Church After Mars Hill with Dr. Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer | Podcast Season 04, Episode 08

by Aug 1, 2023Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

We’re joined this week by father-daughter team, Dr. Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, co-authors of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing.

Their book was inspired by the events at Willow Creek Church, prompting them to explore toxic church cultures and the need for change. They contrast toxic church cultures with tov cultures (tov meaning “good” in Hebrew).

In toxic church cultures such as Mars Hill or Willow Creek, the marks include narcissism, fear, institution creep, false narratives, loyalty culture, celebrity culture, and a focus on leadership culture. On the other hand, tov cultures are characterized by empathy, grace, people-first approach, telling the truth, justice, service culture, and Christlikeness culture.

Their book has provided language and hope for those who have experienced toxicity in churches, giving a voice to the wounded resistors. In their upcoming book, Pivot, Scot and Laura focus on the “how” of building tov cultures.

We hope you’ll find that this conversation continues our goal of not only exposing the characteristics of toxic church culture but also offering hope for restoration and the rebuilding of a different and healthier community of believers.

About our guests:

Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus and Christian spirituality, is a Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornerstone University, a master’s from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written more than 80 books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004, as well as being coauthor of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing.

He and his wife, Kristen, live in Libertyville, Illinois. They enjoy traveling, long walks, gardening, and cooking. They have two adult children, Laura (married to Mark Barringer) and Lukas (married to Annika Nelson), and two grandchildren: Aksel and Finley. You can connect with Scot on Twitter and Facebook.

Laura Barringer is a passionate advocate for the wounded resisters of institutional abuse. Laura is coauthor of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing as well as the forthcoming book Pivot: The Priorities, Practices and Powers That Can Transform Your Church Into a Tov Culture. Laura is a curriculum writer for Grow Kids, a ministry of Stuff You Can Use. She previously coauthored the children’s version of The Jesus Creed and wrote a teacher’s guide to accompany the book.

A graduate of Wheaton College, Laura resides in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with her husband, Mark, and three beagles. You can connect with Laura on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

About this season’s host:

Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and PsychologyFor 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.  

Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.

Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.

Listener resources:

Episode Transcript:

Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast, where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and a higher good.  This season we are discussing Church After Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld

I took a Church history class from Ray Bakke a number of years ago. The class was invited to his home – Bakken – near Acme, WA for the weekend. Ray lectured, led us on a walk through church history on the mission trail he had created on the property, and we also visited the Saxon Cemetery where Ray shared about his family and their history in that valley through which the South Fork of the Nooksack River flows.

One can learn a lot by walking through a cemetery. I have friends that teach the history and social realities of Guatemala City by leading vision trip participants on a cemetery tour.

The last chapter of the Kristen Kobes DuMez’ book Jesus and John Wayne is like walking through a cemetery. While Du Mez calls the chapter “Evangelical Mulligans: A History,” it could have been called “An Evangelical Cemetery Tour.” On the pages there are recounted one church scandal after another. A stream of pastors’ names litters those pages – Driscoll, Mahaney, MacArthur, MacDonald, Haggard, White, Gothard, Phillips, Dugger, Hybels, Patterson, & Pressler. All names on the headstones of churches where narcissistic leaders were allowed to create toxic church cultures and lead in abusive ways. 

I’ve heard Du Mez talk about how hard that book was to write and by the end she was feeling pretty defeated. Her editor asked her to give some hope at the end, and at first she said she didn’t think she could do that because she wasn’t feeling very hopeful. After being asked by her editor again she wrote the last two lines of the book. Those lines read:

“Appreciating how this ideology developed over time is also essential for those who wish to dismantle it. What was once done might be undone.”

Over the season we have been seeking to take one case study from the graveyard – Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll – and from that case study begin to think about how we might undo toxic church ideology.

On this episode I sit down with Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, who – from the case study of Willow Creek and Bill Hybels – created a book that offers a roadmap for how what was once done, can be undone.

Here is my conversation with Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer about how Churches can become tov cultures. I hope you enjoy our discussion.

Scot and Laura, welcome to the podcast. The first question that I always ask guests is for them to introduce themselves, however they would like to do that.

Scot McKnight: Well, I will introduce Laura and then Laura can introduce me. 

Joel Kiekintveld: I love it. That’s great.

Scot McKnight: Laura grew up in our home and she then went to Wheaton College and did a master’s degree at the University of Illinois,

Laura Barringer: Chicago. You already got it wrong. 

Scot McKnight: University of Illinois, Chicago.

Laura Barringer: Oh, no. DePaul.

