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Thoughts on Preventing Church Crises

church srises

Church crises are happening so often they have become customary, and that reflects the state of church in the mode of leadership. From Harvest Bible Church in Chicagoland to Hillsong in New York to the abominable news about the previous popes, and Pope Francis gets no pass with me (more tomorrow), to small churches whose stories are not front page news in major cities. Chruch Crises are happening.

What is the solution? It is not simple and it can’t be “fixed” by doing something or instituting some program or a set of protocols. It is a character-forming-culture issue and we need to rethink a dozen practices and habits that form our cultures, but one common solution is to ask Public Relations people to “fix” the problem and help it go away.

In a recent CT Article, by Heather Cirmo, “a public relations professional based in Washington, DC, with 25 years of experience,” we encounter a five-dimension approach to avoiding crises. What she has to say is worthy of our attention, but I will suggest below she misses the two most important elements.

When PR firms are called in to churches I get suspicious so, to counter my suspicions, I have both read her article several times and passed some ideas on to some folks who actually work in this field. I want to recommend a splendid complex approach by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys, who have focused on spiritual abuse, but the crises and abuses go hand in glove. Their book is called Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures. (More on their work at another date.)

Now to Heather Cirmo in the CT article:

Working as a public relations professional in the Christian world, I’ve had an up-close and personal view of how quickly crises can develop and how easily they can engulf an organization in controversy and confusion. I have been called on to help numerous ministries in crisis, many of which were struggling to come to terms with revelations of sexual impropriety or abusive leadership. My role is to try to minimize the public damage. But in many situations, it becomes clear that organizational problems existed far before the sin was ever made public.

Exposing the truth is necessary and helpful. We have a duty to name and call out sin in our communities, churches, and ministries. Open and honest media coverage can be a part of that process. But we can and must do more than expose sin within leadership when it happens. We must fight to prevent it from taking root in the first place….

More often than not, organizations are catapulted into crises almost solely because they had little to no accountability procedures in place to prevent abuses of power. When it comes to protecting against sexual misconduct or preventing abusive and controlling leadership, prayer and regular meditation on God’s Word are key. However, there are also some simple, practical measures Christian organizations should take to build accountability and keep leaders in check.

She then discusses five of these “simple, practical measures” and her concern is as much “organizations” as churches but I don’t think the two are the same. The leader of a missions organization is not the same as a pastor in a church.

All leaders should be faithfully attending a local church.

2. All leaders within the organization should be in relationships in which they are accountable.

3. Prohibit the board from being stacked with family members and friends.

4. Question whether a Christian organization should be named after an individual.

5. Be thoughtful about the organization’s travel policy.

You can’t prevent a church crisis like these from happening. There is nothing that can eradicate the power of sin as pride and power and fear-mongering in this world. It can be minimized, but “prevent” is not a word we should be using.

Yes, I agree that we “must fight to prevent” this stuff “from taking root in the first place” but the issue is how to do that. Yes, prayer and meditating in the scriptures are vital, and these two can be indicators of deeper issues. Many pastors spend time reading the Bible only in preparation for a sermon so that the Bible becomes a book to be used rather than a Word that addresses the person before it can be turned into a sermon.

Yes, for sure, going to church is important but going to church is not the same as being part of the church in an integral manner. By the way, I have known, and known about, pastors who don’t go to church if they aren’t preaching, and I have known seminary professors and graduates who are so critical of the church they can’t attend church. Shame on both sorts.

OK, I’m for accountability but such structures are sometimes as abusive as they are shaping. I know a pastor who went through such a process and proceeded then to say, “Now it’s my turn to evaluate you.”

Yes, too, on board stacking but family and friends is only part of the issue: sycophants and yes-men and yes-women are a very very serious problem. The deeper issue here is pastor-centrism: seeing the pastor as the center of the church and his (usually a his) authority being too much.

I am doubtful about thinking the problem was either “organizational problems” or “accountability” structures. Notice this movement in logic:

Each of us is prone to sinful temptations in different ways. [Yes] To deny this about ourselves is in itself a prideful flaw. [Yes, and now to a solution] This is exactly why evangelical ministries must do more to create systems and structures to prevent and protect our leadership from moral failure.

Systems and structures are not the solution for they are only an embodiment of a culture and character. I am a NT professor and the emphasis in God’s Word is not systems and structures, or programs and protocols, but God’s Spirit, God’s grace, the transforming work of God from the inside out.

We need people who are tov.

The crisis in the church today is that there are not enough tov people pastoring and being pastored.

A narcissist isn’t less abusive because of some system or structure. Narcissists, who most of the time are as hard as granite to mold, have to be converted from the inside out to change.

Accountability can be dodged by anyone who wants to dodge it.

The most important attribute, the one that is the game-changer, is character of the pastor (in a pastor-centric a church), of the elders, of the deacons, of the “leaders” – of everyone. Character – what Laura Barringer and I wrote about in A Church called Tov – shapes the whole. A pastor and elders and others who are tov (good, goodness) don’t abuse sexually or in power. Systems and structures might constrain some abuse but they will not prevent it.

God prevents it, and God’s prevention is called transformation by grace.

Systems and structures are eaten alive by character and culture. So the second most important issue is culture emerging from character working together with other people marked by a tov character. Never forget how powerful a church culture can be to make us fit into its culture, and if that culture is tov – great. If it is ra (evil) – look out!

In a “ra” culture systems and structures will shape from bottom to top and top to bottom to be abusive in all sorts of ways.

PR firms are not the path to go for churches. When this author admits that her role is “to try to minimize the public damage,” we are in trouble. Truth-telling is what is needed.

However, because PR firms do go behind closed doors with churches in crisis, they may well help us all see the problems more clearly. The most important issues are character and culture and what we need for that are spiritual sages who are themselves tov, such sages who shape the character and life of those who are being “wisened” into tov by such sages.

This article originally appeared here.

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Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.