Autonomy, Ethics Scandals, and the Madness of Crowds

When faced with ethical misconduct scandals, are churches, or any other organizations, obligated to involve outside investigators? Should the volume and fervor of public outcry guide an organization’s response to ethics scandals?

I hope to be somewhat persuasive in answering these questions, but mostly I want to be clear. With that in mind, I’ve structured my thoughts here debate style.

Thesis

In response to purely ethical scandals, organizations should not view themselves as obligated to involve any third parties; further, they should be wary of attaching too much significance to public outcry.

Definitions

  • Purely ethical scandals: situations where it is known to the public that individuals have accused others of wrongdoing, but the accusations do not include any allegations of illegal conduct.
  • Obligated: required, mandatory, as opposed to optional (optional meaning the organization may consider it on a case by case basis, evaluating the merits).
  • Third parties: individuals or groups other than the organization (including its constituents) and alleged victims. The general public, the press, advocacy groups, and “the Internet” are just about always third parties (or maybe umpteen-million-and-twenty-third parties!).
  • Constituents: persons who are part of the organization, whether members, volunteers, shareholders, staff, or executives.

These definitions aren’t offered as authoritative; they are here as explanation of what I mean by the terms I’m using. If it helps avoid distraction, consider them stipulative.

Summary of Arguments

  1. Argument from the preservation of excellence (you can’t go the extra mile if all the miles are required).
  2. Argument from the proximity of understanding (contrary to popular belief, those closest to a problem usually understand it best).
  3. Argument from the inherent limits of authority and responsibility (everything isn’t everybody’s business).
  4. Argument from disenfranchising of the truly vested (giving votes to those who aren’t entitled devalues the votes of those who are).
  5. Argument from the risk of feeding a fire (efforts to appease an angry crowd can lead to more demands and more loss of control).
  6. Argument from unhelpful empowerment (yielding to a third party’s demands can create expectations that increase the third party’s power in the future).
  7. Argument from the unwisdom of crowds (a stampede must be respected, but not as a source of insight).

Notes on the Arguments

Preservation of excellence: If all best practices are deemed obligatory, what can a group do to be generous toward alleged victims and interested third parties? How does one exceed expectations? Given that tendency, it’s best for an organization to maintain its sovereignty over its own affairs and frame any decision to involve outsiders in that light: “Dealing with ethics violations by our people is our responsibility; we choose to invite this team to investigate to assist and advise us” or “… because it’s our desire to go the extra mile in helping people understand the importance we attach to this matter.”

Argument from proximity: It’s popular in our culture to think that cubicles full of experts hundreds of miles away can best determine what ought to be done locally. History doesn’t bear this out. Other things being equal, those closest to the problem best understand its extent, causes, and remedies. (It’s why the founding fathers supported federalism, why Edmond Burke admired it. Russel Kirk emphasizes local control in the eighth of his ten conservative principles.)

Argument from inherent limits: This argument alone could make the case. It should be beyond dispute that not everything is everybody’s business. We have the acronym MYOB for a reason. That raises the question, how is it decided what matters are who’s business? Since power, in human hands, tends to try to grow itself, both individuals and organizations have to put some energy into protecting their boundaries (a.k.a., autonomy). A matter does not become somebody’s business just because they’re interested and have strong opinions about it. It’s sometimes OK — even wise — to tell the opinionated outsider (preferably with a calm, resolute tone and a smile) to take the proverbial long walk off the short peer.

How do we determine who gets a vote, so to speak, and who doesn’t? A rule of thumb might be this: the less personally invested an individual or group is in an organization, the less entitled that person or group is to influence its affairs. (Again, we’re talking about purely ethical issues here, not matters of law.)

Argument from disenfranchisement: Every organization has constituents who are personally and substantially involved in the organization’s activities. It’s patently unfair for an organization to give an angry Internet or cadre of complaining celebrities the same (or greater) power over its internal discipline than it gives to its own membership or employees. To draw an example from literal voting, does anyone think it would be just to extend the vote to citizens of Mexico and Canada in the next U.S. election? If an organization voluntarily chooses to employ outsiders to assist and advise, the rightful influence of its own constituency is not violated.

Argument from the risk of fire: Sometimes making concessions leads to calm and getting back to business. Sometimes it only adds fuel to a fired-up mob that doesn’t really want anything but destruction. We’ve all seen it happen. Social media has given fired up and uninformed masses more power than ever in matters that are none of their business. Now, more than ever, people who love truth must learn to shutter out the Twitter tempests and Facebook frenzies so that cooler heads can prevail. (Heather Wilhelm has some poignant thoughts on this topic today. Read Only the Strident Survive.)

Argument from empowerment: Giving in to the demands of third parties in these situations can unintentionally legitimize claims of rights where no rights exist. The result is that down the road, the empowered entities believe they are now entitled to expand their say on matters that weren’t their responsbility to being with. It’s like the kid who lets her brother tell her what to do. Once that ground is given up, it can be disproportionately hard to get it back. (Starbucks’ response to events in Philadelphia is insightful. They don’t seem to even know yet how much they have surrendered. The company was already well beyond the extra mile in promoting and protecting diversity.)

