by Brandon A. Perry
(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a four-part series from the Indianapolis Recorder dealing with the abuse of power)
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—Like a late night storm, the controversy surrounding Bishop Eddie Long has shaken America’s faith community.
It has also awakened many observers to the issue of accountability, particularly in predominantly Black churches.
“We can’t just blame individual pastors for their moral failure if we also aren’t willing to do our part as members and call them out on the carpet,” said Rufus Burrow, an African-American and a professor of theological and social ethics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. “Frequently, in Black churches, we just don’t seem to have the heart or the will to do it. But we need to do it.”
Allegations of sexual abuse against Long have reminded some local residents of recent incidents that have taken place here, including the arrest of a prominent youth minister on physical abuse charges, the court-ordered removal of a Baptist pastor in May, and the July investigation of a pastor who misused church building funds.
This week it was revealed that Matthew Kidd, a Muncie pastor, will stand trial for abusing three teenage members of his congregation.
Long and the local ministers are presumed innocent until accusations against them are proven. Still, their struggles beg an answer to the question: how can ministers be held accountable when involved in illegal, immoral or unethical activity?
“It really depends on the kind of polity, or structure, their church has,” said Arthur E. Farnsley II, associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, which is located on the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Farnsley noted that churches generally fall into two categories—episcopal and congregational.
Churches that are part of an episcopal structure have pastors that are accountable to a bishop, elder or hierarchy of senior leaders. Most episcopal style churches are part of a district overseen by a bishop who can remove or reassign a pastor, depending on the degree of his misconduct.
Congregationist-style churches are with denominations that give them a high level of autonomy. These churches, along with non-denominational churches like Long’s New Birth Church, often make their own administrative decisions and will hire a pastor directly, instead of having one appointed by a bishop.
“Therefore, these churches have structures in place, such as a deacon board or group of trustees, that can provide kind of a check and balance on the pastor’s authority, and vote to remove that person, if necessary,” Farnsley explained. “If church rules permit, lay members of a congregation can also call for a vote.”
If no other course of action is effective, frustrated church members can ultimately decide to simply leave.
Often, church members, especially in large, wealthy congregations, are either captivated by their pastor’s charisma or intimidated by the minister’s larger-than-life status and the intense loyalty of ardent followers.
“Good preaching covers a multitude of sins. If a pastor can preach well, he or she can almost get away with murder,” Burrow joked. “But many people, including pastors themselves, tend to forget they are human beings like the rest of us and make mistakes.”
Forgive and forget?
In most cases, a pastor’s ministry can recover if accusations against them are shown to lack credibility. On the other hand, CTS religion professor Raymond Sommerville said if a pastor truly has breached church doctrine or broken the law, he should confess sooner rather than later.
“Too often these ministers wait until the 11th hour to admit it,” Sommerville said. “They wait until it’s almost been proven they are guilty. Things work out better when they simply apologize to their church and community, make restitution to their victims, then ask for forgiveness and prayer.”
Nevertheless, is there a double standard when it comes to forgiveness among White and Black Christians?
Between 1987 and 2008, three prominent White ministers, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert and Ted Haggard, were involved in financial and sexual scandals. Each confessed to their sins and crimes, and they continue to have viable ministries.
Reverend Henry Lyons, former president of the predominantly Black National Baptist Convention, USA, admitted to misusing the organization’s money during the late 1990s and having a mistress. But despite moving testimonies of redemption, he was overwhelmingly defeated in his bid to reclaim the presidency last year.
Still, Burrow believes the Black Church is a forgiving institution.
“It depends on how severe the situation is, but historically, members of Black churches have been very forgiving, generous and kind to pastors,” Burrow said. “But it is time for church people to step up to the plate and demand accountability, for the good of the church as well as the pastor.”
Most church leaders are decent and upstanding. However, the abuse of power of a few can devastate entire ministries. Here are some tips on how to prevent or stop such behavior:
•If the behavior is inappropriate but not of an illegal or serious nature, attempt to work things out with the pastor first. Church leaders or the congregation can request a meeting with the pastor to share their concerns.
•If your church or denomination is part of a “district” governmental structure, discuss your concerns with the office of a bishop, district elder, superintendent or another official above the pastor.
•Deacons and trustees can call board meetings and discuss how to resolve the crisis.
•Report any illegal behavior, especially of a violent, sexual or financial nature to authorities. Church members can pool together resources, hire an attorney, file a court claim against the pastor and have a judge review the situation.