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Remember the names Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, and Jack Schaap?  Scandal among evangelical pastors has been so steady that wikipedia has a list of evangelical scandals.

While working on a chapter for an upcoming book, I had the blessing of researching the moral failures of several prominent church pastors.  I say “blessing” because it was enlightening to observe some common dynamics and failures in the scandals.  In most cases, men who should have been disqualified were back in their pulpits or establishing new ministries within months.  In most cases, churches were seriously injured by the transgressions and hurt further by the inadequate efforts at redress.  In all the cases, the offending pastor received more attention and support than the victims of his abuse or deceit.  It was a sobering exercise.

The effects are devastating.  Two researchers at Baylor University have summarized the social and psychological effects of clergy sexual misconduct on congregations .  Studies:

suggest that the results for the offended include self-blame; shame; loss of community and friends if forced to relocate either to escape the community’s judgment or to escape an angry offender who has been discovered or reported; spiritual crisis and loss of faith; family crisis and divorce; psychological distress, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder; physiological illness; and failed or successful suicide attempts.[1]

All of this carnage begins with a process researchers call “grooming.”

Grooming includes expressions of admiration and concern, affectionate gestures and touching, talking about a shared project, and sharing of personal information (Carnes, 1997; see also Garland, 2006). Grooming may be gradual and subtle, desensitizing the congregant to increasingly inappropriate behavior while rewarding her for tolerance of that behavior. Offenders may use religious language to frame the relationship, such as “You are an answer to my prayer; I asked God for someone who can share my deepest thoughts, prayers, and needs and he sent me you” (Liberty, 2001, p. 85). Grooming is essentially seduction in a relationship in which a religious leader holds spiritual power over the congregant.[2]

Garland and Argueta’s study focused primarily on identifying the conditions that permit clergy sexual misconduct.  From their interviews of adult victims of clergy abuse, they found five factors that contribute to the behavior.  In their own labels and opening paragraph description:

1. Lack of Personal or Community Response to Situations that “Normally” Call for Action

Most (n=23) of the offended said that they had felt uncertain of what was happening in their relationships with their religious leaders. Spouses and friends and other congregational leaders also were uncertain about the meaning of what they observed, and so they did nothing. Their trust of the leader was stronger than their trust of their own perceptions of the situation. In fact, it altered how they interpreted what they were experiencing.

2. Culture of Niceness

American culture expects people to be “nice” to others, most particularly those with whom we have caring relationships. By “nice,” we mean overlooking or ignoring the behavior of others that we know to be socially inappropriate rather than naming the behavior and risking embarrassing, angering, or hurting them. The offended we interviewed were living by this cultural norm, even in the face of offenders’ blatantly inappropriate behavior. In other words, they were not simply normalizing the offenders’ behavior and questioning their own perceptions; they recognized that the behavior was sexual and thus inappropriate and still they did not object.

3. Lack of accountability

Our world has increasingly privatized communication and consequent ability to avoid oversight or accountability to others. Instead of letters in a family mailbox, where anyone in the family can see that a member has received communication and from whom, letters come to private e-mail accounts out of sight of all who do not know the password. Instead of phones being located in public space, such as the kitchen wall, they are now in a purse or on a belt and can be used anywhere. Such communication allows a relationship attachment to form and deepen, removed from observation by others. Many of those interviewed told of long and frequent conversations over the phone or through e-mail with their offenders.

4. Overlapping and Multiple Roles

Of the 46 offended congregants we interviewed, more than half (n = 24) were in a formal counseling relationship with the religious leader. An additional 16 reported that they were regularly meeting alone with their religious leader for “spiritual direction.” They described spiritual direction as a private meeting between the leader and congregant in which the congregant shared personal struggles and concerns and the leader provided guidance about the use of spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation to deal with those struggles and concerns. The common characteristic of these two groups, together representing 87% of the sample, is that the leader was meeting alone on a regular basis to provide professional services.  In some cases,  interactions differed from professional counseling relationships with other helping professionals, in that the direction of invitation was reversed. Instead of the congregant asking for help, the religious leader volunteered to provide the congregant with counseling.

