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‘I like the things you write on Twitter but I can’t like them publicly because I’d lose my job.’
This is what one of my friends said to me; he was a church leader, but felt unable to speak truth to power because of his job security. This highlights how the way we’ve been doing patronage in ministry can make it harder to speak out about abuse.
The recent thirtyone:eight executive summary review of the Titus Trust culture made a similar observation,
‘the value of patronage of some of the more influential and powerful leaders within the wider Evangelical community could be seen to have been on inhibitor to disclosing abuse and why some people may not have been called out about behaviour as they should have been.’
(Independent Culture Review Titus Trust Executive Summary & Recommendations November 2021, p.7)
It’s therefore really important that we look at how funding and abuse can be linked:
1. Take for example John Smyth who was funded for years whilst he abused people. His funding for so-called ministry gave him credibility and opportunity. Credibility in that some might have thought, ‘Well if people are prepared to back him financially, he must be a good chap.’ And opportunity in that if no-one had funded him, he wouldn’t have been able to stay in Zimbabwe spending considerable time grooming and abusing vulnerable people.
2. If we consider my opening quote, then we must also wrestle with the perception that funding will be taken away if we speak up on abuse. This comes in various forms. Sometimes people in ministry are afraid that their funders are close friends of their abusers, and will pull the funding they need to keep a roof over their head. Other times people fear they will be speaking against ‘the brand’ and therefore will lose funding because it’s all about ‘the brand.’
3. Now let’s turn our attention to narcissism. Narcissists tend to make grandiose visions and claims that they are the person to help your organisation do what it has so far failed to do. For this reason, narcissists are attractive to funders; after all you want to get a return on your investment, and you want people to be reached for the Kingdom. So you fund the narcissist, and this enables him or her to bully others with devasting consequences, whilst appearing to produce the results the funder is looking for. Over time, the narcissist’s church or ministry becomes a collective narcissistic entity that thinks it is the better than all the other organisations, and claims to produce results no-one else can. In this environment more bullying will occur, but the entity will look more attractive to the funder, who may even boast of their contribution to others. Sadly, the increase of funding here, exacerbates the problems outlined in points 1 and 2 above. More abuse is enabled, and it will become harder for people to speak out.
So how can we respond to this? I’d suggest a comprehensive study on how we do patronage. Such a study would include Paul’s handling of patronage in Corinth, but is of course beyond the scope of this article, so I’ll just end with some brief suggestions.
Funders, please learn about narcissism and the dynamics of abuse. Consider people’s character more than what results they promise. Learn how you should respond when someone brings concerns to you. Recognise that you have a huge responsibility in not enabling abuse.
For those seeking funding, it’s not worth getting funding at any cost. If you feel you would not be able to speak up about abuse issues, then these are not the right people to get funding from. You cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:22-24).
A number of people have asked to see my review that was published in the EN December edition. So here it is:
I’ve been reading Andrew Graystone’s ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ book about how John Smyth was able to abuse people for so long. It’s a hard but necessary book to read, and I think it challenges Evangelicals to respond to the following points.
I’d already looked at this issue some years ago, and my thoughts here are not based on the specific details Graystone outlines, but rather on the general events that took place.
Firstly, why didn’t any conservative evangelicals write this book? When I first discovered parts of Smyth’s abuse, I was shocked that this story hadn’t been openly told by the community in which the abuse occurred. Whilst the Bible openly describes the catastrophes of sin amongst God’s people, this community kept quiet. But the Smyth abuse is a story that had to be told, for the sake of righteousness—to publicly say a great wrong had been done, and to help us learn how to avoid such abuse in the present and future.
Now there has been some online criticism of Graystone’s writing, including one person writing responses to what they say are inaccuracies in the book. To which I ask, ‘why didn’t you tell the story then? Why not speak out sooner? Why wait for this book before publicly giving information?’ Some might say, ‘We were waiting for the Makin report,’ but the Makin report is too limited in scope to justify that. Evangelicals need to understand that refusing to transparently tell the truth of abuse will no longer work in this day and age. And if evangelicals refuse to tell the truth, people from outside the tribe will do if for us. And if we don’t like the way they tell the story, then we should have told the story truthfully in the first place.
I am thankful to Graystone for telling this story, and appreciate God’s common grace in using Kathy Newman and Channel 4 to expose sin. God has dealt kindly by offering prophetic voices. Will we listen? Or will we harden our hearts?
Secondly, the book is a helpful explanation of how abusers function, so that we can guard against it; not just in terms of grooming (which is always evolving, so we need more than this book), but in terms of how Smyth could only do what he did for so long because he had the support of so many people. He was able to be a preacher for over fifty years, being invited to speak at a variety of places that gave him access to boys and young men. He had people vouch for him when others questioned him. He had people fund him when others spoke out about him. There is a huge lesson here, it takes a village to abuse a boy. Abusers need enablers to continue doing what they do. If we are part of this village, what changes will we now make? If no changes are made, the system is still in place for the next abuser to use.
Thirdly, there is a stark contrast between the response of the Bulawayo pastors compared to the UK church leaders. On discovering Smyth’s abuse, these men put adverts in the papers and contacted schools, warning them about Smyth, and they even took legal action. The UK response was frankly pathetic. Some might think this was just because of the lack of safeguarding training in those days, but even without modern safeguarding training, the Zimbabwe pastors knew how to respond to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Fourthly, the book highlights the hypocrisy of evangelicals campaigning against homosexuality whilst abusing men and boys. It’s no use us evangelicals levelling this critique merely at Smyth, for our village has failed abuse survivors over the last 50 years. We still have lessons to learn from Smyth and have sometimes repeated mistakes in the aftermath of the Fletcher abuse revelations. We hardly have a leg to stand on to preach about sexuality. You might stay we still have the Bible to stand on, but then let’s stand on it ourselves and apply what it says about abuse, and repent.
(previously published in Evangelicals Now