Reflections – signs things aren’t right

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. Actually, it’s now years of reflecting. This autumn it will be 3 years since we left the Crowded House. In some ways it feels like a lifetime. In others it feels like yesterday.

Over those years a lot has happened. Reviews have been commissioned and published – not just about the goings on at the Crowded House (TCH from here on) but also about Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth. There have been numerous podcasts and articles about Ravi Zacharias and Mark Driscoll. I’ve been following these stories and although they span decades, different classes/cultures and even continents there are so many similarities.

My main reflections are around Steve Timmis, Mark Driscoll and Jonathan Fletcher. I suppose these three are closest to home. I was in TCH for 13 years. Mark Driscoll was head of Acts29 which we had close links with and Steve Timmis then became director of. I grew up (and remain) in conservative evangelical circles. I never met Fletcher, but I know many people who knew him, and I have done shows at Emmanuel Wimbledon and their mission group have generously supported my work. What follows is what I’ve directly witnessed at TCH and then read in reviews, listened to in podcast interviews, articles etc. So while I don’t have direct experience of these things with Jonathan Fletcher and Mark Driscoll, these behaviours and themes appear to be widely attested.

Another note – I’ve tried to make this more about what we can learn than another catalogue of errors. That’s why I’ve not included a lot of examples. That’s been done elsewhere (for TCH go here, Fletcher go here and Driscoll listen here and here, and read here).

Disclaimer – these reflections are about those stories and my experience within them. You may see similarities to your own ministry or situations you are in. I am deliberately not writing about other situations I have come across and seeking to stick to what I’ve experienced or is widely attested in the case of these three men. I had originally written ‘any similarities are purely coincidental’. Of course they may not be coincidental, but signs of a wider cultural problem. I’ll let the reader decide.

If you are spotting similarities in your own ministry, in some way, be encouraged. If you see your own leadership within these points then it probably means you’re not a bully, but perhaps leading in an unhealthy way. And maybe this is the Holy Spirit convicting you of that. If, on the other hand, you think I’m attacking you and your only thought is defence… I’d be concerned. I’m not writing this directly about you, but take a moment to pause and reflect. Please.

It should also be said that these things do not necessarily constitute bullying or abuse. They could be aspects of malpractice. It could be poor shepherding. But which ever way you look at it, they are areas of concern and need reflecting upon.

So on with my reflections…
There are some common themes to the widely attested behaviours of these three men – all of which (to date) maintain their innocence.

1. Belittling talk

In the UK there’s something known as ‘banter’. On its positive side it’s light-hearted jibbing, pointing out the flaws or mistakes of others but as an opportunity to laugh together. There’s something very British about this. We have a culture of talking ourselves down (which is why, American friends, many of us find the Trumpian habit of bigging oneself up really grating). If someone pays us a compliment we’re quick to soften it or deflect with humour. Banter can be one side of that coin. It can show a remarkable depth to a relationship – we’re so comfortable with one another that we can suffer some humiliating jokes at our expense.

There is, of course, an inherent danger in this. For one thing the other person may not be as comfortable in the relationship as we think, especially if they are a subordinate or young. The jokes may go a step too far. And on the worst side, they can be used to control – to constantly put someone down so that they ‘know their place’ and are far more likely to acquiesce to every command. Because, who are you to question? The constant stabs of ‘humour’ become a constant reminder that you are nothing in the eyes of the ‘joker’.

It seems this kind of banter/put downs were common for both Timmis and Fletcher (and widely known about according to the 31:8 review). From what I can tell Driscoll was (is) far less subtle. His putdowns seem to be repeated reminders of people’s place below him and his place at the top of the tree.

Are you known more for your cutting wit than your gentle kindness? Do you have former leaders who have felt battered by your tongue? Then you may have a problem. 

2. Doing down wives

This is more a reflection on the behaviour of Timmis and what I’ve heard attested to about Driscoll.

I’m going to expand more on this in another post, because for me personally this was a huge thing. I was struck again by it listening to this Julie Roys episode. Here, a former security man for Driscoll’s church talks about how they were told to ‘control’ their wives. At TCH it was ‘leading’ wives, but amounted to the same thing. It was about getting wives in order, getting them to ‘be on board’ and not being able to do that was a sign that you were not a good leader (managing households and all that).

