February 19, 2020 culture ortberg

Secrecy & The Soul

“I feel really strongly that if your ‘good life’ is based upon keeping information a secret, pretending that you did not do something you did, lying to the people closest to you about a serious breach of trust that you committed, you do not, in fact, have a good life. You might have a comfortable life. You might have a life that looks really good to people from the outside. You might have an easy life. You might have a life that is relatively conflict-free, but that is not goodness.”

Daniel Lavery spoke these prescient words back in 2016 on a Dear Prudence podcast with his father, John Ortberg.

At the time, John agreed. “Truth is your friend,” John said back then. The question being discussed was about a pastor who had had an affair and never admitted it—now, twenty years later, the child put up for adoption wanted to meet her father. “[The pastor’s] agreement to keep [the affair] a secret and not to disclose to the leadership body of his church or his denomination is a violation of trust with them and of ethics with them. That’s a really bad thing,” John said.

How are we to interpret this in light of the current situation? John Ortberg found out in 2018 of a pedophile in his congregation who volunteered with children and John, by his own admission, “made a decision” to tell no one and allowed the person to continue volunteering. Even when Daniel Lavery discovered the situation in late 2019, John would not disclose it to the church elders himself. Daniel had to do it. In fact, according to Daniel, John strove mightily to get Daniel to keep the secret instead of telling the church.

What happened to 2016 John?

There are many reasons why even a John who believed deeply, sincerely, what he said in 2016 would do what he did in 2018-2019. To think, “John would never!” is idolatry. To think, “I would never!” is pride. We all have our price. What would you do for a million dollars? To save a loved one’s life? To save his soul? We can’t know what pressure would make our courage fail until we face it. We don’t know in advance what circumstances would reveal deep weakness in us.

It’s incredibly difficult to confess when we fail, especially publicly. John has a lot to lose personally, and there’s the church’s programs, reputation, and finances to consider. On top of that, there’s potential civil and criminal liability. Anybody would be afraid to admit to what Danny’s alleging. I get it.

But however painful, truth and transparency is still the way forward.

I believe Daniel Lavery. I see zero evidence to suggest he is lying besides the fervent wish on the church’s part that it be so. I’ve seen no evidence to support the narrative that Danny is intentionally twisting facts to hurt John in some kind of family squabble. It’s almost painful to hear the cameraderie in the 2016 podcast.

Yet Daniel’s allegations were for the most part hidden by the Menlo Church elder board in their email to the congregation. Even now (Feb 19), neither John nor the elder board have responded to Daniel’s Feb 2 statement.

There are cynical reasons why John would refuse to speak and the church protect him. Perhaps John cared more for reputation than for getting the volunteer real help. Perhaps Menlo did the calculations and sweeping this under the rug in order to keep John is best for their tithing and attendance projections. I hope these are not true. I don’t think they are.

What’s more likely is that the church’s response is being driven by fear, culture, and unconscious bias.

Secrecy seems to be a fundamental part of American evangelical Christian culture and that is worrying to me. Hunkering down in image management mode and hoping people will forget and move on seems to be The Way Things Are Done Around Here—we see it over and over again, each time a new scandal pops up. I wonder how much of the American church is made up of people who have never in their lives been authentic with anyone, not even themselves? How can a soul flourish like that? It’s not possible. I know John knows it.

Allowing John to keep this secret—building his ministry and by extension the church on keeping the extent of this affair private—is not spiritually healthy—not for him, and not for the congregation. John was right when he said, “The truth is your friend.” You can’t do ministry while sitting on something like this and be healthy. It’s like mold under the wallpaper. It will eat at your soul. “If you avoid doing the hard thing,” John said in that 2016 podcast, “even if your situation turns out well, you die a little bit inside.”

I hope Menlo chooses life and truth instead.

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