Re: Sovereign Grace Ministries
Date: August 24, 2012 09:31AM
C.J. MAHANEY TALKS TO THE SOVEREIGN GRACE MINISTRIES CONFERENCE OF PASTORS ABOUT HIS LEAVE OF ABSENCE
John Loftness speaking:
I am here right now to give some context before CJ comes to give an update from his leave of absence. More than four months ago CJ volunteered to take this leave. The board decided to expand the board of three men by having all of the regional leaders in SG – I am one of those leaders – and so suddenly in a day I was transformed into a board member. I’ve known CJ for 33 years.
Since leaving CLC and moving to Solid Rock four years ago our friendship has only deepened though we don’t see each other as much as we once did. I give you that background because of our history because the board asked me to serve as a liaison with CJ so he could get appropriate updates of our work and developments that might affect him. The board also thought it was wise and helpful if CJ could receive pastoral care from someone who knew him well and was familiar with all that was going on in Sovereign Grace. I consider it a great privilege to stand with my friend during this most trying time. We’ve met often, we’ve talked extensively about his soul his leadership and how to evaluate Sovereign Grace. So what you are about to hear reflects the content of many many conversations over the last four months.
Over the last four months so many of you have communicated your support to Carolyn and I and we are so very grateful.
I have been looking forward to this moment when I could address you. I have spent much time over the last four months studying Second Corinthians. Paul is uniquely personal in Second Corinthians, uniquely heart revealing and heart appealing. He says to the Corinthians, “My heart is wide open to you.” He expresses this care in this unique way it is the only time he does this…soon after this statement Paul says this to them, “make room in your heart for us.” You bear no resemblance to the Corinthians…but I think there is relevance in his communication. I want to…my heart and I want to appeal to you to make room in your heart for me.
Here is the state of my heart. I am sad, I am hopeful, and I am eager to return to the privilege to serve you. Those would be three categories. I am sad. I reflect on what you have experienced during this season, the time you have invested because of all that has taken place, the challenges you have encountered over the past four months, how this has adversely affected your church. I locate myself in the midst of that and find my way to where I bear responsibility for that, I am so sad. My heart aches and breaks because I want to serve you. I don’t want to create work for you. So I pray that my sorrow and sadness is evident to you. I want to open my heart to you. I feel like it has been four months of mourning for the people I love the most.
But I am also hopeful because God is sovereign and He is wise and He is good and He has good purposes for Sovereign Grace and His good purposes cannot and will not be frustrated ultimately.
Deficiencies can be and will be addressed. Never has there been an interim board that we should be more grateful for or appreciative of. These men and their wives have given countless hours of sacrifice. We have been served heroically by these men and their wives. I am so grateful for Dave assuming this leadership role which he did not desire, did not volunteer for, and all the men participating on this interim board because they love the Savior and they love us so let them be the object of our appropriate gratitude for the countless ways they have served us during this season. I have hope because these are humble men, men of integrity, looking to lead us wisely as we walk forward. So I am very sad and I am also very hopeful. That is a little of my heart.
I want to appeal to you to make room in your heart for me. Many of you – this appeal isn’t necessary. From the beginning you have indicated that there has been no adjustment in your heart toward us. The room that was there prior is still there. And some of you seem to have added room in your heart. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. So many of you, this appeal isn’t necessary. Given the size of Sovereign Grace, given the diversity of questions, it is quite possible, it is understandable that for some there might be less room in your heart today for me. There may be little room , or maybe no room and if so, I understand. My appeal would simply be that I hope and I pray that what I say and in the future will allow you to make some room in your heart for me.
Here is some of what I have learned during this season of reflection. I hope this provides some clarity where there has been confusion. I am not trying to persuade you. I am just providing you with my perspective for your consideration.
I will address you from two categories: personal reflections and reflections on Sovereign Grace and my leadership of Sovereign Grace.
