Church Leaders Behaving Badly
What are we supposed to do when a leader or THE leader of your local church or network or denomination behaves badly?
In a perfect world this question would seem like a problem that would be so rare and so far removed from our everyday experience that it’s hard to see why we would have to ask. But this isn’t a perfect world and the experience in our times is that we need to have an answer to this question not for if it happens but for when it happens. It’s depressing to me that I don’t have to think very hard to come up with some concrete, real life examples of church leaders behaving badly. If you’re even slightly aware of news in Churchworld, you can recite examples yourself.
Church leadership, when broken, will create rules and formulas and systems by which they themselves are protected from the consequences of the harm they do. People with power tend to use their power to stay in power. Church leaders, when broken, will use scripture to prevent confrontation and being held accountable for the things they have done. Church leaders, when broken, will use spirituality or fidelity to Jesus and the kingdom of God as leverage against exposure and bringing dark deeds into the light. You might even hear an appeal to all the people who have “accepted Jesus” whose faith will be “harmed” if they find out the person who baptized them was actually a tyrant behind the public persona, or a serial abuser, or a control freak or a manipulative narcissist who treated people as disposal and who would have been long ago fired by a secular organization with a reasonable HR policy.
We have been conditioned in the Church not to air our dirty laundry. Not to say things out loud that might “shipwreck” someone else’s faith. Far worse than the church leader’s bad behavior, we have been led to believe, is exposing that behavior in public. Historically we have shamed the whistleblower and comforted the church leader who behaved badly. This is particularly true when that church leader is well regarded by those who are either like them, who enjoy the results of their work even though we might not like how they get them, or who are enmeshed in the system, or who are codependent or who have simply never been close enough to see the harm the leader has done to others.
Perhaps it’s simply too hard for us to accept that someone we like or from whom we benefit, is capable of doing hurtful or evil things to someone else we know. But our big story in the New Testament affirms this happens.
Sadly, because we are often made more uncomfortable by a confrontation than we are the behavior, including abuse, that we’re oblivious to, we will easily dismiss those who bring charges and accusations or simple complaints. The fastest path for me to feel better about our church and my part in our church is to silence, ignore and/or disbelieve the allegations that have made me feel uncomfortable. And so, like Sgt. Schultz, “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing!”
Hans Christian Anderson told us the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. We might read it as a cautionary tale against confidence men who take advantage of people with their con game – but that’s not the purpose of the story. Anderson reminds us that broken leaders will ensnare people in their illusions and their “version” of reality. Once enough people are in, most adults are not strong enough to resist capitulation to the crowd mind. “No one else is complaining.” We think. “No one else seems to have a problem with this…” we say to ourselves and we go along with things even when a little voice inside of us is screaming that the Emperor is buck naked. Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Don’t speak up and create problems when we don’t have any.
Anderson ends his story with these words (translated):
“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.
…And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”
“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
Some people will feel the freedom to see the truth and speak it out but still others, especially those who share in the power of the Emperor, will stay committed to the illusion, the lie, the broken and even abusive system. And usually, the Emperor himself will double down on their story rather than come clean or tells some version of the story that feigns confession but never produces true repentance.
I have been in meetings with people in power and I’ve played the part of the little boy who spoke up. I’ve also been in meetings where I’ve lifted my corner of the Emperor’s invisible train just a little higher when allegations came up. And more times than I would like to admit, I’ve played the Emperor. We are not immune, none of us are immune – our story, in the Church, is that we are susceptible to this gravitational pull – some through pride and some through the sheer power of being enmeshed in a dysfunctional system in which we feel compelled to go along with things we would not ordinarily accept.
Until we don’t.
When you speak up in the Church about leaders behaving badly, the practitioners of truth and lovers of justice, you discover that you often stand alone. Literally, people step away from you in relationship. They might privately say to you, “I’m so glad you spoke up…” but in person they’ll almost act as if they don’t know you. They certainly won’t speak up inside the room. It’s just not in them.
Someone in the group (there’s always at least one of these someones in the group) will “bravely” take the “sage” position and offer a middle ground perspective – “I can kind of see what you’re saying,” they’ll wisely say, “But I also see [our leader’s] perspective and I think from their perspective they are right.” These bold “peacemakers” honestly come by this and shouldn’t be despised, just pitied for the dysfunctional family system they have been a part of makes them painfully uncomfortable with and feel existentially threatened by conflict.
Just don’t look to them for help.
So what are we supposed to do when church leaders behave badly?
Speak up, regardless of who follows, agrees, or stands with you.
Because that’s always the right thing to do.
BUT, and this is important, and I’ve told this to more people than I can remember, count the cost.
Jesus once said that people who’ve lost family and place – their identity in that context – would get it all back in his kingdom -now and later. I would want you to know for sure that speaking up, speaking truth to power in church leadership – no matter how right you are – will cost you. It will cost you your place and your family and it might even feel like it costs you your identity. You will likely lose your place in the local church. Even if and when things come to light that prove your perspective or story to be true, as the boat rocker, the whistle blower, the troublemaker, you will still find yourself on the outside.
