One of the unfortunate practices of the church is to spin problematic news rather than to be candid enough that reasonable people can understand what is going on in a particular situation. Spin, of course, is the manipulation of a message so that what is problematic or plainly bad looks less so and those who are resposible are able to offload responsibility.
We watched in bemusement as the leaders of Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Chapel tried to protect themselves by massive spin - denying that there was anything wrong until events forced their hand. The truth is that many of us looking in knew there was more to the story than was being shared and the denials in the face of multiple situations and people coming forward made it impossible to believe the spin.
When one hears spin from Washington or in the news, it is often apparent. It is no different with a church. Eventually the truth is going to come out and leaders who have spun the story or manipulated the facts to make things look better than they are will lose their credibility when it does. Hence the resignations of entire boards at Willow and Harvest. Whatever the original issues, the spin caused tremendous damage to the church and the belief that their leaders had told them the truth. The result is that both organizations are in significant trouble as congregants are leaving in significant numbers.
Bad news can be handled if it is communicated truthfully. This does not mean that leaders must tell all they know but it does mean that what they share must be true. In addition, they must share enough of the facts for reasonable people to understand and to have context.
Here is the irony of spin. In an effort to preserve their reputation as leaders or the reputation of a leader who has made mistakes or is guilty of impropriety, all parties involved in the spin lose far more credibility than they would have if they had simply told the truth. Enough truth for people to understand what went wrong.
Here are some principles when something goes wrong or must be reported to a congregation.
First, don't hide the issue. You actually win points for being candid in a timely manner.
Second, you do not have to reveal everything you know but you must reveal enough for reasonable people to understand what you are dealing with.
Third,when bad news ocurrs, come with a good plan of how you intend to address it and ensure that you will get to the bottom of whatever has happened.
Fourth, run a good process and report back to the congregation what has been discovered. It is foolish to run bad process and face criticism for both the problem and the response to the problem.
Fifth, remember that if you do not share adequate information it will come back and bite you every time. Truth does rise to the surface eventually and on that day those who dealt with the issue will also face scrutiny and evaluation as well as the one responsible for the original issue.
Sixth, if you attempt to protect the guilty you become one of the guilty. Lack of truth is enanthema to God and to those you serve. When there is smoke and fire and leaders try to downplay that reality, they engage in lies and falsehoods.
Seventh, it is the job of leaders to protect their flock. Being dishonest or covering up what is evident or true is not protection but collusion.
Eighth, always get outside counsel. When the stuff hits the fan, it is hard for those who are in leadership to be objective. Our instinct is to want to make the issue go away. To "protect the church" by pretending the issues are not as bad as they seem. Outside counsel from someone who has experience in these situations will go a long way to get it right the first time.
Ninth, allow outside wise and godly counsel to help you in your communication with the congregation. You don't want, like Willow, to have to come back a second time or a third time to "clarify" rather than simply communicating bad news upfront.
Tenth, once you have told the truth, ask the church to pray. Asking the congregation to pray when you are not being upfront won't work. People know when they are being manipulated and not being told the truth. In these situations, you will not get prayer but gossip, questions and anger.
Eleventh, you need a plan for helping the congregation heal. This may take time and trying to "get it behind you" without adequate process will often cause more pain that it will healing. Again, outside counsel can help you get this right.
Finally, be compassionate toward the guilty but don't protect them. That is not your job. Truth means that you are upfront with the issue without seeking to protect. Grace means that we seek to help the individual(s) involved find healing as well.
The situation at Willow and Harvest today would look much different if these twelve principles had been followed. The pain experienced by these congregations was greatly intensified by the actions of leaders. While these are highly visible examples, the same responses are played out in smaller churches regularly. Remember the more spin there is, the longer it will take to heal and the more cynicism will grow - which will hamper future leaders from leading with trust.