Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sovereign Grace Ministries: Analysis of CLC Members Meeting

Analysis of CLC Members Meeting of August 17, 2011


The following analysis was produced by Brad Sargent. He is more known by his online handle of “brad/futuristguy,” and he often writes about recovery from spiritual abuse and how to prevent toxic organizations. 

For this article, Brad used a transcript of the Covenant Life Church (CLC) members’ meeting of August 17, 2011. This meeting dealt with pastoral responses to survivor blog reports about cases of harmful “pastoral care” involving victims of child sexual abuse. He applied his perspectives as an organizational developer, cultural analyst, and futurist (strategic foresight practitioner) and wrote the following on October 13, 2012 – approximately three weeks after a class action lawsuit was filed against Sovereign Grace Ministries (an association of churches of which CLC was once the main member) and some of SGM’s and CLC’s former leaders. This was also about three weeks before it became public that CLC was already in a process to consider dissociating from SGM. 

While all that was happening, Brad – who is an outsider to SGM – was doing research to understand the background of the lawsuit. Reviewing this document was part of his process in coming to grips with the organizational systems of both SGM and CLC, how they related to the lawsuit, and what all churches and ministries could learn from the situation. Since Brad’s perspective is one of an informed outsider, it may be helpful in raising questions and points of interest that others might not yet see. It is presented here with his permission as part of continuing to consider SGM and the lawsuit, especially in light of how to analyze toxic theologies and practices involved in spiritual abuse. For other posts on topics related to SGM, see the category labeled Sovereign Grace Ministries Abuse.

There is one additional note about this meeting. It was held in August 2011 (not 2012), so please keep in mind that who the three speakers were a year ago is not necessarily who they are now. From very recent events, it does seem that the CLC leaders appear to be making some “detoxifying” progress on addressing their past, present, and future – even while they are still being called out online to push themselves further, as with a recent post by Brent Detwiler encouraging them to be more transparent and specific on their reasons for considering a departure from the SGM network.

Finally, progress in personal and organizational change for those enmeshed in SGM’s and CLC’s leadership is just as difficult as recovery is for those of us who are survivors of spiritual abuse.  This process is step by step, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, sometimes half-and-half in a way that sends us into a twist.  It is sometimes stop, sometimes go, not always the pace we want, sometimes faster than we think we can handle.  But the goal of becoming more Christlike is still the goal, no matter the exact route or speed of the journey, and progress is still progress. 

We'd do well to have similar grace for the change process of people who've been the perpetrators of spiritual abuse or their henchmen or their excusers as we have for one another as survivors of that abuse, despite how hard that may be. We can and should acknowledge forward movement when it does happen, just as we should not fear to keep pointing out if there is reversion, or no movement, or simply just orbiting around the same tetherball pole of image and reputation. We are, after all, all in this together, manifesting the Kingdom of Christ to a watching world.


I took the Covenant Life Church (CLC) Members Meeting recording and transcript document pretty much on their own status, without investigating all the details surrounding the issues in question (though I did consider some relevant commentaries and blog posts). I am considering the big-picture issues involved – the overall cultural context and trends, and what needs to be learned in order to go forward with greater clarity, discernment, and wisdom. I did also look at it as a reporter or legal advocate might, with legitimate skepticism in order to consider what is there, what may be missing, and raise questions about the past, present, and future in the specific situation. 

The recording was of a Members Meeting held on August 17, 2011, at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Three men spoke: 

  • Senior Pastor Joshua Harris
  • Greg Somerville, Family Life Pastor
  • Corby Megorden, Church Administrator

The main issue in this section of the meeting concerned SGM survivor blog reports of child sexual abuse at CLC, and issues raised about reporting of the abuse to the police, how pastoral care was/wasn’t conducted, etc. According to Senior Pastor Josh Harris, in the two incidents of sexual abuse that were reported on a blog, one occurred in the 1980s and one in the 1990s. Both of them happened in homes of parishioners, not on church property. 

I listened to the recording while reviewing the transcript. From the topics addressed and the range of speakers who addressed them, it seems to me that assumed (but perhaps unstated) purposes of the presentation included at least the following:

  • Express grief and contrition for errors in judgment that resulted in questions about the professionalism of two pastors involved in the past cases of sexual abuse. 
  • Emphasize that there are two sides to a story and that misperceptions cause damage.
  • Suggest that the church and its pastors did “due diligence” pastorally, ethically, and legally regarding the cases – and that abuse situations are complex and there is no formula for pastoral care but there is a process in place to guide in wise care.
  • Reinforce the church’s commitment to safety for children in the church’s services, and educate the congregation about the basic policies, procedures, and protections implemented to promote an environment that is highly safe from child abuse.

