"I can tell you that John loves gays and transgenders": Further Remarks on Menlo Church

It’s an odd time in life, having to periodically come up with public statements about one’s relatives; I last had occasion to do so in this space a few weeks ago regarding my father’s temporary leave from pastoral duties at Menlo Church. Now that this leave is ending, and the church has made further comments on my role in my father’s leave, I’d like to share with you a statement my wife Grace Lavery made this afternoon. I do hope we will have fewer public statements to offer in future, although I’m very proud of and grateful for this one of Grace’s.

I’m writing in response to statements made publicly by Beth Seabolt, Elder of Menlo Church, at a town hall meeting on March 1st. These statements were discussed widely on social media yesterday, and two independent attendees of the town hall meeting attest to the accuracy of the transcripts.

As well as being perplexing, Seabolt’s public comments were both inaccurate and damaging. She should apologize for smearing Danny’s reputation, and misleading the congregation of Menlo Church. 

Seabolt is here answering a question concerning a statement Danny made on Twitter on February 2nd, in which Danny detailed the reasons for reporting his father’s conduct in respect of a church volunteer. In fact, Danny made direct report to Beth Seabolt herself, who, far from implying that he was taking “an angry stand” or “lashing out,” expressed her gratitude to his for having brought the Ortbergs’ disturbing conduct to the attention of the Elders of Menlo Church. She wrote:

  • I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for you to raise this issue, knowing that the family members you love would be impacted.  We appreciate the care you put into thoughtfully crafting the detailed account. (Friday, November 22nd, 2019)

Seabolt wrote to Danny several more times, each time affirming the seriousness of his report, and expressing gratitude for his whistleblowing. She wrote:

  • “Thank you again for bringing this situation to our attention. We greatly appreciate your concern for the Menlo Church community and commitment to doing what is right.” (Thursday, January 16th, 2020)

  • “I can see how my earlier email might not have addressed all your concerns and I’d like to share more details with you.  This has been a challenging time for us all, and the entire Board shares your deep concern as it relates to these issues.” (Tuesday, January 21st, 2020) 

For Seabolt and, by extension, Menlo Church to now portray Danny’s actions as as merely the bravado of a “young adult” at the start of his “own life” is deeply puzzling as well as disgraceful. Danny is 33 years old and a highly respected professional in his field. Not a single one of his choices in this matter has been made out of anger, or “lashing out,” as Seabolt well knows. Indeed, were it not for Danny’s “lashing out,” neither she nor anyone at Menlo Church would even know that one of their volunteers believed themself to be treating their pedophilia with the explicit and sustained encouragement of the Ortbergs.

I also note that Seabolt’s remarks were phrased to avoid using any gendered pronoun to refer to Danny, leading to some awkward formulations: “Danny is breaking away, and Danny is starting Danny’s own life.” What Seabolt reveals with these evasions is that she cannot bring herself to use a masculine pronoun to refer to Danny - which perhaps provides a clue to what is motivating her otherwise inexplicable attempt to undermine his perfectly uncontroversial public statement. 

That clue is augmented by another comment: 

In his statement, Danny reported John saying two things: (1) that being compulsively aroused by children is “like being gay,” and that (2) Danny and I lacked the standing to propose another plan to the volunteer than the Ortbergs’, because of our transitions. I was on that phone call too, and can confirm that these were precisely the positions that John Ortberg took. However, if John has since changed his mind, or the church elders find those positions “negative” or objectionable, there is an obvious remedy: the full restoration and affirmation of LGBTQ people and relationships –– pronouns, gay marriage, queer clergy, and all –– by the elders and staff of Menlo Church.

Meanwhile, I can only imagine the damage done by Seabolt’s fantasy that only Christ can save queers from suicide, punctuated by the hollow and condescending reassurance that “John loves gays and transgenders.” I hope LGBTQ members of the Menlo Church community, and their allies, will reflect carefully on these words.

I am not surprised, of course, that an evangelical church is covering up for its own abusers, nor that a church’s response to whistleblowers is to smear the reporter, nor that a church’s sweet words of support for queer and trans people mask a casually death-oriented fantasy. But I am disappointed, specifically, in Beth Seabolt, who presented herself to Danny as an honest broker, and someone with a capacity to seek justice, even against the commercial interests of the Ortbergs. I am disappointed, then, to see that she has stooped to this kind of smear tactic.

In his own remarks at the Menlo Town Hall, John Ortberg acknowledged, albeit half-heartedly, that his secret plan to treat someone’s pedophilia by covert immersion therapy under his own supervision was a “mistake.” Does he therefore also regret attempting to bully Danny into keeping his secret? And if so, will he offer a public apology to his son? Do the Elders of Menlo Church not think that the absence of such an apology is quite disturbing, in this context?