Ethics & Christian living, Wellbeing

Inspiration v integrity

The emerging allegations relating to the behaviour of Mike Pilavachi, church leader and founder of the Soul Survivor festival, have sent seismic shocks through the church.

The accusations of coerced massages of young interns, along with bullying and an intense favouring-then-freezing-out of colleagues, sound similar to the behaviour of Jonathan Fletcher. I hope all those affected can get the support they need and feel able to come forward and share their experiences.

The public discussion in the last month has been significantly influenced by the blog God Loves Women which has boldly and persistently challenged the silence in response to this news. The moral force of her argument has influenced a whole succession of organisations and networks to release statements relating to the disclosures.

‘Christian Superhero’

I have never met Mike Pilavachi or been to Soul Survivor but I was struck by this sentence in a Premier Christianity article on the news:

‘For Christians of a certain age who grew up in the church, Mike Pilavachi is something of a Christian superhero.’

This sentence sums up the persistent tendency to elevate people into heroes, and some into ‘superheroes’. Its a dynamic which is both unhealthy and potentially dangerous for everyone involved.

Adjusting expectations

If we don’t believe that people with great skills and strengths (and faith) are capable of serious wrong-doing then we are living in a fantasy land. 

Martin Luther King was an incredible, transformational leader but his unfaithfulness to his wife Coretta was appalling. The night before he died was spent with a woman he was having an affair with. His behaviour caused him immense personal guilt and compromised the Civil Rights movement because the FBI recorded evidence of his adultery and used it to undermine his credibility.

Flaws and bad behaviour

We have to accept that everyone has flaws and is capable of bad behaviour and poor judgement. Think of someone you admire. And then imagine them getting angry, swearing, being jealous or petty or watching porn.  Undoubtedly what you are imagining is more accurate than some idealised, other-worldly image.

Everyone does wrong, whether through weakness, negligence or their own deliberate fault.  And this is why all leaders, especially the most talented, need to be genuinely accountable.


This is not to encourage cynicism: of course many leaders have great integrity and work hard to avoid temptations. But the unrealistic expectations created by pseudo-fame need re-balancing.

The Bible gives no grounds for idealism about how leaders behave. The New Testament consistently records the vanity, arguments and weaknesses that affected the leaders who formed the early church. Authentic grace never obscures truth.

Our addiction to inspiration

But to go deeper, I believe that underpinning the Christian hero culture lies an collective addiction to being inspired.

Charismatic characters who have the ability to generate enthusiasm are highly valued. And this is no bad thing – powerful teaching and visionary leadership is a great gift. But this can easily lead to an unhealthy commodification of people’s lives in order to keep the show on the road, generate giving and sell books and events. Stories are embellished, complexities are simplified. Inspiration becomes more valued than integrity.


Though very different, Mark Driscoll and Jean Vanier were both inspirational characters.  Their talent and skills created a respect and awe which insulated them from hard questions about how they acted. The problem was not just their behaviour, but the organisational systems around them which failed to hold them accountable. Time will tell whether this was also true for Mike Pilavachi.

And this is a wider problem than those who have dramatically failed.  Recently I met a theologian who, like me, has been greatly influenced by Lesslie Newbigin. I asked him if he had read the memoir by Newbigin’s daughter, Margaret Beetham. The book reveals no scandal but is honest about the difficulty of being a famous missionary’s daughter. He admitted that he had not read the book as he did not want to engage with anything negative about someone he admired so much.

This illustrates a dangerous dynamic that can develop between leaders and their followers. We have an unhealthy need for heroes through whom we can live our faith by association – and this can easily lead to the truth being sidelined.

Cheap grace

In 1 John 2:16 it says:

‘Everything that belongs to the world—what the sinful-self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are so proud of —none of this comes from the Father; it all comes from the world.’

Pride and hubris stalk the church in unique ways. And churches led by those with great charisma and the ability to inspire can be extra vulnerable.

But we cannot claim to take safeguarding seriously unless we ensure all leaders are properly accountable and challengeable. We have more than enough examples to show us the dangers of valuing inspiration over integrity.

I would recommend this wise and practical article from Youthscape: As a youth worker, how do I respond to the investigation into Mike Pilavachi?

If you have specific safeguarding concerns relating to Mike Pilavachi, I encourage you to contact the Church of England’s National Safeguarding team on

If this has raised concerns for you which are outside of the remit of this investigation, you can speak to thirtyone:eight on 0303 003 1111, or the Safe Spaces helpline on 0300 303 1056.

13 thoughts on “Inspiration v integrity”

  1. This is an excellent article Jon and has certainly helped me think through the issues. I was concerned to read that it was an ‘open secret’ amongst the staff what was happening, but that said, the second statement from the Soul Survivors trustees was more full of humility and genuine concern for those who have been affected than the first statement, which was, in my opinion, awful. Trustees have an awesome responsibility in their roles to keep those running charities accountable – especially for those whose name is associated with the organisation.


    1. Yes, trustees are absolutely key – and they must have genuine authority to ask ANY question they want and to dig into ANY area of concern. So much of these issues relate to power and everyone needs people around them who will challenged them on their blind spots or weaknesses. This is simply the application of good theology.


  2. As someone who attended the festivals as a teenager, I have to say that Mike Pilavachi was the first person to show me by his honesty and humility that leaders too have struggles and are human like the rest of us. That was a really helpful paradigm shift for me as an 18 year old. Thank you for reminding us of the complexity. We are all made in God’s image, and his image in us all is marred by sin. Noone is above this and we all need help and to be called to genuine repentance (and for those calls or whistleblowings not to be ignored).


  3. I found this article very reassuring personally. I know many people have a high opinion of my ministry, only I and a few who keep silent know there has been another side.


    1. ‘Only I and a few who keep silent know’ – and here is the depth of the matter.

      Ultimately this is a question of faith – because as well as ‘a few’, do we believe that God sees everything? Are we willing to live as if this is really true?

      I think faith involves holding fast to a belief that integrity matters MORE than expedience or clever PR because there will be a reckoning. Everything that is whispered in quiet will be shouted from the rooftops. God’s judgement is about ‘putting the world to rights’ (Tom Wright) and ‘an encounter with truth’ (Rowan Williams). We can run but we cannot avoid forever the demands of truth.


  4. Over 100 years ago, Westhill College established courses in children and youth work. It eventually became one of the six colleges to deliver Youth Worket professional training. 50 years ago I enrolled as a student, choosing professional qualifications rather than bible or theological training. In the 90s, Oasis, International Christian College, Centre for Youth Ministryand Moorlands College were delivering professional training.
    I was one of the key Christians involved in professional accreditation by then. Advised and became part of Centre for Youth Ministry.
    I was also heavily involved in the Spectrum programme, an ecumenical programme for volunteers.
    My concern is that over 100 years after the Christian community started to make attempts to professionalise work with young people, we still have a largely unstructured, non professional approach to youth work in most of our churches. Everyone is required to undergo safeguarding training, but almost no Christian churches or organisations require any level of professional training and few pay a professional salary when creating posts.
    No wonder we end up in the mess we have with Iwerne, Scripture Union and now potentially Soul Survivor.


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