Bishop Kenneth Ulmer has been pastoring for decades in Inglewood, CA. He has seen more than his fair share of racism on the streets and on stages across the country. But he has recently launched a campaign to work toward racial understanding and reconciliation that has captured the attention of Christians across racial lines. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with him to discuss his work to confront racism and bring people together. The below interview is edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been around for a long time, you’ve seen the ups and downs when it comes to race? Why did you decide to get involved with such an event like this, for people to come together and talk about this important topic?
I think you just answered it, it is the the importance of coming together. And talking about it, you know, the Bible does a passage where the Bible says, Come, come, let us reason together. And our efforts is simply first of all, to start with coming together, which, especially in these days of division, and schisms, and “isms” that should be “was-ims” all the divisions in the body of Christ, just coming together is an achievement. Yes, I’ve been doing this for a while…and I don’t think I have ever in my life or ministry seen a season and a time where the world is as divided. But more importantly, and more grievously more painful, is that the church is likewise significantly divided. And I think what bothers me is that many don’t know, don’t realize it, or didn’t get the memo, or whatever. And we’re kind of going on in business as usual.
But it is not, as usual, but in many cases, in terms of COVID, and everything, will never be the same. The issue is, what are we going to look like on the other side of this, and the exhortation is, don’t come out of this empty handed. Don’t come out of this, having learned nothing, haven’t having achieved anything, having made no progress. Look around, reach around, grab around for what God is saying to you. I would say, What is God saying to the church? You know, the exhortation of, of John, he did have ears. Here, listen, get it, catch it, what the Spirit is saying to the church, what he is saying, you know, the Prophet said, God is doing a new thing. And I love that verse. And I think it’s Isaiah 43, where it says…don’t miss this…don’t you see that God is doing a new thing? And so I think, ultimately, our gathering is to come together, to reason to wrestle to dialogue, even to dispute and debate. You know, what are you hearing God’s saying, what is God saying, now? What are the words of the marching orders for the body of Christ, when we come through this thing, and of course, all of us would admit that we didn’t know we, we did, none of us knew we would still be in it this long.
And, I gotta tell you, I’m not a prophet, not a son of a prophet, but I think things may get worse before they get better. And by that, I mean, this is not going to be a quick fix. It’s a major cultural shift. And there’s a major cultural shift as relates to the body of Christ as relates to the mandate the commission of the church.
Why do you enjoy talking about race? Like you don’t mind embracing it. Like you don’t mind stepping into it. When a lot of people are going, I think I’ll avoid that conversation. What do you enjoy about it?
I think it’s the new frontier. I say we’re in the desert. I think it’s the new battlefield. And I think it’s a battlefield where God can God desires. And I declared God will get glory. But it’s a battle we cannot avoid. It’s a battle we cannot did not it’s a reality that we cannot deny. But I think I think it is it’s one of those desert lands, is one of those wilderness lands, is one of those battles that God is going to bring us through. But the idea is you got to… I love that passage where in Second Chronicles, where God says to the Prophet Joshua, “Look, the battle is mine. The battle is not yours. I got this.” But then he says, “but tomorrow, you got to go to the battlefield.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, if the battle is yours, Lord, why can’t I watch you take it now? I’ll just be the cheerleader on assignment. God said No, no, no, it’s my battle. When I win through you.
And I think it’s a season where it’s those of us who are willing to take the risk of going into the battle that is in fact God’s, and that God will win. I have some white friends who admit, and I love them for admitting, “Man, I can’t even afford this.” Like I know a couple of white friends of mine who said some public stuff [that cost them]. [A friend and I] did a video about George Floyd and everything. And I have I noticed friends of mine who stood up and talked about the oneness in the body of Christ and racism and stuff. And that friend had a back door revival. He had members of families, some of them longtime families who left his church just for admitting just for mentioning it. And so, I think there’s a price to it, and I have some friends who are not willing to pay that price. But my only excitement is [that] I think it is the new battlefield where God will get glory. But he needs soldiers like us to take the battlefield.
On President Obama’s second inauguration, noted pastoral iconoclast Mark Driscoll tweeted the following, to a reception of thousands of retweets: “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.”
Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church (Photo courtesy of MarsHill.com)
It may seem like a bit of an exaggeration to refer to Driscoll as an iconoclast, but I can’t think of a better descriptor for his brand of cultural engagement, particularly when aimed at those he sees as liberal.
