The Documents – Some Random Impressions

July 8, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Like many of you, I spent several hours yesterday looking over the documents that likely led to C.J. Mahaney’s temporarily stepping down from his leadership position in Sovereign Grace Ministries.  These documents make for some long and arduous reading, as their author, Brent Detwiler, took over 400 pages to detail his experiences with the organization.  Mr. Detwiler provides a tremendous amount of documentation, quoting entire email conversations and his own notes that cover more than a decade.

Honestly, I’m still not sure what to think.

For one thing, there is a level of vindication in finally being able to point to documentation – these leaders’ own words, their own emails – that proves what so many of us have been feeling and saying all along, which is that Sovereign Grace Ministries’ pyramid-style accountability structure simply does not work and is NOT a healthy place for the man at the top.  While some of the information might be shocking in its revelation of rather extreme (even potentially criminal) behaviors like blackmail, what I found more telling than almost anything was the exchange in which C.J. Mahaney makes the (ostensible) request back in 2005 that the organization pay for his son’s airplane ticket for a ministry trip that C.J. and his wife Carolyn were going to take.

First of all, this exchange reveals in C.J. a breathtaking sense of entitlement.  In 2005, his base salary – not counting profits from his book sales, the money he was paid in honorariums for speaking engagements, and other perks that come from being in a ministry position like his – was $150,000.  While that’s not necessarily an excessive amount for the head of an organization like Sovereign Grace Ministries, it would probably seem like a large enough wage to most SGM members, large enough for most of us to conclude that if C.J. and Carolyn were good stewards of their money at all, they should have been able to afford their son’s airfare.

But more importantly, the exchange about the plane ticket clearly shows that while C.J. goes through the motions of making a request, no possibility ever really existed in C.J.’s mind that his request would be denied.  When Mr. Detwiler questions C.J. about the request, his questions are met with twisted non-answers and faux submission – “I understand if this can’t be done” – even as it becomes very clear, even to the casual reader, that C.J. is not happy about being challenged and ultimately makes Brent pay dearly for it.  Here is what Mr. Detwiler says about the aftermath of that exchange:

…it felt like we were being punished as Dave frequently described your reaction in situations like this one. That is, our denial of funds for Chad resulted in limitations of future travel for Carolyn.  None of us wanted that as the outcome. I felt guilty for this development.  And then your final comment which seemed to be self-pitying, etc. That is, ―Won‘t happen again.  What won‘t happen again?  You won‘t ever make a similar request in the future? We didn‘t want that result either. Again, I felt culpable.  Why won‘t you do so again? Were you resentful? Did we do something wrong? Was it because we asked some questions and raised some issues? 

I was worried. I knew I was in trouble again. In addition to your normal increase in salary, I proposed an additional $1,500 salary increase in 2006 to cover travel expenses for Chad even though I felt it unnecessary. That was shameful of me. I should have been truthful about my thoughts regarding your ability to pay for Chad. Please forgive me. I was also trying to avoid all conflict with you.

So basically, this incident makes it very clear that although C.J.’s words sound like he’s “asking,” it’s all little more than a show.  The men around him are keenly aware of his lack of tolerance for having his desires thwarted or his wishes questioned, and aside from Brent Detwiler, it appears that none of C.J.’s supposed “circle of accountability” was actually ever holding him accountable.

The documents go on, in hundreds of pages of laborious detail, to make a pretty clear case for the idea that Brent Detwiler was ultimately declared “not gifted to continue in his role as pastor” in large part because of his continued efforts to hold C.J. to the same standards which C.J. required of everyone else.

In the end, I came away with a myriad of impressions…

…of what happens when a megalomaniac is given unchecked power…

…of what happens when people blur the lines between “promoting the gospel” and “promoting the ‘movement'”…

…of what happens when men live for decades with the belief that they are true “apostles” akin to the Apostle Paul, which apparently renders them unable to use language and communicate and just say what they mean like normal guys, without all that apostolic “Greetings, my dear brother in the name of our Savior” window dressing…

Ultimately, though, I was left with one overriding conviction.

And that is that after reading these documents, it would seem to me like there’s no way the SGM system can continue to function in the same manner that it always has.

The SGM system depends upon the notion that the men in control are above reproach, to the point where they do not need to be held formally accountable to the ordinary members of SGM congregations.  Even “local” SGM churches count on this assumption.  SGM members are taught – by C.J. Mahaney himself, no less – that it is their job to “make their pastor’s job a joy” by obeying and submitting to him.   C.J. has spent years spreading this notion throughout the entire organization.  He has stated that if a pastor is not successful in his ministry, it is because his church members are not properly submitting to and obeying him.  C.J., in his Happiest Place On Earth sermon, said this:

The undeniable emphasis in [Hebrews 13] verse 17 is not on the pastoral team, the undeniable emphasis and accent in verse 17 is on the responsibility of the congregation TO the pastoral team, and here’s why. Here’s why.

The effectiveness of pastoral ministry is dependent upon a proper response TO pastoral ministry. THE effectiveness of pastoral ministry is indeed dependent upon a proper response TO pastoral ministry.

Later in this message, he glosses over the idea that church leaders might actually abuse their power.  He says,

It could be, there might be some – I hope there are none – but there might be some, where you actually come from a context where a pastor or pastoral theme was authoritarian. And if that is true – and if that is true of you – [whispers intensely] I am SO SORRY. Because there is no excuse for that. And if any of us as pastors engage in that, may we be held accountable in this life. I’m sure we’ll be held accountable in the life to come.

And here’s what I can assure you of this morning: that will not be your experience in this church. That will not be your experience in this church.

Unfortunately, that was the only assurance that C.J. could give his audience – his word.  Since SGM members have nothing built into their church governance structure as a safeguard against authoritarian abuse, they are left with no alternative but to “just trust” C.J.’s word that their pastors won’t abuse their authority. 

As my dad would say, “It all hangs on one rusty nail.”

And now we’ve learned that the “rusty nail” isn’t trustworthy.  We’ve seen what happens to the “rusty nail” at the top, when the guys who are supposed to hold him accountable also happen to consider him their boss.

Sure, C.J. Mahaney has now finally stepped down for a “season of reflection and repentance.”  But it took over a decade to get him to that point, and he apparently still plans on coming back to Sovereign Grace Ministries after Mark Dever and his other celebrity accountability partners declare him restored.

And even if C.J. doesn’t come back, the pyramid structure that enabled his behavior still – at this point – remains in place.  And human nature being what it is, it’s practically inevitable that the unchecked power and unchecked authority will just go to the head of the next guy who manages to claw his way to the top.

SGM members out there reading this, it’s time for you to demand that your organization changes its polity.  There’s simply no other solution.  Demand that your “local” churches change their Articles of Incorporation and become formally and legally accountable to the members of their congregations.  Demand that the larger organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, also changes its structure, so that your leaders must answer to an independent member-elected Board of Directors with disciplinary, hiring, and firing powers.

Nothing less will do.