Scot McKnight: DePaul, that’s right. Okay. And then a few years ago. Well, she is a grade school teacher at a school in the northern suburbs of Chicago, near suburbs, and she lives in Arlington Heights with her husband Mark and has 5, 6, 7, 8 dogs.

Laura Barringer: Three, three beagles.

Scot McKnight: Three beagles. Three beagles is worth 10 dogs. And the only reason we have this book, Joel, is because Laura was a pest about bugging me to write it when I thought I had more important things to do, so, and it’s turned into a calling,

Laura Barringer: So I’m going to introduce you now. Okay. So Scot McKnight grew up in Freeport, Illinois, and he went to college at Grand Rapids Baptist, now known as Cornerstone University in Michigan. And he did his PhD at Nottingham University in Cambridge. And he has since written over 90 books. And in the summer, when I was on summer break from school, my father used to make me write essays. That’s the last thing I’d like to say.

Scot McKnight: Just one, just one summer you had to do that.

Laura Barringer: Oh, yeah. But then I threw a almighty fit and I didn’t have to do it anymore.

Scot McKnight: Yeah, you wrote a pretty good essay on freedom.

Laura Barringer: I did?

Scot McKnight: Yeah.

Laura Barringer: So I am the pest that caused my dad to write this book, A Church Called Tov.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, I feel like I’m at home a little bit. I spent that second half of my growing up years in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so that sounds quite familiar. And went to school right down the road from where Cornerstone is now at Reform Bible College, which is now Kuyper College. 

Scot McKnight: Oh really? Well, you’ve got a good

Joel Kiekintveld:  Sounds very familiar. 

Scot McKnight: You’ve got a good last name. 

Joel Kiekintveld:  That’s right. Fits in well in West Michigan. So one of those 90 book, 90 books that Scot’s written, Laura, you’re the co-author of, is A Church Called Tov. And I know before we turned down the mics, Scot was saying he’s done 180 podcasts about that book, but the full title is A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing. What was it about that topic? What prompted you, other than Laura pestering Scot to write a book, but what prompted you to want to write a book about toxic churches and faith communities?

Scot McKnight: Well, this whole book began because of what happened at Willow Creek, and we were–Laura, you, no, you were. No, you weren’t. You weren’t at Willow Creek when this all broke down. We had already left. We were in an Anglican church, but the story came out and because I had attended or for 10 years and I was known and have had a blog and had written about a lot of things, and Laura was a long time member with her husband Mark, people were asking us about this, and Laura was always asking, she was being a pest about this, asking me about it all the time. And what I found right away, Joel, is that my students at the seminary at Northern Seminary were asking me what I thought of what was going on. It just so happened that one of my students was on staff at Willow Creek at the time, and the next fall I got another one of the staff members in my class.

So it was really kind of personal at times to talk about these issues. And then Laura, really, I mean, it really was, she wanted to talk about this a lot and write about this. And one time I wrote up an essay just for my own good. I was at an airport, and so I had something to say. I posted it on the blog and it went viral at Willow Creek and with a lot of people it was. And then I wrote, I think two or three more posts about Willow Creek, but it was actually the study accidentally of a book about how the German pastors responded to the Holocaust and how they refused to take complicity or admit complicity in what happened that I started taking notes, and I kept this all from Laura for as long as I could, but I had written down some categories and I thought, this is the beginning of a book, of something to say, and it became the chapter on false narratives because I saw how those German pastors were responding, and it was just basically a matter of being unwilling to tell the truth and to own up to what they had done.

But it came out in different categories. So that was the beginning, and, I think, I think that was the first chapter that I wrote. I’m not sure, but I think it was. But Laura started by writing a long story about Willow Creek. That was about 35 pages that ended up, it ended up in the book about two or three pages, isn’t it, Laura?

Laura Barringer: Well, no, it’s funny. My dad said, Laura, nobody wants to read 40 pages about your story. I said, yes, they do. It’s a page turner. And sure enough, the publisher cut it. They did a good job. They should have cut it. But yeah, it was initially very long.

Scot McKnight:  Laura’s learned a lot about writing from, by writing [LB: I have] and having editors tell you what to say and what not to say. It’s really, that’s Joel. And it became, since then, Laura and I, well, in the first 15, 16 months, we heard three to five stories a week between us of, and most almost all about spiritual abuse, not sexual abuse. So it became, like I said, a calling. I got a story, I think I told Laura, I don’t know if it was today or yesterday. When did I write you, Laura? Yesterday or the day before?

Laura Barringer: Yesterday? Yeah, yesterday.

Scot McKnight: A long story about a situation in Australia with a big ministry. So it’s disheartening.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Yeah. Laura, is there anything you would add to the origin of how this book came about?