Argument from the unwisdom of crowds: This one shouldn’t be a hard sell. A raging stampede has too much destructive power to ignore, but it has nothing to contribute to understanding the best path to follow. Stampedes of humans may involve less dust, trampling, and fleeing cowboys, but they’re at least as loud, emotional, and stupid. In fact, it takes intelligence to be really, truly, foolish. Worked up crowds of humans are unsurpassed in their ability to employ intelligence selectively in pursuit of destructive and self-defeating goals.

Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is old book, but you can still get it on Amazon. It may not have all its facts straight, but the most remarkable thing about the book is that none of its accounts of popular bad judgment are at all hard to believe.

Conclusion

These are seven reasons that no organization should view alleged ethics violations as automatically requiring some kind of third party intervention. They’re also reasons for attaching little weight to public opinion as a factor in the pursuit of truth.

I haven’t argued here that involving a third party to investigate and/or make recommendations is necessarily a bad idea. It’s an option that has much to commend it as an option. Sometimes it’s helpful; sometimes it isn’t.

I also haven’t argued that public opinion should be ignored. Depending on the nature of the organization, it may be dependent on public good will for entirely practical reasons. In these cases, reassuring the public or rebuilding its trust is important for the sake of outcomes — not at all because the public has insight into what the organization ought to do or has a right to influence it. (Note: in the case of government entities, the public does have a right, though I remain skeptical of its insight.)

The secondary thesis that churches have even more reason to safeguard their autonomy is another topic, but all the above arguments apply, with the addition of a biblical mandate to recognize only Christ as their Head.

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There are 54 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

The disclaimer: there are almost certainly typos in this piece. It got a bit less time in the oven than usual. (Not saying it's "half baked" ...hopefully at least 4/5 baked.)

A word about genetic fallacy, in anticipation. Genetic fallacy is what happens when we reason "proposition A is false because of where it came from." Sometimes the term includes it's cousin, a species of part-whole fallacy that happens when we reason "this individual from group A has characteristic B because many in group A have characteristic B."

But I'm not making the claim here that any particular ideas are bad because of where they came from or that every individual in some group has all the characteristics of everyone else in the group.

I think I've made it clear that I'm not claiming all third parties have nothing good to contribute. But there are trade off's involved in bringing in third parties and the downside is not always worth the upside. It has to be optional, and has to be evaluated case by case.

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, you're missing a basic fact; organizations tend to circle the wagons when accusations are made, and any coherent plan for dealing with this kind of thing has to take this into account.  Organizations will hide information, distort information, resist common sense initiatives, and a whole lot more.  Really, I cannot think of any cases where the advice you give here would help.  Rather, what you're saying strengthens the likelihood that a church will circle the wagons when an issue is brought up.

If you want a good example of how to handle something, look at the case of the Extra Strength Tylenol murders of 1982.  They took the product off the shelves a week after the first death, only hours after investigators connected the murders to their product, and introduced tamper resistant packaging which is the standard to this day.  Another good example is the Penn State scandal with Jerry Sandusky, where clear evidence that President Graham Spanier and Coach Joe Paterno had overlooked Sandusky's behavior led to their forced resignations only four days after Jerry Sandusky's indictment.  Two weeks later, former FBI director Louis Freeh was hired to do an independent investigation.

Again, I've never, ever heard of an organization suffering because they took criticism seriously.  Never.  I have, however, heard story after story of organizations suffering because they didn't, and chose instead to circle the wagons, insist on their right to "handle it inside", accuse the critics of having "madness of crowds", and the like.  That's what dug the hole for Penn State prior to the indictments, that's what's digging a cavern for Michigan State, and that's what dug huge holes for ABWE, BJU, New Tribes, and the Catholic Church.  

It is long past time for churches to open their eyes and realize that the big risk they face when scandals become public is not responding too much to claims.  It is circling the wagons in a defensive posture.  Again, 1 Timothy 3:7.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron, what an exceptional article!  Your points are well taken.

Bert, your points also have merit, IMO.  Hiding information, cover-ups, etc. can be the response to scandalous accusations.

But I think disagree with this statement, but I may be misinterpreting it:

I've never, ever heard of an organization suffering because they took criticism seriously.  

Technically, that might be your experience, but I know of situations where I think  church leaders too things TOO seriously.  Of course, it is hard to tell sincerity from pretext as an outsider, but many pastors have been fired over trivia.  There are knit-pickers, control freaks, people who are not balanced but give the image of being normal,  and people with agendas in our churches, and they can create havoc and make mountains out of molehills.

If, on the other hand, you mean accusations that are clearly serious (like adultery or sexual solicitation, for example) with substance behind them, then I agree with you.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

To pick those nits, Ed, I'd argue that what you were seeing was precisely circling the wagons.  In those situations, those wrongly fired had simply learned the hard way who the real leaders of the organization were, and what their priorities were.  Members had gotten used to the situation and would never mention it; many astute outsiders would figure it out instantly. 

