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Opinion: Bad apples need orchards to grow

06 October 2023

Attention must be paid to the social and structural context in which abusers are enabled to flourish, argues David Bunce


THE initial Church of England safeguarding report on the Revd Mike Pilavachi identified a substantiated pattern of coercive power spanning 40 years (News, 8 September). The investigation found that Mr Pilavachi had used his “spiritual authority to control people”, and that “his coercive and controlling behaviour led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and massaging of young male interns”, a statement said.

A further investigation under the Clergy Discipline Measures is still ongoing. This is the latest in a series of scandals over the past few years, which have included those surrounding Bill Hybels, Jean Vanier, Mark Driscoll, Steve Timmis, and the Revd Jonathan Fletcher, to name but a few.

It has been interesting to read the statements that have been coming out, as organisations have criticised Mr Pilavachi’s behaviour and distanced themselves from him. And yet part of me feels as though I have seen this film before: the leader does something wrong, an investigation substantiates allegations (often after those making the allegations have been discredited), people say how sad it is that a bad apple has been found in leadership circles, and we all move on with our life until the next time this comes around.

But what if the bad apple also says something about the orchard? Much has been written about Mr Pilavachi; I want to address Mr Pilavachi less and instead zoom out a little bit more and ask what orchards might be in our churches.

ONE of the most helpful tools that I have so far discovered in pastoral ministry is learning to see churches as emotional systems, akin to extended families, in which people react to one another in predictable and repeated patterns.

This is a helpful way in which to understand conflict in the Church, in which the actual content or topic of the conflict is often much less important than the way in which people are reacting to one another. Helpful models include Karpman’s Drama Triangle, with its typical roles of victim, persecutor, and saviour, where the roles circle around one another time and time again; and Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, which plots the movement of chronic anxiety in a system.

Systems thinking is also a helpful way of thinking about power and spiritual abuse in church contexts. This is not a new thought: a considerable amount of work has been done by the German Evangelical Alliance, among others. One of the points made in systems analysis of abuse is to remind us that, although individuals are always responsible for the abusive choices that they make, power abuse by an individual in the Church needs a social and structural context.

Abusers needs a church to give them the power; at the very least, they need people who remain silent, who turn a blind eye. More probably, they need people who enable abusers, or who actively defend and protect them, or attack and gaslight those who would seek justice and truth. These include:

  • People who decide that the cost of the fruit, or the talent of an individual, or the reach of the ministry is worth the size of the pile of bodies behind the bus. This was a theme that repeatedly came out in the Christianity Today podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
  • People who perhaps owe their own ministry to being championed or platformed by the person now under suspicion. An independent report on Jonathan Fletcher made a similar point (News, 26 March 2021): “Being a deeply influential person within a much broader interconnected network creates much greater power and much less opportunity for individuals to disclose and a situation in which many may owe their positions to you.”
  • People who are worried that, if they attack “our golden boy” (whoever that might be — and it is, more often than not, a male leader), they will take their talent, gifts, and influence somewhere else. So, they — and maybe we — stay silent. This a theme that comes out in the Thirtyone:ight report into The Crowded House (TCH), a non-denominational Evangelical church in Sheffield: “People reflected that the church enjoyed the status [Steve Timmis, the senior pastor] brought. It fed into the narrative that being a member of TCH was something special, something blessed by God, something that could not be found in other churches.”

These examples present an uncomfortable reminder. We find the idea of power abuse in church contexts — rightly — abhorrent. The idea that our presence in a system can contribute towards this abuse taking place is even more distressing. Which, if any, of these factors played a part at Soul Survivor will, it is hoped, be explored in the investigation by Fiona Scolding KC; but it is worth noting that initial testimony from individuals does point to the raising of concerns multiple times, and their not being handled correctly.

IN MY current post, I do a lot of safeguarding training in a non-UK context where safeguarding is only beginning to be talked about. I often begin by asking people what knowledge of safeguarding they have. It is striking that many people are aware of big cases of abuse: Hybels, Zacharias, Hillsong, and Driscoll are the names that come up so often that I could go to the bookies and make bets.

But it is also striking that participants are often equally as grieved — often visibly so — about the institutional failure to respond to these abuses, and by the way in which organisations have been protected over against victims.

Soul SurvivorMike Pilavachi speaks at the Soul Survivor youth festival

Time and time again, people in my safeguarding training express their pain that organisations knowingly went out of their way to hide allegations, or even attack those making them. Friends and colleagues have privately expressed similar pain related to Soul Survivor, not least about the silence of many organisations that were previously close to Mr Pilavachi and yet seemed to have nothing to say.

The majority of the participants who attend my seminars are not the kingmakers of the Evangelical world: they do not control the social networks and budgets that make that world spin; they are not gatekeepers of the relationships that oil the wheels of para-church mission; they do not have a large platform. They are normal people who attend church. But they are watching and noticing.

And, from the conversations that I have been having, one thing is clear to me: our systems are one day going to add enough straws of broken trust to break the camel’s back. As David Warren, a leadership mentor, points out: “My observation of most recent statements related to different leadership abuses is that the church organisations and their leaderships haven’t heard the pain.”

I WISH that I could be hopeful that things would change — that this was “A Moment” when we reckoned not just with the behaviour of individuals, but also with the way in which systems collaborate to enable, or at the very least tolerate, abuse.

In their book A Church called Tov (Tyndale House, 2020), picking up on the Hebrew word for “good”, Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer suggest what a virtue-ethics account of a “goodness culture” might look like. It is marked by empathy and compassion, grace and graciousness, putting people first, truth-telling, justice, service, Christlikeness. As they write, “When churches seek the tov that produces the fruit of goodness, they can defeat the ra (evil) of abuse.”

This is a moment for those in leadership to hold the space of grief, to investigate our culture critically, and to ask how we can change the orchard so that we don’t get so many bad apples. As Danny Webster, of the Evangelical Alliance, rightly points out: “The reaction to bad leadership isn’t no leadership: there is a need for godly leaders more than ever.” This is difficult work that demands courageous leadership, because it means transforming cultures that are potentially comfortable for those in leadership, and it means holding space in the uncertainty of change.

There are signs of hope: statements, such as Youthscape’s, which also clearly and transparently acknowledge the way in which they have been in some sense dependent on Mr Pilavachi, are a hopeful sign of courageous institutional truth-telling. Soul Survivor and New Wine are both (belatedly) commissioning wider reviews of the culture (News, 22 September). At the time of writing, the terms of reference are still not published.

But these kinds of review and report have been written repeatedly in the past — and yet here we are again. This is why I fear that the systems will continue, and the predictable pattern — silence, attack, “Oops, bad apple” — will keep repeating itself.

But just imagine if justice did begin to roll like rivers — not just on an individual level, but in the very way in which organisations and churches operated. Would that not testify to the tov of Jesus who is putting broken hearts back together?

The Revd David Bunce is a Baptist pastor in Austria, who was born and raised in the UK. This article was adapted from a post he wrote on his SubStack blog:

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