How churches and ministries can safeguard against abuse of power
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Ravi Zacharias – how the mighty fall. And when they do fall individual lives, and sometimes entire ministries, are shattered.
Before Ravi there was L’Arche’s Jean Vanier. Before Vanier there was Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz. Before Lentz there was Harvest Bible Chapel’s James MacDonald, Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels and Mars Hill’s Mark Driscoll.
Then there were more celebrities of North America’s Christian subculture, once so prominent that even years later their names alone can recall them to most minds, at least of people of a certain age – Bill Gothard, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker.
The details differ. But every time the name of another prominent Christian hits the news for all the wrong reasons something within us dies. Something within me dies, even if it’s only my own innocence or sense of trust. I feel shock, maybe even grief, betrayal, anger. And dismay; because the gospel – the "way of truth" as 2 Peter 2:2 describes it – is brought "into disrepute."
But there are lessons to be learned from the stories of the fallen that can help shield victims, and safeguard churches and ministries from the devastation that results when power is abused. Here are ten.
1. Even the most highly esteemed, and most apparently righteous among us, are capable of the unthinkable.
If we are honest, we know this to be true – the human heart has a remarkable capacity for self-deception.
"Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it" go the words of the 18th-century hymn, and who among us has not felt it? We can think falling into sin won’t happen to us or to our most highly regarded leaders, but Scripture teaches differently. If we don’t take steps to guard our integrity, then the steps we do find ourselves taking can move from first denying the danger we might be in, to dallying with temptation, to dabbling in transgressions, to justifying repeated sin.
We are all in need of forgiveness.
2. It is possible for Christian leaders to build ministries God can use for His good purposes even while living lives of secret sin.
It’s easy to look at a leader’s apparent wisdom or charisma, their ability to work a crowd, grow a church, sell books, generate a following or raise money, and assume such things are marks of divine favour. Isn’t someone so favoured being especially blessed or rewarded by God for their righteousness? But we are all people in process. None of us is perfect yet. Fallen leaders remind us it is possible to build a successful ministry, to look and sound righteous, and yes, even to be used by God while living a life of hypocrisy and hidden sin.
"The pattern of the New Testament is shared ministry, not solo heroes."
3. Every Christian’s loyalty must first and foremost be to Jesus and the truth.
Once news of Zacharias’ misdeeds was made public, accusations of organizational complicity at RZIM soon followed. Calling for a "cultural overhaul," RZIM apologist Max Baker-Hytch wrote in a letter to ministry leaders of "the way in which unbridled loyalty and reputation management have too often been allowed to take precedence over truth and transparency."
It should go without saying that those who follow Jesus, who called Himself the Truth, should not allow our admiration and loyalty to a human leader to blind us to the facts. Not ever. Nor should it prevent us from seeking out and acting on truth, even if reputations, jobs or relationships are at stake. Our obedience is first of all to Christ, and that will mean pursuing truth and justice, and standing up for the oppressed even if there is a personal cost to doing so.
4. It is possible to be too trusting.
While it is right to operate from a presumption of trust, says Regent College president, theologian and ethicist Jeffrey Greenman, it should be trust tempered by realism. "Uncritical adulation" of leaders is a "huge problem," Greenman says.
Are we prone to be too trusting of those in authority over us? In Jesus and John Wayne (Liveright, 2020) historian and Calvin University professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes that "White evangelicals … express confidence in their religious leaders at much higher rates than do members of other faiths."
Confidence in leaders is important, but not to the extent that we set them up for failure through unrealistic demands and expectations, or by forgetting their humanity and failing to build in accountability measures and safeguards.
5. Leaders ought not to carry the burden of leadership alone.
In announcing the conclusion of his ministry at Hillsong NYC on Instagram, Carl Lentz confessed to being unfaithful in his marriage and then pointed to deeper issues that might have contributed. "Over the years I did not do an adequate job of protecting my own spirit, refilling my own soul and reaching out for the readily available help that is available," he wrote. "When you lead out of an empty place, you make choices that have real and painful consequences."
Close, genuine friendships and accountability relationships that help leaders see when they are straying off course, or failing to live up to their moral or ethical obligations, can help. "The pattern of the New Testament is shared ministry, not solo heroes," reminds Greenman.
6. Accountability matters.
"Our false self always wants to escape accountability," says Greenman. "That goes back to the Garden of Eden. We want to live life on our own terms."
Recognizing the risks inherent in the human tendency to exercise freedom in ways that are irresponsible calls for an honest reckoning, he says. Churches and organizations "can put structures and patterns in place designed to prevent some of this." For example boards might require a leader to have regular meetings with a spiritual director (or mentor or accountability group) who raises the hard questions. "People need the structure of a confidential, supportive environment that enables us to be real."
Greenman has devised a helpful equation that simplifies the threat of an isolated leader with an absence of accountability:
Isolation + pressure – accountability = danger.
7. Organizations should aim to build cultures of integrity rather than celebrity.
Celebrity doesn’t always look like an active presence on social media with thousands of followers and sold-out stadiums. It can be as simple as elevating someone to a position of such respect or reverence that they possess unquestioned authority.