Two examples serve to illustrate this.  John Maxwell noted that in his first meeting in his first pastorate, he figured out that one deacon was the de facto leader of the church.  So he cleverly worked with "Floyd" to make sure each of his ideas were seen by "Floyd" as his own.

Another example from my life; one of the first meetings I attended as a deacon in a church in Colorado was of a finance committee that was really making most of the big decisions for the church, and they'd been doing so for years.  I noticed this and told the head deacon that we had two deacon boards--and within a couple of weeks, the finance committee was disbanded--and amazingly, it worked out great.  The members simply viewed it as their responsibility and were glad to move on to ministries they actually enjoyed.

So I would argue, per 1 Cor. 11:31, that the first job of the leaders of a ministry in an awkward case is not to set boundaries on how much one can, will, or should do.  It is to take an honest look at the tendencies of the organization and take steps to mitigate those tendencies.  Organizations will circle the wagons, they will attack accusers, and often organizations are the worst at seeing their own weaknesses.  So when problems arise, it's almost always wise to get someone from the outside to take a look.  Or, put in the old lawyers' adage, the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.  He's simply not going to see what he needs to see.

The trouble I see with Aaron's advice is that it directs attention away from what is most critical in a crisis; self-examination, and directs attention towards real or imagined defects in the complainants.  And to be blunt about the matter, one of the surest signs I've seen that a crisis is going to turn harshly against the accused is that the leaders of the institution start to personally attack the accusers.  

Sorry, Aaron, but while some of the things you say are technically true, the thing you've missed is so critical that any board that takes your advice without taking "circling the wagons" seriously is strongly likely to do the exact wrong things.  All of those things about "excellence" and "we're not required to do this" are just going to feed the fire.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Sorry for the delay, but I've been busy writing about local church autonomy for Monday.

On tendency of organizations to circle wagons...

I don't disagree that this tendency exists. There really are tradeoffs involved in bringing in outside investigators, though. Which is why almost every business out there has processes for handling ethics problems internally before they seriously consider anything of the kind. Maybe I'll work on a piece on that specific topic one of these days, but it really doesn't take that much imagination.

Anyway, that tendency doesn't actually counter any of the arguments I made, since I've only argued that the outside team option is not obligatory. I haven't attempted to argue that it's a bad idea, and specifically said it has merits (it also has demerits).

"I've never, ever heard of an organization suffering because they took criticism seriously." 

Me neither. I'm 100% in favor of all organizations taking alleged ethics violations seriously.

On Penn State: a public university has a very different relationship with the public than a private business or church does. But really, Penn State is a case of botched internal leadership. I'm not arguing for botching internal leadership. I'm arguing for doing it right... and bringing in outside help if and when it makes sense to do that.

"the big risk they face when scandals become public is not responding too much to claims"

I'm certainly open to seeing evidence that supports this assertion.

"The trouble I see with Aaron's advice is that it directs attention away from what is most critical in a crisis; self-examination, and directs attention towards real or imagined defects in the complainants.  And to be blunt about the matter, one of the surest signs I've seen that a crisis is going to turn harshly against the accused is that the leaders of the institution start to personally attack the accusers."  

There is actually no evidence at all in what I've written that discourages self examination or blames victims. As for accusers, well, the only way to tell if they are correct or incorrect in their accusations is to investigate. I'm 100% in favor of that being done as effectively as possible -- even in the case of churches, though they are not free to chose options the same way all other organizations are, because these are in fact matters of church discipline.

Bert, I appreciate what I think is the spirit of your position on this: I get that abuse of power, coverups, and leadership failures are ugly, ugly things. I just see the question of how to respond to accusations within an organization as more complex than you seem to at this point, and I want to emphasize flexibility and the freedom. Though autonomy and freedom can be abused, they are also essential to organizations' ability to uphold their own standards in a way that is consistent with their own beliefs, commitments, values, etc.

TylerR's picture

I have a few comments along this line, in no particular order. I believe my perspective is relatively unique. I didn't grow up as a Christian. I've been a Pastor (and, Lord willing, will become a Pastor again in 20 days - more on that if it happens), and I've also been in law enforcement, and in leadership in military and state government. Right now, I manage the Regulatory Investigations Unit for a Washington state agency - with statewide jurisdiction. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Some pastors and church leaders are not intelligent people, and they'll make unintelligent decisions when faced with difficult situations. This is a fact.
  2. There is no set of safeguards (e.g. written guidelines and/or a seminary class) that will prevent abuse situations from occurring within Christian families in a local church, or insure they're reported correctly. Guidelines are only good if you follow them. Having a "paper plan" is useless if you don't intend to use it.
  3. Christians are sometimes out to lunch when it comes to the marriage and divorce issue. I suspect some of the bad advice that's unfortunately stereotyped as normative from conservative Christian pastors (e.g. see Paige Patterson's remarks that have been floating on the internet the past few days) stems from an idea that "divorce = unpardonable sin." This issue is obviously quicksand, but Christian leaders should be willing to challenge assumptions and study the divorce/re-marriage issue. Don't reach for a book written by your favorite pop theologian; get a pen, paper, and a Bible and start making some notes on Gen 2, Mt 19, Eph 5, 1 Pet 3 and 1 Cor 7. Throw Song of Solomon in there, too. Full disclosure; I counseled a Christian woman to divorce amidst a terrible situation, and later performed her marriage ceremony to a good Christian man. They have an excellent marriage today/
  4. A pastor needs to understand what his mandatory reporting requirements are, in his local jurisdiction.
  5. The police are your ally, not your enemy. It's appropriate and prudent (if circumstances warrant it) to work parallel to the state in matters of domestic abuse. Criminals should be made to feel the consequences of their own actions. If appropriate, report the offender to the authorities and encourage the spouse to do the same. Work with the couple (or, barring that, at least the victimized spouse) from a spiritual standpoint (which includes confrontation about the need for honest confession of sin and repentance), while you allow the state to handle it's own end.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ed Vasicek's picture

