Sex and the Wayward Christian Pastor

Last week the headlines told of yet another megachurch pastor who has been relieved of his duties, at least temporarily, because of inappropriate behavior with another person. Yet again, as the pastor admitted his failure on stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of, “We love you.” I imagine those folks will discover there is more to the accusations than meets the eye, which will cause them to regret that standing ovation. We see it happen all too often.

All of these leaders are men. There are no women megachurch pastors in America. Most began ministry with confidence coupled with at least some level of humility. By the time they had their great fall, however, not much humility remained. They had surrounded themselves with co-workers and friends who enabled their increasingly erratic behavior and ended up slipping into the inevitable zone in which absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A megachurch pastor can exercise power unfairly, treat subordinates poorly, handle money badly, and generally be a jerk and probably not lose his job. But there is one thing that will end his job and career. And that is to have any kind of sexual dalliance with a person other than his spouse. There is no forgiveness for that, because in evangelicalism there is no forgiveness for being a sexual being who makes mistakes.

I am not excusing the behavior of any of these pastors. Too often they refuse to recognize the unequal power dynamics that led to these inappropriate relationships. And as with far too many men exposed through the #MeToo movement, they see themselves as victims, not predators. I am not excusing any of their deplorable behavior. But I do have questions.

How did sex become the all-powerful career ending sin? Has anyone read the Hebrew scriptures? There was a lot of sex going on that was not between a husband a wife. Male religious leaders had hundreds of partners. And what about the relative little the New Testament says about sex? Jesus certainly wasn’t fixated on the subject. He said nothing about his own sex life.

The Christian fixation with sex did not begin until Augustine, hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. That sexual sin as the worst kind of sin is relatively new to the Christian message, dating from the beginnings of the Modern age. The purity movement of the late twentieth century was the apex of the sex negativity movement.

Here is what I do know. Many pastors have had relationships that they believed were consensual, but with unequal power dynamics. They betrayed their wedding vows. But most are not serial philanderers. They made a mistake, and one mistake does not have to be career ending. Far more pastors view pornography or engage in sexual paraphilias. All are decidedly male issues. Over 50 percent of men are interested in at least one of the common paraphilias, and over one third have engaged in a paraphilia like sadism, masochism, sexual cross dressing, or voyeurism. Sexual paraphilias cause great shame, because most people do not understand their genesis or what can be done about them.

Exacerbating the problem for male clergy is that they are not encouraged to talk about their sexuality, ever. Men are left to struggle alone. They never learned to understand the nature of male sexuality, and therefore never learned how to exercise agency to both acknowledge attraction and turn it off before it becomes a problem. They have never been taught about those times and people they need to keep at a distance because they trigger unresolved issues in their own lives that want to be healed through sexual intimacy. Men in ministry are not taught how to manage their sexuality.

For Christian men, there are only two options. There is sex in marriage, or there is no sexuality at all. If you brought a paraphilia with you into the marriage, too bad for you. There will be no place in which it is safe to figure out what that means to the marriage. If you arrived in marriage with the example of an unfaithful father who never taught you the importance of agency, too bad for you. You have to figure out monogamy on your own. If your natural sexual attraction is toward men, you are in a double bind. You can’t even show romantic affection to a man, let alone marry him.

To be clear, I am not condoning bad behavior by male clergy. But we really do need to do a better job of helping male religious leaders integrate a healthy understanding of sexuality into their lives. We need to give them the tools to understand unequal power dynamics, the ability to appreciate the power of testosterone in contributing to unhealthy behaviors, and the wisdom to exercise agency before they end up being the next headline about a pastor being asked to step down.

And so it goes.

Why Stop Now?

Why would anyone retire? I’m serious. Why not just pivot to work you enjoy doing. (As soon as I wrote “pivot” I thought of Ross moving the couch on Friends. Anyway…)

All of us have at least three different levels of capacity. First, we have what I will call abilities, things at which we are good, but the work doesn’t feed our souls. I’m good with finances, and run the finances of RLT Pathways, but I can’t say I enjoy it. We are competent when we work within the realm of our abilities, but we are not inspired. If you are relegated to the realm of abilities, I understand why you might want to retire. No one wants to do soul-sapping work.

In addition to abilities, we have gifts. A gift is something at which you excel that you enjoy doing so much you lose track of time when you are doing it. For me, writing is a gift. Running an organization is a gift. Counseling is a gift. If we are lucky and have had good mentors along the way, we also may be able to identify our pinnacle gifts. A pinnacle gift is work at which you excel beyond others. If you don’t know what your pinnacle gift is, you can determine it by asking a single question: What do people most affirm about you? The answer is likely your pinnacle gift.

My pinnacle gifts are public speaking and coaching and developing other public speakers. At TEDxMileHigh earlier this month I got to practice both of my pinnacle gifts, by coaching our speakers through the memorization and delivery process, while also emceeing the event. I was in seventh heaven. To make it even better, though a little stressful, I preached at Denver Community Church the next morning, then preached at Left Hand Church that night. Both were brand new messages. All weekend I was in my sweet spot. Monday I crashed.

