When 19-year-old Giona Melo heard that police had arrested the pastor of the largest Baptist church in the Philippine island of Mindanao for allegedly murdering his romantic rival, a male beauty pageant contestant, all she could do was laugh.

“I used to get really angry, but now I laugh because it’s just absurd,” said Melo, who grew up in Cagayan de Oro, a city in northern Mindanao, and is now a student at North Park University in Chicago. “I have peace because I trust in God more than the church.”

Dimver Andales, the 51-year-old head pastor of Lapasan Baptist Church in Cagayan de Oro, was accused of masterminding the murder of 24-year-old Adriane Rovic Fornillos, a candidate for Mister Cagayan de Oro. The police have called the case a crime of passion because Andales, a married man, was allegedly in a romantic relationship with Fornillos’s girlfriend. He was arrested along with his associate pastor, who is said to be an accomplice of the crime.

Around the time the news broke, another pastor, Jennifer Cobarrubias of Dream Life Church in Quezon City, went viral for a TikTok video in which she and her church members mocked former congregants who had left her church. She quickly faced backlash on social media: “This is why I stopped going [to church],” read one tweet. “Religious people are the most judgmental ones.” Another read: “These types of people are using religion to control people’s lives. … Shouldn’t you be praying for them instead of mocking them [on] TikTok?”

“It is sad to see Christian leaders fail to be good representatives of Christ,” said Micah Bacani, a recent graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. This isn’t the first time the 24-year-old has grappled with a Christian leader's moral failings. Apologist Ravi Zacharias, who was posthumously charged with sexual abuse in 2021, also greatly influenced Bacani’s spiritual life. “It’s sad because they’re called to a different standard. But I think it’s a comfort to know that their failures don’t diminish the work God can do in their lives.”

While the Philippines is the most Christian country in Asia and public trust in church leaders remains high, church scandals or pastoral pettiness now reach a wider audience through social media, impacting how Gen Z views the church. Ministry leaders working with this demographic are finding that trust is no longer a given like in previous generations. Given this context, faithful pastors and church leaders need to establish young people’s trust in the church and ministries through personal relationships and through transparently answering their questions.

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Responding to church controversies

Scandals within the church and Christian-inspired sects are not new in the Philippines. Last year, a court in Palawan ordered the arrest of Romeo Nuñez, pastor of Jesus Christ The River of Life Church, over rape accusations filed by a church member. In 2021, a US federal grand jury charged Apollo Carreon Quiboloy, leader of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ church and the self-proclaimed “appointed son of God,” with sex trafficking.

Back in 2005, a former assistant of Eli Soriano, founder of the sect called Ang Dating Daan (“The Old Path”), accused the pastor of rape amid feuds between his group and the sect Iglesia Ni Cristo. Soriano moved to Brazil amid the rape and libel cases.

Yet for Gen Z, the difference now is how quickly word spreads online.

“Young people spend a lot of time on social media, and these days, issues of religious leaders spread like wildfire,” said Mark Henry Pellejera, pastor of Rod of God Ministry, who disciples high school students in rural Cagayan. “This has a huge effect on the faith of those who aren’t plugged into a community where they can ask questions, be discipled, and express their concerns.”

In his ministry, Pellejera addresses recent scandals in one-on-one conversations with the members of his youth group, stressing that even religious leaders are prone to fall into sin. However, Pellejera finds that young atheists and skeptics have a harder time being open to Christianity because these church scandals reinforce their preexisting skepticism and distrust toward religious leaders.

Eva Marie Joy Famador, the national coordinator of Micah Philippines, an organization that raises awareness of integrity in churches in the country, stresses the importance of churches being open about the ugliness inside.

“Filipino churches deal with scandals quietly, because the concept of saving face or shame is very important to us,” Famador said. She has observed that there is a tendency for Filipino churches to cover up a moral failing or to even flat-out ignore it because they’re concerned about their public image.

“We need to understand what the Bible says about integrity and teach these principles to our congregation so that we can develop a system of accountability,” said Famador.

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Famador noted that corruption—which can come in the forms of sexual abuse, financial misuse, abuse of power, bribery, vote buying, or tax evasion—can be addressed on a practical level by instituting transparency and accountability in the church. At the same time, openness can also protect church leaders from defamation and congregants from untrue gossip.

Disconnect between leaders and young people

The 2021 State of the Filipino Youth Survey found that 54 percent of Gen Z Filipinos said they engage in religious activities daily. Yet in the same survey, less than a quarter said they were “members of a social group or organization,” and of those, only 37 percent said they joined a church or religious organization.

Dana Calanog, a 23-year-old medical student at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City, noted that one reason for the low participation rate could be the disconnect between pastors and their young congregants.

“Leaders can be absorbed in their authority and see themselves as God, so it’s important for me when they go out of their way to make me feel heard,” Calanog said. She appreciates how her pastor not only cares about her spiritual life but also asks about her personal life and listens to her worries about school.

“It’s important for me to have a church leader who is open, willing to discuss things, and respectfully acknowledges where I’m coming from.”

Because social hierarchy is determined by age in the Philippines, it can be difficult for pastors to address the questions of young church members without feeling like their authority is being questioned.

“Raising concerns shouldn’t be taken as a personal attack,” said Melo. She is concerned about how some Christians overly revere their pastor and believe that everything the pastor says is the gospel truth. This is why she finds pastors who are humble to be more trustworthy.

“I trust church leaders who have been to therapy, who are vulnerable and open to themselves,” Melo said. “I think it shows their capacity for sensitivity to God’s word.”

Gen Z Filipinos care about mental health issues, a struggle that 73 percent of them have dealt with. Seeing church leaders address this from the pulpit can be empowering for young people who value authenticity and can pave the way for relationships to be deepened across generations.

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Bacani, the recent grad, said he trusts his church leaders because they intentionally show that they care. “My youth pastor disciples me, and I trust him because I’ve seen his wisdom in the way he lives,” Bacani said. “I’ve seen his humility when he admits his mistakes and acknowledges his shortcomings.”

“Trust is a relationship issue”

To build trust among Gen Zers, Famador believes leaders need to put systems in place to address issues so that the church won’t be prone to corruption. This also sets clear expectations and boundaries for congregants to follow.

“Accountability needs to be institutionalized in the church,” Famador said. “If someone has a complaint, they go to a [designated] person or committee. The pastor’s wife should be there if a woman seeks counseling from a male pastor. If a church member wants to give money to an outreach program, they are advised to give directly to the treasurer instead of the pastor.”

As the former executive director of the Christian Convergence for Good Governance, Famador also advocates for government intervention in sexual abuse cases.

Pellejera encourages his congregation to communicate openly with him. Having a two-way dialogue between church leadership and the congregation is important for building trust, especially in a context that is as communal as the Philippines.

“When someone has a problem, they can come to me directly and freely express their concerns, questions, and judgments,” Pellejera said. “It can be easier to implement this in a small congregation where everyone feels like family.”

Bacani and other Gen Zers agree with the need for the church to be a safe place to ask questions and express doubts with older, more mature believers.

“Trust is a relationship issue,” Bacani says. “This is why it’s important for me to have deep relationships with the leaders of my church.”