When Steve Poe, longtime Northview Church senior pastor, introduced his successor, CJ Johnson, at a meeting in August 2021 for church members to approve the hire, Poe told the congregation that rumors circulating online about financial fraud and other misconduct at CJ Johnson’s previous church in Minnesota had been fully vetted and found to be untrue.
“We are 110 percent convinced that there’s absolutely nothing to these false allegations,” Poe said at the meeting. “That’s all they are.”
Several people, however, who served at CJ Johnson’s former church, Southland City Church in the Minneapolis suburb of Lakeville, tell a different story, one they said they suspect is repeating itself – at least in part – at Northview.
They accuse CJ Johnson, 38, of speaking dishonestly from the pulpit, lacking transparency about church finances and threatening or manipulating those who questioned his ideas or leadership. They watched as most of Southland’s staff quit – without new jobs lined up – within a couple of weeks in late 2020.
Michelle Creasman, who served as an elder at Southland from 2018 to December 2020, said she feels it’s important for those attending Northview to know what happened at CJ Johnson’s previous church, which ceased to exist soon after he left.
“My motivation is not to aid in a hit piece on CJ but rather hold him accountable at his new church and also educate the congregation so they can make an informed decision on where they call home,” Creasman said. “His actions impacted many people who are still recouping from what happened whether it be emotional, spiritual or financially, so I wanted to make sure this was brought to light.”
Northview, whose website listed 145 people on staff as of June 16, has also experienced a staff exodus, though not as extreme, since CJ Johnson began working there in the summer of 2021. Several former Northview employees and attendees said they are aware of more than 40 church staffers who have left their jobs because of issues or concerns – which echo some of those raised at Southland – about the new senior pastor, and they believe that total to be an undercount.
One former Northview employee, who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution and continued work in local ministry, compared Northview’s situation to the fate of the Titanic.
“We are on this thing that feels (comfortable), yet those who are in the belly of the ship know that we’ve hit something and there’s water gushing in, but nobody’s acknowledging it,” the former employee said. “I care about Northview, and I don’t want it to sink. But I think it’s sinking, and if there’s not enough humility, grace and willingness to have this conversation, it’s going to go down.”
Northview, a nondenominational megachurch based in Carmel with – according to its website – more than 8,800 weekly attendees among its dozen campuses, declined multiple times over several months to allow CJ Johnson, Poe, church elders or anyone else from its leadership team to be interviewed for this story. Northview leaders also declined to respond to specific questions sent by Current.
In a prepared statement sent to Current on behalf of Northview’s elders, executive team and Poe, Executive Pastor Jason Pongratz said the church’s elders conducted a full “due diligence process” when hiring CJ Johnson and that church leadership “did not take this task lightly.”
“Everyone involved has worked hard to ensure that the selection of the senior pastor was a person that they could confidently stand behind as the person God has for the church for the next chapter in Northview’s history. What has been a great turn in the story is that members of Pastor CJ’s former staff have recently reached out to own their parts of the distortion of truth and have begun the reconciliation process with Pastor CJ,” the statement read. “We believe that it is in the best interest of all involved for our church to respect the former staff members’ privacy and give them the space to heal with Pastor CJ. We do not wish to reopen old wounds or compromise the privacy of those involved. At this time, and for this reason, Northview will not be commenting further or providing any additional information.”
Northview elders, who finalized the decision to hire CJ Johnson, either didn’t respond to Current’s request for comment or directed Current to Pongratz for a response. Pongratz declined to comment beyond the statement he provided.
In the August 2021 Northview member meeting, however, CJ Johnson addressed the allegations posted in several reviews of Southland City Church on Google – which since have been removed. He said the negative reviews began appearing soon after Southland fired an executive pastor, identified by several former Southland attendees as Ryan Fox, who CJ Johnson said, “left really poorly.” CJ Johnson did not explain how Fox “left really poorly” in the meeting and did not respond to questions from Current about it.
In that same meeting, Poe read a letter purportedly from Southland’s elders stating that the severance agreement with Fox contained standard nondisclosure clauses, meaning Southland could not share with its congregation specific reasons for the termination.
“This resulted in much frustration among the executive pastor’s family, friends and fellow staff,” the letter stated. “Within days of his termination, accusations against Pastor CJ began to circulate online.”
Fox did not respond to Current’s multiple requests for comment. Northview declined to provide a copy of the letter from Southland’s elders. No one contacted by Current who was on the Southland elder board at the time CJ Johnson left for Northview agreed to comment for this story. Creasman said her husband, who remained a Southland elder until the church dissolved, did not sign the letter or know it existed before it was read at Northview.
