You will read articles about the importance of accountability. I agree, that’s a good thing. Every church must have a strong board with board members equal to the task of confronting their pastors. Pastors also need accountability pastors. All leaders need accountability partners.
If you are ever in a church where the congregation applauds the pastor as if he were a celebrity, you might expect trouble. A clergy friend of mine said all pastors are narcissists. That might be a stretch. But perhaps we should consider that those with certain personality traits will harm others and themselves. Darrell Puls (AACC, 2017) reports survey data indicating 31.2% of pastors score in the diagnostic range for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It seems my friend was close to right—even if he exaggerated a bit.
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Manage the Balance of Power
In a humble person, legitimate power can be a good thing. People need leaders to accomplish many tasks, including guiding the faithful in churches and Christian organizations. We know power can be abused. Thus, wise groups establish checks and balances to limit the potential for the abuse of power. Senior pastors have power, which must be checked by strong boards and leadership teams empowered to speak up when they disagree with a strong leader. Too often Christians view dissent as questioning God’s anointed or view consensus as evidence that God’s spirit is working in the group.
Religion by nature is conservative. Christianity is no exception. Traditional male leadership is the norm. A pastor’s authority is often respected as God-ordained. The markers of conservative morality are three: Authority, Loyalty, and Purity. These virtues bind people together in community. When a trusted and respected leader is under fire for any reason, the community binds together to support their leader and their own identity. To balance this conservative triad, church leaders need to include people with strong foundations in two other moral dimensions of Care and Fairness. The latter two aspects of morality are common among those who focus on caring for those harmed by abuse and advocate for the equal treatment of those who are disadvantaged. They may not be favorite people of those focused on authority, loyalty, and purity concerns (Read more, Sutton, 2016).
I empathize with those who argue that problems like those at Willow Creek are not sex problems. The same kinds of arguments are made in regard to the #metoo movement. I’m concerned that the sex problem is minimized.
In recent decades, forgiveness has taken on some characteristics of a fad as psychological science has established support for a practice mandated in the Bible. The problem is not forgiving a fallen leader but what people think forgiveness entails. Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with an abuser nor does it mean restoring a leader to leadership.
Forgiveness, like the sabbath, is made for people. Forgiveness allows the victim to be freed from the burden of the past. Forgiveness does not mean setting an abuser free to abuse others. Forgiveness is not excusing an offense.
In recent years, especially as a result of the #metoo movement, many men who would not think of engaging in sexual activity with another woman at work have become more aware of less overt ways that harassment can occur.
Sexually abused people may react to touch differently than those who have not been abused.
I place this last because many Christians believe that the answer to sin problems is more Bible study and prayer. The challenge to this belief comes from evidence that so many clergy have problems of sexual boundary violations with congregants. And that does not include all the leaders in the church. It is hard to believe that all of these fallen leaders failed to engage in Bible study and prayer. In fact, some fallen leaders are well known for their Bible teaching. So, do not discount bible study and prayer and do not discount the importance of other ways to set boundaries and keep leaders on track.
As we consider the detructive effects on the people involved in any leadership failure, let's not forget to help those who have been hurt. Recovering from moral injury usually takes time and involves support. Pastoral counselors and Christian counselors and psychotherapists may be needed when support from family and friends is not enough. We should also remember that some will need practical support when they have lost employment.
Pop, J. L., Sutton, G.W., & Jones, E.G. (2009). Restoring pastors following a moral failure: The effects of self-interest and group influence, , 57, 275-284.
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