Is the church safe?

About two weeks ago an article was published in Christianity Today interviewing former gymnast Rachel Denhollander about the impact statement she gave in court at Dr. Larry Nassar's sentencing.

In addition to being a former US gymnast, Rachel is also a lawyer who has worked as an advocate for sexual abuse victims. She is also a committed Christian and was quite vocal about her faith in her impact statement against Nassar.

While it was encouraging to see and hear her express her faith at the hearing, she also said some strong and convicting words in her interview with Christianity Today. She said,

"It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That's a hard thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church."

She made these remarks in the context of investigating a high profile sexual abuse scandal in a church which was not taken seriously and was dismissed by church leaders. In the process, she was ostracized from her church community.

As a pastor, her words were hard to read. Initially, I found myself feeling the need to defend the Church. Not the specific church she was investigating, simply the Church at large. But the longer I sat with them, the more I realized they are important to hear. 

Over the last few weeks, I've been writing about how the church is a family. I've been challenging people to reconsider their engagement with the church if they find themselves thinking about leaving. At the same time, I also wrote about how if the church is a family, just like families have dysfunction; the church does as well.

In response to my most recent post, a friend reached out with a thought-provoking question asking when does dysfunction cross the line and become abuse?

Denhollander's statement in Christianity Today and my friend's question have been haunting me this past week. I believe deeply in the church. I've dedicated my life to serving the church. Also, I hold the conviction that the church should be one of the safest places in a community. Psalm 46 states, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (v1)." My metaphor in describing the church is that it's a hospital and a home. It's a place for broken people to belong. Just like you expect to receive help at a hospital, and hope that your home will be a place of emotional and physical safety, I believe the church should be the same. It breaks my heart to hear when someone's experience is otherwise.  

And while I very much am still processing my friend's question, my initial conclusion is that dysfunction in the church crosses the line when the leadership begins to care more about themselves and their reputation than the people they lead.

Leadership is fundamentally about considering other people before yourself. Paul challenges the church with this in Philippians 2. He writes, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (v3-4)."

When news of a scandal breaks, whether in a church or the business world, the most heartbreaking part of the story, and the reason people get so upset, is when those who aren’t in authority in the company or congregation suffer the consequences.

To be clear, there will always be decisions made that not everyone agrees with or is pleased by the outcome, but that's very different than abusive leadership. I would characterize abusive leadership as leadership which seeks to preserve self at the expense of other people, specifically the people they lead.

Jesus’ model of leadership is the exact opposite. He readily lays himself down, he takes the fall, so that others may be spared. Jesus’ life and ministry can be described as selfless and sacrificial servanthood. I would contend that leadership in general, but certainly in the church should be the same.

Leadership is a high calling. It's not always glamorous and rarely easy. But to lead well means you fundamentally put others before yourself. When leaders are sacrificial in their leadership, the church has the potential to be a safe place where people can find refuge in God.