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why would anyone retire? Now you see why I might ask that question. I don’t want to retire. I want to reach higher. Oh gees, I just realized that rhymes. It’s okay, I’ll stay with it anyway. I want to reach higher.

At this stage of my life, I’m not interested in working 70-hour weeks, but I do want to achieve the greatest return on investment of my time. Whether it is preaching at Left Hand or another post-evangelical church around the nation, working with TED or TEDxMileHigh, counseling clients, speaking for corporations, or serving on the town board here in Lyons, I want to serve within my wheelhouse and in the areas of my gifts or pinnacle gifts. If I am doing that, why would I retire?

I call what I am currently doing semi-retirement, though most people would not consider it to be that. Friends half my age often say they have a hard time keeping up with me. But I’ve always been fairly productive, so for me, what I am doing is, in fact, semi-retirement. For instance, I do not want to be the lead pastor at a church anymore, though I love preaching regularly. I do not want to run a non-profit, though I’m happy to volunteer for several. And I do not want to do anything early in the morning. So you can forget that breakfast meeting.

I suppose the bottom line is that I hate being bored, and I want to make a difference in the world. I want to alleviate suffering, while causing as little as possible. Turns out that last part doesn’t get easier with age.

My parents lived well into their 90s. Dad was still driving at 95, though the wisdom of allowing that was, uh, a bit suspect. He only really slowed down in his final year. I hope I have that kind of time remaining, and that I can approach it with the kind of energy Dad sustained. I don’t think about my age much. I still take on the kinds of new challenges I took on at fifty. Back then it was working for the first time as a television host. Now it’s coaching TEDx speakers in their script finalization, memorization and delivery, and serving TED speakers as a Speaker’s Ambassador.

And oh yeah, the running for public office thing. I did that too. I mean, five-hour board meetings that start at 5:30 pm might be a bit much, but I’m learning a lot, and I love our little town.

This week, it’s been writing a sermon for Sunday, met with the November 12 TEDxMileHigh speakers for their inaugural meeting, served folks from the last TED event, pastored people from church, and dug into the 165-page staff draft of the Lyons Thrive Comprehensive Plan. Yeah, that last one is a bit much. But hey, they’ve diligently done good work and I will read every single page.

And so it goes.

Eyes Like That

I don’t really like people knowing my age but with the Internet being what it is, anybody who wants to figure it out can do so. I emceed the TEDxMileHigh Reconnect show on August 6th, and the CEO of one of our sponsoring companies said, “I Googled you last night. I can’t believe you are that old! You look amazing.” Then he told the whole group standing around how old I was. (At least he didn’t do it in front of 2,000 attendees.) I thought about telling him that it’s okay to have an unexpressed thought, but he seemed like a sweet enough guy, so I let it go.

I also let it go because I too have a tendency to speak when remaining quiet would have been wiser. Uh, some of you, uh, know that. It’s one of the reasons I like Anne Lamott. She sometimes writes stuff, and you think, “Was it a good idea to actually put that in a book?” Anne Lamott seems good with it. She has learned to embrace herself as she is.

That is not a well-honed ability of mine – embracing myself as I am. The last year has been tough, because I’ve had more than one occasion in which I’ve needed to offer myself forgiveness, and it hasn’t come easily. I can be hard on myself. My genes and a giant fundamentalist dose of, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” are responsible for that.  If only I’d known that word perfect meant, complete in all of its parts and for its intended purpose. Yeah! Understanding that would have been helpful. I could have spared myself a hell of a lot of agony over not being, well, perfect. Of course, there are still those self-critical genes – damn multi-generational transmission process.

Anyway, learning self-acceptance is hard work. But when you are able to extend grace to yourself, it is much easier to be curious about yourself and others. “Why did I behave that way? ” “I didn’t know I was capable of doing that.”  “What brought that up from the basement?” Curiosity is so much more productive than self-flagellation. Curiosity can actually lead to growth, though it is a kind of growth that is likely to start as mourning. But don’t worry, it’s a  good kind of mourning.

There was that time Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word “mourn” means to mourn the specific nature of your own weaknesses, the parts of yourself that try as you might, you just can’t get ahold of. The parts of yourself that curiosity, insight, and the will to grow, still cannot be purged from your being. The best your curiosity, insight, and will can do is recognize these tendencies when they show up, and do your best to inflict as little damage as possible. The Jungian analyst James Hollis calls this kind of painful self-knowledge, “existential guilt.” While the knowledge itself might be existential guilt, I call the specific weaknesses my “abiding shadows.”

Some people are aware of their abiding shadows. They have learned to accept their humanity and no longer beat themselves up for not being perfect. They have stopped being judgmental toward themselves and others and have learned to be curious. Their curiosity is a manifest attribute of their self-acceptance.

