Last November (2019), columnist Daniel Lavery tweeted about a scandal and coverup he had witnessed take place in his father’s Bay Area evangelical megachurch. Lavery is an author, co-founder of the late feminist website The Toast, and Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudence advice columnist*. His father is Reverend John Ortberg, former teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, and now senior pastor of Menlo Church. Last November Lavery wrote publicly of his discovery that his father had knowingly allowed a parishioner who admitted to harboring sexual attraction towards children to work unsupervised with children at the church.
At this point, I knew that Reverend Ortberg wasn’t covering for any ordinary parishioner. Having grown up in those evangelical circles, I knew it was someone either ranking in the church’s hierarchy, or someone personally close to Ortberg. That’s just how it works. Had this person been Joe Schmoe Parishioner, Ortberg would have thrown them out like yesterday’s garbage. But even I was unprepared to learn that the pedophile in question was Ortberg’s SON, his third-born child, John “Johnny” Ortberg III. Lavery only revealed this sensitive information on June 28th, 2020, after he found the first investigation wholly lacking in rigor, and essentially just a continuation of the cover-up.
This scandal has every former evangelical looking back on our own experiences with our childhood churches, especially our old youth groups and ministers. While I classify being raised evangelical an overwhelmingly negative experience, I actually had a wonderful youth minister. I can say with certainty I never heard or suspected one whiff of predation or inappropriateness. To preserve anonymity I’ll call him, let’s see, “Jim Smith”. Sure. Big Jim Smith. Big Jim was a kind man. His height and girth likely dwarfed yours, but he was a quiet, organized, noncharismatic leader who kept a steady hand over his flying circus. He treated us with love and respect, and we loved and respected him back. While I could write an entire book on the problems with Youth Groups in general, I remember this man only with fondness.
Large youth groups of suburban megachurches are like a barn full of feral cats. There are cats and kittens of various sizes and colors (oh no, just kidding, they’re mostly white) milling about, rubbing on surfaces and occasionally stopping to groom themselves or others. Some kitties cower in the corner, silently and carefully observing this madhouse, while others yowl loudly just for the sake of it. Some sweetly purr and stand taller when approached, while others growl and hiss. Fights over food and attention are inevitable. The cats start to see the value in forming various collectives, hoping that might ensure a larger portion of those coveted canned gloppy chicken bits. These collectives preach love and acceptance while building invisible walls to keep other, less desirable cats out. The various kitties come and go, you never know how many will show up to today’s gathering; you also never know who will slip out the door never to be seen again. A core group of cats sticks around, though. Hierarchies form. Power amasses. Some of these Top Cats keep their place based on their looks, their shiny coat and unique stripes and striking (though always vapid) eyes enthralling the peons. Others simply yelled louder than you, while still others manipulatively charmed elder cats with their aggressive purring and head butting. Some kitties stand on stage and sing the songs of their people, and now matter how off-key or unintelligible, the little kittens know their obligation to bow down and praise such wondrous, God-given talent. This hierarchy allows for only one slot at the very top of the Feral Cat Pyramid, though. Only one kitty can reach the final utmost rung, and usually does so via a cult of personality and a reliable entourage of pilot fish. This kitty is known as Youth Group President, or sometimes Minister-in-Training.
Which of these feral cats will emerge? At my old church it was a decently attractive, upper-middle-class male, a jock and honors student with a booming voice, stylish clothes, impeccable manners when needed, and a penchant for grabbing attention over nothing in particular. We’ll call him… “Duke”. Why not. Duke was quite outgoing, undeniably charming at first blush. A captivating speaker who could move seamlessly from animated and funny to relatable to serious in an articulate manner, a seemingly nice person who always had time for everyone.
He was the exact kind of male that evangelical Christianity is designed to platform and protect. Gregarious and charming and smart, but also power-hungry, heinously self-absorbed, and vindictive if challenged. He shrewdly tapped into the system, using it to his advantage to foster a cult of personality. An aura built up around him as he became the embodiment of those ubiquitous yet empty evangelical buzzwords: Wisdom and Godliness.
I should note this dynamic OFTEN happens with the youth ministers themselves. Be wary when you see those megachurches with the young, fine-looking, hipster youth pastors, the men who are often only a few biological years older than the teenage girls under their guidance. They are all the same: boisterous, articulate, charming, yet darkly narcissistic and cunning, able to escape detection with their mesmerizing veneer. In my youth group, we had Big Jim, and Big Jim was none of those things. He wasn’t young, or attractive, or a snappy dresser. He wasn’t extraverted or charming either, just a kind, steady presence. But Duke… Duke fit the stereotype, and Duke was given free rein. But, you must be thinking, Duke was a mere high school student. He couldn’t have had real power, and it’s true that he mostly didn’t. Except for when he did.
Duke shimmied his way to the top of the Feral Cat Pyramid, and Duke was roundly adored by the youth group members and the church adults alike.
Duke also exclusively dated middle school girls when he was a junior and senior in high school.