5. Trust in the Sanctuary

The congregation and its leaders are expected to be safe, a “sanctuary,” where vulnerabilities will be protected. Congregants expect to be able to confess personal thoughts and struggles to their religious leaders without fear of those confessions being used to manipulate them. Leaders are supposed to be safe sources of guidance and forgiveness. Interviewees recalled that one of the ways the offender gained closeness that led to sexual activity was by using knowledge gained from their confessions as a way to breach what would have been their ability to protect themselves. An expectation of emotional closeness is assumed after sharing deeply personal issues. The closeness is deepened when the other knows aspects of one’s life few others know—a shared secret. This emotional closeness gave the offender additional power as the keeper of the offended’s secrets.

Congregants trust their leaders to protect their families; these leaders are those that perform weddings and are expected to be present and supportive to congregational families through times of crisis. Instead, these offenders often denigrated the women’s spouses, driving a wedge into what they knew was a vulnerable marriage. In the aftermath of the death of her child, by definition a marital crisis, Paula’s pastor told her that her husband would never be able to meet her needs. Delores remembers the tension between her husband, who had a leadership role in the church, and the pastor as the pastor began to initiate a relationship with her.

Experience, media stories, and research all warn of the damage clergy misconduct causes.  However, most congregations continue without policies and practices to protect themselves from the fall of its leaders.  Of course, no church can be completely protected and we don’t want to breed an atmosphere of undeserved suspicion and mistrust.  But a little forethought and planning could be the ounce of prevention that prevents the need for a pound of cure.  Garland and Argueta’s findings hint at some protective measures that might serve pastor and people.

On the back end, Eric Reed’s 2006 article, “Restoring Fallen Pastors,” provides at least some preliminary questions to get congregations started.  If leadership teams think through these questions, they’d at least develop a skeletal response for responding to the moral failure of leaders.

  1. Which offences require absence from ministry?
  2. Is exposure to pornography an equally serious offense as an actual sexual affair?
  3. How long is the pastor to be out of ministry?
  4. What are the requirements for counseling and who will oversee it?
  5. Will there be any financial support for the pastor and the family?
  6. Will the pastor’s spouse be included in counseling and in meetings with the denomination or restoration officials?
  7. After the restoration process, how will the pastor find a new position, if deemed qualified?
  8. And what will the new congregation be told about his indiscretion and period of removal from ministry?
Does your staff, leadership team, elders and congregation have a set of practices and policies that help guard against the moral failure of leaders and to address it when it happened?  After reading sifted through a fair number of recent articles and scandals, I’m freshly convinced I need to lead First Baptist’s leaders through discussions and proposals on this issue.  The costs are too high to neglect with inattention.
Let us pray for the protection, wisdom, and sanctification of both church leaders and church members.  Let us intercede against the schemes of the evil one.  And let us be prepared to respond in cases of scandal with love and justice as defined by the scripture.  Again, so much is at stake.

[1] Diana R. Garland and Christen Argueta, “How Clergy Misconduct Happens: A Qualitative Study of First-Hand Accounts,” Social Work and Christianity, 37 (1), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 4.

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35 thoughts on “Does Your Church Have Policies and Practices to Protect Against Pastoral Failures?”

  1. Sandgroper says:

    More often than not, adulterous Pastors suffer narcissistic personality disorder. So it should come as little surprise they would be back seeking support & attention, because this is a continuation of their selfish narcissistic condition. The fact that they are a believer is virtually irrelevant. BEWARE.
    I make this observation from direct personal experience

  2. Matt G says:

    Great stuff, Thabiti. I wonder, in the course of your writing, if you will address a common denominator among those who experienced moral failure. If you look at the Wikipedia list, with few exceptions, most had previously disqualified themselves from pastoral/ministry leadership because of false teaching, financial/ethical lapse or unbiblical divorce/remarriage. In other words, they should not have been in any type of ministry leadership in the first place, as they had been biblically disqualified. Of course, in most cases, their following/audience was not interested in applying the biblical requirements in the first place, which explains why some of them were so quickly “restored” to ministry.

