SGM still doesn’t get it: Greg Somerville’s letter to abuse survivors

Trigger warning: sexual abuse, spiritual abuse.

SGM leaders who want to reach out to the blogs appear to be turning their attentions more specifically towards the allegations of sexual abuse. A few weeks ago Mark Mullery “confessed” to FCC that the pastors had mishandled (to put it lightly) two cases of child sexual abuse in the church. Now Greg Somerville, a family life pastor at CLC, has reached out through the SGM Survivors blog to try to establish communication with the exCLCer and SGMnot, the people to come forward most recently with accounts of abuse and coverup at CLC.

Both Mullery’s “confession” and Greg Somerville’s letter show that, at best, SGM leadership still don’t understand what they did wrong – and at worst, don’t care. Their comments are largely about themselves and their fellow pastors, not the survivors of abuse they claim to be apologizing to. And they’re still approaching these cases as though they are relational conflicts or estrangements, as though all that’s necessary is for the pastors and those they’ve abused to be “reconciled” – or worse, as though they’re cases of inexplicable, even irrational customer dissatisfaction.

Their responses don’t reflect an understanding that they did enormous damage that needs to be fully and publicly acknowledged. That would mean stating clearly what was done wrong, why it was wrong, making a real apology and real restitution as appropriate (legal, monetary), and stating clearly what the pastors’ plans are to make sure this never happens on their watch again (frankly, the thought of any abuse survivors being *ever* under their watch and “care” makes me feel ill, but it’s too much to hope that all of the pastors will voluntarily step down).

Take Somerville’s letter to victims of abuse at CLC: it’s the sort of thing someone writes when they want to sound as though they’re apologizing, but really are trying to extract forgiveness without actually doing the hard work of admitting to or understanding what they did wrong. SGMnot, whose daughter was abused as a child at CLC and one of the people addressed in the letter, makes this point and other criticisms of the pastors’ continued failure to address issues of abuse head on in her response to Somerville here.

To be quite clear, I’m not making any claims about Somerville’s personal feelings or opinions on these cases. He could very well believe the pastors screwed up and understand how they did so. But he’s writing on the behalf of the CLC pastoral team, as their representative. This is about how the pastors have chosen to present themselves as a group to the people they’ve abused, not a criticism of one pastor. They think they’re being conciliatory, but in reality, their approach is extremely self-serving and self-absorbed.

This is clear from the outset of Somerville’s letter:

The details are heartbreaking for me, the pastors of Covenant Life, and the members of our church. I cannot imagine the anguish these events have caused for you and your families.

While he does address the trauma survivors have experienced, he describes it in passive language. This is slippery language that glosses over the fact that actual people caused exCLCer, SGMnot, and their families anguish. Abusers and the pastors who enabled them and further abused victims caused anguish. Not “events.”

I am doubly grieved to know how deeply disappointed you are with the pastoral care you received during that crisis and in the years following.

Wow. Does Somerville really think the problem is that survivors are “disappointed” in the “care” they received? That’s what “grieves” him about this situation?

This is not the language someone uses when they really understand that they’ve been complicit in a horrible wrong against another person. This is language a customer service representative uses when responding to a customer who is dissatisfied with their company’s product. Take away the “grieved” comment and that’s all you have left – “I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed in the service we provided.” REALLY?

Did he miss the part where pastors tried to force a woman to remain married to a man who abused her children, and told her that the poverty she endured after divorcing this man was “self-induced?” Or the part where pastors testified as character witnesses for abusers and tried to obstruct and subvert the legal process? In what way, exactly, were these actions “care” for victims and their families?

In my 14 years of pastoral ministry at Covenant Life Church, I have so often failed to love and care for God’s people the way I should. If it weren’t for the grace of our Lord Jesus and the forgiveness of the saints, this pastor would not have the faith to keep caring for God’s precious church. Stories like yours cause me to cry out for more of God’s Spirit, more of God’s heart. I do not want to fail his children in their time of deepest need!

Um…way to make this all about you? Seriously, who cares? This isn’t about anyone being an imperfect pastor. This is about pastors consistently deciding that abusers are worth protecting and caring for over victims. What does this have to do with crying out for more of God’s spirit? What does it have to do with Somerville’s or anyone’s faith for caring for “God’s precious church?”

