Conducting Restitution When Our Leadership Causes Damage


In May 17, 2014, I wrote a guest post for Zach Hoag’s blog, The Nuance. It expanded on a series of tweets that I had posted for the #IStandWithSGMVictims (Sovereign Grace Ministries) hashtag campaign to challenge their leaders about allegations on multiple kinds of abuse. The entire post shares what I believe “restitution” means for the leaders who caused damage to take personal responsibility, how to develop a safer congregational setting, and how to deal with leaders who refuse their responsibility.

I previously only posted a section of this article on my blog, plus other snippets of articles and tweets related to the Sovereign Grace Ministries hashtag campaign. You’ll find that at Thoughts on Abuse, Position, Power – and Restitution. I am now posting the entire guest article on restitution here, because I will refer to it in my Capstone series that synthesizes and summarizes my research findings about toxicity in the Mars Hill Church system. Its leaders seriously need to take responsibility and make restitution, so this article’s suggestions for similar needs by leaders at Sovereign Grace Ministries is even more relevant now.

My “Slate of Eight” Suggestions for CLC/SGM Restitution

A guest post for The Nuance by Brad Sargent aka futuristguy

Someone who saw this tweet asked me about The Gospel Coalition not only staying silent, but “blocking” the hashtag #IStandWithSGMVictims. How? Why? My series of three response tweets wasn’t as coherent as I’d have liked, so let me twanslate into smoother English with a few add-ins.

Re: The Gospel Coalition block #IStandWithSGMVictims, it’d be better to ask @zhoag. [Since, as far as I know, he kind of started this.] I don’t follow TGC, so I wasn’t blocked. For me, it was more about addressing abuse. With abuse and all forms of violence and misuse of power a major justice issue of our era, you’d think that topic was be raised regularly to equip church leaders to serve congregations that include survivors. But it seems not. So they don’t really provide much of a role model, from what I’ve seen and heard. My tweets were based on 35+ years of mulling over how churches could model mercy, justice, and truth in situations of abuse.

Tweet Inspiration

Yes, for over 35 years I’ve been wondering about the church and abuse – not because I myself am a survivor of sexual abuse, but because of my sister’s ministry of nearly four decades as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, and sexual assault and abuse. Advocacy for those survivors naturally led her into becoming a trainer for child sexual abuse prevention. Sadly, she found theologically conservative churches consistently the least interested in taking any proactive steps to equip themselves.

She began all of this in the mid-1970s at a time when most churches denied or ignored such issues, and continued it until her death a few years ago. We spent hours in conversation, I helped her draft and edit materials, and in the process I learned some of what it could mean to stand with victims as one who gives voice to their cause when they’re not able to do so themselves yet.

So, when I found out about #IStandWithSGMVictims from my friends Dee and Deb @Wartburg Watch and Julie Anne Smith @DefendTheSheep, I went over to Twitter to see what was happening. I’d been following the Sovereign Grace Ministries situation for a few years, and knew the trial of Nathaniel Morales could be strategic. I was watching for responses, and simply felt compelled to say something myself instead of staying silent.

I pumped out a series of about 10 one-liners on failure in non-optional clergy reporting of known/suspected child abuse to legal authorities, silencing tactics, messages our silence sends to the world, etc. Most were pointedly deconstructive to challenge what had been the ongoing Sovereign Grace Ministries/Covenant Life Church refusal of responsibility by so-called leaders. Some tweets were reconstructive about what we should do to equip the Church, and where to find details on clergy responsibility in your own state.

Raising the Issue of Restitution

One of my statements was this:

Regardless of failure in clergy reporting of abuse back then, doesn’t a double-decade delay deserve restitution today? #IStandWithSGMVictims

A while later, @mcphat asked: “@futuristguy like what? (I really mean that face value: what would restitution look like to you?).” I took him seriously, not defensively, and sat down to write up what I thought it could should look like.

