Don’t Make the Church Leadership Crisis Worse

We need to renew our spiritual imaginations amid the spiritual-abuse reckoning.

In many ways, it’s an old story. From King David to Ted Haggard, we see leaders rise to power and discover both a sinful sense of entitlement and the opportunity to indulge it. Surrounding them are enablers, fixers, and others willing to just look the other way.

But there is something different about the present moment. What was once hidden in the shadows of corporate suites, movie studios, and pastors’ studies is being exposed on blogs and social media. Survivors of abuse are connecting with one another, telling their stories, and gathering in ways that cannot be ignored.

I spent much of 2020 and 2021 researching and telling the story of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, where behind the scenes of success lay an abusive culture of manipulation and domineering, all oriented around the feeling that the congregation’s spiritual and numerical growth was bound up in a leader who was too big to fall.

In telling the Mars Hill story, we heard again and again from listeners how these events had eerie parallels in a variety of contexts. Churches and ministries found success when they organized themselves around the talent and vision of a single leader. When conflicts or questions of character emerged, all of the incentives were stacked in the leader’s favor.

As these stories continue to emerge—and we see them emerging from churches of every imaginable shape, size, and theological disposition—a cynicism about leadership and authority is spreading in the church. The benefit of the doubt that many pastors received in the past has eroded.

As a result, pastors and others are beginning to push back, raising concerns about false accusations and due process. Many pastors feel torn between a sense that the church …

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