Saturday, November 20, 2010

When Christian leaders fail

Last weekend, a letter was read to parishioners indicating an audit found an unspecified amount of money had been “misappropriated” by Rev. Francis Drabiska, who had served as pastor of the Word of God parish near Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years. Bishop David Zubik, Roman Catholic Diocese, announced the resignation of Rev. Drabiska, who admitted taking the funds [1], which were presumably not used for wafers and grape juice.

Rev. Ted Haggard resigned from the 14,000 member New Life Church in Colorado Springs which he had founded in the 1980s. The former president of the 30,000 member National Evangelical Association stated in a letter read to the congregation, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality”. [2] In Hollywood, this admission would be received with a yawn and movie deal. Not so in the church. This matter was a bit more complicated than most church sex scandals, given Haggard’s involvement in politics and his opposition to same-sex marriage legislation. Mike Jones of Denver, who is gay and whom Haggard allegedly paid for a massage and methamphetamine, stated “My intent was to expose a hypocrite.” [3]

Then there’s Father John Geoghan, former Boston priest, suspected of serial pedophilia for decades before he was convicted in 2002 of groping a 10-year old boy. He is alleged to have left behind a trail of victims, many of whom have likely turned away from the church, before suffering his own tragic end - a noose held by fellow inmate Joseph Druce on August 23, 2003 at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. [4] We could continue; unfortunately, as there are other examples. Many non-church attenders point to these types of incidents as another problem with religion. Is it justified to turn from the church and God because of the sins of a few?

How does this affect people?
News reports of Christian leaders' moral failings receive a disproportionate amount of attention in comparison to the actual problem. Similarly, there are thousands of plane flights every day, but they only receive attention when something goes wrong. The vast majority of church leaders are never involved in any scandalous behavior. Unfortunately, some people become disillusioned as a result and leave the church or use these scandals as an excuse for avoiding church. A survey of those who do not attend religious services found that 72% stated that church is “full of hypocrites”. [5] Few, if any, scientific studies break this down to church leaders who fail, but it is clear that hypocrisy is a common complaint of the unchurched.

So, how should we react?
Is it reasonable to be surprised and shocked when a human fails? Only Jesus was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5). Conversely, the remainder of us have sinned to varying degrees (Romans 3:10, Psalm 14:1, Romans 3:23). Though it is certainly disappointing when a respected church leader falls, our trust should not be in humans, but in God alone (Psalm 40:4, Isaiah 26:4). We should forgive those who sin as each of us would like to be forgiven (Luke 6:31, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13). Certain behaviors may necessitate removal from positions within the church (2 Corinthians 2:6-8), expulsion from the church completely (1 Corinthians 5:13), and even criminal prosecution. Following repentance, if return to the church would not place others at risk, this person may be restored to fellowship (Galatians 6:1).

What to do?
The message and mission of the church are too important to not take reasonable precautions for church leaders and workers. Systems of checks and balances are essential for financial matters, so that no one is tempted regardless of how much the pastor, secretary or CFO are trusted. Similarly, safeguards need to be in place – and already are in most churches – to protect against even the appearance of impropriety. All of us who work in the church as volunteers or staff need to maintain high standards of conduct (1 Timothy 3:1-13) so the message of the gospel will not be hindered (Matthew 18:6). However, we need to remember that Jesus Christ was the only person who never sinned and our faith should only be in Him.

[1] Jodi Weigand, “Word of God Parish rocked by theft accusation against priest”, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 15 Nov 2010.
[2] Associated Press, “Haggard admits ‘sexual immorality,’ apologizes”, MSNBC, updated 11/05/06.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Thomas Farragher, “In death, Geoghan triggers another crisis,” The Boston Globe, November 30, 2003.
[5] Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Survey: Non-attendees find faith outside church”, USAToday, 23 Jan 2008.