Ankeny Conference Addresses Moral Failure in Ministry Leadership

Whether one is discussing the moral problems of politicians, athletic coaches, school teachers, or church leaders, the story seems to be the same: First, a leader betrays his public trust by succumbing to the lure of money, sex, or power. In the aftermath everyone seems interested in protecting their valued institutions. The victims, neglected at first, eventually demand a full accounting.

Though each of the tragedies has its own set of circumstances, they seem to be marked by a common problem. The individuals and institutions lack a consensus on what, exactly, they should do. And for churches and Christian ministries trying to recover from such tragedies, there is an additional irony. All of them embrace the moral teachings of the Bible, but this has not (yet) resulted in a consensus for action.

When Dr. Wallace Alcorn and Dr. James Maxwell discovered they had a common passion for addressing this problem, they recently organized a symposium on the campus of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. Maxwell was a pastor for many years before becoming the president of FBBC; Alcorn is a retired pastor, chaplain, and college professor who continues a teaching and writing ministry. Together they enlisted the help of John Greening, national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

Believing that the conference would be only the first part of an extended process, Dr. Maxwell’s invitation list was private and relatively small. About 20 ministry leaders attended, including speakers who addressed the issue from various perspectives: local church pastors, lawyers, mission agency executives, Bible college administrators, and a woman who counsels victims.

Despite the diversity in the room, the leaders had an obvious common trait. All are Baptists, all are interested in finding a solution consistent with the unique Baptist emphasis on the local church.

Maxwell offers a formal goal for the meeting, asking the participants to “produce a reasoned and biblical protocol for churches, agencies, and associations to use in dealing with pastors and other leaders who are guilty of sexual sins.”

The challenge is immediately evident. Would the participants agree what the “Biblical protocol” should be? Would they be able to articulate their ideas in a way that persuades like-minded churches and ministries to adopt a common set of standards?

“We want to listen to each other, learn from each other, share our ideas,” Dr. Alcorn says. But he quickly adds a further goal to “produce something that will be of practical use to our churches and the associations related to them.”

In his opening remarks, Alcorn acknowledges that churches may feel somewhat shell-shocked by recent scandals. “Under these conditions, about the most we can expect is that a church would catch on to any sexual misconduct by its pastor before others do and get rid of him quickly so we can forget about it,” he says, describing an unworkable model of response.

“However, no one forgets. Those anxious to forget only suppress, and it gnaws in the recesses of their memories. Those wanting a weapon against the church and the gospel will never let us forget.”

Alcorn describes our human tendency to bury these incidents as “a theft that keeps on taking.”

John Greening speaks next, admitting that “the independence of our Baptist polity poses complicating problems.” He describes the loose ties of Baptist organizations as “the dilemma of a network of independent entities (underscore that—independent entities!)” and asks “Who is responsible to whom? And how do we make sure we are following through on things appropriately?”

Greening finds himself explaining the difference between the hierarchical leadership of a denomination and a fellowship of churches like the GARBC. In reality, Greening’s title of national representative accurately describes his role, which carries little authority over the independent churches in the fellowship. Still, he has the power of persuasion, and uses his comments to describe what he thinks the GARBC should be doing.

“From my perspective the associational component seems to have a pivotal role in providing a network and recommending an approach,” Greening says, suggesting a role the GARBC may have as the participants continue to develop a solution. While Greening seems to understand he is addressing a room full of very busy people, he also argues for action: “We all may think there are other matters to which we could give our attention, but this is a matter that should not be left unaddressed.”

A local pastor agrees with Greening’s comments, and suggests that accountability needs to be implemented before crisis appears, to help preclude difficulties. Other participants suggest drafting a standard covenant that pastors and leaders would sign prior to accepting a ministry position—a statement where both parties agree to a standard of conduct. Should the covenant be violated, both parties would have already agreed on details of termination, continued church discipline, and public announcement of the incident.

Summarizing the idea, John Greening describes the proposed covenant as “a pastoral prenuptial agreement.” It is a serious suggestion that provokes a bit of laughter, one of the few light moments during a somber day.

Some legal issues surface. If a church wishes to make a public announcement regarding a pastor’s dismissal, they must do so very carefully. Otherwise, they may be accused of “false light invasion of privacy.” If a deacon is asked to give a reference for a former pastor, he must speak and write with great precision. In some cases, the best formal answer might be “No, I can’t give a reference for that person.” For the most serious cases, where a felony has been committed, a church that has honored its commitment to inform local law enforcement can then respond to queries by pointing to the public record.

But the meeting also uncovers some key issues on which the participants do not yet agree. Namely, what sort of sins will lead to a pastor’s permanent disqualification from the ministry? The day’s conversation, originally intended to discuss sexual sins, now expands to include all three of a pastor’s biggest temptations: money, sex, and power. Does this mean there are “less serious” sins that could result in church discipline followed by eventual restoration to leadership?

What if the various churches and ministries disagree on that list of sins? One pastor told of a man who was dismissed by his church for sexual sin, then later turned up at another church, speaking at a Bible conference—to which all of the area churches were invited. And if various ministries disagree on where to draw the line, they might even withhold information from each other, following a misguided zeal to avoid gossip.

Wherever “the line” is, the participants agreed on several basic ideas. Churches and ministries have a moral and legal obligation to immediately report child sexual abuse to civil authorities, and to each other. This concept must be consistently taught in our schools, seminaries, and churches. Some sort of consensus must be articulated—some level of information sharing must be initiated. Fellowshipping churches and agencies must seriously address their responsibility to each other.

The day ended with the participants forming three study groups to develop the discussion further, addressing the needs of victims and churches, modeling a proper response to the offender, and developing training prevention strategies.

More than anything, the participants show a willingness to think critically. They even critique the name of the conference, with Dr. Maxwell then agreeing to scrap his original title. What should we call this thing? Can we choose a name that properly describes our concern for the abused victims, our concern for wounded churches and agencies, and our concern for bearing up the sinning pastors who need repentance and restoration? Everyone knows the problem, but it has become big enough to defy a concise name that honors all of the concerns.

As the effort continues, participants agree to respond with a substantive effort that addresses the whole issue, not just one part of it.