Little leopards …

The reports have come out on the Jonathan Fletcher case and they make for sober reading. Fletcher was the pastor of a church in London and over the past few yers, in an alarming similarity to the accusations against John Smyth, it emerged that he had introduced an abusive regime of punishment beatings with vulnerable young men. There was a deviant sexual element to this. 

In response to the report, there has been the usual kinds of discussions. Would it have been better if the church had been more tightly linked by formal bonds into its parish and its diocese?  Would it have been protected better by plural eldership? Depending on your churchmanship, you will no doubt react in different ways to each of those suggestions.

Personally, I come from a tradition that emphasises the independence of the local church, so I’m unlikely to get excited about denominational solutions. I do think however that we have got to look at how we relate in terms of accountability between as well as within churches. In the light of that, as an independent evangelical I’m more likely to be sympathetic to the suggestion that we need better structures and processes within churches. This means that I agree that plural eldership provides better protection against abuse than single leader. However, I also want to sound a note of caution on that.

Some of you may have come across the Jungle Doctor stories told by a missionary doctor to help young converts in his context get a greater grasp of the Gospel.  The stories revolved around the animal life in the Jungle with Nhembo the elephant providing an Aslan like allegory for Christ.  Sometimes the stories involved humans.

In one story, a young lad found a leopard cub after its mother was killed and took it home as his pet.  Everyone in the village loved the leopard cub and played with it and fussed over it. It went everywhere with the lad and drank milk from his hand.  The hunter warned him that he had brought danger into the village.

“Little leopards grow into big leopards and big leopards kill.”

The lad didn’t believe him. The leopard was so tame. It had grown into a gentle giant and the small children would ride on its back. However, one day out playing, one of the children tripped and cut his knee. The leopard instinctively wanted to help and so went to lick the wound. However, with the taste of blood it’s demeanour changed from gently pet to snarling wild animal. It went in for the kill.

I can’t remember if the story ends happily with the hunter arriving in the nick of time to kill it and save the children but you get the point. 

“Little leopards grow into big leopards and big leopards kill.”

The story, has stuck with me, read by mum as a Sunday night treat and then told countless times by my dad as a local preacher along with stories about monkeys getting stuck in bogs and that kind of thing.  Its original purpose to drum in the danger of nurturing habits that grow into small sins that grow into big sins that cause havoc and destruction.  As the puritans would say

“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

It has relevance here on two levels. First of all, there is the way in which we see how sin has taken hold and caused so much damage within the church, but it will have started with small temptations. Secondly, one of the reasons I’m wary about the assumption that plural eldership just solves things is this.

Abusers and bullies don’t suddenly become abusers when they become senior leaders in churches and networks. There was a time when they were a church member, a ministry leader, a camp leader, a ministry trainee with a church and those worrying characteristic traits will have been present back then. I fear that too often those worrying signs get overlooked because too often we’ve prioritised other signs of potential and not paid attention to those things.

Those young leaders eventually became elders and theological students, then assistant pastors/curates and eventually pastors of churches, later they developed influence over networks.  And through all those years, the warning signs kept coming and were left unchecked.  Which takes me to the point of caution. If we don’t deal with root issues then we wont create elderships that provide accountability, we will create elderships that are potentially abusive themselves. A plurality that abuses the church or that even turns in on individual elders and employees ( we must not lose sight of the problem that whilst network leaders provide the high profile individual cases, that there are too many examples of pastors themselves experiencing bullying).

And so, something we need to pay attention to now is how we spot and how we address these character traits early both to protect congregations and to protect the future leaders themselves.  Part of that I believe is that we need to know the warning signs. Part of it is that we need to recognise that a culture is already there that has been breeding little leopards.  We have people who have gone through a system where the men now being found out have had an influence on the culture, on training and formation. We may need to go back to basics, we may need the church equivalent of track and trace and there may be a need for pastors and trainee pastors to recognise that they have some learning to do.

The big leopards that have caught the headlines because they killed were little leopards once.

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