AoR Report on Sovereign Grace Ministries – Observations & Commentary

This is old news for most  – SGM has released the AoR report.   First to SGM Board – thank you.  I suppose if I’m going to call you out in my last post to “do the right thing” by releasing the report in entirety – I should thank you for doing so.

Following the release of this report, there have been different responses – disappointment to many, encouragement to others,  vindication to the very few.  With this post,  I’d like to offer a few comments and observations about the AoR report that I hope might be helpful.

Let me start by saying this –  I think there’s a lot that’s good and helpful in the report – thank you AoR for your work.    In particular, the general call for every participant to examine his/her own heart – repent and refrain from sinful communication patterns is good and wise.    It is also useful to hear again the need to extend and proclaim forgiveness.   As we often say in our church culture, if you’re around us long enough, we’ll sin against you – how true and well exemplified through this sad episode but we must forgive when someone repents.  The encouragement to extend love, not only to those currently in the church, but also to former members is very helpful.   There are other notable good points so I would encourage you to read it in totality and maybe a couple of times.

However, I’d also suggest that there were a number of points that were perhaps a little off the mark or not encompassing the essence of the SGM debacle.  Here are a few points of observation or analysis.

  • Have you ever heard of the saying – “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”?   Well, I think it applies here.  AoR has a decidedly “conflict resolution” perspective of the problem at hand.  To be sure, personal conflict is one dimension of the problem but the issues related to SGM are much broader than that.   In this sense, I think AoR’s work (and possibly expertise) is misaligned w the macro problem at hand   What’s needed for SGM is not simply reconciliation between parties but reformation of church culture and polity.   I agree that there is a need for forgiveness to be extended all around – pastors to fellow pastors, pastors to members, members to pastors, etc…   but there is need for much more than that.   When you only apply the category of inter-personal reconciliation, you may misunderstand and misinterpret your observations.   As an example – absent the category of spiritual abuse, you may be more concerned about pastors correcting sinful speech than extending forbearance toward those who may be sinning as a result of spiritual abuse.
  • AoR is not a completely neutral, independent, objective party…but that’s ok.   I believe this to be true for 2 reasons.  First, they are paid by SGM, spent time with SGM board in preparation for their work, and worked in concert with SGM board throughout the process.   More than payment, time spent interacting with SGM leadership undoubtedly would shape their view regarding the nature of the issues.  For instance, SGM has repeatedly sought to frame this problem in terms of personal conflict while many of the church leaders calling for reform have repeatedly stated – “this is not primarily about a conflict w CJ”.   Second reason, AoR is not completely neutral or objective is due to an effect similar to the “Heisenberg Measurement Problem” in physics – which says that when you try to probe and measure a system, you inevitably alter the system that you’re trying to measure, hence invalidating the accuracy of the measurement to some degree   Here’s how the “Heisenberg Measurement Problem” may have possibly affected AoR as the process unfolded – when AoR began their participation, some in the blogging community were unfairly critical and suspicious of them.  This could very likely have affected AoR’s view of the situation.  Frankly, how could it not?   They were reading the blogs and that kind of response to them only served to reinforce SGM’s opinion of “the blogs”.  This would certainly explain their negative fixation on “the blogs” in their report when frankly, in my opinion, the blogs have served an important purpose in bringing what is hidden into light.  Yes, there has been unprofitable sinful speech but that’s not all that has occurred in the SGM blog land.   Before I leave this point,  I must emphasize this – just because AoR is not completely neutral or objective does not mean that their report is materially unfair or prejudiced.  Nor does it mean that they’ve done anything wrong – overall, notwithstanding their judgment of the blogs, they probably did as good a job as can be expected on a rather broad, challenging task.
  • In my opinion, AoR missed the bigger picture when making observations about the SGM debacle.  The report is full of valid observations about the SGM church culture – both positive and negative but they may have missed the mark in their analysis.   I’m not sure AoR grasped why there is widespread frustration over SGM leadership culture.  Why are otherwise mature, kind pastors and church members so up in arms over what’s happened in SGM?   Here’s a clue – it’s not because they have a vendetta against CJ (at least not for most).   It’s actually because of this – since this entire sad situation has broken, all that has been exposed and observed is that SGM leadership including CJ has been out of step with the church culture and practices that we hold dear.  In some circles, this may be viewed as hypocrisy.   It may or may not be so, but it is nonetheless frustrating to current members.   I don’t think AoR understands this.  For instance, is it any wonder that when a corporate leader steps down, confesses and then some weeks later publicly recants his confession that it might lead members to completely lose confidence in the leader?
  • AoR made a point of praising CJ’s preaching but failed to make the point that he needs to take corporate responsibility for its failures.   They observe with some puzzlement that CJ’s preaching is gospel centric but this “gospel-centeredness” does not accord with our practice.   Actually it’s not so mysterious. Have you ever been in a company or group where the professed values do not match up with the practice?   I have and it’s not altogether unusual.  But in those cases, you can almost always trace the culture back to the head honcho.  He’s responsible and if he’s a great leader – he’ll own it – good, bad, ugly and seek to change.   AoR should be aware that CJ’s current preaching content is a small slice of his pastoral influence over the churches in the past several years.  The culture, not the preaching is the full measure of his body of work and he should take ownership for it.
  • I want to say this humbly but I do believe that AoR missed it on specific advice regarding the nature of sinful communication and appropriate mediums of communication.   I understand that if you live in the realm of conflict resolution, you are particularly concerned about sinful communication but is the admonishment to not conduct public “family meetings” really on target?    Seriously, just because you witnessed a couple of those meetings get out of hand, should we not have public meetings?   Let’s be clear – there is no biblical warrant for that.   I’ve seen people sin in prayer meetings, should we abandon prayer meetings altogether?   As a matter of interest, my SGM church has conducted a number of very good and helpful public meetings where members asked hard questions, challenged decisions but all in all, did so in a brotherly Christian spirit.   Both members and pastors were helped by those meetings, including the difficult and challenging questions.  Perhaps this is where the lens of conflict resolution can be a little narrow in focus.  The goal of these meetings isn’t to avoid sinful speech.   The goal is actually to have a family meeting in the true sense of the phrase whereby fellow members can express their sentiments openly, safely and in a God glorifying manner.   If, on occasion, a few members get frustrated and angry, that’s ok – we can encourage repentance, we can extend forgiveness and in so doing exemplify the gospel in church life together.  I’ve seen it happen at our church.   Look – I have no time or space to get into the topic of slander/gossip here but there are lots of reasons to disagree and even criticize at times – not all of them sinful.   When someone questions another persons qualifications or critiques the body of his work, it isn’t necessarily sinful speech.