See, the literal definition of iconoclast is, according to Professor Google, “a destroyer of images used in worship.” Which seems like an odd pastime for a pastor, really. When I ponder this definition, my mind conjures up a performance artist in the middle of church, swinging a sledgehammer at a bowl of communion grapes. Like the evangelical equivalent of Gallagher at a farmer’s market, he gleefully causes a tremendous spectacle, and seems to enjoy the mess he’s making in the process.
So when you think of someone who seems to derive enjoyment from tweaking the tenets of leftist Christian socially-acceptable orthodoxy, is there anyone else who comes to mind more than Mark Driscoll? Probably not.
After all, this is the same guy who used his bully pulpit to mock effeminate male worship leaders and decry the eviloccult influence in Avatar and the Twilight films. And despite the respect I have for Driscoll for the latter, I can’t get over my palpable sense of disgust over the former. Being a worship leader by heart and by trade, I take special offense at the idea that being sensitive is the same thing as being effeminate. Hasn’t this guy read the Psalms?
Given his well-documented misdeeds on social media, perhaps “iconoclast” is no longer the best term to describe Mark Driscoll and his brash, in-your-face style. Maybe we should just call him what we would call anyone else on the internet who intentionally does this – a troll.
See, trolls are internet citizens who intentionally say outlandish things to provoke arguments because it delights them to see so many people upset by the things they say. I’m not in Driscoll’s head and I truly don’t know what motivates him to say the things he does, but with this latest tweet, Driscoll seems to be joining the ranks of political trolls like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter. And that distresses me greatly.
I’m distressed because it’s clear Driscoll didn’t consider the unintended consequences of the tweet before he sent it out. It’s possible that this was his misguided attempt at trying to hold the President accountable for the theological implications of some of his policy decisions. If so, Driscoll would probably be shocked to realize just how ignorant and racist his words appeared, and that by so openly casting doubt on the authenticity of our president’s Christianity, he unwittingly allied himself with birth certificate conspiracy theorists, 9/11 truthers, and the sign-waving congregants of Westboro Baptist. Part of the cost of restricting your argument to 140 characters is the way it can be open to interpretation. Even in the best light, that one didn’t do him any favors.
Even more so, actually, I’m distressed because of the partial truths therein. There are legitimate reasons to question President Obama’s theological beliefs. After all, none of his advanced degrees are in divinity. He’s the Commander-In-Chief, not the Theologian-In-Chief. He could be wrong about some things. His stances on abortion and/or gay marriage can be considered by some as antithetical to some of the Bible’s more relevant passages on those subjects.
But even if that’s true, it was still a bad idea to be so cavalier about it. By tweeting in such a blatantly antagonistic manner, Mark Driscoll unintentionally justified the prevalent atheist and agnostic liberal contempt with all things related to God and the church, because most liberals were taught by experience that being a Christian is synonymous with being a harsh, unloving, hypocritical blowhard. That lie, obviously false to anyone who’s had a life-altering salvation experience with Jesus in the context of authentic Christian community, receives another veneer of legitimacy with every time something like that is said.
And the thing is, Mark Driscoll should know that. He probably does know that, actually, and probably just let his emotions get the best of him. It happens to the best of us.
But what distresses me the most about all of this is that his tweet was retweeted over three thousand times, probably by people who feel the same way. How many of those people have non-Christians among their Twitter followers? How much damage was done to the credibility of the local church because of one celebrity pastor’s flippant judgment?
Such tweets tend to be less about engaging others who feel differently than they are about rallying people to your side who already agree. In politics, as in sport, few things are more effective at firing up your support base than thumbing your nose at the competition.
But the end result is a mess of unintended consequences. The people who need to see us at our best, end up seeing us at our worst. Our unsaved neighbors – or even worse, our brothers and sisters in Christ — become our enemies. This is how churches become beholden more political objectives than gospel objectives. This is how culture wars are waged.
So people, use more care when tweeting your political dissent. It’s important to take a stand on the issues that matter to you and your church, but bear in mind that recklessly upsetting people off is a poor way to transmit the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the ecumenical equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bath water, then bashing that baby against a rock.
I’m sorry, was that too strong a metaphor? I was just looking for a psalm reference that Mark Driscoll wouldn’t think was effeminate.
Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.
Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.
The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.
PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)
The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.
Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue. “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”
The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.
The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.
The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer. “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroitbranch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said. “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”
So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.
THE SUNDAY AFTER: After being arrested for allegedly beating his teen daughter, megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar appeared before his Atlanta congregation to deny the charges. "Raising children in our culture of disrespect is a challenge," he said.
Pastor Creflo Dollar did the expected during his first sermon after being booked on charges of simple battery, family violence, and cruelty to children. He repeated his denial of his daughter’s accusations that he choked, punched, and slammed her down during an argument.
You can view the address here, but in short, Dollar read from a prepared statement that was likely signed off on by his legal defense team. Dollar said:
• He is the true victim, not his 15-year-old daughter.
• He should not have been arrested.
• The police are irresponsible for photographing an eczema mark on his daughter’s neck.
• The news media and other accusers are evil and blowing things out of proportion.
• “The enemy” is trying to discredit him in order to block his message of grace.
Dollar concluded by quoting Psalms 35 to explain his situation and the likely result: “Malicious witnesses testify against me. They accuse me of crimes I know nothing about…Take up my case my God and my Lord…”
The most revealing part of his address was when he seemed to go off script a bit.
“I’m a human being and, you know, I’ve had to do a lot of praying and my family has been very supportive,” he said. “Because when I feel like an injustice has been done, I get angry. And yet I respect the law.
On some levels, I can surely appreciate where Pastor Dollar is coming from. As I’ve written previously, rearing teens can be very difficult. Depending on their personalities, they often have a sense of entitlement, they think they know everything, and with hormones raging they can be outright nasty. My wife and I have been there with our three children, of which the youngest is our 19-year-old daughter. As a dedicated father, I know rearing a daughter can be particularly challenging. You worry about them being harmed even more than you do your sons. You have to be more careful and sensitive when correcting them.
Even when correcting my sons physically, my point was to calm them down and show them that if I really wanted to hurt them I could. Being an athletic 6-foot-1 inches and more than 200 pounds, I often needed to think twice before dispensing any sort of physical punishment. And if one of the kids deserved physical correction, it was often safer for them — and better for the parent-child relationship — for their mother to do it, especially if it was our daughter. Still, regardless of their gender, your teens can make you snap, but as a parent you MUST maintain control, lest you cross the line.
What set most people off in this Pastor Dollar case is the accusation that he choked punched and slammed his daughter. Child abuse is “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”
Only the Dollar family knows if this situation rises to the level of abuse. However, watching his well-meaning congregation give him a standing ovation, and reading the many comments here on UrbanFaith misinterpreting the scripture “spare the rod, spoil the child,” I wonder about a dangerous message being sent to people who are truly victims of domestic abuse: The church isn’t much of a sanctuary for help.
Some published reports estimate 25 percent of churchgoers have experienced domestic abuse. This means that among those clapping vigorously in support of Pastor Dollar, there were sufferers of domestic violence. There are people suffering in my church and your church. YOU may be suffering in silence.
I know personally teen girls who have suffered domestic abuse at the hands of men in their homes. One in particular attended church religiously, but felt no one in the church would believe her because her stepfather was respected in the community. So she suffered in silence. Girls in these types of situations often become women who enter abusive relationships. Even when married to men who are not abusers, these women have wounds that scar their marriages. They need counseling.
As this situation with Pastor Dollar unfolds, what message are true victims of domestic abuse hearing?
Perhaps this unfortunate incident will provide Pastor Dollar and other church leaders around the country the opportunity to offer a word of grace to the silent sufferers in their midst.
Wil LaVeist will discuss this article and the topic of domestic abuse on his radio show tomorrow, Wednesday June 13, from 12 to 1 p.m. Eastern Time. Listen to the live stream on Hampton University’s WHOV here: www.whov.org.
ROYAL INTRIGUE: On January 31, the beleaguered Bishop Eddie Long was crowned king in a bizarre "Jewish" ceremony that critics immediately denounced. He later apologized. (Image: YouTube video)
Last week, the scandal-ridden Baptist bishop Eddie Long received a brief moment of good news when a visiting “rabbi” declared Long a Jewish king before the congregation at his Atlanta-area megachurch. A YouTube video of the proceedings quickly went viral, and critics registered disbelief as yet another bizarre chapter was added to the Bishop Long saga.