Dear Tyler,

Keep us up to date on the pastorate situation!  

I appreciate your comments very much, but in defense of Aaron, I think it is important to point out that he was talking strictly about matters that are not legal infractions.  He is talking more about in-house church matters, like unfaithfulness, etc.

I appreciate your reminder that the police are our friends.

With marriage and divorce issues, I suspect we would be similar in thought.  I ran into a pastor friend once at the post office, and asked him what his position was on divorce.  He said, "The Biblical one."  I thought, "Good grief.  Serious, Bible-believing interpreters have developed a number of viewpoints on this issue.  We all want the Biblical one, but to claim we own the rights to it is not reasonable."  Ok, the wording was not that kind in my mind Smile  .   As a matter of fact, I thought his statement to be condescending toward those with other studied convictions.

A church can, however, determine some of its own requirements for a leader in addition to the Bible, as long as it is understood that those requirements do not come from the Bible (which, sadly, is often how it is portrayed). One example would be a degree from a Bible college or seminary.  A church can also require its pastors, elders, or deacons, to have never been divorced.  However, when this is tied to I Timothy 3:2, it must be recognized that -- although we may have convictions as to what this verse means -- there are many solid Bible people who (without agenda) would interpret this differently.

 

 

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

I think Aaron's comments about autonomy deserve to be heard. Ironically, our brethren who are so passionately championing outside intervention are destroying the principle of congregational (nay, organizational) autonomy. The state is not the answer. Intelligent, prudent leaders are the answer, along with a willingness to follow a good set of policy guidelines for these situations.

At the heart of it, this is a leadership issue. That's all it is. Leaders re notoriously hard to find. It's an intangible thing, but we all know it when we see it. A guy may be able to preach well, but this doesn't make him a leader. We need more than technicians in our pulpits. Every organization struggles to find good leaders, and sometimes the slots are filled by technicians, instead. These aren't the same thing.

Show me a case where a local church handled a domestic abuse situation badly, and I'll probably show you a terrible failure of organizational leadership. In many cases, it more than that - it's criminal incompetence and negligence (e.g. ABWE and Ketchum). You can't solve this with a class. You also can't solve that with "paper guidelines" that sit on a shelf.

What is the solution, then? I'll make these brief remarks:

  1. A 22 year old with a bible college BA is not equipped to lead anybody to do anything. He's equipped to learn, and put his newly acquired tools to the test, instead. It isn't his fault; he's just young.
  2. Ditto for the 26 year old with an MDiv, who's been at university since he was 18. It isn't his fault; he's just young.
  3. Ditto for the 22 year old who's been married for six months. It isn't his fault; he's just young. How on earth can a 22 yr-old with a BA, married for six months, offer any meaningful advice to a couple married for 20 years with six kids, when the husband says, "Our sex life is awful. She doesn't meet my needs. That's why I turned to pornography. I tried to initiate sex with her the other morning, and she refused. She doesn't care about me!" Multiply that inexperience factor when it comes to allegations of spousal abuse.
  4. If a local church isn't committed to doing some discipleship with promising young men, and is counting on seminaries to train future leaders, then it's already failed.
  5. Pastors who have stayed within the cozy Christian sub-cultural "bubble" sometimes live in an alternate reality from the rest of their congregation, and don't understand the "real world" very well. There is an intangible, but very real benefit, from being bi-vocational or having real life experience outside ministry.
  6. Local churches often have no idea how to find a pastor, and their criteria often doesn't include "leadership." Even if it did, Deacons may not even know what leadership looks like anyway. Associations should help their member churches find competent pastors.

None of this is easy, or sexy. It'd be easier to "solve" the problem with another required seminary class. Except, that'd solve nothing. This is a leadership problem, and it stems from how we prepare our young men in local churches (not seminaries), and what we expect when we look for new pastors to fill vacancies.

We need leaders, not mere technicians. Even then, you can't stop stupid, so these things will continue to happen.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Don Johnson's picture

Tyler, you are making a lot of sweeping statements, but missing the point. See Ed's comment. You are arguing with your mental image of the point, I think.

on th issue of reporting/handling in house, when criminal conduct is suspected, I think it is pretty clear that those with knowledge must report, especially ministers. However, many situations are not so cut and dried. It seems like we are developing a new breed of Pharisees who know better than God how to handle domestic problems.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, if you want evidence that what you've written empowers abusers.  It's the simple fact that if you see yourself as sovereign, you will start to act as one.  Place yourself in the position of someone who's got something to hide, and who's designed their organization to hide it.  

