The SBC Drama & Trauma: Tough Choices and Leaders

June 5, 1944: General Dwight Eisenhower had to make a tough choice – either cancel the Normandy invasion, hewing to Air Marshall Leigh-Mallory’s demand – or Eisenhower would have to choose to bear alone the leader’s burden – to commit to the assault on Normandy in the face of bad weather, raging tides and enemy reinforcements in the critical landing areas. Management felt the risks to life and public condemnation would be intolerable. Leadership knew the best course of action was not particularly safe, nor at all certain. Management said stop. Leadership said go. Management advised, but leadership decided. Costs were counted, the leader made the tough call. The rest, as they say, is history.


Leadership exists to make hard choices, usually with high risks and potentially large consequences. Rare is the leader who gets to just sit around while happy results roll in.  “We get the really dirty diapers.” is an old axiom for CEO’s.  It means people try to keep problems far from the leader, until they can’t. Then, just as often, a leader’s staff will work hard to “handle” (manipulate) the leader to do things that do not threaten jobs, break some china in public relations or defame personal reputations.


This all brings us to mid-May this year, and the Guidepost investigation into sexual abuse with numerous Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastors, staff and elected leaders. If you are one of the many, like the hundreds in the report, who were preyed upon please forgive all of us who have served in leadership and failed to find this and failed to stop this. I am crushed under the dishonor brought upon Christ in your suffering.


I cherished the discipling I received from many wonderful people in several wonderful SBC churches, churches I developed in, spiritually speaking. I never experienced any such abuses in my lifetime. Even so, the criticism arising from these allegations make failure in leadership and failed discipleship the understatements of the year.


Here’s a quote from page 3 of the SBC report from Guidepost, merely an opening salvo in a voluminous report: [italics mine] “Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations.” In these horrific, recurring abuses we see not only injustice and oppression – plainly condemned in Scripture – but we can see into the core of the problem – failed discipleship. Some disciples acting as predators, others as white-washers. In all cases, leaders who chose anonymity, deceit and power to obscure and paper over God’s biblical standards of behavior. It isn’t like we don’t have clear historical examples in the Old and New Testaments. These SBC leaders, with (supposedly) much learning and experience in Scripture should have been better than King David with Uriah, or the murderous Saul-who-became-Paul. They should have been disciple-leaders who were more courageous than Jonah running away, and Peter denying, and they should have been clear-eyed leader-disciples who would have been fast to act on God’s directives and warnings for justice, unlike King Saul with the Amalekites, or Judas’ treason.


This is not just an SBC problem. Think back over just the last decade about these same kinds of failures in many other religious organizations. The symptoms of (some form of) the problem are there if you know what to look for: Avoiding questions. Condemning messengers bearing bad news as frauds, without so much as a small investigation. Demeaning people, stifling the environment to talk and raise tough issues. When leaders prioritize public image, or liability & risk ahead with that kind of culture, it is a bridge out road for the organization’s road ahead.


This is not to criticize the normal human reactions by leaders of fear and concern about bad news. There is no shame in having initial reactions of dread. But it is failure when disciples cower to, and run from fear. Likewise, there is no fault in managers assessing risks. But there is abject failure in usurping the mission for the expediency of risk avoidance. If the report by Guidepost got it right May 15th, not only was the SBC leadership fearful, cowing and looking the other way – but leadership was actually, intentionally derelict, both those who were the perps, and those easily manipulated by the malevolent internal actors using their role as managers to cover their own tracks and guilt. In the evil acts, and in the gross negligence of looking away we see leadership fail twice – once in deceit, the second in fear, in avoidance and in dawdling. Discipleship in every church led by these guilty and derelict people has been compromised. Having these guilty people represent a church or churches at a Convention level means the culture of discipleship has been compromised. The compromise is an unwritten, but well understood policy: “Get to the top – the pulpit, or as our President, or even just in local staff roles – and nobody will call you into account – we will defend you, hide you, transfer you, camouflage you – and you can do it all over again. That is not a policy of risk reduction, nor even apathy. It is complicity.


This recent sexual abuse failure was on the SBC’s leaders. But now it is before all leaders, in all gatherings of Christ. William Wilberforce: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.” There can be no quarter for those abusing people, denigrating people, hiding predators, or just kicking the can down the road. Throw them out as leaders. Love them, best you can as they may become recovering disciples. Help them in restoration if at all possible. It may not be possible. But even with help and repentance, they cannot lead any longer.


Most of us are not caught in travesties like this. But the consequences are still exploding around us. The culture of discipleship has been hacked – for centuries! And much leadership is compromised in that hack. We have to change the game and get back to biblical leadership, and to biblical discipleship. Leaders – do you want to follow Christ in executing his mission for all believers? Do you want your congregants and members and staff and children to really, truly follow Christ? You will have to lead – and often that leading will be way out of your comfort zone – the consequences and risks and publicity may be dire. But that’s where leaders go – outside their comfort zone. Hear Rachel Denhollander and Russell Moore talk about comfort zones and the epic leadership fail in the SBC.  But listen with the realization that the speck in their eye may be eclipsed by the log in all of ours. All of ours. Here’s the link: Rachael Denhollander Calls for a Southern Baptist… | Christianity Today Also, hear Ashley Chesnut talk with to The Disciple Dilemma on this same issue – sexual trauma, and becoming a “trauma informed” body of believers, able to go to war well on this issue, and serve Christ’s disciples – women and children and men alike: The Trailer! Women – Discipleship – Sexual Brokenness with Ashley Chesnut on The Disciple Dilemma

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