After A Leader’s Sin Has Been Revealed: Guest Post by Michelle Van Loon

“In fact, we all suffer the effects, either directly or indirectly, of a leader’s fall.” Michelle Van Loon

Every time Michelle Van Loon posts, we check it out. She is an awesome writer with an interesting background. You can read about it here.

Shortly after I married Bill in 1979, a friend from church approached me with an out-of-the-blue idea. “I work for the National Public Radio station in Chicago, and we’re producing a children’s show in our studios. We always need short scripts. It seems like this might be something you might enjoy doing.” I don’t remember exactly why she lobbed this idea my way, but I do remember feeling like I must have been waiting my whole life for a request like hers.

…Since then, I’ve worked at a seminary bookstore, produced church services at a church and at a Christian university, served as a Communications Director for a parachurch ministry, and have been a consultant for several faith-based nonprofits. I received a graduate certificate from Northern Seminary in June, 2017. I am currently the U.S. Administrator for the Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies.

I am grateful for the collaboration of other bright and talented writers and thinkers. To that end, I am a member of INK Creative Collective. In addition, I am co-founder along with Amanda Cleary Eastep of the website for midlife women and men, ThePerennialGen.com.

Michele has demonstrated a consistent concern about abuse in the church and this post she wrote will demonstrate her insights. Please make her blog a permanent part of your reading. We thank her for allowing us to reprint this post from her website. Michele-one of these days we need to meet up!


After A Leader’s Sin Has Been Revealed

When a church leader chooses sexual sin, the effects of that sin are like a boulder dropped into a still pond. The ripples engulf everything in its path.

Though my husband and I have enjoyed a faithful marriage of nearly 39 years, the sexual sins of our church leaders have been like a series of boulders being catapulted into our lives at regular intervals. When I reflect on our church experiences over the last four decades, I realize that a disproportionate amount of our time and emotional energy has been spent dealing with the coverups of various church leaders. To put it mildly, it’s taken a toll:

We’ve been thrown under the proverbial bus when I inadvertently got too close to the truth our lead pastor had been hiding: we later learned he was addicted to internet porn and had been having an affair. To protect himself, he ruined my reputation by branding me a malcontent and gossip, driving our family from a church we loved. We discovered the elders knew all about his sin, and covered for him for years because they believed he was “anointed to lead” the fast-growing congregation.

We’ve witnessed the spectacle of victim-shaming first hand when a struggling young woman I was mentoring confessed to me that she was in a “friends with benefits” relationship with her ex-boyfriend, the youth pastor of our church. I encouraged her to share her story with the pastor and other church leaders. She was presumed guilty by church leaders, while the youth pastor was protected from losing his job because he was related to some of the church leaders. He lost his position only after it was revealed he was also secretly dating an underage youth group student.

We’ve watched sentiment attempt to overrule common sense when my husband, then an elder in a non-denominational church, had to deal with a man who wanted to serve in children’s ministry while was still on probation for statutory rape. Some in the congregation believed he’d evidenced a changed life and “deserved” a second chance.  Never mind that this would have violated the terms of his parole and put the church in serious legal jeopardy.

We’ve been asked to keep toxic secrets – and refused. A church leader and her husband confessed to us they’d both had affairs in recent years, and didn’t want the rest of the church to know about it. She told us she believed the church would fall apart without her in her leadership role. We could not agree to this. As relative newcomers, we chose to leave the church quietly, stuck lugging their secret out the doors with us.

We’ve been called upon to support many people devastated by pastoral sexual abuse. I know too many #churchtoo stories, but perhaps the most painful came as my husband and I walked for more than a year with a woman reeling from the revelation that a male youth pastor had been sexually abusing her teen son (and several other boys) for years. The truth about the abuse came out after the youth pastor committed suicide. The woman’s son plunged into a deep depression as he struggled with feeling responsible somehow for the man’s death.

We’ve had to stand with a powerless victim of a lecherous pastor before a board of his peers. The truth eventually came out that this leader had a history of  inappropriate relationships that had stayed just this side of full-blown physical affairs. He was removed from his position and the church sent him to counseling, which was a more hopeful ending than most we’ve witnessed.

I’ve wondered if my husband and I were sending off some kind of beacon that drew these troubles to us like moths as though we were lamps on a summer night. I don’t wonder anymore. For every big name celebrity pastor whose name hits the headlines because of unholy sexual behavior, I’ve heard more stories than I can count of those wounded by the selfish actions of leaders they trusted. (Thankfully, we have also known men and women of integrity and humility to counterbalance the bad leaders we’ve encountered.)