Long has since apologized for the fiasco, but the sad strangeness of the event lingers.
Citing dual citizenship in Israel and presumably the United States, the man “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel” presents Long with the scroll, declaring, “He is a king, God’s blessed him. He’s a humble man but in him is kingship, in him is royalty, in him was the land of Israel.”
A moment later, Bishop Long is raised up in a chair and carried around the pulpit, as Rabbi Messer proclaims:
He now is raised up from a commoner to a kingship. … He ‘s no longer a commoner. He’s not under Earth; he’s raised from Earth into a heavenly realm. He’s raised in a prophetic position. He’s released by God. He’s breaking pagan tradition, breaking areas of God. He’s releasing Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not him, it’s the king in him.
Jewish religious leaders immediately called the display offensive. It “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with,” Bill Nigut of the Anti-Defamation League told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”
In his apology, Long said it was not “my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community, or any group.” But he left unanswered questions of how the dubious rabbi wound up at his church in the first place.
While Bishop Long’s situation is extreme, one could argue that grandiose presentations of religious ritual take place every week in many black churches, as all-powerful preachers are afforded the star treatment from their parishioners. However, it is this type of ceremonious display of adoration of pastors and other spiritual leaders that makes it difficult for some to remember that they too are human and subject to the same weaknesses that, without proper accountability and support, can ultimately lead to scandal.
A Long Story
For more than a year, with his wife most recently filing divorce papers, Long found himself at the center of such a scandal where he faced accusations of sexual coercion by four young men. Long settled out of court in May 2011 with a reported $15 million payment to his accusers. Trouble from the case continued throughout the year with lost income to the church, the closing of the church’s private school New Birth Academy, and a lawsuit alleging financial misdealing in investments for a handful of church members.
Known for an extravagant display of wealth, Long was said to have been a purveyor of the oft-criticized “prosperity gospel,” which not only pushed the idea that God’s blessings appeared in the form of expensive cars, clothing, and accessories but also showcased a leader similarly clad and almost worshiped by his or her congregants. National Public Radio reported in 2010 that Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and had purchased a $1.1 million home.
It’s hard to say whether the glitz and the religious superstardom led to Long’s woes. But for one Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Roger Jones Sr., that along with unresolved personal issues is exactly what led to his downfall.
Bishop Roger Jones
Jones, now pastor of Greater Holy Temple Ministries in Flint, Michigan, wrote about his experiences with adultery, drug use, isolation, and deceit in his book, When Life Hurts, Dreams Fade, Hope Again. In it, he notes that the clearly immoral behavior he engaged in started with the isolation and built up pride he gained for being highly regarded by those around him.
“The fall I experienced has to do with much of the pomp and splendor and promotions that go along with the politics of power — the franchise, the perks, the accommodations, the limousines, the suites at hotels, the seats you sit in,” he said.
Called to preach at age 18, Jones was a high achiever in ministry and quickly took on the invincibility perpetuated through increasing popularity, continual success, and constant praise. Jones wrote that ministerial success brought financial perks as well.
“I’m wondering how much that affected me, given my humble background as a person who didn’t have much, who then came into a lot of money and power and position and prestige — maybe I allowed all that to push me over the edge. Maybe I was trying to fulfill a sense of insecurity with other things.”
The Pastor’s Split Persona
Dr. Patrick Moon, a psychologist at Cornerstone Counseling Center in Chicago, says that insecurity is likely evident in everyone and that pastors and spiritual leaders are not exempt. According to Moon, who specializes in pastoral counseling and spiritual support, pastors aren’t immune from emulating the group patterns from their families of origin and are often drawn to church organizations that complement those learned behaviors of interaction.
Dysfunctional familial patterns that may have started in a minister’s childhood that haven’t been addressed play a major role in coping with the general isolation and ongoing demands of pastoring.
“A pastor comes from a family system and learns from that family system how to behave,” Moon says. “Sometimes the dysfunction of that family system bleeds over to the church. Unresolved emotions of those family systems transfer to the church.”
It’s for that reason that “pastors and clergy in seminary are recommended to seek their own psychotherapists at times when they’re having trouble.”
When a scandal happens, it’s more than the oft-assumed thought that he or she lacks a moral compass or simply doesn’t believe in the God he or she preaches. There’s definitely more to the story, Moon says.
