A Public Apology

Spiritual leaders are given access to the areas of life that people hold most sacred, the parts of themselves that most intimately define who they are. They aren’t just institutional decision-makers; they’re teachers, guides, counselors, examples. And nobody can do that sort of work without leaving a deep and lasting impact on other people. Sometimes that impact is positive. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s always undeniably real.

I’ve been thinking about these things recently, now that I find myself for the first time in over 15 years not actively involved in the work of church ministry.

Like many others who experience a career shift later in life, I’ve been doing my fair share of existential wrestling. A vocational identity doesn’t just disappear overnight. But perhaps what makes a transition away from a spiritual leadership role particularly challenging is the uniquely influential nature of the role itself. I’m realizing that during my time as a volunteer, an intern, a pastor, an elder, and a church planter, I have shaped the spirituality of numerous people. And I can’t help but wonder: For how many people has that been a bad thing? That’s a question that deeply unsettles me during this season of transition.

Recently The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has been a staple of my regular podcast rotation. It chronicles the story of Mark Driscoll’s church in Seattle that exploded a flurry of growth and then imploded in a bedlam of controversy. A big part of that story is Driscoll’s own highly questionable leadership. By all accounts, he seems to have left countless souls in his wake as he marched toward a consuming vision of success and prominence. And what strikes me every time I listen to a new episode of the podcast is that he’s still out there, leading a church, apparently turning a blind eye to all the stories and experiences of those he has harmed. Does he even care? To my knowledge, he hasn’t apologized, nor has he acknowledged his role in driving away numerous people from the church and from the faith. He’s simply moved on to the next thing, leaving a trail of destruction behind him.

Obviously the reach of my ministry in recent years doesn’t come close to Driscoll’s. And I sure hope the body count is much smaller. But I’d be foolish to think that there haven’t been any casualties of my own ministry. Somewhere out there, people have been hurt. And I can either close the door behind me and ignore that they exist, or I can own up to the fact that my influence has harmed some who trusted me. I entered this profession to help others flourish, but for some, their lives are now less vibrant as a result of things I have said and done.

Chances are, these words won’t make it to many (or perhaps any) of those specific individuals. But in the unlikely event that they do, I want to go on the record to offer a public apology before entirely closing the door on this chapter of my life. I can’t undo the past. But I can say that I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all those who have been hurt by my ministry. And in a more collective way, I’m sorry to all those who have been hurt by ministries like mine in other churches and communities of faith. I come from a tradition with an unfortunate reputation for harm, and I bear part of that responsibility.

The danger in offering specific apologies is that I’ll naturally leave something out. But after several weeks of introspection, I believe I can offer three primary ways in which I’m especially sorry.

I’m sorry for claiming authoritative certainty where I had no business doing so.

Matters of faith and spirituality are inherently mysterious. For thousands of years, cultures all around the world have wrestled with eternal questions of truth, purpose, and redemption, creating a conversation that transcends and surpasses any single one of us. And yet, more often than I’d care to admit, my posture in ministry was defined by a sense of having figured out all the answers with decisive finality. I’m afraid that listening to me teach and preach (especially early on in my career) would have given off the impression that I had discovered the truth, and it was my job to define that truth for everyone else.

I first started leading Bible studies in high school. By college I was regularly teaching Sunday school classes. In my mid-20s, I began leading a family ministry and training parents. Before I made it into my 30s, I started preaching weekly sermons. In every single case, I had a platform that far exceeded my own spiritual, social, and cognitive development. And in every case, I compensated for that by being really, really confident about things I really, really didn’t know.

Where I should have left space for mystery, ambiguity, and exploration, I said things like, “The Bible clearly teaches…” or “God wants us to…” Where I should have leaned into deep and profound questions, I rushed to quick and easy answers. I told people what to believe and how to live, discounting any perspective that differed from my own.

If we’re being honest, this wasn’t all from a place of bravado or arrogance. In fact, I suspect that much of it was from a place of insecurity and fear. (Who wants to get a seminary degree and be appointed as a church elder only to have to look a parishioner in the eye and say, “I don’t know” when they ask a question about the Bible?) But regardless of the motivation, the effect is a dangerous one: it compels people to think that uncertainty is bad, that doubt is dangerous, and that answers are readily available if only we have faith enough to discover them. That’s pastoral malpractice. And I deeply regret the ways that I have been guilty of it.

I’m sorry for conflating my own agenda and opinions with God’s.

