Can Power Be Saved?
May 1, 2019 | by Erin Chan Ding and Cathy Norman Peterson
In light of recent abuses by leaders
in Christian organizations, the Companion
looks at reclaiming a healthy
understanding of authority in the church.
Audrey Velez remembers how the shouting got so bad some of the staff started wearing noise-canceling headphones. Her coworkers would leave the office to do their work at a nearby eatery, just so they did not have to listen to the verbal tumult.
Her workplace—a Christian organization committed to addressing issues of injustice—felt toxic, full of fear, anxiety, and unexplained firings.
And then, the president of the organization began directing his aggression at her. In one meeting he raised his voice. He slammed his fists on a table. He swore.
For the first time, Velez began to worry about her physical safety. The emotional battery grew worse. “You are not good at your job,” he told her. “You are a liar. You are incompetent. You are irresponsible. You don’t respect the work of the movement.”
What had been her dream job—her friends had once joked she would move across the country to take any position with the organization—had become an all-encompassing nightmare.
“The abuse attacks your psyche at such a level and at such an impact that you are stifled,” she says. “Your belief in your ability, your belief in the business of the work that you’re involved in, is shattered.”
A space where Velez says she thought God would use the intersection of career and her identity as a Christian to battle inequity and injustice had become a source of pain. The person at the helm was perpetrating the very kinds of injustices Velez sought to combat. As she watched her coworkers and friends crumple in their beliefs in what God could do through them, in how they could effect change in their communities and in their professions, she thought this: No more. So last fall, Velez and five other women came forward to publicly share their stories on a website, a move that coincided with the resignation of the organization’s president.
“It’s killing people’s faith.
I think about my love for Scripture
and my love for the church—I don’t
have that anymore. That was
taken from me.”
As accusations of sexual misconduct and the misuse of authority have been levied toward a cadre of evangelical Christian leaders this past year, along with exposure in the wake of #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, it’s clear that churches and Christian organizations are far from immune to the harm propagated by the abuse of power. When such abuse takes place in the church, the ramifications shake spiritual foundations.
“It’s killing people’s faith,” Velez says. “I think about myself in my youth and my love for Scripture and my love for the church—I don’t have that anymore. I don’t have that in the same way that I did. That was taken from me.”
Power seems like a dirty word in the church. Pastors and congregations often don’t talk about it, preferring instead to focus on stewardship and servanthood.
In a piece called “It’s Time to Talk about Power” in Christianity Today, Andy Crouch, an editor at the organization, writes, “When we do talk about power, we often talk about it strictly as something negative—something dangerous to be avoided—rather than as a gift to be stewarded.”
He says Christians need a new conversation in which we recognize power is granted by God “for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself.” When used justly, power can lift up people at the margins—those who are sick or young or vulnerable. “Power is not the opposite of servanthood,” Crouch writes. “Rather, servanthood, ensuring the flourishing of others, is the very purpose of power.”
“He had the ultimate power.
As a leader Jesus shared power.”
While recent abuses of power highlighted in the media focus on megachurches and large organizations, congregations of any size can be susceptible to such breakdowns. To steward power well—in a way that grows rather than diminishes lives of faith—there must be a recognition of the existence of power. Pastors and church leaders hold power entrusted to them by communities and congregations. In Acts, Jesus gave power to his followers through the Holy Spirit. In this era of increased awareness around abuse and the heightened belief of survivors who share their stories, the way pastors, elders, leaders, and church members steward power has become more salient and crucial than ever.
“The church needs to engage in teaching to develop a biblical, theological understanding of power—a practical understanding to identify all of the different sources of power,” says Evelyn Johnson, former superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference and former executive minister of Christian formation. “We have, sadly, failed to take a look at Jesus specifically as a leader and how he shared power. He had the ultimate power.”
She points to how Jesus bestowed spiritual power on the disciples at his ascension, telling them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
John Wenrich, president of the ECC, points to Matthew 8, where the Roman centurion tells Jesus, “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.” In other words, Wenrich says, the centurion recognized that just as he submitted to those in authority over him, he had to earn the respect of those he led.
“I think leaders have to start there,” Wenrich says, “no matter their title or role. As a servant leader, I am the number one assistant to our senior leadership team.”
