“I realize my acting as a ‘whistleblower’ puts my own career as a pastor and reputation in peril given the not insignificant chance that my observations will be discounted, distorted, or used against me.” Michael Balboni
Priscilla, who loves Pastor Booker and thinks you all are looking for further outrage…
Today, we received a comment from Priscilla under the Park Street Church article, who does not appear to understand the purpose of this blog or the majority of commenters on this blog. Here is her entire comment.
Spiritual abuse is real. And healthy churches no doubt exist. And in between those two is a vast gray area of people doing their best and others nonetheless getting hurt, a gray area of confusion and difficulty in discerning the best or right way forward. I have lived through church splits and seen the truth of Lincoln’s words that portray that confusion so well: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.“
Unfortunately, this article is poorly researched. The author has interviewed one side and heard what she wanted to hear. Likewise many who frequent this site are looking for the latest case of spiritual abuse at which to be outraged.
In reality the majority at Park Street are blessed by Mark Booker, an excellent preacher with a humble shepherd’s heart. The elders have worked tirelessly and prayerfully to navigate a complex situation. Many, many attempts at reconciliation were made between the complainant minister and the new senior minister. There have been a small but vocal minority of voices staunchly opposed to Mark Booker since he was first called. It has proven painful to the whole church but no doubt most painful to those most centrally involved.
Do pray for Park Street, but don’t pray one-sidedly based on this article.
Given Priscilla’s comment, I imagine she is one of the faithful, perhaps heavily involved in the church. She notes a “vast gray area” of people “doing their best and others getting hurt.” One must assume that she is referring to PSC. I could comment at length, but she makes assumptions that lead me to believe that “assumptions” are being created about those wounded by the senior pastor and the leaders probably hanging around in the gray area. She claims that those who frequent this blog are looking for the latest outrage, never once considering that the people who frequent this blog are those whom the church has harmed. This comment was an attack by an insider. She made one crucial mistake. She did not post the resume of the senior pastor, which could have cleared things up. She also did not dispute any points made by Dr Balboni in his memo. That is because the church leaders agree that these things happened, but it was merely a difference in leadership styles. This is the leadership flailing around in that “vast gray area.”
She also refers to Dr. Balboni as the “complainant.” This sounds a little lawyerly to me. So, just in case, I want to say that when I write about the complaints, I do so by calling them allegation. They are allegations that I believe to be true, and I write about them to encourage PSC to be loving and kind to those who are hurting.
The red flags in Michael Balboni’s letter
One of the goals of this blog is to illuminate missteps and tactics by churches that bring pain and hurt to those unfortunate enough to be caught inside this “vast gray area.” I believe that God gave us the Internet and that it has been used to illuminate all kinds of abuse in the church. I think it is one way God is calling the church to repent and pivot towards a loving church, even when there is disagreement. So many times, senior pastors and leaders circle the wagons, hiding in the middle and sending out arrows and gunshots to slay the “bad guys.” Many of us have been on the receiving end of these slings and arrows. Our goal is to let those on the outside know that they are not alone and that they are loved and respected by many of us as they navigate these difficult circumstances.
Here are some quotes from his memo that I saw as “red flags” at PSC. I will miss many, so I depend on the readers to add their thoughts and concerns.
Red Flag: pursuing issues toward reconciliation resulted in a schism that makes “you” the problem, not the issue.
my raising of these issues only resulted in a growing schism in our working relationship, something deeply grieving
At the start of this memo, Michael admitted that he is a sinner as is Pastor Booker. He was asked to outline his concerns. Have any of you attempted to bring resolution to an issue in the church, only to find out that you were viewed as the problem? I have. Here is what happens. The pastor equates elucidated issues as a failure. Instead of dealing with it, working it through all of its difficulties, he turns the table and makes the one seeking understanding “the real problem.” The real issue to be resolved is now tabled.
How many of you are familiar with “DARVO?” It stands for Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. Is that what is happening here?
Red Flag: being a whistleblower may lead to the loss of a job or other leadership opportunities
Furthermore, I realize my acting as a ‘whistleblower’ puts my own career as a pastor and reputation in peril given the not insignificant chance that my observations will be discounted, distorted, or used against me.