Sorry, I just read this paragraph and all I hear is “me me me me me.” It’s an attempt to sound humble – quite possibly sincere – but what it actually does is center Somerville and make this all about *his* faith to serve others and *his* failings and *his* desire not to fail – not about the people that his fellow pastors hurt and traumatized.

I realize you don’t have much confidence in the pastors of Covenant Life Church right now, and I can understand that. But would you be willing to talk with me about your experience? Though I am sure it would be painful to review the details, I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future. And if nothing else, I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured.

To my mind this is the most unbelievable and egregious part of Somerville’s comments. I’m willing to believe that he and the pastors genuinely think that extending this “offer” is a compassionate and thoughtful response and an attempt to set things right. But if that’s what they believe, that only demonstrates just how little they understand what they’ve done wrong or why people are angry and upset with them.

First off, it is ignorant and entitled for the pastors to respond to people who have made it abundantly clear that they were abused by the pastors by asking them to come in and “review the details” of their case. It’s entitled because you’re asking someone to revisit pain that you’ve inflicted on them. It’s particularly entitled in this case because the pastors mst know perfectly well what they’ve done – SGM keeps METICULOUS records on its members – and they know perfectly well how exCLCer and SGMnot feel about it. On top of all that, exCLCer has been writing letters to the pastors reminding them of the details of her family’s case for the past 20 years. There are numerous comments on the SGM Survivors blog recounting in painful detail how the pastors “cared” for survivors and their families. What is there to “review?” Either they agree that they did was wrong, or they don’t. Period.

And clearly, they don’t. “I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured” – in plain speech, that’s “I’m sorry you suffered,” not “I’m sorry we hurt you.”

Furthermore, who exactly would be served by such a “review?” Its purpose is almost entirely self-centered. What would survivors get out of rehashing the details of their spiritual and emotional abuse with the organization that abused them in the first place? For whom exactly would it be most “painful” to do this? The survivors. It could even trigger renewed feelings of traumatization. What he’s asking for is a huge leap of trust – but who does it benefit?

“I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future” – well, there you have it. Who it really benefits is the pastors. They want survivors of abuse to be the ones to educate *them* on how to handle abuse better. IT IS NOT THEIR JOB TO DO THIS. If they truly want to learn how a church should handle abuse and care for survivors, there are MANY MANY resources online and offline that they can consult, and organizations that specifically address this issue. They don’t need survivors to come in and relive their stories to learn how to do better.

And once again Somerville uses language that sounds more like a customer satisfaction inquirity than an attempt to redress mishandling of child abuse. Oh, you weren’t happy with our product? What can we do to improve it in the future?

To quote a response someone tweeted me about this letter, this is “the definition of privilege: demanding the time, energy, input of survivors to bolster yourself, not them. How dare they?”

They dare because they continue to think this should be all about them, their wants, their church, their reputation. They want reconciliation because that will make them look better – it’s to their benefit to be able to say they patched things up even with sexual abuse victims. No matter that many of their victims have made it plain that they neither want nor need any reconciliation – or any contact at all – with the pastors.

They continue to ignore repeated and clear demands for honesty, openness, and accountability when it comes to sexual and other kinds of abuse, because that doesn’t benefit them. It makes them look bad. So they keep asking for things that survivors of abuse don’t want, and denying the things they do want, because it’s All. About. Them.

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How SGM’s Covenant Life Church and Fairfax Covenant Church deal with sexual abuse

Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators. 

I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.

Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.

  • ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
  • SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her  3 year old daughter, 1993.

In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.

In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.

Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”

And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.

They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.

These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.

First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.

Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.

Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.

This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external  publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.

This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?

The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.

This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.

Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.

This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.

So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.

Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).

Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.

This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.

And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.

Read the rest of this entry »


Further reactions to Brent Detwiler’s comments

This story is moving pretty quickly, and there have been a lot of developments just in the past couple days – most notably that reformed evangelical bigwigs Al Mohler and Ligon Duncan are circling the wagons to defend Mahaney, and the SGM board (with the interesting exception of Joshua Harris) is now claiming they think C.J. is perfectly fit for leadership. These responses directly contradict C.J.’s “confession” of sin and Joshua Harris’s comments on the situation. Mohler’s and Duncan’s comments in particular are dismissive and minimizing of the situation and victim-blaming. More comments on those later.