While the late-2020 firing of Fox may have been the final straw that spurred some of the events mentioned in the Google reviews – such as the mass exodus of Southland’s staff – problems at the church began well before that.
Josh Johnson said his young family attended Southland for several years in the 2010s, helping to launch the youth group and volunteering in various capacities. They got to know CJ Johnson and his wife, Kristin, fairly well, he said, with his kids even babysitting the pastor’s children.
It was after Southland moved into its own building in 2017 that Josh Johnson said he began to develop serious concerns. He said there was constant pressure to donate money to the church, leading him to question how the funds were allocated and spent.
“I went directly to CJ, questioning how the monetary donations (were) being distributed within and outside of Southland,” Josh Johnson said. “CJ directed me to Ryan Fox, who was in control of the church’s finances. He would not return my calls, texts or emails. I would get crickets. When I would corner them in person, they would deflect or refuse to answer questions regarding money.”
Greg Reis, who attended Southland from 2016 to 2018, had a similar experience. He said his concern about the leadership at the church sparked after CJ Johnson – from the pulpit – embellished a story in 2016 about Reis making a donation.
“He (effectively) said, ‘It was so big, I reached out to Greg, and I had a conversation with him to make sure he wanted to donate this much money,’” Reis said. “For a moment, I thought, ‘What? He never called me,’ and I just let it go. But he used that (claim) to raise a whole bunch of money, and it worked. After we bought a building, he told us that the weekend when he made that announcement, the money just started rolling in. So that was the first lie.”
Eventually, after several incidents he said he found concerning, in 2018 Reis decided to confront pastors CJ Johnson and Fox about Southland’s finances.
“We wanted to have a conversation about money. We were in there for a good hour, and we didn’t get anywhere. We asked, ‘Who makes these decisions? Who decides to spend money on this and that?’ We could not get an answer out of them,” Reis said. “At the end of our conversation, it was basically, ‘If you can’t trust me with your money, you can’t trust me.’ And we were done that day. We quit going (to Southland).”
‘I’ve asked people to leave for less’
Creasman, the former Southland elder, said she also was shocked by a story she heard CJ Johnson tell from the pulpit during a Southland service. Creasman said that in mid-2018, CJ Johnson described how, a year earlier, a family in the church had given $1 million just in time to secure financing for Southland to move into a new building.
She knew the story was about her family, but she also knew it involved a $1 million loan – not a gift. Her brother had taken out a line of credit backed by the equity in a storage business their family owned, and they fully expected it to be paid back.
“Several times CJ got up on that platform and he told the congregation that someone gave them a million dollars. So that’s when we were first like, ‘Oh, that’s not correct. Why is he saying that?’” she said.
Creasman wasn’t the only one to question CJ Johnson’s story about the $1 million gift. Bob Clatterbuck, Southland’s former volunteer head of security, said the story about the funding kept changing, so, on behalf of others who also had questions about the situation, he decided to ask CJ Johnson and Fox for clarity.
“The next thing I know, I get called in by CJ, and he wants me to come into the church,” Clatterbuck said. “He basically threatened to kick me out of the church. His words were something to the effect of, ‘I’ve asked people to leave for less.’”
Current could not vet Clatterbuck’s comment, because Northview would not make CJ Johnson available to do so.
Clatterbuck said CJ Johnson didn’t give a reason for the threat other than stating that his questions were causing problems or divisions in the church. Clatterbuck said he was caught off guard and apologized, but the incident left him unsettled.
Later that year, Clatterbuck attended a meeting for volunteers where he said CJ Johnson discussed a system he used to rank church attendees, telling the volunteers to essentially ignore those ranked lowest, who are not very engaged in the church. Josh Johnson also attended the meeting and similarly described the ranking system.
That meeting, during which Clatterbuck said he was also troubled by how Southland staff members appeared to be “worshiping CJ,” was “the last straw” for Clatterbuck. He and his family soon left the church.
He emailed Poe in October 2021 and again in February 2022 to ensure Poe “knew what he was walking into” by hiring CJ Johnson.
“When (a new pastor) is coming in, if they’ve left the wake of destruction like CJ did, they need to know about it. There’s a lot of reconciliation that should take place before he steps into any leadership,” Clatterbuck told Current. “I had already talked to (many people) by that time who had told me their stories and why they won’t go back to church.”
