Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.
If you’re a vicar, will you try a thought experiment with me? Let’s pretend that you and I are the ‘safest’, and most compassionate under-shepherds in the history of the church. As pastors, we pose no risk to anyone in the flock (I know – we’re pretending). Let’s now imagine that we retire or move on and that everyone is delighted with our successor. They’re hugely successful and impressive, theologically sound, an outstanding preacher and pastor. And, in secret, they’re an abuser. Here’s my question:
If your successor was a wolf, what would they be able to get away with in the church culture you have established?
In March, 31.8 published their ‘lessons learned’ review into Jonathan Fletcher’s ministry at Emmanuel Church Wimbledon. I should say at this point that I’ve been directly and indirectly influenced by Jonathan Fletcher’s ministry in very significant ways (and I imagine that’s true for many who might read this blog). To my shame, I’d always assumed we would be protected by having better theology than other branches of the church. It’s harder to think that way after the recent scandals have unfolded. It seems to me that Conservative Evangelicals, especially in the Church of England, urgently need to ask what is it about our particular circumstances that might make us vulnerable to abusers.
So, having worked through that report, here are seven sets of questions it raises that I’m planning to discuss with our PCCs and safeguarding officers. I’m sure that if they feel able to be honest, it’s going to be an uncomfortable experience for me, (and if they don’t feel they can be honest, we’ve got an even bigger problem).
- Can our leadership be questioned?
Do people in the church feel that ‘questioning the vicar’ is equivalent to ‘questioning the gospel’? Is there a sense that my status as vicar prevents others (wardens, church members, other staff) from challenging me? Am I aware of that power differential and what can I do to mitigate its effects? Am I known by high-profile Christian leaders, and does their endorsement of me intimidate others who might be more able to point out my flaws? Would people expect to be able to question my successor?
- Is our leadership accountable?
Can anyone stop me if I really want to get my way? How would they do that? Do we have genuinely plural leadership or are our lay leaders accustomed to signing off on everything I say? Do I listen to our wardens and let them overrule me sometimes? Is there any external accountability? When I ask people to give me feedback, is it almost always positive? Who knows what I’m doing and can tell me when I’m wrong? Who do I answer to? Who will my successor have to answer to?
- Do we take safeguarding and HR seriously?
Do we roll our eyes at the need for ongoing DBS checks? Are we reluctantly adding safeguarding training into our diaries only because we must? Do the staff have employment handbooks, proper contracts and grievance procedures? Do our volunteers have role descriptions? Do we use safer recruitment procedures when appointing new staff and volunteers? Are we clear about how concerns should be reported and how they will be handled? Does the church know how they would report a safeguarding issue that concerns me or my successor?
- Do I allow a tribal mindset to get in the way of good practice?
What relationship do we have with the diocesan safeguarding team? Do we think of them as ‘not on our side’ if they are not conservative evangelical? Would I be reluctant to report safeguarding concerns about someone I agree with theologically? Would we prefer to handle issues “in house” rather than call in the safeguarding team? Is there a sense that ‘we’re special’ as a church because we’re more faithful or more successful, and so normal rules don’t apply to us? Do we take advice from the diocese about recruitment procedures, contracts and staff working conditions? Would an incoming wolf find they’re restricted by carefully considered policies that are there to protect people and a church culture that expects those policies to be followed?
- Is there a lack of diversity in our church leadership?
That is, does our church leadership reflect the diversity of our church congregation? Or does it skew towards a particular demographic on gender, class, ethnicity, age? Are there any women in senior roles in our church? Who do we have upfront and who is hidden away? Is there an ‘inner ring’ of leaders, whether or not they are in formal leadership roles? Whose voices are being heard and who is not listened to? What are my blind spots? Who might be well placed to spot the blind spots of my successor?
- What guards are there on work with individuals?
What policies and protocols do we have to guard against abuse in working with individual adults and young people? How would an unhealthy relationship be noticed and how would it be dealt with? How easy would it be for one of our church leaders to be secretly grooming or bullying someone in the church? What could we do to ensure that this work is appropriately open and accountable, while respecting the need for confidentiality? How is social media being used well or badly in this area? Is anyone working offline and under the radar? What could my successor expect to get away with unchallenged?
- Has the culture in complementarian churches led to a distorted view of masculinity and leadership?
Does our church leadership reflect a particular sort of masculinity that has more to do with so-called ‘muscular Christianity’ than the servant-leadership of Christ? Are physical strength, sporting prowess, good looks and charm valued highly? Is self-confidence confused with gospel-confidence? Are we prioritizing godliness or talent in identifying future leaders? How easy would it be for an arrogant bully to fit in with the culture in our church? How easy would it be for a godly man from a different social background to fit in with the culture in our church? What sort of women are valued highly in our church culture? Are there any leadership roles for gifted, godly women? Would it be easy for a successor to twist Scriptural teaching in a way that makes abuse sound ‘biblical’?
These are hard questions to answer, but we need to be asking them. We need to be examining our ministry and our culture on a regular basis. The Apostle Paul has set us an example of guarding the flock even after we’ve gone. What urgent steps do we need to take for their long-term protection?