Trust in pastors is dropping, and Southern Baptists think they know why

OnlySky Media [Menlo Park CA]

February 7, 2023

By Cassidy McGillicuddy

When The Big Problem Here is that people don’t know enough pastors, not that those pastors cause countless scandals, you’ve got a much bigger problem on your hands than a lack of trust.

Yet again, Gallup surveys show that Americans’ trust in clergy, including pastors, is eroding. In fact, that erosion has hit record levels for the second year in a row. Barely a third of Americans trust pastors any further than they can throw them. And Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders think they know why. Yes, it’s so simple! People just don’t know any pastors personally, and so all they have to go on is the constant news of pastors’ scandals!

But this explanation actually causes them more problems than they think. It’s a signal flare in the sky to all beholding it: This is not a trustworthy organization at all.

Gallup delivers devastating news about pastors and religion in general

The survey itself came out a couple of weeks ago. In it, Gallup asked Americans how much they trust people in various professions. Nurses came out on top, followed by medical doctors, pharmacists, and high school teachers. On the bottom, we find (in declining order) car salespeople, members of Congress, and telemarketers.

Of course, the survey also reflects evangelicals’ beloved culture wars. A distinct political divide exists in respondents’ answers. Republicans rated fact-based professions (nurses, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, journalists) much lower, and authoritarian figures (police officers, clergy, bankers, business executives) higher than their Democratic counterparts did. It’s quite an interesting survey.

Of interest, clergy people hit a historic low in these polls last year. Only 36% of respondents thought they had “high ethical standards.” It was the lowest that the clergy had ever been rated. But this year, respondents beat that figure: 34% thought that.

This drop in confidence goes along with a general drop in Americans’ trust in organized religion as a whole. In 2021, 37% of Gallup’s respondents thought churches were very trustworthy. In 2022, only 31% thought that. Last year, Aaron Earls (the same writer who brings us our OP, or original post, of the day) examined this situation for the SBC’s official website, Baptist Press.

In short, these polls measure a catastrophic drop in trust since about the early 2000s. Clergy and churches have gone from soaring trust levels in the 60% and 70% range in the 1970s to barely squeaking past the 30% mark now.

And Earls is sure that he knows why.

The Big Problem Here isn’t pastors!

When I talk about “The Big Problem Here,” I’m poking fun at dysfunctional authoritarians’ longstanding habit of deciding that all of their problems hinge on one particular thing that has nothing to do with anything. They can’t even tackle that chosen scapegoat problem with any meaningful strategies, because—again—it doesn’t impact anything about their situation. So they tilt at this one windmill for a while, then abandon the entire project once their followers move on to new concerns.

In this case, Earls has decided that The Big Problem Here is simple:

Thanks to declining church membership and attendance rates, fewer Americans personally know any pastors. Thus, when they hear about pastoral scandals on the news, they don’t have that mitigating knowledge to offset the shock of the scandals. As he puts it:

Downward trends in church attendance accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. With more Americans staying home each Sunday, fewer personally know a local church pastor. The lack of individual knowledge means more people associate pastors as a whole with the scandals surrounding individual church leaders.

Aaron Earls, Baptist Press

Gosh, it’s just so simple!

Oh wait.

In reality, this assessment makes the SBC look much worse.

How Christians’ trust in pastors helps scandals fester in dark places

Long, long ago I ran across an interesting article from Christianity Today. Posted in 2000, it concerned the leaders of Willow Creek Community Church. Specifically, it covered “the man behind the megachurch,” Gilbert Bilezikian.

As I read the article, I was absolutely shocked by the way that the writer completely missed a number of creepy red flags about this guy. She wrote this paragraph without perceiving anything weird going on at all:

Walking the halls of Willow Creek with Bilezikian is like walking through a shopping mall with a movie star. People stare, and he can’t complete a sentence without someone waving and calling, “Hey, Dr. B.!” Women of 83 and girls of 6 rush up to him, knowing he will kiss their hand and compliment their ravishing beauty.

Lauren Winner, Christianity Today, November 2000

One of Willow Creek’s teaching pastors at the time, John Ortberg, had the following to say of Bilezikian:

“Women at Willow Creek fall in love with him all the time,” Ortberg says. “He has legions of female followers. He manages to be thoroughly egalitarian and thoroughly French at the same time.”

Lauren Winner, Christianity Today, November 2000

Ortberg said that. The writer put that quote into her article. Neither she nor Ortberg detected anything weird going on there at all.

Eventually, Bilezikian would fall to scandal. In fact, it’d turn out that he’d been sexually preying upon female Willow Creek members since at least the 1980s. Eventually, the lead pastor of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels, would also fall due to his own long history of preying upon women.

