Daniel Darling Christian Blog and Commentary

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Penn State and the Danger of Insular Communities

  • Daniel Darling

    Daniel Darlingis the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He previously served as the Senior VP for Communications at National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) and VP of Communications…

  • Updated Nov 17, 2011

The news from Penn State University continues to shock, anger and sadden all of us. A once-proud university known for its commitment to excellence and integrity is now humbled by the revelations that it allowed one of its longtime coaches abuse children on their campus. The allegations are still forthcoming and most of us don't know who knew what.

As I thought about this situation, I was saddened. Saddened for the victims and their parents and saddened for the university. We live in a fallen world and increasingly even our best institutions are failing us. It's no wonder that young people today trust authority and institutions even less. This includes the church, not immune to its own failings and abuses.

How might we as church leaders learn from this Penn State situation? From a practical standpoint, we might look at and examine our own policies and practices when it comes to screening volunteers and working with children. From a spiritual standpoint, we might be more fervent in our prayer that these types of situations don't occur on our watch and if they do, we'd be vigilant to do the right thing and not attempt to cover up to protect reputations.

But I wonder if we might look deeper and examine the culture of our organizations. According to some of the commentary I've read, one of the characteristics of the Penn State community was its insularity. This can likely be said about many college campuses, but apparently this institution was particularly tight-knit and closed. For most of its history, this was considered a good thing, as the family atmosphere fosters a sense of loyalty and community. But I wonder if this insularity became the undoing of Penn State.

What happens is that an organization prides itself on loyalty (a good thing) and routinely has a "way," such as the Penn State Way. Colleges have this, as do successful organizations and churches and businesses. This is good until it becomes bad. It goes bad when the reputation of the organization becomes more paramount than the well-being of individuals.

And this transition happens slowly over time. Perhaps unfair attacks embolden the leaders and foster a sense of unity that leads people to adopt an "us against the world" mentality. Or years of repeated successes calcify the thinking in the minds of institutions so that they no longer need to learn and grow. They simply continue to point to their accomplishments and believe that they have found the perfect formula for success. Why change when you've discovered the secret to success?

Perhaps the biggest sign an institution is becoming dangerously insular is when they stop receiving criticism. When it becomes more of a crime to criticize the institution than to do what's right. When PR becomes the predominant mission rather than the original mission.

It's easy to criticize Penn State for their failings. How could they allow this abuse to go on? But perhaps they really believed that they were above something like this and that it couldn't happen on their watch. Perhaps they dismissed the charges as baseless. Perhaps they squashed the evidence to protect the guilty. Few of us know the rationale.

But what happened there could happen in any organization, including Christian ones. This downward slide begins when we are more interested in telling ourselves how good and successful we are rather than allowing constructive criticism or objective analysis. When we refuse to grow as an institution.

This can happen in churches as much as it can happen in universities. It can happen when power is valued more highly than servanthood, when PR is more valuable than truth, when success becomes less about individuals and more about numbers, when organizations strive for what they can get away with versus what is morally right.

In an insular, closed community that shuts off all criticism, the community makes the rules and bends the rules and becomes a law unto itself. This is dangerous territory.

So what's the cure? For churches and Christian organizations, the gospel is the only medicine. Our sinful condition and helpless state before God, our need of the redemption of the Cross, and our dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit should all serve as a constant reminder that nobody is above the worst kinds of sins. No leader has good judgment all the time. No one is above selfish and sinful motivations. This reality should make us open to constructive correction and criticism as a critical tool to create an authentic, Christ-honoring environment. Leaders should assemble a team that is loyal to the mission, but free to point out weaknesses both in the leader and in the organization. This iron-sharpening should be embraced, not penalized.

What happened at Penn State is a sinful, horrific tragedy. We should pray for the victims, the perpetrators and those who selfishly covered up the offenses. We should pray for the community at Penn State that is reeling from shock. We should pray for the gospel to penetrate that campus during this dark hour. This is more than a story. There are souls at stake.

And, yet those of us who live thousands of miles removed from Penn State should pray that God would use this to sharpen our leadership in creating open, authentic, gospel-saturated communities of faith.