Hi and welcome back! Recently, yet another megapastor lost his cushy gig due to scandal. John Ortberg battled against this inevitable conclusion for weeks, but yesterday he finally resigned (effective August 2nd). This scandal’s got a lot of similarities to the ones we’ve seen erupting out of evangelicalism like the angriest volcano ever — so I wanted to look at it today. Today, let’s examine John Ortberg’s scandal — and see what it tells us about that end of Christianity.
Everyone, Meet John Ortberg.
John Ortberg is an evangelical pastor of the “seeker-sensitive” variety. (See endnote for explanation of this Christianese.)
Wayyyy back in the day, he and his wife Nancy served as teaching pastors at Willow Creek Community Church. That’s Bill Hybels’ church, and it’s also the same church Lee Strobel attended when he first converted to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. In fact, that’s the same position Strobel held there from 1987 to 2000! (Hybels can sure pick ’em, can’t he? Guess that’s why he had to resign in ignominy.) However, Hybels all but pioneered the whole seeker-sensitive approach to church leadership, and it’s clear that both Strobel and Ortberg learned their lessons well.
In 2004, Menlo Park Presbyterian (now known more as “Menlo Church” or just “Menlo”) was a huge megachurch near San Francisco. They hired John Ortberg to be their pastor. At the time, Menlo belonged to the Presbyterian Church (USA) (abbreviated “PC(USA)”).
Ten years later in 2014, Menlo broke away from PC(USA). Back then, they complained about PC(USA) not being hardcore enough about salvation for King Them and caring too much about social justice. Right afterward, they joined a new denomination called A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO, and yes, it sounds kinda silly but I guess all the cool names and acronyms have been taken by now).
In April 2018, when Bill Hybels’ scandal got out, John Ortberg turned on his former master (much like Lee Strobel did at the time — both callouts represent a potent demonstration of Hybels’ dramatic loss of power). Ortberg very strongly criticized Hybels’ poor handling of the allegations against him and spoke movingly of the damage Hybels had done to women at Willow Creek. Gosh, what a champion for women!
This timeline will become important in a moment.
And Now for the Scandal.
Now then. In “the summer of 2018,” one of John Ortberg’s volunteers at Menlo came to him with a serious problem.
This volunteer and congregation member privately confessed to feeling a strong sexual attraction to children.
And this represented a serious problem for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the biggest one: this volunteer did a lot of volunteer work in and out of the church with children.
Ortberg’s response was, according to him, to ask the volunteer if he’d ever done anything inappropriate to any of the church’s children. The volunteer insisted that he hadn’t.
And that was enough for John Ortberg!
In response, he prayed with the volunteer and sent him on his merry way with a counseling referral.
He allowed this volunteer to continue to work with children. He didn’t even notify anybody at the church. In fact, he told neither the other church staffers, nor the children’s ministry people, nor the parents of the children attending these amenities. In every way he could, he kept this information quiet.
Whew! Big scandal averted! Hooray Team Jesus!
Going From Bad to Worse to Worst to OMGWTFBBQ.
I know you’re already looking at this post like this: O.O
But it’s about to get way worse.
Time passed. Now we’re in 2019. One of John Ortberg’s sons, Daniel Lavery, found out what had happened when his little brother (John Ortberg III, or “Johnny”) came to visit him. He thought that his brother had been avoiding him because he’s trans, and yes, that seems to have been part of the problem, but in reality it seems mostly to have been because Lavery was literally the only person in the family who didn’t know about Johnny’s big problem.
That night, Johnny revealed to Lavery that he felt powerful attractions to children and yet worked around children at church. Their father not only knew, but was helping Johnny protect his secret and maintain his volunteer status.
So yes. Johnny was the volunteer who’d come to Ortberg in 2018.
Lavery couldn’t let it go once he knew. He’s always been quick to say that he has no evidence that his brother ever did anything to any kids. That said, dang, he knew a serious risk to children when he saw it. All those kids’ parents had no idea at all that this was happening and had certainly not given informed consent to their kids being around Johnny.
He couldn’t just stand by. He couldn’t just keep his family’s dark secret.
Not this time.
(PS: Is it just me or do a LOT of these big-name evangelicals’ kids turn out to have very serious problems?)
Alerting the Church Leadership At Last.
Shortly afterward, Lavery threatened to go public with his knowledge if his dad didn’t start taking it seriously. He wrote a letter to Menlo’s leadership detailing everything.
In response, Menlo put Johnny on leave (but didn’t reveal why — except to ECO).
Very notably, they did not contact GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). GRACE is an evangelical outfit that specifically exists to help churches deal appropriately with church-based abuse. Weird, eh? Maybe that’s cuz GRACE had worked with Ortberg in investigating Bill Hybels! So obviously Ortberg didn’t want to tell them he’d knowingly sheltered a potential sexual predator in his children’s ministry for at least a year, nor that he’d learned of the situation and protected the volunteer right after criticizing Hybels.
Instead, Ortberg and Menlo hired an employment lawyer (LOLwut?) to investigate these concerns. The lawyer they hired had no experience whatsoever in dealing with church-based abuse, and remarkably he did not ever actually speak to any of the children or parents at the church, only with ministry staff and workers. And amazingly, the lawyer found no actual accusations of wrongdoing against Johnny, so he closed the investigation.
The lawyer closed the investigation around Christmas, and all that really happened was that John Ortberg got “reprimanded” by his elders and forced to go through that song and dance farce of restoration. Ortberg was back in the saddle by March 2020. Gosh, what a champion for children!
Hooray Team Jesus!
However, Daniel Lavery was not at all pleased with this turn of events. He felt — rightly so, I think — that the investigation had been too quick, too shallow, and entirely too concerned with protecting the church’s image from scandal.
