I’ve tried to keep in touch with John, but it’s been tough. He hasn’t responded to my emails. I’m not going to try calling him again—I’m moving on with my life.
Over the next five years, the buzz about John and his congregation starts to wane. Yet, I still catch wind of troubling practices… It’s said that he pays his children’s workers and other staff the bare minimum, while he and Abigail extract tens of thousands of dollars in salary each month from the church’s funds. A pastor friend from New York tells me, “Even from their scant earnings, they must give tithes and additional offerings, leaving them with virtually nothing. I’ve considered giving them financial support anonymously, but I fear any extra help would just end up with the church. And I refuse to support that church!”
“I know of households where the husband has stopped attending the church and the wife is encouraged to leave him.”
“It’s hard to fathom their unwavering loyalty,” he adds. “It’s as if they’re in an abusive marriage, yet they keep returning. Did you know that their allegiance to Pastor John and Pastor Abigail splits families and marriages apart? I know of households where the husband has stopped attending the church and the wife is encouraged to leave him—because they label him as rebellious and demon-possessed, even though he used to lead worship there. Children are forced to choose between obeying their parents or Pastor John. Take, for example, a boy who was instructed by his parents to study for a test, but Pastor John wanted him at church for extra worship practice. Guess who the boy listened to? The manipulation in that church is rampant. And what’s worse? They just accept it…”
He continues, but I’ve already heard enough. That familiar heaviness settles in my stomach again. The stories about John always have a profound effect on me. Perhaps I compare myself to John too much, or see too much of myself in him. It wouldn’t have taken much for me to end up like John. If the circumstances had been different—if we had chosen different partners, if we had taken different paths—then John might be living my relatively unnoticed life, and I might have been in his place, manipulating and exploiting people just as he does. What’s the difference? Should I feel relieved or envious? I’m not surprised by these stories—they fit what I know of John’s capabilities. But I still feel a sort of responsibility for him; after all, we were once friends…
“John has this way of making you feel like one of the most important people in his world.”
It’s 2007 now. Willow Creek is hosting a leadership event in Baltimore. I don’t usually attend these events, but some colleagues convinced me to go. I see John’s name as one of the main speakers on the brochure sent to my home. I’m intrigued.
John doesn’t disappoint with his talk. It seems like he’s summarizing one of Maxwell’s leadership books. Maxwell is a well-known American leadership expert, and John is adept at delivering his concepts. Listening to John is easy; he brings the material to life with numerous examples from his own experiences and church.
During the break, many participants rave about his session. When I go for coffee, I spot John engaged with a group. Our eyes meet momentarily. I stay back, waiting for his conversation to end. A few moments later, he approaches me. I commend him on his presentation. He’s curious about how my church work is going. That’s the thing about John—he knows how to make you feel significant.
“I try to clarify that I don’t believe in a pyramid hierarchy, but in the priesthood of all believers. He gives me a reproachful look.”
“And under whose spiritual covering do you stand?”
I’m taken aback by his question. He notices my reaction. “Under whose anointing are you?” he presses. I chuckle uncomfortably. The question ‘under whose covering are you’ feels to me like ‘under whose control are you’. I explain to John that I don’t subscribe to the notion of being under someone else’s spiritual covering. I share my belief in mutual submission and accountability among believers, in the priesthood of all believers, where we’re all equal before God yet serve in different roles. We’re accountable to each other, anointed by the Holy Spirit, not by any person, no matter how gifted they may be. I don’t believe in a hierarchical system that requires being under a leader to function properly.
“You should consider whether your resistance to authority is why God hasn’t blessed you.”
John looks at me with a mix of disappointment and fervor. He talks about the anointing of Pastor Michael from Life Church in Colorado, whose spiritual covering he’s under, and boasts about the church’s significant growth and remarkable events. “Matt, speaking with you today, I sense a spirit of rebellion. You’re leading a small congregation of about thirty people. You should consider whether your resistance to authority is why God hasn’t blessed you. Repent, brother, and step into the success God has planned for you,” he suggests with a bright smile. There’s so much I want to say to John, to defend my position, but before I get the chance, he’s already turned away to engage someone else.
Read some background articles on why Evangelical leaders fall:
- The Anatomy Of A Christian Leader’s Downfall
- The Hidden Perils Of Spiritual Hero Worship In The Church
- The Prelude To The Downfall Of The Christian Leader
- Unmasking The Soul: The Authenticity Struggle In Leadership
Have you read some my other articles:
- Part 1: Evangelicalism’s High School Traits: Can Trauma Be the Key?
- Part 3: Please God Strike Evangelicalism On It’s Hip
- Part 4: Only By Facing Our Trauma Can The Evangelical Movement Reach Real Fatherhood
- Part 5: Why Evangelicalism Needs ‘Limping Courage’ On The Road To Maturity
Matt Vlaardingerbroek, a former seasoned church planter and pastor in Holland’s inner cities, brings Bible stories to life through ventriloquism and magic. He’s authored three books, and founded www.creativekidswork.com, providing over 1,500 innovative Sunday school activities worldwide.