As promised, the second town hall yesterday was very similar to the first. The content of the elder updates was equivalent. The questions were different, but there was substantial overlap in the answers.
John and a few different elders answered questions on this topic. I couldn’t help but notice where the answer either dodged the question or chose not to read what was on the card. For example, in response to the question, “Did John support the volunteer’s work with minors?” John answered (emphasis mine) “I did not encourage a volunteer to seek to treat their condition by seeking unsupervised access with minors.”
The elders said they welcomed questions and transparency, so I encourage everyone to write in.
The following text is not verbatim. Questions were answered by several members of the elder board.
Q: What is the church mission? Are we going to keep expanding? Do we feel the church is healthy?
A: Mission continues to be to help people find and follow Jesus, Up-In-Out paradigm. Believe church is very healthy, financially healthy, amazing staff, leaders, volunteers. Growing, large interest in continuing to grow new campuses.
Q: Is the church as a whole prepared to deal with attacks of scriptural beliefs and truths?
A: This is my second term on Session. Some of you been with us a while, know rich history of our church, since founding in 1873. We have been faithful, fidelity and integrity to gospel of Jesus Christ, will continue. Thank you for your great question. We have more, best is yet to come for our church.
Q: Couple of cards here about confidentiality for someone who comes for counseling
A: First of all, love seeing so many of people I know and love, know you love this church, honor to be in this elected position, want you to know we are working tirelessly and prayerfully with the responsibility, knowing you’ve elected us, we are so grateful. Everyone’s welcome at Menlo Church. Welcome to bring concerns in confidentiality to pastors, prayer area, the only time we might not honor confidentiality is if we feel there might be potential of harm to another person or yourself, and in those cases we will tell you. Beyond that, all concerns are confidential.
Q: Why has there been no concern expressed for the person who was counseled? That person must feel betrayed.
A: This is a wonderful question. Made tremendous efforts to keep the privacy and confidentiality of the volunteer who came for counseling, will continue, committed to keeping that confidential. We have concern. We care for that person deeply. Those who have doggedly asked for the name know that we care and have kept it confidential.
Q: I moved to Menlo 10 years ago. Went to St. Raymond’s. Were told priest had moved on, no explanation. Later discovered he was discovered in changing room in SF with minor. Feel like communication in this matter is similar, I feel let down.
A: Thank you for bringing that concern. We have worked diligently and tirelessly to be transparent in this situation. We have engaged a third party investigator who is known and recognized with expertise in workplace misconduct nationally and given full charge of this situation. Detailed review of volunteer records, interviews with all supervising staff in all youth ministries. No misconduct or allegations of misconduct found. Been very transparent with you about this, has come up in letters, we are so happy to reiterate to you, we too were worried there could be some misconduct, board acted immediately to investigate this. Not immediately in conversation because did not have results. But we do have the investigative results and there was no harm that came to the Menlo Park community. I want to reassure you also if anyone knows any more about this situation, any allegations of misconduct, any reports of abuse, the church will act immediately with law enforcement, fully aware of our responsibility as mandated reporters.
Q: How did this recent conundrum start?
A: A volunteer serving in youth ministry in Menlo Park, middle school and high school age, came to John Ortberg for prayer and counsel with unwanted thoughts of sexual attraction to minors. This volunteer reassured John to his satisfaction that he had never, would never act on these desires. John provided counsel, prayer, referrals for counseling. Conundrum started in that we believe it would have been better for John to ask the person to stop volunteering with the youth ministries at that point. John did not ask the person to stop volunteering and he did not discuss the situation with the board or any staff members. A third party notified the church in November that this person was volunteering with youth. The minute the board became aware of that, we asked John to take personal leave while we investigated, we asked the volunteer to stop working with youth, and we started an investigation. Again, so pleased to say, no misconduct or allegations of misconduct found.
Q: Many people are asking how the decision to remove John for a season was decided. Was it ECO or attorneys who instructed Session to do this?
A: No, it was Session’s decision in conversation with John for John to take leave while we investigated the situation.
Q: Titus 1:6, Timothy 3:2, the standard for elder/overseer/bishop is for him to be blameless or above reproach. How was this scripture applied in restoring Pastor Ortberg to role as teaching elder. As a brother, we can have forgiveness but can he really be an elder?
A: The answer is yes. (applause) We’ve all looked at this daunting passage and said “I’m unqualified.” It’s a high bar, it’s aspirational, we’re very glad God put it in scripture, but the reality of life is we don’t have control of every other human being in our life, we can give them wise counsel but individuals have their own wills, I’ve personally experienced this, everyone has. It’s aspirational, it’s desire and goal of every elder up here, teach principles of God at home, set up a structure for them to go that direction, but they have their own wills. So yes, it is possible for John to be an elder.
Q: Why did the congregation have to be left in the dark for so long before we heard anything? It encouraged harmful rumors and division within the body.
A: I think we need to all take personal responsibility for harmful rumors. I hope that’s not put on me. Takes a while to do an investigation. Had nothing to report back to you, were working diligently around the clock to get answers for you. Takes time to find, hire a qualified investigator, gather facts, data, sit down, review, make decisions, and come up with a report. Doesn’t happen overnight. Did communicate with you that John was well and he was on leave. We thank you for your patience and trust in us during that time.
Q: Some of my dear friends have left Menlo Church because of the recent issues. Could you have an event they could come to to hear your perspective?
A: This town hall would be good, we will have more town halls, you could invite your friends to come to the next one. Three times a year. We do a north and a south one. Please invite your friends to come and ask questions. They can also write to firstname.lastname@example.org with their questions and we would be more than happy to answer those.