We well know there was no five-step quick fix to resolve any of these situations. Even as a bystander, I’ve brought my own sin into these situation in the form of angry frustration and words I’ve carelessly spoken out of turn. I’ve also been tempted to self-pity (“Why us? AGAIN?”). But as I reflect back, what makes me saddest about this string of stories is that the amount of time my husband and I have expended on them is time we have not been able to use for other, more life-giving pursuits.

In fact, we all suffer the effects, either directly or indirectly, of a leader’s fall. Those in a congregation not directly involved experience the effects of distracted leaders who are spending too much time either hiding their sin or having too many meetings, negotiations, and conversations once their sin has come to light. Teaching, worship, and discipleship are less than they could be for every member in a congregation when leaders are using their time and energy in dealing with sexual sin in the inner circle.

Another tidal wave ripple in the pond we’re all experiencing is the erosion of trust in our spiritual leaders. Earlier this year, Christianity Today reported the results of Gallup poll that noted that only 40% of the people they surveyed trust clergy to be honest and ethical, down from 67% in 1985. Once trust has been violated, it is triply-tough to rebuild that trust: a bit of innocence has been stripped from every member of a congregation when a leader falls, and the reputation of the Church tarnished in the local community and beyond.

Once the truth about a wayward leader emerges, every one of us in the Church is given a bit of additional baggage to schlep with us as we must process the hypocrisy of those we trusted to guide us spiritually. We in the Church may use occasions where a leader’s sin has been exposed to remind ourselves they’re clay-footed humans – just like the rest of us. That’s true, but so is the warning in James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” The well-meaning coaching to seek to trust God no matter what a fallen leader may do is helpful only up to a point. We have every right to expect faithfulness to God and the people in their care from our leaders. As a result, we also have every right to feel anger, confusion, and grief when one among us falls. We are all members one body. Of course we’ll feel it. We should.

I do. And I sorrow. Even as sin is being revealed among us, I recognize this spotlight as nothing less than the holy love of God searching us out, calling each one of us and all of us to confession, repentance, and humble pilgrimage forward. Truly, every single one of us carries a nest of sin within our brokenness. In that, we are not different than our leaders.

I contend that none of us are helped toward maturity when a leadership team’s response is a single, all-church meeting or elders’ letter informing us of a leader’s sin. We will not be able to org chart our way out of our current state. The boulders of sexual misconduct are all around us,  threatening to shipwreck victims and bystanders alike. I remember well the folksy quote of a lay preacher I heard years ago: “You can do it God’s way, or you can do it God’s way.” We can submit to God’s ways right now or accept his discipline and re-formation later. The God who can move mountains (and boulders) can bring cleansing and renewal to us, and it will not look much like the minimal or nonexistent processing of leader’s s sins we see happening in some streams of the Church – the beautiful Bride – in this moment.

Questions for you: I don’t have many positive experiences to report when it comes to the way in which local churches handle sexual sin/power abuse by a leader. Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?


Comments

After A Leader’s Sin Has Been Revealed: Guest Post by Michelle Van Loon — 41 Comments

  1. “Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?”

    I think it would look like ascertaining facts QUICKLY, including involving civil authorities where applicable.

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  2. One Church I attended growing up took action as soon as they realized what was going on with their pastor. He was fired, offered severance pay and help to relocate and gone. The leadership was very clear with the congregation about what happened, and involved people in the next steps. Twenty years later, the church continues to grow and is healthy.

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  3. JDV:
    “Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?”

    Yes, amen.
    I think it would look like ascertaining facts QUICKLY, including involving civil authorities where applicable.

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  4. “When a church leader chooses sexual sin, the effects of that sin are like a boulder dropped into a still pond. The ripples engulf everything in its path.”

    There are many forms of wrong doing, missing the mark, or moral failure. Sex is only one yet is is singled out for ripples across the pond. Why such singular attention, do pride and corruption not have similar effects? In many ways they be more corrosive as many more are often complicit in the corruption and authoritarian power grabs.

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  5. Beth74: JDV:
    “Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?”

    I think it would look like ascertaining facts QUICKLY, including involving civil authorities where applicable.

    I meant: Yes, amen.

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  6. To celebrate finding a Scotrail train with functioning WiFi (some do, some don’t), I have decided to post an off-topic comment. This being a commuter train, you tend to get some of the same folk on it each morning. The loud laddie is certainly on board today, conducting a noisy mobile phone conversation. The loud lassie, who talks endlessly about her workplace, isn’t though.

    Back nearer topic, I’m sure I speak for all Wartburgers in wishing Dee a safe journey hither across the Atlantic (she’s travelling today, IIRC).

