Andy Peck believes there are things to learn and remember from the outcomes of the Soul Survivor crisis
Make no mistake Mike Pilavachi was the best-known youth leader in the UK for several decades.
Many looked up to him, were inspired by him and arranged their youthwork programme around getting the group to hear him and his team at the Soul Survivor youth Festival held in the summer.
They looked to see youngsters come to faith and built up, and then nurturing them in the Autumn hoping the fumes from the summer rocket fuel would keep them going.
On 6 September 2023 the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) reported that their investigation into Canon Rev Mike Pilavachi had concluded and the allegations were “substantiated”.
The wording includes “abuse of power” and “spiritual abuse”. The NST said there had been a “systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour”.
It stated in its conclusion that Pilavachi had used spiritual authority “to control people and that his coercive and controlling behaviour led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and massaging of young male interns”.
Soul Survivor had ceased its summer festivals in summer 2019, having been running since 1989 and at their height saw some 30,000 attend. It is estimated that 24,000 young people professed faith through those activities. Soul Survivor Watford was a local church that developed alongside the Festival and still exists, albeit now under different leadership. They also had Soul 61, a gap year for young people connected to the ministry.
It’s no surprise that this news has shocked the youthwork community with many individuals and connected youth charities and ministries expressing their sadness at the events, their support for the victims and the expression of the need that ‘this kind of thing must never happen again’.
But ensuring ‘this never happens again’ means correctly discerning what has happened and what lessons can be learned. The investigation does not go into any specific detail, as it understandably leaves individuals to decide whether their personal stories are made public, if ever. Hence we are certainly unwise to extrapolate from speculation about what went on to a general principle.
But the investigation does serve to remind us of seven things
1. If you suspect a problem then voice your concern
The Mike Pilavachi investigation sadly lodges in many people’s minds alongside other investigations of other high-profile leaders, where accusations were upheld. Each will have its own nuances but what seems to be consistent is that there were concerns aired that were not followed through on, often out of respect for the person being criticised.
Hopefully you have safeguarding policy in place should there be any issues in your youthwork. If you don’t or want to check things, go to our friends at thirtyone:eight
But imagine you were concerned about a leader? The New Testament encourages us to deal with problems one-on-one, or if necessary bring another party to bear. This is surely the way we would want to resolve any issues if we were involved. If someone is unwilling to discuss concerns that must be a red flag, however well known and respected they are.
It is much better to raise something and for there to be an explanation, than to say nothing and feel like a fool six months down the line, when our concerns prove to be founded. Jesus knew human nature when he gave his commands to deal with matters there and then.
It’s worth adding that the relational dynamics in a mentoring situation or a staff setting, and involving an employer and employee, or an intern are complex, and all leadership teams can do is strive for transparency and an atmosphere of openness. Hopefully the Soul Survivor review that Fiona Scolding KC is conducting will shed light that can be of wider value.
2. If you suspect a young person is suffering from what someone has said or done, find time and space to listen
This links with point one, but is worth emphasising. It would seem that many ‘coming forward’ to give evidence after the investigation had done so after years of dealing with, or burying their feelings. If there are any kind of concerns over what is said or done, you owe it to them to try and deal with any issues as quickly as possible and even if you feel that their take on a situation is inaccurate. They need to be heard and understood. If you don’t find the time and setting, you may well be impairing their future progress in God
3. Ministry needs accountability.
Leadership throughout the New Testament is plural. It’s true that there are some significant individuals, and some seemed to have times of solo ministry (notably the apostle Paul in Athens) but Paul worked in teams and the churches were run by elders, not ‘an elder’. Granted some may be ‘primus inter pares’: first among equals, especially if they give more time and energy to a role. But the principle of leading in a collegiate fashion gives fellow leaders the opportunity to support one another and call them out if they step out of line.
So anyone doing one on one mentoring will need to check in with someone else to share how it is going; any one leading and preaching needs people around them who can give gracious feedback. If you don’t feel you have someone in your local church, then find someone outside it.
4. Don’t confuse gifting with character
When a ‘high profile’ leader is found to have feet of clay, we inevitably ask, ‘so why was God blessing them’, or ‘was God blessing them?’
What we do know is that God honours his word and his work with anyone and indeed with us, is not necessarily an indication of maturity in Christ
Whether we seem to be fruitful in our ministry or not, and however that be measured, the lesson is for us to keep short accounts with God and look to him in humility for strength.
In Galatians 6:1 we read ‘Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.’
The verse reminds us that we dare not point the finger at others without being very careful that we do not stray ourselves. Jesus calls us to walk with Him and do the things he did.
5. If attending a festival is part of your strategy, carry on!
The approach of encouraging young people to gather at a youth festival remains a sound model. We know that the proof of the pudding is in the discipleship and follow up and no one was under any illusions that a teen caught up the raw spiritual emotion of a sweaty marquee in Shepton Mallet wouldn’t need a whole lot more if they were to live for Christ in their Comprehensive school in the Autumn. In a day when the church is perceived as ‘on the decline’, there remains enormous value in meeting with other Christians, enjoying worship, Bible teaching and seminars on relevant topics. The youth Festival scene was buoyant in the summer of 2023, and will hopefully remain so
6. Welcome and support anointed leaders
The twitter (now X!) chatter concerned the danger of ‘putting leaders on a pedastal’, or given undue weight to a personality. That was certainly always a bad idea, but God has blessed the church with anointed leaders and speakers. Many are ‘reluctant’ celebrities but serve God where he has placed them.
By any metric, Mike Pilavachi knew God’s anointing in his ministry. This may be an uncomfortable truth given the outcome of the investigation, but many testify to finding faith through his preaching or having a greater confidence in God through being touched at events he led.
God graciously equips us for ministry, and some have a gifting and ministry that is clearly intended to be wider than our local area. The Bible itself gives us many flawed anointed leaders who were used by God to effect massive change.Anointing does not exonerate anyone from blame however, or make them beyond critcism
If you have an anointed leader in your midst whose ministry is wider than your local church, then support them and release them into what God has for them. But the key thing is to ensure there are structures in place that can limit or check activity or behaviour, and include others close enough to spot anything amiss. We all have blind spots (or worse) and need others to point them out.
7. Mentoring must remain the bread and butter of your work
One on one work remains a key part of any youth leader’s ministry. Indeed, some would argue that anyone failing to do one on one work is severely impairing their work. Charities that have internships that provide fast track training and oversight of a group of young people, perhaps as part of a gap year, remains a wise and kingdom enhancing way of further God’s work in individuals. Many are modelled on the approach that Jesus used with his own disciples. If this approach has led to abuse, this doesn’t mean the method isn’t sound and valuable.
You will know the challenge and blessings of serving in youthwork. Let’s rise to that challenge and seek God’s grace that we become part of the solution and not the problem as we heed these reminders and move forward with him. This indeed ’must never happen again’. Sadly, it probably will. But hopefully, not on our watch.