It’s a far-too-common story: A pastor or prominent leader of a faith-based organization resigns because of sexual misconduct or abusive or controlling leadership.
In 2020, we’ve seen a fair amount of cases like these among evangelicals. When moral failure befalls our communities’ leadership, it can be a gut punch to our faith. Sexual misconduct and abusive leadership can hurt marriages, impair our institutions, forever damage the lives of those impacted, and harm our witness to a watching world.
Working as a public relations professional in the Christian world, I’ve had an up-close and personal view of how quickly crises can develop and how easily they can engulf an organization in controversy and confusion. I have been called on to help numerous ministries in crisis, many of which were struggling to come to terms with revelations of sexual impropriety or abusive leadership. My role is to try to minimize the public damage. But in many situations, it becomes clear that organizational problems existed far before the sin was ever made public.
Exposing the truth is necessary and helpful. We have a duty to name and call out sin in our communities, churches, and ministries. Open and honest media coverage can be a part of that process. But we can and must do more than expose sin within leadership when it happens. We must fight to prevent it from taking root in the first place.
We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; none of us is perfect. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure….” Each of us is prone to sinful temptations in different ways. To deny this about ourselves is in itself a prideful flaw. This is exactly why evangelical ministries must do more to create systems and structures to prevent and protect our leadership from moral failure.
More often than not, organizations are catapulted into crises almost solely because they had little to no accountability procedures in place to prevent abuses of power. When it comes to protecting against sexual misconduct or preventing abusive and controlling leadership, prayer and regular meditation on God’s Word are key. However, there are also some simple, practical measures Christian organizations should take to build accountability and keep leaders in check.
1. All leaders should be faithfully attending a local church.
This may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many Christian leaders don’t commit to a local community of Christians. Leaders and staff must support each other in finding and committing to a local community of believers (Heb. 10:24–25). Some Christian leaders use travel or ministry burnout as an excuse to stop going to church and submitting to a pastor of a local church. This is dangerous. No one can uphold God’s Word without regular, faithful church attendance and loving biblical community. If you serve on a board of a Christian ministry, you should ask the organization’s leadership about this.
2. All leaders within the organization should be in relationships in which they are accountable.
Every leader needs both professional accountability and personal accountability. This could happen through the local church but can be met in other contexts too. Leaders must regularly meet with Christians with whom they can face hard questions about their actions, thoughts, and temptations.
We are all prone to pride and power. Ironically, the very personality traits that help leaders rise in popularity and influence are sometimes the very things that lead to arrogance and controlling behaviors. These sins fester when leaders are allowed to act and make decisions in isolation. Though accountability is not fail-safe, it’s much more difficult for leaders in transparent accountability relationships to fall into sexual, prideful, or controlling sin.
3. Prohibit the board from being stacked with family members and friends.
Sometimes a board has to make tough decisions that may mean the dismissal of an organization’s president or pastor. This becomes even harder for leaders who are ministry founders. Too often, hard choices are delayed or even avoided altogether because the board members are too close to the leader. This dereliction of duty inevitably impacts the organization, no matter the circumstances. But with regard to sexual impropriety or abusive leadership, it can also exacerbate the victims’ pain or even lead to further victimization and persecution.
A board should also be mindful of the language in the employment agreement with the organization’s leader. A recent incident of reckless moral failure stemmed from the board giving carte blanche to the organization’s president to lead however he saw fit. The board must set clear expectations for a leader—regardless of that leader’s perceived virtue or track record.
4. Question whether a Christian organization should be named after an individual.
For the sake of longevity, a Christian organization should think twice before naming an organization after its founder. When that leader dies, the ministry bearing his or her name almost inevitably struggles for survival. However, an even bigger issue is the potential for the leader of such an organization to become prideful and start seeing the organization as an extension of himself or herself. As the Book of Proverbs tells us repeatedly, pride comes before the fall. If a leader falls, the eponymous organization could fall with them.
5. Be thoughtful about the organization’s travel policy.
A Christian organization should not just be mindful of the per diem and how receipts should be submitted. Careful consideration should also be given to how much time staff should be separated from their families, whether spouses are encouraged to join staff on longer business trips, and how much downtime is factored into company-sponsored trips. It’s common sense to ensure that families are together more often than not. Everyone within an organization has a vested interest in their leader having a vibrant, healthy marriage and family life.
None of us is without fault, and all of us are susceptible to sin. The question is how are we being held accountable. With the right structures and expectations in place, a faith-based organization is more likely to not only avoid a PR crisis but also to protect its community and foster a faithful ministry that better reflects the heart of God.
And don’t think of leadership crisis prevention as a PR exercise or lesson in political correctness. This is a vitally important part of living out our Christian witness. Matthew 5:16 reminds us to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” The world is watching our good deeds as well as our bad ones. Our response to failures and our dedication to preventing them will speak volumes to the culture about the hope that we have in Jesus, and our dedication to his righteousness.
Heather Cirmo is a public relations professional based in Washington, DC, with 25 years of experience.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.