IN THE PAST two years, prominent pastors and church leaders—including Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels, the Village Church’s Matt Chandler, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Paige Patterson—have been accused of perpetrating or enabling abuse within their large institutions. By the time this story goes to print, another once-trusted person or institution will likely be proven to be corrupt, unreliable, and abusive.
While he was a youth pastor, Wade Mullen heard many of these hard stories from the teens and families he served. But when Mullen reported this abuse to his supervisor in accordance with state protocols, he was shocked when the church leadership dismissed it out of fear for what could happen to the institution. “Do you realize what reporting could do to that family? To this church?” asked a pastor. “These kids could take us all down with their storytelling.”
Despite this resistance from church leadership, Mullen reported the abuse to the appropriate civil authorities. After working for months to make clear why following reporting protocols was important for the safety of the vulnerable, he eventually resigned from the church.
The experience spurred Mullen to pursue a doctorate in organizational leadership, with a dissertation that examined how organizations respond to events that threaten their image. In his research, he told Sojourners, he “collected and analyzed nearly 300 media reports of American pastors of evangelical churches charged with a crime in the years 2016 and 2017.” Mullen, who now runs the M.Div. program at Lancaster Bible College’s graduate school, was profoundly affected. “I was stunned to discover that more than 200 were sex crimes, the vast majority of which were committed against children,” he said. “I was filled with grief and anger as I read descriptions of child sexual abuse, rape, child pornography, sex trafficking, and prostitution committed by those in positions of trust.”
In other words, Mullen became an expert on the very questions many of us have been asking lately: How do these systems end up enabling perpetrators while silencing victims? And—more importantly—how do so many of us let it happen, especially within the church?