Others carry a heavy judgmental spirit that truncates curiosity. It is a sign they have not yet accepted themselves as they are, flaws and all. Their judgmentalism is a coat of armor. They are masters at justifying their own decisions and condemning yours. They are novices at looking at themselves in the mirror. They have great ego need and not a lot of ego strength. I have a lot of sympathy for them, because we all start there.

To be a good therapist you have to be curious and self-aware. Otherwise, you are doomed to commit the sin of countertransference, projecting your own unresolved issues onto your unsuspecting clients. Most of us know where our abiding shadows lie. We don’t treat clients that are going to pull those up from the basement. We refer those souls to another therapist.

I’m a little bummed it took me so long to get somewhere within the vicinity of self-acceptance. I mean, I’m older than dirt. (Remember, the CEO told a whole group of people that.) But then I must remember that while I’m not so good in the self-acceptance department, I’m quite accomplished in others. Like maybe even wise. That is how life works. Our blind spots persist. Our abiding shadows abide. But the goodness and wisdom that reside within us, cohabitating with those abiding shadows, somehow manages to heal others through a kind of holy alchemy.

Life is more fascinating, redemptive, and hopeful when you start with curiosity instead of judgment. As you travel with others, you can gently help them find the obstacles that are keeping them stuck short of finding their own curiosity, insight and will to grow. With your peculiar wisdom as a guide, they can find the strength to look into the depths and see their own abiding shadows. You experience joy watching them come into that deeper self-awareness, because you know it will eventually lead to self-acceptance and amazing grace.

I cried on Monday when I found out Frederick Buechner died. He was the first author to crack open the door of my own curiosity. This is what he wrote in his wonderful little book, Whistling in the Dark:

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hat air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. the old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are – chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you. 

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

The Joy of the Ride

Okay, all right, I haven’t been writing. I know. Well, that’s not actually correct. I have been writing, but not blogposts.  It has been my privilege to serve as a speaker’s coach for TEDxMileHigh, helping finish up scripts and prepare speakers to deliver their talks on the TEDxMileHigh stage. For their recent August 6 show, I was working with all seven speakers, plus emceeing the show, which meant memorizing about 40 minutes of material for the four-hour show.

The good news is that the show is over, and it was wonderful! About 1900 people filled the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, and our speakers did a great job presenting their big ideas. This is the second time I’ve had the honor of working with TEDxMH speakers, and the first time I’ve had the honor of emceeing. I love working with TEDxMileHigh.

TEDxMH is the largest TEDx in North America, and one of the largest in the world. Their team is amazing. I pinch myself every time I get to work on one of their shows. It’s also my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED, the parent organization, working with their speakers on site, leading up to and after their talks. That also is a tremendous honor.

I worked in television for about 18 years, 11 of them as an on-air host. I loved every single day of shooting in some of the most beautiful places on earth. But nothing compares to getting amazing people ready to share their big ideas on a premiere stage, and then getting to emcee that same show. There is something about a live audience.

I get a one-week break before our next batch of TEDxMileHigh speakers meet for the first time for our November 12 show. One of those speakers is my friend, Linda Kay Klein, whose book, Pure, has helped so many who grew up in purity culture.

I’ve also been doing a lot of corporate speaking this summer, which is my major source of income nowadays. I was also privileged to have a two month sabbatical, after five years planting and serving Left Hand Church as one of its founding pastors. I’ve been back preaching for three weeks now.

During my sabbatical I took a brief trip to North Carolina to speak a couple of times for the Wild Goose Festival. My favorite part of the weekend was being able to spend time with good friends, and sit for an evening with Brian McLaren, Pete Enns, Diana Butler Bass, Jim Wallis, Josh Scott, Stan Mitchell, and a couple other post-evangelical leaders. I could have listened to them talk all night long.

And oh yeah, I’ve also been learning the ropes of being a member of the Board of Trustees for the wonderful town in which I live, Lyons, Colorado. Yeah, the five-hour meetings can be a little much, but I’m learning a lot about what it takes to keep a vibrant small town healthy.

I’ve mentioned two completely new fields in which I am now working, TED/TEDxMileHigh, and small-town government. I mean, why not? Why would I slow down now? These years are proving to be the most productive of my life, with the highest return-on-investment I’ve ever experienced.

You know, the ego is interested in just two things, power and safety. It does its best to repress anything else. For decades, my ego won out over my soul. But not anymore. The ego is interested in power and safety. The soul is interested in the ride. That is what I am enjoying now – the ride.

While I was running today, I kept thinking of the last couple of lines of David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness:

You must give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn

That anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you.

 Yeah, that.

It Has Not Been a Good Week

Less than two weeks ago I was invited onto a zoom call with the White House that included six female faith leaders from six western states. We were brought together to speak with White House staff about the Supreme Court decisions that were likely to be decided in the upcoming week, including cases involving the separation of church and state, gun safety, and a woman’s right to her own health care choices.

