John Ortberg resign
John Ortberg preaches at Menlo church in 2020. Video screengrab via Menlo Church.

John Ortberg’s Megachurch Announces New Investigation

By Bob Smietana

Megachurch pastor John Ortberg last week claimed his congregation had “extensively investigated” concerns about his son and found “no misconduct.”

Now elders at Menlo Church, a Bay area congregation of 5,000, say their initial investigation fell short and have announced plans for an additional “supplemental” investigation.

“While many of you know that the Board took immediate action upon learning of these concerns, we understand our initial investigation could have gone further and included specific expertise in child safety and sex abuse issues, and it could have been informed by conversations with a wider group of people,” church elders said in an email to the congregation Saturday (July 11).

Rev. Ortberg was placed on leave last fall after church leaders learned he had withheld information about his son, John “Johnny” Ortberg III, from them, a move they described as “poor judgment and a betrayal of trust.”

In July 2018, Johnny — who volunteered with children at the church and in the community — reportedly told his father he experienced what church leaders called an “unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors.” The senior Ortberg did not tell church leaders or staff about what he had learned from his son. Nor did he act to prevent his son from working with children.

Church leaders finally learned of Ortberg’s decision after another one of his children, Daniel Lavery, wrote to them expressing concerns.

The elders then hired an investigator who talked to church staff and Lavery, among others, but never spoke with Johnny, or with any parents of children who had contact with Johnny. The elders also never officially acknowledged the family connection between Rev. Ortberg and “the volunteer” in question.

The church had consistently defended its investigation as “independent” and said no misconduct was found. Rev. Ortberg said he had betrayed his “sacred trust” as pastor but also defended the investigation.

The Rev. Ortberg said he supports the new investigation and that he believes it will show no misconduct on the part of his youngest son. He also said that Johnny Ortberg would meet with the new investigator if asked. 

The Rev. Ortberg also said that any decisions about his future as pastor of Menlo Church lie in the hands of the church’s elders and their denomination. Menlo Church is part of ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. A spokesman for the church elders said that any decisions about possible discipline for the Rev. Ortberg would involve their presbytery.

The ECO constitution gives church congregations the ability to vote on calling a pastor or “to request the dissolution of such calls.”

After the identity of the volunteer became public in June of this year, congregation members began to push back against the elders.

“After carefully listening to our community these last several days about the investigation into a former church volunteer, we want to first acknowledge the Board’s ownership in what we have done to contribute to the pain and distrust many of you are feeling right now,” the elders said in the statement. “Fundamentally, we did not provide the transparency that our community deserves and as a result have eroded the trust some of you place in our leadership.”

Church elders said they would begin a “supplemental investigation” to be overseen by a committee including elders, parents, staff and volunteers.

On social media, Lavery expressed disappointment in the church’s announcement and called for Rev. Ortberg to be removed as pastor.

“This plan is a non-starter, a confession of failure, and a disgrace,” Lavery said on Twitter.

During an online church service, Eugene Lee, an executive pastor at Menlo Church, acknowledged the recent controversy at the beginning of his sermon.

Lee did not specifically mention Rev. Ortberg in his opening remarks, instead mentioning “a hard week for our church.”

“I have talked to so many of you who are hurting, disappointed, confused and heartbroken and I am so sorry you are feeling that way,” he said. “I want you to know that we are listening.”

“We are listening and praying and we hear your concerns. We are listening to your questions and we understand your disappointment.”

Lee also said church leaders were working on “significant next steps” which they hope to share with the church in the coming week.

*This piece has been updated to include new statements by the Rev. John Ortberg.

Bob Smietana is editor-in-chief at Religion News Service.

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13 thoughts on “John Ortberg’s Megachurch Announces New Investigation”

  1. I agree, Sandy. It does sound like the elders are listening to the community. I wish other megachurches would do the same. The people sitting in the seat love their church and have a vested interest in its reputation for the kingdom.

  2. I disagree with the prior two comments. Here’s the problem. Just like with Willow Creek Community Church (regarding Bill Hybels) during the spring of 2018, the elders went on record at the time stating that they did a “thorough” investigation. Clearly they hadn’t, but they exuded such confidence that they had. Yet over the following few months, they started walking things back as the pressure mounted and as new information came to light.

    When the dust finally settled after another bombshell story about Hybels came out during that summer, the elders decided (rightly) that their credibility had been shattered, and it was time for them to step down. I am not calling for the elders at Menlo Church to step down — that is not my point here. My point is simply to state that when the elders start walking things back, as is clearly being done now at Menlo, they shouldn’t be surprised that their credibility may be questioned, if not damaged.

    This is what happens when elders start calling for a “new” investigation or a “supplemental” investigation for a matter which they had prior stated was already concluded. Thus, this is not “a good example for other churches,” but rather a bad example that other churches should not seek to emulate.

    Why did the elders’ initial investigation “fell short” as they are now claiming? Why would they now state the following: “we understand our initial investigation could have gone further and included specific expertise in child safety and sex abuse issues.” Really? What “expertise” is needed here about “sex abuse issues”?

    This is not rocket science, folks. This is about the elders finding out new information and needing to cover their tracks. And in our hyper-psychologized age, it’s all too common to use modern psycho-babble language as a cover.

