“Spotlight” is an Academy Award-winning movie that every church leader should watch. The movie is a dramatized account of the real-life investigation of the Boston Globe spotlight team as they exposed a massive child molestation and cover-up scandal within their local Catholic Archdiocese. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that a LOT of kids were molested all over the world, and lots of church leaders knew about it, but few were willing to do anything about it. It took outsiders to expose the unethical behavior that had become the norm within.
The Catholic Church paid a high price for neglecting child abuse allegations over the years. Sure, they paid millions of dollars to the victims since then. However, the damage done to their reputation was incalculable. I remember seeing the movie and thinking, “This is what happens when a church chooses to protect its image vs. uphold its integrity.”
I also remember asking myself, “How would my church handle a controversial scandal that was exposed by an investigative journalism team?” Sadly, I didn’t have to wait very long for the answer to that. On April 14, 2016 the South African daily newspaper The New Age, broke a story that alleged two senior Seventh-day Adventists leaders, Paul Ratsara, South Indian Division [SID] President and SID Communication Director Paul Charles had used fraudulent doctoral degrees to advance their careers.
At first, the SID leaders gave a strongly worded denial of the allegations and offered proof that one of the pastors had completed and received his doctoral degree. However, a few days later, a group of academics wrote an open letter to General Conference President Ted Wilson, where they disputed the innocence of these leaders and expressed concern of a broader culture of dishonesty at the highest levels of their division.
In the days and weeks ahead, more revelations and truths began to emerge that showed that there was much more information that these two leaders in question weren’t sharing. Here is what transpired according to one source:
After further revelations emerged in Spectrum and elsewhere, SID leaders appointed an ad-hoc consulting committee to look into charges against Paul Charles. That investigation led to a public statement on the SID website saying that Paul Charles “does not possess any accredited qualification (degree),” and that Charles would “cease and relinquish the use of any titles associated with those unaccredited degrees [and] complete his studies at an accredited institution…in respect of the South African national standards.”
It was revealed that Paul Charles did not have a PhD like he claimed; in fact, he hadn’t completed any degree. Similarly, It was also later revealed that Paul Ratsara had plagiarized part of his dissertation by having a colleague write five of its six chapters.
So, on May 24, a special meeting of the SID Executive Committee was called and approved a close motion to “register displeasure at the way the doctorate was obtained by Paul Ratsara.” Ratsara took this vote essentially as an implicit no-confidence vote and offered his resignation. Yet, Elder Wilson who was present at the meeting, is said to have asked Ratsara in front of the committee to “sleep on it,” and added that the General Conference might not accept his resignation. At this same meeting the SID EXCOM approved a motion to require Paul Charles to complete his bachelor’s degree within the next year while employed as SID communication director.
A few days later, on May 29, Ratsara confirmed his resignation to the General conference, SID officers, and to the Executive Committee. Today, on May 31, it’s been reported that, with no admission of guilt, he has asked for reassignment as a local pastor in his home field once again. Now that many the dust is starting to settle, what lessons can we learn from the unfortunate episode?
What Happens When You Lie About Your Education in Adventism?
A few caveats before going into my response to these events. It’s important for us as onlookers to avoid certain courses of action. First, avoid labeling these two men as devils and demon-possessed frauds (like some people have characterized them in the unforgiving world of internet forums). We must stick to the facts and not assume motives of any individuals. None of us know what was going on in the heart and minds of those involved.
I went to school with two of Paul Ratsara’s children and have great admiration and appreciation for them. Through the unfolding of these events, there must be the presence of God’s grace as we speak of these leaders, lest we launch personal attacks and kick them when they are down.
The second danger to avoid is to use this scandal to score political points for an issue which has nothing to do directly with the current scandal: ordination. Even though Ted Wilson and Paul Ratsara (I’m not sure about Paul Charles) were openly against the motion in San Antonio last year to ordain women in places where context allowed for it, we in the pro-women’s ordination camp should not use this as an occasion to take shots at the other side. In our analysis and discussion of this prominent anti-WO proponent, we should neither explicitly or implicitly paint everyone that voted against the motion as insincere or otherwise unethical as a way of securing the moral high-ground for the support of women’s ordination. These are the same kind of secular political tactics used all the time.
They only serve to entrench preconceived bias and won’t soften hearts to consider the equality of men and women in the Gospel ministry. We’re all better than that.
This doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t be held accountable; after all, leaders that can’t be questioned will eventually end up doing very questionable things. With that said, here are some lessons that I took from this story.
1. The integrity of our leaders is more important than our image as a church.
One saying that I’ve tried to take to heart over the years says:
“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
If the allegations against these men are true, it was a serious breach of ethics. We expect a high amount of integrity from our local pastors, it should be the same with each leader at every level of the church.
The reason that the Catholic Church’s scandal was so abhorrent to many people was because senior leaders all over the world and up to the Vatican essentially covered up highly inappropriate actions without any real accountability. Priests and other guilty leaders were given slaps on the wrists or transferred form one parish to the next.
It may look bad for a division president to be ousted amid scandal. Yet, if this is the best course of action to preserve our integrity, so be it. This being said, the quote could also mean that if these leaders were innocent, then they should let the ever changing world of public opinion have their day, but remember that Jesus is the judge at the end.
2. The church needs to guard against playing favorites in regards to wrongdoing.
When I was a child, my father had me memorize Proverbs 28:13, which says:
He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.
One major concern for me is that, in some cases, this text seems to invert. I’m sad to say that, at times, it has looked like those who conceal their sins are actually the ones who tend to prosper, while those who confess their sins are met with disgust and ill will. I know of cases where former colleagues of mine felt conviction by the Holy Spirit and had confessed their transgressions to their superiors, only to find compassion replaced with a pink slip on the spot.
In conversation with colleagues, it seems that the only sure-fire way to get fired in ministry is sexual indiscretion. However, the 7th commandment (adultery) is just as important as the 8th (stealing), 9th (bearing false witness), or 10th (coveting). Why do cases of embezzlement, fraud, abrasive personalities, backbiting, politicking, bearing false witness, and plagiarizing get to “sleep on it,” but the youth pastor who admits to needing help with pornography needs to find employment elsewhere because we don’t want a bad “image” of clergy?
I’d like to believe that there is a place for redemption in all of these cases. However, we do not create an atmosphere of transparency by firing pastors seeking help in overcoming their sins while giving well-known, well-connected administrators, evangelists, and personalities a perception of preferential treatment even without admission of guilt at the most brazen of infractions.
3. The church must avoid making idols out of academic degrees.
Beyond the fact that these leaders were potentially dishonest in their pursuits of extra letters before and after their names, I have to wonder, “Why did they go to these length in the first place?” Here is where I’ll speculate – not on these men’s motives, but on conclusions I’m starting to draw based upon my own perceptions and interactions as it relates to academic degrees among pastors.
I have a hard time arguing against an insight that one pastor, Loren Seibold, gave in a recent entry:
The Seventh-day Adventist church has attempted to keep a nearly-flat compensation structure within fields, regardless of the size of congregations. That’s good for me, a pastor who’s in a district of small churches. But human beings are naturally competitive. And if you can’t make more money, you might instead aspire to power and security and recognition. In the Adventist church, that means leaving parish ministry for church administration. Sometimes advanced degrees facilitate promotions up into the church leadership world. And, while there aren’t dramatic differences in pastoral compensation, there are sweet perks for being in an office as opposed to a parish.
Even more sobering was a simple statement in the next paragraph:
Education is for learning, but a pile of degrees is for respect.
Although I’m currently pursuing my Doctor of Ministry in Leadership, I recall being told by a friend that if I really wanted to be in a position to change the church, I needed to go for a PhD because all senior leaders have PhDs. Could it be that, in an ironic twist, even pastors in favor of women’s ordination, while advocating for the removal of the man-made spiritual hierarchy of male-only ordination, are replacing one hierarchy for another – this one built upon academic laurel?
Don’t think that I’m against Adventist education, especially higher education for pastors. I sat in a praxis meeting last year at the General Conference offices with church and education leaders across the North American Division and can attest to the seriousness with which they are working to find balance between the theory and practice of ministerial training at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels.
Ministerial education is not about producing cookie-cut molds of pastors, it’s about developing life-long learning leaders. The true purpose is not really to teach people what to think, bur rather how to think.
My appeal to each one of us as leaders in the church is that we use this experience as a gut-check moment. God forbid that we create and tolerate a system built upon advanced ministerial degrees professing a form of godliness (obtained ethically or not) but denying God’s power to actually transform our lives, let alone others?
After all, what good is it if I call myself a Master of Divinity if I refuse to let divinity be the master of my life?
In conclusion, what happens when you lie about your education in Adventism? Let’s find out…