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  7. We’re on time at Camelon.

    Camelon’s a funny wee place. Naebdy seems to know how to pronounce it; you here

    – Cam-uh-lon
    – Caim-lon

    with equal frequency. We could do with some kind of definitive source of truth on this, but at the same time, that would be dangerous and could lead to deception since it would be extra-biblical revelation. Anyway, Falkirk Grahamston up next. There are two stations in Falkirk, the other being Falkirk High on the fast line to Glasgow. The Dunblane line joins it 200 metres west of Polmont; this is a common cause of signal holdups on my journey into Edinburgh, but they’re usually built into the schedule. Anyway, that’s up next as we’ve now just left Grahamston on time. You can tell from this that it took me 3 minutes to compose the above paragraph; maybe I should concentrate on what I’m doing and stop looking out of the window.

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  8. Polmont station, which I may well reach by the time I’ve finished composing this comment, has a memorial to those killed in a very bad train crash just west of the station in 1984. A late-night Glasgow to Edinburgh service had just passed through the station and was building up to line speed (travelling at around 85mph, with line speed being 100) when it collided with livestock that had strayed onto the line through a broken fence.

    The train was an experimental “push-pull” arrangement, with a Class 47 locomotive at the rear and a driving-van trailer, or DVT, leading. Because the DVT was just a modified coach, weighing much less than a locomotive, it was more vulnerable to derailment under certain conditions, not least because its front buffers hadn’t been sufficiently modified so as to push obstructions away from the wheels in the event of a collision. It’s thought that a large piece of the animal’s skeleton became lodged under the leading wheels; the train did indeed derail with 13 fatalities. Following the disaster, major changes were made to the specifications of DVT’s in the UK.

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  9. Sorry, that should’ve read “Edinburgh to Glasgow”. Too early in the morning. Anyway, Linlithgow coming up.

    Linlithgow was, according to some sources, the notional “birthplace” of the Star Trek character Scotty.

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  10. Just passing SirAndyMurrayfield on the way into Edinburgh. We were just a minute late leaving Edinburgh Park – which is unusually good as everything is late coming into Edinburgh from the west. But we’re going to be 2 or 3 minutes late at Haymarket, and probably 5 minutes late at Waverley. We’re scheduled to arrive at Platform 13 at Waverley, which isn’t too bad. 19 is the best from my POV, and 1 is the worst.

    Anyway, we’re about to go into a tunnel and lose the WiFi.

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  11. Thersites: There are many forms of wrong doing, missing the mark, or moral failure. Sex is only one yet is is singled out for ripples across the pond. Why such singular attention, do pride and corruption not have similar effects? In many ways they be more corrosive as many more are often complicit in the corruption and authoritarian power grabs.

    Good point. When you look at Sovereign Grace they took quite lightly the pride, arrogance and hypocrisy that C.J. Mahaney displayed for a number of years.

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  12. Here is an interesting message:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WiH7RgWUbZQ

    In it you have a Independent Fundamental Baptist Pastor calling for justice when an allegation of sexual abuse was made by a woman this pastor didn’t know about another IFB pastor. The pastor preaching (Pastor Shiflett) and the pastor who allegedly molested this woman were friends. Despite this friendship, in this message the pastor indicated he wanted to investigate.

    The pastor found the evidence corroborated the woman’s story and this pastor was also appalled at how poorly the church where this molesting pastor was currently at handled this situation.

    It was refreshing to hear a pastor call and push for justice despite what the cost. What shocks me is why is this so unusual in so much of Christianity. Shouldn’t we in the church be examples in this area? Do so many in the church and especially leadership think that passages in the bible only apply to others and they are exempt and doesn’t apply to them?

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  13. I think the problem with church leaders crosses all denominations. I also don’t think it’s a new issue. The good? It’s coming into the light. The bad? It continues to happen. The ugly? Like lancing any boil, the pus needs to be removed before the wound can be cleaned. This will get worse before it gets better.
    It just bugs me that these clowns get a tax free payday.
    I have to be honest, even when I was a Christian, I never met a preacher that I can say I really liked.

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  14. Lydia: Maybe having “leaders” instead of servants in the Body is a big part of the problem?

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    THIS! Most abuse, whether sexual, spiritual or emotional, would likely not take place minus an unhealthy authoritarian power structure; which, by the way, was forbidden by Jesus.

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  15. Questions for you: I don’t have many positive experiences to report when it comes to the way in which local churches handle sexual sin/power abuse by a leader. Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?