The leave of absence began in July. It was voluntary, it wasn’t imposed on me, it wasn’t disciplinary. It was a decision I made for a few different reasons. In light of the public distribution of Brent’s docs…here is what I wanted to do. I wanted to protect the office of the president of SGM. I wanted to protect the integrity of SGM, protect you and your church, I wanted to protect the integrity of the adjudication that was about to go forward. I wanted to take time to evaluate my heart and my ministry in relation to the leadership to Sovereign Grace. After the Leave of Absence was announced I was informed by numerous leaders outside of Sovereign Grace that this decision was decidedly unwise, that it would be perceived as an admission of guilt or some form of discipline, though neither would be true. And in retrospect I do think this was an unwise decision on my part with unintended consequences and the board agrees with me on this. This leave of absence rendered me unable to communicate my perspective or defend me from all manner of false accusations. But the leave did provide me with opportunity for reflection and unhurried evaluation and I am grateful. I have had so much interaction with individuals and received so much helpful and wise council inside and outside Sovereign Grace. I have learned much, I know God better, I love Him more, trust Him more, by His grace I am a wiser leader. So I am grateful for this unwise decision.
Next my transition to CHBC. After the public statement about the leave, I decided with the support of the board to attend CHBC during my leave of absence. I am very aware this decision has left you with a number of questions and I understand why.
Prior to the leave we had decided that Mark Dever would pay a strategic role in providing me with care and counsel…so his involvement was decided prior to the decision to attend CHBC. After my public confession and statement, it quickly became evident that for me to remain in CLC in this season would be untenable for a few reasons: there was hostility from a number in the church toward me after the release of Brent’s documents and I had disagreements with the approach that was adopted by the CLC pastors concerning these documents and in relation to my confession an approach that they thought best served the church.
So I didn’t see how I could remain in the church because I didn’t want to be a distraction, a disruption in the church, and I certainly didn’t want to be divisive to the church, because I love this church, I helped found this church, I gave 27 years of my life to this church. I wouldn’t want to do anything to harm this church. So I thought it would serve the church, serve the pastors that I wouldn’t be drawn in by the church to anything controversial by having to reveal any of my differences or concerns. I was desirous of serving the church.
I realize this doesn’t fit the expected practice relative to a church that preceded this decision…I know that, and I understand the questions but this was a situation where I believed and still do believe that the Word agrees that remaining in CLC would not have served this church or have served the pastors of this church. I did consider becoming part of Solid Rock Church but I didn’t want to be a distraction to that church either, didn’t want to draw that church unnecessarily into this controversy. I am at this time a walking controversy and I did not want to distract another church, to disrupt any church or to be divisive in a local church.
Finally I made this decision as a husband. My wife has an unusually strong constitution but I needed to protect her from the assaults that we were both the objects of. I am a husband before I am a president. When it was announced that I would be attending CHBC it was suggested that I was fleeing accountability and my response is as follows. I was not under any formal church discipline. Actually I was pursuing accountability. I was taking a leave of absence that I thought was a statement of accountability. I continue to participate in my small group with Bob and Jeff and Gary and continue to receive their care and council, encouragement, correction. I was running into, not away from, two separate panels and I was placing myself under the care and council of Mark Dever for the purpose of adding even more accountability. Mark is a true friend. We have a history of relationship. He is an excellent pastor and the man does not flatter.
One final reason – I needed help, I needed pastoral care, I needed the benefits of worship and preaching where I wouldn’t be distracted, where I wasn’t viewed suspiciously, where I didn’t have to be concerned about anyone approaching me before the meeting or after with questions or accusations. I needed to sit and listen to sermons that could speak to my needy soul. Mark is a dear friend to Sovereign Grace and I will never forget their kindness to us.
I don’t consider myself an exception at all. I do think these were exceptional circumstances.