Friends, do lay hold of AoR’s good advice to examine our hearts for uncharitable judgements and bitterness.  Extend forgiveness when warranted.  But also bear in mind that this isn’t primarily about personal reconciliation.  For many current members of SGM churches, it’s about reform and we’re not ready to stop calling for it.   We may have to at some point, but we’re not there yet and we’re hoping that SGM board will have the good sense to listen.

Finally, since AoR had a negative view and concern about blogs, I would sincerely and humbly invite them to please contact me if they felt anything I said here was uncharitable or sinful.

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12 thoughts on “AoR Report on Sovereign Grace Ministries – Observations & Commentary

  1. Very well put, sgmNation. Thank you for the analysis, your thoughtful perspective and emphasis on a Christlike and redemptive approach to needed organizational change and walking in community. I particularly appreciated what you said about family meeting and what the priority should be there. As well, that while it is needed, this is not all about personal reconciliation.

    Blessings!

  2. what would your recommendation for payment of AOR be? someone had to pay them?
    who should have managed the process other than the board, for them to appear unbiased or completely neutral. that point really puts AOR in a bad light and questions their integrity

    • fromthecheapseats – btw, love the handle. No – I think you may be misreading the issue of payment and objectivity. AoR did indeed get paid by SGM – I’m not suggesting that’s a problem. All I’m saying is that it is one factor in their ability to be completely objective. You may disagree but I don’t think that this puts them in bad light at all – I didn’t question their integrity and in fact went out of the way to highlight the quality and value of the work they did. But I do believe their view of the situation was framed by SGM – it’s a result of the fact that they are paid by SGM and more importantly (as I said in post), they spent more prep time w SGM than anyone else.
      Perhaps this is an imperfect example that may make sense – when you go house hunting – if you’re not using a buyer broker, you need to be aware that the real estate agent is working for the seller – is paid by the seller. That doesn’t mean that the agent lacks integrity in any way. I’m not completely objective either – our views are all framed by our experience and AoR’s experienced was shaped by SGM. Does that make sense or did I just make it more confusing?

  3. Following inthecheapseats comments about being unfair to AoR or calling their integrity into question – other readers, if you feel that I was wrong or unfair, could you either leave comment or email me? Per my respons, I don’t agree w cheapseats conclusion but if I’m wrong, I will work on changing the text. Thanks

  4. SGM Nation,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post. You seem to have spent a good deal of time considering presuppositions in your evaluation – you sound like a Tim Keller listener 🙂 No one is objective – it is not calling someone’s integrity into question when you identify their inevitable “grid”. It’s simply a fact and it should shape what one can expect from something like AoR’s “Report”.

    Thank you for modeling gracious speech especially when offering a critique.

    Best,
    Done Reconsidering

  5. Thanks for your post – well thought out, and well written!

    I too find myself on similar grounds as yourself – pro SGM (as far as the fellowship of churches is concerned) and wanting to see reform. I’ve also been in CLC for over 15-20 years. And a committed member, very encouraged by how the leadership there is making steps towards reform. I’d like to offer my thoughts.

    Regarding your first bullet:

    My initial reaction to the report was a that of disappointment because it didn’t address all that I hoped that it would. After some thinking, I came to understand that my expectations were not realistic. I think there is a point where AOR could identify some of the more obvious issues that’ve exacerbated the fallout we’re all now going through. And I receive their observations with gratefulness. I will be evaluating myself and seeing where I need to grow in honoring and loving Christ and God.