“A pastor has to create a persona that has to be integrated into the church’s expectations,” and it’s in that integration that the person who emerges publicly may not be who the pastor is. That dichotomy doesn’t necessarily equate to holy vs. spiritual. It could be a matter of mood, Moon says.
“Maybe he wants to have a nice vacation, to go and have a good time, but there’s this wedding on that Saturday, and ‘I have to put up the appearance that I have the energy to do this.’” And unfortunately, “Meeting expectations of the congregation is very difficult, and that leads to isolation.”
It’s in isolation that most people — not just pastors — seek out destructive behaviors. The difference is that the destructive behavior of spiritual leaders can perpetuate the dysfunction and can become detrimental to whole churches and their individual members.
The Pastoral Pedestal
Perhaps what might have started with the biblical standards listed in I Timothy 3 of how a pastor or elder should live — “well thought of, committed to his wife, cool and collected, accessible and hospitable … must handle his own affairs well” (The Message translation) — has become an additional burden of exhibiting perfection. Not only do members expect it, the pastor often believes it, despite the contradiction within his or her own humanity.
Regardless of its origins, being a pastor in most people’s minds means being the holiest person in the room at all times. Already set apart upon installation as pastor, he or she inevitably maintains that social distance throughout his or her pastorate.
And it doesn’t help that, historically, spiritual leaders were advised to avoid close friendships with parishioners to avoid the appearance of favoring some and marginalizing others. A major motivating factor for self-inflicted isolation may be an unwillingness to trust congregants — particularly those who make a point of getting too close too quickly.
This continues the persona of the pastor as king or queen, the person everyone wants to be or be around.
“We grew up in an era with the understanding that the pastor is infallible,” Moon says. “The perception of the pastor is elevated in such a way, he adds, that “a fall may be inevitable.”
Yet despite the responsibility that the congregation may bear in turning their leader into a celebrity, the onus is on the pastor not to believe the hype. Jones said it this way: “If we’re not careful, we become our own little gods — without a capital G — and we expect people to treat us this way.”
But if you’re being hoisted up on a throne Eddie Long-style and literally praised as royalty, how can you not buy in to the idea of being worshiped? How do you go from a sincere desire to serve God and His people to living to serve yourself?
“I think we by and large know what the Christian responsibility is, but it’s the lack of intentionality” that leads to disgrace at the highest level of a church, says the Rev. Kenneth Cole, a minister, theology instructor, and administrator at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland.
Like Moon, Cole acknowledges that pastoring is a difficult job that never stops. And as much as it can build a congregation, it can weaken the minister. “Ministry takes on this burden,” Cole says, “and when you’re a weak man, you’re vulnerable more than ever to temptation.”
But that susceptibility might mask itself in a minister’s successes. Cole calls it flawed thinking to assume invincibility to sin based on ministerial authority. As proof, he cites the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following God’s approval of His baptism. “After a spiritual high, Christ gives us an example that even when you preach and teach and God uses you in a special way, you are that much more vulnerable.”
Cole observes: “Some of the areas of the temptation lie in the individual areas of vulnerability.”
For example, an individual prone to overeating as a coping mechanism for stress might binge on every food available as a spiritual leader under the weight of several hundred people in a congregation. Of course, it’s usually much more serious than food.
“Demands and stresses would pile up,” Moon says, “and who knows if he uses his spiritual grounding at that moment?”
This time, it could be an extra dessert. Next time, maybe it’s infidelity.
For Jones, it was an affair with a married woman that led to his experimentation with powder cocaine and eventually crack. He writes in his book, “When I began experimenting with drugs in 1987, it was a time in my life when everything seemed to plunge into a downward spiral — an abyss of sin and shame. … I believe I had so many unresolved issues within my personal life that I grew tired of masking them behind a clergyman’s collar and title.”
Alison Gise Johnson
In recognizing the multiple factors at play at the origin of spiritual scandal, we must also weigh what’s considered “good” even among people striving to live holy but subject to the sin of humanity, says Alison Gise Johnson, a Christian ethicist who formerly served at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.
“All of creation has been designed with potential and promise,” says Gise Johnson, “and that potential is only fulfilled in the context of healthy interdependent relationships. That, therefore, is our plumb line for ‘good.’”
