Off Balance: Facing the Truth about Power - by Emily M.D. Scott ‘06 M.Div.

Emily M. D. Scott ’06 M.Div.

… You sit waiting, humiliated and guilt-ridden, in the hall outside the office of the bishop. It’s been 23 years and a suicide attempt, but now you’re ready to speak about the abuse. When the bishop beckons you in, he is seated behind an imposing mahogany desk. He listens gravely, and assures you the priest had been moved. You try to protest but he waves your concerns away. “It was a long time ago,” is all he offers. After that, the letters you send go unanswered.


… Five years ago you left your job and started seminary to follow your call toward ordained ministry. Your spouse was uprooted, your kids changed schools. All this, so you can serve in a church that seems continually confused by you. Half Black, half Puerto Rican, you’ve been a member of this denomination since birth, yet sitting in your final set of ordination interviews, one committee member keeps asking about your “formation,” as if a lifetime in this denomination isn’t enough. Someone asks about balancing kids and your call, a question you’re pretty sure they wouldn’t ask your husband. You would complain, but the only person to complain to is the bishop, who holds your future in his hands. You’re underwater financially now – $80,000 in student loans. Sometimes it feels like this process doesn’t want you, but wants you to conform to some unnamed norm of “what a pastor looks like.”


… The church member stares at your breasts instead of meeting your eyes in the receiving line. He’s 30 years your senior, a high-up executive somewhere, a top donor at the church. After council meetings he waits until everyone’s left and offers to walk you to your car. It makes the hair on the back of your arms stand up. You make a habit of ducking out immediately after the closing prayer, missing the opportunity to connect with other congregants. You think about telling your senior minister, but he’s 30 years older as well. You’ve only been in this call nine months. You’re dependent on him to argue for paid parental leave when you have children. Plus, he and the congregant golf together.


While the details of these stories are drawn from imagination, we all know a story like this that’s all too true. Each one contains the same three ingredients:

1. There is someone who has power, and someone who has less power.

2. There is a closed circle of reporting: The only person the victim can report to is in leadership within system the victim is critiquing.

3. The leader wields retaliatory control over the victim, through a reference letter, a recommendation, the ability to find a job, or spiritual authority.

A Closed System

Tell one of these all-too-common stories to a friend who works in a corporate job, and their eyes will likely widen in shock. Corporate life is far from perfect, but at least employees are not expected to file complaints about their boss with … their boss. A closed system – that’s what is in place in so many churches – inhibits reporting. When someone does come forward, reports are kept “in house.”

In August, the news broke about the more than 1,000 souls abused by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania. Though I am not surprised by these reports, I am devastated by them. There is no metric for the harm that has been caused; we don’t know how to measure shame or count tears, weigh debilitation and depression, chart the paths that lives might have taken had they been allowed the kind of childhood all children deserve. The revelations reinforce what commentators have argued for years: The church’s instinct is to focus not on protecting victims but preventing scandal and protecting abusive clergy.

“Church is a Corporation”

A colleague of mine, Pastor Lenny Duncan, reminded me recently that “the church is a corporation.” It does what corporations do: avoid humiliation, avoid risk and change, seek to protect itself, seek to perpetuate itself. I hope for a church that lifts up the marginalized, that gives power to the powerless, and that, above all, protects the vulnerable among us from harm. But these characteristics, which sit at the heart of the gospel, are often in direct conflict with the impulses of a corporate entity.

My friend’s words made me feel a little queasy. I’d like to think of the church as a community – as the body of Christ. Though I do believe the church should seek to pattern itself around this biblical image, we lull ourselves into a false sense of security if we forget our corporate nature. Maybe some part of us believes (despite theologies that would refute this) that our pastors, elders, and bishops are slightly better people than the average human – slightly closer to God. We imagine that clergy could never be powerbrokers or tyrants. We assume the best instead of the worst of our leaders, setting up structures without the checks and balances that would ensure that those in power can’t abuse it, and those who are victimized will always be listened to.

If the church wishes to root out abuses, we must go farther than listening circles or liturgies (though these are good and needed) and address the power imbalances baked into our systems. In this moment, we are called to take seriously our fallibility as people and leaders. We are called, also, to squarely face the truth of our institutional nature. Just as we, individually, are both saint and sinner, the church is capable of both immense good and immense harm. To curtail the corporate impulses, we must build in systems that favor the needs of the powerless. Leaders at the top of the hierarchy who think of themselves as “easy to talk to” must remember that approachability does not correct a power imbalance. It is misguided to imagine that those whose paychecks you sign or whose candidacies you oversee will share openly with you.

A Complete Audit

Called by the gospel, we must not rely on hoping our leaders will behave well, but assume that at times they will not. If the church truly wishes to protect its laypeople, staff, clergy, and ministerial candidates from abuse of all kinds we must conduct a full audit of our power systems. Create, for instance, an independent council of diverse experts, in consultation with victims, that investigates past abuses. Such clarity would demonstrate the denomination’s dedication to those who have been disenfranchised or exploited by its structures.

I can imagine a denominational ethics office capable of receiving reports of abuse anonymously, tracking and investigating reports, and, when appropriate, communicating with local authorities. Such an office would be staffed with compassionate experts and retain a healthy independence from the denomination it is called to serve. This office would carry out regular boundaries training with denominational bodies, congregations, clergy, and staff.

Any system as we find it is always working for someone. The first question: Who is it working for? The second: How do we make it work for the vulnerable? Our reforms must not be based on the opinions of those who hold power, but designed by those who have been victimized.

Emily M. D. Scott ’06 M.Div. is a Lutheran pastor and church planter. She founded St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn, and is currently starting a new congregation in Baltimore.