It was a somber call. We all knew the legislative branch was not going to weigh in on any of these issues, primarily because they have lost the ability to do much of anything to advance the rights of all Americans. Much to our collective chagrin, the judicial branch has become another venue for politics. We also knew there was not much the executive branch could do. The White House was limited to executive orders, many of which are being put in place as I write.

How did we get here?  For decades the Supreme Court has been divided between originalists and non-originalists. Originalists believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written. Non-originalists see it as a living breathing document that will, of necessity, be interpreted differently throughout the course of history. (The same arguments between originalists and non-originalists exist among Christians, only over the interpretation of  Scripture, not the interpretation of the Constitution.)

To me, the most disturbing reality of the Supreme Court’s judicial originalists is that their interpretation of what the Constitution meant at the time it was written increasingly looks like whatever subject happens to lead the news on conservative media channels. The founding fathers would turn over in their graves if they found out what beliefs had been attributed to them by today’s Supreme Court majority.

This increasingly extreme interpretation of the Constitution is not in line with what most Americans desire for our nation. These decisions are being made by people who have been plotting for decades to overturn the will of the true majority of America’s citizens. How can this be?

To achieve the consensus necessary to create a united nation 250 years ago, less populated states ended up with disproportionate power in the Senate and electoral college. In today’s world, conservative Americans from those states, often evangelical Christians, make no apologies for using that power to advance their agenda at the expense of the majority of Americans. One need look no further than Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court because it was “too close to the 2016 election,” while ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, even though it was far closer to the 2020 election. Ethics and fairness were not important. All that mattered was power. Remember, this is the same Mitch McConnell who said, “Winners make policy, losers go home.”

Most Americans believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Most Americans believe in the separation of church and state. The majority of Americans want assault weapons banned. Seventy-one percent of Americans believe LGBTQ rights should be upheld, including marriage equality. But apparently, none of that matters.

With today’s Supreme Court, the judicial branch, once the realm of caution and balance, has become a tool of the right. John Roberts has been relegated to a minor and inconsequential role as Chief Justice. He was left dangling in the wind on the Dobbs decision.

On Thursday of this week, I was invited onto another White House zoom meeting, this time with the Vice-President. There were about 150 of us who watched as she pledged the administration’s full support of women. Most of us had tears in our eyes as she passionately affirmed the right of a woman to choose. But everyone in the meeting knew the truth – the deck was stacked against us.

On Friday, after the Dobbs decision was handed down, I was invited, twice, to yet another virtual White House meeting. I was unable to attend because we were in the middle of working on script finalizations for the upcoming TEDxMileHigh Reconnect event. The first invitation was sent to the group of women who had met earlier in the week. The second invitation was sent to the LGBTQ+ leaders who had been invited to the White House a week earlier. I know why that second group was invited onto the call. We know the truth. Clarence Thomas brazenly wrote about it. We’re next.

One of my good friends, a woman I greatly admire, wrote to me Friday morning that it was the worst day of her life. She is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people I know. There was a pall over every conversation I had with women on Friday. They have been second-class citizens for millennia, and we all should have known that 49 years of the right to make decisions about their own bodies guaranteed nothing going forward.

I know of few people who are pro-abortion. I worked as an adoption caseworker for a quarter of a century. I never dealt with a single birthmother who was pro-abortion. But I dealt with many who needed the right to choose. I was an entitled white male at the time. I began that work with an opinion about abortion, but with no real understanding. (I still don’t really understand. I don’t have a uterus.) But it didn’t take long for me to see the hearts of the birthmothers with whom I worked.

These women were not selfish. They were not dismissive of the life growing within them. In fact, it was their deeply felt love for that life and for their own (and often their other children) that caused many of them to end their pregnancies. Not one of them did it flippantly. Every single one agonized over the decision. None of the men who had impregnated them were there. In fact, most of the men had long since disappeared. For me, that work was life changing. There was no doubt in my mind. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

I pastor a church that includes many precious, wise, thoughtful, loving women. Many are survivors of sexual abuse. Many have been ostracized from their homes and places of faith because of their sexual identity or gender identity. Yet not one of them is bitter, thoughtless, or callous. They are generous, thoughtful, kind, and loving. Their struggles have given them a wisdom I can only dream of. I have had too many years of too much privilege to understand the oppression they have experienced, or the way they have been dismissed, ignored, and abused. Yet they persevere, not as self-centered, power-hungry women, but as followers of Jesus who want nothing more than to love God, love their neighbors (all of them), and love themselves.

It pains me beyond measure that it is a very different group of Christians who are behind these Supreme Court decisions. Evangelical Christians are the largest force driving this “take no prisoners” march to the right. They are twice as likely to support overturning Roe v. Wade as the rest of America. Sixty percent believe assault weapons should not be banned. Eighty-four percent believe gender is immutably determined at birth, and 66 percent believe we already give transgender people too many rights, though only 25 percent of actually know someone who is out as a transgender person. And most frightening, more than a third of them (35 percent) want America to be declared a Christian nation.

