Monday, June 20, 2005

I Knew Something Was Wrong

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.

4 comments:

  1. Jim - Dave's dadJuly 1, 2005 at 10:12 PM

    For twenty years I served as an elder at the Minnetonka SDA Church, including almost the entire tenure of Pastor Lowell Rideout. And I had the dubious privilege of being head elder when a previous pastor ran off with a former parishioner from another congregation.

    One does not serve as an elder in a large church for any length of time without hearing all kinds of rumors and allegations about pastors and other church members. And I can tell you that any caring elder always hopes that allegations of wrong doing are false. Neverthless at Minnetonka the elders did not ignore serious and credible allegations of misconduct within our church family.

    When we first received complaints about Pastor Rideout's conduct a small team of elders looked into the matter and, perhaps wrongly, concluded that there was no credible corrboration for these allegations. Some time later when the allegations surfaced again the elders were able to corroborate them. At that point they (I had recently moved away) confronted the pastor and also informed the Minnesota Conference.

    In retrospect I am sure that both the elders and the conference wish that they might have acted differently or sooner. But on the other hand I must say that it is very difficult to be entirely fair in these matters and I do not apologize for giving a pastor the benefit of the doubt unless or until there is actual evidence of misconduct. Otherwise no pastor could serve in a large church for very wrong -- there is always somebody convinced that the pastor is intent on evil.

    I would also add that Pastor Rideout was spiritually accountable to a small group of peers practicing the principles of the Promise Keepers ministry. Unfortunately he deceived both the church elders and his Promise Keepers partners for a period of time. But God was not deceived and in His own time He these matters came to light.

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  2. Thanks for adding more of a insiders perspective to those events, Dad. Paul's advice to Timothy was: "Do not recieve an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses" (1 Tim. 5:19).

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  3. I appreciated this post. As a pastor, I'm thankful for supportive and trusting elders -- they make a big difference in the life and ministry of the pastor. But pastoral accountability and responsibility tend to lack sometimes in the church. There have been many who have morally fallen and are simply moved to other locations. A way to properly address pastoral misconduct is needed at the very top of church leadership, I believe.

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  4. Wow. I went to high school with the Odenthal girls (Ashley and BrIana) and all I saw was how this whole situation affected them. People would come up to them and say insensitive things and they would have a very hard time with what they should think or say. I don't know exactly what when on but I wish all parties would have had the children in mind when decisions and alegations were being made. That is all...

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