‘All they cared about was their name’
After loaning the church $1 million, Creasman said she and her husband were asked to join Southland’s elder board. Their position gave them an inside look on happenings at the church, including in late 2020 when Fox was fired and most of the other employees quit.
With the church in crisis after losing most of its staff, the Creasmans reached out to the Minnesota District Council of the Assemblies of God, which governed Southland’s denomination in the area. Its leaders conducted interviews with remaining and former staff members and soon presented the findings to the church.
It was during that process Creasman stepped down from the elder board, as she could not agree with the Assemblies of God’s decision to not put CJ Johnson on a leave of absence.
“I resigned because I saw the Assemblies of God, all they cared about was their name,” Creasman said. “They’re supporting CJ. They’re not even doing any discipline.”
After she stepped down as an elder, Creasman said her husband remained on the board because he said he believed the situation had not been fully investigated. He wanted to ensure an audit was done and was prepared to pay for it himself.
Another organization took care of that, however. Emmanuel Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church in the area, agreed to fund an audit after it helped transition what remained of Southland – which had shrunk in attendance as well as staffing – into a new campus of its own in the summer of 2021.
The audit was not complete before CJ Johnson was hired by Northview, according to Creasman and other sources. Current asked ECC and Northview officials for a copy of the audit but neither responded to the request.
Officials from ECC and the Minnesota District Assemblies of God did not respond to Current’s multiple requests for comment.
In 2020, Southland was removed as a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization that provides accreditation to Christian nonprofits that comply with standards for accountability, transparency, fundraising and board governance. An ECFA official confirmed the accountability organization removed Southland after it failed to submit required paperwork to maintain its membership.
Northview has been accredited by ECFA since 2017. ECFA records show that Northview reported cash donations of more than $27 million in 2022 and total revenues of more than $30 million. It reported $26.9 million in expenses. Current requested but Northview did not provide a copy of its annual audit report, which the Northview website states is available through the church’s finance department.
Northview is in the midst of its F1rst campaign, which is aiming to raise $77 million for projects at its campuses, in the community and across the world. According to the Northview 2018 annual report, it raised $49.3 million through its two-year Uncharted campaign.
The church previously was affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination but left to become independent and non-denominational approximately 20 years ago.
‘Looking at the next pastor’
CJ Johnson started working at Northview on Sept. 1, 2021, after beating out six other finalists selected by VanderBloemen, a Christian executive search firm, Poe told Current in October 2022. VanderBloemen did not respond to Current’s request for comment.
Poe said he told the elders and search firm that he wanted his replacement to be young, have leadership skills and be a “very strong communicator.” He said the choice became clear as soon as he and his wife watched a sermon from each of the finalists.
“I got to CJ’s, and I got emotional. I actually left the room, collected myself and came back,” Poe said. “My wife said, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘We’re looking at the next pastor.’”
Poe, who retired in October 2022 and is now Northview’s legacy pastor, said he asked the elders to watch the same seven sermons and that all of them ranked CJ Johnson as their top choice.
A former Northview employee, who asked not to be named because he still works in local ministry, said initially he was encouraged by the “spirit of unity” in the unanimous choice. He had seen the negative Google reviews of Southland, but he said he trusted church leaders when they said the allegations had been fully vetted and proven false.
Over time, however, he began to have concerns about his new pastor. For example, he said he witnessed CJ Johnson largely inflate the number of people in a service who raised their hand to indicate they gave their life to Christ one evening.
Clatterbuck, who had a view of the entire worship center at Southland as part of the security team, said CJ Johnson frequently embellished numbers there, too.
“I would be behind him, watching out while he did this. I saw the number of hands, then I heard the inflated numbers,” Clatterbuck said. “That is definitely something he has done time and time again.”
Current spoke with eight former Northview employees or attendees, all of whom left the church – or were asked to leave – because of concerns about CJ Johnson or church leadership. Most said they took their concerns to church elders or other leaders, and they often encountered resistance to seriously discussing the matter or acting on it.
“Part of why (CJ Johnson) was able to create so much confusion and gaslighting of our staff was by making us feel like we were wrong for being interested in his past,” a former employee said. “At one point during an all-staff meeting, he referenced the fact that people had been looking into his past, and he made a joke onstage about how disgruntled people from his previous church are trying to bring him down. So, he would publicly diminish these things that we were trying to shed light on almost as a way of discrediting some of the accusations being made.”
Another former employee said his efforts to discuss his concerns with church leaders went nowhere, leading him to conclude they don’t have a “willingness or (the) humility” to address the matter.
