John Kameron Erbele, who for eight years served as a senior pastor at Missoula’s South Hills Evangelical Church (SHEC) and remained involved with the church until just last month, was arrested Tuesday afternoon in St. Paul, Minn., after responding to an online prostitution ad.
Rev. Erbele, 35, serves as the senior pastor at St. Paul's LifePrint Church. He was among 16 "johns" arrested during Tuesday's sting. He gave officers an address in Missoula.
“It’s terrible," SHEC Preaching Pastor John Luhmann tells the Independent. "I don’t have any more information than what’s in the news reports, but when a person’s been in a trusted position of moral authority, as a pastor is, it’s terrible for something like this to happen.”
Erbele was booked on a probable cause charge of soliciting a prostitute, a misdemeanor, and issued a court summons, according to St. Paul police spokesman Sgt. Paul Schnell.
"The St. Paul Police Department's vice unit set up a prostitution sting whereby an ad was placed in local newspapers and online locations," Schnell says. "Female decoy officers were then used in an operation where men—prostitution johns—came to a hotel and arranged deals with undercover officers. When the suspects made a sex-for-money transaction or deal, the subjects were arrested. He happened to be arrested during the course of this operation."
Erbele was reportedly released Wednesday morning after posting $500 bail.
Erbele grew up in Missoula and was a long-time member of SHEC before becoming senior pastor, Luhmann says. His father was a SHEC pastor for 26 years, from 1974 to 2000. Erbele worked as a senior pastor from 2000 to 2008. Afterward, he continued to serve SHEC as a "senior visionary officer"—helping in the church's long-term planning—until July. (SHEC listed him on its website as such as recently as August 22.)
"It’s wrong," says Luhman, who besides having worked with Erbele for years is also his brother-in-law. "And something like this disqualifies a person from spiritual leadership.”
LifePrint Church released a statement on its website asking its congregation to “please pray with us for LifePrint Church, the leaders, staff and especially the Erbele Family."
"The recent events have been difficult for everyone," the statement reads. "The leaders of LifePrint Church, along with the conference leaders are meeting, praying and working on the next steps...Our God has birthed a life-giving ministry here in the south metro and we are trusting in Him to continue meeting the needs of hurting people."
The church, launched in April, describes itself as "a place where you can leave your 'church clothes' at home as well as any preconceived notions of what church should be or shouldn’t be. We are real people, addressing real life, real issues, and you will experience real Christianity. We are not after your money nor do we seek after external qualities."
The Independent profiled Erbele in 2002, writing, in part:
Erbele, 28, looks nothing like a traditional pastor. He has pierced ears, a long, blond, shaggy mop, and is only seen wearing a tie if someone’s “getting married or buried.” Looking like a cross between Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Bodhi from Point Break, he seems more like someone you might approach for the chord changes to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” or for a dime bag of weed. Erbele definitely can’t help you with the drugs—unless the love of Jesus is the drug you seek—but he does play a wicked guitar at Sunday services.
“I've had better days," Luhmann says, "but God’s good.”
Story updated at 2:20 p.m.