When Church And Leaders Go Wrong

Tim Balow
April 22nd, 2019

One of my more meaningful encounters in college was reading a book called “When We Get It Wrong” by Dominic Smart. Not many have heard of this book, but it was one of those reads that proves more meaningful as the years pass by in ministry and life. The basis of the book is as simple as the title: When we get it wrong. The book follows the biblical account of Peter, his discipleship path, his path through failure with Jesus, and his recalibration for leadership in the Church. As remarkable as the book is, the book hinges it’s premise not on the “if we get it wrong”, but “when.”

Social media and ministry journalism has highlighted several angles of the problem of what happens when churches, organizations, ministry leaders, and pastors get it wrong. “It” can be anything: Moral shortcomings, financial impropriety, workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and others have been highlighted. Some of those wrongs have been a long time coming, and others appear instant in a moment when everything comes to a head and a story breaks through a former employee, a lawsuit, or a group of congregational members attempting accountability.

How do youth workers navigate through the challenges of church + leader wrongs, both personally and professionally? How can they help the young generations of church find a way forward? How can youth workers reach for healing if they themselves wronged or even the wrong-doers?

Here’s some drivers and handles to help navigate challenges that come with the conversation about “when we get it wrong” with church and leadership.

It’s Happened Before; It Will Happen Again

No leader, organization, or church is immune to failure. Despite as many safeguards and talk as it takes to communicate about what can be done to move forward in holistic healthy ways, there should always be a level of humility that carries a church, organization, and leader. The Bible describes sin as “missing the mark” and just because we are a claimed people by God in Christ, doesn’t mean we are immune to continued misses. Those who believe it will never happen to them, usually end up on the wrong side of that statement.

Wrongs Usually Have Multiple Layers

Wrongs and abuse are usually never isolated in just what the initial story communicates. This has been demonstrated in a few recent major church wrongs that have led to holistic investigations by third parties looking into everything from board structure, financials, review processes, technology policies, and so on. When a wrong is made known, don’t be surprised if it means there’s other revealed brokenness to follow.

No One Decides Who Gets To Grieve And Who Doesn’t

If people are hurt, they are allowed to be hurt. Moving forward through a grievance and grief means it’s about finding a way to express, share, and heal from the wrong. Especially if it’s a personal connection to the individual or circumstance, there must be a time and space to allow people to process.

The Old Rule Of Transparency Doesn’t Apply

In the age of viral communication and digital sharing, wanting to “keep the story contained” is not a method of building trust. The obvious opposition to privacy is when it involves someone’s health. While not everyone needs to know everything, know the difference between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is hiding something unhealthy. Privacy is protecting one’s right to getting help and health. This is a key point in helping youth navigating a wrong. They may ask questions that leadership is unwilling to communicate, and it’s important to communicate the difference between secrecy and privacy.

Toxicity Happens When Unhealthy Behavior Is Kept Secret

This can happen over 3 months, or it can happen over 20 years. However, toxicity is perpetuated when power dynamics don’t work towards health and wholeness. This is usually when trust falls apart from the inside out. Toxicity is almost always connected to some abuse of power too. Toxic dynamics keep unhealthy situations and people unhealthy, and fail to act on moving towards hope, healing, and transformation.

Enabling and Accountability Are In Tension

One may believe that after everything falls apart, you should just attempt to contain the wrong. The truth is, you must hold the tension between enabling and accountability. Enabling maintains unhealthy behavior. Accountability is a path towards health and healing.

God’s Story Is Hope, Healing, And Transformation

Any wrong can be an agency to see God’s Story in fresh and relevant ways, as well as a catalyst towards new life in Christ for everyone involved. This doesn’t mean God’s redemptive work is going to keep a leader in his position, or a church/organization afloat. But it means that there can always be a bigger story beyond what’s in the here and now. The Story will always propel us forward.

The idea of church and leader wrongs is a heavy topic. God’s Word, through the same Apostle that failed Jesus, reminds us:

1 Peter 5: 10-11 (MSG) | So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does.

God’s flourishing life is always available to us in a healing and transformative journey with Jesus. If your church or leadership is in the middle of a wrong, you can trust in a greater plan for hope, healing, and transformation in Jesus.

Tim Balow

TIm Balow is has served in a variety of youth worker roles between Chicago and Minneapolis over the last 10 years. Tim currently serves with Youth Specialties working on projects focused on customer and content operations. Tim's passion is to serve the under-resourced youth worker and to encourage the next generation of students to step into a transformative relationship with Jesus.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.