Wenrich points out that as president he submits to the authority of the Annual Meeting, the Covenant Executive Board, the Board of the Ordered Ministry, Scripture and the lordship of Jesus Christ. “I live under my vows of ordination and marriage,” he says, adding that his marriage with his wife, Julie, is one of mutual submission. “Submission to spiritual and organizational authority is one of the most underrated and misunderstood elements of Christian leadership. Submission to authority does not render a leader ineffective; rather it is a way of being and doing that produces trust.” ➤➤➤
FROM THE HEADLINES
➤ Christian Community
Last fall Castellanos resigned as president of CCDA. The next day six former staffers, including Audrey Velez, published stories of their experiences of abuse in the organization, which included bullying, intimidation, and threatening behavior on the website 3rsrevisited .com. Christianity Today reported Castellanos wrote that his resignation “was offered in part due to our inability to resolve the conflict with former staff.”
CCDA posted a “statement of repentance” on its website, acknowledging “instances where we have fallen short of living out our stated biblical value of reconciliation.”
➤ Southern Baptist Convention
In February, the Houston Chronicle reported that 700 people, most of whom were children, made allegations of being sexually abused by pastors, Sunday-school teachers, youth workers, and volunteers in Southern Baptist churches since 1998. Reports indicated church leaders failed to contact law enforcement, and pastors accused of abuse have moved on to jobs at other SBC churches.
J.D. Greear, who became president of SBC last year, issued an apology. Recommendations for reform, including a re-examination of the ordination process, have been slow to make an impact due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches.
Sharing power is key to healthy leadership in church settings, says Daniel Hill, senior pastor of River City Community Church in Chicago. In a chapter he contributed to the book Intercultural Ministry: Hope for a Changing World, Hill highlights the plurality of power shared by a team of five pastors, teachers, and prophets from three continents in Acts 11.
The church in Antioch, he writes, “pushes us to mature our thinking beyond superficial expressions of cosmetic diversity. We must tackle the dynamic of power.”
Hill encourages churches to embrace team leadership as a normative model, one that he calls “an unusual proposition for most current or potential congregants.”
In an interview, Hill adds he feels “heartache and lament and mourning” for people who have been traumatized by the abuses of power, for congregations that have been harmed, and “at the broader witness of the evangelical church in society that is harmed every time” abuses happen.
“Even the most well-meaning
boards might not be fully aware
of the power they hold.”
He emphasizes the importance of shared decision-making and clarity around who is a part of the process.
“I’m a fan of collaborative decision-making,” he says. “In a lot of the places where abuses of power happened, you had somewhat autonomous decision-making without any checks and balances. That’s just a setup for failure.”
Steve Norman, a teaching pastor at Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan, who served nine years as an elder and teaching and campus pastor at a multi-site, metropolitan megachurch, has experienced multiple power dynamics that compelled him to question what it means to hold power in a way that is centered on others and God-honoring.
“Even the most well-meaning boards who want to do everything they are tasked to do might not be fully aware of the power dynamic they personally have with the pastor or with one another,” he says. “I wish I knew the quick fix for that, but I think these recent circumstances are an opportunity to hit pause and zoom out, and maybe just to start by naming those dynamics where they exist.”
Once leaders identify the value of sharing power, it’s important to create a culture of vulnerability. Without honesty around brokenness, accountability cannot exist in its most authentic form.
Among his own leadership team at River City, Hill says, “If you hide something here, that’s the great offense. Making a mistake is not the great offense, struggling’s not the great offense. But you dishonor all of us if you hide something because we’re all compromised by that.”
“Leaders need to be in
deep touch with their
specific areas of darkness.”
For Hill, creating such a culture means sharing his own personal weaknesses “so that’s kind of owned and named and understood, and that there are protective measures for both myself and also for the church.”
Leaders, he says, need to be in deep touch with their specific areas of darkness.
“I’m not just talking about temptations, the lust and stuff—I mean the things around power, like the need to be seen or recognized or have a sense of meaning for yourself,” Hill says. “We’ve all got broken, dark things, so I think it’s important that those are shared.”
Wenrich says in structures with a senior leader, that person must create a climate in which vulnerability and transparency are normalized.