Next, reflection on personal sins. At the beginning of the week of absence I have acknowledged – like all of you I have examined my heart – would be a practice for me – self-examination in some form has been a practice for me my entire Christian life. Perhaps for some it appears this self-examination, particularly as it relates to Brent’s docs, began in July with the leave of absence. But actually this began just after I received Brent’s first docs which would be more than a year prior to July. When he sent the first docs I immediately sent it to those I serve with. I began to consider the contents of his documents and invited the observations and evaluations of those I serve with and through this process I was able to identify with the help of friends and the eyes of others, my wife at my side providing her insight as well, and I was able to identify more clearly certain incidences of sin, habits of sin, most of which I had previously acknowledged years before but I was engaging them again. By God’s grace I was engaging them in a more perceptive way and I hope more thoroughly.
So over a period of a year I crafted and sent to Brent two written confessions as a means of humbling myself and in hopes of being reconciled with him. I want to make clear that my written confessions to Brent were sincere, I was convicted of those sins. I did grieve and still do over the effects of my sin and I communicated that to Brent as well as to other men that were affected by my sin. I still want to communicate that to anyone and everyone that has been affected by my sin. It is a part of what informs my sadness.
However, it does appear that some assumed or concluded that I agree with Brent’s narrative, his accusations and interpretations and judgments of my motives, and this simply wouldn’t be true and it never has been true. Brent’s docs construct a narrative that I disagree with. That narrative portrays my sins as scandalous, calculated and deceptive, and uncommonly intentionally hypocritical, and pervasively so, and this is false. Yes, sadly I am a sinner and throughout my Christian life I have never viewed myself otherwise, and I think I have acknowledged this however inadequately throughout my Christian life but I don’t believe my sins are uncommon or scandalous or disqualifying. I have never believed that since the day the first doc arrived.
So I was grateful for the findings and rulings of the first panel in this regard and their agreement with that assessment. I look forward to the review panel, the second panel’s findings and rulings regarding this matter as well. I wish those panels started today.
I think I made a significant error in how I related to Brent’s docs. I viewed his docs as a means of personal sanctification and I related to him as if this is a matter of personal offense. So I pursued personal reconciliation, I appealed repeatedly for mediation, I held out hope that Brent and I could be reconciled, and sadly to date that has proved to be a false hope.
I should have realized that Brent was making accusations and making charges, he was calling into question my fitness for ministry. This was First Timothy 5, not Matthew 5.
I think it might also be helpful to say something about the confession statement to Covenant Life and to you via a letter. Those confessions were sincere. I do, like you, take my sins seriously. I see them in light of the holiness of God. I need a Savior and I am so grateful that the Father has provided a Savior for my innumerable sins. But after making this confession I have received much helpful critique from a number of leaders about my confession and I have concluded that I did not serve you well with this confession. My confession has been misunderstood, misinterpreted, and exploited. My confession should have been more precise. It was my desire through my confession to humble myself, to take responsibility for my sin, to set an example, to protect SG.
Instead, my communication in some ways create speculation that left me vulnerable to interpretation, that left me vulnerable to exploitation. I left the wrong impression of my sin. In that confession I was trying to convey that I take my sins seriously but I regret that my language conveyed that my sins were unusually serious. I do not think that, I have never thought that. I didn’t distinguish my sins from Brent’s accusations, judgments, narrative and I should have.
One member of the first panel said this to me – quote: “I respect, CJ, how seriously you take the respectable sins but you left the impression that you did something scandalous. But nothing you confessed reached the level of public scandal requiring a public confession. Your sins are routine and common. That is not to minimize my sin. But it did help me to see the wrong impressions I left and I regret that.
Another member of the panel said this: “I think you made a genuine effort to be humble. You overstate the level of offense and you confuse those outside of Sovereign Grace.” I happen to think that is an accurate critique. I didn’t just confuse those outside Sovereign Grace, I confused those inside Sovereign Grace as well. I over-stated. I think I did that as well the year before at this Pastors’ Conference. My apology in relation to the polity process. A number of you came in afterwards and said in effect, you overstated that. I think you were right. I think this panel has an accurate assessment.
