Winnipeg church struggles to cope as pastor convicted of arranging to meet minor for sex awaits sentencing

A Winnipeg church is still struggling to cope after one of its prominent pastors was convicted of trying to arrange to have sex with a minor last summer.

Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church still processing allegations against former pastor

Nathan George Rieger, 53, worked as a pastor at the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church on Main Street. (School of Mercy and Justice/Facebook)

A Winnipeg church is still struggling to cope after one of its prominent pastors was convicted of trying to arrange to have sex with a minor last summer.

Nathan Rieger appeared in a California courtroom Wednesday to be sentenced, but the hearing was postponed until Feb. 20, an official with the area district attorney's office said via email. He faces up to four years in prison.

Officers in Arroyo Grande, Calif., about 130 kilometres northwest of Santa Barbara, arrested Rieger on Aug. 10.

A jury found Rieger guilty in December of trying to arrange to meet a minor for lewd purposes. He had planned the meeting online, not knowing it was actually with an undercover officer posing as a 15-year-old girl.

Before his arrest, Rieger worked for 19 years at the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church on Main Street, where he looked after pastoral activities. He resigned after being charged last summer.

Reiger was arrested on Aug. 10 by the Arroyo Grande Police Department. (Arroyo Grande Police Department)

"I'm absolutely gutted," David Ruis, national director of the Association of Vineyard Churches Canada, told CBC Up to Speed host Ismaila Alfa on Wednesday. 

"This is a serious breach of what we would see as the heart of Christ."

'Where is God in all of this?'

Ruis considered Rieger a friend. He said the original news was devastating enough, but the conviction in December added "another layer of grief and sadness."

Many Vineyard congregations across Canada are still processing the allegations and it's prompted leadership to re-focus on transparency and examine internal systems of accountability, said Ruis.

Whatever else you do, make sure you're finding someone to talk to about this- Cheryl Braun, pastor

"The community has been great, just a lot of rallying around worship and prayer and self reflection, as well as, as a community, what could we have done different?" he asked.

"Where is God in all of this … is a great question," he said. 

"How could we have walked this far together and not seen maybe certain things or been more aware of dynamics, and why didn't the Lord reveal that to us, you know, in a more profound way before it came to this level of pain? But again, you wrestle that through and you discover God in the midst of it."

'It was a shock'

Cheryl Braun, pastor of Glenlea Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, understands that pain well.

She was a member of the Bergthaler Mennonite Church in Gretna, Man., when her former pastor was given a five-year sentence for charges of voyeurism, accessing child pornography and possessing child pornography.

"[I] felt like this was a person that I could trust and get along well with," recalled Braun, who worked closely with the pastor on church committees. "It was a shock to hear that there was this whole other side."

The pain morphed into anger, confusion, denial and a sense of betrayal for some in the church. The women especially felt a sense of violation, Braun said, and she personally began to question whether she was in any way responsible.

"You wrestle with that and regardless of whether or not your image or a video of you exists — you still feel like you've been victimized," she said. "Here's a person that you've placed your trust in who has violated that."

Outside help

The church eventually brought in an experienced counsellor from outside to help members work through what happened. Through a series of sessions, that counsellor helped members recognize their emotions as part of the cycle of grief, which can evolve and change in unpredicatble ways.

She recalled breaking down in tears the day the pastor was released from prison. It was a setback, but over the course of a few years Braun began to heal, she said.

Braun imagines members of the Vineyard church are feeling a range of emotions right now, all processing the allegations at different paces. She encourages them to understand it all within the framework of grief, and advises members to keep patient and talk through the pain.

"Whatever else you do, make sure you're finding someone to talk to about this. That was one of the best things that I think we did," she said.

"When you start talking about it you can take some of its power away in your life."

'Trust hopefully begins to grow'

Despite the blow to congregation morale, Ruis said donations to the Winnipeg church haven't necessarily suffered. Some people have even stepped forward and "put a little more into the coffers" to ease the stress of the situation. 

Ruis acknowledges some may question whether they can trust the church in light of Rieger's conviction, but he hopes over time that can change. 

"You just can't flip a switch and it's there," said Ruis.

"We're not just trying to tighten things up or come up with quick answers or solutions, and slowly, I think, as people see us walking through that process, trust hopefully begins to grow."

With files from Bryce Hoye, Sam Samson and Wendy Parker