A few more thoughts about Brent Detwiler’s documentation of his grievances against CJ and SGM:

– The almost total absence of women in the correspondence is really striking. This is an artificially constructed, all male world where the women are all assistants – secretaries, wives – there to be ‘helpmeets’ to men and to boost their importance. Women have no direct role, agency or personal investment in the events described, except through their husbands. And at one point Brent even asks permission from C.J. to email C.J.’s wife Carolyn. Pathetic.

– Given all that I have to wonder what will happen to the wives and daughters of these pastors if this controversy sticks, especially Mahaney’s wife and three adult daughters, “the “Girltalk girls.” The Mahaney women have built a significant following and quite successful brand and business based almost entirely on their acquired celebrity as C.J.’s female relatives. Their entire identity and livelihood revolves around his role in CLC and SGM. Every single one of C.J.’s sons-in-law is a pastor in an SGM church, two of them at CLC. What happens if his leave of absence becomes permanent (which seems increasingly unlikely, given the doubling down of famous friends of SGM and the SGM board)?

Well, they probably won’t hurt for money ; C.J. has done quite well with books and conferences and that success isn’t going to disappear overnight. He’ll land on his feet, surely. But Carolyn has been a preacher’s wife since she was 19, and their daughers have been pastor’s kids their entire lives. That’s why they’re famous. That’s why people look up to them. It must be disturbing to deal with such a sudden change in their identity and fortunes. Even though I think what Carolyn and her daughters teach women is incredibly harmful and deeply wrong, I still feel very sorry for them. The sudden scrutiny and uncertainty can’t be easy to deal with.

– It’s a bit ironic to see Brent criticizing C.J. and CLC for promoting “legalistic” gender roles for women given that he’s the one responsible for one of the most explicit statements of SGM’s incredibly regressive stance on women’s education and employment. Brent is the one who explicitly says that financial reasons are more or less the only legitimate reasons for a woman to have a job outside the home. Brent is the one who explicitly encourages women – preaching to a white upper middle class demographic in which college would ordinarily be taken as a given – not to assume that they should or will get a college education. He has no leg to stand on here.

– Brent is also one of the most frequently complained about leaders with respect to spiritual abuse, so again, it’s hard to take his finger pointing seriously. There are indications from the other blogs that he’s open to hearing from people who have been hurt by his leadership, so perhaps he’s changed or is willing to change on some of these issues.

– Brent doesn’t come off well in these documents at all. He’s just as implicated as any other pastors in the culture of tattling, constant high level and frankly stalkerish scrutiny of others’ lives, and  enabling of bad behavior. Further, he frequently presents himself in a self-congratulatory light, e.g., there’s a lot of language about how he’s tried for years to help C.J. and others to “see their sin,” but they won’t let him. Meanwhile he seems totally clueless to his own fairly obvious grudge-holding and obsessive attention to various ways big and very, very small he’s been offended or slighted.

– These men haven’t the slightest clue how to handle conflict or disagreement. They’re constantly dancing around what they’re really trying to say, couching it in flowery and disingenuous language, never really coming out and saying what they mean.  They all have to pretend not to be angry and not to be offended, even when they obviously are. They have to assure each other of how wonderful they are and what great friends and brothers in Chrsit they are, even as they’re following this with absolutely withering critique of each other’s character and behavior.

It takes pages and pages of emails for Brent to try to communicate to C.J. that it’s not fair for him to take more vacation time than other pastors and expect exemptions to SGM’s policy of not covering children on pastor’s vacations – and in fact, Brent never actually comes out and says that, even though it’s clear he thinks C.J. wants to be treated with favoritism and is being dishonest about his vacation record. Nor does C.J. ever come out and clearly say that he thinks Brent is accusing him of wanting special treatment and fudging his travel record. It’s sad to watch two grown adults not be able to conduct a conversation in an adult manner – instead it’s full of passive-aggressive nonsense and manipulative language.

There’s a clear dance they all have to do when they’re working through a conflict. It’s shedding a lot of light on some of the issues I’ve seen in my own family and personal life when it comes to dealing with conflict in a healthy way – there’s SO MUCH suppression of real emotion, so much denial of what people are clearly feeling. You can see in the documents how it makes it impossible to make any progress towards resolving problems.