In Michael’s case, he knew that writing this memo might lead to his firing. Yet he was the one who was encouraged to write his concerns. This sort of thing has been seen since the start of the protestant church. Martin Luther was a whistleblower on issues like the sale of indulgences. He appeared before the Pope to defend his thoughts. Sadly, the Pope decided that Luther was the problem and his life was in danger at some point. Thanks to some German princes, he was spirited to the Wartburg castle, and the rest is history. It took hundreds of years for the following to happen.
The Roman Catholic Church has done an about face in its attitude toward Martin Luther. Today Catholic scholars are among Luther’s greatest apologists, extolling him as a devout Reformer who tried to better the church in an age of corruption and greed. Catholic historians are calling him “one of the greatest witnesses to the Christian faith” and “our brother in Christ.
The Pope used DARVO on Luther to protect the sale of indulgences.
The four Scriptural virtues of a leader.
You can read his letter to see why he chose these.
Gentle, not quarrelsome
The following elucidates som of the issues more clearly.
Red Flag: Pastors who insist on violating confidentiality.
I have written extensively about the ACBC (biblical counseling group), which does not guarantee confidentiality. I believe confidentiality is to be expected and that pastors who divulge this (except child abuse) are not to be trusted. I have also recommended leaving any church that expects confidentiality to be revealed. Unfortunately, this appears to be the case at PSC.
Mark has repeatedly tried to force me to violate this code and my own conscience, particularly in matters in which he is attempting to gain control through information about other ministers, staff, or congregants
…This has been a repeated issue. Mark has attempted to extract information from other confidential clergy conversations in regards to at least eight other people.
Note this particularly insightful comment by Michael. Note the phrase “power differential.” Michael is the employee, and Mark holds the cards.
In these instances it has been confusing to know how to respond because of the power differential between me and Mark as my supervisor. Often he has pressured me to disclose confidential information using various persuasion tactics, such as the guise that it is being done out of “concern for the health of the church.” If I do not provide the requested information, these conversations often go on and on as he attempts to obtain information using various tactics for probing. It also came to my attention that Mark went to my own personal pastor in order to extract information from him about potential complaints or criticisms against Mark. This is shocking, illegal, a violation of the soul, and an affront to pastoral ethics.
If this is practiced, the church leadership should inform members and staff that their private conversations are not private. Michael gives a specific instance that is verifiable by Michael’s detractors.
The most recent use of Mark’s position of authority to pressure me to break confidentiality, in regards to Shannon Jacobs, was the most abusive. In this instance, I was browbeaten in his office for an hour with Mark trying to extract information from the confidential clergy-congregant conversation that I had with Shannon after she resigned. I have had the privilege of serving as Shannon’s pastor since she became the band leader, and I baptized her husband, Drew. Hence, Shannon not surprisingly desired to speak and pray with me soon after she learned of the actions to remove the 4pm service and to end her role as band leader. Despite my very clearly telling Mark from the start of the conversation that my interaction with Shannon was pastoral, not organizational, he would not relent or permit me to leave. Such clergy-congregant conversations are sacred.
Red Flag: A toxic culture of fear
It is never appropriate to embed a culture of fear in a system that is to be based on humility and love. If one fears losing a job or meeting with a pastor, the system is broken.
I can at this point faithfully claim that six pastors (both ministers and directors) and at least three support staff have expressed fear of the possibility of losing their current jobs at the church for reasons described below. I am aware of one former support staff who left in part for this reason.
Constant wondering if “anyone else is going to be fired?” “Am I next?”
It appears that there has been a turnover of a number of positions. When that happens, there are two possible explanations: insufficient money or overly demanding leadership.
There is also an apparent inability to show dissent, even in staff meetings.
Frustration and shock for being “gagged” in speech, including being told by Mark that staff should not show any dissent, even in staff gatherings where discussion of issues is supposed to occur. Staff, including myself, have been explicitly told by Mark that all disagreement or concerns should be shared with him and not beyond him.
Moles? In a church? Is this a Tom Clancy novel or the Body of Christ?
There is a strong sense among some staff that there are “safe” people to talk with and there are “moles” who will report back directly to Mark anything that might be construed as dissent or criticism.
