A lot of people within Sovereign Grace Ministries churches puzzle over how it is that there are accountability issues within the SGM organization. How is it that otherwise nice and godly guys with a sincere desire to serve the Lord could end up having such a difficult time providing real accountability for each other…especially when they have demonstrated such skill in confronting ordinary church members about their sins?
I was thinking about this question today, in the comments of the previous post. Here is what I wrote.
If we examine the process of becoming and remaining a pastor within SGM, it will help us understand why pastors in the SGM system – who can seem like such nice, godly guys who are sincere in their desire to serve God – can easily end up compromising their integrity. I’d even argue that because of the way the system is set up, it’s practically guaranteed that they will compromise their integrity.
How does one become an SGM pastor? Well, as we’ve frequently discussed, the road to a pastor’s job within SGM is one that starts by invitation only, and the invitation is issued by men who are already pastors.
The invitation comes when pastors believe you to be a godly man whom people want to follow – and “godliness” within SGM is characterized primarily by SGM’s concept of humility. In SGM, “humility” is not necessarily the same as it is in the rest of Christianity, where it is characterized by self-forgetfulness and serving “the least of these.” In SGM, “humility” instead is demonstrated by submitting yourself to your leaders and by elevating your leaders through your obedience to them and through your expressions of deference to them. A key part of this is always agreeing with your leaders about their assessments of your sin.
Elevating your leaders and deferring to your leaders – as well as demonstrating in front of your leaders that people also want to follow and defer to you – will be the behaviors that cause your leaders to believe that you are humble…and thus godly.
This deference – always agreeing with your leaders’ assessments of your sin, always speaking to them in the most respectful, honoring way, doing whatever you can to serve your leaders and lift them up through praise – is amped up to a whole other level at the Pastors College. There, you are paired up with a pastor-mentor who proceeds to make you strip spiritually naked. Your (and your wife’s) deepest darkest sins are confessed and discussed freely and openly with your pastor-mentor and his wife. Your every weakness is probed relentlessly.
Just like in the army, you are broken down to nothing through the weekly meetings you have with your pastor-mentor as well as through the use of “humorous” put-downs and even some silly hazing rituals.
After you are broken down, to where you truly believe you are nothing and have nothing to offer, you are then built back up – in the image of your pastor-mentor, who himself is patterned after CJ.
It’s little wonder that the guys who come out of SGM’s Pastors College have so often ended up talking and even looking exactly the same. They were taught that they should “follow their leaders, even as the leaders follow Christ.” Unfortunately, in SGM, that mandate has been interpreted in the most literal and wooden of ways, to where all too frequently, “following Christ” has been equated with following CJ and CJ’s followers.
After being in the environment of the Pastors College – which, incidentally, is a very expensive 9 months of SGM-centric study that is more about learning the SGM way of doing ministry than it is about actual Bible knowledge and real Spirit-led growth – the newly minted SGM pastor comes out completely re-made, ready and willing and completely submitted to do whatever his leaders tell him to do.
He’ll be placed on staff at a church somewhere and given a salary decent enough to allow him to afford to buy a nice-enough home and support a family with a stay-at-home wife. Almost immediately, he will get to enjoy the fruits of his labor, as the deference he paid to his SGM leaders for the previous several years will now be paid to him. He will be talked up in an introductory speech as the greatest, most humble and wonderful guy ever to come out of the Pastors College…and he’ll quickly be extended the same sort of obedience and submission by the church members. He’ll find himself counseling people and assessing their sin and having people agree with him.
That’s some pretty heady stuff.
Some years go by. Our PC grad is now a senior staffer. He’s not the senior pastor, but he’s one of the more established church leaders. His family owns their nice-enough home and has enough money to live well enough. His wife perhaps homeschools the kids…and in her own way also enjoys a level of influence in the church community as a women’s leader. One of the main fruits of their labor is that they are regarded all around as godly leaders to be revered and honored. Although they don’t misuse anyone, they have nonetheless grown accustomed to having people want to serve them.
Now, think about what happens when the proverbial fly gets into the ointment. Our now-veteran PC grad established pastor is cruising along, when lo and behold, he begins to get inklings that all is not as it should be in something the senior pastor is doing. The senior pastor is not behaving with integrity in some fashion. What does the junior pastor do?