Gise Johnson suggests that the isolation experienced by pastors whose parishioners view them as either “super holy” or “superstars” can work against the good intentions they initially bring to their ministries. Jones, Cole and Moon all acknowledge isolation as a key factor in what leads to a religious leader’s downfall.
“Ministers, like everyone of us,” Gise Johnson says, “will suffer emotional scars that when not addressed pervert one’s potential, causes wounds in others, and compromises the power and peace of being on one accord, whole and holy.”
It seems, though, that more often than not, scandals among pastors tend to involve sex. Moon ties this to pastoral isolation, not only with church members but often within the families of pastors and other religious leaders. “First, everyone is a sexual being,” he says. “[Sexual misconduct] is an outward expression of a need and desire to connect.”
Moon says that if a spiritual leader is still working out sexual identity in his or her own mind, those issues are likely to creep up somewhere in that person’s life. Unfortunately, it often comes out in a very public way.
Cole, however, says sexual indiscretion among ministers is sometimes less of a backslide and more of a backflip. “There is a whole lot of immorality in certain circles,” Cole says. “They live a life like it’s okay.”
He says it’s common for younger ministers to see their pastoral idols participate in blatantly sinful activity without consequence. That leads to an idea that similar activities are acceptable. “What’s happened is that they know better, but they’re imitating what they see.”
No one wants to admit that they’re struggling to do right because it feeds the idea of spiritual weakness that contradicts the super-holy image.
According to Bishop Jones, the tragedy is that “there seems to be no place, group, or board that one can go to and be completely honest or transparent; not for leaders in a church.”
Instead, said Jones, the church “often adds to or reiterates the guilt of the problem rather than taking on enough compassion to understand how to provide the comfort and support that is desperately needed.”
Beyond the Super-Pastor
As a society, we’re quick to cast blame, but ultimately who is responsible for pastoring the pastor?
Cole says that despite the culture of some churches, where the pastor is treated as king, spiritual leaders have to be committed to holy living. “We need to be intentional about being pure. We need to get back to church discipline, cleansing, restoration, and repentance.
“I just think by and large that pastors should recognize the roles they play; they’re not superheroes,” Cole says. “All that kind of attention draws people to us and not to Christ.” That realization lies in one’s intention and accountability, he says.
But Gise Johnson says that being accountable on a spiritual leader’s part requires something from the congregation, too. “Often, it is the loss of compassion that makes honesty about one’s struggles difficult,” she says. “Faith communities have to fight unrelentingly to maintain a spirit of compassion and be committed to ‘good.’”
For Moon, it goes beyond simply being good and lies more in being authentic in who they are, in their struggles and in coping with the stress of spiritual leadership. Fortunately, that is already beginning to take place, he says. “From the idea of a ‘super-pastor,’ I think the shift has occurred, particularly with younger clergy, that pastors are trying to be more real.”
Moon says there is hope in pastoral authenticity but that the greater redemption lies in the fabric of all churches. “The church itself has always had the resources within itself to restore people,” he says, noting that handling actual scandal would be best done through a denominational process rather than from within an individual congregation.
What a congregation can do, Gise Johnson says, is forgive. “Without apology and without hesitation, forgiveness has to be offered.”
But Gise Johnson is quick to add that this kind of forgiveness does have conditions.
“It’s the kind of forgiveness that demands that congregations then reorganize themselves to give the offender space away from the responsibilities of leading, so that everyone can begin healing.”
Road to Restoration
With news of his wife’s divorce filing in December, Eddie Long announced that he would take a break from his church to focus on his family, which includes three children. He returned to New Birth a few weeks later and preached the New Year’s Eve service. Now, in the tumultuous wake of his short-lived coronation, it’s unclear whether he’s at the end of troubles or the start of new ones.
Like Gise Johnson, Cole lauds a congregation’s ability to forgive in these kinds of situations. However, he says it can also serve as an Achilles’ heel, allowing spiritual leaders to return with the same structure and attitude that led to immorality in the first place.
While Cole advises a sabbatical from leadership responsibilities to help a pastor and his or her church heal, he’s reluctant to say that’s all that’s necessary. “It may it look like [scandalous behavior] is cool as long as you take a break.”
“We need to see more restoration,” he says, “but I don’t see it happening the way God intended.”