Finally, in relation to my confession, I wish I had defended myself. I think I briefly, at the outset, possibly at the conclusion, referenced my disagreements with Brent’s narratives and accusations. But I wrongly concluded that it wouldn’t be humble of me to defend myself. I am now convinced that this really reveals an ignorance of, a misunderstanding, a wrong application of humility. I had no category for an appropriate defense against criticisms and accusations, especially public ones. I think not having a category didn’t serve me.
I have no category for an appropriate defense against criticisms and accusations, especially public ones and I think not having that category didn’t serve me, didn’t serve Sovereign Grace, didn’t serve this process. Actually as I look back and reflect, though I was new to this process and evaluation, I wish I hadn’t made that confession statement at that time and what I should have done is postpone any confession statement until both panels had ruled. It made my confession statement all the more [unintelligible]. Not doing that left me vulnerable to critics and I don’t think it served you. Those are just a few personal reflections that I hope are helpful.
Now reflections on Sovereign Grace, reflections on my leadership of Sovereign Grace. Prior to this leave of absence I had become convinced, with the help of others, that I am not gifted to manage a movement. I lack the necessary organizational skills, I am not good at establishing policy and procedures and processes that set an appropriate expectation for how we serve together.
My gift of leadership is more strategic than it is tactical, it is more theological than it is practical. And given the growth we have experienced even in the last 10 years we need practical leadership here, and appropriate structures and procedures. It is critical for SG, not optional and where change has been required in SG a process is necessary and here I would perceive definite other weaknesses in my leadership. I can introduce change quickly, I can assume when I have introduced quickly everyone understands it.
I can change quickly. I can tell you it is frightening how quickly I can change, it is disconcerting how quickly I can change. I can change quickly, I can make major decisions quickly. This doesn’t always serve a movement where process is necessary. Certain change is required, explanations, and more explanations, discussion, debate, and more explanation and persuasion. At times my leadership has helped create confusion. If you add to this our history of not communicating wisely – another area I want to take responsibility for, not communicating wisely and well, especially when you have made some significant changes.
There are additional deficiencies with their consequences. As I reflect I realize that I so often am not even aware of the effect of my statements. I can be musing while interacting with guys, or musing in the context of a message, yet I am unaware that guys are assuming that I am setting direction and it doesn’t serve. Or I am peering in the future and sharing my musings and not considering how to communicate that so that they are introduced wisely, so that there is a process of explanation and consideration, so there is a procedure and plan. Too often I have not done that. So at one point I am just musing about transferring the gospel to the next generation of pastors.
And I can leave all of my friends my age assuming that their season of effective, fruitful service is quickly coming to an end. I don’t want to leave that impression. But I realize that I can leave that impression and let me just say to all of the older guys here, and not just because of the economy, you have many years of service left and Sovereign Grace needs you more than ever. That is not a criticism of the younger guys. Thank God for our younger guys. You bring us great joy. This movement isn’t ready for you to have a transfer of leadership at this point in time and I am sure you don’t desire that particularly with the number of wise older men in this room who want to serve you till their dying breath and with the grace of God.
As it relates to my leadership over the past four months, as I have reflected in particular over the last eight years of my life, I think I ended up serving in the areas that I am not gifted to serve to the detriment in the areas where I am gifted to serve, and have been the most fruitful over the years. The first among these would be preaching. For the last 3 years there has been a rising course of voices of friends inside SG and outside SG who have spoken to me, met with me personally, and communicated the same concern: Why aren’t you preaching? We are perplexed. Why aren’t you leading a church? What are you doing? I have a friend, a leader outside of SG that took me out to breakfast in the context of a conference, and in complete seriousness said, this breakfast informs a rebuke. I said what is the concern? Took the entirety of breakfast, I took 2 pages of notes and he just said you need to get back in the pulpit and you need to die in the pulpit and you need to lead from the pulpit. And he was quite forceful to impress on me what he felt like would be a form of disobedience if I didn’t because he said God has created a [indiscernible/inaudible] how can you not perceive this? Why are you not doing something about this?
