Last week, right before Thanksgiving, I experienced one of the darkest moments of my church life. I read this article in The Presbyterian Outlook about accusations of sexual abuse directed against a (now) former Presbyterian pastor and actions from several presbyteries to tighten our church rules regarding ministers and sexual abuse.
Any case of sexual or other abuse perpetrated by clergy against children breaks my heart and fills me with rage. And I have seen firsthand the way this kind of abuse causes ripple effects of damage beyond the original victims. But what hit me like a sucker punch in this case is the fact that I know the accused abuser. I have enjoyed his company at national youth worker gatherings. I’ve had dinner at his house. These things have a different impact on us when we know those involved.
When I read the things he is accused of, that he renounced his ordination in order to avoid a church trial, and that an administrative commission of the Greater Atlanta Presbytery nonetheless investigated the cases and determined that the charges are credible, I held back tears and felt like throwing up. I never would have expected this from a trusted pastor and youth worker. Clearly, I wasn’t alone. Even more troubling were the many missed opportunities to put an end to his behavior and protect additional victims. (Read more here.)
What elevated this to something of an existential crisis for me is that I was right in the middle of last week’s ruminations on the nature of post-Christendom. I tend to find the institutional and bureaucratic elements of Christendom to be a hindrance to the gospel. I am sympathetic to post-denominational and/or congregationalist ecclesiologies. In my most extreme moments I think of Christianity as more of a movement than an institution and wonder if the gospel would be better served without churches and professional clergy altogether.
But thinking about this awful case, involving a pastor I knew and trusted, was a reality-check slap to the face. Maybe there are better ways to organize and carry out mission than denominational bureaucracies. There are definitely better uses of our time than denominational battles over theology and polity. There are surely ways to make our congregations less institutional. And I’m convinced that most of us—Presbyterians included—value connectionalism grounded in relationships and shared vision more than strict governance. But if there is one thing we still need in post-Christendom it is rules and regulations to protect victims against all kinds of potential abuse. Non-denominationalism, congregational ecclesiology, or loose networks of house-churches simply cannot provide the same level of protection as a networked system like a denomination. We need the accountability and checks-and-balances provided by this kind of connectionalism.
Clearly, as this case and far too many others demonstrate, our systems of accountability are not perfect, especially when the system works hardest to protect the institution itself and/or beloved individuals. But I would rather work to strengthen these rules than jettison them altogether.
Whatever the post-Christendom church looks like, I strongly believe that boundaries and safeguards aimed at protecting children and others are still essential features of what it means to be a community of faith.