Power Trips

How can we better prevent and respond to abuse of power within the church?

On February 26, an independent advisory group released its findings into allegations of sexual impropriety against Bill Hybels, following seven months of research on the founder of Willow Creek Community Church. The report determined, first, that “allegations of sexually inappropriate words and actions” by the now retired pastor are credible; and that he “verbally and emotionally intimidated both female and male employees.” 

And secondly, that Willow Creek should have given “better oversight and disciplinary action” to Hybels, as well as taken the initial allegations more seriously. With Hybels’ roots in the Netherlands and in Reformed theology, the case cuts close to home for members of Reformed denominations. 

But now it’s time to move on, the report concludes. “Mistakes and sins should not be denied or forgotten, but neither should God’s blessings and the faithfulness of God’s people. The good accomplished is significant […] and should not be minimized or discredited.” The lengthy report, available online, conveys how difficult it is to untangle holy motives from sinful ones. What part of Hybels’ ministry grew out of a positive use of his power and influence, and which parts from power wielded selfishly, leading to dysfunction? If “church leaders need to be above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2), then these are vital questions every church needs to be asking. 

That’s one reason why delegates from the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) will discuss an internal report entitled “Addressing Abuse of Power in the CRC” next month at their annual synod. Abuse of power will be one of the high-profile issues at this Synod and potentially in church circles afterward. Discussion is important but the time has come for action, as the CRC report makes clear. Once we acknowledge and strive to understand power dynamics in church circles, then we must take steps to strengthen responses to the abuse of power as well as try prevent it. And though the impulse to “move on” is understandable, Willow Creek would do well to do the same.

A good starting place for ministry, the Addressing Abuse of Power report says, is with the experience of survivors. A 1989 study found that incidences of abuse within the CRC are similar to what is found in society – with 28 percent of respondents citing at least one form of abuse. Since last July, when the CRC’s Network opened up a forum called S.O.S. – Sharing Our Stories – five people have posted personal accounts of abuse, people “precious to God,” as Safe Church Director Bonnie Nicholas says, and “deeply wounded by abuse, not only somewhere ‘out there’ but right here within our midst.” 

Those stories showcase how churches typically respond to reports of abuse. The short answer? Very poorly. When Robin Michelle Rhodes was sexually assaulted by a Christian university professor, her pastor and Christian friends blamed her. When a pastor’s wife experienced sexual misconduct at a retreat for clergy, her account was minimized and then dismissed. When Nancy Boelens-Groen confided to her pastor that she and her sons were the victims of domestic abuse, he advised against divorce. Now, years later, Nancy lives without either of her sons, who both died as the result of an overdose. Both sons struggled with depression and anxiety. Nancy shared her story so that others may survive: “the church must be our hope, teaching families to respect each other as God’s temples. […] Then no more will silence hide violence.” 

As these examples demonstrate, loyalty to church and to authority is highly prized in CRC circles, which can mean that problems are denied, downplayed or not officially reported; and people hurt by an abuse of power are ignored or silenced, and eventually leave. The #MeToo movement has given a gift to the church, painful though it might be to receive: that survivors of physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse are no longer willing to be silent. This is, as the CRC report says, “an opportunity to follow Jesus’ model of using power in life-affirming and faith-affirming ways.” 

How? Acknowledge the abuse; hold the perpetrator accountable; and use the appropriate authorities and resources to begin a process of healing (“Addressing Abuse of Power,” 5). The committee also recommends that the denomination monitors all incidents to better track patterns of abuse, and that emotional abuse be defined and added to the work done by Safe Church ministries. The Task Force requests funds for counselling services for those affected by abuse and an end to the secrecy of non-disclosure agreements with denominational staff. Through measures like these might the church better “follow its call to discipleship to truly love those who have been marginalized by abuse,” as Robin Michelle Rhodes says. 

The second focus of the “Addressing Abuse of Power” report is how to better prevent it. Cick here for an article on prevention at the local level – things your church can do now. But change is also needed at higher levels – within Classes, denominational agencies and at Synod. That’s why the report also recommends the following: that the CRC develops and makes mandatory a training program on the abuse of power for all pastors; that the church creates a Code of Conduct for all ministry staff which defines “godly conduct”; and that it reviews the screening processes for senior leadership positions in the denomination and for office-bearers in local churches. 

Why is training necessary? Because subtle forms of abuse are hard to see: “belittling, talking over other others, a man claiming an idea a woman said five minutes earlier as his own, men making key decisions over coffee in closed conversations, assigning women tasks like taking minutes or serving on the hospitality team,” as one woman in church leadership who asked to remain anonymous told Christian Courier. “These are all acts of power abuse. They are a fundamental failure to see or honour the human being in front of you.” 

“Real, concrete, diligent action over the long haul is what we need,” St. Catharines-based Pastor Woodrow Dixon says. “We should also put more women on our councils and in our pulpits, diversifying both the kinds of people who hold authority and who hold our authorities accountable.” 

“I truly hope each Synod delegate comes to the report knowing that her or his congregation is not immune to abuse of power,” Cheryl Mahaffy, member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton, concludes. “The changes that the report recommends hold promise for moving toward a healthier, more trusting environment.” 


  • Angela Reitsma Bick

    Angela became Editor of CC in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for CC to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three children.

One Comment

  1. Angela Bick, thank you for such a comprehensive article on “abuse in the church “.
    Jenny Vandermeer

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