Reaction to Brent Detwiler’s documents – highlights

After skimming through Brent Detwiler’s, ahem, copious comments on his numerous issues with C.J. Mahaney, my overall impression is that they corroborate pretty much all of the issues that various blogs and individuals have raised about SGM, and shed new light on how those issues manifested in the inner circles of SGM leadership. It’s not a pretty picture. No one comes out looking very good, not even Brent himself.

Much of my reaction to the documents echoes what people have already commented on at length on the SGM Survivors and Refuge blogs. For those who don’t read there or don’t want to wade through the comments, the highlights are below. I’ll post some of my thoughts that haven’t been discussed as much on the other blogs in another post.

The main issues, in summary [Trigger warning: sexual assault]:

– A long-standing pattern of narcissistic and egotistical behavior on C.J.’s part: passive aggressive or outright aggressive responses to the slightest criticism or questioning, expectations of special treatment, unilateral decision making, intense scrutiny and interrogation of the lives and work of his fellow pastors, all the while routinely being dishonest or secretive about his work and home life.

– This was coupled with extreme enabling behavior on the part of basically everyone around C.J. Despite their numerous statements effectively damning C.J. as a poor leader (see the above), they were continually praising him for being an amazing and wonderful a leader: “CJ is an exceptional leader and this summary does not provide the opportunity to celebrate all of the ways in which he excels.” They  consistently stated that the thought of him stepping down never crossed their minds: “There is no one we would rather have leading the apostolic team than CJ”. Despite over 10 YEARS of attempting to persuade C.J. to be less difficult, despite the fact that even the most basic of tasks (e.g., keeping track of his vacation time) were made inordinately difficult by his insistence on being treated as perfect and special. The cognitive dissonance is kind of mindblowing.

– The fact that 6 men – at the very least – weren’t able over 10 years to keep C.J. from running amok makes the CLC pastors and apostolic team look very, very weak and cowardly.

– The interactions between the men leading CLC and SGM are stilted and highly scripted – and incredibly uncomfortable to read. There’s page after page of interrogation of the tiniest details of each others’ words, and motives behinds words, and motives behind questioning words or motives… Constant “loving challenges” to each other over “sin” and confession of “sin” that really amounted to unrelenting examination and policing of each others emotional, spiritual, and personal lives. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to live like this every day, having people constantly in one’s business and constantly being in other people’s business, all while claiming to be the closest of friends…

This. is. not. friendship. It’s not. I feel sad for these men who clearly have no concept of how joyful and affirming real friendship can be.

– Worse, the correspondence reveals the leadership teams to be a big nasty circle of bickering, backbiting, backstabbing, and thinly veiled jostling for power and approval. Meanwhile, the whole time these men are presenting themselves as a totally united front and CJ as the most humble and wonderful leader ever. The man literally WROTE A BOOK on humility – and they knew the whole time that they were lying through their teeth to CLC and all of SGM.

C.J. wasn’t humble. The men who worked most closely with him unanimously observed this. They routinely presented unilateral decisions on C.J.’s part – about handing the leadership of CLC over to Joshua Harris, e.g., or changing CLC’s doctrinal stance on baptism and communion – as unified decisions the pastoral team arrived at after lots of prayer and discussion together. Bottom line, they were lying to everyone for YEARS. Years.

– Oh yea, and there’s the whole part about C.J. trying to blackmail Larry Tomczak, co-founder of what eventually became SGM, into not leaving the group. This is the most serious allegation, with potential legal ramifications for C.J. and SGM. The story is that C.J. threatened to reveal information about his teenage son’s “youthful sin” (as Larry Tomczak puts it) to the church. It seems pretty clear that this was some sort of sexual “sin.” What’s less clear is whether this was participation in a consensual act, or, as has been alleged on the Survivors blog, a case of Tomczak’s son sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the church. If the latter, then not only is C.J. guilty of blackmail, he and everyone who knew about this incident are guilty of keeping a sexual crime from the authorities.