  3. Lily says:

    This is such a great article. I have been involved in church ministry for a long time and have been impacted by a half dozen pastors/ worship leaders/youth leaders who have had affairs, admitted to struggling w/ homosexuality and/or pornography addiction, most recently my boss (associate pastor), who preyed on a very vulnerable woman in the congregation and began an affair with her. In nearly every case like the article states, “the offending pastor received more attention and support than the victims of his abuse or deceit.” I can’t believe how commonplace this is and don’t understand why more safeguards aren’t put in place to help prevent these things from happening. Thank you for putting this together – I pray current pastors/leaders and those thinking of entering the ministry will heed your warning.

  4. EMSoliDeoGloria says:

    It is so important – and so rare – for churches to proactively think through these issues and establish policies and procedures for handling them. More often than not, evangelical non-denominational (especially) ministries are trying to figure out what “above reproach” means while an accusation is being levied against a leader.
    Thanks for bringing up the issue of “grooming” and highlighting the need for churches to examine the need for policies and procedures in churches on these matters.

  5. Sarah B says:

    This is what comes of elevating a position in the church to “untouchable.” A pastor should never assume himself above confrontation, and a congregation should have serious red flags if a pastor acts as though he is untouchable. Such a sad situation all around. Sad for the girls who may never trust another religious leader again. And I so pity the man at the judgement for abusing a sacred office.

    1. Wesley says:

      While i agree with what you’re saying here – for surely, one of the qualifications of an elder/pastor is be live above reproach – it is also important to say that Paul teaches that no charge against an elder is to be considered unless accompanied by two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19) to protect from perhaps another extreme of someone wilfully trying to hurt the ministry of a pastor.

      1. EMSoliDeoGloria says:

        Sadly Wesley, that verse has also been used to protect abusive leaders from genuine accountability. If it is applied in the most narrow sense, it will be the oddly careless person who will meet it. I’ve heard some people say that the “two or three” standard means that # of witnesses has to exist for any one incident – not just 2 or 3 to the pattern of behavior. In that case, you can’t believe one credible victim who comes forward, unless she has at least one other person who was a direct witness to the sinful behavior. The accusation can’t even be “considered / entertained / recorded.” So that victim is ignored. A year later, another person comes forward and makes a similar accusation, but also has no second “witness” (and no knowledge of the first incident). She too is ignored. And so forth. Under some interpretations, there is no pattern to consider because neither story can be substantiated. But how often does anyone have adultery or engage in angry, threatening behavior in front of two or three witnesses?

        The reasonable application of that verse will take all accusations seriously but not discipline a pastor based on one unsubstantiated allegation. The goal of the passage is that only credible accusations be considered as disqualifying. The apostle did not intend that it be used to protect wolves.

      2. Sarah B says:

        I understand that. I have three men in my life: my father in law, bil and husband: who are all in the ministry so my intention is not at all to make it easy to accuse pastors. BUT I have seen the fallout of ministries that are unbiblical in their view of the pastor. We don’t need another hero. We have the Lord. We need faithful underservants who are serving, and not setting themselves up to be served and protected. I think the “being served” mentality is what gets any of us into trouble. And I do believe that they will face a stricter judgement for misrepresenting Christ to vulnerable “sheep” although I can’t quote a verse for that off the top of my head.

  6. Reggie says:

    Thank you, Thabiti!

  7. Neo says:

    A very thoughtful article. I suppose so much of this boils down to accountability, not just of the pastor but of the congregation to remove the problematic pastor. But just like the situation with false teachers like Jimmy Swaggart, they get removed from one church and they either jump to another church, or just start a new one from scratch. Troubling.

  8. Sarah B says:

    BTW, thank you Mr. Anyabwile for your ministry. My 5 children and I have benefitted from your sermons online. We listen as we eat breakfast. :)

  9. "Fallen" Pastor says:

    Speaking from experience, pastoral failure is ultimately a heart issue. We had every “safeguard” in place to prevent moral failure (not meeting alone, windows in doors, etc) but ultimately my heart wandered and sin inevitably followed. While I agree with the appropriate safeguards and accountability, ultimately pastors need a safe place to share their deepest struggles and temptations.

