by Dick Alexander
Elder work can be hard work, involving gut-wrenching decisions. On the one hand there is great joy in seeing lives changed and God honored. It’s an undeserved privilege to be used by the Lord to facilitate His kingdom work. On the other hand, there can be late-night meetings and lost sleep. But in times of crisis in a church, it is essential that the overseers of a church do the right thing – not the expedient thing.
The world has been shocked over the last couple of decades by the still-unfolding stories of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. It was one thing to hear the cascading stories of priests abusing children and youth. But it is an order of magnitude worse to learn how repeated abuses were covered up by church authorities. It was not only an issue of individual sin, but of systemic corruption.
That happens other places as well. This year an influential evangelical church was found to have covered up reported inappropriate sexual conduct by its lead minister. Numerous reports had been given by responsible people. Staff members who were aware of the allegations were reportedly required to sign non-disclosure agreements at penalty of their jobs, while the leader continued in his role.
In counseling, secrecy in a family is a sign of major dysfunction. Appropriate confidentiality is a mark of good character; enforced secrecy is a sign of sickness.
It’s a normal reflex for leaders to not want bad news about their organizations to hit the streets. But what is the impact on victims to not only be abused, but then have the abuser protected by fellow leaders? And what is the impact on the reputation of God when the story later becomes pubic (increasingly common in a social media world), and it’s not only the sin of an individual, but a cover-up by a whole organization?
Churches are afraid to lose people. Most are stretched thin financially, regardless of size. It becomes a matter of institutional survival. In a small church, losing a few “key families” (read “meaningful givers”) can push it over the brink. In a large church this issue is the same – there are simply more zeros in the budget. A badly managed crisis or unpopular leadership decision can cost a few hundred or few thousand members, resulting in staff layoffs, missed building payments, etc.
But at what price do we maintain our institutions? Is it more important to God that we keep the seats filled than that we live in truth, justice, and integrity? Can we not admit when there is sin, and as the body of Christ model repentance, restoration and reconciliation to the world? Isn’t this our birthright – a distinctive and biblical community?
Most long-time church members are weary of spin. They read between the lines of our carefully-crafted letters on leadership decisions. The church isn’t a reality TV show or a long-running soap opera. There is a place for diplomacy. But can there also be a greater place for clear, honest communication from leaders? We will take hits no matter what, so should we take hits for being transparent, repentant, and restorative? Or should we take those hits for being spin doctors?
We counsel our teenagers about healthy sexual conduct well before they begin dating. We want them to decide on a right path before they’re in the thick of temptation. Hopefully your church is not in a crisis now. That makes this an excellent time as a group of elders to decide to always do the right thing – even when it’s costly.