A former pastor at the South Hills Evangelical Church in Missoula was arrested this week during an undercover prostitution sting at a hotel in St. Paul, Minn.

John Kameron Erbele, 35, left Missoula in April 2008 to pastor a church in Prior Lake, Minn. He was one of 16 men netted during the course of the daylong operation.

According to St. Paul Police Sgt. Paul Schnell, Erbele responded to an online advertisement placed by members of the police department's undercover vice unit. He then met with an undercover female police officer who was posing as a prostitute.

"What would happen is that the investigators have a hotel room, they place ads on various Web sites, and make arrangements for the men to meet with undercover female officers," Schnell said. "Once a deal is made, an arrangement of sex for money, the undercover officer signals an arrest team who make the arrest."

Schnell said Erbele agreed to pay the undercover officer $60 before his arrest on Tuesday afternoon. He was charged with a misdemeanor count of engaging in prostitution and was booked at the Ramsey County jail. Erbele posted $500 bail on Wednesday morning, according to jail records.

Erbele was issued a citation and will receive a court summons, Schnell said, though a date for his court appearance has not yet been scheduled.

John Luhmann, the senior pastor at South Hills Evangelical Church, or SHEC, said the news of Erbele's arrest is upsetting and disappointing.

"The story just broke in Minneapolis last night, so it's just kind of spreading today," he said. "There are a lot of people who love John a lot around here, and the response is disappointment, it's shock, it's questioning, it's anger. It's a lot of emotional responses."

Luhmann is married to Erbele's sister and worked with his brother in-law for four years. He said the former SHEC pastor helped transform the church in 2000, when he took the helm as senior pastor from his father, Dale Erbele, who pastored there for 26 years.

Under John Erbele's new leadership and unconventional approach to religion - he played guitar in the church's rock 'n' roll band - the congregation grew from about 150 to more than 1,000 members, Luhmann said.

After Erbele left to lead the LifePrint Church in Minnesota, he continued to work with SHEC from afar, Luhmann said. He resigned from SHEC in July of this year.

"It's a terrible thing when someone in a trusted position of spiritual leadership betrays that trust," Luhmann said. "It's wrong, it's sinful, it's betraying, but yet it happens, and we have to deal with it."

Erbele and his wife, Heather, left Montana to help start the LifePrint Church, which conducts its weekly sermons at a middle school and offers podcasts of weekly sermons at www.lifeprintchurch.net. According to the Web site, the church characterizes itself as "really laid back" and "a place where you can leave your church clothes at home."

Members of LifePrint did not return phone calls from the Missoulian seeking comment. However, it offers the following message on its Web site: "The recent events have been difficult for everyone. The leaders of LifePrint Church, along with the conference leaders, are meeting, praying and working on the next steps. Please pray with us for LifePrint Church, the leaders, staff and especially the Erbele Family."

Luhmann said he would address the news of Erbele's arrest during this weekend's services.

"We're not hiding anything," he said. "We want to be open and up front about it."

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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