Narcissism. Enabling. Lying in order to maintain their influence over the congregation. Power grabbing. Blackmail. Coverups. Wonderful pastors for you. Again, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? Self-aggrandizement and dirty politics for personal gain? Yep.


Confirmed: SGM leader C.J. Mahaney to temporarily step down

ETA: This news has now been confirmed on C.J.’s blog. I’ve moved my previous disclaimer to the comments to avoid it cluttering up this post.

So apparently the top leader of SGM is temporarily stepping down in light of charges “[including] various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.” More at SGM Survivors (usual warnings apply about the comments not being safe space in various ways). It’s a sudden and somewhat shocking development, at least to me; my reaction to it is mixed and will take some time to process. It’s definitely unexpected given how much of a cult of personality SGM is – one that specifically revolved around C.J. more than anyone else.

A couple things strike me off the bat – one, he focuses exclusively on grievances that former SGM pastors and leaders have with him and SGM, and only talks about other leaders who are friends of SGM as having any role in providing him with “counsel and correction” in considering these charges. This is not the best sign. A huge part of the complaint against SGM has been that leaders are treated as though they have some special extra-godly status while “regular” members are expected to unquestioningly submit to and practically worship them. This doesn’t really alleviate concerns about SGM’s pyramid-like hierarchical and authoritarian culture, especially since most (not all) of the complaints brought against the group have been from regular members, not former pastors or otherwise influential members.

The way he name drops about the bigwigs (for the tiny reformed evangelical world, anyway) who will be helping him (not doing an unbiased assessment, in other words) through this process is particularly disturbing:

I have also contacted David Powlison and Mark Dever and asked them to review the charges and provide me with their counsel and correction. I have enlisted them to serve me personally during this time and to ensure this process of examining my heart and life is as thorough as possible.

He’s enlisted them? To serve him personally? That just sounds weird. It really doesn’t sound like he’s going through a period of “discipline.” It sounds more like he’s simultaneously trying to score points for being so humble to voluntarily step down and invite “correction,” while also trying to impress people by his ability to personally summon important reformed leaders to pow wow with him. Bleh.

On the plus side, they are bringing in an outside group with (supposedly) no history with SGM to evaluate the situation, and C.J. says he’s stepping down to make sure there’s no conflict of interest created by his continuing to lead SGM while this group conducts their investigation. That’s good. I’m sure the group is extremely conservative and fundamentalist, which will limit the degree to which they can really see the wrong that’s been done by SGM (e.g., with their queer hating theology). ETA: Not an outside group. The group is linked to Peacemakers, a ministry that has a long, ugly history with SGM, including attempting to “reconcile” a family whose child had been traumatized at an SGM church to the pastors who attempted to cover up the trauma (see here, trigger warning and also not a safe space).

I also gotta point out that it was only a few weeks ago that Josh Harris credited C.J. with the insights that led to the his weak sauce apology to CLC:

For several years now C.J. Mahaney, who was one of the founding pastors of Covenant Life and now serves as president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, has been leading the pastors of Sovereign Grace to recognize the difference between principle and practice…

C.J. shared something with me recently that turned the light on for me. He quoted J.I. Packer who wrote that the Puritans were known for their ability to “reduce to practice”—in other words, they took biblical principles and reduced them to specific choices and decisions in their lives. This is a good thing. God’s Word, handled rightly, leads to humble and skillful application.

But C.J. pointed out that there can be a problem when we “reduce to only one practice”—and give the impression that there is only one godly way to honor a given principle.

So just six weeks ago C.J. was a great leader who helped the pastors see how wrong they’d gotten things (as it turns out, not that wrong! shocking!). And now he’s the target of accusations so serious that an outside body needs to come in to evaluate them. Accusations that he’s been aware of for years, by his own admission, but has said nothing about, allowing himself to be continually held up as the paragon of perfect leadership and godliness the whole time:

Over the last few years some former pastors and leaders in Sovereign Grace have made charges against me and informed me about offenses they have with me as well as other leaders in Sovereign Grace. These charges are serious and they have been very grieving to read. These charges are not related to any immorality or financial impropriety, but this doesn’t minimize their serious nature, which include various expressions of pride, unentreatability, deceit, sinful judgment, and hypocrisy.

Golly. Well. Things sure do change quickly in SGM! “Constant change is always with us,” indeed.