Well, I’m one of those people whose learning styles are such that we don’t know what we know until we’re asked a question or given a problem to solve. Sometimes our responses synthesize quickly. In something like 15 minutes I’d drafted an eight-point list. I did it so fast that I didn’t realize til afterward that it wasn’t necessarily just geared to the situation at CLC/SGM. I think it just came from the gut, and turned out with broader implications because I’d been thinking about unsafe ministry/work environments for such a long time.

I posted the series as fast as I could edit my drafts into proper tweet mode (I’ve been on Twitter since like 2007 or 2008, but it’s not exactly my default social media mode.) Apparently, some of these statements hit a nerve for folks, as a lot of favoriting and retweeting was going on. Well, at least from my perspective, as I’ve rarely had anything I said retweeted.) After that series, Zach invited me to do a guest post on his blog. So, my overview, “slate of eight” points, and conclusion are below, with some expansion as invited by Zach. I limited myself to two add-on paragraphs per point. Hope that isn’t too much to handle, but I don’t know that we often see a systems approach to restitution, so here it is, for what it’s worth.

Restitution versus Revenge

But before I begin those, a few thoughts I had yesterday and today about restitution. In the Morales trial, witness Grant Layman (former pastor of CLC) was questioned under oath and stated the following, according to the on-the-scene account of Brent Detwiler:

Grant Layman was sworn in next.  Under oath he told the jury he did not report the crimes told him by Scott and Charlene Bates in 1992 that were committed by Morales against their son, Samuel Bates.  He also stated that within one year, he learned of the sexual abuse of Brian Wolohan and did not report it to the police either.

Under cross examination by the Defense Attorney Drew (which was surprising), he was asked “Did you have a responsibility to report to police” the crimes committed against Samuel Bates and Brian Wolohan.  To this Layman said, “I believe so.”  Drew responded, “Did you report to police?”  Layman answered, “I didn’t do it.”

That was an open, sworn admission that victims and their families had waited 20+ years to hear. It’s documentable and verifiable. I see no way around the fact that damage was done by leadership failure at CLC to obey the law and report known or suspected sexual abuse of minors. There is no excuse for this, and, to repeat one of my earlier tweets, “Regardless of failure in clergy reporting of abuse back then, doesn’t a double-decade delay deserve restitution today?” But what does restitution even mean, especially when we are no longer under the Mosaic Law but are bound to truly love one another in Christ?

I see the essence of restitution as an understanding and public acknowledgement that someone’s actions caused damage, and that they seek to restore conditions to what they were before insofar as humanly possible, or at least to redress the wounds to open new possibilities that were stolen from someone by the damage done. Thus, restitution is a fruit that demonstrates an underlying root of repentance. It isn’t about obediently fulfilling a list of requirements in order to supposedly “prove” you’ve changed. It’s part of a genuine personal change process. And it takes place in sight of others so there’s accountability. That’s needed in part because activity just means motion … it doesn’t mean you’ve done a 180-degree course correction. In fake restitution you could just do some required list and have done a 360-degree pirouette of pride and you’re right back on the same course as an agent of damage – the very same one that led to people being hurt by the agency of your negligence.

In contrast, revenge takes people with already brittle souls and seeks to apply the one cruel stroke that shatters them forever. An eye for an eye, a deadened heart for a deadened heart and all that. But that’s ultimately just more Law – when everybody is dieing to receive grace that calls them to become something more, and gives them a chance to respond. Grace that empowers the opportunity for their spirit to be rescued from who they were and be more transformed into someone more conformed to the character of Christ.

Look, restitution may pinch our pride, but it won’t destroy our soul. It simply applies a bit of heat get the wax of our character soft enough to receive a new impression that reshapes us more and more into the character of Christ. And He’s supposed to be the aim of our endeavors as disciples, right?

