Who Are We Protecting?

In recent years, it has become common place to point the finger at the Catholic church with regard to sexual abuse by clergy. Well, this week Protestants discovered the “log in their own eye” with the Houston Chronicle report on sexual abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).The article featured a mosaic of mug shots representing a portion of the 220 who worked or volunteered with the SBC who were convicted or pleaded guilty to sex crimes. The investigation reported over 700 victims, many of which were minors, which, if it follows the pattern of other investigations, may be the tip of the iceberg.

Similar to other sexual abuse scandals the article traces a pattern of ignoring victim reports, protecting perpetrators, and refusing to make reforms that would protect children from these sexual offenders. Tragically, in the case of some pastors, even after convictions, they were able to secure pastoral roles in other churches, even nearby churches.

Sadly, I don’t think we are going to be eliminate patterns of sexual brokenness that lead to sex crimes. A highly sexualized culture and patterns of dysfunction in families suggest to me that churches and other ministries will continue to need to take measures to protect against predators, and others who violate boundaries of trust. Churches are “target rich” environments for predation, bringing adults and children together, often in relations of trust and privacy.

It seems that in all these scandals, there has been a systemic blindness to the clear teaching of Jesus:

“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:5-6

I grew up singing “Jesus loves the little children.” It’s that simple. The priority in our churches must be to love and protect our children. To fail to protect our children may well be to cause them to stumble–indeed many who have been abused have turned away from the faith. It seems there are some basic steps we can take.

  1. Break the silence. The worst assumption we can make in churches is “we all know each other and none of us would do something like this.” Candid education of every one, dealing with the signs of abuse, and how the whole church can be involved in preventing abuse, may deter potential abusers. Making clear a commitment to child safety and the practical steps the church takes in its children and youth programs sends a message that “we are committed to the safety of children.” It may even encourage parents of young families to come to your church!
  2. Screen all pastoral candidates, staff, and volunteers who work with children. One of the problems in the SBC was the refusal to track sexual predators. Applications, references and background checks may seem burdensome but they are a small price to pay and they say “we are committed to the safety of children.” I personally felt better about my son’s involvement with Boy Scouts when I learned I needed to undergo a criminal background check to volunteer with our troop.
  3. Train volunteers who work with children with periodic refreshers. Establishing clear protocols of appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to keep children safe are important, including how children are released to parents or caregivers.
  4. It may seem burdensome, but the rule of an adult never being alone with a child makes sense. It was a rule for which I was grateful when I worked with Scouts, as much a protection for me as for the boys I worked with.
  5. Have a clear policy of how suspected abuse is dealt with, including implementation of your state’s mandatory reporting requirements. Physical or sexual abuse of minors is a crime. All of this makes it clear that abusers will not be shielded and that the priority is the safety of children. In all the sexual abuse scandals, the problem wasn’t merely that abuse happened, but that deliberate steps were taken to protect the abuser, and the reputation of the institution, instead of the abused child or youth.

Certainly there is more to be said about this. But is it so hard to say in our religious institutions that ensuring the safety of our children takes priority over protecting individual or institutional reputations? Jesus doesn’t need us to protect his reputation; he needs us to protect his children. Period.

Going Deeper: Peace Be With You

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for “peace”

Our pastor (Rich) made the statement this past Sunday, “that when we show up what we need to do before anything else is bring peace.” He rooted this statement in the observation that three times in Jesus’s resurrection appearances in John 20, he says, “peace be with you.” In two instances it is the first thing Jesus says (John 20: 19, 26).

Rich went on to talk about the fact that Jesus wanted his disciples to know that they had nothing to fear from him. I suspect they weren’t too sure of that. Someone coming back from the dead can be a bit scary. Then there’s the matter of how they acted during his arrest and crucifixion. They were not exactly the poster children for loyalty or courage.

Instead, Jesus said “peace”, or “shalom”, the way Jews greeted each other and expressed their wish for wholeness and health on the life and home of the one they were addressing. It’s what Jesus taught his disciples to say when they came to a town bringing the good news and needed a place to stay. Rich proposed that “we could do worse than simply, everywhere we ever go, say and do whatever lines up with ‘Peace be with you.’ Our reputation in the world would change.”

It is troubling to me that people are fearful of their encounters with church people. But the truth is they are often expecting a judgment, a criticism, or an argument.  It strikes me that it could be a radical thing if instead, what they found in us were people who genuinely wanted them to find peace, wholeness, and health–all the things wrapped up in shalom.

