DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

R. Kelly and the Dark Side

Written by: on February 8, 2019

Pied Piper with children

Working in Children and Youth Ministry, there is always an apprehension when adults want to get inordinately close to children or teens.  Churches and ministry organizations constantly need an awareness of the potential of child sexual abuse. Studies have shown that over eighty percent of the time a child abuser is someone known by the victim (Cobble, Hammar and Klipowicz 2003, 12). The FBI divides the behavior of molesters into two categories, “preferential sex offenders”, those having a particular sexual preference, targeting children of a particular gender and age, and “situational sex offenders”, an opportunist engaging in misconduct when a situation develops or exists (Cobble, Hammar and Klipowicz 2003, 12-13).  It is imperative that screening takes place for everyone desiring to work with children and youth in the church. Every church should access the levels of risk incurred by those working with children and youth by examining at least three risk factors: isolation, accountability, and power and control (Cobble, Hammar and Klipowicz 2003, 41).

Although not in a church, the recent stories coming out about singer and entertainer, R. Kelly, show a problem with all three of the risk factors of child sexual abuse. R. Kelly allegedly consistently isolated young girl from their family under the guise of transforming them into stars. Accountability was deferred due to Kelly’s celebrity status. Kelly maintained power and control over the young women by using a strict schedule with the girls, denying contact with the parents, and withholding food when the girls disobeyed his commands. Kelly fell into the category of “preferential sex offenders” preferring girls shortly before they reached the age of consent. These young girls could be easily molded into sex slaves or servants. Some of the parents whose young adult daughters were recently delivered from R. Kelly’s alleged captivity, felt the young girls exhibited behavior reminiscent of the Stockholm syndrome, in which kidnap victims come to over-identify with kidnappers, resist rescues, and refuse to testify against them in court; Tourish parallels this behavior with techniques of coercive persuasion used in modern organizations systems of role modeling and mentoring (Tourish 2013, 42-45).

R. Kelly exhibits many of the parallels shown between transformational leadership and cults. R. Kelly is a charismatic leader viewed as semi-divine by his followers and fans, as well as provides a compelling vision of these young women as stars or singers (Tourish 2013, 30). The R. Kelly situation is also complicated by the fact that R. Kelly also writes songs in the “inspirational” category lending a spirituality quality to his work and persona. Tourish discloses in The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective, that in recent history spirituality is woven within the workplace in management and leadership development (Tourish 2013, 59). This parallel shows the danger of spirituality being used to manipulate others.

The R. Kelly situation provides a recipe for disaster in a church environment. Charismatic leaders seem to thrive in today’s churches. They are often given too much authority with too little accountability. Churches are often vulnerable to child sexual abuse because churches tend to be trusting and unsuspecting institutions in need of willing volunteers, which also lack screening, and provide opportunity and access to children and youth (Cobble, Hammar and Klipowicz 2003, 14).  Vulnerability persists in the church often due to the lack of other church leaders speaking up when they see questionable behavior.  Churches would do well to improve communication by encouraging upward feedback as outlined by Tourish in the Ten Commandments for improving upward communications (Tourish 2013, 88). While all of the commandments are worthwhile, two of the commandments that would be helpful in combating child sexual abuse would be number 6, creating red flag mechanisms for upward transmission of information that cannot be ignored, and number 9, where power and status differentials are eliminated or at least reduced (Tourish 2013, 88-89). Churches should encourage feedback, listening to feedback when red flags are raised about the behavior of those working with children and youth. Power and status differentials are reduced when churches put policies in place where the supervision of adults is provided in activities where there is high isolation (Cobble, Hammar and Klipowicz 2003, 44-45).

It is clear that leadership is needed to run church organizations as well as ministries serving children and youth. However, care must be taken that our most vulnerable population is protected and guarded against the dark side of leadership that can take root in one of our most trusted institutions, the church.


Cobble, James F. Jr, Richard R. Hammar, and Steven W. Klipowicz. Reducing the Risk II: Making        Your Church Safe from Child Sexual Abuse. Matthews, NC: Christian Ministry Resources, 2003.

Tourish, Dennis. The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective. New                 York: Routledge, 2013.

About the Author


Mary Mims

I am a licensed and ordained Baptist minister and have worked with the children and youth for the last seven years. I have resided in the Washington, DC area for the last 30 years, but I am originally from Michigan. I am also bi-vocational and work at the US Patent and Trademark Office in the Scientific Library.

