23 December 2013

Zimbabwe: Controls Needed in Evangelical Churches


Church leaders and ministers have a special relationship with their parishioners and followers, a blend of authority, care, loyalty and love. And some abuse this relationship.

We have all heard of the worldwide scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, where a tiny minority of priests and brothers went way off the rails and where a substantial number of bishops then tried to hush-up the problem. We know the solution that has been put in place. In future there is no hushing up and those who commit offences that both church and state see as criminal will be turned over to the cops.

There could be no other decision.

But we also need to note that the Catholic church, or rather the authorities in each diocese where there was a problem priest, knew about the abuses and crimes. Under an old policy they tried to fix the matters internally and failed. What is now different is that they will co-operate with the civil authorities.

In other hierarchical churches with a formal structure - the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and most churches deriving from the Reformation - there is again little difficulty in someone facing abuse or worse from a minister of the church from getting this information to the church authorities. And presumably, as the Catholic church has now done, these churches will also take swift and effective action.

In Zimbabwe the large Apostolic movement has, through its Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe, moved to create a simple and effective way for followers to make complaints, and has received a good trickle of these. The ACCZ leader, Archbishop Joahannes Ndanga, quite correctly sees the surge in complaints not as a sign of sudden degeneracy among pastors, but more of a silence in the past, a silence that is no longer expected or tolerated.

The percentage of pastors complained of is small, as would be expected, but at least now the ACCZ can sort out its "bad apples" and it is doing this correctly, by handing over the cases to the police where it sees that there is a chance of something substantive in the complaints it receives.

But a growing number of people are now attending independent churches, ones that are not part of a formal structure but each being independent and often founded and being run by a single person or married couple.

This is a typical structure within the evangelical movement and can create a number of problems where a pastor goes off the rails.

The United States, where this sort of church structure is very common, has seen some very high-profile scandals, again involving a small minority but which taint everyone unless care is taken.

The retired evangelical leader Billy Graham recognised these problems earlier than most and set up some voluntary controls, both financial and personal, so that a wayward pastor would be recognised early before much damage was done. Unfortunately not every pastor welcomed such controls and self-discipline.

In Zimbabwe some of our evangelical pastors do run a tight transparent operation.

Every dollar is accounted for, and what is a church dollar and what is a pastor dollar is known to the tax authorities. At the same time these churches insist on a high standard of personal behaviour from leaders, and are sufficiently wise to know this means that every member must have access to more than one leader.

But we feel that the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, which groups for several activities most of these churches, could do more to formalise codes of best practice in finances and behaviour and think through ways where members of any church could complain to a higher authority. The Apostolics found 10 trouble spots when they opened a door to such complaints, not a large number in such a grouping but 10 too many.

The EFZ might find a similar small percentage if it starts looking for trouble and creates a fellowship-wide complaints structure.

And finally, all church members need to realise that they never have to suffer in silence if their pastor or minister or priest or prophet is behaving in a scandalous manner he or she is unworthy of their loyalty, and the church they are attending is degenerating into a cult run by a person gone mad with authority.

The Catholics were forced to fix their mess when victims really complained; there have been court cases in Zimbabwe, some still being heard, that arose from church members being unwilling to tolerate criminal activity any longer.

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