    If the sexual sin were a legal one, such as as a consensual affair with another adult, it would look like Matthew 18 in the preliminary stages, followed by removal from church leadership and a working toward reconciliation.

    If the sexual sin were illegal, such as sex with a minor, or child pornography, or date rape, there should be no Matthew 18. This would involve an immediate call to the police and full cooperation with them. Churches should not try to fix or cover up criminal acts.

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  16. Nick Bulbeck: The train was an experimental “push-pull” arrangement, with a Class 47 locomotive at the rear and a driving-van trailer, or DVT, leading.

    You call them DVTs?
    Out here they’re known as “cab cars”.

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  17. “Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way?”

    I know at one church an assistant pastor was quietly fired for looking at sexual pictures. I don’t know if there was more to it, though.

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  18. Ted: If the sexual sin were a legal one, such as as a consensual affair with another adult, it would look like Matthew 18 in the preliminary stages, followed by removal from church leadership and a working toward reconciliation.

    If the sexual sin were illegal, such as sex with a minor, or child pornography, or date rape, there should be no Matthew 18.This would involve an immediate call to the police and full cooperation with them.Churches should not try to fix or cover up criminal acts.

    Here, here!

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  19. This is an excellent post. As far as handling things the right way, I only know of resource to help with that: https://fallenpastor.com/church-as-first-mistress-wounded-church-pt-1/
    This article continues to be on my top 10 list of best things ever written to explain how our culture got to the place where there is so much sexual sin being hidden in leaders. This is the only ministry that I know that deals with helping people deal with the real issue instead of doing “public relations” false-image lying.

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  20. Headless Unicorn Guy: You call them DVTs?
    Out here they’re known as “cab cars”.

    I don’t personally call them DVT’s – but that’s what they’re known as, yes. The name has been through one or two iterations.

    We don’t have that many push-pull trainsets, interestingly. The only DVT regularly used is the class 82; there is usually a Class 91 locomotive at the other end (6000+HP, design speed 140mph, record speed 162mph) but historically there’ve been class 90’s or class 87’s (both 5000HP with a design speed of 110mph – dinnae ken what the record was for either class, unfortunately).

    But you really don’t want to get me started on British trains.

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  21. From the main article up top:
    “Have you seen a local church processing the revelation of a of a leader’s sexual sin in a healthy, redemptive way? What would that look like?

    First off?
    For starters?
    Evangelical Christianity would do well to re-examine human sexuality with an eye for a responsible pragmatism rather than immovable dogma.

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  22. I really appreciated this section: “The well-meaning coaching to seek to trust God no matter what a fallen leader may do is helpful only up to a point. We have every right to expect faithfulness to God and the people in their care from our leaders. As a result, we also have every right to feel anger, confusion, and grief when one among us falls. We are all members one body. Of course we’ll feel it. We should.”

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  23. Nick Bulbeck: We don’t have that many push-pull trainsets, interestingly.

    Out here, pretty much all short-haul passenger rail operates push-pull. Even the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, which push-pulls from San Diego to Santa Barbara (with one or two going as far north as San Luis Obispo — 350 mi/500km all push-pull).

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  24. Headless Unicorn Guy,

    The Easst Coast Main Line is predominantly push-pull, and that’s 394 miles fae London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley. That is to say, the Class 91 trainsets are push/pull. The diesel 125’s are sort of push-pull – they have a power car at each end. There are technical reasons for this, mind you; at the time they were designed, the easiest way to get the required 4000+ horsepowers but retain an acceptable axle loading was to have two separate engines.

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  25. Mr. Jesperson,

    I wrote the blog article referenced and I appreciate it. I also appreciate Michelle Loon’s writing and story. There is so much hurt and devastation out there. In the ten years I have been doing my ministry I have heard from many women who have been silenced. It has to stop and I pray the new focus on abuse will make a difference.

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  26. My church Made an announcement to the body on a Sunday morning and sent a letter to all naming the pastor and me, his victim, as having both resigned because of an “inappropriate relationship .” So after dealing with his abusive treatment I was laid out publicly. Devastating! I have a lot to say about how to handle it appropriately. Let me know if you are interested in my input/ideas. My husband and I did not know in the beginning about the power imbalance making it abuse. Once we learned about it and asked our church leadership, they admitted they knew all along. So our efforts now are to get them to set the record straight and tell the truth. I shouldn’t have to correct this myself, but I will if it comes down to that.

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  27. Nick Bulbeck:
    Nick Bulbeck,

    The Class 91’s are electric, obviously. Much easier to get a lot of horse powers per ton when a loco doesn’t have to carry fuel or generate its own power.

    But they can only go where there’s catenary.

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