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?
Mullen was drawn to Christian ministry in high school; in college he studied the Bible and earned awards like “most promising preacher.” He thought traditional ministry would give his life purpose. “I was getting sucked into what I now describe as this obsession that people in ministry so often develop with the work of the ministry and finding their value in that work,” Mullen told Sojourners. He became the assistant of high-profile Christian speaker Josh McDowell, touring the world with him. “I was exposed to a lot of good work but also a lot of celebrity culture. I had one person tell me ‘this is the top’ of Christianity, and I almost got sucked into that. But at some point, I realized that this wasn’t what I wanted to do,” said Mullen. “A prominent person told me: ‘You are walking away from the opportunity of a lifetime and you will never get this opportunity again.’”
Mullen left and became a youth pastor. At the time he thought youth ministry was where he could use his gifts for the good of God’s reign. But today he sees it differently.
“For the next 10 years I worked in pastoral ministry among oppressive individuals and organizations,” Mullen said. “I didn’t see the oppression at first. Like most abuse, it was hidden until people started sharing their stories. Over the course of my time in ministry, I sat with victims of sexual, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse as they recounted excruciating and soul-crushing pain caused by their perpetrators.
“What I didn’t expect was that I would become a target of abusive power myself once I chose to advocate for victims, to report crimes, and to call for accountability and change.” Mullen persisted “for two long years.” But the situation worsened, and Mullen resigned, immediately losing his paycheck and his church-funded housing. His family—he and his wife had two kids—was effectively homeless. A few weeks later they found out they were expecting their third child.
Mullen channeled his devastation into studying the causes of the behavior he had just experienced. “As I researched crisis literature, I found something called impression management strategies,” he said. “I discovered this is exactly it: This is how abusers seduce, and how people who cover up abusers get away with that. So I kept following that thread within evangelicalism.”
Coined by sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Every Day Life, impression management strategies are conscious (or unconscious) efforts to influence the perception of others around a person, event, or institution. Goffman said that each of us has front-stage and backstage aspects of our lives, parts we highlight and parts we keep more hidden for various reasons. When celebrities announce a divorce by saying they are choosing a “conscious uncoupling,” it is an example of impression management strategies at work.
And though most communication departents and public relations professionals use some form of these strategies, they can have a sinister side. As Mullen told me: “Impression management becomes a problem when it is deceptively used to hide truths that ought not to be hidden”—such as abuse. He described how abusers use impression management to gain a victim’s trust and make them less resistant to abuse. Perpetrators—or those enabling them—then use impression management to hide abuse or explain it away. “If effective, their cover-up is a tragedy that perpetuates abuse and increases its malignancy,” said Mullen.
Ensure the work continues
On both Twitter and his website, Mullen points out how churches employ these impression management strategies when abuse is revealed. He recently outlined how often public “apologies” miss the mark of true repentance. Some statements are dismissive of victims’ pain (“I’m sorry you feel that way”) or excuse and minimize behavior (“it was never our intention ...”). Other apologies seek to besmirch the victims in order to maintain appearances (“the wounded are complicit”) or self-promote, pointing out all the good the organization or person has done in the past and eliciting sympathy (“we are hurting too”).
According to Mullen, Christian organizations are particularly vulnerable to being exploited by abusers because they see themselves as “anointed” and believe “God needs them to help the world.” This is a big problem. “If a group sees themselves as the keystone of Christianity, or progressivism, then they are going to see themselves as irreplaceable and feel the need to protect their legitimacy at all costs,” he explained. Impression management becomes a strategy for Christian organizations to ensure the work continues. Which means, according to Mullen, “there will be more effort to silence those who ask questions, raise concerns, or become vocal about abuse they have encountered.”