Far right evangelical Christians do not get to define what a Christian is. They do not get to define what America is. They do not get to change the message of Jesus, just because it suits their purposes. They do not get to circumvent the message of the Gospel, that it is good news for all people.

I am a Christian. I am not anti-religion, pro-abortion, or against the Second Amendment. I believe in a nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. There was a time I thought we were on our way to realizing that dream. I still believe we can realize that dream, but not unless we work to restore the rights of women, to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ people, to keep our children safe in school, and to keep our nation a place in which we have freedom of religion, not the tyranny of the far right expression of one religion.

God, grant us wisdom as we protect the rights of all Americans. Grant us discernment as we determine where to go from here. Grant us compassion as we comfort those whose lives will be made far more difficult by these decisions. And grant us hearts to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.

Amen.

Haters will Hate

The anti-transgender rhetoric has gotten worse lately, including the vitriol directed at me. I receive far more positive comments, emails, and texts than negative ones, but the nasty rhetoric has been on the increase.

The vast majority of those negative comments come from evangelical Christians. I never repeat their contents to anyone– not Cathy, not my best friends, not my co-pastors, not anyone. I do not want to dignify the words by giving them space in the ether.

The most egregious are texts. My phone number used to be listed on our RLT Pathways website. Because of a significant rise in the number of unwanted texts, I removed my phone number from the website, but not before anti-trans activists shared it among themselves and used it to send group texts on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and most recently, Father’s Day. Some come as individual texts. Others come from groups. All have the same hate-filled messages, all from people who claim to love Jesus.

What do I make of this?  As a Christian magazine editor-at-large, I was accustomed to negative letters long before I transitioned. I took a positive view of women in ministry, which was not always well received in my denomination. But those messages bear little resemblance to the ones I receive now.

Since Jonathan and I had a feature article written about us in the New York Times in 2017, the attacks haveincreased. After my first TED Talk, they reached a crescendo. That talk, which has now had over 5 million views, has had over 13,000 comments. While the majority are positive, thousands are not. Do not read them. I don’t. Nothing good comes from bringing that kind of hatred into your mind.

As I watched the January 6 hearings this week, I thought of those brave souls like Shaye Moss and Rusty Bowers who have experienced one hundred times the vitriol I have experienced, just because they did their jobs. I don’t think most people understand what it is like to be frightened every time you see a stranger at your door, or look at messages on your phone, or the inbox of your email.

Even though I get a lot of support, I have to admit I am tired of the attacks.. Bishop Gene Robinson and I both gave keynote addresses at a conference several years ago. Backstage after my session he said something I will not forget. Talking about the attacks we had received, Bishop Robinson said, “Be careful Paula, these attacks, they accumulate, they accumulate.”

And so, they do. I do not want or need your sympathy. What I need is your prayers, prayers that I will be wise, that I will know how best to protect myself, that I will be able to keep weathering the attacks. I would much rather people attack me than vulnerable trans kids. I have plenty of privilege I brought with me into this gender. I can use that privilege to store up reserves so I can continue to fight the good fight.

And I will continue to fight, because this is the thing. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. By boldly and courageously living openly and authentically, maybe we can spare the next generation the kind of hatred we are receiving today.

We know where the hatred is coming from. It is coming from white evangelicals. That is sad, but true. We know the truth of it. Their attacks are based in the fear of losing power. They know America is changing. They know their narrative is no longer the American narrative. The American narrative is far more diverse, generous, compassionate, and less fearful than their narrative. Change is coming. Maybe it won’t arrive fast enough for me to escape the barrage of hate mail, but hopefully future generations can be spared.

For now, all I ask is your prayers – for justice and equality, for strength to endure. I ask strength for my church, my queer friends, and my grandchildren, who hate seeing me attacked just as they despise the hatred directed at them. Like all of us, they long for a more equitable world.

Yes, I did say I received nasty messages on Father’s Day. But I also heard from all three of my children, thanking me for being their father, for loving them to the best of my ability. Cathy spent the day with me, in honor of my fatherhood. I spent my day affirmed and loved, because I have a family that loves me and each other well. That is how we build a better future.

Haters will hate, but love wins.

Should We Be Surprised?

Many have been shocked to learn that the Southern Baptist Convention kept a secret list of hundreds of clergy sex abusers and did not use it to protect assault victims. Instead, they used it to protect the denomination. The coverup goes to the highest echelons of Southern Baptist leadership, including the architects of the conservative takeover of the 1970s.

Am I surprised? Of course not. My Doctor of Ministry degree is in pastor care. I led a large ministry that employed hundreds of pastors. While we never had a pastor arrested or convicted of sexual abuse, I do know that male pastors are pretty much like every other male on the planet. Their sexuality is a problem. Testosterone, without the constraints of applied moral agency and self-discipline, can ruin lives.