"Oh, I can shut down an independent investigation by appealing to this doctrine?  Hey.....  Oh, external people do not have a stake in the results here, even though my books are sent by Amazon and CBD all over the world?  Sounds good...."

Sorry, brother, but this is not that complicated.  Your theory of radical autonomy of the local church has little to do with the New Testament, and it has always been used to empower those who will not play by Biblical rules.  It's time to modify it to reflect the fact that the New Testament largely exists due to the efforts of the Apostles to infringe on that radical autonomy that some (Diotrephes, sectarians of 1 Cor, etc.) tried to use to their advantage.

TylerR's picture

Don:

Aaron's series came from a discussion on this "sexual and physical abuse reporting" issue in another thread. That's why my comments are oriented towards that context. For example, see how Aaron ties it back to this context in his second installment.

My main point is that these scandals are often a result of poor leadership. Another seminary class won't fix this, and neither will a knee-jerk referral to an allegedly neutral third-party organization - and we shouldn't expect these options will fix such a systemic problem (to the extent that it actually exists, and isn't being blown out of proportion by eager Christians on social media). One solution is to make sure we're actually appointing leaders, not mere preaching technicians, as pastors in our churches. My long comments are elaborations on that theme.

  • Do you believe the root issue is leadership, to the extent these accusations are credible?
  • What do you mean by your comment "[i]t seems like we are developing a new breed of Pharisees who know better than God how to handle domestic problems."

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Aaron, if you want evidence that what you've written empowers abusers.  It's the simple fact that if you see yourself as sovereign, you will start to act as one.  Place yourself in the position of someone who's got something to hide, and who's designed their organization to hide it.  

"Oh, I can shut down an independent investigation by appealing to this doctrine?  Hey.....  Oh, external people do not have a stake in the results here, even though my books are sent by Amazon and CBD all over the world?  Sounds good...."

Sorry, brother, but this is not that complicated.  Your theory of radical autonomy of the local church has little to do with the New Testament, and it has always been used to empower those who will not play by Biblical rules.  It's time to modify it to reflect the fact that the New Testament largely exists due to the efforts of the Apostles to infringe on that radical autonomy that some (Diotrephes, sectarians of 1 Cor, etc.) tried to use to their advantage.

I don't see how any of this relates to what I am actually saying.... And I have no interest in defending positions that are not my own. My actual position is stated in the thesis. That's why I wrote it that way. 

As for the evidence I asked for, I see none in your post. Only restated opinions.

Ed Vasicek's picture

You know, for years I have heard axioms that equate so much weight to leaders.  We have developed an entire science of leadership based upon particular individuals, and we try to develop principles we see in them and/or emulate them.

So little of this comes from actual Bible command.  The Bible describes many leaders (Moses, Balaam, Samuel, Samson, Eli, Saul, David, Paul, etc.) who were put in those positions by God, some good and some not so good.

In the NT, we see the idea of rank (e.g., Apostle), and, within that rank, some rose to great influence (Peter, Paul, and John, for example) while others (like Thaddeus, for example) did not seem to be as notable.

Without getting extensive, I think this leadership science -- while valuable in some ways -- is not really developed from Scripture.  Thaddeus was a leader and an apostle.  So was Paul.  We know more about Paul, but if Thaddeus was called to a small, not-so-influential ministry and we knew it, would we emulate him?  I think not.

To take one sort of leader and ignore other forms of leadership based upon greater results or notoriety and make that the model for all misses the point.  The church is a body. Every leader leads in his own way, and that may not fit the popular templates.

I think the Bible encourages all men to:

Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.

Whether you are 22 or 62, that is God's call. Age may influence wisdom, but not courage. You don't have to be a great influencer to take a stand and act like a man.  And that is what is needed among board members, etc., during such times.

I began my pastoral ministry at age 22 with a BA from Moody Bible Institute.  Back in 1979 when I began, I don't know that I would this scenario any differently.  It was tough to handle then, but no easier now.

Ditto for the 22 year old who's been married for six months. It isn't his fault; he's just young. How on earth can a 22 yr-old with a BA, married for six months, offer any meaningful advice to a couple married for 20 years with six kids, when the husband says, "Our sex life is awful. She doesn't meet my needs. That's why I turned to pornography. I tried to initiate sex with her the other morning, and she refused. She doesn't care about me!

My first pastorate was in Chicago in an inner-city storefront church, where I served exactly 4 and 1/2 years -- the longest tenure of any pastor in its 50 year history.  The messy situations I may now be able to label better, but I cannot say I would give any different direction than I would have back then.  There was one exception, a couple dealing with impotence. That one threw me for a loop, so I referred them to an older, more experienced pastor friend ( which is what a young pastor should do). And that -- making friends with experienced pastor(s) and asking for advice -- is what can really help a young man (or not so young man -- I still do this on occasion) face some of those challenges.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Ed, I agree with this. I'm not arguing for a science of leadership. Perhaps leadership isn't the best term to describe what I'm getting at. I'm using it as a shorthand to describe a whole constellation of necessary characteristics. I'll refrain from elaborating further, because that isn't the point of this article. But, suffice it to say I'm not arguing for "leadership" as an illusory chimera in a secular sense, as if we should all head to a Tony Robbins seminar.

