How Should I Respond to a Christian Leadership Scandal?

Have you ever been hurt by a scandal in the church? If so, you recognize it's tough to know how to respond. But here are a few thoughtful choices you can make.

How Should I Respond to a Christian Leadership Scandal?

Christian scandals are nothing new. But with the rise of social media, we're now more aware of them than ever before. Over the last few years, we've seen one Christian scandal after another.

In response, we've also seen a backlash. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast from Christianity Today detailed the failures of Mark Driscoll. Shiny Happy People debuted on Amazon and chronicled the immorality of Bill Gothard. And FX did a four-part series on The Secrets of Hillsong.

At the end of The Secrets of Hillsong, I noticed several responses from former Hillsong churchgoers. One person said she was just going to focus on being spiritual. Another said he was going to a smaller Christian church that approved of his gay relationship. Others said they were quite content having nothing to do with the church. And the general consensus was they would never attend a church like Hillsong again.

These responses weren't surprising.

Last week, Dave and I interviewed JR Woodward on his latest book The Scandal of Leadership. And as JR notes, "Domineering leadership in the church is not just a current problem; it is a historical issue, as old as the church itself."

So how should we respond to Christian leadership scandals? Here are some choices we can make.  

Choice #1 | Grieve that Real People Suffered Real Hurt

It's easy to look at Christian scandals and ask questions like What person in their right mind would ever buy what a guy like Bill Gothard was selling? How in the world could tens of thousands of people follow someone like Hillsong's Carl Lentz?

And in some twisted way, we blame the victims. In response to scandals, we make dismissive comments like, "That's what people get when they go to a church like that" or "I don't see what good it does to always complain about the past."

We see this all the time when someone leaves a comment on social media about ways they've been hurt by the church. Give it three minutes and some Christian is quick to point out, "I'm sorry to hear about your experience. But just know that ALL churches aren't that way." Sometimes these comments are done in good faith. But many times they wreak of condescension. (Full disclosure: I've been guilty of this sometimes)

When someone has experienced abuse in the church, it is imperative we take some time to hear them out before rushing to a solution. Everyone's hurt is different. Yes, I'm sure some use hypocrisy to justify having nothing to do with God or the church. This is nothing new. But there are also many who are just lost. They placed a lot of hope in someone and now their entire world feels like it has collapsed.

Of course, we know the answer is Jesus. No one should place their confidence in mortal men and women. But before rushing to offer prepackaged suggestions for how people should respond, it's best to be present and help them grieve what they've lost.

Choice #2 | Recognize Many Demanding Change Are Also Part of the Problem

I hesitate to put this choice in but I think it's important.

I'll refrain from name-calling, but I've noticed some large Christian organizations have seemingly built their brand around critiquing the church. Every other post on their social media channels either mentions a church leader's moral failure, abuse in the church, or some scandal readers need to know about. Again, I won't go down this rabbit trail too far but I'd recommend you check out Patrick Miller's conversation with Preston Sprinkle on this topic.  

In summary, here is the problem. Christian media gains traction by writing stories on pop star Christian speakers. This generates clicks. But then, when this leader fails, the same media double dips and profits from this leader's downfall. But the one organization that doesn't gain anything? The local church.

Again, I'm not trying to cast shade at those who call out abuse in the church. We need people to do this. But I am saying that often the same voices demanding change are the very ones that profit from the cycle of destruction.

Choice #3 | Disengage from Reactionary Movements 

Recently, I was doing some work with a client who moved to D.C. a month after the infamous Watergate break-in of 1972. This meant I watched about fifteen hours of material on this turbulent era of American politics. And as I did, I came across this short three-minute clip from Dick Cheney.

While I'm not his biggest fan, Cheney made a point I thought was fascinating. When Nixon left office, President Gerald Ford came in and implemented a "spokes in the wheel" approach to leadership. In doing so, the message was clear. Ford thought the former White House Chief of Staff (H.R. Halderman) had too much control. But now, things would be different. The administration wouldn't just have one leader. They'd have lots of leaders.

But as Cheney pointed out, this quickly led to confusion with the president being double-booked for meetings. And as a result, they soon went back to a central chief of staff.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the church, I often notice a similar pattern. One leader looks at all the bureaucracy in Christian institutions and says, "Time is short and our mission is too grand to waste time deciding which color of carpet to have in the sanctuary. After all, without vision, the people perish. So...I have a vision and if you want to be on mission with God, you need to join our family and be a part of something special."

This leader is charismatic and everything revolves around them. And anyone that questions their authority is dismissed or never given a voice. In the process, many come to faith in Christ, but because the foundation was built on shaky sand, it inevitably falls apart. One moral scandal and everything dissolves.

Trying to work through the ashes, the next generation steps up and says, "See, this is the problem. We were too one-person-centric. So instead of having one leader, let's have ten. We'll all share the stage and everyone can be a "co-leader." But then everything grinds to a halt and we're back to bureaucracy. The idea of having a new speaker on stage each week sounded great, but congregants struggle with the inconsistency. Making joint decisions seemed wise, but trivial decisions that once took minutes now take weeks. And instead of having a clear vision, the church ends up with a shotgun approach that hits much and impacts little.

I don't profess to have all the answers. But in Creating a Missional Culture, JR Woodward offers a model of "polycentric leadership" as an alternative to hierarchical or flat leadership models. And I think he's on to something. (I'd encourage you to check out our discussion of this on our podcast)

In short, we need leaders who articulate a clear vision, preach with boldness, and offer consistency in a world that is shaky. But we also need leaders who surround themselves with those who think differently, are content with slower growth, and are more focused on being servants than they are aspiring to be servant leaders.

Choice 4 | Stop Feeding the Monster

When it comes to the rise of scandals in the church, at some point we have to look ourselves in the eye and recognize we might be part of the problem. No, we weren't the cause of a leader's moral failure, but maybe we contributed to them attaining their level of power.

On one hand, we say we want a church that doesn't revolve around one person, but why do we keep attending churches that hold to this model? We say we want church to be more organic, but why do we only attend churches that make us feel comfortable? We say we just want to follow faithful leaders who practice a "long obedience in the same direction," but why are our bookshelves always lined with the latest and greatest popular Christian writers of our day?

Honestly, one of the ways I've tried to stop feeding the monster is by guarding who I bring on The Monday Christian podcast. There are certain names in Christian circles I know will drive our numbers. If I bring on X author to talk about topics like sex, abuse, racism, or Christian nationalism, I can count on an analytics bump.

But while those topics are important, I also have to watch my motivation. Am I bringing on people I know will drive clicks or am I actually bringing on people I believe have a word for our time? Sometimes the topics that seem the most mundane are the ones that are most important.

Going back to JR Woodward's The Scandal of Leadership, one of the points I liked about this book was his emphasis on prevention rather than reaction. He's more interested in preventing the next scandal than he is in responding to ones that have already occurred. And I think this is the same thoughtful approach Monday Christians need to take if we seek to be part of the solution to Christian leadership scandals.

Again, if you want to do a deeper dive into this topic, I'd recommend JR Woodward's The Scandal of Leadership. It's great! And as always, feel free to leave a comment below by subscribing to this newsletter.