This draws more people into the enabler role. Any time a public figure such as Hybels has been accused of abuse, there is a tendency to not believe victims, to downplay the level of abuse, and to rush to “restore” fallen leaders. Mullen believes there are psychological reasons for this: We tend to see the abuser—be it a church leader or a celebrity—suffer in real time. “We see their tears, we see them losing their position,” Mullen said. “But the victim’s story is in the past. We don’t see them losing their prominence, we don’t experience that loss with them. So our sympathies are with the oppressor.” The focus, he insists, should never be on restoring an abuser to power. “The end goal should be the health of that individual, not giving them back their position of power and prominence.”
Understanding how institutions perpetuate or enable abuse is imperative especially for Christians as we continue to grapple with the ramifications of public and private scandals. “The more I grew in my understanding of impression management tactics, the more I started to see that these same tactics were used by the abusers in my own life,” said Mullen. “I began tweeting descriptions of these tactics in 2018 and quickly discovered that I was not alone. Survivors of all types of abuse and from all walks of life began sharing how the tactics I described were true of their own experience.” Often Mullen’s Twitter feed is full of people recognizing the strategies that have been used against them—such as being told they were not good Christians for questioning the leadership—and finding some modicum of comfort in knowing that they aren’t alone.
Mullen realized these strategies weren’t new, as he studied the Bible for similar tactics and found “their consistent use by evil forces.” He lists a few examples: “The serpent used them to deceive Adam and Eve in the garden (‘Did God say ...?’ Genesis 3:1). King Saul employed at least seven different tactics when he was confronted by the prophet Samuel (see 1 Samuel 15). Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, betrayed him with a kiss.”
What can Christian institutions do to combat these patterns? How can those of us who are connected in some way—as supporters, attenders, audience members, readers—not be a part of enabling abuse and upholding abusive institutions? According to Mullen, this will require truth and transparency, resisting the normal desire for good PR and doing the hard work of looking at the ramifications of actions and theology.
“One thing I would like to see churches doing, including their attendees, is a willingness to put everything on the table for consideration,” Mullen said. “If you believe that abuse is a current and real problem, then we need to demonstrate that we are willing to look at every possible outcome. That would include someone’s theology, their statement of faith, their definition of roles, their power structures. And ask the question: Does this in any way contribute to this problem?” Mullen admits this is hard to do—especially asking people to look clearly at whether their theology leads to abusive patterns. But he still believes it can happen.
Mullen recommends starting with naming harassment and abusive behavior— “identifying experiences, naming them, creating language about them, and creating policies that protect people from these experiences. Some people are taught what grooming behavior looks like, but [not] what to do with that information. Who do you go to? What happens with the report?” He also recommends coming up with a protection plan that is both trauma- and law-informed, noting that the organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is a good resource for those who want to develop and implement policies to protect potential victims.
Mullen hopes that with more education, the culture can change. The church where he once served eventually invited him “to receive a genuine and thorough public apology from the current leadership, to publicly extend forgiveness to them, and to receive restitution,” says Mullen. “And they’ve since made sweeping changes in personnel and policy.”
Many of us find ourselves tied to institutions where the temptation to engage in enabling behavior is rife. We all have people and ministries that are important to us, that we believe are doing good work, that we are invested in seeing thrive. But Mullen believes we need to change our focus. Instead of putting all our hopes in an organization, we need to be realistic about what can and does happen in them. For Mullen, creating a culture of perpetual confession and restoration is vitally important. “Start with the small stuff—publicly confessing when you have done something inappropriate or wrong—and then it isn’t so much of a bomb when someone does finally confess something bigger.” Building up an ecosystem of protection requires guidelines and thoughtful plans for how to respond to people who have been mistreated and to confront those doing the mistreating.
Mullen’s greatest desire is that churches listen to those who have experienced abuse in the past. “And not just listening because you want to get something out of them—listening can sometimes be selfish, [when] you use someone to learn from them,” he said. Rather, he means “listening to suffer with someone. Churches can open their ears to what people are trying to tell them. It means creating a culture where people are willing to share their stories.”
Those stories might appear threatening—like they will take us down or destroy spaces we hold dear. But for Mullen, and many others working to highlight the tactics used to uphold institutions at the expense of those they have harmed, the hope remains: In the ashes of the old, something new and better will be reborn.