February 28, 2022 church abuse ortberg rzim

So Long and Thanks For All The Fish

If you’ve followed my Twitter in the past, you’ll know I was running (basically) a curated news feed about church abuse in general and some specific cases in more detail (Menlo Church, RZIM). Last year, when both Menlo and RZIM hired independent investigating firms to look into their alleged misconduct cases and the organizations’ culture/handling of them, I decided to get off that bird site and take some time to regroup and reflect. Now that both reports have been released (one voluntarily, and one via arm-twisting), it seems a good time to conclude this chapter.

Menlo

As you know, my former church hired a serious, reputable organization (Zero Abuse Project) to investigate the senior pastor allowing a volunteer (his son) to continue working with youth after admitting a sexual attraction to children. This investigation took the better part of a year. As an interviewee, I received a copy of the report directly, and they also published it as soon as it was finished. My experience being interviewed was good. There were no major surprises in the report. Thankfully, no evidence of child abuse was found.

Several areas of weakness in Menlo’s policies and procedures were noted. Some witnesses chose not to participate; for example, two church attorneys who initially spoke to the pastor declined to speak to Zero Abuse, citing privilege. (Smart, having attorneys do the talking!) The volunteer did eventually speak to Zero Abuse but declined to have his laptop inspected. (Fair enough.)

Zero Abuse was able to review the written report(s) from the law firm that did the initial “investigation”—there were no other recordings or documentation available. Apparently that “investigation” produced its interim final report on December 12—less than three weeks after they began. During that time, they interviewed 8 people, one of whom was a church staff member who had asked 9 other church staff generic questions about inappropriate relationships / misconduct without naming the volunteer. They looked at a spreadsheet of Menlo’s records of the volunteer’s work and they looked at John’s post-2018 emails. (As we already knew, that investigation did not speak to parents, students, or the volunteer himself.)

That is what the elder board called … oh, how did they put it?

We did a thorough investigation of all volunteer records, talked to all staff members who had been there, we hired a third party independent investigator, had full license to look into everything … We gave investigator free reign to go into every area of interest of his. He dove into everything. So we felt very, very confident when the investigation was done.

I mean… I guess it’s all true. From a certain point of view.

Anyway, I have not followed what happened after the report. I believe there were some town halls to answer questions about it. I do not know whether the recommendations were followed or if a Child Protection Director was/will be hired.

RZIM

The Guidepost Solutions assessment for RZIM finished around last July, but it soon became clear the leadership at RZIM did not intend to release it, earlier promises notwithstanding. I thought that was the end of it. But this month someone leaked the report to CT (kudos you) and given that CT was about to publish, RZIM posted it at long last, along with a statement and FAQ.

Despite being underfunded and cut short, the assessment did reveal some new—albeit unsurprising—information. As it turns out, the initial messaging that “no ministry funds were used” to sue Zacharias’s victim was false. In fact, the entire Executive Committee, the CFO, and at least one accountant, knew it was false from the beginning. According to RZIM’s posted FAQ, they chose not to correct this impression because doing so would be “overreach” and anyway it was Zacharias’s personal statement, not an official position of RZIM or its leadership. (But it was a falsehood that others in leadership repeated over the next few years. And the Board EC approved use of ministry funds for Zacharias’s lawsuit because his person was “fully integrated” with the ministry. Well? Pick one, because they can’t both be true.)

It’s not too hard to guess some of the unnamed Board members who are behind these contradictory statements, but why bother? No one will be held accountable anyway. Failing to tell the whole truth is not a crime, and it seems to be about par for the course for Christian leaders. As for the more serious concerns about possible trafficking/immigration fraud—those were left untouched. (“We did not have the authority to access any records of those businesses,” says the Guidepost report.)

So what’s next?

As you might imagine, it takes a great deal of time to collect and organize information as I did. I don’t regret spending it, but my discretionary time is nonexistent now, and even if I did have the time, I find myself asking: what is the point? What is accomplished in the end?

There is a minority within the system who genuinely don’t know what is going on around them. I was one. Transparency gives them a chance to be informed, to do better, and to protect their families. That is worth something—everything, to those few. I am grateful to those who were transparent before me. I know it comes at a cost, sometimes a very heavy one.

But why should we have to push leaders of an organization supposedly representing God to protect the vulnerable and hold perpetrators accountable? Shouldn’t they already be doing that? Why is it so hard to get a straight, truthful answer from them? If you have to apply sustained legal and/or media pressure for a church to do the right thing… what does that tell you?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of open letters to pastors/leaders all asking variations on the same questions: Where were you, pastors? Where are you? Why aren’t you helping? You have power here—why don’t you use your voice and protect us?

I have asked these questions as well. But at some point, we have to stop asking questions we already know the answers to.

The pastors are exactly where they have always been. They are doing what they have always done—and will by and large continue to do for the foreseeable future. The majority of churchgoers will choose to keep their community and comfortable worldview over confronting abuse, rethinking culture, or leaving.

Can institutional change happen? Maybe. I’m not convinced in this case. But I’m a big believer in adjusting expectations to reality. I’m a parent and I can’t wait around for a decade or five to see if the dumpster fire that is evangelicalism ever improves. My kids need better than that—now. I’ll be moving on to more productive efforts (and staying off Twitter. Yikes. Being back on for the past few days to close up the RZIM case has reminded me why I left.) This should be my last post on the subject of church abuse for now. I expect to archive many of the current pages, but I will make sure the links still work.

I leave you with these words from Captain Cassidy, regarding proposed solutions to the abuse crisis:

If evangelicals could do literally ANY of that stuff, they wouldn’t be evangelicals.