Q&A with Boz Tchividjian

Q&A with Boz Tchividjian


Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, the third-eldest grandchild of Billy Graham, is a former prosecutor personally responsible for prosecuting hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse. He’s also the founder and executive director of GRACE, or Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, an organization that educates and equips faith communities to respond well to sexual abuse disclosures, while also providing practical guidance on how to protect children and serve survivors. Their work includes conducting independent investigations into allegations of abuse by pastors and church leaders.

Avoid (but Prepare for) the Nightmare Scenario

Q: There is nothing easy about a transition involving crime or abuse. How can churches proactively plan to avoid such crises? 01

Don’t idolize leaders. When one person, or a few people, become the primary focal point of the church, there’s danger. Just as one example: If abuse happens, there’s a strong pull to believe a certain narrative, oftentimes spun by that pastor, that they are the victim. The congregation loves and admires their pastor, perhaps has sat under their teaching for years, so they are usually willing to buy that.

Another problem is this: Astute abusers surround themselves with other leaders who can’t lead, only enable. When problems arise, these people—who were supposed to be making the difficult decisions—simply can’t. Oftentimes they’ll actually turn to the accused for guidance.

The question churches need to ask is this: The longer the pastor leads the church, is Jesus or the pastor getting more prominent? If the pastor is only getting bigger, that’s a dangerous trajectory.

Part of the solution is coming up with a leadership structure that minimizes one person’s ability to have so much control, and limits them from placing others in leadership positions around them. If we truly understand the gospel we preach, and grasp the depths of human sinfulness, we’ll realize pastors aren’t immune to temptation. Those in positions of leadership are more susceptible than the average member of the congregation because they have more opportunities to exploit their authority.

Every church needs to make conscious, informed and intentional decisions about these issues, and lay out a polity structure that limits the authority and influence of the senior pastor.

Q: In an involuntary pastoral succession, who should churches include in the decision-making process? 02

While existing church leaders should play a vital role because they understand the church’s dynamics, [there’s] a lack of objectivity that can interfere with the ability to make difficult decisions. There’s great value in having a diverse team and bringing in outsiders. Ideally, a team would be made up of about 40 percent congregational members, 20 percent people in church leadership and 40 percent outsiders. One type of outsider I encourage churches to have is a retired pastor who has been trained in church transitions, or has personally experienced them. There are also pastors who’ve spent years as interim pastors, and perhaps one can come in during the transition period.

Q: But you’re stressing the importance of being prepared. 03

Yes! It’s a bad idea to wait for a crisis to decide what you’ll do in a crisis. Churches need to come up with a plan that addresses both voluntary and involuntary transitions. Each must be handled differently.

In a recent investigation GRACE completed, the pastor couldn’t return to ministry. Thankfully, he asked the congregation to accept and embrace the process, and that made a huge difference to the outcome. If he had not bought in, or told the congregation, “I’m being unfairly terminated; I’m the victim,” it’s entirely possible the church would have split.

Q: How should leaders communicate with their congregation when they are going through a crisis that forces a pastoral succession? 04

Transparency is critical. Whether they are conscious of it or not, leaders often have a low view of their congregations.

I tell leaders to intentionally look at their proposed communication first through the lens of a victim, then through the eyes of a congregation member who doesn’t have all the information. It’s amazing how many leaders draft communication about a serious situation and never consider how others will perceive it. Bring in some trusted members and have them read it to give their insights. This demonstrates humility. It shows that leaders know their job is to serve and love their church.

Yes, there are situations when leaders can’t communicate all the details. But most members, if they sense their leaders are being straightforward and transparent with what they can share, will be okay with that. There’s credibility and a sense of trust.

Q: In light of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements, how can churches lead the way in speaking up for victims? 05

We must deal with the past. Every church needs to examine its past, even if that requires getting outside assistance. Leaders should be willing to say, “If we have not addressed something properly, now is the time.”

While it’s going to look different for each church, this may call for a season of lament about how historically the Church has profoundly failed to protect the wounded and vulnerable, and instead protected those in power. This sense of sorrow and longing for justice must become the very DNA of our churches. It can’t just be something we check off a list. This involves being humble and teachable.

Sadly, a lot of pastors and church leaders know very little about issues of abuse. They’re not taught about them in seminaries, and so their knowledge comes from a particular worldview or personal experience. A sermon by a pastor who thinks they know everything about this issue, but really doesn’t, can be traumatizing. Before they preach about it, pastors must take time to learn and listen to survivors—not in a patronizing way, but sincerely, knowing they have something to teach us.

I always tell pastors that when the church is handling allegations of abuse, not only is the victim listening and watching but other victims, some of whom they’ll never know, are also watching and listening. Leaders must ask, “Is our response creating an environment where victims feel safe and empowered to step forward, or is it pushing them back into the shadows?”

Because if the Church is not the safest place for vulnerable and wounded people, something is wrong.

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Before the Transition

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