Anglican Watch

CJ Johnson scandal carries lessons for Episcopal church

Don’t get your pearls tied in a knot

There’s a story in The Christian Post about Northview Church facing criticism after hiring CJ Johnson, an allegedly abusive pastor. Previously employed by the now-defunct Southland City Church in Minnesota, Johnson stands accused of running Southland into the ground via abusive leadership, including dishonesty, bullying, and a lack of financial transparency. 

But before you yawn and say, “So?”, there’s something noteworthy in this situation for Episcopalians: In many cases, evangelicals adhere to higher ethical and governance standards than does the Episcopal church.

Let’s parse the issues about Johnson and their relationship to Episcopal polity and governance.

As to abusive leadership, Episcopal bishops usually shove these matters to one side, slap the label “interpersonal conflict” on things, and go about their business.

Yet even a cursory look at the allegations against Johnson reveal serious stuff. The allegations include:

  • Forcing people out of the church for disagreeing with him or insisting on accountability.
  • Lying about church finances.
  • Refusing to provide board members access to financial reporting and other information central to their fiduciary roles.
  • Questionable expenditures.
  • Failure to maintain accurate financial records.

But in our experience, most of these behaviors are normative in Episcopal churches and dioceses. For example:

  • We hear dozens of reports of Episcopalians forced out because they wanted accountability. Indeed, bishop George Sumner forced out Rich Daly in retaliation for opposing the sexual harassment of a woman with ties to St. James, Texarkana. And dirtbag Todd Ousley tries to ignore the matter, even as Bishop George Sumner bullies a LatinX congregation in his diocese. (We received two more reports this weekend about lousy behavior by Ousley. Could someone please just make Ousley go away? Enough already.)
  • Episcopalians claim their parishes are audited annually and there is “complete financial transparency.” That is a load of rubbish. Many dioceses, including Virginia, permit Agreed-Upon Procedures (AUPs), which have no attestation value. As for budget transparency, dioceses and parishes should post budgets, audits, and monthly internal financials on their websites. This rarely happens. And most “budgets” are so-called blended budgets, in which line items are commingled by program area. This approach tells us nothing. It might have worked in the 1950’s. It doesn’t work today. “Just trust us” doesn’t cut it.
  • Rectors routinely withhold budget information for schools, ECW, and other “off-budget” items.
  • Parishioners often have little knowledge about these issues. Indeed, at Grace Episcopal Alexandria (former parish of AW editor Eric Bonetti), Lisa Medley, a former senior warden, told members of the public that there was “complete financial transparency” at the church. Setting aside for one moment the fact that the church’s AUP couldn’t be completed in a timely manner due to the shambolic nature of church records, organist Richard Newman, already poorly compensated despite a church budget of almost $1 million, was overpaid for many months and was asked to repay the overage by rector Bob Malm. Since Medley claims there was “complete financial transparency,” it follows that Medley knew, or had reason to know, of the overpayment yet did nothing about it. Hmmm.
  • Few vestries see the parish’s audit engagement letter or report. And rectors often lie. In one case, the rector told a church with no financial recordkeeping system (and we do mean no—as in none at all) that the “auditors” who did the AUP had “only a few minor suggestions.” Yeah, right.
  • We have documented myriad exit agreements negotiated behind closed doors for bishops and clergy who misbehave, including Ousley’s golden parachute for the adulterous Whayne Hougland. 
  • There are insane bonuses paid to clergy within the denomination, including a $100,000 bonus to perjuring priest Bob Malm, at a time when the parish was cutting health benefits to “balance the budget” and had far too little cash on hand to cover looming repairs, including to the roofs, an elevator, and an HVAC system well beyond actuarial life expectancy. (Karmic law being what it is, the HVAC failed soon after in spectacular fashion, leaving much of the building with no AC for several months. And it’s not like there weren’t multiple warnings.
  • Lies from the pulpit, ranging from fabricated sermons to narcissistic falsehoods about clerical bravery in dire circumstances. In one instance, the priest in question bloviated about Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s “amazing” book about how children die, “Death and Dying,’ which he had read in seminary. Just one problem: Kübler-Ross‘s book is expressly not about how children die. Indeed, as she wrote in a later book, children often follow a very different path in their final days, including remaining physically active until the very end.

So, in case our recommendations weren’t implicit in the content above, here they are:

  • People should not forced out of church absent bullying, sexual misconduct, or verified criminal conduct. Even then, a pastoral obligation remains, whether bringing communion to those in jail or helping them find a new faith community. And if your parish does push people out, don’t lie and tell us you’re inclusive.
  • Judicatories need to follow Title IV, period. And that includes dirtbags like Todd Ousley and George Sumner. In case they didn’t get the memo, sexual harassment, and retaliation are both verboten. And don’t even try the “she egged him on” routine with us. 
  • Real audits, with the bishop and the vestry getting a copy of the engagement letter and the results. If the church has a $1 million budget, it can damned well afford a full audit. Consideration should be given to eliminating the AUP provision in diocesan policies.
  • Accurate financial budgets, vestry, and executive committee minutes, posted to websites. Even the thing about “just ask the office for the minutes” is a powerful disincentive to asking questions. And these blended budgets where expenses are concealed via categories don’t cut it. 
  • Eliminate the fun and games of siloing information to prevent accountability. For example, far too many parishes use a “compensation committee” to keep salary details away from the vestry — despite the vestry having a fiduciary obligation to supervise a church’s temporal affairs.

Lastly, some Episcopalians will get their pearls in a knot over these observations and recommendations.

 But recall: Evangelicals take these issues seriously. So before folks look down their noses at other faith traditions, we must take a look at our questionable track record when it comes to governance and integrity.

In short, the Episcopal church has a long way to go regarding these issues.

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