Leadership Lessons from Happy Valley

Say it ain’t so, Joe. Please tell me you didn’t look the other way, more or less, when you were informed one of your coaches was molesting children. Say it ain’t so that you allowed him continued inside access to the program and failed to confront him about what you’d heard. Say it ain’t so that Jerry Sandusky used your program as a tool of manipulation to abuse young boys over many years. Good God, say that ain’t so.

I’ve admired Joe Paterno for years. You may have too. His longevity, the fact that PSU players generally stayed out of trouble, and the consistency of the Penn State football program all gave Joe Paterno higher than enormous influence in Happy Valley and around the country. Rightfully so.

However, had he chosen to use that influence to protect children when he became aware there might be a problem, the program would have been cleaned up and children wouldn’t have had their lives altered forever by his enabling of a culture of coverup. Can anyone doubt that if Paterno had decided to get to the bottom of it in the early stages and put the word out that anyone who didn’t come forward with what they knew would be fired immediately–the scandal would have been nipped in it’s infancy and children’s innocence spared?

God grants influence so we can bless others and protect the vulnerable. Paterno had enormous influence and could have used it for good. But, he didn’t, at least in this case. That didn’t help Penn State, children, or Sandusky. Jesus said that it would be better to have a millstone hung around his neck and be thrown into the depths of the sea.

This is all a good reminder to church leaders. If you look the other way, fail to report, or fail to confront–you fail, period. This is the case for sin of various types–not just child abuse. God’s standards are far higher than that of society at-large. Nevertheless, for fear of their job, for fear of the shame it would bring–or because they hate conflict, some church leaders stay silent, sweep things under the rug, or worse. Sadly, some even use “grace” as a reason, bringing reproach on the cross in so doing. Grace cannot be sinned against so that it may increase.

To my colleagues in ministry–do. not. cover-up. or ignore. or enable sin to go unchecked in your church–especially in leadership–and especially when it’s criminal. If you do so, you fail God, the Church, and those who are victimized by the sin you turned a blind eye too. I wish I didn’t know of several cases in several different churches where so-called church leaders tried to do this very thing with regards to extramarital affairs of leaders, financial fraud committed by leaders, and yes, the abuse of children. In most cases, it was a desire to protect either themselves or the perpetrator–failing to stick up integrity and those made vulnerable by the sin.

I wish Joe Paterno’s career hadn’t ended this way. However, the Board was right to remove him. They should look hard into the program, and sweep away all who are part of that culture.

Churches would do well to do the same. If you cannot help restore integrity to leadership…separate yourself from that church. God will not bless such a place. To stay and pretend as though nothing happened is not an option for a Christian.

Sin can be confronted, repented of, forgiven. It cannot be ignored. Ignoring sin is sin. Knowing the good you should do and failing to do it–that’s sin too.

Thoughts? Have you seen cultures of cover-up or enablement? Where have you seen sin dealt with effectively? How wide-spread do you think this is this in churches?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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