    And at the same time…

    1 – there are artifacts deep under the surface of the church’s skin that I think AOR couldn’t necessarily see other than as issues that need to be laid to rest through conflict resolution. This is tough. There are years of teaching and orchestrating what we do, how we do it, what care looks like, etc. That is ingrained in the life blood of many folks in the church who’ve been part of it for a loooong time. It is not clearly evident. Not unless you’re a veteran.

    2 – some of these artifacts I think are closely tied with theology. HOW a church should be run. WHAT role a pastor plays, the belief that the pastor or apostle has greater wisdom and total authority – this I think AOR would not comment on. (and wisely so). Their mission is not to critique another denomination’s theology… they’re just trying to help mend relationships. That’s what they were here for. So yes – identifying lapses in leadership or ambiguity of policies that have fueled this conundrum they will do. Tell us where our theology is wrong (which underpins polity and culture) they won’t do – unless it is glaringly so. But not necessarily the more discreet aspects that we learn from scripture.

    Regarding your second bullet:
    I too wonder if AOR was able to be completely objective. I don’t blame them. I think that a lot of the unprecedented vitriol from the blogs had them reeling. This isn’t a condemnation of the blogs – there are some very acute thoughts shared, but also some unreasonable hate spewed. Meanwhile the interactions with SGM show nothing but the epitome in Christian fellowship.

    Regarding your third and fourth bullets:
    Well put sir… as far as analysis goes when you look at the situation what do you have? Most of the offended and appalled and hurt are those who have been under the DIRECT teaching and authority of the original leaders for years and years. So while they show the best in the limited interactions with AOR, one must wonder at
    1. the wreckage left behind them.
    2. the congregation’s fallacies in not extending grace, overly concerned with sin and confession of sin, etc. Well – it’s like what I call the dogfight syndrome. Behold the fruit of their labor! The pitbull does what it was trained to do. Just so happens that the leaders are now at the receiving end. So while I wouldn’t have us dodge culpability of where WE need to put on Jesus… our actions are a result of years of training/teaching/doctrine/culture.
    3. The fact that the “flight” of SGM is antithetical to how we’ve been instructed (again, for years). It looks like hypocrasy – and even dishonesty for the plethora of reasons of each person “who have been wanting to do this or that for years.”
    4. Take not also that even the observation was made that it was rare for them to recieve interviews of those newer to SGM… a’la when Josh was appointed as Senior Pastor of CLC.
    5. The paradox of how this leadership has left a lot of flotsam in its wake and is unquestionable in its wisdom to continue leading. That when being evaluated in 07, CJ received glowing marks across the board. But now we understand that he is not “gifted” to be in that position. Why the lapse? Does that not call into question the board’s effectiveness and objectivity while self governing?

    So… it is an opportunity for SGM to own up to what was revealed as the fruit of their labor. Are we overly introspective of sin and confession? That’s theology and teaching. If they’re going to champion that assessment are they going to then admit that their theology has been wrong?

    Let me leave off with this though – as stern as this stream of thought may be, I will not deny that much good has come as a result of SGM. Basically many people hearing the gospel and believing on Christ’s crucifixion and ressurrection. We can’t forget about the good GOD worked all these years. He still redeems even our imperfect works. Thanks again for the opportunity to comment. In His grace…
    R.

    • I don’t think you’re being stern at all and you make some really good points. I think that unlike a number of other churches, CLC pastors “get it” – they understand that they have been party to some serious pastoral missteps, they are adjusting their approach and have courageously demonstrated the right trajectory of change. I would suggest to members of CLC that the best thing they can do for their pastors right now is to pray for them, stand with them, be in fruitful dialogue w them, and to affirm them as they redirect the church in the right way.

      It’s definitely not about reconciliation but rather reformation – both in terms of polity and church culture (some of your observations speak to this). Regarding this blog – the reason it exist is to put the dialogue for reform in front of members of every SGM church in a way that is “safe” for them to engage… not judgmental, divisive or slanderous. Not criticizing other venues but this venue is primarily to stimulate SGM members to engage with the problems of SGM and SGM corporate leadership team. So whatever you and others can do to make sgmnation blog known and visible to SGM members throughout the movement is appreciated. Thanks

  6. I appreciate the goal of your venue, sgmNation. As of yesterday, I’ve resigned membership in my SGM church. I can no longer commend the way SGM is being led and I also have serious and related concerns for the local church I was part of for over a decade.

    I still love and respect the man who had been my primary pastor for the last dozen+ years, but I came to believe that I could no longer make a difference in my local church or share significant aspects of the vision for church that the local leader had. With that awareness, I sensed the Lord calling me to trust him for a new church home where I could invest and grow.

    The past year has been painful but He has been at work – reminding me that He alone is truly reliable in the storms of life.

  7. Pingback: Sovereign Grace Ministries « gracelouisville

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