In his 2021 book, The Best Catholics in Ireland, Derek Scally covers a large swath of Irish Catholic history. Two men, Paul Cullen and John McQuaid, stood out in that recounting.
Cullen and McQuaid serve as bookends marking the beginning and end of an era of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Cullen, who lived in the 19th century, was the first Irish Cardinal in the Catholic Church and is largely credited for instilling on this island what would become a very Irish version of Catholicism. McQuaid oversaw the Catholic Church in Ireland for over three decades, starting in 1940 and was involved in drafting Ireland’s constitution. A critical aspect of McQuaid’s legacy was his ongoing protection of priests rather than victims of abuse within the church.
What stood out from Scally’s writing was the authoritarian manner in which these men led and how incredibly thin-skinned they were.
But none of this is unique to Catholic Ireland. Every week seems to bring a new story of abusive leadership within local churches, denominations and ministries. This past week, two leaders from my old denomination in the States have been placed on leave because their son…who is also their church’s youth pastor…was accused of abuse. It is claimed that when the abuse was reported to the pastor/parents, the victims were blamed and attacked. (This is the current reporting as the situation remains under investigation).
These stories happen too often. And, we only hear of the reported ones that make the news.
The church has too many leaders who act as if their church or their ministry were their own personal fiefdom, and any perceived threat to their power or position is confronted with everything at their disposal.
Over the past few years, a lot has been made of Ex-vangelicals, Dones, and deconstruction. I am convinced that this authoritarian, thin-skinned leadership is a major reason many leave the church.
Sharing My Stories
I’ve debated for a while about sharing some of my stories here. I have had Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians of “why not be rather wronged” playing on a loop in my head for the past 30 years. And I have basically interpreted that as, “when someone hurts you, forgive and move on, regardless.” While I have no desire to “name names”, I do sense a responsibility to share some of these stories.
First, because I think we need to stop ignoring authoritarian, abusive or other un-Christlike leadership practices. They don’t tend to resolve themselves without intervention. And we must expect more of our leaders. They (we) need to do better. Secondly, I hope others hurt by the church and its leaders can see that walking away from Jesus and his church is not their only option.
Two things I read recently gave me the final push. In his book The Rise and Fall of Movements, Steve Addison stressed the importance of “pointing to the gap between what is and what should be”. I hope that is what a post like this is able to do. The same week I listened to Anne Lamott’s Almost Everything and heard her say, “if people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should have been nicer.”
The stories below happened over the past 30 years in three very different settings. Yet the pattern is the same. I don’t believe these were horrible people out to hurt people (although some may be).
However, they were people with something to lose. And their fear led them to utilise every weapon at their disposal to protect it.
(I want to acknowledge that while I try to present both sides fairly, this is simply my side of the story. I’m not arguing that I acted perfectly in any of these situations. My concern is how the church responded.)
The War Room #1 – Ithaca
The first time I heard the term “War Room” used outside of an actual war was when it was used to describe Bill Clinton’s 1992 US Presidential campaign. The basic idea behind a war room is that a group of people meet privately and strategise how to defeat (destroy?) their enemy. Five years later, I had my first encounter with what I’ve labelled the “Christian War Room”.
Two professors at Cornell University, where I was University Chaplain, were upset about a Sunday afternoon chapel service I was leading on campus. Their congregation contributed a couple of hundred dollars each month to support the campus ministry. Because of the money they contributed, they believed students willing to attend a worship gathering should be directed to a local church.
Our chapel service met in the afternoon, and the students who came had shown no desire to travel off campus for a church service. In fact, they saw the chapel service as something they could invite their friends who weren’t Christians to more easily than a local church. Yet, rather than being excited that Cornell students were moving towards Jesus, the church was upset because it was not occurring in their building.
My first-ever stress-induced sleepless night came after an angry, threatening phone call from one of these men. On this call, I learned that hours of meetings had already taken place among their church leadership to discuss their concerns.
And as it goes with war rooms, the topic of conversation me was not aware of the problem or invited to contribute until church leaders were already armed and ready for a full-blown confrontation.
And I got unloaded on.
Rather than a desire to understand, war rooms make assumptions and respond with accusations and threats. And these threats almost always involve money.
Thankfully, another pastor in the area, who oversaw several churches, became involved. While I was out of that denomination shortly after this event, I don’t know if I would have lasted in ministry without his involvement. He remains one of my heroes.
The War Room #2 – Dublin
Shortly after moving to Dublin, we encountered another war room. This one was international! Our primary focus those first few months was getting our family settled in a new country. Two months in, we became aware of a problem with the church we came to work with, and it went downhill fast. One of the leaders of the church we came to work with lied to a denominational leader about something Liz had said. I was told shortly after that I would not be allowed to plant a church with them.
