Why Christian leaders need to be visible 'from the road'

What Jimmy Swaggart and Ravi Zacharias teach us about the walls that must be torn down

Many years ago, I lived down the road from Jimmy Swaggart. I went past his property twice a day on my way to and home from school, as his mansion was being built and acres of rural Louisiana land were tamed into a grand estate.

After the mansion and landscaping were completed, I thought the work was done. But the builders then began to build a wall. It wrapped around his property and grew higher each day until one day you couldn’t see his house any more. You couldn’t see any part of his life from the road. I remember wondering as we drove past, ‘Who needs a wall that high?’

I knew as a kid that there was something not right, certainly with the decadence of his lifestyle, but more than that, with the need for not just privacy, but secrecy. A few years later, it became clear what he’d wanted to hide, which only confirmed for me the importance of the life of a Christian leader (or any Christian for that matter) being visible ‘from the road’.

These days, news of abuse and assault seems to break with depressing regularity. It is disappointing enough to learn of the moral failings of our leaders, but it is particularly disheartening when it is our moral leaders who do the failing.

The latest in the list of names of Christian leaders who have fallen is Ravi Zacharias. Sadly, it will not be the last.

Of course, not every fallen Christian leader is an abuser like Zacharias. The report into the allegations of abuse paints the picture not of a man who wandered into a grey area, but of a sexual predator who preyed upon women. So many women.

The revelations of his failings and his predatory behaviour must alert us to the reality that abusers in Christian organisations can hide in plain sight, hidden by the figurative walls that either a leader or the organisation (or both working together) may construct to protect its reputation.

The notion of being ‘above reproach’ is a tricky one in Christian ministry …

In the case of Zacharias and RZIM, the limited lines of sight within the organisation became a tragically-conducive environment to both the perpetration of abuse by Zacharias and its continuance.

Unfortunately, those limited lines of sight remain in that organisation while ever the members of the Board remain unnamed.

Part of the challenge for any Christian organisation after a leader’s downfall is the dismantling of the walls of secrecy that the leader built and often had help building. Particularly the walls that form when a leader resists any examination and insists that he or she is above reproach.

The notion of being ‘above reproach’ is a tricky one in Christian ministry. While the conduct of a Christian leader must be above reproach, at the same time that leader must never be placed in a position that is beyond questioning. And yet, a leader becomes less and less accessible to appropriate oversight the more that leader insists, or is blindly assumed by others, to be above reproach.

Directors of not-for-profits, including faith-based organisations, are obligated to know the types of risk associated with their operations and educate themselves about the mitigation and management of those risks. Risks associated with finances and operations, with governance and reputation are all discussed and examined. But what about the very real risks to an organisation posed by the character and behaviour of those at the head? And further, the inevitable escalation of risk the more that the operations of the organisation depend on the reputation of that leader?

It is all too tempting for organisations to circle the wagons and build walls to limit sight lines into the conduct of its leaders to maintain their reputations (both of the leader and the organisation). This is even more of a temptation for organisations whose main form of currency is the reputation of their leader.

If the reputation and character of the leader is the main drawcard of the organisation – the thing that brings in the funding and pays the bills and puts meals on the tables of its employees – the director and employees may feel an even stronger need to protect that leader. And yet, it would seem that the building of any such walls in Christian organisations only prepares the ground for people to be hurt, and sets up a leader to fall.

There is work to be done to prevent abuse in the Church, and it’s going to take all of us to do it.

In our churches and our organisations, walls must come down to minimise the possibility of abuse, manage any possible occurrences appropriately, and allow for ongoing accountability of both the organisation and its leaders.

Most ministers and Christian leaders who fall do not fall as did Swaggart or Zacharias. But there are some leaders who take advantage of their position and power in other ways that hurt others and bring the name of Christ into disrepute; they just happen to fly low enough under the radar to avoid detection.

Christian leaders must live in a way that is above reproach, and never beyond it. This is essential living for each one of us. For it is when walls are built that enable abuse to occur and continue, we have to ask ourselves if we have been complicit in the building of that structure in any way by our trust, or our money, by our praise or by our silence.

Just as the creation of the walls of secrecy and inaccessibility may involve many people, so too does their dismantling. There is work to be done to prevent abuse in the Church, and it’s going to take all of us to do it.

Laurel Moffatt was born and raised in the American South (the gothic part). She now lives in Sydney with her husband, their four kids, one anxious dog and two long-suffering bunnies.