Laura Barringer: For me, it was– I never wanted to write a book. I’m a grade school teacher, so writing a book about abuse in churches and Christian communities is not, I never planned to do anything like this. For me, it was personal. It was Willow Creek. It was when that article broke in the Chicago Tribune in the spring of 2018. The names in the article were familiar names, and many of them, some of those women were friends of our family. My husband was a friend of Vonda Dyer back in the day on staff at Willow Creek. And we just, we had a lot of conversations about this in our family. And I remember my dad saying one time, there’s no way that all of these women are lying. They’re all, they’re seven or eight of them. We know most of them. They’re all, they all have good character. There’s no reason for them to be doing what Willow Creek is saying that they’re doing. And Willow Creek just was burying them, and they didn’t have a platform. And I just felt like this cannot be the way that the story ends. And I did not have a platform, but my dad did at the time, and so I wanted him to be the one to write it. But here, we’re here.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, you all, oh, go ahead. Yeah, but here you are.

Laura Barringer: Later.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, you all start in the book somewhere that I found really interesting is I was reading through it by talking about culture, and I think maybe it’s because of some of the experiences I’ve had in the church world where we’re often talking about the church against culture or trying to change culture, influence culture. But you all start with this idea that every church is a culture. And I’d love to have you talk a little bit about what do you mean by that, that every church is a culture.

Scot McKnight: Well, you’re very Kuyperian to see the church, and it sounds like H. Richard Niebuhr too. So these are names that Kuyperians read. Yeah, absolutely. But I’ve read, absolutely. I’ve read some of Kuyper too, and I read his book on Calvinism that explains a lot of this stuff. Well, this was a part that I developed, and Laura has listened to me, culture forms over time as a result of things like narratives that are being told, actions, decisions, policies, charismatic personalities, significant moments, a sermon, a particular person coming, and all these things bundle up and then people begin to repeat them, and they repeat them enough to where they almost become an agent that influences a group.

So, and I can talk about Willow Creek, and Laura can say even more if she wants, but I remember when we would attend Willow Creek, just walking in the building was like an experience. There was something at work in that place that communicated a message by the structure, by all the busyness, by the quality of the workmanship, by the stage, by everything was performed. And it communicated a welcomeness, it communicated an invitation, it communicated professionalism. And that’s a culture. And I’ve been in lots of churches speaking all over the place, and I’ve never been in a place like Willow Creek. I mean, the closest I’ve been is Andy Stanley’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. Rick Warren’s church doesn’t even have the same kind of feel and culture. It seems to have grown over time. But a church has an ethos inside that is a culture, and that culture communicates a message whether people catch it or not.

And it also constrains behaviors. So at Willow Creek, you can’t act like a nut. You can’t get up on the stage and not be professional. There are some churches where if you get up on the stage and say dumb things, everybody thinks that’s fun, but it’s constrained. And it wasn’t because someone said, now when you get on the platform, you can’t miss notes singing. They just knew that if they miss notes singing, they wouldn’t be on that platform anyway anymore because that’s the way that culture works. So churches, every church is a culture. Every church communicates that culture. Every church constrains people by that culture. And I think this is the last thing I’d say, is that people who stay in that church culture are conformed by it to be the kinds of people that fit in that culture. And if you don’t fit, you leave. So.

Laura Barringer: I’m thinking of the quote from David Brooks. What is his official title? He is an author, researcher, well,

Scot McKnight:  He writes for the New York Times,

Laura Barringer: He writes for the New York Times, and he has a wonderful quote about culture. And he says that you can never underestimate the influence that culture has on you as an individual. And when I think when you say, what does that mean, every church is a culture? It’s like it’s, it’s active. It’s active. The leadership influences the congregation, the congregation influences the leadership, and it’s like, it’s a cycle. I remember part, I would call Willow Creek, partly a celebrity culture when I was there. That’s kind of how it felt. And I can point fingers at those on stage behaving like celebrities. But the truth is I was also treating them like celebrities. [SM:Yeah] I had one time we were in the lobby and Bill Hybels walked by with his entourage, bodyguards and such, and I like squealed and kind of screamed. I remember my husband was like, he’s not a celebrity. Like, yes, he is! So I’m guilty of treating him that way. It all works together. We all influenced each other.

Scot McKnight: And that’s one of the things that is so important about a place like Willow Creek or Mars Hill with Mark Driscoll or any of these church, every church, is that it has the capacity to make you the kind of person that fits in that culture. And we are all contributors. We– just getting rid of Bill Hybels or Mark Driscoll did not change the culture. The culture is there. It’s a living, it’s a living agent that influences. So yeah.