“I need to model the way by talking about my frailties and my struggles in the I-N-G, not in the victorious E-D,” he says. “Then word gets around, like, ‘Yeah, John is teachable and approachable. He wants to learn. He will consider what you have to say.’ I’ll check in with a few people and say, ‘Do you see this in me? Help me understand this.’ We all have blind spots. But we’re moving to a culture of transparency.”
Such openness and receptivity is impossible if one does not have people around who will speak honestly. Theresa Marks, director of pastor care and advocacy for the ECC’s Office of the Ordered Ministry, says every pastor and leader needs to maintain a cross-section of relationships—family, significant others, mentors, mentees, people within the church or organization, and people outside—to hold them accountable. In addition, they must identify people who have permission to ask them the hard questions, such as therapists, counselors, and spiritual directors.
Even with the right team of truth-tellers around, the willingness to be vulnerable matters.
“Check your inner life,” says Wenrich. “Is your heart soft and tender to the things of God?”
Velez says board members need to have the courage to question and investigate potential abuses of power, even if their relationship with a friend, founder, or someone they respect is at stake.
“While my experiences were painful as a result of the president’s abuse of power, what has perhaps been one of the most surprising pains is the number of people around him that I trusted and considered dear friends who were knowledgeable about—and thus complicit in—my abuse,” she says, adding that she had shared her story with many of them. “The social and professional benefits of being on the board often outweighed their willingness to risk dismantling the abusive structure they were part of.”
“It’s possible for people to do
great things and still be wrestling
with their own personal demons.”
Norman, the pastor in Michigan, says, “Many times, we have trouble viewing something from two different perspectives. Some people say either, ‘My pastor is a hero who happens to have made a mistake,’ or ‘My pastor is the devil and has to be removed immediately.’”
He adds, “I think we need to give people tools to be able to say it’s possible for people to do great things, and still be wrestling with their own personal demons that allow them to manipulate, power up, and step on others for their own gain.”
When a breach does occur, churches are often reluctant to tell the whole truth in a timely matter, Norman says. Sometimes that’s due to fear of damaging the church’s reputation, or fear that a negative story will cause people to stop giving. Sometimes leaders assume shining light on an abuse actually makes it worse—that if the congregation doesn’t know the story, perhaps it’s better not to tell them.
“In a hyper-individualistic society, we want to say, ‘Oh, that person made a bad choice. That was a rogue actor,’” Norman says. Or, “that’s not reflective of the whole, so we’ll discipline that person. We’ll get them into counseling, we’ll get them into rehab, and they may or may not come back to our community, but we’re not going to think about it. We’re just going to put our heads down and keep running.”
But such an approach is akin to removing a mole rather than doing exploratory surgery, he says. Instead, maybe we need to ask, “Hey, is there something else at play here that really does need to be addressed?” ➤➤➤
FROM THE HEADLINES
➤ Harvest Bible Chapel
(Seven campuses in
the Chicago area)
MacDonald was terminated as senior pastor of the megachurch in February. Church elders said his removal was due to “highly inappropriate recorded comments” on a Chicago-area radio show amid allegations of abusive behavior, extensive fiscal mismanagement, and overall lack of accountability.
An interim elder board is focusing on “setting the church on a good path forward under a new leadership structure and new elder board,” according to the church’s website. An additional team was created to research and review both MacDonald and the church’s policies and involvement.
➤ Highpoint Church in Memphis and Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Houston
In 1998, when Savage was serving as a youth pastor in Texas, he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl in his youth group. At the time, the young woman reported the assault to the associate pastor, Larry Cotton, who never reported the crime.
In March 2018, Savage resigned as pastor of the Memphis megachurch, Highpoint Church. Cotton also resigned from his current position at Austin Stone Community Church.
When Savage announced his resignation to his congregation, he received a standing ovation, for which the church later issued an apology. Bethany House Publishers has canceled the July release of Savage’s forthcoming book, The Ridiculously Good Marriage.
Creating Healthy Structures
What does a healthy reckoning with power look like?
First, Marks says, “churches need to remember that their pastors are human beings—not gods, not demi-gods, not God’s representatives on earth. In the Covenant, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. The authority and power a pastor has in church is what is accorded to them.”
And pastors need to remember that they’re human, she adds. “They get in trouble when they forget they’re human.”
Though denominational structures cannot eliminate abuses of power, they do provide channels of oversight. Covenant resources are available to congregations at the local level, regional conferences, and from Covenant Offices.