(And sticking with the theme, this leader never spoke to Liz about what was supposedly said. His only reply was, “why would this person lie?”)
I had been with this denomination for about 15 years and knew leaders from the US, so I asked for help sorting this out. I was told that the US branch stays out of this stuff because otherwise, it looks like they are stepping on toes.
To be fair, that makes sense.
Except they weren’t staying out of it. Several leaders on both sides of the pond were meeting with each other. (including one of the people in the story referenced above). I was even told that the UK/Ireland and US National Directors got involved.
Because when I cause trouble, I go big.
The only people who weren’t invited into the war room for any of these conversations… would be Liz and me.
Towards the end of the process, I sat with one of the Ireland/UK leaders and asked his thoughts on how we got where we were. He acknowledged that this was the first time he tried to help someone move to Ireland from the States, and he could have done things differently. He then listed several things I had not done when we moved over that he was upset about.
After he finished, I acknowledged that I had not met multiple expectations of his. Then I asked, “was there anything that you actually asked me to do that I didn’t?” (personally, I’m not great at meeting unspoken expectations). To his credit, he said no and apologised. Sadly things were already too far gone by that point. (I’ve written a bit more about that experience over here.)
As we walked through this situation, we had a counsellor/coach who was a great help. An Irish church leader also told me, “I can’t help you with the stuff with your denomination, but I will help you navigate the Irish part of all of this.” Once again, no idea where we would be today without those two.
The War Room #3
My most recent encounter happened at the end of 2021. There was an organisation I had been partnering with for about a year (not Communitas:). I enjoyed the connections and the conversations. One day, I noticed on Twitter that they were partnering with a leadership organisation started by Bill Hybels. If you haven’t heard, Bill Hybels and his other organisation, Willow Creek Church, have been in the news for the past few years. Hybels for abuse, and Willow Creek for handling the accusations horribly. The whole thing is still a mess.
I was not happy about this group being invited to teach leadership training in an organisation I was part of. And, so me being me, I wrote a brief note to the leader in Ireland, voicing my concern.
My email was 96 words long. And basically, a series of sentence fragments.
Now you might imagine I got a response asking what my concerns were. But you know that isn’t what happened. Rather than replying to me…my email was forwarded to the organisation’s executive committee. They proceeded to have a conversation over the next few days.
Would you like to guess who was not invited to participate in the conversation? Yeah, that would be me.
Imagine if someone had been curious enough to ask, “Bob, could you tell us what you are concerned about?”
I could have responded. They could have agreed or disagreed…but they would have heard my apprehension. Maybe I misread the situation and could have said I was wrong once I listened to what they were thinking.
But they didn’t see my email as an opportunity for a conversation…they viewed it as a threat. And retreated to a war room.
I was eventually forwarded what was called “only a section” of their response. A section of the reaction was 742 words long.
A few weeks later, one of the leaders did reach out, and we had a productive chat. It would have been so much better to have it at the start.
(I decided to disconnect from the group after this. They did postpone the leadership training, which I don’t believe has ever taken place, and the organisation now has mostly new leadership)
A couple of thoughts as I wrap this up.
First, I owe so much to the various people I mentioned above who came alongside us in these encounters. We experienced Jesus’ love through them. I don’t know where we would be without them.
Secondly, I wish I could say this type of leadership is rare in the church. It isn’t. And I’m not the only one who has encountered it.
Difficult situations arise in churches and require wisdom, strategy, and even confrontation. And when those happen, be curious. Listen.
Even in the most difficult of problems, this thin-skinned, fear-based, protect what’s mine model is one we should never employ. Ever.
It elevates those in power at the expense of those without. You are on the wrong track if you react in a way that seeks to protect your power, position or status quo.
It is antithetical to the Jesus way.
Finally. You will not see Jesus or his followers use this model in scripture. In fact, when there was a concern in the early church (see Acts 11 and 15, for example), they were open, and all involved had the opportunity to share their views.
There is one religious war room recorded in the New Testament. It is found in John 11:46-53 and includes this sentence:
“The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting.”
The meeting was about Jesus; of course, Jesus was not invited. The goal of the meeting was to determine how these religious leaders could best destroy/kill their enemy.
I have friends who have similar stories…you might as well. I am so sorry. I know it has led some to walk away from their faith —some are still figuring things out — and some (like us) are trying to find new ways of being a community of Jesus followers. Not that we’ll ever get things perfect.
But we are committed to Jesus…to his church, and to his mission in the world. And we want to do this in a way that brings life. If you are interested, we’d love to chat…or even simply pray for you.