Recently I was honored to sit down with author Laura Barringer who recently co-wrote A Church Called Tov with her father, respected scholar Scot McKnight. For anyone interested in the ongoing discussion about church abuse, evangelical cover-ups, and how to biblically deal with institutional injustice, this is a must-read.
My questions are in bold.
There are many online conversations when it comes to church abuse, toxic leadership, and how churches ought to respond to allegations of abuse. There are also a great number of books coming out which hit on these themes. Why did you feel it important to contribute to this conversation? Can you unpack the steps that led to A Church Called Tov and your motivation behind it?
Laura: A Church Called Tov is not a story I ever planned to write. I encouraged my father, a respected theologian, to write a book about Willow Creek but he didn’t think he wanted to do that… We eventually decided to write together about a larger topic, one that is ultimately redemptive. I persisted because the voice inside me would not quiet, and he had the outline for a beginning.
Backing up, my journey started with the unfolding of the Willow Creek tragedy, where women we knew to be truthful were branded liars by Willow’s elders and pastors. Weeks turned into months and disbelief turned into anger because the truth remained buried by a church we previously attended and loved. This was how Tov began for me — to write about a better way; to offer an alternative to hiding and wounding and false narratives and power abuses. This better way — Tov — is for the wounded resisters; women and men who persevered in telling the truth so the truth would be known. We hope our book honors them.
You push back against a culture in churches and religious organizations where elitism prevails and employees and congregants protect a name or brand at all costs. You suggest that we should instead develop healthier cultures, a tov culture. Can you speak into this and what is meant by tov?
Laura: Tov is the Hebrew word for goodness. It appears more than a hundred times in the Bible, and seven times alone on page one of Genesis. (God saw all that he had made, and it was very tov.) Our Bible, my father says, is the Book of Tov. He noticed when he taught about tov in his seminary classes that it was catchy among students. He’d hear them using it and commenting, “Oh, that’s Tov!”
Later, my father wrote a blog post about the need for churches to intentionally establish a goodness culture, and he was struck by how many folks wrote to him privately about the word “good” or “goodness” and how meaningful the post was to them. Goodness resonated as an alternative to deception. Tov resonated.
Now I will speak into it: If pastors and elders and church leaders of all sorts commit themselves to tov instead of to self-preservation and brand protection, a healthy culture develops instead of a toxic one. When allegations arise, a church puts people first instead of burying the truth. It heals instead of wounds. It offers compassion for victims instead of weaponizing Scripture verses against them (Matthew 18). It resists toxicity of all forms and instead offers grace, justice, healing, truth, and Christlikeness.
Something that comes up in A Church Called Tov are non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) that many churches and religious organizations have their members or employees sign. Can you speak into this reality and what you find troubling about NDAs? Related to this question is your attitude toward them in general: do you think they could be used wisely (and are perhaps a sort of necessary evil in today’s age), or do you feel that churches should not utilize them?
Laura: Non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements too often prevent the truth from being told. They are used to silence the victim and preserve the church’s public reputation. We have seen them create division and discord between folks who believe the false narrative about an employee and others who feel something isn’t quite right. The former employee can’t tell the truth, so disagreement continues. Those who sign them are rendered incapable of establishing justice by speaking truthfully about what they know or have seen or heard. As we write in A Church Called Tov, silenced truth is an unspoken lie.
Furthermore, NDAs are too often presented to an employee under duress, who is told to sign or his/her severance will be withheld. The employee leaves disoriented, wondering what just happened. Mistreatment is never tov.
I can imagine situations where NDAs are perhaps necessary — but never as a weapon to silence. Never as a means to control a narrative.
What would it take for church culture to radically shift in order to become more tov-like and Christ-like? What changes must leaders and churchgoers make in order to curate healthier cultures of accountability and safe havens for victims?
Laura: We believe our “Circle of Tov” offers a radical culture shift towards goodness. We studied traits of church toxicity and countered each with a tov alternative:
Nurture empathy. Resist a narcissist’s culture.
Nurture grace. Resist a fear culture.
Put people first. Resist institution creep.
Tell the truth. Resist false narratives. Know Yom Kippur.
Nurture justice. Resist a loyalty culture.
Nurture service. Resist a celebrity culture.
Nurture Christlikeness. Resist the leader culture.
It has become common for Christians to defend “fallen” Christian leaders and excuse their behavior, or for these leaders to get a pass and continue with ministry after a short hiatus. What do you feel this defensiveness is rooted in, and should leaders with moral fallouts step away from ministry indefinitely or even permanently?
Laura: First, there is always Grace.
I, too, am dismayed by the number of pastors with platforms who step away for a short while and then return to a position of influence. I don’t know the answer, but I know what is lacking — humbleness, sorrow, contrition.
Churches need to recognize the power of a fallen leader has on those who are weak in the faith, who are unbelievers, and those who struggling with the church. Such persons discredit the gospel. Such persons, who may be forgiving in many ways, find easy re-admission of fallen leaders into positions of power and influence to be a scandal and a denigration of the church itself. Our sense of justice and doing the right thing need to be at work in all these situations, and by doing the right thing I mean doing what is right for victims, for the weak and vulnerable, and for the reputation of the Lord.
Often after allegations arise, the response is “Let’s handle it internally,” with a severe aversion to involving the authorities. Why is this wrong and even irresponsible?
Laura: To be frank, this response reveals an unhealthy, toxic culture is at work within the system. A defensive “let’s handle it internally” response creates alarm bells for me because it appears the church is trying to control outcomes. It is an irresponsible use of Scripture (1 Corinthians 6) because the abused should never be forced to confront their abuser.
When the decisions go “internal” we need to recognize who has the advantage: the perpetrator/s or the victims.
Compare it to a tov response, for example: confession and repentance, a commitment to finding the truth. Compare it to Pastor Robert Cunningham, who tweeted this about the #MeToo movement in 2017:
“I say let the stories come. Let them all come out… Let every attempt to deflect or defend come to an end, and let us listen and learn from the courage of the abused. They are our prophets now, with voices that will no longer allow us to hide or ignore the epidemic… Indeed, the overdue purge has begun, and may it not relent until every hidden darkness faces the light of justice.”
When it comes to congregations dealing with scandals (some of them being quite public and messy), how can they begin the process of recovery and healing?
Laura: Since the publication of A Church Called Tov, this is a question we are often asked. How can a church recover? How can it heal? (Interestingly, we have not been asked this by churches that actually need to begin a process of recovery and healing.) We recommend, of course, professional counseling and care for the wounded. We recommend the church hire an independent investigator and commit to telling the truth no matter how ugly. We don’t believe healing is fully possible without truth-telling and purging of all hidden darknesses.
We recommend the leadership circles of churches surrender the decision for how best to move forward to an impartial, wise jury of Christians composed of a diverse group of people.
In response to more and more scandals and abuses being uncovered, many well-meaning Christians seem to be saying that we should emphasize the Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule more than ever. What are your own thoughts on something like the Billy Graham rule?
Laura: Here are my thoughts on the Billy Graham rule. Bill Hybels told the Willow Creek congregation (and the world) that he followed it. Those who want to find a way around it will. Those who are tov don’t need it.
Thank you for your time!
For more information, visit https://www.churchcalledtov.org/