I was perusing the archives of Adventist Today (a progressive, independent, Adventist journal) when I came across an article, "Ruling Against Church in Sexual Misconduct Case". The title piqued my interest, and as I read "On Feb. 24, 2004, representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reached an agreement with Steven R. Odenthal to settle a lawsuit..." my jaw hit the keyboard.
Steve Odenthal and his ex-wife Dianne were my youth Sabbath School teachers at the Minnetonka SDA Church in Minnesota. They were fun and the youth liked them, but they resigned from their position. I think they said they were having marriage problems. A few years later, shortly after I'd arrived at college in Canada, I learned from my parents that our pastor, Lowell Rideout, had been having some sort of affair with Dianne and was forced to resign
I realized right away that I'd seen it happening but had denied what I was seeing. I'd wondered about little looks passed between them, even on the platform. "Is that appropriate?", I'd ask myself. "Well, he's the pastor, so it must be, OK." I knew something was wrong, but I said nothing.
While I disagree with suing the church, I don't think the church can duck its moral responsibility. I'm not talking about legal responsibility; that's for the courts to decide. I'm asking morally, how a church can allow a pastor to continue in leadership when it's so obvious that something's wrong? Adventist Today reports that the conference president had heard allegations five months prior to Rideout's resignation. Church members must have had suspicions earlier than that. What causes us to suppress our suspicions and ignore sin?
For myself, I think fear has alot to do with it. I and the churches I've lived in are afraid to practice the bolder aspects of love. We've lost the art of confronting sin with truth and justice in an atmosphere of grace. So we approach these church issues in a legal/political way instead of a loving/redemptive way.
Now, I'm certainly not aware of the details of what happened behind the scenes at Minnetonka. The response of the lay leaders there probably had good and bad elements in it. I'm writing this to take responsibility for what I neglected to say. I knew something was wrong and said nothing, and I pray to God that I never fall into that sin of omission again.
I'm also writing to express sympathy for Rideout. There's no excuse for what he did, but there's also no excuse for a system of church polity and administration that isolates pastors from church community by moving them frequently. This discourages pastors from establishing relationships in their churches where they can confess sin and find healing (James 5:16) and encourages them to build a veneer of false holiness. I doubt that Rideout had a group of elders that he could tell about his budding attraction to Dianne who could pray for him and help him find healing from sin.
Call me naive, but I've decided to be as vulnerable as possible in my pastoral ministry, in order to model it for my members and to experience healing from sin. It doesn't come naturally to me. I've spent most of my life working on the veneer, but I think we have to try.
For more information on the topic of confronting and confessing sin check out the work of Jim Van Yperen.