Many in the Church have been rocked by the confirmations of serious and sustained sexual abuse which have emerged from the investigation into the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. An independent report laid bare decades of his coercive and abusive behaviour which have caused untold damage to victims.
There have been similar reactions to the disclosures of the abusive behaviour of the Evangelical Church of England minister, Jonathan Fletcher. His coercion of others into naked massages, beatings and other humiliations have left a trail of trauma. The report from the investigation is yet to be published.
The suffering that these men inflicted on their victims and survivors is appalling and tragic. I don’t want to rake over the details which have been well documented elsewhere, but I want to focus on two connected problems which run deep within the Church: hero-worship and the inability to hold leaders properly accountable.
Despite the humility of Jesus, the Church has developed cultures which mean we are incredibly susceptible to elevating leaders into ‘heroes’.
Part of the problem is our insatiable need to be inspired. A vast business has developed to respond to this need: the books, talks, videos, podcasts and tours of individual ‘celebrity Christians’ are promoted and sold on an industrial scale.
As well as the obvious examples in Pentecostal and Evangelical cultures, there is a more institutionalised and hierarchical version in the veneration and pomp which surrounds Bishops, Cathedral Deans and Archbishops. In what other realms of life do leaders wear such ridiculously ornate robes and hats as a mark of their status?
Tragically, the Church often has a culture where people crave recognition and status more than the secular culture around us. The incongruity is stark because the Church exists to help people follow someone who showed a completely different example.
These forms of pride are not just a matter of personal behaviour. Cravings for status may be incubated in the heart of an individual but these problems then become embedded in organisational culture and practice.
This is why the strong governance which insists on proper accountability are a key lesson from these scandals. The extent and type of behaviour that Zacharias and Fletcher indulged in may be rare, but poor accountability within churches and Christian organisations is extremely common.
Too often, church leaders receive scant feedback and many are almost completely unaccountable for how they spend their time. Too few churches have any effective arrangement to give thorough and honest appraisal to influence its leader’s behaviour. This does no one any favours.
When I was Chief Executive of a Christian charity, I had an appraisal led by 3 trustees every year. This included 360 feedback from managers and also some key people external to the organisation. Sometimes this feedback could be painful to hear, but ultimately it led to a far more honest and truthful appraisal of my work.
And, what would you know? It turned out I was good at some things and not so good at others. Going through this process made me feel more secure because it reflected reality. The difficult issues were not hidden but were brought into the light. Again, I learnt the truth that if we prepared to hear it, reality is liberating.
There is no reason why all churches and Christian organisations could not adopt a similar process. Sadly, I am not optimistic that many will. But if Zacharias and Fletcher had made themselves properly accountable to such a process years ago, perhaps it could have helped manage their behaviour?
Humility is not primarily about people being modest or self-effacing. Rather than a state of mind, it is more about making a choice to be accountable, honest and open. When these values are embedded in the culture and practices of organisations, it helps safeguard the vulnerable.
These would be my suggestions for discussion:
1. No Christian organisation should be named after someone who is still alive. It’s both poor theology and naïve management to invest the whole identity of an organisation on the name of one person. The wreckage of the Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) should stand as a lasting warning against this error. This goes for the name of blogs too: it’s better to chose a name which relates to your content than one which promotes your identity.
2. Preachers must remain practitioners. Preaching and teaching should always remain rooted in pastoral work: what is said on platforms needs to connect to what is done on the pavement. For the same reason, Christian speakers or authors should always remain part of local churches: they need the grounding and authenticity of community.
3. All leaders need proper accountability. However large or small the ministry is, no leader should be in a context where they are not properly accountable about how they behave, use their time and the organisation’s resources. No-one is strong enough to be unaccountable and everyone’s work should be regularly and honestly appraised. When leaders get defensive or evasive, it shows the need for this even more.
Grace and truth in leadership
Avoiding the tragedy of abuse and its terrible effect on the vulnerable is about the application of good theology. We all mess up, we all get things wrong, we are all weak. We all need God’s grace.
But it is a dangerous and cheapened form of grace which elevates leaders, places them on pedestals and justifies havens of unaccountability. Authentic grace can never be used to avoid truth.
Rather, true grace provides the resources which enables truthfulness, transparency and a confident form of humility. As ever, Jesus is our example. As the old hymn puts it:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride
Related post: Our Addiction to Self-Promotion