The Problem with Institutions

Every institution exists to perpetuate itself. That is, and will always be, its first goal. Every other goal will be a distant second place, at best. That doesn’t mean that institutions are always bad, but it does mean they need to be watched very closely – including, and perhaps most especially, the Church in all its forms. We forget that at our own peril.

Enter John Ortberg, Jr., the sixty-three year old megachurch pastor in Menlo Park, CA. John is the typical megachurch pastor – handsome with a salesman’s personality, with a host of most likely ghost written books for sale at the local Christian bookstore (where you can still find a Christian bookstore). Think Joel Osteen with grey hair. John was formerly at Willow Creek, arguably the nation’s most successful megachurch located outside of Chicago, IL. He was one of the people who pushed for an investigation into Willow Creek’s founding pastor, Bill Hybels, who as it turns out is a serial sexual harasser of epic proportions and resigned last year. Although at first Willow Creek denied the allegations (remember the number one goal of institutions), eventually the tidal wave of women who came forward forced them to admit there was a problem. Hybels resigned.

Meanwhile, out in Menlo Park, a volunteer came to Ortberg to confess he was a pedophile, though allegedly he hasn’t acted on his feelings. Ortberg told him to get counseling, prayed with him, encouraged him to be involved with more unsupervised activities with church youth, and sent him on his way. Apparently he “forgot” to report this to anyone, which I suppose is what institutional types do when their youngest son and namesake comes forth with something like this (remember the number one goal of institutions).

Enter Daniel Lavery, Ortberg’s elder son who is estranged from the family because he is a trans man. He was aware of the situation and, when it became clear that nothing was going to happen, went public with the identity of the volunteer in question. The church hired an employment lawyer to cover everything up conduct an investigation in which that lawyer never told the people he interviewed the name of the person he was investigating. Revealing whom you are investigating is standard procedure in these cases, but probably not if you want the investigation to come up empty (remember the number one goal of institutions).

The problems here are legion, as are the questions. The biggest one for me is, what responsible organization in 2020 doesn’t have a strict policy of having at least two adult leaders present when working with minors? The answer to that question is, “not one.” The next question has the same answer as the first: what responsible parent would remain at Menlo Park? Those who do should know that they are participating in a cult, not a church, and by remaining they are complicit in that cult. In other words, folks, the next one is on you, and in a culture of cover up the question isn’t whether there will be a next one but rather when the next one will be.

I am not condemning all institutions. There are some that do an excellent job of self-monitoring and have policies in place to help prevent misconduct and also provide concrete steps for dealing with misconduct should it occur. Such organizations are usually not cults of personality as so many churches, most especially megachurches, tend to be. We all have a responsibility to hold institutions accountable, and to do due diligence when considering membership in any organization. It is not only appropriate, it is essential to ask frank questions about policies for avoiding and dealing with misconduct. If a representative of the institution balks at those questions, you have your answer and should let your feet do the talking.

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