Well, although he’s quite used to directing the lowly church members’ attention to their own sins, it’s a different game with his boss. So he must proceed very carefully. He doesn’t just barrel into a confrontation. Perhaps he approaches it in a round-about way, hinting at the problem. When that doesn’t work, he bucks up and – with much trepidation – dares to try and put his concerns into words. All the proper flowery flattery does come first…but then he does his best to oh-so-gently lower the hammer.
It does not go well. The senior pastor is even more used to the deference from everyone in his world, and “everyone” would include the junior pastor. Having Junior attempt to correct him just feels…wrong. Plus, if Junior just knew how things really were, he wouldn’t be asking questions or insinuating that something was wrong. Junior is misinformed. Moreover, Junior is arrogant! Junior must be put back in his proper place!
So Senior Pastor does what by now comes naturally. He directs Junior’s attention back to Junior’s own sins and shortcomings. Certainly Senior Pastor is very familiar with what those sins and shortcomings are – he’s had enough years with Junior to know just how to bring up the besetting sin, the Achilles heel. He knows just how to hit the sweet spot.
Despite his best resolve, Junior finds himself responding the same old way when he hears the same old song about his sin – with automatic deference, because it has been by now beaten into him. Especially if Senior Pastor happens to be someone like his own dad (who was trained in the 90s to spank a 2-year-old Junior with a glue stick until Junior joyfully obeyed), Junior will find himself folding like a cheap lawn chair the moment he faces his first real challenge from Senior Pastor.
End of confrontation.
End of potential accountability for Senior Pastor.
And this was for an area of real concern to Junior. This was for an area of actual sin in Senior Pastor’s life.
Imagine what the relational dynamic is like for more prosaic, less obvious dilemmas. Imagine what a meeting looks like where some neither-here-nor-there church decision is being made. Whose will is almost always guaranteed to prevail…even if lip service is paid to making a mutually agreeable choice?
But let’s say that the Holy Spirit is at work in Junior’s life, and Junior begins to experience real and genuine conviction about something he knows is not right in the inner workings of his church. Let’s say that rather than folding, as he’s been so conditioned to do, Junior instead continues to stand firm. He continues, stubbornly, to refuse to bow and bend as he always has. Going against all his training, he refuses to submit to Senior Pastor – who is, after all, Junior’s spiritual authority, his covering, his head. Instead, Junior sticks up for what he believes.
What’s going to happen to Junior?
At that point, Junior faces the very real possibility of having Senior Pastor decide that Junior is exhibiting “ungodly” behavior. Junior is demonstrating pride! After all, Junior is no longer submitting to his authority. Junior is unteachable. Junior is not humble, despite his most ingratiating preambles.
The wheels are then set in motion, and Junior finds himself on the fast track to being disciplined out of a job. Junior looks around and wonders what he can do. Unfortunately, SGM’s Pastors College training isn’t really acknowledged or accepted as adequate pastoral education in the rest of the non-SGM Christian world. If Junior is lucky, he will have earned a college degree prior to being sent to the PC. If he’s really lucky, he will have some sort of other non-pastoral vocation that he can once again embrace so that he can make a living. But it’s going to be a struggle. Junior discovers, to his dismay, that what had seemed like a moderate salary is actually quite generous when compared to what he’ll be able to earn just starting out in his new profession, if he’s even lucky enough to get a foot in the door and get an interview, let alone land a job. As a pastor, he enjoyed all sorts of tax advantages. As a manager at Home Depot, on the other hand, he can no longer count on things like a tax-free parsonage allowance. All he’s left with is the same old ordinary mortgage interest deduction that’s available to all little people.
Junior begins to have serious doubts about his convictions. Who is he, to ask questions? Really – who is he? He knows his own heart. And of course, his heart is deceitful. His pastor – Senior Pastor – is the one who knows Junior’s heart better than Junior knows it himself. That’s the answer! He will do the (SGM version of) the godly thing and go back and submit himself to Senior Pastor once again.
Who wants to go work for Home Depot anyway? Far better to be sacrificing for the gospel.
THIS is how SGM’s dysfunctional lack of formal accountability happens.