In one twenty-year period, the three largest US insurance companies that insure Protestant churches paid out 7,095 claims for sexual assault against clergy or volunteers, 99.5 percent of whom were male. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. No one should be surprised that a list exists of hundreds of perpetrators arrested and convicted of sexual crimes, not to mention the countless others who used their power to initiate affairs. After the revelations of the Catholic Church and its coverup of the truth about abuse among its clergy, should we be surprised that the Southern Baptist Church has the same problem? The Southern Baptists won’t be the last. Every evangelical denomination has an approaching day of reckoning.

No church dominated by male clergy is ever going to willingly address the sexual sin within their own ranks. It is the way of the patriarchy. The problem will be addressed only when the push for justice comes from the outside.

Because it affects my personal life on a daily basis, it is disturbing that the Southern Baptists and every other male-dominated denomination have spent decades drawing attention away from their own clergy failings by attacking the LGBTQ+ population.

The Southern Baptists are one of the biggest supporters of anti-transgender legislation. They are the largest denomination that supported the infamous HB2 law in North Carolina, forbidding transgender people from using the proper restrooms. They said we were in women’s restrooms for nefarious purposes, though there has never been a single arrest, let alone conviction, of a transgender person for being in a restroom for nefarious purposes. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the law was quickly rescinded.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the plethora of laws passed this year taking away the civil rights of transgender children. All of these laws have been driven by white evangelicals, 84 percent of whom believe gender is immutably determined at birth, 66 percent of whom believe we already give too many rights to transgender people, but only 25 percent of whom know someone who is out as a transgender person.

These churches will continue to divert attention from their own failings by creating enemies that don’t exist. What we are seeing today in conservative Christianity is the last desperate grasp for power from white male religious leaders. They know that by 2045 whites will be in the minority in the United States. They’ve seen church affiliation plummet from 70 percent to 47 percent in just twenty years, and the #MeToo movement has uncovered the inability of any male-dominated community to police its own members.

When people are cornered, they either surrender or lash out. The lashing out has already commenced. Why else would you attack a defenseless group of transgender children and their loving, committed parents? It is a desperate attempt to divert attention away from the problem of predatory clergy. It is a classic version of the iconic phrase from The Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

I have little doubt that toxic evangelical Christianity is headed in the same direction as white supremacy. But neither will go quietly into the night. They will go kicking and screaming the entire way, leaving bodies in their wake.

I imagine my evangelical friends will find this post harsh. Before I left that world, I might have found it harsh too. Most of the people inside male-dominated corridors of power are not evil. In fact, most want to bring about positive change and are appalled by revelations like those within the Southern Baptist Convention. But your entire worldview has been shaped by white men. And try as you might, you just don’t know what you don’t know.

I still carry my male privilege with me. It is baggage chained to my being. My frame of reference is still tied to all those years as a man. I know I am moving in the direction of understanding inequity, but I doubt I’ll live long enough to fully remove myself from the conclusions drawn from decades of entitlement and privilege.

I do not feel sorry for the Southern Baptist Convention. I do feel sorry for the tens of thousands of victims who are being retraumatized by these revelations. Their cries for help went unheeded for far too long and their PTSD will be great. The church must atone for its sins, and the particulars of that atonement should not be determined by their clergy. They should be determined by those who have been traumatized by the men who abused their power and stole the future of so many innocent people.

 

Inspired

Speaker Ambassador welcome + program kick-off at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2021, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Last week it was my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Speakers Ambassadors are former TED speakers who are assigned a new speaker(s) with whom they will work. They are there to help folks prepare to present their talks and navigate the TED experience, before, during, and after the event. It is an honor to work with these incredible speakers. You are in awe of who they are and what they have accomplished.

Not only do you get to work with speakers, you also enjoy the camaraderie that exists within the team of Speaker’s Ambassadors. It is an eclectic group of fascinating, accomplished folks, each of whom has given their own TED Talk. We are all under the direction of Susan, Jordan, and Nehemiah, TED employees who keep us motivated with their ever-present energy.

One of the things I love about attending a TED event is the amazing cross pollination you experience. I spend a fair amount of time with other pastoral counselors, pastors, and psychotherapists. But rarely do I get to spend time with people from worlds far removed from my own. Last week I was with rocket designers, government leaders, particle physicists, actors, circus performers, museum curators, inventors, surgeons, and people from all manner of other professions. I even talked with the woman whose groundbreaking work on mRNA vaccines might well have saved my life.

Almost without exception these people were brilliant, yet humble and self-effacing. It reinforces the notion that those who truly change the world have equal parts confidence and humility. Interestingly, very few identified as religious. One who did was a Tibetan monk who was funny, engaging, and delightful. His talk was one of my favorites. If memory serves me correctly, he was the only speaker whose talk specifically touched on spirituality.

