I had the chance to read an email exchange between two people that I did not know who were both associated with ministries I did not know. One person was pointing out to a staff person at a church that a ministry they supported had actually been involved in child abuse and financial bad dealings. The accusation was well documented and definitely not hearsay, and the email was politely worded. The response she received back was rude, defensive, and illogical. Though I didn’t know who the people were or the ministries with which they were associated, that email exchange did remind me of something that I’ve observed again and again since my youth growing up in conservative Christianity. Every ministry reaches a crossroads—where at some point you have a growing number of critics pointing out serious problems in your ministry. Only a precious few of those ministries will believe strongly enough in their own need to self examine and self correct (and make restitution) to do the right thing that will ensure their survival as a HEALTHY ministry. The vast majority has the same corporate human nature that we individually do. They choose a misguided notion of self-preservation over self-examination and correction. They want to preserve their momentum, so even good people who aren’t the actual perpetrators of institutional sin will attempt to minimize the bad done, sweeping it under the carpet, pacifying who they can without actually dealing with the issue. They choose to think of their critics as persecutors, which leads them to insulate from the sin of others outside their camp and avoid self examination of the much more dangerous sin within the camp. They don’t realize that the SIN WITHIN will destroy them and that their acts of self-preservation will actually be the beginning of the end for their ministry. Every leader of a successful ministry will at some point have to choose between doing the right thing (dealing with sin correctly even if it means slowing down and potentially undermining growth for a season) or the expedient thing (ignoring sin issues in your history, pretending it isn’t so bad, and that it doesn’t hurt as many people as it really does).
As I think about the email exchange I read involving the naïve supporter rudely defending an obviously bad idea, I thought about why so many of us in a ministry have such a hard time facing the obvious. Here are my observations from watching this from the sidelines with several major ministries—including churches, schools, and other parachurch organizations.
For so many of us, we don’t really believe something THAT bad is going on or is even possible until it happens to US. “Surely the people complaining are just bitter gossips. So much GOOD is happening here. How could something that bad really be true?” Sometimes even when it happens to us, we’re in denial. It’s much like the old story of the Emperor who is wearing no clothes. The power of getting labeled stupid or incompetent keeps everyone (even himself) from admitting that he truly is wearing no clothes. Our coping mechanisms for ignoring the obvious when our security is threatened are fascinating. Disturbing, but fascinating.
To build on the last point, we’re insecure. We can’t handle the truth. We don’t deal with sin because we are afraid of admitting it is even there. It threatens us. And it certainly threatens us when the sin we need to acknowledge involves people or ministries that make us feel safe from the world. The exposure of sin threatens us because we don’t simultaneously believe that the gospel is an effective antidote for that sin. We are more afraid of exposing sin than confident in the gospel’s remedy for it.
Most of all, we’re afraid of undermining all the good, happy, or safe things we enjoy if we face head on the facts of the problems. We don’t really understand the nature of sin. Because sin unaddressed and unrestrained will destroy everything it touches until it is exposed.
Here is the hard truth of life. You HAVE to deal with sin. And you HAVE to deal with it with the gospel. And this hard truth applies EVERYWHERE. In your marriage, you have to deal with sin in light of the gospel. With your children, you have to deal with sin in light of the gospel. In your church, your Christian college, or your parachurch organization, you have to deal with institutional or individual sin in light of the gospel. It doesn’t matter how much good you perceive you or your particular ministry has done or is doing, you have to face its mistakes and shortcomings head on and DEAL with it. Exposing sin apart from the gospel and the hope Christ gives us for putting it to death is horrible. It destroys. But ignoring sin for fear of that destruction devastates us at a soul deep level too. Both are equally destructive. There is a third way, distinct from each, to which God calls us. Face it. Admit it. Even if you are afraid it will destroy you. Ask forgiveness. Seek to correct it. Humble yourself before those you have sinned against. Sit in the shadow of the cross for a season and meditate on how it allows you to be honest about your sin so that it no longer defines who you are. And then get up and go in a new direction in light of it all.
Naïve supporter of a broken ministry, the emperor really doesn’t have any clothes on, and though you think you’ll get labeled incompetent or stupid (or in Christian circles, rebellious) to admit it out loud, he’ll ignore his own nakedness and never put on real clothes until someone who loves him risks the label to tell him the truth.
Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness;
let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head;
let my head not refuse it.
Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.