I think he is right. I think I have neglected my call to preach. I think I have accepted a role that is more managerial and quite obviously I am not a manager. And I also think I am a pastor. That is what I think I am. I’m a pastor. And over the last 8 years I have become detached from serving a particular local church. I hope that changes soon. It is my intention to change that soon.
So during this season of reflection I have just benefited significantly from objective evaluation of my gifting from men inside of SG as well as outside of SG and I think I stand before you with more clarity on where I am called and gifted to serve and where I am decidedly not called and gifted to serve. Hopefully that will make me more gifted to serve.
And as I have looked at SG and myself, evaluated my leadership but SG more [unintelligible] I am aware that there are a number of areas to be addressed. Dave is going to communicate areas that need to be addressed. I just want to give you three.
Before I do, this practice of evaluation is the norm in Sovereign Grace. If you are new to Sovereign Grace, areas of deficiency aren’t unusual. You won’t be growing out of areas of deficiencies in our lifetime. So it is not abnormal for us to evaluate ourselves. I think it is abnormal this time. There is a loud voice from critics and the prevalence of slander that tends to intrude upon this evaluation, to distort this evaluation. The process of evaluation is one we are committed to and have been historically and will be in the future and actually even bringing these few areas to your attention I have to qualify what I say. I don’t believe these are systemic and I am not attempting to evaluate all of Sovereign Grace. I don’t assume my preferences in [unintelligible] that it applies to all of Sovereign Grace. And I don’t agree with our critics who evaluate Sovereign Grace this way. I show concern for anyone, beginning with myself that make statements about Sovereign Grace that are categorical in nature.
But just a couple of areas. First the doctrine of sin. I am deeply grateful for how the doctrine of sin serves the Christian. I am grateful for how it has served us in many ways. The doctrine of sin must be handled with great care and I don’t think we have always understood it properly and I bear some responsibility for this deficiency. Many years ago as I began to teach more about sin and sanctification I did not at that time anticipate all the potential pitfalls in the understanding and applying the doctrine of sin, especially as the amount of churches increased over the years. Oh my, I regret not foreseeing this. I regret not preparing us for this. I think I also assumed that our emphasis on the gospel would sufficiently protect us. Not necessarily so.
So as I have reflected over the last 4 months, I think this has been a 6 year process, in relation to the doctrine of sin I think there are a few areas where we have been affected by a misapplication of the doctrine of sin. First area is fellowship. This has been a strength in Sovereign Grace. I pray it remains a strength. At times the doctrine of sin has had too much of a prominent place in our practice of fellowship. Very careful here, so no misunderstanding. The practice and experience of fellowship is much much much broader than the application of the doctrine of sin. And our practice of fellowship must not be reduced to identifying sin or rehearsing sin or endlessly exploring the potential idols of our heart. Our practice of fellowship should primarily be a means of preaching and applying the gospel to each other. It should be a means of identifying evidences of grace in each other. The category of what it should be could be expanded.
But it is all too easy for our practice of fellowship to become a preoccupation with sin, primarily about sin rather than a fresh proclamation and application of the gospel to our lives. I regret these misunderstandings and misapplications where they have occurred. I wish I would have anticipated them. I think it was about 6 years ago I began to perceive these deficiencies. I’ve looked back through notes where I was – OK – I was attempting to address it but, OK, it was just a point in a message. I asked David Powlison to come to our Pastors’ Conference and preach a message on introspection. So that was all by design. That was simply the single message, had the privilege to teach the pastor care class at pastors’ college last 3 years and this has certainly been a section, but I should have done more
And the second area in this regard is the area of correction. At times the doctrine of sin has been unhelpfully applied in relation to others instead of towards ourselves. So individuals have been corrected and pressed to acknowledge sins that others perceived, sins of the heart and when there isn’t immediate agreement with that correction and assessment then the category of pride can be introduced. The person appears to be unteachable then that is in sin, particularly if everyone else in the group is in agreement with each other about your sin. There is a wonderful quote, I think over the years it has been misunderstood and misapplied. This is from J.I. Packer’s work on the Puritans, Quest for Godliness, “Our best works are shot through with sin and contain something that needs to be forgiven.” The purpose of this quote is to humble us and to provoke us to guard our hearts. I don’t think this is a mandate for us to suspect the hearts of others or to pursue the sins of others or to correct others. I regret not perceiving this misunderstanding and misapplication. I regret not more effectively guarding misapplication. There is more I wish I would have done.