I will say that people know if a man is competent to lead others. We can see it in them. We recognize it. Some pastors are more preaching technicians than leaders. Lack of leadership = lack or courage to follow an appropriate course, no matter the consequences = wagon circling = the recent scandals we've seen.  

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

TylerR's picture

Again, I caution folks to remember this - you're wrong if you think you can understand the facts of the situation from reading internet articles and Twitter feeds. We must avoid copying the worst impulses of the leftist socialists, by forming social media mobs to rail against alleged failures by churches or para-church organizations. You likely don't have the facts, and those "facts" you do have likely have an agenda behind them.

Wait before rushing to judgment. This is why I don't say anything about Phelps, Wilson, Hybels or any of the other matters that have been in the public eye. There's little point. The best we can do is watch, read, and consider how we can avoid the same "mistakes" (we may never know if they really were mistakes, though) in our own ministries.   

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

Tyler wrote: "Aaron's series came from a discussion on this "sexual and physical abuse reporting" issue in another thread."

Hopefully, I've been consistent, but I don't actually remember that thread at the moment. It wasn't consciously on my mind when I wrote this piece. Are you thinking of the BJU GRACE one? Another thread I was  thinking about was the latest one on Willow Creek/Bill Hybels. I don't know the details of their case, but I have no reason to believe the church leadership cannot resolve the issue appropriately themselves (along with the congregation of course)... though not necessarily to the satisfaction of all involved. There is often no outcome that can even make 50% of the stakeholders happy. But sometimes there is something that works for a majority.

I would think an organization like Willow Creek would long ago have written up harassment and general ethics policies and, if they practice church discipline at all, procedures for how that works. So members and staff should presumably all be aware of what their process is. But again, I haven't researched the details.

What I've been saying on this is that outside investigation is an option to be considered along with other options, and may or may not be the best route in each case.... and when there are civil or criminal legal issues involved, of course involve the authorities promptly. 

(But sometimes folks seem to be so sure I'm saying something else, they can't seem to hear what I'm actually saying. Oh well. Goes w/being human.)

TylerR's picture

Aaron, I was referring to this comment, from the Hybels discussion. My apologies if I misunderstood the context of your articles, here.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

Funny, in the "Thesis" section, I read that (a) organizations should not view themselves as obligated to have an outside investigator and (b) organizations ought not give undue weight to public outcry.  Notice that both contentions are profoundly negative, and the end result is going to be that those who begin with this point of view are extremely likely to end with it as well.   .  In the same way, when one refers to the "madness of crowds", one is (again) beginning with the assumption that their complaints are not valid and may indeed be a sign of mental illness.  

Not a good place to start an investigation, to put it mildly, and this is exactly why I state that this article actually enables those who break the rules.  The ground rules are phrased to discourage a good look around.

That doesn't mean that every allegation is true, or that an independent investigator is always the solution, but let's contrast that with a positive phrasing:

(a) Independent investigators can be a valuable resource to restore church credibility when evidence exists that church controls have failed, and (b) public outcry can be a valuable, though not infallible, indication of an organization's need to investigate.  It means almost the same thing, but again; it's positive and will tend to lead towards action.

Another dangerous way to phrase things is "you don't have all the facts".  Technically true, but only God knows everything, and we need to work on partial evidence.  Regarding Hybels, get those 1100 emails, and we all know the full story most likely.  It's also significant that members of WC's accountability board resigned in protest of the investigation--or lack thereof.  Proof of guilt?  Not yet, but definitely proof of a halfhearted investigation. 

It's little clues like that that break cases, and it's little clues like this that non-independent investigators tend to miss because they're used to looking at it.  Churches need to learn not to discourage people from looking.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

"That doesn't mean that every allegation is true, or that an independent investigator is always the solution"

Doesn't sound to me like we disagree, then.

I accept that you don't like how I'm saying it. I'm happy with how I'm saying it, for the time being. But I can't really think of a positive way to say that there are things we should not do. Sometimes negatives are necessary and more clear. "Thou shalt not kill" is better than "thou shalt let everyone around you live."

But to each his own I guess.

"Aaron, I was referring to this comment, from the Hybels discussion. My apologies if I misunderstood the context of your articles, here."

I see now. No, you had it right. It's not about sexual abuse reporting, though. I don't think there is any of that alleged in the Hybel's case... at least not in the Chicago Tribune story I read. If there is, then it's a mystery to me why the whole thing wasn't in the hands of police long ago. But in case there is any confusion about how I see that, where civil or criminal offenses are alleged, churches need to take that to law enforcement. In some cases, with the civil stuff, though, it people may choose not to press charges, so a bit of negotiation and peacemaking is in order. But anyway, the discipline process is the church dealing with sin. The legal process is the government dealing with crime. The two are not really in conflict at all (except in cases of direct contradiction of God's commands as we find in Acts a couple of times..)