One fellow-speaker said I should look for another speaker at the event who had once worked as pastor. Turns out she was referring to my son, Jonathan. You don’t see many religious professionals at a TED conference. Which is interesting because I found a lot of those attending to be inherently spiritual. James Hollis describes the soul as the investment by nature in the individual and the spirit as the energy for the journey. These people were full of soul and spirit. They just don’t identify as religious. Given the kind of damage formal religion has done in the world, I can’t say I blame them.

Which brings me back to the cross-pollination at TED. Mingling with those unlike you invites introspection, examination, and innovation. It encourages approaching problems in new ways. During the week I had a major insight into a message I have taken in over the past few months, a message that is not only untrue, but damaging to my soul. When you force your brain out of its usual neural ruts, it creates new insights and even the occasional aha moment. Those moments are inherently soul affirming and spiritually significant.

Whenever I write about my experiences with TED, I know someone will think I am bragging. I hesitate to mention specific conversations, both out of respect for the privacy of the people involved, as well as any notion that I deserve to be in such conversations. These are all gifts, of which I do not feel deserving, but am not about to reject. That would be biting off my nose to spite my face. I consider it all a privilege. Anytime you can interact with people who help you think in new ways, it’s not just good for you, it’s good for the universe. This is how new solutions emerge, as creativity is prompted to move beyond conventional wisdom.

I am unashamedly a fan of TED. I am unashamedly a fan of TEDxMileHigh, the wonderful TED event in Denver that also has an outsize influence in making the world a better place. Recently I have been working with the speakers for their upcoming event. It has been a joy. I have always been curious beyond my own disciplines, a predisposition for which I am grateful. The good fortune I have experienced over the past four years to have my creativity fine-tuned via TED experiences is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

In so many ways my life has been magical and blessed. I never want to take a minute of that wonder for granted.

And so it goes.

The Imposter Syndrome

It is rare to run across an accomplished human who has not experienced the imposter syndrome, the sense that you do not have the qualifications necessary to be doing what you are doing. It could be serving as a Speaker’s Ambassador at TED2022, which I did this past week, or as a pastoral counselor helping clients deal with their own imposter syndrome, or as a corporate speaker.

I rarely feel truly qualified in my areas of endeavor. Every time a counseling client decides they’d like to work with me, I always want to ask, “Don’t you know that my doctorate is a Doctor of Ministry degree, and not a PhD? I mean, my mother certainly knew the difference. The imposter syndrome is common to most of us.

It’s been my privilege to speak with TEDWomen speakers about the imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to their TED Talks. They all wonder how they were chosen to speak for TED. “Didn’t they mean to invite the other Jane Smith, you know, the one who solved world hunger?” Every speaker nods when I talk about the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter whether they are astronauts, trapeze artists, or particle physicists. The imposter syndrome is pretty universal.

I do know people who never experience the imposter syndrome. They are the people who are, in fact, imposters. A certain former president comes to mind. Those who never experience the imposter syndrome are those who are unaware of their abiding shadows, those parts of themselves that keep rearing their ugly heads to remind us of our flawed humanity. If the problem is always “out there” and never “in here,” you might be an imposter.

Fortunately, that is not the case for most of us. We are not inclined to say, “I alone can solve this.” We are inclined to say, “I have no idea what I am doing, but if you want me to give it a try, I’ll be happy to do so.” Which is how people end up giving a TED Talk. They keep showing up and giving their best, and eventually they accomplish something that causes people to take notice. They are usually the last to think what they have accomplished is worth noting, however, hence the imposter syndrome.

My first TEDxMileHigh talk has been picked up by “Big Ted” and was released on TED.com two weeks ago.  In its first couple of weeks, it’s had 500,000 views, which is not uncommon for a newly released TED Talk. On the other hand, it is a little unusual for a talk that is four years old. I’d like to be excited about that, but since I spend most of my time thinking I didn’t deserve to have the talk picked up by TED in the first place, I have a hard time taking it in.

When I was first crafting the speech, I kept losing my place when I was trying to memorize the talk. I kept getting lost between the same two paragraphs. I finally realized I was losing my place because I needed a transition sentence between the paragraphs. The night before the talk I came up with this – The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. I ran the line by Briar, my coach at TED, and she said, “Perfect.” It ended up being the most quoted line of my talk, a line I used in my next TED Talk, and used again on the dedication page of my memoir.

Before a TED Talk is published, a lot of energy is spent fact checking the talk. “Did that conversation really take place? Can multiple people verify its accuracy? Do you have documented evidence for the statistics you used?” The talk that was published two weeks ago was given four years ago. Before it could be published by TED, I had to verify the accuracy of every story. That included the story of Kyle, the former manager of a Denver bike shop that no longer exists. Though I didn’t know his last name, I found him on the Internet. When I called, he was on vacation in South America. He said sure enough, he remembered the conversation, and would be happy to verify its accuracy. He even told me the name of the employee who had treated me badly. His name was Blake. Of course, it was Blake.

