The problem with powerful men
How often do we overlook the sins of our leaders, giving them a pass because 'no one’s perfect'?
A few years ago, I was on Council as an elder at our church. This was before the pandemic; our congregation at the time was fairly large, around 700 professing members. I am not a numbers person but I would get a copy of the budget, like everyone else. We would vote on a few items, but it was obvious that the real heavy lifting happened when the executive council met – they set the salaries, reviewed expenses. We’d just pick the brave soul whose turn it was to make the next announcement about how much more we needed from the congregation’s wallets before the end of the fiscal year.
Bob Vanderskol had been the Treasurer for decades. And he’d always done a good job – the lights were still on, at least – so it makes sense we all got a little panicky when he said, out of the blue, that he was moving to Palm Beach. And no, he wouldn’t be doing the church books from there.
After a stunned silence in the consistory room, and a brief period of mourning (Bob came to every meeting with a 20-pack of Timbits), the Chair voiced what we were all thinking.
“Well,” she said, “who wants to be Treasurer?”
No one made eye contact with her, which is the adult version of saying “not it!” in tag, and none of us looked at Bob, either – just in case his years of commitment were somehow contagious. Most of us were already on two or three subcommittees.
Then Karen said: “What about Dave?”
She didn’t even need to say his last name. Dave Green was new to our church, but he was the kind of person everyone knew. He owned a backhoe company with his brother and also sold vitamins, or something along those lines. And he’s the guy who started the #GivingBack movement, remember that? It was a Kickstarter campaign that raised two million to help Syrian refugees resettle in Canada. We all agreed: Dave Green would be perfect. That he wasn’t already on Council was just a small hitch, quickly remedied by unanimous vote.
A few days after that meeting, however, I found something strange.
Behind the scenes
Dave had given the keynote address at the last in-person Canadian Christian Relief and Aid Association conference. His talk – entitled “Our Money, God’s Plan: The Backstory to #GivingBack” – was on YouTube. I watched it while folding laundry. Just like at church, Dave was funny, dynamic and self-deprecating. His daughter was a childhood cancer survivor, and that experience fueled his passion for helping others in need. He talked about how he started #GivingBack in 2015 out of his kitchen, and now it had 18 employees, four government grants and had funnelled over $8 million directly to aid organizations overseas. “In one error of judgement,” he said, “I put $500,000 into a personal account. But my wife stood by me in that difficult time. And I know that God is going to do amazing things with that money!”
I pressed pause on the video. I replayed it, my mind whirling. Had he just admitted to stealing half a million dollars donated to charity? To a roomful of people working in the non-profit sector? Surely not. There are laws against that, right? He wouldn’t be able to get away with that.
Then I thought – “Wait a second: this is the guy we want to put in charge of the church’s bank accounts?”
Maybe I was missing something.
After our next Council meeting, I tried asking around, discreetly.
“Did you know Dave Green gave a CCRAA talk?” I began.
“Yeah, I saw that. Wasn’t it great?” Karen enthused. “So inspiring.”
“What about, um, the ‘error of judgement’ thing?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, waving her hand like she was shooing away a fly, “that. I figure it’s none of our business.”
Others at church gave me similar answers.
“We don’t need all the details.”
“No one’s perfect.”
I am not a gossip, but surely the details around half a million missing dollars were relevant. Not wanting to seem rude, however, I didn’t pry. Dave never said outright that he’d done anything wrong; but, as far as I could tell, he never gave the money back, either. Had he turned over a new leaf? Would he leave our church bank accounts intact?
The next Sunday, we thanked Bob, gave him a framed print and said goodbye. In a matter of weeks, Dave was our new Treasurer, and the mood during Council meetings lifted. Even if he didn’t bring Timbits.
Okay. Here’s the thing: I made that story up. It’s a parable, and I ask for your patience as we switch out commandments. Imagine that, instead of the eighth, Dave had broken the seventh.
How many men in church leadership have made sexual ‘errors of judgement’? Sometimes caught because they’ve broken the law, sometimes by their own admission. How many times are these men cushioned from the consequences by their status, exempt by charisma, forgiven without even apologizing? Why are their appalling transgressions glossed over, when the sins of everyone else receive so little grace?
Mars Hill imploded, and Mark Driscoll simply planted a new church – ignoring dozens of leaders who call him ‘unrepentant, unfit to pastor.’ Harvest Bible Chapel fired Rev. James MacDonald for “harmful” conduct, but that hasn’t stopped the megachurch pastor: he’s back in the pulpit in Arizona. Disgraced Hillsong pastor Brian Houston is returning to ministry. And despite being kicked out of his entire denomination for sex assault allegations, ex-Southern Baptist Convention President Johnny Hunt is preaching again and hosting the Johnny Hunt Men’s Conference this month.
It took me 10 minutes on Google to find those examples.
Who comes to mind for you?
A question of integrity
There has to be a way, without gossiping, to stop giving powerful men a pass because “no one’s perfect.” There has to be a way, without gossiping, to stand with their victims instead. (Make no mistake: there are victims. If it seems like there aren’t, that’s just because we haven’t been listening.)
Sometimes the details are relevant.
Sometimes it is our business, to know whether the people who stand in the pulpit and whose Christian brands we enfranchise have integrity.
Sometimes there is a moment when we need to say, out loud, “Wait a second: this is the guy we want to put in charge of our spiritual health?”