 

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

First, a disclaimer: it's a been long day and I'm tired... I hope this is coherent.

Now, a couple of self-corrections here:

1. I think I can restate the thesis positively, after all. Something like this: 

In response to purely ethical scandals, organizations should view themselves as free to find solutions internally; further, they should be wary of attaching too much significance to public outcry.

I didn't alter the second clause. It's already positive.

2. I've made some erroneous statements in reference to civil law and the church, I think. The law aspect is complex and kind of on the periphery, so I've mostly tried to focus on the purely ethical scandals. But my understanding of civil law is that in the case of churches, this is what is specifically excluded in 1 Cor. 6:1 and following -- but 1 Cor. 6 seems to assume a member vs. member situation in the same congregation. I'm not sure how it would apply when former members want to sue current members or former staff, for example. 

(Accordingly, I have a sentence or two to edit in today's post, where I lumped "civil and criminal law" together. In the church setting the difference matters.)

Bert Perry's picture

The thesis is STILL in a negative tone, and that will set the tone for what we're discussing.  I would further argue that in any ethical scandal that becomes public, an outside investigator should be STRONGLY encouraged if there is any significant evidence that in-church accountability structures have already failed.  

I'm going to walk through your arguments as well, as I disagree almost completely.  For starters, excellence is not what you do in special cases; it is what you do from day to day.  Nobody buys Lindt chocolate or a Lexus because of what they do in special cases; they buy because every day, the whole company comes together to build the best chocolate/car they can.  If you reserve excellence for special cases, it will not be there.  That's why companies get certified with ISO, after all.  

Going further, I would invert your claim that organizations know better than outsiders what's going on; the reason I say this is that survival in an organization is often a matter of accepting how that organization works, including its flaws.  A well run organization sometimes will come close to what an outside auditor will see, but you'll see they make a point of getting outsiders in who are not used to how the organization works.  Example: ISO certification.

MYOB; OK, when someone like Bill Hybels is allegedly embarrassing the cause of Christ by sexually abusing subordinates and friends, exactly how do we claim that this is not the business of others in the catholic (universal) church?  Sorry, doesn't fly.  In the same way, any parent of kids in sports is--or ought to be--concerned about scandals like that of Larry Nassar.

(this really covers your argument of fire, disenfranchisement, and others....sorry, everybody ought to be concerned when Chuck Phelps hides what happened to Tina Anderson by sending her to Colorado, as it could happen to their loved ones, too)

Argument from unwisdom of crowds: you give no examples, I've given plenty of the idiocy of groups circling the wagons.  I think the preponderance of evidence says that not only is this a claim that is going to deter people from taking necessary and prudent steps to handle problem rightly, but also that the idiocy of wagon-circling groups appears to be more powerful than the unwisdom of crowds these days, to put it mildly. 

Ed Vasicek's picture

Bert, the Gospels are full of partial truths.  There is nothing wrong with only dealing with part of a subject.  One is not obligated to deal with it all (or nothing).  This is the logical issue between you and Aaron.

Aaron's article is fine and it stands on its own.  The negative is part of the equation.  If he were claiming that his article were the whole truth and it dealt with matters in a full way, that would be a different story.

Balance-phobia is common in the Christian world.  It forces us to predicate everything with, "I'm not saying this...but I am saying this."  In a format like SI, with the mature nature of our participants, this should be understood a priori without the constant disclaimer.

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

I am content to rest my case at this point and leave it to readers to decide if they believe it has been effectively countered. 

Just one note of clarification. In the materials I have read, no "sexual abuse" is alleged in the Hybels case. But if indeed that has occurred, we're talking about alleged criminal activity -- which I've been quite clear calls for law enforcement investigation. 

TylerR's picture

I contend these reason why these issues (spousal abuse, sexual abuse, etc.) are sometimes mishandled by churches is because of poor leadership, which is an umbrella term for a whole host of inter-related problems (e.g. cowardice, resulting in wagon-circling, etc.). I agree with Aaron's thesis. Congregations must hold their pastors accountable to be good leaders, and the deacons must do likewise. The pastor, deacons and the congregation should provide a mutual set of checks and balances. I'm aware this sometimes doesn't happen.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Jay's picture

1. RE: Hybels. There are no allegations of sexual * assault *, but there are several serious allegations of sexual harassment - remarks about the poor condition of his marriage to other women, requests for massages and such, remarks about women keeping themselves fit and pretty, etc. I am not following it closely, but there is a lot of smoke there to indicate real issues there that needed to be dealt with a long time ago.

2. As for this:

"In response to purely ethical scandals, organizations should view themselves as free to find solutions internally; further, they should be wary of attaching too much significance to public outcry."

I seem to recall Paul taking the Corinthian church apart in chapter 5 simply because of this very problem... They were not acting on a very serious blot on the name of Christ and destroying their own reputation. He does not spend too much time on the man's sin, but does hammer the church repeatedly for not dealing it. There is a principle there we need to pay attention to, especially in cases where the "investigation" is neutered by those in charge or cannot proceed at all for similar reasons.  Personally, I think the church of Christ ought to be as open, transparent, and honest with all of these types of matters.  Things decided in darkened rooms tend to generate fear, confusion, gossip, and all sorts of other sins.