    And yes the church as a whole is woefully lacking when it comes with how to deal appropriately and yet compassionately with fallen leaders.

    By the way, it did not begin with a “false theology” for me as proposed in an earlier post. Right theology does not dictate a right heart – and therein is where the real issue lies.

    And please remember that we are all “fallen” – that’s what makes the gospel of redemption so beautiful.

    1. Chris says:

      This is spot on; it is ultimately a heart issue.

      It was not “wrong theology” for my father, either. In fact, my church has been at the forefront of the “Reformed resurgence,” if we can call it that, that came out of Westminster from the 1970’s. But my father still fell into alcoholism.

      I found the same was true for our church as was mentioned above; when he eventually told the congregation, it was assumed that I was doing fine, and that my presence in church meant I was supporting him and doing alright. The reality was, I was present in church because I loved my dad, but that didn’t mean I was doing fine.

      By God’s grace my father and I are restoring our relationship. He also continues to pastor our church, which is something that has produced restlessness in my heart. Needless to say, these situations are each unique and very difficult.

      Thanks for the article, Thabiti. God bless.

    2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      By the way, it did not begin with a “false theology” for me as proposed in an earlier post. Right theology does not dictate a right heart – and therein is where the real issue lies.

      And the assumption of “false theology” being the root of all evils has messed up a LOT of spiritual-abuse victims (me included). In the Seventies there were a LOT of these “Not-a-Cult” splinter “Fellowships”, completely independent, drifting off on their own “Godly(TM)” way. And a LOT of them went control-freak abusive.

      Christian Cult Watch(TM) organizations of the time defined “Cult(TM)” entirely in terms of “false theology” and a lot of these aberrant/abusive “splinter churches” had the same theology as the Cult Watchers — BABBEC (Born-Again Bible-Believing Evangelical) with (at the time) a heavy dose of the Gospel According to Hal Lindsay. So while the Cult Watch groups were parsing these splinters’ theology letter-by-letter and pronouncing them “clean”, they continued their spiritual abuse among their people. (And the Men-o-Gawd who ran these abusive splinters would hold up their clean bill of health i.e. WE ARE NOT A CULT(TM) and use it as an additional weapon of abuse.)

  10. Carey says:

    This issue has always and often broken my heart… and with a HUGE dose of personal introspection since I’m a Pastor too. The sin is sinful, but the temptation is universal, with none of us ever being able to say we are above it. The grace of God must be our fuel and the indwelling Spirit must be our power. God, keep us.

  11. Mel says:

    I think this subject has nothing to do with the pastoral position. I think this has to do more with how our hearts scream out for idols because of sin. Our own sin makes it possible for them to get away with this behavior.
    It is in every walk of life. We want to believe that we are ALWAYS right about the people we approve of. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we are presented with, we will do back bends to defend – not their reputation but our own trust in our personal judgement. We see this in jury cases all the time. We blame and ignore victims because we want to believe that it could not happen to us. We are smarter, better. The person must have done something to bring it on themselves. All of these things make it possible for us to turn the perpetrator into the victim. It does not matter if they are a pastor, a football coach, a teacher or a fiance.

  12. Horatio says:

    In the end, a pastor (or anyone – whether in church leadership or not) is only as accountable as he wants to be. Which is to say, if there is a will to sin, there is a way around the accountability measures imposed/placed upon him. For the unrepentant, of course, God has an embarrassing/humiliating way of bringing hidden things to light. (He has, after all, warned us that He will not be mocked.) But, as in the cases mentioned on the wiki page, many times this “revelation” does not preclude some damage in the church (to say nothing of a given church’s reputation in a pagan community). POINT: “Accountability” is a tricky thing. I wonder what, EXACTLY or SPECIFICALLY could be done to completely protect a congregation. Perhaps another way of posing the question: How MUCH of a man’s privacy is to be forfeited in the effort to protect a congregation. Should all telephone conversations be recorded? Should he be forbidden to have a private cell-phone, or be required to submit all cell-phone records to the elders for regular accountability purposes? Should he be forbidden from having any email accounts OTHER than his church account – OR sign statements that all emails be forwarded to at least one of the other elders? Should he be forbidden from traveling anywhere alone? OR, perhaps, be required to carry a tracking device with him where ever he goes? To what should a pastor submit himself? To what, SPECIFICALLY, should a church require him to submit to?

