Livin' it up, American style

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Megachurches making mega-mistakes.

When driving into Memphis from the east on I-40, one sees the normal fast food restaurants, hotels, and strip malls. But among these trappings of suburbia rises something you don't see in every town, 3 gigantic white crosses. And I mean gigantic, you couldn't miss these crosses if you were blind. These crosses mark the site of the
Bellevue Baptist megachurch, which currently has 27,000-30,000 members, making it one of the largest churches in America.

But like numerous other churches in America, Bellevue is suffering from a scandal relating to some of its ministers. A man who had been a pastor and staffer for 34 years was placed on administrative leave on December 18, and the reason why has just become public. He had sexually abused his young son back in 1980's. In June of 2006, he and his wife had gone to the head pastor and he admitted the abuse and said he was attending counseling. But it was not until December that the head pastor decided that maybe this other pastor should go on administrative leave. There have been demands for the head pastor to resign, not only over this issue, but accusations of mismanagement of church money and a consolidation of pastoral authority.

There are many aspects of this news to get upset over, such as the head pastor's very questionable decision to wait 7 months before placing the offending pastor on leave. There is also the issue of lack of transparency regarding the governance of the church, as the people of the church did not find out for a month and a half why this particular pastor had been placed on leave. Then there is the issue of how someone can preach about morality and forgiveness, while having committed a transgression much worse than most of his congregates ever will, and waiting 20 years before confessing.

But I want to touch on the increasing frequency of news stories such as this chronicling the downfall of priests and pastors in churches across America. There are the high profile ones, like Ted Haggard, and various priests and bishops in numerous dioceses of the Catholic Church, and the lesser known instances like this Memphis church. I guess I could pontificate on how sad it is that these scandals seem to be happening more often lately, as though people are becoming more degenerate as time goes on. But instead I want to focus on the positive thing about these scandals, and that's the fact that we're even hearing about them at all. It shows that churches are less likely and less able to sweep dirty incidents into an abandoned closet. Hypocrisy among ministers who rail against people who are gay, then visit male hookers is no longer going to be ignored (Ted Haggard). You can't transfer a priest to a new parish and hope his child molestation problem will just end, unless you want to get hit with some lawsuits. (perhaps America's litigious society has a positive side?)

I think it's good that these stories get out, and causes people to reexamine their own beliefs, and challenge the organizational structure of their church. In response to the scandal at Bellevue, a group of church members formed a non-profit group with the aim of restoring more control of the church to the congregation. A more decentralized church government will allow increased participation by a wider group of people, instead of concentrating all church power in the hand of one or two people. Often these people may become more concerned with maintaining their own power and avoiding any scandal, instead of doing what the congregation would want. A governing body that has concentrated, centralized power may be the most efficient kind, but when it deals with the issues of people's faith- openness, participation, and understanding should be the leadership's role. If more churches reexamine the way they distribute power and authority to their leadership, and decide to create a more democratic system, then some small good will have come from these scandals.


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