Crisis in the Church . . . Sex
Another report of clergy sexual indiscretion breaks on the national news, you probably heard all the same comments we did. “Not again..!” “His family must be devastated.” “Why does this keep happening?”
The Church continues to suffer these kinds of sexual scandals because the Church has yet to fully and effectively respond to the environment that contributes to their development. Not that individuals need to be excused from their responsibility. Dealing with the individual and the sin is important, but the American Church must focus its attention on transforming the church culture that leads to these situations. There is a pattern at work here, and where there is a pattern of behavior repeated over and over again, there is almost always a system that supports it.
In circumstances like these, staff and lay leaders may move quickly to remove the fallen pastor, restructure leadership and attempt to demonstrate to church members that the crisis has passed and the “problem” has been removed. But, unfortunately, such decisive action by the local body does not address the more significant problem of pastoral misconduct at its cultural root.
To do this, we must begin to look at ourselves, those of us who fill the church pews every week. We must consider that we may bear some accountability for what has happened. We cannot be part of the body of Christ without accepting responsibility for one another.
We are responsible when we fail to confront the warning flags by allowing an environment to develop that isolates our leaders and makes idols of them. We are all responsible for creating a church that offers a wonderful weekly worship ‘experience’, but falls far short of the sacrificially committed community we observe in the first-century church of Acts.
In our consulting practice, we have been called upon to assist scores of congregations confronting the fallout of a pastor’s sexual misconduct. In the process, we have observed certain similarities in the individuals involved and in the congregations they serve.
At the top of the list is the presence of consumer-driven church culture. Some of our most “successful” church models function less like a community and more like a “mall of religion,” dispensing spiritual goods and services to members rather than building a genuine community around a shared mission. In such a consumer-oriented church culture, congregations will begin to lose their “market share” as soon as another church hits town offering a flashy pastor and trendier programs. Our nationwide congregational survey, the Transforming Church Index (TCI), overwhelmingly reflects that “consumerism” is one of the most significant dysfunctions in the American church. Consumerism is present in small churches and mega-churches. Our research shows that it knows no denominational boundaries. At the same time, the insidious power of consumerism grows exponentially as a church attracts crowds of people and garners more media attention.
This consumer-driven environment places an exceptionally heavy burden on leaders. Many of these churches have often unwittingly abandoned the church’s mission to make disciples and form a priesthood of believers. Just as our secular culture is celebrity crazed, our consumer church culture creates celebrities in the very places we need servants. Over time pastors become increasingly isolated and can no longer risk being honest and transparent for fear of exposing their shortcomings and inadequacies.
We have allowed our leaders to carry burdens they were never intended to shoulder alone. As a result, pastors are increasingly overworked and burned out. And because of the isolation that ministry leadership creates, most ministers are also dangerously inaccessible and lonely. The stakes have simply become too high.
This isolation, in turn, breeds depression, frustration, and fear. Pastors become all too aware of the gap between who they know themselves to be and who their congregants think they are. This realization heaps shame and inadequacy on top of an already toxic mix of vulnerability. Trying to keep up with the snowballing expectations of consumers looking for a hero, these leaders become all the more anxious to prove themselves. They may obliterate every reasonable boundary as they try to convince themselves that they really are ‘all that’.
Individuals who find themselves in these circumstances far too often seek to deaden their pain thru inappropriate sexual relationships, often mixed with substance abuse. This is the very misconduct the Church seems to fear more than any other. Sexual sin has become the ultimate shame in the Church, and therefore there are few opportunities for those struggling with these issues to bring them into the light and battle them in the context of a gospel of forgiveness. Recovery programs have taught us that you are only as sick as your secrets. Secrets do indeed have great power over us. When sins are kept in the dark, they take on a life of their own, creating an untenable double-life.
Perhaps it’s time for church leadership teams to do some self-examination. Consider these questions:
- Are our programs more important than our people?
- Do our members have an unhealthy adulation of our pastors?
- Are most of our members involved in ministry, or are they spectators?
- What have we collectively done to contribute to our pastor’s sense of isolation?
- Are our members more focused on their own needs or the church’s mission?
- What would it take to create a culture that moves people from consumers into authentic community?
- How would our church respond to a pastor that said, “I’m struggling”?
As we have said, these scandals are not simply about the sinful choices of individual leaders. Instead, they incubate in a specific type of environment, an environment where consumers are looking for a hero or a celebrity to minimize their sense of personal responsibility. In every case where someone has lost his way, others knew he suffered or recognized their pastor’s isolation, yet failed to reach out.
Gratefully, the message of the gospel is one of transformation and hope. Although sin is not likely to change much in the next 150 years, the Church can change and grow. Perhaps the legacy of all of these scandals will be the beginning of a long-overdue discussion about consumerism in our churches and the celebrity status we impose on our leaders.