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Hold toxic leaders to account

by
10 May 2024

Speaking up is essential — but how should this be done, asks Tim Gough

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THE shocking revelations about Mike Pilavachi, the founder of Soul Survivor, sent ripples of disbelief and serious concern throughout the youth-work community. For decades, Pilavachi was hailed as an icon, a mentor, and a spiritual guide for countless individuals within Christian youth work.

Then, allegations of misconduct and mishandling of complaints against him surfaced, sparking a crucial conversation about the need for accountability, proper complaint escalation, and the imperative for youth workers to speak truth to power.

Youth work exists in a delicate balance of mentorship, guidance, and trust. Leaders like Pilavachi hold significant influence over impressionable young minds, making their actions and behaviours pivotal in shaping the moral compass of future generations. The recent accusations against Pilavachi illustrate a distressing reality: misuse of power and the reluctance of individuals within the community to address these issues.

One of the primary lessons gleaned from this appalling situation is the pressing need for a more robust framework for speaking truth to power. Youth workers often find themselves in positions where they witness, hear about, or are victims of inappropriate behaviour, but fear, deference to authority or a lack of clear channels to escalate concerns hinder their ability to confront these issues head-on.

Even though safeguarding policies exist for these eventualities, it is clear that they are not always properly digested or implemented adequately. The case of Pilavachi emphasises that speaking up is not only essential, but a moral obligation to protect ourselves and other vulnerable individuals under a leader’s influence.


SPEAKING truth to power requires both courage and tact. It is about addressing issues in a way that promotes positive change while maintaining professionalism and respect. So, here are some steps to take:

  • Prepare: Before addressing those in power, it is important to make some notes with robust examples to highlight your concern.
  • Time and place: Timing is crucial. Find an appropriate setting where you can have a clear and uninterrupted conversation with the person in power. Ensure it is when they can give proper attention to your concerns.
  • Be constructive: Maintain a respectful tone and avoid being confrontational. Frame your points constructively, focusing on the issue rather than attacking the person.
  • Use specific language: Be concise and articulate. Clearly state the problem, its impact on you and potential solutions. Avoid ambiguous language that might dilute what you are saying or make them write you off.
  • Express consequences: Explain the consequences of the issue on you personally, particularly on your ability to do your work well.
  • Offer solutions: Do not just highlight problems; propose potential solutions or steps that can be taken to address the issue. This shows your commitment to working with them and finding a resolution.
  • Bring support: If appropriate, gather support from another team member, or someone who can advocate for you.
  • Document and follow-up: Keep records of your conversation and ideally follow up in writing, thanking them for their time, summarising the points discussed, and any agreed-upon changes.


“Ok, Tim, I did all that, but none of it worked! In fact, I think it might have made things worse!” If speaking directly to the person in power does not yield results, then it is time to consider alternative avenues of resolution. That means you should consider escalating your concerns through proper channels within the organisation.

The incident with Mike Pilavachi highlights the importance of proper complaint escalation mechanisms within organisations. Many youth-work environments lack clear protocols for reporting grievances against leaders or individuals in positions of power — or, if they do exist (usually in safeguarding policies), they are passed over too readily.

Soul SurvivorMike Pilavachi speaks at the Soul Survivor youth festival in 2019

In the absence of effective and well-understood and -implemented structures, complaints may go unheard, mishandled, or unaddressed entirely, perpetuating a culture of impunity and leaving those affected without recourse. It is so important for youth workers and churches to establish transparent and accessible channels for raising concerns, ensuring that every voice is heard, and every complaint is taken seriously.

Escalating complaints effectively involves navigating proper channels within an organisation while ensuring that concerns are addressed at higher levels of authority. Here are some steps to consider when escalating complaints:


FIRST, start with an internal approach. Many organisations have designated procedures for handling complaints. Begin by addressing the concern with a leader. Clearly outline the issue, providing any documentation available to support the issues. Request a meeting or written response to discuss potential solutions.

If this does not work, it is time to move to the next level of management or the human-resources department. Present a formal complaint in writing, detailing the problem, its impact, and the steps taken previously to address it. This might be to your church elders, PCC or denominational body outside your church.

Beyond this, it might also be necessary to involve external authorities or regulatory bodies relevant to the industry, such as ombudsmen, or citizen’s advice. That goes beyond the scope of this introductory booklet.

Throughout the escalation process, keep a record of all communication, including dates, times, and individuals involved. Document any responses or actions taken at each stage. This is crucial for building a case and providing evidence if the complaint requires external intervention.

Remember, escalating complaints is not about causing friction or breaking relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ, but it is about seeking resolution and accountability so the message of Jesus encounters less roadblocks, and the whole community behaves in an increasingly compassionate and healthy way. Approach the process professionally while advocating for a fair and just resolution.

Accountability should be an integral part of leadership within youth work. Leaders, no matter their stature or influence, must be held accountable for their actions. The case of Pilavachi serves as a stark reminder that even revered figures should not be immune to scrutiny. Youth workers must advocate for a culture of accountability, where leaders are not placed on pedestals beyond reproach, but are held to high ethical standards and are answerable for their conduct.


THIS unsettling episode also underscores the significance of providing adequate support and protection for those who come forward with complaints. Fear of repercussions, disbelief, or ostracism often silences individuals who wish to report misconduct. Organisations must create safe spaces where individuals feel empowered and protected when speaking out against any form of abuse or misconduct.

Moving forward, the youth-work community should initiate a profound shift in its approach to leadership, accountability, and the handling of complaints. It is imperative to foster an environment in which speaking truth to power is encouraged, where escalation pathways are clear and effective and where leaders are held accountable for their actions.

Ultimately, the distressing news regarding Mike Pilavachi should serve as a catalyst for positive change within the youth work landscape. It is a call to action for individuals within the community to uphold the values of integrity, transparency, and ethical leadership, ensuring that the well-being and safety of the young people they serve remain paramount.

Tim Gough is Centre Director of Llandudno Youth for Christ.

This is an edited extract from The Leadership Trap: How to survive the wounds and escape the scars of toxic leaders in youth work (Y74) by Tim Gough (editor), Colin Bennett, Natalie Collins, and Lauren Fox, published by Grove Books in its Youth series at £4.95; 978-1-78827-379-4. grovebooks.co.uk.

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