Laura Barringer: And culture makes people feel safe and secure, and it tells them how to behave and how to feel. Again, I go back to David Brooks that you really cannot underestimate the power that it has over the individual.

Scot McKnight:  And he finished it. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the sort of person who works in that company. That’s a powerful statement. The longer you are there, [JK: Absolutely], the more you’re like that culture.

Joel Kiekintveld:  So in the book, you sort of contrast two different cultures that can happen, a toxic culture and then a tov culture. So I want to ask, first of all, what are the marks of a toxic church culture? As you look at what toxic culture looks like, what are the things that show up in those type of cultures?

Laura Barringer: Do you want me to list them quickly, Dad?

Scot McKnight:  Go ahead. You can talk through it a little bit. Yeah.

Laura Barringer: Narcissism. Fear. People are afraid to say what they really think for fear of some kind of retaliation or retribution. We call it institution creep, where you see people, you see the institution and its image placed above caring for people. False narratives. This was a big one with Willow Creek is they were spinning. There was a little piece of truth and they would spin it, and so it would look good and people would follow it and believe it. But if you knew really the 100% truth behind it, it wasn’t accurate. It was a spin. That’s the heart of our circle of tov is telling the truth. Loyalty culture, where people are loyal to the leader instead of doing what is just, at the right time. Celebrity culture, we found to be really toxic for all sorts of reasons. And then, my dad has been harping on this one for a long time–Leadership culture– and he’ll tell you, the church is not designed to be creating leaders. That’s not what it’s supposed to be, but it’s kind of taken over in celebrity church culture in the last, I don’t know, generation or so.

Scot McKnight:  You know, we were, I was asked by our editor, the book was originally just like seven basic chapters with half of it on the toxic and half of it on the tov or the goodness part. And our editor was really good at this. He wanted to shove all the toxic stuff closer to the front and have the book have some arc in it toward the redemptive. And we really thought that was a great editorial suggestion that he made. But he did ask me early, what are the two biggest marks of a toxic culture? And this is something that Laura and I paid attention to. In fact, our whole family’s paid attention to this, is we found that these toxic church cultures are almost always, they are always led by a narcissistic leader who fits the bill of what a narcissist is. Even if it’s covert narcissism, it’s still there.

It doesn’t have to be overt. They don’t have to get up on the stage and say, I’m the greatest pastor that ever lived. But they certainly don’t mind people bragging about ’em on the stage. And then it was power through by, it was power through fear. And this is something that I worked on pretty hard myself in listening. I just kept listening to people talk about these toxic cultures and there are patterns of power that are implemented and they are effective because of fear, the fear of getting fired, the fear of being cast out of the inner circle, the gloat, the glory and the gloating over being in the inner circle and that sense of we’re the special people and the leaders have an ability to make, and Joel, I don’t know if you’re a psychologist, but you’re at The,

Joel Kiekintveld:  I’m not.

Scot McKnight:  At The Seattle School, they have a lot of psychologists. But there’s a certain kind of personality that can make people wonder if they are approved by that personality. Some leaders have the ability to make people wonder if they are liked by that person. That is a characteristic of a toxic church culture when you’re always wondering if you’ve been approved, instead of knowing that you’re approved, you’re wondering, and when you’re wondering, that person’s got you under control.

Joel Kiekintveld:  So we’re trying to follow the same arc with this season of the podcast and this interview, as you’re talking about in your book, moving from using, in our case, Mars Hill is a kind of case study and moving towards how do we build forward from that. But I want to stay right here for just a second. As I was listening to both of you talk, one of the things that occurred to me is the contrast between the type of culture you’re talking about and the idea of the priesthood of all believers is there, is that something that you all have thought about around we often elevate this cult of personality approach to churches and church planting and so on, as opposed to something that we all do to together. Going back to the old definition of liturgy, the work of the people, how does that interact, these cultures that you’re describing, the toxic ones, and then this other side of the coin around how we’re supposed to interact as a community?

Scot McKnight:  Well, this is a question. I’ve never been asked this question,and this is a hundred eighty.

Laura Barringer: And I was going to say, this is for the theologians.

Scot McKnight:  This is a hundred eighty, a hundred eighty, a hundred eighty. 

Joel Kiekintveld:  Yeah, I’m on the other side of the building from the psychology people. 

