Over the past year or so, I have written more frequently about the abuse of power within churches and church systems. A key reason is that the standard way churches operate and wield power contains too many horror stories. So many people are leaving the faith because rather than experiencing the beauty and the love of Jesus in their church, they encounter the damaging effects of leaders abusing their position and power.
Clearly, there are good-hearted people leading churches. And everyone, that definitely includes me, has acted while leading in ways they regret (or at least should regret).
However, the stories that come out week after week after week make it clear that this is not just “a few bad apples.” This is a systemic issue in our churches that must be addressed.
The story below is one that unfolded over the past 12 years. Much of it involves what happened when we moved to Ireland and were told we were no longer welcome in the denomination we had called home for 16 years. While some of my friends know this, it isn’t one I have shared publicly.
So, why share this now?
First, three or four people are primarily responsible that we are no longer with our previous denomination. One has recently been in the news for being placed on leave from his church. The reason is that he has been accused of covering up sexual abuse by his son, who was the church’s youth pastor. (Let me emphasise that this is still an ongoing investigation, so all the facts need to come out).
However, his part in our story will come out in part 2 of this post.
In the past day, another pastor from that denomination shared some thoughts on Twitter. While I don’t know this person, other than an interaction or two on the bird site, his post was the final push for me.
But the main reason involves something that happened last year and brought all of this up for me again.
We were in the States for a month and had a chance to visit with a few friends from our previous denomination.
One of them mentioned that a leader I had serious issues with before we left for Ireland had mentioned me at a national leadership conference. My friend stated that the story’s thrust was that this leader acknowledged that he should have handled the situation differently and suggested we chat.
The leader in question had written previously that he wanted to talk. After this conversation, I did reach out. Yet, as is the nature of trips where you are visiting several people in several states, we were not able to get together, but agreed to set a time to have a video chat once I was back in Ireland.
In the meantime, this leader spoke at another conference when the denomination’s national leader encouraged him to tell his leadership anecdote.
Well, it turns out I was the leadership anecdote. Another friend of mine was there, only he was more closely involved with what took place and knew this version of the story was not true. The story’s facts were twisted, so I looked bad, and the leader’s mistake was simply reacting poorly.
(While part of the defence was that no names were used, two people told me they knew it was about me.)
So, while it happened over a decade ago…and while I have worked hard to move on, a story about me is pulled out, twisted and used by someone with power to make themselves look mature and reflective.
The Back Story
At the church in Ithaca, we had a couple in leadership roles who were creating conflict. I had a new family in our church tell me that he told them, “we don’t listen to what Bob says”. After several conversations and attempts to address this, we removed them from leadership and mapped out what we would need to see for trust to be rebuilt.
They instead went to the church pastored by the leader mentioned above. They began attending his church, and it was soon announced that they would be planting a church in Ithaca. Although there were unresolved issues with our church, they were approved as church planters in the same city, and no effort was made to address the problems.
Our leadership council went to discuss this situation with this leader. However, we were told with each concern we raised, “we should not be resisting the kingdom”.
Do you recognise the power play there?
“I have serious concerns with what you did”.
“Well, I only want to do what God wants, so to question me is to question what God wants to do”.
We left that meeting extremely frustrated. We had no opportunity to resolve this. We were informed that the leader was on God’s side, and we needed to move on and stop “resisting the kingdom”.
I contacted other leaders in my denomination to seek help and was told there was nothing they could do.
Before this, I had served for a few years as our area’s Church Planting Coordinator (CPC). I coached and assessed new church planters. I spoke at church planting training sessions and frequently talked about the importance of each church planting new churches. I was (and remain) pro-church planting. Our local church leadership wanted to plant more churches in our city.
I eventually stepped down as a CPC because I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the person leading this team (the same person, to be clear). About a year later, he asked me to serve as a CPC again, assuring me that we could address my concerns. I rejoined, but that lasted only six months, as it was clear nothing was changing.
Flash forward to last year. That story is now being used as a ‘leadership anecdote’. Except, a few troublesome facts were changed.
I learned that, I opposed any other churches being planted in Ithaca. And that I left the denomination because I didn’t get my way.
(The individual denies he said the second thing. That is part of what makes stuff like this so difficult. Something is said about you behind your back, and people deny and obfuscate. Since these meetings are often recorded, I have asked for a copy, but that request was not acknowledged.)
While I have been encouraged to forgive and move on, those with power treat people and their stories as grist for their mill. What I went through is simply a story he can use as he sees fit because it is really all about him anyways, right?
I wrote to the leader of my old denomination after learning about this. I explained that the story was false, asked that he not ask for it to be told anymore. I also asked that it not be shared again.
Eventually, I was told these stories would be handled more carefully. Which isn’t the same as it won’t happen, but I’m not in a position of power to do anything in this situation.
Finally, without my consent, my concern was relayed to the one telling sharing the anecdote. His explanation was that we remember things differently.
As I write this, it is still emotional.
While writing the email I mentioned above, the heart rate alert on my Apple Watch went off. That has never happened before.
Shortly after this event, we moved to Ireland and through a series of events were told we were no longer welcome in our denomination (ironically, in part because the guy here didn’t want any other churches planted in his city:)
While I communicated with those involved that I’ve worked at moving on, moving on is much more involved than it often sounds.
Moving on has involved a lot of counselling…combined with part two of this story, it has meant learning about dealing with trauma. Moving on involves sleepless nights. Moving on involves forgiving people. And then forgiving them again. And again.
I have no qualms saying that what happened back 11 or 12 years ago was an abuse of power. Not as bad as what many have faced, but it was.
And having to be the one who “forgives and move on” while a painful period of your life is used as a little anecdote really sucks.
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash