In many ways, it’s an old story. From King David to Ted Haggard, we see leaders rise to power and discover both a sinful sense of entitlement and the opportunity to indulge it. Surrounding them are enablers, fixers, and others willing to just look the other way.
But there is something different about the present moment. What was once hidden in the shadows of corporate suites, movie studios, and pastors’ studies is being exposed on blogs and social media. Survivors of abuse are connecting with one another, telling their stories, and gathering in ways that cannot be ignored.
I spent much of 2020 and 2021 researching and telling the story of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, where behind the scenes of success lay an abusive culture of manipulation and domineering, all oriented around the feeling that the congregation’s spiritual and numerical growth was bound up in a leader who was too big to fall.
In telling the Mars Hill story, we heard again and again from listeners how these events had eerie parallels in a variety of contexts. Churches and ministries found success when they organized themselves around the talent and vision of a single leader. When conflicts or questions of character emerged, all of the incentives were stacked in the leader’s favor.
As these stories continue to emerge—and we see them emerging from churches of every imaginable shape, size, and theological disposition—a cynicism about leadership and authority is spreading in the church. The benefit of the doubt that many pastors received in the past has eroded.
As a result, pastors and others are beginning to push back, raising concerns about false accusations and due process. Many pastors feel torn between a sense that the church needs this moment of reckoning and an anxiety that opportunists are trying to bring them down. But if we aren’t careful in how we respond, we’ll reinforce the logic that created this crisis of character in the first place.
The church’s leadership crisis isn’t simply happening against a backdrop of innumerable moral failures. It also exists in a complex fog of faith and doubt that the philosopher Charles Taylor has described as disenchantment. As Taylor sees it, modernity has fundamentally transformed the moral and spiritual imagination, introducing a steady undercurrent of doubt.
In part, that’s because we’ve been given a material explanation for almost everything. We don’t blame demons for sickness or angry gods for thunder; we point to germs and high-pressure systems. The feeling of falling in love is cast as an impulse to perpetuate the species.
Hearing these stories results in a default mode where our thoughts about the spiritual, supernatural, or transcendent rise out of us only to immediately bump their heads on a ceiling of uncertainty. Even after we find ourselves drawn to Jesus, we come to him with disenchanted spiritual imaginations. That’s as true for pastors and church leaders as anyone. We’re haunted by doubt, but even more so immersed in it—surrounded by stories and ideas that orient us to a world where it’s straining and uncomfortable to imagine God at work in invisible ways around us, even if we yearn to believe it.
This is what makes the phenomenon of the charismatic pastor so seductive—particularly (though not necessarily) when they achieve celebrity status. They stand before us with an apparent spiritual certainty that we lack or struggle with. Then, through their performance as an inspiring, challenging, or entertaining personality on and off the stage, they can stir our emotions and imaginations in such a way that we experience something transcendent—something that feels an awful lot like an encounter with God.
This kind of post-enchantment transcendence is comforting. It doesn’t just silence our doubts about God; it also silences them about humans. Think, for example, of how a politician who you know is lying to you—or at least making promises they’re utterly incapable of fulfilling—can still give you chills or move you to tears.
I’m not saying that we’re trying to manufacture transcendence to hide our faults. But we are drawn to the transcendent and want people to be drawn to it in us. I’ve seen it in my own efforts as a worship leader, trying to craft transcendent experiences.
I’m reminded of the legend of a missionary who found herself newly deployed, homesick, and discouraged. She sat by a pond one day, listening to a group of women singing as they washed clothes and dishes in the knee-deep water. The song was simple and beautiful, a single phrase repeated over and over, and though she didn’t speak the language yet, it moved her to tears with a sense of God’s presence.
As they packed up to leave, she approached one of the women and asked about the song. “Did the other missionaries teach it to you?”
“Oh yes. It was one of the first they taught us,” she said.
“What do the words mean?”
“It means, ‘If you boil the water, you won’t get dysentery.’”
A disenchanted imagination can shape a church in many ways. In the effort to overcome those conditions of doubt, ministry can quickly turn into an enterprise that seeks to compete in the marketplace.
That’s one reason evangelicals have fetishized the kind of leadership typically seen in Fortune 500 companies. We need masters of techniques—marketing, branding, entertaining, managing—that can “work” on the imagination and emotions in ways that are similar to music and that can be entirely effective in the absence of the Spirit of God.
The side effect, of course, is that this invites the ills of the marketplace into the boardrooms of our churches: demands for loyalty at all costs, the expendability and replaceability of workers, and the PR and image management needed to lionize a founder or CEO.
This isn’t to say that everyone leading in these settings is corrupt, and it certainly isn’t to say that God won’t show up in them. Of course he does. But these tools are incredibly powerful, and there’s a price to pay when they become the central organizing principle of our organizations. Spiritual abuse, narcissism, bullying, and domineering can manifest in almost any church, regardless of polity, denomination, theological perspective, or culture.
It’s my sense that the common thread that ties these churches’ stories together isn’t simply character issues, significant as those may be. But we too often overlook the undercurrent of disenchantment. We keep bad leaders around because in response to our default setting of doubt, we’ve created conditions in which character isn’t a qualification for the job. We want someone who can make us feel something.
Which brings me back to pastors who are feeling anxiety about false allegations and the erosion of trust happening at this moment. I’ve seen proposals about policies and procedures, about what organizations like CT should or shouldn’t publish, and admonitions about what church members should or shouldn’t pay attention to. In what I think was the strangest example, a writer who occupies the office of lead pastor in a church with a multimillion-dollar budget, who sells books by the thousands, and who speaks on the main stage at some of the largest conferences in evangelicalism was lamenting the fact that leaders don’t have the platform or opportunity to tell their stories anymore.
Implicit in these solutions is a pragmatic urge to manage and message the crisis away. Many church leaders are retreating from the moment to look for ways to mitigate their own exposure to it, often grasping for management tools and techniques that are in the same drawer as the other tools they’ve used to build their dysfunctional empire. Authority wants to justify itself, often through expressions of power.
“It shall not be so among you,” said Jesus (Mark 10:43, ESV). The outcome of his leadership and authority was crucifixion—God incarnate falsely accused, beaten, and pierced to take away the sins of the world. We worship a God who knows suffering.
This reshapes not only how we talk about our leaders, but how we talk about those shaped and misshaped by them. As survivors in all corners of our culture have told their stories, a new language has emerged for talking about them. Terms like trauma and vulnerability have become helpful bywords—but there’s a difference between the power of naming an experience and the power of redeeming it. Naming it helps us acknowledge, grieve, and integrate it into our understanding of ourselves.
Redeeming it means that we don’t stop at identifying what was lost; we recover it. Psalm 56:8 tells us that God puts our tears in a bottle and keeps a record of our grief. This means that we never suffered alone, and none of our heartbreak has been forgotten. He catches our tears, and at the Cross he weeps with us.
The Cross is where the true Leader, the true Lord, reveals his perfect character. But it also reveals, in history’s most transcendent moment, that Jesus’ focus is not on trying to evoke feelings in others. Nor is it on stoically demonstrating timeless truth. The truest feeling is when Jesus “took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isa. 53:4).
Thus Christian leadership is about taking on burdens, including risk. Risk of getting blamed when things go wrong. Risk of getting blamed for others’ failure. Risk of getting ousted for doing the right thing when it makes the wrong people uncomfortable. Risk of false accusation.
But we are not Jesus, so pastors also need to be prepared for accusations against them that are true. The problem may not be polity, or that people are spending too much time consuming the wrong material, or that they’ve gathered around unsavory personalities online; the problem might be what we did or left undone. And if we can’t imagine that to be the case, it’s time to remind ourselves of the pain of the Cross.
The Cross means we meet this cultural moment with tears of our own, not to evoke them in others but rather for the sake of others. Tears of lament for the ways that abuse has tarnished the witness of the church and fractured its unity. Tears of shared grief for the victims and survivors of spiritual, physical, and emotional abuse in the church. And tears of repentance for the ways we contributed to this broken landscape.
But we’re not without hope. Whatever else may come from this season of reckoning in the church, if the church responds with faith and repentance, something better and more beautiful can emerge.
After all, if we die with Christ, we will also be raised with him (Rom. 6:8). After the cross comes resurrection.
Mike Cosper is Christianity Today’s director of podcasts.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.