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.