An evangelical pastor has resigned from his position at the helm of a California megachurch, more than eight months after its board first learned he failed to prevent his pedophile son from volunteering with children.
The elder board at Menlo Church, a multi-campus congregation headquartered in an affluent Bay Area neighborhood, announced Pastor John Ortberg’s resignation on Wednesday with a “heavy heart.” It will go into effect on Sunday, after Ortberg gives a final address to the church he has pastored since 2004.
Ortberg acknowledged Wednesday that for the church to flourish, he had to leave.
“I want to express again my regret for not having served our church with better judgment,” Ortberg said in a statement on church’s website. “I did not balance my responsibilities as a father with my responsibilities as a leader.”
He added, “I am hopeful that my leaving can mark a new beginning in our church’s ministry, and will also appreciate your prayers for our family.”
The whistleblower who informed church officials of the situation was Daniel Lavery, Ortberg’s other son. Lavery’s wife said Wednesday that the pastor’s resignation brings the couple no pleasure.
“More than anything, we wish it had not come to this point. We grieve that John’s departure became necessary to ensure real safeguarding,” Grace Lavery wrote in a tweet.
According to church officials, Ortberg learned in July 2018 that his youngest son, Johnny Ortberg, was attracted to children. But the son assured his father that he had never acted on that attraction. The pastor believed him and kept his son’s confession a secret for 16 months, while the younger Ortberg continued to volunteer with children at Menlo Church and at local sports teams.
To date, no one has come forward with allegations that they were sexually abused by Johnny Ortberg, church officials have said.
Last November, Johnny Ortberg told his brother Daniel Lavery about the attractions, and Lavery decided to inform Menlo Church’s elder board. The elder board placed John Ortberg on leave without giving the congregation an official reason for his absence. The board hired a lawyer to conduct an investigation that was later revealed to have significant flaws. The lawyer, who doesn’t appear to have had experience investigating child sex abuse, didn’t interview several key people ― including parents of children Johnny Ortberg worked with or Johnny Ortberg himself. Also, Johnny Ortberg’s identity was kept secret even from some of the people interviewed for the investigation.
By the time the elder board informed the congregation at large about the investigation, the probe was over. John Ortberg completed a “restoration” plan designed by the board and returned to the pulpit in March.
Unsatisfied with the investigation, Lavery publicly identified Johnny Ortberg on Twitter on June 28. Until that point, many congregants had been in the dark about the volunteer’s identity and his relationship with their pastor.
Current and former members of Menlo Church told HuffPost earlier this month that they were upset by how the elder Ortberg and the board handled the situation.
The board said Wednesday that it had received “hundreds” of emails and calls from church volunteers, parents, students, staff and community members. They apologized to those who believed their “investigation, decisions, or communications” had been insufficient and pledged to be more transparent in the future. They said that all their decisions on how to handle the situation were made in collaboration with local district leaders of their conservative denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Liviera Lim, a 23-year-old who attended Menlo Church for nine years before leaving for college, told HuffPost that the elders’ statement gave her hope that the board has recognized where they failed and that it is taking steps to make Menlo Church safer for children.
“What I hope to see this next time around is more thoroughness with the process, and transparency with the congregation and greater community,” she said.
Lim said that she admires Daniel and Grace Lavery for the “mental and emotional sacrifices” they made to ensure that the matter was taken seriously.
“I think both the Ortberg family and the elder board owe a sincere, non-justifying apology to the couple, who are the reason that Menlo’s children will (hopefully) be safer in the future,” she said.
Beth Seabolt, the chair of Menlo Church’s elder board claimed during a town hall earlier this year that Daniel Lavery’s efforts were motivated by a need to “lash out” at his parents. Daniel Lavery, a trans writer and columnist for Slate, is estranged from his parents. Seabolt later apologized for her comments.
The lawyer conducting the initial investigation had “the discretion to disclose” Johnny Ortberg’s identity “if it was needed,” the board said in a statement. The church itself didn’t disclose Johnny Ortberg’s name because of the lack of evidence of misconduct. Revealing the name would have “unnecessarily” risked violating Johnny Ortberg’s right to privacy and could have resulted in defaming his character, the board said.
“The elders were careful not to reveal the identity of the volunteer as the church has a moral responsibility to protect the confidentiality of confession, especially when it pertains only to thoughts and not actions,” the board wrote.
The elder board will hire an interim senior pastor while searching for John Ortberg’s replacement, it said. The board is still finalizing the details of an audit of its existing child safety policies, as well as a “supplemental” investigation into Johnny Ortberg’s involvement in church-sponsored activities involving minors.
No one on the elder board has resigned. New voices could be added during an annual meeting on Aug. 30.
Tiger Bachler, who attended Menlo Church for over 20 years, told HuffPost that the careful wording of the elders’ statements led her to believe they didn’t think they mishandled the matter and that they were only asking John Ortberg to resign because of tremendous outside pressure. Some parishioners at Menlo Church also appear to be devastated by the loss of their pastor, Bachler said.
Bachler stopped regularly attending services at Menlo Church about five years ago, but when HuffPost talked to her earlier this month, she said she still considered Menlo to be her home church. Bachler now says that’s no longer the case.
She told HuffPost that the church needs to demonstrate that it believes that faith journeys aren’t dependent on a single man or pastor.
“I personally can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t react to what happened with immediate concern for children who may have been harmed, but they are blinded by John’s ability to deeply speak to them in his sermons,” Bachler said. “They seem to attribute their faith journey specifically to John rather than the church or even God.”
Kelly Morehead is a former attendee and recent ministry volunteer at Menlo Church whose own children were once involved in its youth programs. She told HuffPost that John Ortberg’s resignation is the “right next step toward accountability, reconciliation, and healing.” But Morehead said the elders need to be held accountable, too.
“Their initial response to Daniel’s allegations was an attempted ‘glossing over’ to protect John and the church’s brand,” Morehead said. “In failing to react with the appropriate concern and care for the youth of the church, the Elders failed John and the church.”
The board has not repudiated the validity of the “restoration” process it designed for John Ortberg, which allowed him to return to the pulpit. The elders suggested his resignation was more about recognizing that his presence was a “distraction” to the church’s mission.
They praised John Ortberg’s accomplishments, which included overseeing the addition of new campuses.
“In making this decision, we also wish to gratefully acknowledge that during John’s tenure at Menlo, many have come to know Jesus, and through John’s teaching they and many others have matured in their faith and embraced the life of the Christian mind in the midst of an increasingly secular world,” the board said.
Lim, who still attends Menlo Church when she’s in the neighborhood, said that the congregation has had a positive impact on her life and that she’s still grateful for the community.
“I love Menlo Church and, because of that love ― the love that God has shown me through my personal upbringing at Menlo as well as the spiritual wrestling that came with having grown up there ― I want to see the Church grow to be a safer, more inclusive, more transparent, and more empathetic place,” she said.