Scot McKnight:  Well here’s the thing. No matter what happens in a group, leaders are going to emerge. It’s almost never pure democracy and pure egalitarian relationships. People with certain kinds of gifts in a church will rise to the front: the speakers, the singers, the leaders, the people who are more mature in their faith. They always rise at some level, but the priesthood of believers should dampen, soften, and cut back on the drive to put it all in one person’s hand. And what we, I would say there’s no question that in most of these toxic churches, you’ve got a leader who is almost always a male with extreme gifts. They are very good at speaking. They can get on that platform and make it happen. They can tell stories that will grip people emotionally and psychologically, et cetera, and they rise to the top. And then because the church needs them and wants that, they feed off of that. Before long, they become impervious to any kind of criticism. And I guess you can discover how toxic it is by finding out how leaders like that respond to criticism. If they just blow up, you’ve got a narcissist, a narcissist on your hand.

Joel Kiekintveld: Well, thanks for that. Let’s move to the other side of the coin, so to speak. You all begin to talk about a tov culture, and maybe you can explain what tov  is before we get going or the circle of tov. But what does a church culture look like that’s operating as a tov culture?

Scot McKnight:  Tov is the Hebrew word for good and goodness. And this accidentally arose in the, I think it was the first blog post I did about Willow Creek, and I said something, the churches are, churches are in need of goodness. And the number of people who contacted me about that and wrote me about it and said something to me, my students said, ah, what’s what’s goodness all about, you know? And I latched onto the Hebrew word tov because I went right to my Bible and looked up this Hebrew word to see how it’s used in the Old Testament. And it’s just, it’s an abundant word of description, describing what God has designed. God is good, God creates good, and God wants good on the part of the people. Jesus is the good shepherd. I mean, the Holy Spirit brings goodness in people. Goodness is all over the place. So that’s where that word came from.

But we did not find a passage in the Bible that says, these are marks of the tov church. Instead, all we did was flip toxicity to find the reverse. So we found the marks of toxicity and said, what would God want? What would the Bible teach? What would Jesus want? What would be the opposite of this? And so instead of narcissism, we find empathy. The characteristic of a narcissist is an inability to sympathize or empathize with people who are in pain of any sort. They don’t care what other people think. And I’ve lived long enough to say: I’ve seen a lot of this in churches, leaders who are very gifted, they don’t give a rip. Now, if I wasn’t with the reform and I was with Lutheran, I could say it stronger. They don’t give a rip about how, what people think of ’em. I mean, there’s a toughness that you have to have to be a leader.

You have to be able to handle people not liking some things you have to decide. But if it never bothers you, then. I mean, I’m not bothered when Calvinists don’t like my view of women in the church. I don’t care what they think about that. I mean, I’ve put up with this for 40 years. I’m, I’m not changing. They’re not changing it. I’m not winning. So we found empathy and then grace instead of power through fear. It’s a grace culture. And a grace culture works in all kinds of ways. It’s not just forgiveness, but it is a nurturing environment where instead of empowering, let’s say, instead of keeping people in line through fear, they empower people through grace. And that’s a big difference. And it really can change the culture. And then instead of institution creep, you put people first. And this is something we found all the time in toxic church cultures.

They don’t care who leaves. There’s always somebody waiting in line. It’s sort of like the LA Lakers, you know, when number five goes hurts his ankle. We pull in number six and number six is just as good as number five. That’s how they do it. Well, churches can’t live that way. Churches who think people are replaceable and dispensable are just toxic, and that’s not what church is. Then instead of false narratives, churches tell the truth. And Laura and I worked pretty hard on what we call the Yom Kippur principles. And that is learning to tell the truth and confessing your sins and getting the church to admit what it’s done to some of these people. And instead of loyalty, what we found the opposite of loyalty is doing the right thing at the right time: justice. Loyal cultures is you do what the leader wants, what the reputation of the church wants.

I’m talking this morning or the yesterday or whenever, I don’t know what day of the week it is right now. Is it Monday? Okay, it had to be Saturday. I, I’ve been communicating with someone about it, a situation in a Christian ministry. And instead of telling the truth, instead of doing the right thing, they’re more concerned about the reputation of the ministry and protecting that reputation than doing the right thing. So they’re creating NDAs, you know, get people to silence. And then instead of a celebrity culture is you want to nurture a service culture. Celebrities are treated specially. Servants are like everybody else. And I’ve told my students, I said, if people are starting to treat you as a servant, you need to start working in a homeless kitchen. And you don’t get to tell any stories in your church about working in a homeless kitchen. Just go do it and go home and don’t tell anybody, just to experience being a nobody. Pastors, a lot of pastors need this. And then instead of leadership culture– I’ve been a griper about this with Eugene Peterson for a long time, and pastors do, church leaders do lead. Okay, that’s fine. But a leadership culture is not the same as a pastor culture or as a servant leadership culture or as christlikeness. And so we posed against a leadership culture, a christlikeness culture. So they were just flipping the script. That’s all we did.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Laura, what would you add to that?

