Sunday, January 28, 2007

I was watching the local news last night and finally heard about the scandal at Bellevue. (Well, the lastest scandal, I had heard about the money issues.) Leave it to me to know more about whats going on in Moscow (homophobic nutter of mayor, by the way) than what's going on in Memphis.

It's terrible what happened, and it would be terrible even if the man in question weren't a minister. "Moral failure" hardly begins to adequately describe a man molesting his son or any other child. The massive mismanagement of this situation by the leadership of Bellevue Baptist seems, to me, demonstrate some of the flaws of a megachurch model. Also, here is probably a good place to confess that I don't consistently attend any church.

I should start by noting that this is in no way an unbiased report. I am deeply bothered by the existence of Bellevue Baptist. (Not nessecarily the people in Bellevue Baptist, I'm sure that the majority of the individuals who compose the congregation are wonderful people.) They are a number of reasons, but mostly, I'm deeply skeptical of the megachurch model and consider health and wealth gospels to be bad theology. The lack of transparency regarding the use of church funds is also a bit disturbing, but hey, it ain't my money.

The investigative report released by the church repeatedly refers to the abuse (mind you, not alleged abuse, admitted to abuse) as "the seventeen-year-old issue." Somehow just doesn't seem adequate. Further, it's a bit saddening that Bellevue seems more concerned with the welfare of their corporate church than with the welfare of the victim. They are more indignant that Williams, referred to in the report as "Paul" continued on as a member of the ministerial staff than they are with the initial abuse.
If he had considered the welfare of the church family, he would have resigned. The molestation of a child is bad enough, but to continue on in a ministerial capacity with responsibility for sensitive areas of our church life is without excuse.
To explain the lag between the senior pastor of Bellevue knowing and taking action the investigative commitee claimed that
Although there is no excuse, there is an explanation which leads to the recommendation noted above. The Pastor stated that he had never dealt with an incident of this type before. Further, there were no policies and procedures in place that he had been trained to follow. In the past, the circle of information on any problems of a sensitive nature in the church was kept very tight to protect the families of the individuals and to protect the church from embarrassment.
Bullshit! So good to know that Bellevue is more interested in protecting its corporate self from embarrassment than obeying state laws (Which don't I think conflict with any Biblical laws, God forgives and forgets, humans should forgive, not nessecarily forget.) than with protecting individual people from harm.

I think that a lot of these problems can be traced back to the inherent flaws with the megachurch model. Obviously, the abuse itself isn't a result, but the manner in which this "seventeen-year-old issue" has been handled can be. To defend the senior pastor from accusations that he allowed Williams to continue in a role which included interviewing applicants for the lay ministry who indicated that they had been sexually abused in the past (See Wendi Thomas's column from the Commercial Appeal. He may indeed have treated such people inappropriately.) the committee claimed that "Dr. Gaines had only passing knowledge of what Mr. Williams’ job duties were." (emphasis mine)

Wait! How can it be construed as a good thing that the senior pastor of a church has "only passing knowledge" of the duties of a member of the ministry staff? If a senior pastor doesn't know the job descriptions of the ministry, how can he possibly minister effectively to the individual members of his church?

This is probably a matter of opinion, but it is my opinion that megachurches can not effectively create a sense of community and the family of God. I'm sure that, to a certain extent, participation in smaller groups can create a sense of belonging within a larger congregation, and all of this is a matter of personal preference, I suppose. But I have trouble finding a church that is so large the senior pastor doesn't even know the duties of the ministerial staff to be an attractive option in anyway. The connection between people within a church is very important to me, even to the extent of being able to overcome massive theological differences. At the church I used to attend, the minister I agreed on very few theological matters (inspiration of the Bible, role of women in the church, etc.) and yet, I would go to him with spiritual questions and listen to his advice. Why? Because I knew him. I knew he took matters of theology and spirituality very seriously, and more importantly, I knew that he took me seriously as an individual with a specific context, specific spiritual needs, and as a unique and full human being. I would be more inclined to attend that church when I am home if he were still there. I don't see how that could be replicated in a congregation of over 27,000 members. (Frankly, I think the 600 is pushing too many.) Currently, the only churches that begin to attract me are smaller congregations, where I feel I could develop a personal relationship with a number people, including the person who is supposed to "pastor" (shepherd) my soul.

Last semester I completed a class project that involved research at two Memphis churches. One was quite large (not Bellevue, btw) and one was a small congregation. Just from my observations, I don't think I would ever be content at the large congregation. Although I disagreed with a good bit of the theology I heard, that wasn't the only reason. (I also disagreed with parts of the dogma of the small church.) I felt comfortable enough at one of the two services I attended. (At the other, I was up in arms over a health and wealth sermon.) But other than the absolutely wonderful usher greeted me with a huge smile, I didn't welcomed. I doubt that anyone knew or could have known that I was a visitor. This isn't an the fault of anyone at that church. How can you know if someone is a visitor when there are over a 1,000 people at one of the six services? I'm also concerned by the fact that our group couldn't get in contact with one of the ministers at the church.

In contrast, when I attended the smaller congregation, I and one of my groupmates were approached by several members after the service who introduced themselves, chatted with us for a while, and then volunteered to help us in any way they could. The priest was easy to contact, and has already unintentionally provided me with a bit of spiritual guidance. (A sign-off or "forgive" at the end of an e-mail can mean a lot.) I already feel rather at home at that congregation, even though I have only attended three services and those sporadically.

But maybe this is just me.

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