Even when the truth comes out about a spiritual leader’s secret life, the kinds of lawyered-up semi-confessions that they and their team use to respond to their victims, congregants and the general public seem to be missing a key element: true regret. Leaders like Doug Phillips or Bill Gothard engineer almost-apologies. As I’ve followed these cases over the last year or so, it strikes me that those apologies are loaded with exit-clause “buts” as a way to leave wiggle room for their defense if they know they’re going to end up in court. Others like C.J. Mahaney or Mark Driscoll have exhibited long-standing patterns of denial, deflection and repeated attempts from their current positions of power to diminish or destroy their accusers.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, led the way a few years ago in giving a voice to the voiceless by creating a place for those who experienced sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The internet’s redemptive side is best shown via the online connections at various ministry-specific websites that have been used to bring overlong-delayed justice to those who’ve experienced abuse at the hands of a pastor, church leader or teacher. Bloggers like Warren Throckmorton, Wenatchee the Hatchet, and sites such as The Wartburg Watch or Recovering Grace have served a prophetic role in exposing the sin of toxic leaders. Some of their guests may veer into bitter territory, their words particularly difficult to hear. But hear them we must if these hurting people are to be able to move toward healing, and the rest of us in the body of Christ are to move toward true maturity. What these leaders have done in the darkness has been brought to the glaring light of a computer screen. Though the method is modern, the message in the exposure is as old as Genesis: getting caught in your sin can be a means of restoration and grace for these leaders.
I am a survivor of pastoral abuse, and I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of an almost-apology from a leader. My husband and I had a series of Matthew 18:15-18-themed meetings with the leader, then his team, in an attempt to process what had been done to us. Though the leader was in the wrong, the closest version of an apology we received from him was a lame explanation for his abysmal behavior along with the clear sense that the only thing for which he was really sorry was that he’d been caught. A remorseless “I’m sorry that you feel that way,” is not an expression of true repentance.*
The lack of true regret expressed by these leaders – famous, infamous, or just the spiritually-bloated bossman of a mid-sized independent church – is a sign of stunning immaturity. If I could tell one thing to these leaders, it would be that that the pain they’re working so hard to avoid has divided their hearts into a bunch of disconnected little compartments full of rotting secrets. The pain of regret makes us aware of the consequences of our actions, and every time we take a step toward owning those actions, the kingdom of God breaks in and those disconnected compartments are transformed toward wholeness. When Jesus asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) he queried his followers because he wanted so much more for them – for us! – than our divided hearts could ever hope to contain. Regret demands we pay attention to this question. There are far worse things than feeling true regret and acting on it. Do you believe this is true, leaders? I am praying you do.
I take heart in the courage of people like Chuck Colson who was caught red-handed. Though he first engaged in the stall, deflect, avoid, diminish tactics used by some of today’s high-profile characters, he eventually stared down the barrel of his regret in a prison cell. He allowed regret to do its redemptive work in him, and it continues to bear eternal fruit even after his death.
His legacy can be yours, leaders – even if you spend the rest of your lives in obscurity, seeking out your victims one by one and doing what you can to make things right by them. This is how regret can be redeemed, and it is good news if you have the ears to hear it.
*It took far too many years, and a metaphorical pileup of bodies who’d been wounded by this man, before the real reason behind his history of spiritual abuse – his hidden sexual sin – was finally revealed.