Laura Barringer: I don’t know that I would add anything. Like my dad said, we just saw story after story after story. Of course, Willow Creek was personal for us, but then the Harvest Bible Church story broke. That’s down the road from us as well. And it just seemed like it was, there were churches imploding big ones, one after the other. And the patterns were strangely and sadly the same. And we, you know, the toxic parts of the culture were easy to point out. Like, the narcissistic leader was a problem in a lot of the churches and loyalty you had in every church. It seemed like there was, sure there was the leader, but there was always these people around the leader that supported and maintained the narratives. And it looked different in every church, but yet it was still the same. So we started to see these patterns and just thought, this isn’t how it should be. This isn’t how the story should end. What should it look like? And that’s how we created the alternatives. So we had a really good editor that pulled out all the negative, like the toxic parts of the culture, and put those in the front half of the book. And then the second half of the book is largely redemptive and hopeful. And we’ve had folks say like, the beginning of the book was really triggering for some people. It gave them language, but it was hard. And then they really appreciated the back half is what should this look like?

Scot McKnight: Joel, I can’t tell you the number– Go ahead. Go ahead, Laura.

Laura Barringer: No, I was going to say this. This is not–people say, do you get discouraged, I’ve had people say, talking about this topic? But I don’t because I’ve always felt like, this is not how, God wouldn’t want an institution’s image put above people. That’s not him. And so hopefully the back half provides hope and healing and a redemptive message.

Scot McKnight:  Joel, we’ve had so many people tell us–my wife and I on walk this afternoon, actually, we’ve talked about this a little bit–is the number of people who’ve said that the false narratives chapter gave them language for what they had experienced. And yesterday, today, whatever, I got an email from someone in Australia and she said, I’ve been reading tov and I’ve reading the first third, and I’ve had to put it down because it’s too eerie as it echoes my experience of what we’ve, what’s happened to us in this ministry. So I think one of the enduring impacts of this book is putting into words the experience of so many people in churches who’ve experienced the toxicity and abuse of church leaders. So, in a sense that’s redemptive. We’re giving people language, we’re getting people mad, leaders mad at us, because people in their church have language for what they’re doing to them.

Laura Barringer: We dedicated the book to the wounded. We called them Wounded Resistors, the ones that did the–

Scot McKnight: I did.

Laura Barringer: I did.

Scot McKnight:  I called it that.

Laura Barringer: Well, I said there’s a little family argument about who made the term, but it was me. But we’ve had people say, that term to us is that just really is who the book was for, is people who have been wounded in the process of resisting the toxic leader, the toxic culture. And we’ve had people say, they’ve opened the book and then they’ve started weeping when they just see the dedication. And we had no idea that that kind of impact would be had on people. It’s still, you know, it’s three years out, almost three years post-publication. And I still like, that’s still who it’s for is, people who have been wounded when they’ve tried to do the right thing. But those are my heroes.

Joel Kiekintveld: And to give voice to those folks is a worthy thing to do. There’s a lot of those folks out there. And to be able to put language around what you’ve maybe been feeling or sensing or maybe not even aware of, but subconsciously aware of for a long time is a real benefit to that. And it occurs to me, you all have another book coming up this fall that either Laura’s been badgering Scot about writing this book or some other thing prompted it, but around, it’s a follow up to this. And the title’s Pivot: the Priorities, Practices and Powers that Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture. And without having read it, obviously it hasn’t come out yet. It feels like kind of the logical next step after reading the first book, okay, now how do I go about doing this? How do I begin to put these things in place in either my toxic church or a church I that I care about that I don’t want to become that way. Can you give listeners a little bit of an idea of where you’re headed in that book? What are these priorities and practices and powers that you’re hoping to share with folks, these wounded resistors who are wanting to make change?

Scot McKnight:  I think it’s the dedicated to the wounded transformers. Is it Laura?

Laura Barringer: No, it’s for the Transformers. Nobody’s wounded. Well, they probably are.

You know, our friend, our pastor and friend Steve Carter, not our pastor. Our pastor friend Steve Carter wrote us a nice blurb for the book, A nice recommendation, what is it called? Endorsement for the book. And he said, tov, he put it into really, really good language. He said, tov, A Church Called Tov is like the what and Pivot is more how do we fit? Because from the very beginning, people would ask us in interviews like this right now, they would say, okay, so I really think I’m in a toxic church. What do I do? I was like, I don’t know. I’m, I teach during the day. I just know the problem.

