A word to those in the inner circle of a church

If you see something, say something. 

But if you say something, know it will cost you. 

In the wake of the exposure within the last year of toxic leaders and cultures at Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel, there’s been a quiet self-assessment going on among some of those who enabled these leaders at an earlier stage of the ministry despite experiencing warning signs. I heard it at the GC2 summit at Wheaton college last month from former Willow staffer Nancy Beach when she asked the audience to consider how they might be benefitting from access to power in a church. It might be a job, for example, or a plum ministry position, a sense of significance or of belonging. She said bluntly and confessionally that there’s something in it for those in the inner circles of a church’s power structure, and its very easy to use Christian-y language about service and submitting to authority in order to rationalize the act of muting warning signs about a toxic leader. 

Those sentiments were echoed in a recent Facebook message by former Harvest worship leader Matt Stowell, who wrote about what he gained from being in Pastor James MacDonald’s inner circle at the church a decade ago: 

I think that most of us felt that Harvest was the biggest thing, humanly speaking, that we would all ever be a part of – traveling to cool places; being invited to speak at conferences full of people who actually wanted to really listen to you; hobnobbing with famous people; making six figures as a 32-year-old worship leader… these are all things that are understandably hard to want to give up. They’re the kinds of things that condition you to not rock the boat. Who would be crazy enough to purposely flush an incredibly prosperous career or dare to try and go against the powerful, unspoken Christian cultural ethic of never “speaking poorly” about your church or pastor? It was hard to envision a situation where I could actually confront James without fear of where it might lead. If there was ever a sense that you were out on James, you would soon find yourself literally out.

Though I have had access to power (another way of saying, “been in leadership”) in a couple of congregations, that access has too often placed me in the role of a whistleblower. Apparently, my need for justice is greater than my need to belong.

But I’m no Joan of Arc. I also recognize that my own deep desire for connection and relationship drove me to seek a place in those circles to begin with. And because I showed up on the periphery of this or that inner circle offering skills, knowledge, and experience, people in leadership were willing to invite me in: “A gift opens the way and ushers the giver into the presence of the great” (Proverbs 18:16). It took me a long time to recognize that my own needy hands were offering those gifts, which meant they weren’t really gifts, but transactions. I believe I truly gave out of love for God – but my motives were not always pure. I also gave at times to get a need met, and so did Nancy Beach and Matt Stowell, and many, many others who’ve turned a blind eye to a rotten but charismatic leader. 

I am watching with great interest and compassion as some former “inner circle” leaders are beginning to come to terms with the shadow side of their service to God, their Big Kahuna pastor, and the church. The still-to-be-written story in the public stories of church leadership failure is the way in which the people surrounding the pastor enabled his little sins to grow into ginormous ones by their silence or complicity. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (3:1) A false teacher, the category which includes someone who teaches wrong doctrine but also includes a teacher who says the right words but lives a hypocrite’s divided life, can cause a world of hurt they can’t even imagine that ripples far beyond what their own eyes can see.  

When Jesus calls us to carry the cross, it might well mean that the parts of you that are wooed by having a place in the inner circle – the parts that justify turning a blind eye to problems because we’re “helping people”, “people are depending on us”, or “we have a ministry reputation to protect” – those parts are going to have to die. Expect that you will be branded the problem, and nothing in the organization may change for a long, long time. At one church where I stumbled upon a leader who was involved in sexual sin and called it out, it took more than a decade before the truth was finally revealed. If you speak up, especially in during a problem pastor’s nascent phase, you’ll probably lose your ministry position, reputation, and some of your friends. It is going to cost you. 

But the cost will be far higher if you chose to do nothing. 

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30)

Have you ever been a part of a church’s “inner circle” and discovered an unhealthy culture there? Were you seduced by it? Did you hope you could remedy it? Were you successful?

Cover photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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12 thoughts on “A word to those in the inner circle of a church”

  1. Thank you for your wise words and perspective. There is a cost to pay even when you don’t understand what is happening. You just sense things aren’t right and you are afraid to ask the questions you need answered.

  2. Hoped I could remedy it, but ended up leaving the church after being treated horribly for nothing more than being different and doing things that were not part of the status quo.