With a clean conscience, I can honestly say that I never deliberately set out to deceive anyone as a church leader. But looking back over my years in ministry, I’m now able to see how easy it was to deceive others inadvertently by spiritualizing things that simply weren’t spiritual.

When you lead in a space that is steeped in the language of the divine, there’s a subconscious tendency to translate everything into that language. Choices become callings, goals become missions, opposition becomes spiritual warfare. And when you speak like that as a leader, it gives sacred weight to things that are often nothing more than matters of personal preference or experience.

For example, sometimes a new ministry venture isn’t a calling from God; it’s just the result of personal ambition and a curiosity to pursue new horizons. Sometimes a building project isn’t an opportunity for church members to practice sacrificial generosity for the glory of God; it’s just a tangible way for an institution to enhance its image and fuel its leaders’ own senses of accomplishment. Sometimes a teaching that offends a spiritual wanderer isn’t the Holy Spirit convicting that person’s heart; it’s just an ignorant and insensitive thing to say. Sometimes a spike in attendance isn’t the blessing of God on what a church is doing; it’s just what naturally happens when people find out about the new young guy with tattoos wearing cuffed skinny jeans in the pulpit. And sometimes a passionate argument for a certain vision of gender and sexuality isn’t a valiant defense of God’s plan; it’s just a cultural allegiance to antiquated social conventions.

I could go on. After all, none of these are hypothetical scenarios. I’ve lived them out. And on the other end have been honest, trusting people who took statements like these at face value. Whether I meant to or not, I misled those people. Maybe God really was behind some of those things. But I certainly wouldn’t have known that, and I never should have acted as if I did.

I’m sorry for perpetuating spiritually harmful structures and ideologies.

For a little while in college, I taught a youth Sunday school class at my home church. This was my first real taste of legitimate church ministry, and although I don’t remember much about the content of those lessons, I can only imagine what delightful pearls of wisdom I must have passed along to those poor students. Presumably, those kids are all adults now, likely somewhere in their early 30s. And sometimes I wonder: What baggage do they now carry as a result of the things I once told them?

Although I’d like to think that I’ve always been a bit of a maverick and a pusher of envelopes in the theological spaces I occupy, there’s no escaping the fact that I have directly participated in church environments that excluded and condemned those who should not have been excluded or condemned. And I’m sure that even with my limited influence over the last decade and a half, I can never begin to know the full extent of the damage that I have caused.

Sometimes I think about the marriages and relationships that I’ve seen fall apart, and how easy it was to decide who was in the right (conveniently, it was always the person who stayed in the church). Or the gifted women who never had meaningful leadership opportunities available to them simply because they were women (we males knew best, of course). Or the girls who grew up under a cloud of shame because they received the message from their church leaders that their bodies were dangerous and bad (let’s not even get started on purity culture).

The unfortunate thing about church ministry is that in general, the people who feel marginalized and excluded don’t stick around. Which means that church leaders who are responsible for the harm can either write off the victims as disgruntled backsliders, or we can simply ignore them altogether. In either case, we don’t have to deal with the ongoing fall-out of our destructive theology and practice.


I don’t know who has been burned by me or the institutions I’ve helped lead. But I know that they are out there. People of color. Women. Divorcees. LGBTQ people. Spiritual searchers. Skeptics. And just because I no longer consider myself part of the evangelical world where the harm was caused doesn’t mean I’ve stopped being responsible for it.
After a decade and a half of ministry, there’s obviously plenty more I could apologize for (bad decisions, clumsy leadership, not putting a church van in park before stepping out and leaving a dozen high school students slowly idling toward the crest of a hill). But hopefully the main idea here has come across clearly for those who need to hear it.

If you’re one of them, and you’ve happened to stumble across these words, please know that I’m sorry. You deserve much better than you were given. And yes, I realize that an apology at this point is likely of little value. But I hope that it can at least bring you some measure of health and healing as you seek to move forward.

Postscript

As I’ve debated whether or not to share these thoughts, a voice in my head keeps asking, “Isn’t this all just a bunch of progressive virtue signaling by someone trying to dissociate from conservative evangelicalism?” And I suppose there’s some merit to that critique. But at the same time, I think it’s worth observing that if this apology comes across that way to you, then you can be pretty sure that you’re not its intended audience. You probably haven’t been hurt by fundamentalist Christianity. And that’s good. Be thankful for that. Just recognize that there might be others who haven’t had such a positive experience. And please, allow space for those individuals to work through the wounds that they now carry.

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