When failure goes deep

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit 1.

Churches have been through scandal after scandal during my lifetime. And each time a scandal unfolds, and Christians begin to critique the systemic failures which led to the scandal, there are many who stand up and say, “But look at all the good they did!”

And a lot of times it’s true. In many church scandals there you can look back at was was later revealed to be a corrupt system and see people coming to faith, having their live turned from destructive behaviors, and finding a space which felt like home. Often there are any number of social ministries being done for homeless people, those who are sick, or people suffering from abuse.

And people will point to these works and say, “How can you judge them when they do all that good?” The answer is, “Because you know a tree by its fruit.”

This confuses people because we are geared to equate “success” with “being fruitful.” If a church is growing numerically, the building is tech’d out with the best equipment, and the pastor is a minor celebrity that is being fruitful. The problem is this is a lie, and what looks like “fruitfulness” is often blight. We really don’t see what “fruit” a church is bearing, really, until it faces a crisis. The crisis doesn’t have to be a moral failing or scandal, it just has to be something which pushes the church into deep stress. That stress squeezes a church hard, and reveals what’s under the surface – that’s when its real fruit is revealed.

That fruit can be good, and for many churches 2, it is good. These institutions come out of a time of stress and discover they are really are about what they say they are about. That’s a wonderful thing.

And then there are the times when institutions discover they are nothing like what they say they are.

I began pondering this piece after the recent revelations surrounding the resignation of Willow Creek’s core leadership last week, but as I took time to put my thoughts together the results of an investigation into the Roman Catholic dioceses of my home sate became public. I’m left aghast by each of these scandals. I also realize, while the latter is more horrific by order of exponential magnitudes, they emerge from the same rot.

The Leadership of Willow Creek has asserted in a letter that they made a “mistake” in not treating allegations with significant weight. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, has even gone on record defending his actions during a decades long cover-up of the extent of sexually abusive clergy,

While I understand this Report may be critical of some of my actions, I believe the Report confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse 3.

I have no doubt Cardinal Wuerl feels that way, nor do I doubt the Elders of Willow Creek feel they have made “mistakes.” The problem is, these folks just don’t get it. The report that the Cardinal references is not just critical of his actions, it’s critical of a system which went out of its way to hide atrocities. And the leadership of Willow Creek didn’t make “mistakes,” they aided and abetted an abuser of power. And, what’s worse, in both instances these folks in leadership functioned exactly the way they were designed to function – they moved to protect the brand rather than the integrity of the story they were called to proclaim4. Organizational survival became more important than institutional faithfulness, and so a story which is the direct anthesis of Jesus’ good news ended up being imposed on vulnerable and unsuspecting people. The story went from “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” and became, “Blessed are the powerful, because they will prove their dominance.”

And we’re seeing what fruit is emerging from this systemic rot. The long term impact of Willow Creek’s revelations are still being unfurled, but they give no one any reason to trust Protestant institutions. And the responses I’ve seen from Catholics who are today wresting with the very nature of their faith just break my heart 5. And this fruit didn’t come into being just because of some individual moral failures 6, it emerged from systems which nurtured these abuses.

And the pathetic irony is we’re still looking at these organizational systems which breed abuse as the way to “success.” Last week, days after Willow Creek’s leadership resigned because of a lack of leadership, the Willow Creek Association still went forward their Global Leadership Summit. And people wonder why I’m a cynic?


  1. Matt. 12:33 NRSV 
  2. The ones you never hear about. I mean even I wouldn’t watch a news report on “And everyone figured out how to respect each other and move forward.” It would be dull. 
  3. This quote is found in The Washington Post 
  4. The penchant for people to confuse the brand with the institution is something I’m going to have to spend more time pondering. But when it happens the institution begins to service the brand, instead of the other way around. It never ends well. 
  5. And we will never know the extent of the lives destroyed by this systemic rot. It is horrifying. 
  6. One of the things which continues to frustrate me with the Evangelical response to Willow Creek is a repeated unwillingness to deal with this at anything other than the personal level. I’ve seen a number of “x number of ways to keep your pastor healthy” which use Willow Creek as a reference. I keep banging my head on the desk so hard I’ve got a semi-permanent headache. 

4 Thoughts

  1. Yes. So, so much truth here. Even our tiny church has had moments like this, and what’s the reaction? Protect the brand. Because NO ONE LEARNS ANYTHING.

    (I’m shouting a lot in this comments this morning…)

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