I don’t know whether to have high hopes for repentance or restitution by Grant Layman and any other CLC/SGM leaders whose silence covered the truth and empowered continued criminal activities. I do know that the eyes of many in both the Church and the World are on them. What will they choose as the messages they now want their lives to broadcast against the backdrop of their former immoral silence? I wish them well, not ill, and know that if they avail themselves of real grace and empowerment by the Spirit, what needs to be done can be done. And, sadly but justly, it may well be that some may show by contempt where there should be compassion and conscience that they are permanently disqualified from public ministry.

That noted, I offer these concrete suggestions for their consideration, and by extension, as preventive measures for any church, ministry, project team, or agency. There are some hard, hard words here – but I hope they do not come across as harsh. Grace, mercy, and restoration are meant for all God’s people, and we need the Body of Christ, the Word of God, and the leading of the Holy Spirit to keep us on the Way of Jesus. ~ Brad Sargent

My “Slate of Eight” Suggestions for CLC/SGM Restitution

Overview: Restitution should be holistic, deal w/ past wrongs, & give survivors & their loved ones hope for the future #IStandWithSGMVictims

Holistic to me means using a systems approach. In situations of spiritual abuse, I typically consider both the human systems and the organizational systems, as together these create an entire culture. And in the case of abuse there are typically the perpetrator, active enforcers, and silent enablers – and a parallel system on the other side: survivors, vocal advocates, and personal supporters. Any holistic approach to personal recovery and organizational restoration via restitution must consider all six of those roles.

The trajectory of our journey toward Christlikeness involves where we came from, where we’re now at, and where He is taking us. As a futurist, my main purpose is to (re-)inspire hope among God’s people. This means helping them to imagine a horizon they couldn’t see before. Typically, the only way toward that future requires first understanding the past so it truly can be put behind us, not simply denied, overlooked, or thinking it will never affect us again as long as we’ve forgiven the perpetrator … assuming we can forgive-then-forget, which I’m not sure is anywhere in the Bible. Restitution provides survivors of wrongdoing with opportunities to find resolve about what happened to them that was not their fault, and to move toward deeper levels of healing and recovery.

Taking Personal Responsibility – #1, 2, 3

Restitution #1 – We publicly admit to moral, ethical, legal responsibility for failure to report, & accept consequences. #IStandWithSGMVictims

So much of what wrongdoing, abuse, and negligence are about is hiding in the darkness. Whether it is out of self-protection, loyalty, guilt, shame, fear, or other motives, keeping wrongdoing in the dark does not represent the Kingdom of the One who is the Light of the World. Yes, public admission of responsibility for causing harm makes you vulnerable, but it is absolutely core as signally your new or renewed willingness to accept consequences for your actions – especially in your role as leader.

I wondered if this action should come first, or second – after personal apologies to the ones harmed. I don’t know for sure. But I suspect that if we declare first, in public, that we failed when knowledge of the abuse is already also public, then perhaps there is more impetus to apologize in person. How easy would it be to attempt to reach out and apologize first, and if rebuffed, then say nothing about the whole thing and never confess in public? However, failure to do both means your silence inflicts more violence on those already victimized. But our secrets are never hidden in the darkness forever, are they?

Restitution #2 – We apologize in person to survivors, their families & supporters – if they will let us – THEIR choice. #IStandWithSGMVictims.

This is in part about humility. If we messed up by exerting dishonorable control over others, then shouldn’t we be willing to not be in charge of all the decisions about restitution? We broke trust; we need to earn or re-earn trust by listening until we truly empathize, submitting our thoughts and options for the survivor’s consideration. You’ll likely have to hear uncomfortable allegations about your actions, with words like complicit, collusion, false loyalty, cruel, revictimizer, unqualified, disqualified, lawsuit. Maybe this should be a time for you to sit in silence about yourself and instead, listening and not defending … and actually feeling the emotional and spiritual impact of what you have done to someone who was vulnerable, who trusted you as an adult and as an authority figure to protect them – and you failed them and your own calling.