As for Ortberg, he eventually became the lead pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. And he lost his job in 2020 due to scandal as well: He allowed one of his sons to work around children even though that son had confessed to having compulsive thoughts about committing pedophilia.

(In retrospect, it sounds like the son may have suffered from a recognized form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Thankfully, an investigation has turned up no actual child abuse, though those investigators did criticize Menlo Park’s child-protection policies. Of course, allowing someone like that to work around children is a shockingly bad judgment call.)

Americans’ trust in pastors was egregiously misplaced with all of these guys. And they all took full advantage of that trust.

Trust only allows predators all to operate unfettered and without fear through churches’ fields full of prey. Those predators know they will always have evangelicals defending them from any and all consequences of their actions.

Misplaced trust shields predatory pastors

Even when pastors finally get caught preying upon others, misplaced trust shields them from any consequences. In 2015, Geronimo Aguilar, or “Pastor G,” went to trial for sexually abusing two young girls in his youth group in the 1990s. (He’d been staying with their family temporarily, and her parents interrupted him in mid-rape.)

(Related: Rape culture and Pastor G.)

It turned out that these weren’t his only two victims. Four women in total accused him of abusing them. His wife even testified about his extramarital affairs with church staff, a board member’s wife, and even family members. And one woman testified that he’d paid for her abortion after he impregnated her.

If you’re wondering how his church took these shocking accusations, you shouldn’t.

They closed ranks around him. His uncle wondered aloud if one of his victims was a “hartlet” (I think he means harlot) who had led him on.

At the time, I saw numerous members of Pastor G’s church loudly protesting his innocence. But thankfully, the court system did its job and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Jesus did nothing to help this guy’s victims. He didn’t stop the predator in that church. And all the trust the congregation gave their pastor only allowed him to operate freely.

Misplaced trust makes Christians say “Oh no, my pastor would never do that!” It grants pastors a shield they do not deserve.

Aaron Earls, in his OP about eroded trust in pastors, laments the dropping of that shield. He’s sad that this undeserved cover is being removed, allowing light to shine at last in those dark places.

The biggest accountability cheerleaders in the world completely lack it in their own leadership ranks

It’d be ironic, if I didn’t know them like I do, to know that evangelicals are possibly the biggest cheerleaders in the world for accountability—and yet entirely lack it in their leadership ranks.

That’s why the public is well-served by not giving them their trust.

In many of the other professions that Gallup measures, like the medical field and even to a much lesser extent journalism, nobody enjoys much undeserved trust. Accountability is baked into the system at all levels. Often, laws address infractions of a profession’s code of ethics. Though violations of the profession’s rules do occur, the rulebreakers get caught.

If medical staff blab about patients’ treatment and diagnoses, they stand in violation of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996). And our government strongly punishes these infractions. Journalists who invent or embellish stories can lose their jobs and their standing in the profession. All kinds of laws govern bankers and military people at all levels.

Various laws also govern police officers’ conduct, though they are often poorly-enforcedScandals abound within this entire profession. In some areas, distrust of law enforcement is so profound that the law has to allow for drivers not wanting to stop in isolated areas when pulled over.

Spotty, often-ineffective enforcement is what leads to lax accountability.

Lax accountability, in turn, is what makes an authoritarian group become dysfunctional.

However, evangelicals don’t just have spotty, often-ineffective enforcement.

They often have none at all.

Nobody watches the churches’ watchers

All too often, church leaders operate with almost complete impunity. Though church boards often try to rein in the worst overreaches from pastors, all too often pastors game that system by packing their church boards with yes-men (as Mark Driscoll did—and when his board finally found its voice, he quit rather than submit to them). Church members fear exposing a pastor’s misdeeds because they know they might be blamed for provoking their own victimization—and they fear tarnishing their church’s (and their religion’s) reputation and credibility.

In really authoritarian churches, pastors institute church discipline, featuring membership covenants. These are BDSM-style contracts that Christians must sign in order to be considered full members of their churches. They spell out penalties for various infractions of the church leaders’ rules. But they almost never include provisions for appeals, much less any tangible, meaningful rules that church leaders themselves must follow, much less penalties for infractions of those rules. Instead, it’s the church members who must submit to discipleship.

I wish Christians would stop being completely shocked when yet another discipleship-pushing church turns out to be horrifically abusive. If I operated a list of Evangelical Things No Longer Considered Weird, like we see in Chuck Shepherd’s long-running “News of the Weird” column, this situation would have qualified almost from the beginning of my own writing.

Why evangelicals don’t rein in their pastors

Worse, authoritarian evangelical leaders exist in a system that considers rule-following to be what the powerless must do. The powerful don’t have to follow their group’s rules. A symbol of power in their group is having very few people able to rein someone in. The fewer people who can rein you in, the more power you hold. In turn, the more people you can order around, the more power you hold.