    All the same, the author’s question on RESTORING a man to ministry are good and important. It’s my thinking, also, that churches/elder boards think MUCH about how to show folks the door, and little about how to receive them back. (Whether or not we’re speaking about those in leadership positions.)


  13. Dwight McKissic says:


    May God bless your efforts. You will do the body of Christ a great service if you speak out on this issue. Thanks for showing our churches how to begin to develop policies on this issue.


  14. SLIMJIM says:

    This is probably the most sobering thing I read all week as a pastor myself. Not only was the article inslightful but the comments here as well. Thank you.

    1. norman armstrong says:

      being full of GOD or full of the world is two different paths

  15. Diane says:

    “While working on a chapter for an upcoming book, I had the blessing of researching the moral failures of several prominent church pastors. I say “blessing” because it was enlightening to observe some common dynamics and failures in the scandals. In most cases, men who should have been disqualified were back in their pulpits or establishing new ministries within months. In most cases, churches were seriously injured by the transgressions and hurt further by the inadequate efforts at redress. In all the cases, the offending pastor received more attention and support than the victims of his abuse or deceit. It was a sobering exercise.”

    Thank you for your article. Your above paragraph is the exact same conclusion I came to after reading about SGM/Mahaney for the last year and a half. Good information.

  16. Sandgroper says:

    Rarely a day goes by where I do not see the evidence of narcissistic behaviour. As you get to understand & research it in depth, you can understand why God flooded the earth. You can also understand the story of Samson. Sadly, these people just dont change, and must face judgement.

  17. Thank you so much for this great article. I have featured it on my blog which deals with abuses in churches. I was particularly struck by your comment that the church spends more time covering up and dealing with the abuser than the victim. In the multitudes of stories I have read and/or covered, this is common. The end result is not only the original abuse (which could be sexual or emotional), but spiritual abuse. The people who are meant to shepherd and guide a hurting family have failed morally and spiritually. This is spiritual abandonment. I deal with these victims – – they are the ones who can’t bring themselves back to a church again because they were failed TWICE and find it difficult to trust. It’s easier to stay home and forget church altogether. We must address this problem.

  18. Fear of man brings a snare. says:

    Sandgroper, Yupp, I concur, NPR it is,
    “their selfish narcissistic condition. The fact that they are a believer is virtually irrelevant.”
    “I make this observation from direct personal experience” Me too.

    NPD – Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

    The following list is a tool professional’s use for help in diagnosing NPD
    From the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition:

    “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, and indicated by five (or more) of the following:

    1 – Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

    2 – Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

    3 – Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions)

    4 – Requires excessive admiration

    5 – Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

    6 – Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

    7 – Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

    8 – Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

    9 – Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

    But, Jesus, made himself of no reputation, took upon him the form of a servant…
    he humbled himself… Phil 2:7-8.

  19. Fear of man brings a snare. says:

    Matt G
    This has been my experience also. “their following/audience was not interested in applying the biblical requirements in the first place,”

    Most today, both the steeple corporations, who do the hiring, and the applicants, who desire this position of power and prestige, elder/overseer/pastor, will ignore or twist the very tough qualifcations found in 1 Tim 3, Titus 1 and other places.

    I would venture a guess and say, very few if any, on the board, or in the congregation, have ever even looked at the qualifications and checked them against the applicant. Like these stories, it is often after the moral and spiritual failures of these wanna-be leaders that every one can see, that you realize they did not qualify in the first place. Or, at best, along the way they went off course, little by little, and today they do not qualify.

    But, will they remove themselves from their position? Not likely. Their NPR, their Narcissitic Personality Disorder, keeps telling them how important they are. Even though they knew they did not qualify from the start.