It is also about compassion and developing empathy – a vicarious intellectual and emotional understanding about what’s happened to someone else and how it’s affected them. If there’s one key thing that those who don’t yet have empathy for victims of abuse, it’s how the emotional turmoil and relational betrayal often acts like superglue to stick lies and doubts, guilt and shame, fear and anxiety into survivors’ hearts and those torment can flare up unexpected potentially for the rest of their lives. This is no small thing. The healthy road forward involves some kind of resolution to the implantation of these demons in the past. And if you caused that child to stumble by your sin of omission – regardless of whether it was intentional or unintentional – you need to hear the impact of your personal sin upon one who was innocent.

Restitution #3 – We use our own resources to help pay survivor’s fees to counselor of their choice for at least 10 years #IStandWithSGMVictims

People who benefited in positions of authority shouldn’t expect the institution alone to cover all the financial costs of what happened. If there is no personal cost to them as one who directly or indirectly caused damage, then how or why should anyone in the organization trust that individual again? They harm someone, but have no direct consequences; how does that serve justice?

If we have listened well, and developed compassion and empathy for the survivors and their network of relationships, we’ll better understand just how deep the wounding can go. Then, the very idea of receiving counseling for at least 10 years should more than make sense – it might seem too short! Like it or not, you’re now interconnected forever. How will you seek to make things right, restore what was lost, and recovery your own integrity? Money cannot buy that. But then, maybe the redemptive paradox may sink in: This is not about giving out your funds to fix them, it’s about costing you something as a regular reminder to fix you.

Developing a Safer Congregation – #4, 5, 6

Restitution #4 – We ensure the church we lead institutes & follows preventive practices against sexual abusers & abuse. #IStandWithSGMVictims

If you had no clear stance about perpetrators of sexual abuse before, then making things right involves instituting practices that minimize future risks of harm to children and their families. This starts moving the compassion into concrete, constructive ways that can actually change the character of the church. And, if there were accusations of complicity before, this is an important step to setting up real ways to dismantle any leadership gridlock that kept things in the dark before.

And regardless of whether you had such in place before or not, my understanding is that if you have policies but don’t follow them, if anything goes wrong and there’s a civil suit you are automatically liable for double damages. (That could be just where I’ve lived, or may be national. Check that with a lawyer if you want, but if you don’t follow-through, you prove you are untrustworthy as well as a foolish steward over the human and physical resources you were supposed meant to manage.)

Restitution #5 – We require prevention, interception, & intervention training on abuse by all paid & volunteer leaders. #IStandWithSGMVictims

It’s one thing to have policies and procedures to prevent abuse, another to follow them with clarity and consistency, another to mention them occasionally. But if you want this to become a hallmark instead of a watermark (i.e., “abuse prevention lite”), you have to train people. Regularly. People who lead others, people who work with children, whether they are paid or not. And part of the training may involve overhauling your ministry systems, your physical plant, and who knows what else – but when you had an entire organizational system that perpetuated abuse, surely nothing should be overlooked in what may need to be changed.

You have not established any objective expertise on abuse yet, so bring in those who know what they’re doing to train you and to consult with leaders and parishioners. What are ways you can reconstruct the nursery and children’s areas to make sexual abuse more difficult to perpetrate? What are potential indicators of children who are at higher risk of being abused, and why, and how can you discern if they’re being groomed? What do you do if/when abuse becomes known – or suspected? Why is the person who knows/suspects typically the one responsible to report, and is not supposed to assign that task to anyone else? What are the laws in your state on mandatory reporting of child abuse, including sexual abuse, for clergy, ministers, and counselors? What are the criminal penalties for failure to report?

Restitution #6 – We teach regularly on & demonstrate God’s care for those made victims by the misuse of power by others. #IStandWithSGMVictims

This is not a perfunctory annual sermon as if required as a guilt offering to cover our conscience. It means that grace and care for all gets into the weave of the congregational fabric, and cautious use of position and power are always close to the surface.