In fact, the powerless in their groups admire the powerful for flaunting often openly-transgressive behavior. That’s a big part of why evangelicals glommed so hard onto Donald Trump in 2016. Every transgression he committed in office only made evangelicals love him more.

The goal of the powerless is, therefore, to become powerful so they don’t have to follow so many rules and answer to fewer superiors about their behavior. To become powerful, they curry favor with those more powerful than themselves—while preventing the upward rise of others seeking the same goal. The results of all this jockeying can be seen in almost every single evangelical church in America.

Evangelicals’ entire social system revolves around power: who holds it, who wields it, who grants it, and who guards it. In such an environment, ethics and morality take a far distant millionth place in priorities.

A former big-name SBC leader, Thom Rainer, perfectly (if unwittingly) described evangelicals’ power obsession in a podcast he did a few years ago. He discussed how church members often begin grooming pastors to be on their side from the moment one begins moving into the neighborhood. In addition, big church donors often use their money to control pastors’ decisions and behavior. If they succeed, the pastor favors them in church squabbles and grants them plum volunteer (and maybe even paid staff) roles.

If this grooming fails to get the groomers what they want, Rainer asserts, the groomers seek to drive the new pastor out so they can get another one who will hopefully be more amenable to their blatant attempts to curry favor.

Look up the ladder of power, and multiply this jockeying with each successive rung to the top.

People are right not to trust leaders in a dysfunctional authoritarian system

And so now, we come full circle back to this OP from Aaron Earls on the SBC’s official website. That means that Earls’ writing is stamped with the SBC’s approval. It represents what the SBC as a whole wants its members to know and think and feel. Though he’s discussing a source that deals only with Christianity and clergy as a whole (meaning all flavors of churches and all kinds of clergy), he specifically zeroes in on pastors, and he clearly means evangelical pastors at that.

In his OP, Earls tells us that The Big Problem Here is that not enough Americans personally know any pastors. He asserts that this lack of mitigating personal knowledge is what makes scandals seem so shocking. He implies that if Americans only personally knew more pastors, we’d know that these scandals are far from indicative of evangelicalism as a whole.

But what would happen if more Americans chose to get acquainted with more pastors?

Would this rise in pastoral acquaintanceship lead to pastors’ scandals becoming less frequent or shocking? Would pastors become somehow truly accountable for their behavior?

No and no. It wouldn’t change evangelicals’ piss-poor accountability structures. It wouldn’t change evangelicals’ obsession with power. All it would do is potentially cloud Americans’ perceptions and lead to them granting all evangelical pastors the regard they hold for one or two pastors. And if those pastoral acquaintances turn out to be predators, that knowledge sure won’t boost their normie acquaintances’ opinions of pastors in general. It’ll just make normies realize anew that pastors can easily hide a lot of wrongdoing very easily from a whole lot of people.

That’s exactly what happened to one person who personally knew a pastor named Paul Dyal, who was charged last year with capital sexual battery of a victim aged 11 or under. The abuse had begun decades earlier. A fellow pastor of his, Jerry Mullaly, had this to say about the charges:

“He was always a polite man. Always outgoing. Always wanted to help someone in need,” Mullaly said. “Never did any kind of red flags come up. But I’ll say this — you never know who’s sitting beside you.”

Robert Grant, Action News Jax

And evangelicals in particular really don’t “know who’s sitting beside” them.

For the most part, it looks like a whole bunch of Americans already know all of this. So no, they don’t actually need to get to know any pastors.

When your strategy involves anything but addressing your group’s scandals

But this conclusion that Earls draws is perfectly safe, speaking in terms of the utterly-dysfunctional evangelical system.

He is not suggesting any meaningful changes to their social system. Nor is he suggesting that evangelical leaders create and submit to real accountability practices.

Instead, he’s complaining that The Big Problem Here is that normies just don’t know pastors well enough. That takes the entire onus of resolution off of evangelical leaders and their dysfunctional social system. Then, this non-solution shoves the obligation for fixing this situation onto people who, as we just discovered, do not owe those leaders even one moment of their time.

Until evangelicals decide to recreate their system to bake accountability into it at all levels, they do not deserve even one iota of anyone’s trust.

Alas, that will never happen. Entirely too many evangelicals like things as they are right now. The system as it is now works just fine for entirely too many evangelicals. Meaningful changes would only dilute the power that evangelical pastors hold.

If you ever see that happen, then maybe it’ll be a little safer to trust these folks. But they’re nowhere near that point, as Aaron Earls and the SBC have so generously demonstrated for us this week.