“It’s not about me being right or wrong. I just want to have the conversation and handle this biblically,” the former employee said. “If, at the end of the day, everything comes out and CJ was right, great. That is a win for everybody, the best-case scenario. But (Northview’s) handling of it this way makes it worse, because then everybody’s going, ‘Well, they’re playing the deck of cards we all thought they would play.’ And that doesn’t end well for anybody. It hurts the church and the staff and friends and family more than anything.”
- CJ Johnson, Northview Church senior pastor, has been accused of speaking falsehoods from the pulpit, and it appears he has been inaccurate on public documents, as well, according to discrepancies in public records.
In Northview’s business entity report filed March 28 with the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office, CJ Johnson’s address is listed as a home in Fishers assessed at $259,000 and owned by Jacqueline Lucas and Jonathan Swift. Lucas is an executive assistant at Northview whose parents were elders at Southland City Church, where Johnson previously pastored.
Documents filed with the Hamilton County Recorder’s Office state that on March 30 CJ Johnson and his wife signed paperwork for a $1.5 million mortgage on a 6,454-square-foot, six-bedroom home on 10 acres in Noblesville. The property includes a pole barn and an in-ground pool.
Neither CJ Johnson nor Lucas responded to Current’s requests for comment.
In addition, a FAQ page on Northview’s website about the Johnson family states that Johnson and his wife founded Southland City Church, the congregation where they served before coming to Northview.
In a video posted online in 2012 recapping Southland’s history, however, Johnson speaks about joining the church in 2011 as its teaching pastor, and Southland co-founder Chris Book explains how he co-founded the church with Justin Vagle.
- None of the former Southland City Church employees contacted by Current agreed to be interviewed on the record, but in an hour-long recording of a late-2019 meeting between then-Southland Lead Pastor CJ Johnson, now senior pastor at Northview Church, and his creative team provides a glimpse of the pastor’s management style.
Throughout much of the meeting, CJ Johnson expresses his disappointment with the team for not prioritizing their work on his self-published coffee-table book, “Church is a Team Sport,” which was released in 2020.
During the meeting, according to the recording obtained by Current, he calls out the communications team and several individuals for being “early resistors,” chastising the “early resistors” for being “passively opinionated” and not being able to immediately “get on board with the idea.”
“We now have a team that doesn’t value the leadership and the creative culture that they get to operate in and see no value and my role in shaping it into that,” CJ Johnson said during the meeting. “If you really see the importance and the value of my leadership, that book would’ve been done.”
He also singled out a staff member as an example of someone who has “got greatness” if she can “get over some of her mental hang-ups” and said that another consistently “just looks mad.”
- October 2010 – Southland City Church officially launched and incorporated
- December 2011 – CJ Johnson hired as teaching pastor at Southland
- February 2013 – Johnson becomes lead pastor at Southland
- 2017 – Michelle Creasman’s family uses storage business to loan Southland $1 million to acquire church building
- October 2017 – Southland holds first service in its own building
- June 2018 – Johnson says from pulpit a family donated $1 million to help Southland acquire building, Creasman and others question story.
- November 2020 – Southland Pastor Ryan Fox fired by Johnson
- November-December 2020 – Nearly all of Southland’s staff quits within a couple of weeks; Assemblies of God Minnesota District steps in to investigate
- December 2020 – Minnesota District officials report findings and next steps, including keeping Johnson at Southland; Michelle Creasman resigns from elder board
- July 2021 – Johnson announces resignation from Southland
- August 2021 – Johnson introduced as new pastor at Northview
- August 2021 – Email from Minnesota District Assemblies of God confirming audit of Southland not started yet
- August 2021 – Johnson gives final sermon at Southland, which is in the process of transitioning into a campus for Emmanuel Christian Center
- September 2021 – Johnson starts at Northview
- September 2021 – Email confirms Southland audit underway
- October 2021 – Former Southland volunteer head of security Bob Clatterbuck emails Northview Senior Pastor Steve Poe to ensure Northview knows about Johnson’s past
- February 2022 – Clatterbuck emails Poe again after not receiving response, this time Poe replies that Northview is “pleased with CJ” and that Poe is “not interested” in discussing the matter
- October 2022 – Poe retires, Johnson becomes senior pastor of Northview
- January 2023 – Southland Google reviews removed from internet
- June 2023 – Multiple sources confirm more than 40 Northview staff members have left because of concerns or issues about Johnson