But what is common to these stories is that it was always the wives who saw the issues first. Sometimes literally on day 1. They saw the fault lines, the controlling behaviours, the cult-like talk. I remember vividly being told how ‘good men’ had been ‘brought down’ by their wives. Steve (and his wife) would openly criticise the wives of other leaders of our church in front of me. I was even asked by him once about my own wife when talking about a difference of opinion about church life, ‘why did you marry her?’

And these wives saw their husbands fall hook, line and sinker for these lies. What is a wife to do?? So many of them would raise their concerns but lovingly submit and follow their husbands. The irony was that they’d then be accused of being trouble-makers and problems! They were probably the most godly people there.

Do you see wives as generally a problem?* Would you prefer the wives of your leaders not to raise their concerns and just be quiet and get on? Do you feel that wives can often be an impediment to ‘mission’? Then you may have a problem. 

3. Seeing criticism as a fundamental lack of trust

Another theme that has repeatedly come up is loyalty. Loyalty, of course, to the leader. When raising concerns, questions etc – these might be tolerated at first, but if they persist (when the initial answers don’t satisfy), you’re then asked ‘do you not trust me or the leadership?’ Of course the answer may well be ‘no’! But instead of exploring why the leadership have lost your trust and what might be done to regain that trust, my experience was that quickly you were asked to leave. How can you stay if you don’t trust the leadership? the logic would go.

Of course here the assumption is that the problem is with you, not them. You have a trust-issue rather than they have a trustworthiness issue. There’s a lack of inquisitiveness (apparently a mark of all these men given their reaction to their removal and/or reviews). And indeed this ‘issue’ (or issues) with the complainant are then used as a reason not to listen to the specific complaint (they’re troublemakers, they want to be leaders, they have trust-issues etc).

What I notice time and time again, though, is the remarkable trust and love that those bringing the concerns actually have! That is why they are bringing the concerns. They love the pastor and the church. They trust the pastor enough that when they bring the concerns they expect him to listen humbly and take it on board. It strikes me that the trust issue is actually the reverse.

Do you jump to questions of trust and loyalty when criticism is levelled? Is your first thought about the issues with the person coming to you rather than with yourself? Then you may have a problem. 

4. Seeing criticism as a power-struggle

This relates to #3. If it’s about trust/loyalty then it can easily become about power/politics/position. This might not be something that was stated as clearly as the ‘I demand loyalty’ but I feel comes out in the narratives. In my own experience at TCH, concerns raised were dismissed because the person ‘wanted to be a leader’ but wasn’t being given that position. Did they really? Maybe. But the point was that the concerns were dismissed on this basis. It was seen as a power struggle. Of course even those in leadership positions who (persistently) levelled concerns were asked to leave.

This theme of challenge being political or a power struggle (regarding Fletcher and the culture around him, it came up in William Taylor’s repudiation of the IAG statement, the specifics of which I don’t believe he has retracted) is a real concern to me. Pastoring should never be about power. Of course some may want power and so do things to remove others in order to gain it. But to make such an accusation is very serious, especially if there is no obvious gain (though there will be much pain in speaking out) to the complainant. My experience was that those who left TCH under these circumstances often did so very quietly. Some wrote a letter outlining their concerns, but others didn’t even do that. Their concern was more for the cohesion and good of the congregation and so they left without kicking up a stink. Are those the actions of people who are about power? Again, those who raised concerns seem to me to be much more godly and much less about power than those ‘at the top’.

Of course, subsequently, they may have been more vocal about their concerns. I am one of those people. When I left I wrote a short email to the leadership thanking them for the good there had been and wishing them well (to which I never got a reply from Steve) But there is something that happens when you leave such a toxic environment. Over time the cloud begins to thin. The lies that you were repeatedly told and the fear that controlled no longer hold sway and you start to see the issues more clearly. Many of us then realise that, although we had thought leaving quietly was for the good of the congregations, we had actually left them in a dangerous place and were in a position to speak and perhaps effect change. Not to win position or power (I don’t want to lead a church, let alone TCH!) but to warn the sheep of the wolf (or wolves) among them. And let me tell you – it’s done with much pain, sleepless nights and indeed fear.**

Do you see concerns raised as a bid for power?*** Do you feel you need to quell uprisings, manage the flow of information, control the story? Then you may have a problem. 

5. Seeing the sharing of experience as gossip and slander

Gossip: casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.
Slander: the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.

