When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm: Lessons To Be Learned

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Editor's Note: This article is the second post in a four-part series on responding to abuse in the church. Check out part one, In The Wake of Ravi Zacharias: When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm. Part three and four coming soon. 

“How many lives need to be desecrated, damaged, or completely wrecked by those in positions of spiritual authority before the church recognizes there is a problem?” 

Those were the words of a survivor reflecting on the unsettling revelations of abuse by countless Christian leaders over the past couple of years. “It is not enough to be shocked,” she went on to say. “It is not enough to lament. Things must also change.” 

She is right. Things must change if the church is going to be an effective and faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can’t, with integrity, proclaim the good news that Christ has come to bring healing, restoration, and shalom to our hurting world in one breath while allowing the harmful and destructive behaviors of leaders to go unchecked in another. 

In fact, it is precisely our commitment to the gospel that should compel us to safeguard and protect the value of every person as an image bearer of God, a sacred life whom God loves—even if that means doing hard things like holding each other accountable in our conduct and calling out harmful and abusive behavior. 

So what are some ways we as a church can cultivate safer and healthier communities that resist abuse? And what are some lessons we can learn from recent failures that will help us mitigate the possibility of abuse in our own church communities? 

While this is certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some ideas:

1. Implement a Code of Conduct for All Staff and Council Members

In the Christian Reformed Church, all ordained persons are required to sign the Covenant for Office Bearers by which ministry leaders commit themselves to a shared set of beliefs. Equally important to right belief, however, is right behavior. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis properly belong together. 

As James notes, “faith without deeds is dead (2:26).” Thus, in an effort to establish a shared standard of behavior for ministry leaders, the Council of Delegates endorsed a Code of Conduct at its February 2020 meeting. While the Code awaits final approval by Synod, even now it can serve as a resource for church councils who want to clarify expectations and institute accountability for the conduct of ministry leaders.

2. Cultivate a Culture of Accountability 

Churches often struggle with establishing measures of accountability for ministry leaders. Accountability feels hard and confrontational and as a result, it is often neglected until something goes very wrong. 

But because human beings are prone to sin, we all need accountability in our life, external encouragements that help us do the right thing. This is especially the case for those who assume positions of power and have authority and influence over others. Power can be used for great good but it can also be misused in ways that cause great harm. 

Whenever a spiritual leader uses power for personal gain at the expense of another person, they abuse the power that has been entrusted to them. The clearest and most easily recognizable examples of abuse of power typically involve sexual harassment or misconduct. 

But abuse of power can be manifested in other ways, like in grooming behaviors, lack of healthy boundaries, verbal harassment, bullying, financial misconduct, and emotional or spiritual manipulation. Sometimes, those who misuse power don’t even recognize that this is what they are doing. 

One way to curtail misuse of power is to practice accountability as a regular feature of ministry leadership. Councils can do this by arranging for annual reviews of ministry staff. Annual reviews create a natural space for strengths and gifts to be affirmed and celebrated and for areas of concern to be addressed. The benefit of such a model is that the church leadership takes ownership of the flourishing of the ministry staff. 

Furthermore, it allows the church leadership to address problematic behaviors through regular and established measures of accountability before they become really harmful and problematic. A helpful resource for establishing just such a review process is the Pastor Church Resources’ booklet Evaluation Essentials.

3. Practice Mutual Censure

Another way of cultivating a culture of accountability is to practice mutual censure. Church Order article 36 prescribes that at least four times per year, the council exercise mutual censure, “in which office bearers assess and encourage each other in the performance of their official duties.” 

Such a practice provides the opportunity for the council to reflect together on their behavior as church leaders and discern whether their conduct and use of power is promoting or detracting from the flourishing of the congregation and its participants. By engaging in this practice regularly, mutual accountability becomes a habitual and natural feature of ministry leadership.

4. Establish a Clear Process for Reporting a Concern

When something goes wrong, when a ministry leader behaves in ways that inflict harm, how and to whom is that reported? Are there clear and known avenues within the congregation for reporting a concern? And if someone discloses a concern, can they do so without fear of being blamed, shamed or chastised?

In many communities, the personal cost for reporting a concern is so high that victims don’t come forward out of fear for the negative impact reporting will have on them. One way to create a safe and supportive system for reporting a concern about the conduct of a ministry leader is to establish a Safe Church team or appoint a Safe Church leader who can receive and act on such reports. This person would listen closely to the reporter’s concern, offer support and encouragement, and follow through by alerting the proper church authorities (the chair of council or the personnel committee) who would do further follow up.

Whatever system is put in place for reporting a concern, it’s a good idea for churches to post their process in a public place with the contact information of those to whom reports can be made. 

5. Take Seriously Those Who Come Forward With Concerns or Reports of Abuse/Misconduct

When people do come forward with concerns, don’t minimize, dismiss, or ignore them. Christian communities have a tendency to support ministry leaders when allegations of abuse are brought forward. In large part, this is because supporting the leader is the path of least resistance. Processing abuse allegations takes time, energy, wisdom, humility, and emotional and spiritual fortitude. No one wants to believe that someone they look up to as a spiritual leader has broken that sacred trust and is guilty of abuse. But while false accusations happen, they are rare. 

When allegations are reported, then, they warrant serious consideration. As hard as this may be for church leaders and congregations, ignoring such allegations will only make matters worse. Doing nothing re-victimizes the person who has been abused who then feels abandoned by their community of faith.  Furthermore, it empowers the abusive leader to do more harm. 

By contrast, taking allegations seriously honors the experience of the one who has been abused, signals the church’s support for them, and curtails the potential for further abuse. Though it is a difficult road to travel, in the end, taking abuse allegations seriously is a win-win for those who have experienced harm and for the community as a whole. To help churches respond to reports of abuse in restorative ways, Safe Church Ministry has prepared the Responding to Abuse Toolkit.

6. Encourage the Practice of Repentance

Every one fails, most of us hourly. Paul tells us in Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23).” Sometimes, however, our spiritual leaders stand on such high pedestals, whether because we have put them there or because they have assumed that place for themselves, that it is difficult to acknowledge when and how they have failed. 

But pedestals are dangerous because they put our leaders out of reach of reproach and admonition. Who will hold the pedestaled leader accountable? We need to get rid of the pedestals and recognize that spiritual leaders are human and they will fail. One way of demolishing the pedestal is to encourage the practice of repentance. Sin, wrong-doing is not something to be ignored. Rather, it is something to repent of and make amends for. 

We would be much healthier communities if we all got in the habit of saying sorry regularly for the various ways, big or small, intentionally or unintentionally, that we inflict harm on people throughout our day. Such a practice will create a culture in which repentance and reconciliation are part of the fabric of the community’s life together. (More on this in Part 4 of this series which will explore how to become communities of restoration).

Becoming Communities That Resist Misuse and Abuse of Power 

The reality is that spiritual leaders will on occasion do things that hurt or harm others. Our fallen humanity all but guarantees it. But church leaders can institute measures of accountability that make such abuses of power difficult; they can establish structures and practices that nurture an intolerance for abuse and diminish the potential for abuse to thrive.

A key question for churches to be asking, then, is are they willing and able to do what it takes to become communities that resist misuse and abuse of power? I’d like to think that by the grace of God, they can. That even now, Christ is transforming his church into a better version of itself, a holy bride, a faithful people, a community characterized by humility, repentance, mutual respect, trust, godliness, a zeal for justice, and most of all love. 

Let’s commit ourselves to these things so that in our life together and our treatment of each other, the gospel is proclaimed and God is glorified!

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