    And not many folks walking into a new place take the time to check out the pastor/elders/overseers according to the qualifications to see if this new place, these elder/overseers, really believe the Bible, really believe the qualifications are important.

    I had to learn this the hard way.

    One recommendation for those looking to heal from or protect themselves from “Spiritual Abuse”
    Is to check out those who say they are “God Ordained Authority” Pastor/Elders/Overseers.

    Every believer has this right – to check out the Pastors and the Elders.

    And we beseech you, brethren, **to know them**
    which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord,
    and admonish you;
    1 Thess 5:12 KJV

    Every believer is responsible *to know* –
    If these Pastors/Leaders/Elders – Qualify…. To be a Pastor/Elder/Overseer.

    If “they do not like” you asking these hard questions you might want to think about leaving, now.
    If “you are afraid” to ask these hard questions you might want to think about leaving, now.

    The Fear of man brings a snare.
    but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD shall be safe.
    Pro 29:25

  20. Sandgroper says:

    Fortunately there are good Pastors, Elders & Worship Leaders who are not afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They are like King David’s who, like us, have sinned, and repented. You just have to seek them out in the church. But unfortunately, there are a few Samsons in leadership, who are destined to be taken out by some pillars, eventually. It is inevitable. Just make sure you’re not under the same pillar. They know exactly what they are doing, but they lie to themselves that they are normal, so will have issue of conscience in how they deal with you. Sadley, they are beyond help. There is an excellent article written on Spiritual Abuse by Salvation Army Major Scott Nicloy

  21. Vicki says:

    There is a current situation where my Senior Pastor was confronted by 3 mbrs, (2 female/1 male) all of them held positions w/in the church. These 2 woman had both been touched, groped, in inappropriate areas. Prior to this, it was found that the 1 female had previously confronted him, along w/ her husband. The associate pastor (also a female) decided she would outline the disciplinary action for the offense, by not allowing him to be alone w/ her- obviously this didn’t work. He did it again, that is when the other woman came forward and pastor was confronted again. He admitted to the inappropriate behavior (again) in the presence of the associate pastor (female) – these families expected action, after 2 wks, he was still preaching, no action. The families left the church, who had been members for generations, raised, married, their children & grand children there. They decided to call the district, reported it, they did remove him from the pulpit, but no other action taken w/ the associate pastor, congregation still does not know anything. Now the pastor & associate pastor are denying any inappropriate behavior, just casual hugging and comments of “your still #1″ (what ever that means). The assoc. pastor lied to the congregation saying that pastor was tired and taking a sabatical. For yrs. I was under his control as a leader, seriously made me ill when he told my husband (who was concerned w/ all the hrs. & demands of my time) God is first, husband 2nd – therefore making him (pastor) 1st because he was a representative of God! I am having a hard time w/ the improper, unbiblical way this is being handled. The body of Christ has a right to know, be protected and alleviate the ability for gossip, rumors and re-victimizing the victims. Assoc. pastor literally instructed (my sis) to let her handle it, saying that we need to protect the congregation, people have mortgages to pay, pastor has mortgage to pay, he has a family, imagine what this will do!! Unbelievable, this is the only church I have ever known, where do I go with this? Somebody has to rise up according to the word of God, stop this river of lies from continuing to spread confusion, immorality and shed the true light on this situation. Maybe then he will repent, and these families can begin to heal and the body of Christ come back to the Word as it intended.

  22. Thank you for this article. I guesstimate that many of the issues with the modern day pastor come from the many areas. I hoped to have addressed them all in a blog I wrote recently about the late Zachary Tims. I agree with many of the posters above. The “pastor” position is not what the bible describes it to be today. These men are required to be CEOs and good business men running incorporated entities, having so many demands put on them my the modern day church structure that they are bound to fall in sin due to pressure from duties God never required of them. Usually sexual sin is the area of which many pastors fall.

    We really need to go back to the scriptures, and evaluate the calling of a pastor, because honestly, today’s CEO pastor is going to burn themselves out, and you are going to see more stories like this as the days grow more wicked.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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