Red Flag: Are they talking about you? Are they speaking ill of you to your face? Are they inconsistent in their criticism?
There are several instances in private in which Mark has denigrated the character of others.
…Mark has spoken using derogatory language in front of me about two congregants and three ministers. Mark said to me that three of my fellow ministers are “lazy” (and having worked around them for some time, I do not believe that to be true).
…Mark has used aggressive and harsh words regarding my work at the church. (a) In the Spring 2023 he falsely accused me of being lazy, asking in a derogatory tone, “what do you really even do here?
…Mark has used aggressive and harsh words regarding my work at the church. (a) In the Spring 2023 he falsely accused me of being lazy, asking in a derogatory tone, “what do you really even do here?
…he said that I was too quiet in staff meetings, but then he criticized me for speaking an alternative opinion in front of other ministers. I brought this inconsistency up in our 360 discussion, and he responded by chuckling at the inconsistency and left the criticism in my 360 unchanged.
Red Flag: Purging members and referring to Stalin in the same breath. Is your church glad to get rid of people?
Given that my grandparents fled Russia to get away from the “Bolsheviks,” I take offense to joking about a man who killed 6 Million people. It is OK to remove inactive members from the roles; it is not one to call it a “purge.” Some things are just not funny.
Mark made a harsh comparison between his desire to move members into the “inactive” membership category, and Stalin’s murdering of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens to solidify his power in 1937 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Purge), by calling this process by the same name as the brutal historical event, “the Great Purge.”
…As I sat immediately to his left and looking right into his face, Mark said under his breath, “the Great Purge.
…I told Mark that this choice of words and his demeanor conveying a sense of being happy that people have left our church, rather than sadness, is offensive. Mark said his words were not meant in the way that I took them
Red Flag: Misreading expectations can lead to firing.
In this situation, Micheal was the pastor in charge of a music leader, Sharon, who played at the 4 PM service. Pastor Mark decided that her position should be eliminated. This was said in a ministry lead team meeting. Mark was also concerned that she did not sit in the service to listen to the sermon after playing something. This is not unusual for bands in other churches I’ve covered. Michael was her boss and spoke to her about it. This did not go over well with Mark. Michael did not understand that he could not talk with one of his people.
I did not tell her anything about the larger reason why this issue was raised (the elimination of the 4pm service and her position). She then explained that after practicing all afternoon in preparation to lead the music, she and others in the band go to the Fellowship Hall (where they still listen to the sermon) in order to use the restroom and get a drink/eat a snack.
…Mark accused me of (1) breaching confidentiality since the MLT worship discussions were confidential (we were not allowed to speak to elders or any other ministers about the proposal to eliminate the 4pm service), (2) breaking the chain of command (Shannon reports to Nathan), and (3) speaking negatively about the health of the church.
My response to him was that I in no way broke confidentiality: no person or content of those meetings were revealed. It is not uncommon or unethical to act on confidential information as long as that information is kept secure.
…On January 12, 2023 I offered an apology to Mark for not speaking to him first (email in addendum), but I would not and do not grant the charges against me that I violated confidentiality or broke the “chain of command”. Even so, on January 24 I was handed a warning letter issued by the Personnel Committee (PC). The letter indicated that if I did similar actions in the future I would be subject to firing.
…I expressed not agreeing that this was (a) abreach in confidentiality or (b) a violation of the ‘chain of command’ given the aforementioned rationale. Still, Mark demanded that I “yield” and sign the legal document
At this point, the die was cast, and it was apparent that Mark was looking to discharge Michael.
Red Flags abound
Michael has carefully documented his concerns, so it could take me three additional posts to record everything. Here are just a couple of instances.
I attend a Lutheran church. Lutherans believe in the actual presence of Jesus in communion. The pastor says The Words of Institution. Then, folks from the congregation who are signed up to help with communion come and give the pastor communion. It is a sign of humility, in my opinion. But the only one who offers Mark the communion is Mark himself. This is a curious change.