Scot McKnight:  Okay. Joel, here’s–

Laura Barringer: Here’s taking a deep dive into that. 

Scot McKnight: Now this book was a little bit more difficult to write because they didn’t really give us the green light until Laura was just about back in class. So I really had to scramble to get some rough drafts of most of these chapters. And then Laura worked throughout the fall, I think, on Saturdays and evenings and stuff, I’m not quite sure. It took a while. So what we look at are the pivotal priorities is that first you have to have a tov character. We have to start focus on character. We have to recognize the power of God is at work. We have to recognize that we as individuals and leaders, as leaders, need to become an example. Those are priorities, the practices of actually doing this. We talk about knowing how to form a coalition in a church that actually wants to accomplish tov. And we talk about taking one step at a time and creating pockets of tov in a community, a church, so that these cultures of tov can start bleeding into one another.

But you can’t do a series of six sermons and think that it’s going to change your church. And one of the things that Laura and I both read a book by Edgar Schein on organizational transformation and leadership, and it’s really a great book. It’s a MIT professor who’s the guru in the United States about transformation of a culture. And a student of mine had read the book and he told me, you have to read this book. He said, you, you’re saying a lot of good things, but you have all the wrong words for it. And I said, yes, of course I got Bible terms. But he said this, I will never forget this student saying this. He said, in organizational transformation in the business world, when the leaders and an organization is committed to change of a culture, it takes seven years of work.

And that has been really important. And I know Laura hasn’t been doing these podcasts as much as I’ve been doing lately. Even some of ’em have asked about Pivot. But when I talk about tov and they ask about this, I say, you have to realize you’re in it for a long haul. It’s going to take a long time, and you can’t just sprinkle whatever Linda Carpenter’s saying, sprinkle stardust in your sky, in your eyes, and it’s going to change everything. It’s not going to happen that way. And then we look at three pivotal powers, and this goes back to David Brooks in some ways to the tov book is we have to nurture congregational culture to be the kind of thing that communicates goodness and constrains people from doing bad things. We have to rely on the Holy Spirit, and we have to depend on grace ultimately.

And here’s the funny thing. When we wrote this book, when I wrote the first draft and sort of organized it, and Laura contributed here and there, and I remember thinking, I think every one of these chapters could be first. The order was really difficult. And I don’t mind because I’m a professor, I don’t mind a list of things. That’s not a big deal. But editors do. They don’t like lists. They know the lists go only so far. And we had a wonderful editor out in, I think he was in Eugene, Oregon or Portland, [LB: Seattle] or Oregon, Seattle. And he kept working at this. And then finally he said, I think some of these work this way. And it was in our conversation, I was sitting right here in this chair. I think I came up with three Ps, I think he had one or two, then I had another one.

And the next thing you know, we had categories. And then it allowed him to adjust the chapters, and then he smoothed it all out for us and wrote all the questions that are at the end of the chapters. So that’s the sort of thing we want to give people. And Laura can talk about the Tov Tool. We want to give to churches and leaders, institutions, schools a book that they can say, alright, we do not focus on character enough. We’ve got to start focusing on character. Or we’re not very good examples of what we’re talking about here. So we’ve got to start working on ourselves. And if they’re 80-year-old professors, not a whole lot of time for change, but we want to give sort of categories. But one of the things that we developed, I think is going to be very useful, but I think it can be revealing enough that it could be a bit dangerous, is the Tov Tool. And Laura can talk about the Tov Tool.

Laura Barringer: Yeah, we have, so part of the Pivot book is giving people practical steps and practical ways to, before you can determine where you need to go, you need to know where you are. You need to face the truth about yourself and your organization and what people say it’s like to work for this church or for this leader. And so we developed a self-assessment that churches can take, an individuals can take it or groups can take it. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest about yourself, with yourself, and who you are. But we’re hopeful that folks will feel safe enough and brave enough and vulnerable enough to start having those conversations. And I also wanted to mention, my dad said, we’re not, nobody famous is appearing in this book. There’s no, that’s not the point of this book. We have a wonderful case study that we’ve woven throughout the book. His name is John Rosensteel. He’s a pastor in

Scot McKnight:  Portland.

Laura Barringer: California? Portland, okay.

Scot McKnight:  Portland.