It would be interesting to experiment with that for a week. I can think of some interesting ways to go about that:

  • What about closing our emails with “peace” or “peace be with you” (or “PBWY” on our texts!)?
  • What about writing “peace be with you” on our check at a restaurant along with a generous tip?
  • What about greeting each other at the beginning of our days with these words spoken gently, perhaps bearing a cup of coffee?
  • What about offering to pray for or even with (if they are comfortable) a friend who is stressed that they might experience God’s peace?

You get the idea. I would love to hear other ideas you come up with to say and do “peace be with you”.

Rich also made the point that for us to be that in the world, we need to start by practicing this with each other:

But I think in some ways it has to be our self-talk, too. When we come together, for whatever reason, our first stance, our first words, our basic orientation toward each other needs to be “Peace be with you.” Don’t be afraid, don’t be worried. Be at peace. Be at rest. Be yourself, and let me be myself, and let’s not be anxious about anything, for God is with us.

Churches aren’t always peaceful places. People coming from harried, busy lives may encounter messages that basically say, “you need to do more, give more, pray more” when maybe the first invitation we might give each other is to rest, to enjoy peace, to revel in silence, or the beauty of a song of praise. What a beautiful thing it can be for someone to ask, “where do you need the peace of God in your life right now?” What if board meetings began this way with prayer for one another to know the shalom of Jesus? And might it be the case that when people are at peace, then they can hear the empowering word of Jesus that infuses doing with joy!

On a personal note, I want to extend a “peace be with you” to our pastor as he begins a three month sabbatical. Rich, you labored hard these past seven years bringing peace and a new sense of hope to a troubled church through your week in, week out teaching and presence among us. Often it has meant bearing the burdens of others. May you know the peace of the Lord in rest, in quietness, in the simple richness of shared life with your family, in times of reflection, in all the warp and woof of your lives these next months. May the peace of the Lord be with you!

Review: People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership

People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership
People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No well-adjusted person likes to displease people. But allowing the approval of others to unduly shape what we do and why we do it can be harmful both to our sense of self and to the life of the organizations and groups of which we are a part. This is a particular danger for pastors of churches. In many cases, pastors are hired by the local congregation, and as a volunteer organization, the effectiveness of pastors rests on the goodwill and support of church members. In addition, church boards may be peopled by those who view their position as a personal fiefdom of power and influence that pastors may be reluctant to challenge.

Charles Stone’s book is based on research conducted by Lifeway Ministries with thousands of pastors. He integrates research findings, biblical material and knowledge from the world of neuroscience to help pastors understand the dangers of people-pleasing, the tendencies in one’s own life to do so, and strategies to deal with these tendencies. He contends that our tendencies to people please are driven by the emotional parts of our brains and that when we grow in emotional maturity, we are less apt to fall into this pitfall.

Stone advocates a seven step approach to this growth, summarized in the idea of becoming a PRESENT leader. This consists first of “Probing your past”–discovering the past patterns in your life, your family and your church that shape your emotional responses. This is followed by “Revisiting your values”, so that these serve as the basis of responses when you are tempted to people-please. Third, he advocates “Exposing your triangles” so that we understand both the normal triangles of relationships in our lives and avoid being triangled, a situation in which we become tempted to fix an unhealthy relationship between two others. “Search your gaps” involves recognizing the particular kinds of people-pleasing patterns to which you are most prone. This is followed by learning to “Engage your critics” by learning calm presence with anxious others. Sixth, you “Nurture your soul through mindfulness”, which involves becoming fully attentive to God and one’s situations through biblical meditation and practices of mindful attentiveness. Finally, he urges “Taming your reactivity”, the ways one might keep their cool under pressure, avoiding the disastrous outbursts that make conflict resolution more difficult.

The book concludes with an interesting exploration of the danger of being a placebo pastor, looking at the early use of “Placebo” in Chaucer as a “yes man” who made others feel better. Stone advocates for living to please God in faithfulness to one’s call.

Three appendices include a seven day devotional resource to included biblical mindfulness, a study guide for using this book with a board or leadership team, and a description of the research methodology undergirding the book.

This book is part of the InterVarsity Press Praxis series and is indeed a very practical resource for pastoral practice. It asks but does not answer the important question of one’s values in pastoral work, something hopefully shaped by one’s sense of calling. In this regard, I might commend Eugene Peterson’s many books, but especially his Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity and his Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. These might be helpful if one struggles to “revisit one’s values” as Stone recommends.

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