Does that trigger your ick response? It should. A three or four year age gap in romantic relationships is nothing for adults. Mr. Wallace is three years older than me. We often joke we met as mere kids, but at ages twenty-six and twenty-three, we were not actually children. Had we met when he was seventeen and I was fourteen, it would have been quite the different story. I know he wouldn’t have been the least bit interested in me, because he’s normal, and normal seventeen-year-old guys are supposed to be into girls their own age. Any high schooler who *wants* to date a middle schooler is waving around a bright red flag. And yet… Duke was Godly, so no one questioned it. Not Big Jim, not any other church parents, not even the girls’ parents.
How was it not clear Duke was a person actively seeking a power differential? Duke didn’t want to date a girl his own age, someone who was as experienced at life as he. Duke wanted a pretty young thing to fawn over him, to be awestruck at getting to attend High School Events, to feel so blessed he even took the time of day. Duke wanted a young girl with zero dating experience, who wouldn’t know up from down about how he could treat her.
To be one thousand percent clear, I never once heard a whisper of him being abusive toward any of those “girlfriends”. And he was never inappropriate towards me – but also, I was his age, so he wouldn’t have seen me as romantically attractive.
A seventeen-year-old guy wanting to date a thirteen-year-old girl is ICKY. But within evangelical circles, Wisdom and Godliness are get-out-of-jail-free cards for such behavior. Every adult even tangentially connected to that youth group was willing to suspend belief and allow inherently predatory behavior simply because a high schooler had good manners and talked (ad nauseum) about his “walk with Jesus”.
Duke is wholly unoriginal. He’s a dime a dozen, and his kind proliferates in evangelical megachurches. And if you are thinking, “so what, he was just a high schooler?” please know that that high schooler was never called on his narcissistic power grabbing, it was never wondered aloud if he was taking advantage of someone more vulnerable. He learned a valuable lesson to carry into adulthood, did he not?
Is there a direct tie from my youth group observations back to the Menlo Park scandal? I think my small story belies a larger point that many have made, repeatedly: the corruption – and that’s precisely what Reverend John Ortberg engaged in – that is inherent in evangelical churches is systemic. One good egg – and I’ve no reason to think Big Jim wasn’t one – does not really help. This system is designed to protect and elevate charismatic male personalities, to bestow upon them unearned and disproportionate power, and to shield them from consequences. No matter how many toothless reforms are initiated, no matter how many good eggs in the carton, it doesn’t change the system that rewards corrupt, patriarchal power. A cult of personality will always rise up, and the good eggs are seemingly powerless to resist or stop it.
*I regularly read and occasionally disagree with Lavery’s advice.
Chilled Red Pepper Soup with Cold Fried Chicken and Goat Cheese
RED PEPPER SOUP:
- 10 red bell peppers, about 4 lbs, seeds and ribs removed, roughly chopped
- 3 celery ribs, roughly chopped
- 3 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 quart vegetable stock
- 1-2 tbs heavy cream
- Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
COLD FRIED CHICKEN:
- Canola or vegetable oil, for frying
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp cracked black pepper
- 2 tbs kosher salt
- 2 tbs smoked paprika
- 1 tbs cornstarch
- 1 large egg, beaten
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 4-5 boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 1 lb) - heads up: it’s entirely acceptable to make extra for snacking
- 4 oz. goat cheese, cold
- Thinly sliced or torn basil, for garnish
RED PEPPER SOUP:
- Working in batches, add the vegetables and the vegetable stock to a blender and blend until very smooth. I like to do this in three batches, evenly dividing up the veggies and the stock. After you blend each batch, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Use a rubber spatula to press on the solids in the strainer. When all the veggies and stock are pureed, pour the mixture into a large soup pot. Simmer over medium to medium-low heat until thickened slightly, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the heavy cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool to room temperature, then transfer to storage containers. Chill completely in the fridge.
COLD FRIED CHICKEN:
- Fill a high-sided skillet or Dutch oven with canola or vegetable oil, just enough to deep fry. Bring the oil to 350 F over medium to medium-high heat. Line a plate with paper towels to receive your chicken once it’s fried.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, black pepper, salt, and smoked paprika. Lay out 3 high-sided plates or pie plates. Add about 40% of the flour mixture to the first plate. Add the cornstarch to the flour mixture remaining in the bowl, then transfer that flour mixture to the third plate. Whisk together the egg and buttermilk in the second plate.
- Cut the chicken into approximately 1 x 1-inch pieces, but seriously do not fuss about this part. Just chunk up the chicken into nice, bite-size-ish pieces, 6 to 8 pieces per thigh.
- Working in a dry-wet-dry order, dredge the chicken in the first plate of flour mixture, then in the egg-buttermilk mixture, then in the third plate of flour mixture.
- Fry the chicken in batches using a slotted spoon or spider (I use a spider. I love that thing.). Make sure your chicken isn’t sticking together in the hot oil. Cook about 4 to 5 minutes, until the outside is crunchy and the inside is cooked through. Use your spider or slotted spoon to remove the chicken from the oil to your paper-towel-lined plate.
- Immediately refrigerate the plate of fried chicken, uncovered, until it’s completely chilled.
- Ladle the chilled soup into bowls. Garnish with crumbled goat cheese and basil. Place the fried chicken chunks on a large platter, and let everyone grab them family-style. Dunk pieces of fried chicken into the soup and enjoy.