Liturgical changes to our Park Street Church practices around communion have replaced our prior congregation-focused practice with one that places Mark at the center. One intentional change is that Mark has become the sole celebrant with no other minister standing next to him at the table (which had been the case in the past). Then beginning Maundy Thursday 2021, Mark introduced (without discussion) two additional symbolic actions. (a) Mark made himself first and then the ministers next to receive the elements, compared to our long prior practice where the elders/ministers received the bread together with the congregation and receive the cup last (I believe the far better symbolic action within our community is for the ministers and elders to receive last). (b) Mark serves himself the bread element. He is the only person in the entire congregation who takes his own bread from the plate with his own hand. Watch the youtube videos. He offers the body of Christ to those below him, but he will not receive it from his brothers (I have offered the bread to him twice, and he has refused). Though these changes may sound unimportant and my notice of them petty, the entire worship meal is highly meaningful, symbolic, and speaks in powerful subconscious ways. We also must remember that our church has a long-held tradition as a congregational church of upholding the congregation as a holy priesthood and that our high priest is only Christ, not our senior pastor. Hence our prior practice of serving the congregation first, and the congregants serving the elements to one another, is powerfully fitting with our heritage as a congregational church body. The changes in these important symbolic liturgies that put Mark at the center is a larger symbol for his approach to leadership – his adoption of a senior pastor-centered, authoritarian and sometimes dictatorial model of leadership that violates the cherished heritage of Park Street Church as a congregational body.
He has taken over the functions of others. He took over Michael’s function in the LDI.
- Lenten Discipleship Institute (LDI): (a) In 2022, Mark took over the booklet at the last moment, edited some of the initial content, wrote an opening welcome, and signed his name at the beginning. Most of the work in the booklet was completed by a combination of myself, Randall and Chris May. Having worked on many writing teams, it troubled me how he would take over at the last moment, insert himself at the beginning, and then give some appearance that he created it for the congregation. (b) In 2023, Mark took over LDI completely eliminating my role. Leading LDI is specifically part of my job description, but without conversation or even acknowledgement that he was doing so, the most enjoyable part of my LDI responsibility was taken away (spiritual formation and educational content creation), while I was expected to do the administrative tasks for LDI.
If Michael’s words are valid, the PSC has a problem. It appears that Pastor Mark and the elders have redefined the word ” congregational. ” If this continues, the PSC will change in essence, becoming just one more ho-hum, top-down, elder-ruled church with the congregation not aware of the machinations in the back room. If that’s what they want, OK. There are a bunch of churches that play this way. I understand why so many people have left the congregation and the staff. I spoke with members, and they expressed their concerns and fears.
Is it possible that Mark was hired to change the essence of PSC? He came from the Anglican crowd (ACNA), which is undergoing much turmoil and stress. For example, here is an article about the abuse at the Church of the Resurrection in DC. Anglicans Say Leaders Botched Response to Allegations Against DC Priest.
PSC needs to dig into its well-known past successes. Don’t give up the “congregational” for something authoritarian and hierarchical.
- A committee of elders and members should sit down with Mark and address Michael’s concerns. It’s going to take time. He’s been keeping notes. Then, point by point, the committee should tell the church the outcome of those discussions.
- This same committee needs to sit with Michael and go through each point carefully. They cannot blow it off and say it is merely a “leadership style” difference unless PSC elders deliberately hired an authoritarian pastor. There are many problems in ACNA these days, and some of them surround poor leadership. Pastor Mark came out of that crowd. Maybe it’s what the elders wanted. If so, tell the church.
- Someone needs to stand up in church and tell the congregation they are going ahead with top-down leadership. Explain why it is so.
- A concerted effort should be made to see if recently “let go” pastors and staff were treated well before leaving. Christians care for one another. Apologize where necessary.
- Pastor Mark needs to cut out the nonsense and publicly reveal his resume. This is starting to get weird and worrisome.
- Others copied Michael’s letter and distributed it publicly. I made it available on the blog. I did not get this memo from him. Please don’t blame him.
- A third-party, independent, comprehensive investigation that carefully examines the systems currently in place is essential. Make sure they can produce a document like this.
- I was told by Priscilla to pray for PSC. Sadly, there was no mention of praying for those no longer at PSC. I’ll concentrate on praying for those folks.
- Is there a way to heal relationships with the staff who have been let go? It’s hard, but that’s what Christians do.
- Members hold the elders accountable. Do not be sheep, pretending “We see nothing.”
- How about holding a service of lament?