In local churches, pastoral relations committees are key to holding pastors accountable.
“This committee should be empowered to say to a pastor, ‘You haven’t taken a vacation all year, and you’re going to burn out,’” Marks says. “This can hedge against the pastor developing a messiah complex that assumes, ‘They can’t function without me.’ God is going to work whether you come to the office or not.”
The challenge, says Marks, can be when the PRC plays the role of a human resources committee. If the group is responsible for his or her raises, a pastor may feel unable to be honest with the committee about challenges.
Churches do, however, need to develop sound human resources policies. For instance, will spouses of staff or pastors be hired? What is the line of reporting when concerns about power abuse arise? What sexual harassment policies are in place? If a senior pastor is abusing power, what options do staff and laypeople have? For those prompted to report concerns, are both men and women available?
“When churches set up structures that way,” Marks says, “they are doing the good work of spreading out power and responsibility.”
When a Breach Happens
When a breakdown does happen, the first step is for a congregation’s leadership team—church council, elder board, or board of trustees—to name the breach, says Lance Davis, executive minister of Develop Leaders and the Ordered Ministry.
“They are the ones who have the responsibility of protecting and promoting the spiritual well-being of the church,” he says, “which means that they need to not only own the fact that trust has been broken, but also to depend upon other bodies to come to their aid.”
The next step is to seek the resources of the conference office. Each conference has its own approach, says Johnson, who also coleads Crescendo, the ECC’s ministry to boomers and beyond. She notes an increased willingness in recent years to name and address challenges that arise.
“I think our superintendents are being resourced to be able to walk into these scenarios and listen first before taking action,” she says. “We
are learning more about various problematic communications, so that we can more quickly identify triangulation or pass-through communications.”
When necessary, the Board of the Ordered Ministry may step in to do full discovery and assist the congregation in establishing policies that eliminate the opportunity for further violation. But, Davis adds, “Ultimately, even though we can put strategies in place, the person in power has a responsibility to know the authority they have been given is God-given.”
In some cases, a congregation holds a service of lament where members of the body have space to name their feelings. “When this is acknowledged, people go through a grief process. Their image of this person is altered. They need to be able to say what they need before they can move on,” says Johnson. “They need to be helped to find hope, to ask, where is God in all of this?” ➤➤➤
FROM THE HEADLINES
➤ Willow Creek
(Eight locations in
the Chicago area)
Last year, after being accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct and abuse of power, Hybels retired early from his role as founding and senior pastor. He has denied all allegations.
In March, a four-person independent advisory group, which included former ECC president Gary Walter, released a 17-page report calling the allegations “credible.” The group concluded Hybels verbally and emotionally intimidated staff of both genders, and it identified his management style as having a tendency toward being authoritarian.
The lead pastor and teaching pastor who succeeded Hybels resigned in August 2018 after more allegations of sexual misconduct, as did the elder board. A new elder board was appointed in January.
➤ Mars Hill Church
In 2014 Driscoll was accused of plagiarism, misogyny, misappropriation of ministry money for personal gain, and bullying staff.
Driscoll resigned after 20 years as lead pastor. In 2016, he became the founding pastor of The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he still serves.
Harvest Bible Chapel’s James MacDonald previously sat on the Mars Hill board. He resigned just before the scandal with Driscoll broke.
When Audrey Velez reflects on the trauma she and her colleagues experienced, she notices the enduring losses. She sees brilliant people whose belief in their capacity to serve their communities was stripped away by individuals in power. Many have lost their faith. Her own belief in God, as well as her relationship with the church, has undergone deep damage.
She talks now about what she wishes had happened when she first shared her experiences with those she trusted. “I sat at dinner tables of board members. They knew what my experience was. Had they just said, ‘I’m really sorry that was your experience, and I’m going to look into this. We’re going to have conversations as a board. And we’re going to have conversations as a leadership team.’ That would have been so meaningful,” she says.
As churches and organizations reexamine their structures and approaches to power, Velez suggests that we may need an all-out dismantling—and then a resurrection.
“In Scripture, death precedes growth,” Velez says. “Until some really big things, in some really big ways, are actually laid to rest, I don’t know that this thing can be fixed.”
“We may need an
then a resurrection.”