10 responses to “R. Kelly and the Dark Side”

  1. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    This is really good work Mary. I think you did a lot in terms of bringing Tourish into your current context and research. Practically, what do you think these two things would look like? For instance, what ways could a church use red flag warnings? Have you seen this done well?

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Karen, I think churches have to listen when people say they do not feel comfortable with someone. It is important to investigate any complaint and put policies in place that reduce the risk. We are currently in the process of putting together our policies, as well as making sure the risk is reduced by having at least two people with the children at all times, which is difficult in a somewhat small church. Also, just letting everyone know that any abuse has to be reported to authorities and won’t be swept under the rug is helpful. The important thing is preparing for the worst and knowing all leaders do not have our children’s best interest at heart.

  2. Mario Hood says:

    Awesome post, Mary. Going back to Culture Map book, I think we can also bring into account how some cultures ( I thinking sub-culture as in Black community) also aids this behavior in some settings. You also see this is black churches who are known to “forgive” ever offense of the leader and never hold them accountable. As you noted feedback is the key and if a leader doesn’t want that then we shouldn’t have them as the leader.

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Mario, I think many church leaders, regardless of culture do not have clear policies on how to handle child sexual abuse. This is clear from the Catholic church scandal. Leaders were not held accountable and only transferred priest to other locations. Unfortunately, I think the church is guilty of not having good leadership practices since people elevate the pastors. The church needs more checks and balances as a whole. Thank you again for your response.

  3. This is a great post Mary. You have brought out a problem that is emerging to be on the increase and in the least of places you would expect it. Children are very trusting but they’re also very vulnerable when threatened by the adult offenders. I have personally been shocked at the number of cases of sexual abuse that are being reported that involved church leaders. We cannot any longer assume that church leaders can be trusted, we have to ensure that children and youth are protected by putting in places deterrent measures. I worked as an auditor for a long time and one of the assumptions that we had to make is that 25% of the people will always be dishonest, another 25% will always be honest and the remaining 50% were neutral and could go either way depending on the strength of internal controls. Where the system was strong with strong internal controls, the 50% would turn to the honest side because they’re not prone to breaking controls while if the system is weak with weak internal controls, the 50% tend towards dishonesty as they’re tempted by the weaknesses to cheat. This then made for the case of always putting strong controls to be moral deterrents because for the most part, criminals are not born but made when there are opportunities for crime and the cost/penalty is minimal. The truth is that even good people can become bad because they’re tempted which makes a case for ensuring that we put in place strong preventive measures even in church.

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Wallace, your statistics are very interesting. I guess we have to be careful with our leaders and hold them accountable regardless of the charisma they exhibit. I think your observations back up what the book says. We really need strict controls when it comes to the children and youth. Thanks for your response.

  4. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Powerful post, Mary! I appreciated your link to R. Kelly. That situation is so sad. He basically had a human trafficking ring built up within his own little empire! I also found enlightening your parallels between transformational leadership and cults. Your blog explored some interesting factors that other churches need to be aware of to protect the children within their own church walls. Thanks for sharing, Mary.

  5. mm Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you for this, Mary. I appreciate your application of the reading to your current context. There seems to be a common thread among many posts this week…awareness is key, and accountability is necessary!

  6. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I think this is such an important topic Mary. I particularly appreciate you leaning into Tourish’s 10 commandments. Most of the places I’ve worked, there has been easy access to the ‘leads’ but the challenge is how do you get people to voice concerns in a culture that emphasises trust and shutting down gossip? I also wonder how we protect kids from other kids? Even when we get training our leaders right, how much teaching should we do with our kids about what is appropriate and what isn’t? My experience is that this is covered in public school, but not in Christian schools or with homeschooled children. Do you have thoughts on how to include the kids in the chain of reporting? Such important and sacred work Mary. Thank you.

    • mm Mary Mims says:

      Hi Jenn, thanks for your response. I think it is important for parents to talk to their children and listen to their children when they express un-comfortableness around certain adults. Even if a child cannot express what they feel verbally, they will give other signals. I remember a leaders wife who watched my daughter from time to time when she was young. My daughter hated going there but would never tell me why. Finally, after she begged me not to take her there I stopped. Years later she told me that the woman would make her do extreme amounts of housework, and would punish her by withholding food if she did not comply. While this was not a physical abuse that she could explain, it was abusive behavior and I was pretty upset to find it out. So listening to your children is very important for parents.

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