The second would be pastoral evaluation. This is another area that I think my leadership has been inadequate. More could have been done, more should have been done, more will be done. Sovereign Grace needs to provide our pastors with guidance, the content of a process where objective evaluation of pastors so that pastoral evaluations are theologically informed, objectively done, uniformly done, not arbitrary, not suddenly announced. A pastor shouldn’t be blindsided by an evaluation. And this is particularly critical when there are concerns about the pastor’s character or gifting. The content of this evaluation should be theologically informed, predetermined as well as the timing of this evaluation. I’m aware I’m aware I’m very aware that there are pastors that feel that they have been inappropriately evaluated, even mistreated by Sovereign Grace. Listen, I don’t believe this is systemic from my experience and I have pursued a number of these situations. Here’s what I have decided. Each situation is very different. Very different. We certainly do want to give attention to it. We are giving attention to it. In some ways I spent almost 2 years trying to give attention to it. And we are thankful for AoR and they are serving us even this morning.
One more thing before I finish. Once we have a pastor in place in Sovereign Grace we want to do all we can to keep that pastor in place. We do not want our pastors fearing that in some way that we are looking for a reason to disqualify them. We want to do all we can if at all possible for our pastors to have lengthy, fruitful service.
Finally, polity. You are aware of this involved in the process, it will continue. It is not something that should be done quickly, different ways…2 years this process. It has been the tireless work of Jeff and Dave, thanks for your patience and participation. I think we are making progress. It is going to take much longer to make the kind of progress we need to make. We should not be surprised about that. I had a leader say to me just the other day “the fact that you guys don’t have all of your polity clarified and formalized is not a sin. You are a very young movement. ” So that is encouraging, gave me hope.
One aspect of polity that I do regret not having in place and that would be the appropriate handling of grievances in conflict resolution. We have not had grievance procedures in place for pastors or church members so no doubt there are instances where former pastors or church members would have been greatly served by these procedures. I am sorry that. I am sorry for the effects of that. The board is addressing that. Obviously receiving the value of AoR concerning that become a consistent part of Sovereign Grace church and Sovereign Grace procedures as well. It needs to, we want to, it will become…so that’s not exhaustive. It won’t surprise you that I have lots more to say. I am not going to say it today. I have lots more to say. I have never been this quiet for this long in my entire life. I was going to say it is killing me, but it is sanctifying.
Finally, it would not be good leadership on my part for me to leave you preoccupied with areas of deficiency. It would not be good godly leadership. Do we have problems. Yes we do. But listen. Problems we are facing, confronting, experiencing. These things do not define us, and they do not define our churches. Sovereign Grace is a gospel preaching movement. And by God’s grace Sovereign Grace will continue to be a gospel preaching movement. One thing I would like to say and stress. We must not let our critics define us, or redefine us. I think the days ahead are going to require all the content of Dave’s excellent message.
I think the days ahead are going to require more discernment as it relates to the identification of slander and the influence of slander in our churches. I think the days ahead are going to require courage on the part of pastors and when necessary publicly identify those who are divisive. I think the days ahead are not only going to require, I think they are going to require courage. I think in some ways in Sovereign Grace we have more humility than courage. And we are going to need more courage. Humble courage. It doesn’t mean we don’t learn from critique, we do. But there is a difference between learning from critique and allowing critics to define you. We are capitulating to slander in the name of humility.
So we are going to continue to evaluate ourselves. But it would not please God if we minimize the evidences of grace in our midst, that have been present and pronounced for so many years. This is not spin. This is not hype. This is not some form of SG self-promotion. This is simply and humbly and accurately an acknowledgment of the mercy of God in and to SGM.