan, he added, that included:

A group of elders meeting weekly with White

White meeting with his addiction counselor weekly

Participating in a local recovery group two to three times per week

“Our desire as elders all along through this process has been to protect the church and the congregation, protect and restore Justin, and keep things as normal as possible,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins advised worshipers at the church to not be distracted by controversy and rumors, and keep their focus on Jesus. He then led the congregation in prayer, asking for blessings and comfort for the White family, and for God’s wisdom and guidance during this situation.

While the church has begun the process of finding a new senior minister, Wiggins told the congregation that the Whites have not been abandoned by the church.

“They’re very much in our prayers and concerns, and we have expressed to them unconditionally our desire to walk with them through this difficult time,” the elders chairman said.

Sunday’s sermon, coincidentally and pre-planned as part of a series, Wiggins said, stressed the themes of loving one another and forgiveness.

A second elder, Chad Pruitt, concluded the service by saying he was thankful for White’s years of service, and that White often said, “We are imperfect people serving a perfect God.”

Wiggins said a prayer event at 5 p.m. Sunday had been planned before Friday’s revelations.

Wiggins said reactions from worshipers Sunday was mixed. Most seemed OK with the decision, while others said they were hurt not to be informed sooner, he said.

“Everyone is praying for him and his family,” said Trudy Frost, who began attending the church in December and came to the second service Sunday with her husband Jeff.

“We came (Sunday) to support the church, and Justin and his family,” Trudy Frost said.

A telephone message left Sunday for White seeking comment was not returned.

What's next

Following the resignation of Justin K. White as senior minister of First Christian Church in Columbus:

  • The elders of First Christian are beginning a search to find a new senior minister.
  • Starting next Sunday and for seven weeks, retired pastor John Caldwell will preach a sermon series at First Christian about the attributes of Jesus. Caldwell, now a church consultant who helps churches in transition, was senior pastor for 36 years at Kingsway Christian Church in Avon.
  • White will have an initial hearing on his arrest charges of insurance fraud and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Bartholomew Circuit Court, but that has not been set yet.
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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.