August 5, 2011 by
On Tuesday I posted the preliminary panel’s evaluation of C.J. Mahaney’s qualification for ministry. I’m grateful that these men would take time to help us answer that important question and honestly list their related concerns. Please read their report if you haven’t already. In sum, they agreed with the board’s initial judgment that C.J. is qualified for the ministry of the Gospel, noting that C.J. had confessed his sins and that what he confessed did not “constitute public scandal.”
I know that some readers have questions about what that means (what authority does the panel have, how does it relate to the rest of our evaluation, why was it helpful for us, and so forth), and I will explain below how we’re attempting to clarify that. I’d also like to discuss some of the panel’s critiques, which I believe were insightful and accurate, and tell you how we’re responding.
1. We need a formal process for handling allegations against leaders. Though it wasn’t their main point, the panel noted a concern that “this process was made worse…by a lack of an established disciplinary process…” Our own study of 1 Timothy 5:19-21 confirms this; Paul there affirms due process for leaders and, by implication, the right of church members to bring complaints. Referring to this text at a meeting for our pastors last year, Jeff Purswell stressed that a church’s polity should provide a clear avenue by which such allegations are evaluated. Sadly, we failed to have such a policy in place for SGM (nor have we assisted the churches associated with SGM in establishing a local policy along these lines). As a result our movement has been ill-equipped to handle allegations against leaders. C.J. is the most recent example, but not the only one. Over the years some other pastors have had to walk through an unclear and inconsistent evaluation in response to allegations, and that’s caused confusion and pain. This lack of process and the resulting lack of care for leaders is something we need to address. That’s why the board has begun to work on a formal policy for SGM and potentially our churches, the first draft of which we reviewed today in our meeting. This is a priority for us.
Another aspect of this is highlighted by the panel’s remark that “…it is highly unusual for a pastor to step aside prior to the institution and completion of a proper church judicial process.” We didn’t even have “a proper church judicial process” when this started, but nevertheless we had a responsibility to ensure that we not lead others into a rush to judgment (Proverbs 18:13) by how we evaluate allegations. Jeff, Josh, and I (the old board) all thought that C.J.’s leave would “walk the high road” because it removed his potential influence over the evaluation process and allowed him to engage more fully with the evaluation. But it seems to have delivered the exact opposite message: the leave was interpreted by many as a public rebuke of C.J., a pronouncement of “guilty until proven innocent.” There is no way to undo the effects of that decision now, and we remain supportive of C.J.’s desire to devote appropriate attention to the evaluation process, but we want to do a better job of positioning and caring for men going forward. Besides reviewing allegations, are there other meaningful ways that men, including C.J., can contribute to ministry during an evaluation process? I’m discussing that with the board, and will share our progress as we make it.
2. We need to improve communication if we want to rebuild trust. The panel listed “a lack of communication” among their concerns for SGM, and this resonates with input we’re receiving through some of our pastors as well. This is a broad concern but examples are not hard to identify. By not communicating adequately about policy changes (e.g., polity) in the past, we made room for suspicion that we’re deliberately masking or concealing our intentions. By not communicating specifics in our plans, we created room for suspicion that we don’t intend to follow through on commitments. By not communicating more openly about our mistakes, we created room for suspicion that our goal is to maintain a good image. And there are some times when we try to communicate and just fail in the attempt, getting the wrong message across in the process.
I think we have made measurable progress in this area recently, but the work isn’t done. We need to be clear and open about our commitments, the progress we’re making, and failures along the way. We can’t make that right overnight, but as a step in that direction we’re creating a webpage that lists the status of C.J.’s evaluation and other commitments we’re making as part of the process. You’ll be able to see an outline of our plans and how we’re doing on following through with them. I hope that makes this process more accessible, transparent, and (over time) trusted for the churches we serve. We will publish that page next week, and I invite you to give feedback on its clarity and thoroughness when it goes online.
Thank you for continuing to engage with us as we walk out this difficult process. I covet your prayers for our family of churches, for the integrity of our evaluation of C.J., and for the board’s ability to lead capably through the changes that we need to make. We want to come out of this knowing and conforming to the Word of God better, and we’re grateful for your partnership as we pursue that end.