Nigel Argall believes being let down by Christian leaders might be almost inevitable and explains why

Let Down Leaders_v1

A friend of mine was recently trying out Christian internet dating. To give a bit of information and profile (no ‘just swipe’ based on looks), the fellas were required to list at least one ‘Christian hero’. In a valiant attempt to avoid the predictable answer of ‘Jesus’, one creative chap had put ‘early David’. We both laughed but the answer left a strange taste in my mouth. It was of course the word ‘early’. ’Early’ meant  the David of Sunday School, the Goliath defeating, friend of Jonathan, the warrior that friends would put their lives on the line for. It meant the heroic King, full of integrity, a man after God’s heart. Not the sordid despot who takes another man’s wife, conceives a child and then conspires to murder a true hero to cover up his own failings. Not that David, not ‘late’ David.

Many decades ago, I went to university. Like many young people I found the experience a bit overwhelming. Away from home, with many choices that had to be made with little support. Away from the youth group that had nurtured me effectively, and facing many moral choices. I wasn’t floundering but it was tough. In the midst of this I discovered the University chaplain. He was simply the most Christ-like person I had ever met. As I worked through positions of leadership within the University Christian Union he was always there, a rock, available, wise and with insights I could not have thought of. He was one of the last people I said ‘goodbye’ to as I left, wanting to truly acknowledge just what a powerful influence he had been on my spiritual growth.

Didn’t you  hear?

Fast forward ten years and I found myself in one of those conversations you have, (actually at a job interview), where you discover you have something in common and know the same people. Asked who had been a big influence on my walk with God, I had no hesitation in naming the chaplain. The interviewer’s face fell and he asked ‘did you hear what he did later?’ I hadn’t, and the question was irrelevant to the interview, so it was only afterwards I found out that my hero had gone to South Africa in an Anglican, ordained role, and there had married two gay men. This was in the age long before there was any normality in this, indeed, long before any sort of concept of gay marriage had become culturally acceptable even in a secular context. I am not sure that my image of him was shattered but it was certainly dented and hugely challenged. Had I misjudged or misunderstood him? Had he changed in character or his way of using scripture? Had I been naïve? It raised deeper questions, if I had a problem with him now, did that in some way ‘invalidate’ his previous ministry, the impact he had made on my life? Was everything to do with him somehow fake and to be dismissed, including all the parts that included me?

I recently attended the annual conference of my denomination and deliberately sought out a youth worker friend who I had known for 25 years to talk about Soul Survivor. All of my (now grown up) children had attended Soul Survivor in their formative teenage years and indeed, many of my friends. For my youth working colleague, I knew it had been an annual highlight of his church youth programme, one year taking over 50 young people. We needed to talk, and process what was happening, the impact on us and specifically, the impact on young people. [There is an ongoing investigation and so far little is known for sure about what exactly has happened Ed.]

So, if ‘we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him’ (Romans 8:28), can anything good come out of both this and the depressingly long list of other scandals that have plagued prominent church leaders in recent years?


Let Down Leaders_v2

Copying secular culture

Much has been written about the way we tend to copy secular culture within church. We love Christian ‘celebrities’ and have a dangerous tendency to (metaphorically) put them on pedestals, to pay too much attention to their words of wisdom when we might be listening to each other, to less well-known ministers, and indeed God himself. Likewise, we then find it difficult to hold such celebrities to account, frequently trusting them long after negative signs and information has come to light. Several years ago, my brother-in-law (he’s a ‘techy’) was the PA system sound man at one of the really big Christian festivals. His insights on mainstage speakers were extraordinary. Some were completely authentic – what you saw on stage really was the real person. Some, (and I will make allowances for the pressure before going out to speak to 8,000 expectant people), were nervous, really rude to him (‘why isn’t this ready? this doesn’t seem to be working’) but would then sweep on stage and win the crowd over with their witty stories and teaching. It has become a personal mantra of mine to say ‘if you can’t be nice to the sound guy, you shouldn’t be speaking’. There are associated issues around how we structure organisations. In almost every case, abusing ministers worked for proper charities, ostensibly accountable to trustees. In reality, narcissistic leaders sometimes pack their board of trustees with personal friends who, understandably, find the ‘star’ difficult to challenge and hold to account.

All of this has been explored and documented but I want to focus on one aspect that is both important and valuable and, I think, less often recognised.

Thinking about not just my own story but that of my four (now grown up) children, every one of them has at some point been bitterly let down by a Christian leader that they trusted and looked up to. All four.

No surprises

Behind this is a profound bit of basic theology. First, we are all created in the image of God. All of us carry that imprint, that mark of our creator. All of us are capable of love, creativity, self-sacrifice and heroism. It is not surprising that God manages to use so many of us to inspire others, to do wonderful things that help others ‘see’ God and respond. But here is the truth we need to hold in tension with that. All of us are sinners, in some ways less than we were truly created to be. We should be surprised, not just by how many Christian leaders ‘fall’ but by how many manage not to. So, what can we take away from this?

First, this is part of our Christian walk. It is normal. That is not meant as a deeply cynical comment, but we may have to adjust our mindset to encompass it. King David was not the first and will not be the last. I have in many different situations been involved with recruiting people to jobs, usually to an ordained minister or youth worker role, and there is a vital lesson for us in this particular context. Often, I have met some truly fantastic people who really do seem to be ‘God’s gift’ to a vacancy. However good however, there is now always a little bit of me that holds back, that asks ‘are they really this good?!’ Again, I am not promoting cynicism but I know many ministers who find it genuinely hard to judge character. We want to believe that this person is the best one. Previous disappointment gives us a healthy hesitancy that’s asks the really difficult questions. Disappointment is a harsh but effective educator and one of the first steps on the road to wisdom.

Secondly, we also need to ask God for wisdom to work out what is really going on, to know whether to hold back (all are innocent until proven guilty) and to know what line to take. Whilst stories of corruption can sound depressingly familiar, there will nearly always be unique insights, indeed aften aspects that mirror our own personal weaknesses. In many ways the leaders who shift their theology without a spectacular moral ‘fall’ can be harder to make sense of. I can still remember the reverberations of Steve Chalke’s ‘Lost message of Jesus’ book in 2004. Steve had in many ways been a hero of my early youth work career (who remembers to pop-up Christmas Cracker cafes?). I found myself naturally defending him in the face of evangelical ire but after really reflecting deeply on the book, I painfully realised that I could no longer support someone who really did seem to have ditched the central idea of substitutionary atonement. In the same way, I was a huge fan of Rob Bell’s fantastically creative ‘Nooma’ videos but really struggled with some of his later theological statements.

Thirdly, if this is a ‘normal’ part of our Christian walk, we need to be ready to support each other when disappointment strikes, and particularly, but not exclusively, our young people. The first time is often the hardest. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the most consistently reliable Christian folk in my life are not celebrities – they are just normal folk working out their salvation through the ups and downs of life over many decades. We need to hang on to such friends. They may be completely unknown but are absolute treasures. Religious celebrity is nothing new. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul bemoans the ‘super apostles’ who have infiltrated the church, pointing out his lack of skill in professional oratory and ironically, making his refusal to charge money an indicator of, and sign confirming the worthlessness of his message rather than an expression of his generosity and integrity. Perhaps the biggest single thing we need to take away for both ourselves and those we seek to encourage is the necessity of seeking God himself, in prayer, bible study, reflection. Great messages from great speakers and leaders are the icing on the cake but we need to trust God, and no human can take that place. As Isaiah said: ’Stop trusting in mere humans,who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem?’ (Isa. 2: 22)