Cover Story

Set adrift

"Set adrift" Continued...

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

Leininger said he was particularly drawn to Phillips’ love of history and his work in the independent Christian film festival. Leininger funded and produced the film Alone Yet Not Alone, which drew national attention when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suddenly rescinded the Christian film’s nomination for best original song in March. Both Phillips and the woman Phillips was involved with appeared in the film.

Leininger said parts of those short scenes will likely remain, and that he hopes they won’t detract from the film, slated for a June release. He hasn’t spoken with Phillips since the resignation, but called the developments sad: “It’s just very disappointing for what a long time looked to be a very promising witness for Christ.” He’s glad Phillips acknowledged his sin and stepped down, and hopes his repentance is genuine: “Time will tell.”

Jason Dohm, an elder at Sovereign Redeemer Community Church—the same church VFM board member Scott Brown serves in North Carolina—wrote about Phillips earlier this year, “pray for him, but don’t mistakenly hope for his return to Christian leadership.” Dohm wrote that when “a shepherd has cultivated a life of deception and manipulation for many years,” it rightly takes a long time to regain trust.

RESTORATION AND REPENTANCE: Phillips speaks with an attendee of the 2012 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
Rowan Gillson
RESTORATION AND REPENTANCE: Phillips speaks with an attendee of the 2012 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
HOW WILL LITIGATION affect repentance? Phillips’ attorney sent a letter on March 13 to Peter Bradrick, Jordan Muela, and Bob Renaud—three of the men who confronted Phillips last October. The letter accused the men of orchestrating a campaign of slander against Phillips, and conspiring to “destroy Doug Phillips, his family, and Vision Forum Inc.” (VFI stopped selling products from its website at the end of last year, but it appears Phillips retains ownership of the company.)

The letter threatened a lawsuit but also discussed Christian conciliation. The letter noted Phillips plans to advance claims against “Vision Forum Ministries and its board members,” though the nature of those claims is unclear. Meanwhile, the woman may sue Phillips. She declined comment through her attorney, citing possible litigation, and Phillips’ attorney said her legal claims (still undefined publicly) are “false, defamatory, and made with malicious intent. …”

Despite the litigation fog, some lessons do remain clear, including the need for early disclosure, robust accountability, and serious care with positions of authority. Other scandals reveal that fame brings danger, and pride can infect anyone. Phillips hinted at that reality himself by noting, in his resignation letter, “I thought too highly of myself. …”

Cults of celebrity

Krieg Barrie

Doug Phillips is not the only Christian ministry leader who has hurt his organization and the cause of Christ over the past year. In recent weeks the World News Group’s website, wng.org, has had the sad task of running stories on Bill Gothard leaving his ministry following charges of sexual misconduct, Seattle’s Mark Driscoll buffeted by charges of plagiarism and possible misuse of ministry resources, and Charlotte’s Steven Furtick building a mansion and using crowd dynamics to increase baptism statistics.

While these stories and WORLD’s reports on leadership problems at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities are all different, they are “not a new phenomenon,” according to church historian Mark Noll, who notes that “the burden of celebrity is greater than ever before. The publicity machine operates with more energy.” Noll’s advice: “Wise leaders will build structures around them to prevent or diminish temptation.”

Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said he often sees scandals occur when organizations lack “sound board governance” and a “focus on the basics.” Scandal-prone organizations also have a concentration of power at the top of the organization and a lack of transparency. If ministry leaders are secretive and attempt to squash criticism, that’s a bad sign: WORLD’s website has also examined the nondisclosure agreements that some megachurches now require staff members to sign.

When scandals erupt, Noll said, our reaction “should not be to gloat or point to the problems of others. This is not an evangelical problem or a Catholic problem or a Pentecostal problem. It’s a human problem.” —Warren Cole Smith

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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