Ranin Karim, the woman at the centre of the affair with Carl Lentz, commented in a media interview that "When you give somebody [too] much power, they become God to people."
Every leader should have colleagues in their workplace who will speak honestly and openly to them, challenging them when necessary. Leaders should be confronted, for example, about using spiritual language to manipulate people to get their own way.
The evangelical tendency to name ministries after people should be questioned. Pedestals are for statues, not people. Scripture counsels against the kind of admiration that leads to adulation because it can only lead to trouble. "Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings who cannot save" (Psalm 146:3).
In his letter apologist Baker-Hytch noted Ravi Zacharias had been "placed on a pedestal that no person besides Jesus Christ is fit to occupy."
"There is a danger in putting somebody so high on a pedestal that you can no longer look them in the eye, but also so they can no longer look you in the eye," says Lori Vaanholt, director of strategic development and innovation at L’Arche Canada. When allegations of serial sexual abuse by that organization’s founder Jean Vanier surfaced not long after his death, Vaanholt says the organization needed to separate its mission "from the myth of the man."
"People need to feel safe coming forward with allegations and concerns."
"The relationships that are at the heart of our mission need to be lived with great authenticity if they are to have power for personal and societal transformation," she says, explaining that such relationships have both tremendous power and vulnerability. "No one is beyond the capacity to use that for great good or for their own personal gratification."
8. Set boundaries that honour Christ and protect people – from the top down.
Boards should not be stacked with the leader’s fans, friends or family members who may be disinclined to believe allegations and inclined to dismiss warning signs. A board’s job is not just to support the leader or rubber stamp decisions, but to set clear expectations and then hold the leader accountable to them.
Policies and procedures should be living, active documents that are reviewed often, at least once each year, says Melodie Bissell, president of Plan to Protect. An annual report should be submitted to the board as to the findings of the policy audit. No leader should ever be allowed to think they are exempt from such things, she adds. If a board has put policies, procedures and accountability structures in place, no one gets an exemption.
"Board members need to consider themselves in a watchtower – on alert at all times," Bissell explains. "And when someone raises a concern, they need to ask those hard questions and bring in experts or [call for] policy audits."
"Whistleblower policies are very important," she adds. "People need to feel safe coming forward with allegations and concerns." That means ensuring your organization has systems designed to prevent abuses of power and to permit complainants to speak without fear of reprisal.
9. Take accusations seriously.
If someone brings forward allegations of abuse of power, don’t assume the allegations are false or malicious. Don’t become defensive, circling the wagons. Don’t pretend or play along with lies because you think the lies, or the truth, will hurt the cause of Christ. Take allegations and accusations seriously and get to the bottom of them. That is the way to honour people’s dignity. Avoid institutional cowardice.
If you find darkness, expose it, even if it hurts, understanding that if there is darkness, it will eventually find the light and when it does, it will hurt. "We are an organization that has been traumatized" says Vaanholt not quite a year after L’Arche International published the results of an independent inquiry into the accusations of sexual abuse against Vanier. "We endured trauma. And we’ve had to learn some of the best practices and ways of working through this trauma together."
10. God is bigger than our human failures.
As I worked on this article, I happened to be reading Brennan Manning’s The Furious Longing of God (David C. Cook, 2009). One quiet morning I came to page 60 on which the author quotes Jean Vanier, writing about the invitation God extends.
It is not reserved for those who are well-known mystics or for those who do wonderful things for the poor …. [It is for] those poor enough to welcome Jesus. It is for people living ordinary lives and who feel lonely. It is for all those who are old, hospitalized or out of work, who open their hearts in trust to Jesus and cry out for His healing love.
As I read Vanier’s words, I felt a growing heaviness and had to set the book down. Knowing that this man, whom I once considered a personal hero, had sexually abused women – violating their trust and stealing their innocence – led me to a moment of despair. I had no desire to hear what he had to say.
Here is a diœcult truth. It is possible to write beautiful, insightful things about power, vulnerability and love, says Greenman, "and yet use your power to manipulate other people. This is the frailty of our human condition. It doesn’t invalidate everything Jean Vanier ever did. God was still at work in his ministry. God is bigger than the failings of these leaders.
"It doesn’t justify or excuse them for one second. No," says Greenman. "But there is the grace of God that even through broken people good things have happened. Many of these evangelists who went down in flames led lots of people to the Lord. And that’s fantastic."
But the gospel witness is always both verbal and moral, says Greenman. Consequently, these sorts of scandals tend to do the most harm to the Church’s reputation. If we care about that, then the answer must begin with both personal and organizational soul searching.
We need to look within ourselves and our organizations, Greenman says, and consider the fact we might be the biggest obstacle to the gospel by the way we are living our lives or conducting our ministries. As we do so the Spirit can convict and move us to change and bring about change so none of the hard lessons learned from the lives and stories of fallen leaders need be in vain.
Patricia Paddey is a senior writer for Faith Today. She lives in Mississauga, Ont.
Listen to our podcast with Patricia Paddey and Plan to Protect’s Melodie Bissell at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.