Because people intuitively know this, many will never say a thing. Never. Even while the metaphorical house is burning down around them. They just don’t want to be that person.
So what can you do? Count the cost, and speak up anyway. It’s the right thing to do. Always.
Tell your story. What happens to you, telling others what has happened to you is your story. It’s not gossip when it is the story of your experiences, your conversations, your situation. You are telling the truth and that’s what we’re supposed to be about. But people with power will tell you that you telling stories to others about the way they yelled at you, berated you, mocked you or made demands of you is gossip. They are wrong.
They are wrong.
As my friend Matte has said, quoting Anne Lamott, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”
Tell people your story. And tell it again. And when you find people who have the same story that you have, tell your stories together. Part of the healing from trauma is found in telling our stories together.
If you’re part of Churchworld you probably have a “But whatta about…” rising up in you at this point.
What about Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 about how we are supposed to handle things like this in the Church?
People with power, people in power, in the Church will often pull out Matthew 18 in conversations like this. We’ll often, in order to use this passage, disregard everything we know about hermeneutics in order to apply this passage of Scripture.
Here’s what it says:
15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. – Matthew 18:15-17
One of the primary rules for understanding the text is always context. What came before this? What comes after this? This passage has a context and that context matters. These thoughts come in the middle of a talk about our relationship with those who reject God’s way. Some are triggers who lead others to sin, some are those who get triggered and wander off to follow sin. The question arises – what do I do when someone directly sins against me without knowing what they’ve done? That is the question Jesus is answering. That is the specific situation these verses are meant to be applied to.
For instance, you might imagine a conversation like this…
ME: hey, what’s up, you look troubled?
FRIEND: yeah, the other day when we were out, I put money on the table to tip our server and I noticed as we left you picked up most of it and put it in your own pocket.
ME: well, I thought you left too much for the tip.
FRIEND: o.k. but that was my choice and you should have said something to me and not just pocketed money I left for someone else.
ME: I only took it to help pay for the check.
FRIEND: dude, it was not the right thing to do, it was not the Jesus thing to do. We need to go back and give that money to the server.
ME: Snowflake! Get over yourself. Your money went to help pay the check, I covered the rest of it, get over yourself.
FRIEND: sigh. Let’s ask a mutual friend to weigh in on this and help us sort this out…
Matthew 18 is NOT about a church leader who comes to your home and tells you that in prayer, God told him you and your spouse were worshipping an idol and you need to show him your financial books. Which you do. Then the church leader notices an $18k profit you made on a recent sale. “There it is,” he says to you, “write a check to the church for this amount and God will forgive you and your business won’t be under a curse anymore.” (yeah, this happened in real life to someone.) Matthew 18 does not apply here, this is extortion. This is evil and an abuse of power. Tell everyone. Call this leader out.
Matthew 18 is NOT about a church leader who meets with a 14 year old girl in his office for private counselling sessions who turns this into an opportunity to satisfy his own perversion and evil. That little 14 year old DOES NOT have to go to the church leader before she can go to the police, or her parents or anyone else in the entire world she wants to go and tell. People in power will use this passage to try to insulate themselves against accountability and try to silence the person reporting them by saying the WAY they did it was wrong.
But even if it was wrong…even if…what they did to that little girl is still sin and wrong and evil and sexual abuse…and if we – you and I – don’t respond to THAT, no matter how a traumatized person reports it and to whom they report it, we are complicit in their evil.
Fortunately, the New Testament helps us out by giving us a real time example of this kind of situation where the inspired writers of the New Testament circumvent this Matthew 18 procedure.
In Galatians 2 we read:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ – Galatians 2:11-14 NRSVA
Cephas is Peter and when he acts the racist, he gets Barnabas to join is racists ways and Paul calls Peter out, publicly. He doesn’t go to him privately as Matthew 18 describes, not because Matthew 18 hadn’t been written yet, but because that process does not apply to leaders who sin in public, who do the opposite of Jesus’ way, even leading others to do the same – you call them out. Publicly. It doesn’t matter if it’s racist segregation at the potluck or prayers of Christian nationalism from the pulpit or sexual abuse in the pastor’s office – speak up, speak out, tell your story and get other people involved.
Write the book.
Go on the TV news program.
Post it on social media.
Tell your home group.
Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”
Go for it. “For the time has come for judgement to begin with the household of God…”
I understand if you’re unconvinced. That’s a big knot of unlearning to trust me on. Check out these links to do some more reading on your own about Matthew 18 and the mess we’ve made applying it.
Our silence is what keeps us sick. Not telling our stories. Not speaking to one another about the hard things. Not confrontation over being treated badly. Not from victims of sexual abuse telling about what happened to them. Whistleblowers are not our enemies and we in the Church, and we who are leaders in the Church, need to stop treating them like they are the enemy. We must stop putting the burden of settling things with the person who feels victimized or wronged or sinned against and put it with the person who did the offense to make amends, confess, repent or seek to understand the person who has something against them.
When church leaders behave badly, the most spiritual thing you can do is speak the truth in love and tell your story. Always.