This is another way of avoiding taking accusations seriously. The Bible is clear about gossip and slander being ungodly. And given the above definition, who can argue!?

But notice something key about those definitions – they are casual, they involve details not confirmed as true or indeed are false. It’s lying or at best passing on half information.

This is not about witness statements (unless those statements are in fact not a true ‘witness’, but a lie). Again, my experience with the majority of people who share concerns about a church or leadership, because it comes from a place of trust and love, is that they don’t ‘casually’ share reports (they only share when they feel there’s no other option – they have almost always raised the issue with leaders first, or perhaps spoken to a close friend to get advice/see if they’ve got the wrong end of the stick etc). They are often ‘constrained’ (only giving information they feel is necessary and substantiated). And they are sharing personal testimonies (so they can confirm the truth of it). Of course they may have misunderstood a situation, misunderstood motives etc. but that’s not the same as lying, or gossip, or slander.****

The problem is when sharing of negative information (which concerns and critique necessarily is) is seen as gossip or slander. I’ve seen this done (and it’s still being done regarding Steve Timmis). I’d live in fear of saying anything negative about Steve. Somehow he’d find out! So I’d soften anything I’d say about him, even if deep down I was really concerned. I’d counsel people that they’d probably misunderstood or to show him ‘grace’ (i.e. don’t challenge him). But all I was doing was perpetuating the myth that raising concerns (and persisting in those concerns) is ultimately ungodly.

But do we not believe in grace? Do we not believe in the reality of sin? So why not be more open to challenge and critique – even challenge that questions our suitability to lead?

There’s another dynamic here. Talking about a leader to others before talking to the leader seems to be frowned upon, with Matt 18 often cited (though verses 6-9 aren’t so often talked about). However, what is misunderstood here is power dynamics. If the leader is a bully (and they are often very good with words), they use the above techniques to quell criticism and if, as my experience is, that the people raising the concerns are more godly than the leader and so quick to listen to scripture and apply it to themselves, it’s all too easy for this face-to-face meeting to be manipulated by the leader and for the concerns to be stopped there and then.

I’ve seen that happen. It may also be that the person raising the concern has seen that happen, knows that others have already tried that face-to-face challenge and it didn’t worked (this was my experience within months of arriving at TCH in 2005). Does every single person who has a concern (often about the same pattern of behaviour) need to go directly to the person and challenge them? I personally don’t think so. And this is where talking to others can be really helpful. It’s gathering more information in order to address the situation better. It’s finding out what has already been addressed and what the response was. It’s gaining wisdom from trusted friends in order to approach and best help the leader in question.

But time and time again this is labelled as gossip. It’s like a court case that gets thrown out on a technicality. ‘Well, you didn’t come directly to me first, therefore you’ve been ungodly, therefore the problem is with you and I don’t have to listen to you…’

It might be that the person was unwise, or even ungodly in talking about it with others. They may have shared it more widely than they should have. But this could be out of fear, or immaturity or just as a plain mistake. Don’t let that stop you listening to their concerns.

One final reflection on this. Slander is about damaging someone’s reputation. And that’s so often what we’re bothered about, and it can prevent repentance. We want to protect our reputation. But what reputation? As sinless? What about having a reputation as a broken sinner being redeemed by Christ? Having our sin pointed out and publicly repenting will never damage that reputation.

Do you see the sharing of concerns as gossip?*** Do you go quickly to technicalities and dismiss concerns rather than examining the substance of the concern? Do you focus on the actions of the person raising the concerns before examining your own? Then you may have a problem.

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘ahhhh! That could be me!!’ please feel free to get in touch. There’s no judgement here. We are all sinners. We all make mistakes. And the gospel IS about grace. And it’s encouraging that you’re thinking that. It’s the Spirit at work!

I’m no expert in leading churches and much of my experience comes from making mistakes and seeing mistakes made. But if any of that can help pastors pastor better (or realise that pastoring is not for them at this time) then I’d love to be of service. I love the church and I want to see it thrive.

* There are some wives who can be a problem! And some husbands… and some single people… The theme here is wives generally being a problem and impediment. But like I say… more on that later…
** There is no shame in needing to back away and not speaking out. I wrote more about that here.
*** There are some who do want power! But my experience is that they are actually few and far between.
**** There are some who do gossip and slander! But the point is that sharing information, especially personal experience with some key people in order to better address a situation, is not gossip or slander.

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