I don't think Aaron has been in that kind of situation before, as I and others have, so his advice simply isn't helpful for people who are trapped in the kinds of situations where the leadership is the problem.  Of course most of the pastors/deacons/elders on this site are going to agree with that perspective.  I don't mean to denigrate Aaron in any way, just acknowledge the fact that situation is VERY different when you are the church leader investigating something vs. the accuser/victim who has been offended by the church leader.

 

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Bert Perry's picture

Ed, I've got to disagree, once again, that Aaron's thesis is of any use simply because it starts out with such strong predispositions to doubt allegations and to insist on handling things the BJU/ABWE/New Tribes/MSU/Willow Creek way.  Keep it inside, let the truth dribble out, pay no attention to the rest of the Christian world that suffers when the world sees that pastors and such are allowed to get away with these things, etc..  This is especially the case when I consider that I can provide counter-examples to each of his points.  The factual basis for his claims is just not there.  

And as Jay notes, when people who have been close to a situation see that pattern, they recognize it.  Like it or not, but Aaron has done a capable job of.....describing one of the big causes of the problems we've seen.  

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron's method works if you have leaders with integrity and courage.  Of course such leaders would know to bring in the law for anything that violates the law.

I view this like church government -- about any system works if you have leaders with integrity who value the organization and righteousness above their own preferences.  But even Biblical government fails if you have bad leaders with their agendas.

I would go a step further.  Coming from Cicero, IL, during the days when the Mafia and corruption controlled the city, the police were themselves corrupt and took payoffs.

I do agree, however, that law enforcement was not typically like that elsewhere, and is one of the most dependable institutions we have.  Still, it makes the point.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I'm sorry, but Aaron's method does not work, will not work, and can not work.  A great way of summing it up is in the claim that things would be solved with leaders of integrity; OK, let's parse this out Biblically.  Are our leaders greater than Peter, who was rebuked by the outsider Paul for his dalliance with the Judiazers, or David, whose dalliance with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah was rebuked by the outsider Nathan?

Of course not.  Smart leaders know that corporate culture eats corporate initiatives and corporate leaders for lunch, including in the church, and hence they need to pay careful attention to the tone that is set in their pronouncements.  

Here's a good picture from this column by Ed Stetzer.  If you read it from the perspective of corporate culture, it is absolutely chilling to see what Stetzer describes.  More or less, he's saying that the blind spot is shared by the entire denomination.  In other words, organizations very often are the worst judges of their own problems, just like Peter and David could tell you. 

And if we think we're any different, we are fooling ourselves.  Outsiders who make complaints are not suffering from "madness of crowds", and it is not the duty of leaders to downplay what they're saying.  Rather, we know a priori that they care enough about us to bring their concerns before us.  We owe it to ourselves to take these seriously, even if in some points they might end up found in error.  Anything that tends to create an assumption that we ought not take these things seriously needs to be avoided.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Bert, show me the written policies of any organization that say all accusations of unethical conduct (with no allegations of criminal conduct) will be investigated by a third party.

A link will do.

If you manage to find one, it will be quite exceptional. But I think you won't find one.

You have said my "model doesn't work." Go ahead and prove that something else works better. (And no, saying it again with more feeling is not evidence.) 

Bert Perry's picture

Really, Aaron, all you have to do do to better than your plan is to not do what you suggest, more or less.  What you've suggested, in a nutshell, is that certain testimony is automatically inferior to insider testimony--and that's simply not true, and it simply boggles the mind that someone who watched his alma mater wander through a GRACE investigation would believe that. 

Really, it's the same thing that medieval judges did; esteem nobles' and mens' testimony over that of peasants and women, and it's no more justifiable.  You need to stop talking this way, and making claims about the "madness of crowds." 

Rather, you concede that while an outsider doesn't have an insider's view, neither does he have the tendency to accept things simply to remain a member of the group.   You've got to admit that this is a powerful incentive to downplay very real ethical and moral offenses, seen (again) abundantly at ABWE, BJU, New Tribes, MSU, Paige Patterson's behavior, and most likely Willow Creek.  The outsider is, after all, complaining about your group--often to the group directly--because he cares enough to spend the time to complain.  He deserves a straight answer, if not directly to him, to the world.  

Finally, in light of the ability of many outsiders to see things that insiders never notice or care about, you've got to admit that an outside investigation into serious allegations is not just a good idea when there are criminal charges.  Infidelity of a pastor, especially with an unbeliever, generates civil suits and general disgrace to the church as a whole, not just one's own local body.  Hence, if the facts are not 100% clear, why not bring in an outsider investigator who won't be as tempted to shade the truth?  You don't say "you don't need to", but rather "this can be a valuable way of restoring a ministry's credibility."  

In other words, recognize that BOTH claims in your thesis are negative and will tend to prejudice any investigation, and moreover the claims that you're using to "back them up" are not only dubious at best in light of modern church scandals, but also as written will tend to prejudice any investigation, internal or open. 

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