There is a feeling of intense brokenness that seems to sit with 2020. This is the year that the world heaved a big sigh and broke apart, unable to sustain itself any longer, tired of the constant battering it has received from all of us. It is the year when we have all had to pause, pay attention, and focus on some very hard issues. It took a global pandemic to force so many of us to face the reality of our misguided ways on many levels. An undercurrent of this year has been the importance of holding one another accountable for our actions in an effort to move into a space of healing. This seems like a long and broken path we are walking currently.
Recently, news surfaced about the ongoing saga of John Ortberg, former senior pastor of Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California, an ECO Presbyterian church with more than 4,000 members. At the end of July Ortberg handed in his resignation. This past week, he gave his farewell sermon. Just Google John Ortberg and you will be flooded with disparaging information on the situation as it has unfolded over the past couple of years. While Ortberg has worked for many years building a highly successful ministry, his recent lack of judgment has brought about an abrupt end to his career.
For those unaware of the situation, in February Christianity Today released this article John Ortberg Investigated After Church Volunteer Confessed Attraction to Minors. As the story unfolded over the following months, it was revealed that the volunteer was in fact his son. This past week, Christianity Today released a follow up article on the evolving situation John Ortberg and the Pitfalls of Pastoral Discernment.
To offer a very brief summary of the situation, Pastor John learned of his son’s attraction to children, counseled his son privately, and felt that based on their conversations, his son would not act on his sexual desires. Pastor John therefore allowed his son to continue to volunteer with minors in the church—as well as volunteer with children with other organizations in their community. Rather than sit in a space of judgement of Ortberg, which, trust me, the world is already doing, can we use Ortberg’s situation to examine how this situation could have been managed differently?
When we step back and analyze the situation, let’s first look at the challenges that occurred:
Pastor John acted alone. When he counseled his son, he made the unfortunate decision to not share the information that his son revealed to him with anyone. While it is not information that should be revealed to a large group of people, which only results in rumors and misinformation, this revelation is significant and it requires a community of support. His son needed others within the church to set boundaries for him that would benefit the whole community and ensure a safer environment. He needed the support of mental health professionals in his community, who understand the deeper issues involved. Sometimes the best way to support an individual is to set parameters for them that they themselves may not be strong enough to maintain at all times.
What would be a healthy way to move forward?
Once Pastor John had sat with his son, sharing in this heartbreaking conversation, he needed to bring this information to his council and ideally the safe church/abuse prevention team. His son had assured his father that he had not acted on his desires, but given he had volunteered with youth for many years, including mission trips far from home, some further investigation was needed.
At this point, church council might consider creating a covenant of conduct with the individual, setting boundaries for his participation in church life. Recently, Safe Church offered a webinar that provided tools for creating this type of covenant.
In addition, it’s a good idea to integrate a curriculum in your Sunday school that provides children and youth with the proper language to understand and be able to talk about respecting their personal space. The Circle of Grace program teaches children about healthy boundaries and gives the proper language to discuss this with safe adults. As Menlo Park looks towards healing the brokenness they are experiencing, integrating Circle of Grace would introduce a common language for everyone to build on. While we hope and pray Ortberg’s son speaks the truth that he has been able to keep his desires in check, offering education to the congregation will support the creation of a safe space for potential survivors to feel they can come forward.
How can you work to prevent this situation in your own church?
To begin with, does your church have an up-to-date abuse prevention policy? There is a level of accountability that is needed that did not exist at Menlo Park. Strict mandatory policies need to exist for screening volunteers—including criminal background and reference checks. Rules such as always having two volunteers in the space are put in place so that adults in the roles are accountable to each other for their actions with minors. Ongoing training needs to be happening so that volunteers can recognize the signs of abuse and learn what is proper protocol with children. Integrating the Circle of Grace program provides the space for children and youth to feel safe and respected and can open doors to some challenging and beneficial conversations.
The church is not exempt from the challenges that exist in our world. In fact we need to assume that we are opening our doors to any number of stories of brokenness. Building a strong abuse prevention program within the church allows us to meet the needs of everyone that comes to our church, knowing that we have the proper foundation in place to support people, keeping everyone safe, and walking beside those that are deeply struggling and searching for people to show them love, respect and support.
It is important to understand that love and respect often mean setting boundaries and expectations and having systems of accountability in place.