The overall cultural context to consider is that child sexual abuse, and child abuse/neglect have become increasingly more prominent social and legal concerns over the past 10 years or so. They have gained more prominence with the exposure of the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal, the administrative cover-up by Penn State officials, and the inadequate responses of what could be characterized as a relatively passive board of trustees. So, while there are severe inconsistencies across the U.S. for mandatory reporting by church staff of known or suspected child sexual abuse, certainly that will see significant clarification over the next decade. 

As an example of the inconsistencies on requirements to report, consider this: In current Maryland law, clergy are not specifically enumerated as mandated reporters for cases of child abuse or neglect. They would be exempt from reporting for disclosures made in “pastoral communications.” However, they may be included with the “any person” designation, i.e., anyone who knows/suspects a case of abuse must report it. So, in my understanding, if a Maryland pastor failed to report a known case or allegation of child sexual abuse occurring within his/her parish – regardless of whether it occurred on church property or not – he/she might still be legally liable for failure to report. If that same situation happened in Oklahoma, where there is no “pastoral communications” exemption, if a pastor refused to report a suspected case of child abuse/neglect, he/she could be considered having some degree of legal responsibility and consequences. For more details, see Mandatory Reporting Laws for Clergy: Loopholes for Abuse (October 10, 2012) and the links there.

While all that gets sorted out in the legislative realm, here are concerns that I have, based on the recording I heard and transcript I read. These are issues that I believe apply to all churches and ministries.

1. There is a difference between a sin and a crime, in terms of what to do about them. The speakers emphasize that CLC is a “redemptive community” for repentant sinners of all kinds, and suggested that child abuse situations are complex, so they have a “pastoral process” with recommendations on how to serve all parties – alleged perpetrators and victims. They also have significant in-church protections and policies in place that are apparently followed. They refer to child sexual abuse as “sin.” However, none of this deals with clarity on legal issues of crime and reporting. A huge red flag was raised for me when Church Administrator Corby Megorden talked about reporting:

“We want to ensure we follow the legal requirements of the, of the State and we want to make sure we honor the Lord. [pause] Whenever a report comes, it comes as a report of potential abuse, because we need to confirm that. It can be either confessed by an individual. It can be reported by someone else, or it can be discovered and seen by someone else. In any case, here’s what we’ll, what we’ll try to do: We’ll first try to determine the validity of the report. Has there actually been abuse? The next thing we do is we contact our legal counsel to get their assessment.”

As best I can understand from this limited set of evidence only, there is a fundamental flaw here - one that definitely has been played out elsewhere: CLC did not have clear boundaries between servants in the church and citizens in society. It is not their job as pastors to “determine the validity of the report.” This is an alleged CRIME, not merely an alleged sin. Yes, work with all parties involved pastorally. However, if you intercept the legal/criminal process, are you not automatically putting yourself in an unauthorized position over the duly constituted legal authorities? Are you potentially setting yourself up as an accomplice to a crime? It is the responsibility of the civil authorities to sort out the details, not church authorities. 

In the current era and going forward, I believe it would be a far wiser policy/procedure to automatically and immediately report the abuse to the police when there is an accusation of child sexual abuse (and also of child abuse/neglect, domestic violence, and any other such criminal activity activity) and then call your legal counsel.  
Otherwise, you put too much emphasis on pastoral care when a legal intervention is called for, too much emphasis potentially on confidentiality instead of due diligence. Confusion here will prove the set-up for later accusationsand justifiably so – of cover-ups, of minimizing victims and showing preference to perpetrators, of taking the law into your own hands.

2. Given that their “pastoral process” has a confused policy/procedure for reporting, there is also evidence that this process was likely more passive than active when it came to dealing with known perpetrators. Greg Somerville said:

“Two incidents were reported on the blog. The first one involved a member of the church and his step-daughter; described a pattern of abuse that occurred over a three-year period in the mid-80s. It was eventually reported in 1987. When the pastors learned of the incident, they urged this individual to turn himself in to the police, which he promptly did. He served a two-year sentence and was released on parole at that point.”

