Clergy Misconduct + Independent Churches = Where's the Accountability?

I was struck by the most recent clergy sex scandal, this one out of Plano, Texas.

  • The specifics of the case are awful, but not pertinent to this blog.
  • What is pertinent is how the congregational system of churches is unprepared to deal with clergy abuse in ways that connectional systems are (but don't).
Read on for ideas on a decentralized approach that may work well for central-authority-shy congregational churches.

GetReligion has a write-up here:
Why can’t Southern Baptist authorities crack down? Ah, there’s the problem. In a free-church movement — one with no bishops, no authoritative central structure — the churches are pretty much on their own when it comes to this kind of work...

. . . Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition’s total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

So, with the congregational system, all churches are on their own, though voluntarily loosely-affiliated with one another. This leads to, at least, two main problems:
  1. a lack of central authority to report misconduct to, and
  2. a suspicion of meta-church structures as "someone else's problem" because "it couldn't happen in my church."
As documented in dozens of cases, abusive pastors are able to move often from church to church because of the lack of a central governing body.

In connectional churches (like the United Methodist Church), there is a central governing body that regulates pastoral changes between pulpits. In this way, there is someone to report incidents to that is not the press or police, and some assurance that the matter, if no criminal charges can be filed, will be dealt with internally.

However, this is not to say that connectionalism is any better at disciplining problem clergy. In the Catholic Church, RCC leaders like Cardinal Law moved priests around even though they knew about sexual abuse. I mention this not to harp on them, but to emphasize that connectional systems are still able to be abused by failures in leadership.

So, what's the solution for congregational churches?
  • Central database of pastors and complaints
    • This sounds good on paper, and is what the Southern Baptist Convention is pursuing now. However, it doesn't solve problem #2: working with meta-church structures. From the GetReligion piece:
If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, “conservative” and “moderate” churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps.
  • Central authority on pastoral complaints
    • This also sounds good to address problem #1, but there are all the incentives to not have one wants to take the fall, and since there is no "central church authority" anyway, then there's no legal standing anyway. Once again, from the article:
Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process? ...

For lawyers, the goal is to find a structure to sue, yet in the free-church way of doing things, there often is no structure larger than the local church or there are real questions about the authority and clout of the larger regional or national structures...
Those are two of them, but you know this wouldn't be Hacking Christianity if I didn't advocate for a decentralized solution.
  • Empower the laity through mandated sexual ethics training
    • If we train parishioners on sexual ethics and give them avenues and resources, then they can be the point people when an ethical lapse occurs.
    • I'm not sure how to implement this, as making it a law that one layperson out of every church seems ridiculous and unenforceable. Perhaps a "safe sanctuaries" type thing where churches who do go through the training are recognized or added to a list.
    • The need is real, if nothing else than that the segment of churches which are utterly independent is growing at ridiculous rates. From the article, one last time:
Things get even more complicated in the rapidly growing world of totally independent megachurches, both evangelical, Pentecostal and Fundamentalist.
For congregational (or totally independent) churches, there is little structure in place to deal with lapses in sexual ethics by clergy or lay leadership. Offenders simply jump ship and go to another church, and the church they left is often happy with that by keeping quiet and privatizing the sin.

Thus, the best solution may be to empower the laity to be watchful even of the most charismatic of church planters. Even in connectional churches (in some cases, already present), a network of faithful laity who are also trained and given resources to deal with clergy misconduct may work well to cross denominational and independent lines.

What do you think? Would a decentralized, grassroots approach yield laity empowered to act in the face of misconduct? Or would it backfire by emboldening busybodies into the already scrutinized life of pastors?

Feel free to post your thoughts, and introduce yourself too!


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