 


Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 2

Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spousal/domestic abuse, spiritual abuse.

Part 1

The problems Josh addresses in his comments (and those he fails to acknowledge) are characteristic of SGM as a whole. A single apology to a single church is inadequate. CLC teachings are funneled to and reproduced at every other SGM church through conferences, podcasts, books, sermon recordings, visits from CLC pastors, blogs, on and on. Books by CJ and Josh and CJ’s wife and daughters are virtually required reading for SGM church members. The typical SGM church member outside CLC has heard several sermons by CJ in particular, along with other top-level SGM leaders, and has heard each of those sermons more than once. The typical SGM church member, in fact, is familiar with CJ’s catchphrases, and can and will repeat them with little prompting (“I’m doing better than I deserve!” and “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”). People across SGM read the same books, listen to the same music, make the same lifestyle and educational choices, only marry people from their own or other SGM churches, have a religious vocabulary unique to SGM, even among other evangelical reformed groups, etc., etc. But don’t worry, just because almost everyone happens to conform to a very narrow set of lifestyles and behaviors, just because everyone looks and talks the same, doesn’t mean SGM is a high control cultic group.

This raises a set of related problems with this “apology”: in various ways it’s a perfect illustration of the high control/cultic aspects of SGM’s church culture.

1) This “apology” does not at all address the established pattern of SGM leaders covering up child molestation, promoting teachings that foster, enable, and excuse domestic spousal and child abuse, and bullying women in particular into staying with abusive husbands. These are allegations that in a healthy church with responsible leadership would be addressed in a transparent and direct fashion. Instead the leaders at CLC and other SGM churches privately deny that these incidents ever took place (even though at least one of them involved a registered sex offender) and publicly pretend as though the allegations don’t exist.

A church that doesn’t tolerate or enable abusive behavior is one where the leaders don’t hesitate to say so publicly, and loudly, and to be very clear about the measures they have in place to minimize abuse, to report abusers, and to help survivors. SGM couldn’t be farther from this; they don’t deal honestly with the issue of abuse. They in fact give the impression that SGM is some sort of abuse-free nirvana: CJ calls CLC “the happiest place on earth” while Josh claims that spousal abuse is “very rare” (more lies). SGM cultivates a culture of silence and secrecy around abuse, a culture in which abuse and abusers thrive.

2) Josh doesn’t address allegations that children of pastors at Covenant Life School are have been held to a lower standard of behavior and faced much less harsh consequences for breaking school rules than children of “regular” members, who are frequently expelled for serious infractions (again, totally not culty).

3) The problems at Covenant Life LONG predate Josh’s presence there. Josh isn’t the one responsible for creating these problems, though he’s certainly had a huge hand in perpetuating them. The longtime leaders of SGM – Dave Harvey, Steve Shank, Brent Detwiler, among others, and most especially beloved leader and “apostle” CJ Mahaney – are the ones who should be giving this apology. Why leave it up to one of the youngest and least culpable members of the leadership to handle? Why isn’t CJ stepping up and taking responsibility for the toxic culture he’s micromanaged for the past 30 years? Instead Josh effusively praises CJ – who’s known for his narcissistic and controlling style of leadership and his encouragement of a cult of personality with himself and his family at the center – for showing the pastors where they went wrong with reducing holiness to a single practice. Ugh. Again, this is how cults work. CJ is being held up yet again as the paragon of perfection despite the fact that as CLC’s leader from its founding, he bears main responsibility for CLC being what it is today.

4) Throughout his comments Josh undermines in various ways the seriousness of the mistakes he’s supposedly apologizing for. He says he understands that these mistakes have caused people deep pain, but simultaneously makes light of them by cracking jokes and laughing inappropriately (this is more obvious in the audio of his comments, which isn’t 100% identical to transcript). He attributes the high level of group conformity at CLC to the fact that they care so much about being holy. He feels the need to assert that the CLC pastoral team hasn’t been wrong about “everything” – as though the pastors would have to be wrong about everything to do serious, long-term damage by abusing the trust people have in them. He uses the manipulative language of “our church isn’t perfect/no church is perfect” – as though calls for accountability are identical to expecting perfection.