“They urged this individual to turn himself in to the police, which he promptly did.” First, this confuses legal and pastoral. If someone is known to have committed an unreported crime, do you “urge” them to turn themselves in? Or do you require them to go and you’ll go with them as their pastor – but if they refuse, you report them anyway – and quickly – because they may otherwise revictimize the same victim(s) or find additional victims? Second, someone with more knowledge of the specifics commented that in this particular case, the self-reporting of this man to the police was not quite “prompt.” In fact, it was approximately a month later. Was that just a bad choice of words on Pastor Somerville’s part, or an indication of a bad process underneath?

I appreciate that CLC had restrictions in place for behaviors of sex offenders who participate in the church (i.e., about staying away from children and children’s ministry areas). But I was also very uneasy with what seems a vague and “squishy” process of sex offenders “making known their status as they develop relationships within the church.”

“Um, the gospel covers all sin and the blood of Christ cleanses all sin. However, we, we do want to be wise and caring, so a sexual offender who attends, or is a member must do the following: They meet with a pastor and it’s been Mark Mitchell, and review a three-page set of guidelines as to how they are to behave. Those guidelines include: They are not allowed with children, at all, on church property, unless an adult is present. They’re not allowed in Discovery Land [children’s ministry area]. They have a commitment to make known their status as they develop relationships within the church. And, uh, and let Care Group members and others, who are in their lives and have children, know this is their background, and this is their history. [pause] The men that we have in the church, that have been guilty of these sins, have been faithful to do that and are committed to doing that. You know, we can always do it better, but they’ve been doing it well.”

Between “urging” an offender to turn himself in and letting sexual offenders “have a commitment to make known their status …” – that is not exactly reassuring that the pastoral staff was actively pursuing pastoral care of those with life-dominating problems. It sounds more like passively responding to those with this life-dominating problem. Is it wise to depend on a good-will commitment of criminal offenders to self-report and share their status, especially when their sin patterns typically involve years of practice in manipulation, shading the truth, and outright lying? All of this, again, raises understandable accusations of minimizing the damage done to victims and potentially setting the stage for more victimization. 

3. In the digital era, sincerity will never be enough in responding to conflict and challenges; you must be ready to back up your words with documentation and with deeds. The concern for showing pastoral care was very prominent in the meeting. The term “reach out” was used in some form 8 times. The word “care” was used in some form or phrase 28 times, and all three speakers used it multiple times. 

But was “care” truly shown in “reaching out” to the survivors of victimization that happened in homes of those attending CLC, as reported on the blog? Some of those critiquing the situations of “care” and the “outreach” have suggested that the supposed acknowledgements of mishandling sexual abuse cases, and apologies, actually had less to do with support for the victims than with protection of the church’s systems and pastors. This raises legitimate questions that relate to whether these ministries are “toxic” or not, whether they are “safe” or unhealthy.

  • What “care” was actually shown in these situations of abuse, and how was that term defined? 
  • How did CLC staff actively “reach out” to survivors? 
  • Is there an actual apology or only a pseudo-apology provided by church staff at CLC? How do actions and follow-through over time demonstrate the difference between actual or pseudo?
  • Has the related system of Sovereign Grace Ministries shown a long-term pattern of mishandling sexual abuse cases, and how did that pattern impact what happened through CLC? 
  • Do leaders in CLC/SGM override the legal responsibilities of civil authorities in the name of their own “pastoral care”?
  • In light of this situation, what has been done to upgrade the training and policies at CLC?

The mere presence of policies, procedures, and processes is not enough to discern the answer to such questions. Also, my points here are not merely that all church leaders should become more sensitized to the damage done to those who survive abuse – important as such empathy is. They are that:

(1) Pastors don’t always get to define what constitutes “care/concern” and “reaching out” – that is, in part, defined by how the intended audience receives it.

(2) If church leaders come at issues of conflict and communications from a position of power and defense, they’ve already lost trust. And without a bond of trust, based in love that does not seek its own way, then all they say is just clanging cymbals. 

(3) We must consider as uneraseable any reports or responses posted online to challenges about a church or ministry. Rarely can anything be “scrubbed” clean and fully removed once it has been posted. So, any digital documents posted need to be thought of as public and permanent. Given that it is all “on the record,” we need to take more care to respond with as much precision and empathy as possible. And we should be ready to document whatever it is we are saying online. 