  3. Have you ever been a part of a church’s “inner circle” and discovered an unhealthy culture there? Yes. Our story is similar.
    Were you seduced by it? Yes, but at the end of the day it was my heart that was wrong in wanting to climb the ladder. I was called, but didn’t handle it well at the time.
    Did you hope you could remedy it? Yes. Begged for a sit down with those involved. BEGGED! But the only reply I got was religious jargon and a text from a man that had raised me that read, “my plate is full”. Not you are wrong & we are right or you are right & we are wrong, just nothing. Still have not gotten over it.
    Were you successful? In regards to creating change? No. I was a part of a 10 couple seminary training team in my church. Over time we all began to see some things that didn’t line up. ALL 10 couple washed out. ALL 10! I believe there will be wash out for one reason or another in any endeavor, but ALL 10?! And for what? We asked questions or expressed concerns. SMH still.

  4. Very insightful and well-written. I’ve heard much on social media about the short-comings of big-church leaders, though I am always viewing from the outside. I certainly am not trained in the ways of “Religion, Inc.”. I have seen it from the eyes of John the Baptist, with the Lord’s hand on my shoulder, among those in “The School of Wilderness Training.” When you speak of those in power—that’s one of the classes I’m taking: Dunamis 101, and Glory 102. It’s nothing like that in secular business or politics. The inner circle is Father, Son and HolySpirit, and ministry is simply doing everything He says/ leads. Yes, our gifts will speak, and lead us before great men, the place where His chosen belong. There’s no climbing ladders, except to God’s presence.

  5. Painfully familiar.

    Readers should understand, too, that these experiences aren’t confined to evangelical churches. My former supposedly liberal and inclusive Episcopal church has all sorts of people prepared to support Big Kahuna Bob Malm, even though he has repeatedly lied to them, and lied in court about me. Why? Because their association with the parish and Bob Malm create perceived value for them.

    It is indeed difficult, especially for long-time members invested in “the system,” to realize that both the clergy and the system are rotten. And younger clergy rarely have the backbone to stand up and say, “I’m not going to be part of this nonsense.”

  6. Yes, Yes, Yes, and No. In answer to your questions at the end of the article. Our family was heavily involved in a Calvary Chapel in Texas. We were ALL part of the ‘inner circle’, even our 4 teens–leading worship, teaching, serving, counseling, working in the bookstore, etc. And then we dared to question. And over a period of weeks/months, we went from being a teaching elder’s greatly respected family, to my husband being labeled a ‘wolf,’ and being gossiped about, slandered, and lied about. We ended up leaving. The cost was immense. But freedom was more precious, and the lessons learned even more so. It took several years to unravel all that had occurred–to recuperate, heal, and to search the scriptures as to what ‘church’ really IS as opposed to what modern churchianity is. We had to unlearn and relearn, an exhausting but crucial process. I have only recently begun to be able to fully articulate what we went through and what changes resulted. (Previously, the old ingrained dragons of guilt and fear prevented my speaking out more openly about what we’d been through, and against the ones who’d abused their self-appointed ‘authority’).

  7. As a leader I did speak up about the bullying and abuse that was going on, and I did attempt to expose and change the toxic attitudes behind it. But as you say, speaking up costs, and it cost me dearly. (At one point, I even had to fight farcical legal action designed to intimidate and silence me.)

    Despite that, I would make the same choice again. I’d rather be an outlier, than ‘sell my soul’ to be part of the inner circle.

  8. I am grateful for these comments. There is so much sorrow in some of these stories. I thank God for each one of you. Your courage encourages me. None of us are alone in these things.

  9. “Expect that you will be branded the problem, and nothing in the organization may change for a long, long time.”
    Our identity, our security, our confidence, it all really needs to be in who are in Christ, doesn’t it? And we want it to be easier than that–I want it to be easier than that–or at least for it to feel better than rejection feels.

    And this: “they weren’t really gifts, but transactions.” My goodness, friend, you wear transparency well.

    Thanks for this.

  10. A good message, Michelle—wise, sensitive, and transparent. It touches (tangentially) on other difficulties I find in the hierarchy of church leadership—that of what I might call “top-down” teaching and the suppression of “bottom-up” learning. But I won’t elaborate here.
    BTW, I must say I love the artwork in your blog masthead. It’s beautiful. Who is your web hosting service? I am looking at various options because I plan to start a website soon.

  11. A talented friend who does design on the side did my masthead. I love it, too! As for hosting, I use godaddy.

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