Q: What could Session have done differently that would have prevented this from happening? What mistakes or responsibility does Session acknowledge in this issue?
A: Good to be introspective. Developed a good dynamic on the board of disagreeing with each other, pause and say, who’s gonna take the other side and disagree with this, so we really see the different sides of an issue, we could have gotten to that place earlier.
Have put in place helpful reminders, when you’re in a rut it can be hard to get out, all need reminders to get out. Things we’ve done to remind ourselves and staff to double check we’re in full compliance with policies, could have had those in place before.
Tempting to want to know more, sooner, but key hurdle we put in front of ourselves was to take the time, discernment, prayer to come to a unanimous result on what to communicate, what to do, I would personally aspire to make that happen faster but I wasn’t in charge, we were waiting to see what God does. We were trying the urgency we could, but to disagree constructively and come to a unanimous result.
Q: I do feel the restoration program should be updated, very old program, needs revision (hope we never use again)
A: Yes, we hope we never use it again. The restoration program comes right out of the Bible. It’s a Biblical based program of how to reconcile someone who’s made a mistake. 4R’s: recognize harm, speaking remorse, make amends (restitution), and reconciliation and rebuilding trust comes over time through partnership. If those four Rs are outdated, we have a different problem I’d say. While there wasn’t a playbook as to how to do this, the Bible was alive and active and gave us all the direction we needed.
Q: I’ll read four cards and answer them together. Did John violate a specific policy or rule of the church by not reporting? In hindsight how would John and elders handle the situation differently? Has disclosure been adequate? Has accountability been adequate? Did John support the volunteer’s work with minors? If so, why and how has his thinking changed? What were John’s mistakes, plural?
John: I’m so sorry I did not handle this situation better. Safety is foundational for our church, our ministry, very important to understand there’s been absolutely no finding of any misconduct. As you all know our church hired an independent investigator who found no misconduct and no allegations of misconduct, was consistent with my own assessment of this volunteer not being a danger to anybody.
In terms of policy, and support of activity, I am what’s called a mandated reporter, and that means I am obligated to report a person to authorities if there is reasonable suspicion of damage, that is the person might have done harm or might do harm.
I can say having asked the volunteer when we had that initial conversation very stringent questions, I am absolutely certain that that person did not harm anybody and would not and will not harm anybody. Immediately after that conversation I consulted with two clinical experts and both confirmed that this was a situation in which reporting was not mandatory and would not have been appropriate. So I believe keeping the confidentiality of that volunteer respected was the right thing to do wrt mandatory reporting policy.
But I want to get what my mistakes were because I did not adequately consider the concerns of our church through this process. When I had that first conversation I did not seek wisdom and council from our elders, not just from a pastoral counseling point of view, but as a leadership position in our church. I should have sought that counsel and I wish I would have done that.
Secondly I did not use all of the pastoral influence I could have used to make sure this person would never be involved volunteering in an activity of Menlo Church where minors could be present. I wish so much I would have done that, I’m so sorry I did not exert that, not because I think this person is a danger, to be clear, I very strongly believe the person was not a danger, but because I did not take into account the very understandable concerns and sensitivities of parents in our congregation if they were to find out such a volunteer was present there. That was a way I did not honor, think about, take into account the concerns of our congregation well. I would do that differently if I were to do it over again.
I’ve had lots of questions also, I’ll cover briefly, I did not encourage a volunteer to seek to treat their condition by seeking unsupervised access with minors. I would never do that with anybody. In fact, I gave them referrals to see a mental health professional.
Q: There’s a lot of social media chatter that we are against the LGBTQ community. How can we say we welcome all while still holding to our best understanding of scripture on marriage? Are there any conversations to move to a more affirming and inclusive policy?
John: Prayer, study, conversation goes on. There are many people in our church who love Jesus, take authority of scripture seriously, who have differing opinions, true for our elders as well, that is an issue and conversation that is not going away, we will continue to talk and pray.
Q: John mentioned he was unable to attend his life group the last few months, life groups are meant to support us when life is difficult. Why not?
John: Elders might want to say more, was part of their decision. Very important for the integrity of church, congregation, know elders worked hard to make sure I was separate from process that discerned way forward. Selection to find independent investigator who could look for, was there any misconduct, I had no hand in selecting, very appropriate that I did not. Elders felt needed to be really clear separation between me and staff and congregation as walked through investigation process, so everybody could have great clarity at the conclusion, that it had full integrity, that I was not involved in trying to influence in any way. More difficult because these were relationships I care about and love, to walk through separately, from my perspective that was very wise move elders made, served our church and me and my family well. (applause)
Q: How might reducing John’s role help improve things? I believe John’s leadership is much more than being a great speaker. What responsibilities might John not have going forward who would handle them in the future?
A: Start off making clear nothing about organization discussion has anything to do with discipline. Not related to the volunteer matter. It’s about leveraging John’s giftedness going forward, so John can spend time in way to most further Jesus’ kingdom, full stop. As we think about that, discern, finding ways to help John, build around John, so his full giftedness comes through. We all have things we are more and less gifted at, we think it’s wise to help John do what he’s really good at. So we don’t think of it as reducing John’s role, we think of it as focusing where he can have greatest impact.
What might his responsibilities be? We don’t know, discerning going forward. Lots of things senior pastors are asked to do, impossible for anybody to be awesome at all of those. We are working with John and elders and team to find the best possible role for John, and then how do we build around him folks with strengths in other areas.