Laura Barringer: And he actually did this. He took a church culture and transformed it, and he wrote the foreword for us. And we talk about his church a lot and how hard it was, but the joy of paying off the joy that he experienced through laying down some of his feelings of importance when people would line up to talk to him. And it’s personal, but it’s also, like, at a transformational level of the organization. So I’m really excited for people to read that. And what he did at Oak Hills,

Scot McKnight:  And Laura wrote the story about the church in California with Mike Lueken and Kent Carlson about, oh, sorry, renovate

Laura Barringer: I, okay. John Rosensteel wrote the Forward, but it’s not his church. That’s the case study. I got that mixed up. Yeah, yeah,

Scot McKnight:  Yeah. But John, John’s story does, his story for his church comes up in the book quite a bit. But there’s a church in California that went through a this, and they wrote a book called Renovation of a Church, how they moved from an Attractional model to a Will, a Dallas Willard model. But the Tov Tool we think will be really helpful for churches that are reasonably healthy and safe to have group conversations of different, let’s say different segments of a school or a church where they get together and they talk about, let’s just say, I mean the categories we use are from the Tov book. So do we exhibit empathy? And we ask, I think there’s 10 questions for each thing, and then it should generate some answers and some conversations. And then over time, I don’t think you should take it all at once. It would be too painful for a group to have these conversations. But over a year, most churches should be able to go through this, the leaders be able to go through this and percolate, as it were, raised to the surface principle issues they need to focus on, and then start with those. So

Joel Kiekintveld:  I’m really excited to see this book come out. I already actually already pre-ordered it. I’m hoping that others that listen are planning on it too. I love the idea of really practical tools to help go through these things and be able to implement ’em.

Scot McKnight: Now here’s, now here’s what you have to know. The cover to Pivot is really cool, and I can take utterly no credit for it.

Laura Barringer: Okay. I was going to say, if you

Scot McKnight:  Laura, Laura had this, I would like to take credit for it. I probably have more responsibility than Laura will admit. Go ahead, Laura.

Laura Barringer: What do you mean?

Scot McKnight:  I didn’t do anything.

Laura Barringer: No, you tried to talk me out of it, and I was like, no, this is cool. I’m going to send it. I sent little sketches that my friends had done on napkins at a restaurant, and I sent ’em with my iPhone and sent them to the publisher, and they were like, we do like it. They went with it, and it’s very cool. It’s a very cool.

Scot McKnight:  But the cool thing is Pivot the last three letters backwards, spell tov

Laura Barringer: So that’s what we played on in the cover. Yeah.

Scot McKnight:  Yeah.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, people can be watching for the cover as they watch for the book to come out. I want to ask one final question, and that’s simply this. What gives you hope for churches and faith communities moving forward? Where do you find hope for the future?

Laura Barringer: The level of awareness gives me a lot of hope. And the voices out there are so wise. Chuck DeGroat, Diane Langberg, Wade Mullen, Beth Alison Barr, Rachel Denhollander . Yeah, there’s voices and some people have written and said, we’ve been waiting. I’ve had a couple people write and said, we’ve been waiting decades for voices like this, and they’re here. So the level of awareness gives me hope and the language gives me hope. And we’ve also had the pleasure, the joy of talking to people that are building their church from the ground up, and they want to create a culture of tov as they are, as they’re starting in a brand new church. And that gives me a lot of hope. And just the number of people who have really wanted to take an honest look at themselves and their church and their culture, or their Christian organization, and caring about the people that are under them and within them, and wanting to create places of goodness where people are healed and loved rather than harmed. That gives me a lot of hope.

Scot McKnight:  I’ve had two letters in the last two or three months where people said is, Is it okay if we call our new church A Church called Tov? I said, sure. We don’t have any ownership over the title. I think my hope is that, I mean, I find hope in the number of people who clearly want to see these kinds of things change. It’s discouraging at times, disheartening to see the toxicity that shows up, but the number of people who have the courage today to resist is really encouraging. And I think it’s going to bode well for some serious changes in a lot of churches and, you know, you teach at a seminary graduate school. So do I. I think we, we can be agents of change in our seminaries in working on these things. So a little hope there.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, Scot and Laura, thank you so much for A Church called Tov and for Pivot as it’s coming out and for spending time with us to talk about this. I really appreciate it.

Scot McKnight:  Well, thank you very much for asking.

Laura Barringer: Thank you for having us.

Joel Kiekintveld:  You’re welcome. My thanks to Scot and Laura for sharing their experience about what a toxic church looks like and what a tov church looks like. I encourage you to read their book. 

If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the low-residency Master of Arts in Theology & Culture programs at The Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at:

I also invite you to check out the Center For Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that 1 in 3 pastors is at risk for burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local contexts – and in the process, to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach at

Until Next Time, I’m Joel Kiekintveld. Grace & Peace.