When #ChurchToo Gets the “Good Guys”

August 14th, 2018

I was in active leadership during college at my Episcopal campus ministry when I was invited by the parish where we were located to attend the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit being streamed at another local congregation. Even though Willow Creek’s theology skewed more evangelical than my parish’s, the invitation was to learn more about and cultivate leadership through interviews and keynotes by people both inside and outside the church. I remember being particularly impressed by a talk on servant leadership given by Colleen Barrett, then the President and Corporate Secretary of Southwest Airlines.

While the worship and music component was outside of my comfort zone (we joked that you could tell the Episcopalians because we were the only ones without our hands in the air during praise songs), I found Bill Hybels to be different from other megachurch pastors. He seemed more down-to-earth, less slick — like a friend’s dad. So, I was surprised this past April when allegations of Hybels’ misconduct with women surfaced. Even with my commitment to believe women, my own engrained patriarchal tendencies said, “Not Bill Hybels! He seemed like such a nice guy!” As if nice guys are not susceptible to using their powerful positions to sexually harass women.

I had no previous knowledge or connection to many of the other church leaders publicly caught up in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, but based on my experience with the Leadership Summit and Hybels’ prominence in the broader Christian community, Hybels was the first one I felt like I “knew.” Hybels’ alleged behavior towards women hits home in that, as Terry Mattingly writes, Hybels seemed like one of the good guys after having our fill of “bad-guy evangelicals.” And it is proof that those behind #ChurchToo have been right; it’s not just a few bad apples. Churches that rely on cults of personality, minimal oversight of the leadership, patriarchy, and hierarchy are all ripe for abuse.

The similarities between abuses in the evangelical world and in the Catholic Church hinge on power. These are not crimes that are fundamentally about sexual fulfillment but about power run amok. As such, they cannot be solved by the so-called Billy Graham rule, recently made prominent by Vice President Mike Pence. No amount of separation between the genders will render moot the power dynamics that create an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

Those of us in Mainline Protestant traditions are also living in glass houses, lest we be tempted to throw stones at our evangelical and Catholic family members. Though we might have women clergy and women in some of the highest positions of denominational leadership, the system is patriarchal and hierarchical at its heart. Perhaps we’ve been lucky to escape the spotlight and the wrath of the media and wider culture, but we should not delude ourselves that abuse does not similarly infect our beloved institutions.

What can we do then if all of the Safe Church policies and the Billy Graham rules can’t protect us? Christianity needs a major reckoning with power. I am hesitant to recommend a complete dismantling of our ecclesial systems, but it is likely that we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, to quote Audre Lorde. Somehow, we have to look towards the one whom we worship, Jesus Christ, who emptied himself of all power, humbling himself to the point of death on the cross. We must repent of our grasping and reliance on power to become the Body of Christ for all people.

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