5) Relatedly, Josh claims to understand that there’s been a longterm established pattern of high pressure to conform, and that the pastors themselves have perpetuated this culture. Yet he expects his audience to continue to invest complete trust in the pastors that NOW they really understand what the problem is and things will be very different in the future. If the pastors were so unable to see that these things were issues for so many years, why should they be trusted to understand them now?

6) Finally, and also relatedly, from start to finish the apology is a carefully orchestrated performance completely controlled by Josh and the pastoral team behind him. No actual victims of CLC’s abusive practices were allowed to share their stories with the church. All discussions of negative experiences have taken place behind closed doors, on turf firmly controlled by CLC: e.g., Josh’s home. We have to take it on his word that people have truly been quick to extend forgiveness for the damage done, as he claims. Further, Josh gives numerous verbal cues to the congregation about how they should interpret his admission and apology. His comments aren’t evidence of a serious, endemic problem exposed by blogs critical of SGM, but rather “realignments” and “refinements” (in other words, minor adjustments) that are God’s answer to prayer for revival. They’re “not an indictment of [CLC’s] history,” but part of an ongoing growth in the church. And on and on. The whole thing is deeply manipulative in how it attempts to direct and control the congregation’s reaction.

This is not an adequate apology. In my opinion, it’s not even an adequate first step. It’s damage control. It’s a vague, minimizing, manipulative, blame-shifting, micromanaging, incredibly dishonest attempt at damage control. People are leaving several SGM churches in droves. Enrollments at Covenant Life School have dropped significantly. Josh and the rest of the pastoral team want people to believe it’s purely coincidental they’ve just now figured out that they’ve made some serious mistakes. In a high control cult of personality like CLC, such a transparently convenient excuse just might fly.


Damage control at Covenant Life Church, pt. 1

I mistakenly scheduled this the post before I was done drafting it – so this post may change pretty dramatically in the next few days. Just FYI! :p

Trigger warning for child sex abuse, spiritual abuse.

After over two years of mostly ignoring accusations of widespread dysfunction and abuse in their churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries is finally paying attention. In recent months, Joshua Harris, current senior pastor of Covenant Life Church, the SGM motherflagship church, has been meeting with present and former members of the church to hear their grievances. This past Sunday, he led a church-wide “family meeting” in which he apologized for “where we’ve gotten things wrong” and pledged to “grow as leaders and as a church.”

Well, it sounds nice, but I’m not buying this “apology.” For a lot of reasons. Just for starters:

1) It’s framed dishonestly from the very beginning. There’s no acknowledgement that this is the result of increasing pressure and bad press from ex-members’ blogs, particularly Survivors and Refuge. They’re sticking to their policy of closely monitoring the blogs in secret while publicly pretending that they don’t exist. Instead Josh claims that “God has been showing the pastors about where we’ve gotten things wrong” and “answering our prayer that he would revive us and refine us.” Well. God works in mysterious ways, I guess, including online callouts for covering up child molestation. “His” timing in bringing correction and revival also curiously coincides with declining enrollments at Covenant Life School and loss of members in several SGM churches.

2) Josh acknowledges mistakes in a vague and unsatisfying manner. He glosses over huge issues in a matter of minutes. This would be fine if there were any indication that there will be future meetings to discuss these issues in more detail, but there isn’t. This is a church culture that hammers home to its members that when someone sins, they should make a specific confession of sin, and a specific plan to do differently (you know, repentance). There’s no specificity here, only running down a list of things people have been saying for years in a superficial, parroting fashion that doesn’t give much indication that Josh or the other pastors truly comprehend or care about the problems at hand. Once again the pastors hold themselves to a far lower standard of ‘holiness’ than they expect of their members.

For example, Josh states that in at least one case where a pastor was having “problems” with a teenage child, he (Josh) didn’t respond in a caring way. Which pastor? What was wrong about his response? Wouldn’t more transparency and specificity show he’s really serious about recognizing where things were done wrong and about changing in the future? It seems to me that the pastors want all the benefits of making an apology without having to take on all the self-sacrifice and pain that comes with making a sincere admission of wrongdoing.