(4) The only way to refute an allegation of a malignant pattern of mishandling situations or avoiding responsibility is with documentation. Sincerity, niceness, expressing sadness for victims will not do – while it may be appropriate, it does not demonstrate/prove “due diligence.” So, if critiques are suggesting pastoral malfeasance/negligence, we’d better have evidence to show otherwise – and not in efforts to defend our honor, but to document accurately the truth.

For more source documents and critiques about the SGM lawsuit, see these blog posts and the links there:

In conclusion, there are many dimensions to child sexual abuse in this era – legal and ethical, doctrinal and digital, procedural and pastoral. But they are not so complex or cloudy as to avoid our clear-enough responsibilities to report, to set protective boundaries for offenders, to provide empathic ministry for survivors and their relational networks. There are lessons from unfortunate past mishandling of sexual abuse situations at CLC. Hopefully they help us all pave wiser ways for the future, and ensure that pastors and parishioners alike are aware of requirements for participating in ministry.


  1. Brad - - Thank you so much for contributing this article. Ever since first "meeting" you with my legal case, I have been keenly aware of your gift for seeing things from a global perspective. Back in the crazy days of my court case, I had no idea why you were tracking the news stories of my case, the blog hits, etc, but now I get it and see your valuable gift to the Christian community in providing a glimpse into what is going on with regard to abuse in the church, where the trends are going. This is so helpful and important. We need to be watching these cases, how pastors respond, how the world responds. It will be very interesting to see how the Sovereign Grace Ministries legal case plays out as well as Calvary Chapel lawsuit, because this case, too, involves similar aspects of abuse in the church. How will the members of the Gospel Coalition and close friends of SGM's president, CJ Mahaney, respond to the court case? Will they speak out against their friend or show support? These men have been silent for over 3 weeks now, yet when CJ took a leave of absence last year, a handful of them quickly defended him publicly. Their silence now is deafening. How about Grace Community pastor, John MacArthur? He has also been silent, yet just months ago, he shared a podium with CJ at the Resolve conference.

    Phil Johnson wrote on his Facebook wall regarding my lawsuit that strong Christian leaders must stand up against pastors who are out of line (my words). Why are they silent?

  2. Brad,

    So it appears that at CLC, as in other similar situations, the emphasis is in the wrong place and it can have extremely bad consequences. The emphasis needs to be on protecting children and ministering to those who have been abused and their families. That emphasis includes immediately reporting to civil authorities any suspected incident of sexual abuse of a child (or any other abuse of a child) -- NOT TO THE CHURCH LAWYER, TO THE POLICE!

    If the alleged perpetrator is allowed to do the reporting, it must be instant, and accompanied by the church staff person who first learned of the alleged abuse.

    At CLC, the emphasis seems to be on recovery by the alleged pedophile and developing a trusting relationship with the alleged pedophile. OH, but pedophiles can rarely be trusted and are generally masters of manipulation and falsehood. So, if pedophiles are in the church, the church must maintain control of all interactions with them and of all communications involving them. Otherwise, the truth will not be communicated and children will not be protected.

    1. An Attorney - I think at SGM, their goal is gospel-centered repentance and reconciliation. What they are forgetting is gospel-centered common sense and gospel-centered submission to governing authorities (Rom 13:1).


    2. @ An Attorney,

      Thanks for your comments and boiling things down to the essence.

      I re-read the section under point #1 and I think it would’ve been better to switch the phrases to make it crystal clear that the first duty = report to the police. Period. The way I had it could be easily misread as contact your lawyers first to cover yourself and then contact the police, where, in actuality, if you want to protect the people under your care from harm and also cover yourself in regard to the alleged abuse, you report it to officers of the law right away.

      Julie Anne, could you substitute the following sentence for what I originally had? Thanks.

      *In the current era and going forward, I believe it would be a far wiser policy/procedure to automatically and immediately report the abuse to the police when there is an accusation of child sexual abuse (and also of child abuse/neglect, domestic violence, and any other such criminal activity) AND THEN call your legal counsel.*

      Which again goes to show why crowd-sourcing usually helps clarify communications. We need one another to help create a church/ministry environment that is safe and healthy!

    3. Sure thing, Brad.

      And, yes, I can personally attest that I need "crowd-sourcing" help on pretty much every post :)


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