Every single time my husband’s texts begin with the words “Did you hear about…” I brace myself for the latest celebrity pastor scandal. Typically, he attaches a link to the pastor’s apology — but I’ve come to expect these apologies to sound like PR spin, nothing like an authentic and contrite apology.
The latest pastoral apology that I’ve seen comes from Matt Chandler, the pastor of The Village Church and President of the Acts 29 church planting network, which was formerly led by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll. On a Sunday morning, while parishioners of The Village Church were likely expecting another message, Chandler stood at the pulpit and apologized, saying that he was stepping down – for now – as the lead pastor of the congregation. He admitted to engaging in inappropriate online interactions with a woman, apologized for his “unguarded and unwise” relationship with a woman who is not his wife, but he did say that the conversations were not romantic or sexual in nature.
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Chandler explained that a friend of the woman he was messaging approached him to call him out on his behaviour. This ultimately led to Chandler stepping down from his role temporarily. However, Chandler does not clearly apologize to the woman he interacted with online, or the woman who approached him. Instead, he talks about the impact of this situation on him and his family. His carefully crafted words lead to long and loud applause by congregants.
Chandler’s apology left me with plenty of questions and very little information about what happened. He has not said whether the woman he was interacting with was a member of his congregation. Many folks have speculated about what exactly went on between Chandler and the unnamed woman, but I’d rather discuss the biggest gap in Chandler’s message: a clear and direct apology to the women involved.
This isn’t a “Matt Chandler” problem, it’s a problem we see from many pastors who admit their misdeeds without acknowledging the harm they’ve caused. In the pastor’s confession, there is no acknowledgment of the power they wield in their position of authority. Chandler never mentions the fact that he’s the person in power – whether she is a member of his congregation or not – and that he used that power in a relationship with another woman.
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Bruxy Cavey, a former Canadian megachurch pastor who has now been arrested and charged with sexual assault, published a blog post titled “my confession” in March, shortly after resigning from his church. In it, he apologizes for what he calls an extramarital affair, however, the woman who came forward with allegations against him has said she believes that the relationship was not consensual, due to the power Cavey held over her. While Cavey does admit that he was irresponsible in his role as a pastor, and even mentions the dynamics of power and influence inherent in his role, he does not acknowledge the effects of his actions. Simply talking about power does not mean he understands the effects of it.
But problematic pastoral apologies aren’t just an issue in megachurches. In May, John B. Lowe II, the pastor of New Life Christian Church & World Outreach in Warsaw, Ind., confessed to a years-long extramarital affair with a congregant. Things took a shocking turn when a woman walked up to the stage and took the microphone. She alleged that Lowe raped her when she was 16, and that nothing about their relationship was consensual. Video of the scene has since garnered over a million views and has led to a public outcry against pastors who confess half-truths or turn themselves into victims without acknowledging the real pain they’ve caused.
But what exactly does a “good” apology look like? I was hard-pressed to find one, instead I came across pastors who offered half-apologies or even refused to apologize for substantiated claims against them – like Bill Hybels, former pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, who has faded into the background since his 2019 resignation.
Instead, pastoral apologies typically centre themselves and their families. They look contrite enough to garner empathy and compassion from their congregants – there’s a sliver of vulnerability that passes as contrition. But these apologies seem to avoid any true reflection on what led to the situation in the first place – an imbalance of power, often a man wielding his authority for his own gain. In a sense, the apology acts similarly, as the pastor uses their authority and the trust they’ve gained to cast themselves as a victim – while the alleged victim’s story remains untold and unacknowledged.
Brianna Bell is a writer in Guelph, Ont.
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