So earlier this month, Daniel Lavery revealed that the volunteer was none other than his own younger brother Johnny Ortberg.
The two tweets above read:
I make this public in the absence of institutional accountability, so that members of the community can create a democratic, transparent process for investigating this volunteer’s history of unsupervised visits to, trips with, and work involving children.
[next tweet] The volunteer was my brother, John Ortberg III. When we last spoke, he admitted to seeking out unsupervised contact with children (including overnight travel) for well over a decade.”
The entire tweet thread is shocking. In it, Lavery describes his brother’s deep attraction to children and his unending efforts to gain unsupervised contact with them for sixteen years. Lavery also reveals that his brother only stopped working with children (in November 2019) because Lavery threatened to reveal the truth if he didn’t.
Furthermore, Lavery says that both his father and his brother colluded to keep the pedophile in constant contact with children without telling anybody the truth about the situation.
And the Reason for Secrecy.
Indeed, Lavery reveals (in a letter he copied to the tweetstream) that his father became “enraged and defensive” when Lavery insisted that his brother needed therapy and immediate removal from children’s ministry work. This was the reason Lavery says his father rejected the idea of therapy for his adult son:
My father also justified my brother’s refusal to seek counseling thusly: “He’s never done anything, so there’s nothing to report, but he’s afraid…he might get an eccentric therapist, or a weird one, who might decide to report anyway.” (letter p1, p2)
Ah, so there it is then.
Dude was terrified that whoever counseled his pedophile son might report him to the authorities as a danger to children for volunteering among children with no accountability whatsoever.
Such a revelation would, inevitably, taint his own record with scandal.
So he moved to protect himself and his position. His gamble failed, however. He lost his job.
In a statement, Ortberg writes:
Extensive conversations I had with my youngest son gave no evidence of risk of harm, and feedback from others about his impact was consistently positive. However, for my part, I did not balance my responsibilities as a father with my responsibilities as a leader.
And who’s surprised? I’m sure not. In that statement link just above, we also learn that Lavery’s sister refused to allow her own son near their brother Johnny, but didn’t tell the church about the danger Johnny posed to other children. Combined with Johnny’s dislike of Lavery’s trans nature, Daddy’s statement combines with the picture to tell us the story of an entire family mired in dysfunction and misplaced priorities.
This lack of balance is perfectly understandable — if one understands the nature of broken systems.
Power Protects Its Own.
John Ortberg occupies a high position in the broken system of evangelicalism. It is a broken system because it cannot actually fulfill any of its stated goals. It cannot even operate in a functional, harmonious manner. Instead, a broken system exists to allow powerful people within the group to operate without checks or balances.
In these systems, power is not earned by those who deserve it. It is, instead, handed to people who fit the correct demographic profiles and can claw their way up the social ladder.
Once someone gains power in a broken system, then, they enter an elite subgroup within that system. Their fellow power-holders will do everything in their power to protect them. (This is why it was so important that Ortberg and Strobel spoke out against their former master Bill Hybels. It’d become perfectly safe to do so. He was radioactive by then, impossible to help or save. Same for Donald Trump now.)
A broken system contains almost no provisions for reining in wrongdoers or removing them from power — because then all of these power-holders’ positions would land on the chopping block. None of the leaders in these systems really deserve to be there, and most of them behave in ways that would get them instantly removed from power in more functional systems. Not so, in broken systems.
In a broken system, predators can operate freely for years and even retire in luxury without looking over their shoulders for the long arm of justice. The whole system is built and maintained to allow this.
Thankfully, lately that cover-up system is starting to crack.
There’s a certain inexorable reality to this situation — and similar ones popping up everywhere in evangelicalism nowadays. John Ortberg reveals the nature of his religion’s decline as a whole, but he also illustrates exactly why his religion deserves to decline, even needs to decline.
There is no fixing a broken system. It can’t be revitalized or revamped or healed or repaired. However, it cannot coexist with checks and balances laid upon its leaders.
The only way to deal with a broken system is to dismantle it.
John Ortberg’s scandal reflects this truth and this reality. I hope that Christian parents start to understand exactly what environment they’re potentially putting their kids into when they park them at the children’s door at church.
There is no safety for the powerless in broken systems. If nothing else, I hope Christians start noticing that truth — and maybe wondering why “Jesus” isn’t helping protect the least of us right in his own flocks’ churches.
NEXT UP: Hooboy. A lot of evangelicals are asking their tribemates to maybe be less political this election season. Haha, ain’t gonna happen. See you tomorrow!
Seeker-Sensitive: A style of church that caters to visitors. Seeker-sensitive (also called seeker-friendly or seeker-driven) churches are very easy to visit. They try to be as appealing as possible to potential recruits. They often feature welcoming committees, guides, decent signage around their churches, and tons of features and amenities for members. As well, they also don’t tend to lay a lot of demands on their members, nor to preach in alienating ways. Obviously, TRUE CHRISTIAN™ fundagelicals absolutely hate them and think they’re “watering down the Gospel,” to use more Christianese. But the facts are in. These churches tend to grow very quickly (especially if they start with LOADS of money to afford all these amenities and programs), whereas the ones rejecting this approach tend to stay very small. (Back to the post!)
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Final note: Clancy’s daughter, Rev Clancy, pastors a PC(USA) church. She’s definitely one of the good ones, and her denomination is one of the way better flavors of Christianity out there. They had a big schism over LGBT equality in 2013, with the denomination deciding to stand on the right side of history. A bunch of churches peeled off around then. So when Menlo whined in 2014 about how social-justice-y and non-hardcore PC(USA) had gotten, chances are really good they were actually upset about this change.