3) Relatedly, he refuses to take proper responsibility for problems at CLC (which are characteristic of SGM as a whole). He uses passive language, admitting only that the pastors “allowed” a toxic culture to develop at CLC, or “could have worked harder” to prevent such a culture from developing. He repeatedly denies any pastoral responsibility for communicating narrow-minded and oppressive beliefs to the congregation, e.g.: “If you went back and listened to past messages, I don’t think you’d find us teaching, ‘There’s only one godly way to do this or that'” and “I don’t think the ‘good parents = good kids’ idea has characterized our teaching on parenting.” In effect he casts the problems at CLC as being the primary fault of the lay members (for what, being too stupid to understand what the pastors really meant?). The root problem is that members weren’t listening carefully enough.

This is utter nonsense. Whatever Joshua Harris might be, he’s neither unintelligent nor completely naive, and he would have to be to fail to recognize that SGM’s oppressive and abusive culture is a direct product of what its pastors have clearly communicated to members from its earliest years. Take an issue that I’ve been directly affected by: Josh implies that the pastors “unintentionally” gave the impression that “to practice biblical femininity, [women] shouldn’t pursue higher education or work outside the home.” This is simply not true.

Josh is probably technically correct that one is unlikely to find any recorded sermons in which an SGM pastor says that women shouldn’t go to college, or work outside the home. Like most complementarians, SGM’s leaders are very careful to avoid communicating their misogyny so explicitly. But there’s no mistaking their consistent pattern of undermining higher education or out of home employment for women, for example, in Brent Detwiler’s teaching (particularly “Thoughts on Vocation”*) on how young adults should prepare for (straight) marriage and parenthood, which he was teaching as recently as 2006 and which is still posted on his former church’s website:

YOUNG LADIES MUST PREPARE TO BE HOMEMAKERS…Prepare to Marry Young If God’s Will; Don’t accept cultural norms and practices…Don’t Assume College or Career:
1) Be aware of serving the cultural idol of education and career.
2) Be willing to lay aside the pursuit of higher education if marriage comes early.
3) Be willing to lay aside a career when married.
4) Think of a non-paying (but very rewarding and important) “career” in the home related to your husband and children.
5) If unmarried, consider a “feminine” vocation or job that will benefit family later.

Detwiler further divides reasons married women work outside the home into “necessary” reasons and “wordly” reasons. The only “necessary” reasons are a husband’s unemployment or disability, or to save up money or pay off debts. The clear implication is that any woman who works outside of the home when her husband is also employed is sinning if her work is not indispensable to family finances. Meanwhile, worldly reasons for a woman to work outside of the home include:

6) Identity and fulfillment primarily in work outside the home. Not content with obscurity of being a wife, mother and homemaker… [my emphasis] 8) Husband and wife may think she can work outside home with little or no harm to the marriage and family. 9) Realization by a woman that it may be easier to work outside the home than in the home as a wife, mother and homemaker.

There’s an obvious disdain here for women and especially mothers who have outside employment. Detwiler clearly implies that such women are lazy, self-absorbed, and unwise parents. He clearly associates a woman working outside the home with “harm” to her marriage and family. He states that there is “lack of biblical support” for women to work full-time outside of the home. This is official SGM teaching – or if it’s not current official teaching, it’s not been clearly repudiated, and it needs to be.

That’s even without the fact that the pastors send an unmistakable message by “leading” the vast majority of their wives to be homeschooling, stay at home moms and “leading” the vast majority of their daughters to live with their parents until they marry, to attend local community colleges if they go to college at all, to pursue stereotypically feminine careers as secretaries, teachers, or nurses, and to become homemakers when they marry. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these lifestyles (and it’s worth keeping in mind that choice in these matters is a luxury that many, many people around the world don’t have). But when practically every immediate female relative of an SGM pastor makes the same choices, it’s not a free choice, and it sends a clear message to SGM members that truly “godly” women should, barring a few exceptions, always conform to one narrowly defined lifestyle.

Yet Joshua Harris would have us believe that any impression CLC members might have that it’s less godly for Christian women to have college degrees (or heaven forbid, post-bac degrees) or full-time careers was a complete misinterpretation on the members’ parts and never intended by the pastors.

What a load of crap. Memo to Josh: sincere apologies don’t involve lying or insulting your audience’s listening comprehension.


*Just in case this page is taken down later – I have copies of this and other outlines documenting Detwiler’s extremely sexist teachings.