The folks at TED already know you are going to find documentation for everything you say, because they have done their homework before they even ask you to speak. They find people who are not imposters. And what is the best indication someone is not an imposter? Well, I imagine it’s someone who is afraid they are an imposter. Because those are the people who are always filled with self-doubt, working hard to make sure they are not talking out of their behind. They are confident, which has allowed them to achieve some modicum of success, but they are also humble, because they know a lot of their success is because they were in the right place at the right time. They know the part that good fortune plays in achieving success.

I always feel all warm inside when someone acknowledges they are experiencing the imposter syndrome. It usually means they deserve to be receiving the accolades they are enjoying. They’ve done the work to get there. They have benefitted from good luck along the way. And the contribution they make has come from living out the call toward authenticity.

I am very grateful for the TED Talks I have done, and for the success they have had. And yes, I still tend to feel like an imposter.  And so it goes.

 

The Problem is Greed

(I wrote this post last Monday, when I was headed to speak in Huntington, West Virginia. The trip went well. I got home and promptly left again. I’m in a San Francisco hotel now, preparing to speak tomorrow. I have a busy life.)

I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a flight to Cincinnati so I can then drive another three hours to West Virginia, where I will speak at Marshall University. The airport is crowded. The workers are a little more surly than usual, and except for seeing my good friend Karen at the gate in Denver, I’ve not seen many smiles. Of course, it is also possible I have not been smiling.

I have flown over 2.5 million miles with American Airlines – not just credit miles – actual miles. Most of it was flown with USAirways, which acquired American about a decade ago. They won control of the larger airline but lost the culture war. American is not the friendly airline USAirways once was.

I knew USAirways employees all over the nation. There was hardly a city in which I didn’t know at least one or two gate agents. I had a lifetime USAirways Club pass, and loved chatting with the employees in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Boston, and a host of other cities. I knew the names of their children and where they went to college. I received free first-class upgrades 99 percent of the time, because USAirways thought good service and fair profits were both achievable. Their good will was reciprocated. For over a decade I gave my Christmas bonus to the USAirways employees at the Islip Long Island airport, all 17 of them.

I wrote the CEO of the airline occasionally, and always received a prompt reply. Their office called me a few times to talk about solutions to problems I had encountered. Things were, in a word, civil. Humanity won over profit. Commonality won over differences. Life was more gentle back then. I know what you’re thinking. Was it more gentle because I was a man? I really don’t think that had much to do with it. Flying is one of the few places in which I am treated pretty much the same as Paula as I was treated as Paul. Well, at least by employees. Passengers are another story.

I knew things were likely to get bad in the airline industry when United was allowed to acquire Continental, Delta absorbed Northwest, and USAirways acquired American. With only three legacy carriers remaining, it would only be a matter of time before prices went up and service went down. I was surprised how quickly it  happened. Greed creates a lot of dangerous cracks in the foundations of capitalism.

A couple of decades ago I served on the board of a small television network.  We were closely affiliated with a much larger commercial network, and I formed a friendship with one of their senior employees. He was always complaining about managers who “left money on the table.” I asked what the phrase meant. He replied, “To leave money on the table is to walk away from easy money. You see a place for bigger profits, and you don’t capitalize on it.”

A couple years later we were on a trip together and I told him I had noticed that the company rarely left money on the table any longer, but that it did leave people on the streets. Profits came before people. Not long after our conversation the network was sold, and my friend was out of a job. He became one of those people on the streets, only his streets were paved with platinum, thanks to a generous golden parachute.

Last week I spoke with the Chief People Officer of a company for which I’ve consulted a few times. Their CEO was one of the founders of a very successful travel company. The new startup, another travel company, focused on profits and people. The company was wonderful. They had achieved gender equity and took good care of their employees and customers. Then Covid hit and business travel came to a stop. The company kept the doors open for about 18 months, but eventually the leaders had to make the decision to shut it down. Their CPO took great pride in finding jobs for 99 of the 100 people employed by the company. For the company’s leaders, ending well was as important as profitability.

Large corporations rarely leave money on the table. Those at the top receive annual compensation hundreds of times greater than that of their lowest paid employees. Those executives never leave money on the table. I prefer companies with a heart, like the one that made sure their employees were taken care of when the business had to close. They remind me that capitalism itself is not evil. Greed is evil. These smaller companies are proof that capitalism can have a heart. They are the ones that give me hope in the future of commerce in our nation.

Well, it’s time to catch my flight to Cincinnati. Though I’m Executive Platinum with the airline, which means I fly over 100,000 miles a year, on this flight I’m likely to feel like I’ve felt for several years now – like I am little more than a flying profit provider. You can be sure the airline will not leave any of my money on the table.

And so it goes.