Maybe you can find new, appropriate ways to serve people who’ve been harmed by power plays and abuse. If this whole restitution process is genuine, I suspect the Holy Spirit will be at work to lead you in unexpected, providential ways to find learning experiences in which to serve with the spiritual muscles of grace, accepting people where they actually are rather than where you wish they were spiritually, and helping them take next steps on their journey with Jesus.

Dealing with Leaders Who Refuse Responsibility – #7, 8

Restitution #7 – Anyone w/ culpability in enabling abuse, but refuses consequences, is fired & whole church is told why. #IStandWithSGMVictims

Simply stated, refusal to engage in and sustain the entire course of restitution as described basically means someone demonstrates that they are: Unable to discern or own up to personal sin (Point #1), love prestige, lack humility and empathy, and are unable to listen (Point #2). Love money and/or are a false steward of resources (Point #3). Not protective of the whole flock but are showing partiality (Point #4). Not instructive or a role model to all leaders and ministers (Point #5). Not acquainted with grace and not practicing it (Point #6).

In a nutshell, this profile is a strong antithesis to what is required of all qualified leaders. In other words, such people are not merely UNqualified due to lack of maturity or skills, but DISqualified due to unrepentance and bad character. There is no demonstrated compassion or conscience; how does that profile have anything to do with embodying Christlike character? Such character cannot be hidden and so people in the church should know exactly why someone is being dismissed.

Restitution #8 – Any culpable church, ministry or agency refusing their responsibility should be decried & dismantled. #IStandWithSGMVictims

Point #8 is at the corporate level of what Point #7 is for individuals. If the leadership or entire congregation refuses their responsibility toward those damaged by their actions and inactions, then either those who wish to follow truth and righteousness with grace and accountability need to say “Ichabod” – the glory has departed – and so should they leave. Or, if they have opportunity and the Spirit leads, they should consider appropriate ways to dismantle the organization in part or in total. This is not a church, it is a social club designed for those who benefit from the good will of others who are being used. And its people and their systems will harm others again if they are not stopped. A toxic “church” like this has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Christ.

Points #7 and #8 in particular may seem extreme. However, if it is a genuine goal of a church to protect the flock from destructive forces, either you choose to act properly or you’ve lost the authority to do so. I have a sentence that I’ve memorized to share when I get a shocked reaction or push-back on such stark suggestions as shutting it down: “It is documentable and verifiable that NAME has done XYZ and that is cause for disqualification from ministry.” That means the facts can be found and there are witnesses to the abuses who are willing to testify. And I have occasionally stated that if the shocked person intends to investigate, I can supply a list of willing witnesses. Similarly, “It is documentable and verifiable that ORGANIZATION did XYZ and no one took responsibility to correct the situation. This means it is really not a safe place for anyone to serve or be served in.”

Finally: Love covers a multitude of sins; don’t let sins of abuse negate covering survivors w/ God’s love. Restore! #IStandWithSGMVictims

Adding a message about love wasn’t some slap-dash thing to sound all nicey-nice and legitimize the hard words that came before. Love is the essence of and motivation for all of it. John – the Apostle of Love – is the one who publicly called out Diotrephes as a self-serving authority whose actions stopped people from hearing the truth. John stepped in to protect people from a malignant minister, and to set things right. In the absence of John but in the presence of Christ, can we not do the same for those who have suffered unrighteously from both perpetrators of abuse and from those who actively stood by and failed to stop them?

If people are so enamored with or loyal to a person or an institution, that isn’t Christianity, it’s idolatry. I can’t force people into seeing it, but hopefully can appeal to those with critical reasoning skills so that there’s something for the Holy Spirit to use to open their eyes when God’s timing is ripe. God’s grace is as available to you, me, us – now as it always has been. We need His grace now more than ever to set right what has gone wrong and bring into the light what was coddled in the darkness. This, I believe at the core of my being, is part of what it means to become Christ’s “people of peace” wherever He plants us.


One thought on “Conducting Restitution When Our Leadership Causes Damage

  1. Pingback: A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 7B2: Examples of What Survivor Communities Have Actually Been Up Against | futuristguy

Comments are closed.