    Lastly, it’s important to note that when Ortberg was first placed “on leave,” the church elders withheld certain information from the congregation for more than a month (according to Bob Smietana’s blog post on July 6). Why did they do that? Was it to protect Ortberg’s reputation? Was it to protect the church’s reputation? You see, when any church announces a “new” and “supplemental” type of investigation, it only reinforces the lack of credibility of the elders and the church, irrespective of the euphemistic language being used to justify the new investigation.

    1. I have to concur with Dan. Menlo Park is using similar language that Will Creek used. This situation may be different though.

      “We are listening and praying and we hear your concerns. We are listening to your questions and we understand your disappointment.”

      This type of verbiage obfuscates rather than clarifies. Since the board has ” skin in the game” it will likely be difficult to get unbiased feedback.

    2. You hit the nail on the head, Dan. I’m shocked at those first two comments. Menlo is the model for what absolutely not to do in this situation.

      Someone took me to task in the comments section here the first time this story broke because I said Ortberg needed training on pedophilia. I was advised that Mr. Ortberg is a licensed clinical psychologist. Anyone with those credentials know that treatment for pedophilia does not involve allowing people attracted to children to have access to children. Ortberg is also a mandatory reporter as a member of the clergy. This should have been reported to the authorities immediately.

      I’m also wondering how long Ortberg has been aware of his son’s attraction to children. In a previous article, before we knew Ortberg’s son was the person in question, Ortberg asked if the individual (his son) had acted on his attraction towards children. That always seemed odd to me like it wasn’t really a surprise to him that this person was attracted to children.

      I’m sorry but Ortberg’s actions go beyond “poor judgement.” This was wilful. I personally feel that he was using those poor children as a way of practicing some sort of immersion therapy with his son to try to help him get over his attraction to children.

      Whatever Ortberg’s excuse, or the boards reasoning for needing a second investigation, neither seem credible to me. I would not attend a church with a pastor in the pulp who did something like this.

        1. Exactly. So why did Ortberg allow a pedophile to run loose among children in a church? You can’t cure pedophilia through exposure, immersion or any other therapies used on other mental illnesses.

      1. Ortberg has an earned PhD in Clinical Psychology from Fuller. However, participation in such degree programs do not qualify one to be an expert in sexual abuse or pedaphilia. Like medical specializations, there is specialized training for psychologists. See what GRACE says about psychologist training:
        “Keep in mind that most psychologists received little, if any, training at the undergraduate or graduate level on child sexual abuse. Accordingly, if a given therapist has not taken the initiative to study the literature and up-to-date research in this area and is not experienced in working with this issue, he or she is simply incompetent to work these cases.” (https://www.netgrace.org/common-questions)

        California is a mandatory reporting state for clergy. But it’s not clear if this case falls under those guidelines. (https://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ss/ap/childabusereportingguide.asp)

        Poor judgements come into play when there’s a conflict of interest, cover up, or protection of leaders/organizations above people/children.

        Risk protection in any organization involves taking action, reporting, isolating, etc. This is why an independent investigation is needed. Even church liability insurance companies know this. https://www.brotherhoodmutual.com/resources/safety-library/risk-management-articles/administrative-staff-and-finance/sexual-misconduct/sex-offenders-allowed-to-attend-church/

  3. Okay, I find this strange. First they say this:

    “We understand our initial investigation could have gone further and included specific expertise in child safety and sex abuse issues.”

    So they acknowledge that in the first investigation, they did not have experts.

    But then they say that they are going to do a supplemental investigation “overseen by a committee including elders, parents, staff and volunteers.”

    Will they get experts then, or not? Is it simply a committee of elders, parents, staff, and volunteers? If so, who chooses who is on that committee?

    This does not inspire confidence at all.

    1. Sheila and Dan, sadly I agree with your assessments. The new statements do not exude confidence that they engaged with outside experts to conduct a truly independent investigation. A committee of insiders is not independent but is inherently biased. These people are not experts. Independent and expert would be engaging with a group like GRACE, not a hired attorney. Professional understanding of sexual abuse in such cases is of utmost importance given the nuanced potential underlying issues and behaviors. They need to immediately place Mr. Ortberg on leave once again given the huge conflict of interest and bring in an experienced independent investigation group. I plead with the elders to seek wise counsel from GRACE (https://www.netgrace.org/). Avoid damage control and cover up tactics and be upfront with the church. I hope and pray that the elders are listening to their congregants who are questioning and carefully watching and also reading these articles and comments.

  4. “I have talked to so many of you who are hurting, disappointed, confused and heartbroken and I am so sorry you are feeling that way,”–Eugene Lee

    classic non-apology. amazing he doesn’t know this.

    he takes absolutely no responsibility. none.

    he pities how sensitive ‘so many of you’ are, and these bewildering things ‘you’ are feeling. but he takes absolutely no responsibility for his actions and those of his fellow leaders. none.

    the issue is the problematic oversensitivity and overreaction of ‘so many of you’. A problem which he and the leaders are graciously addressing in taking the high road in their offer to patiently listen.

  5. Churches/Leadership have YEARS to get ready with something in play on how to handle situations like this as it’s NEVER living in truth and or protecting and safeguarding children. Why is it about protecting numbers leaving; therefore the money? Again, where can these Ministers and their families go get help especially before children are molested or picking a Homosexual lifestyle. Would this Minister want his children molested; as all the children in the church under his protection, then he should have done something! As, so many Churches their children keep the family Business going; keeping the money in Family for their lifestyle.

  6. I agree that a group like GRACE should have been consulted.

    Also, readers should be careful about jumping to conclusions:

    A “minor” could be 17 years old, and the confession was about attraction not action.

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