Churches: stop thinking ‘if’ a crisis will happen, start thinking ‘when', says media expert Phil Cooke

By Chris Eyte |
Man sitting in church
Unsplash / Ben White

As stories about sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement and other scandals in churches continue to hit the media headlines, it's critical that pastors and leaders prepare what to do "when" and not "if" a crisis hits, says Phil Cooke. Christian Daily International approached the renowned media consultant, TV producer and author about his latest book ‘Church on Trial: How to protect your congregation, mission, and reputation during a crisis’.

Asked what prompted him to write it, Cooke responded: “Just look at recent headlines, and you’ll see the number of pastors, Christian leaders, churches, and ministries in trouble.”

Written specifically for pastors, ministry leaders, staff members, and members of the elders or board of directors, Cooke offers practical advice on how to prepare and what to do in the face of a crisis. He covers issues such as knowing how and what to prioritize, how to safeguard the church’s reputation proactively, and ways to build relationships and collaborate with trusted legal and communication advisors.

But for Cooke, the issue goes far beyond public relations and damage control.

He pointed to a 2010 Pew study revealing that 27 percent of believers who leave their church do so because of scandals or the poor management of the unfolding crisis by the leaders. While survey focused on Catholics, chances are the numbers would not be significantly different for other Christian groups who have seen similar headlines about some of their leaders in recent years.

“That’s not people going to a different church, that’s people walking away from God entirely. And it’s not just sexual issues; it’s other issues like financial mismanagement.”

He referred to another study indicating that three out of seven churches in the U.S. had suffered embezzlement or financial theft in the past, costing billions of dollars per year. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity researched the issue on a global scale and in a 2022 report revealed that $170 billion will be lost by 2050 “if current trends continue.” 

Church on Trial book by Phil Cooke
Phil Cooke

Cooke pointed to a quote in ‘Mere Christianity’ where academic and author C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.” He similarly sees the issue how churches deal with crises as absolutely paramount for witnessing well for the gospel. 

“As Christians, we’re under grace, but that doesn’t give us the right to hurt our witness to the world through bad behavior or abusive living,” said Cooke. “The church is ‘on trial’ from the world's perspective, and until we can get it right, the culture will continue to ignore our message.

“The late sociologist Rodney Stark said that the primary reason people convert to a particular faith is because they want to be like those people and want what they have. But when nonbelievers read headlines like we’ve seen recently, why would they ever want to be like us?”   

Church pastors are often not taught crisis management in seminaries or Bible colleges, according to Cooke. That lack of knowledge results in leaders being “often blindsided” when faced “with a significant challenge.” 

Cooke first noticed the urgency of the issue when he started working as a media producer. He leads the nonprofit The Influence Lab, challenging the perception of Christian media, and has produced media programs in nearly 70 countries, including for Hollywood studios and faith-based organizations. That’s why churches and ministries in trouble began turning to him, drawing on the weight of his expertise. 

“They were asking questions like, should we contact an attorney? How do we tell the congregation? Do we release an official statement? Should we talk to reporters? The questions were endless. So, after decades of helping churches and ministry organizations navigate these crisis situations, I decided to put my experience into a book that would help pastors, staff members, elders, and board members prepare ahead of time.”

Part of the issue is that accountability is not given enough importance amongst some church leaders. Cooke himself ensures that in his workplace, some colleagues have access to his email, calendar “and more”, to be transparent in his daily working lifestyle. 

“I also have those people see any receipts or financial transactions I’m making. That makes it much more difficult to have an inappropriate rendezvous or relationship when so many trusted people see what I’m doing. 

“In the book, I even advocate for physical transparency - for instance, putting glass doors and windows in every office. It may sound small, but anything you can do to block inappropriate actions or bad decisions can often save a career, a marriage, or a life.”

The issues highlighted in the book are relevant for churches of any culture around the world, Cooke believes. “A crisis is a crisis, whether it’s in the U.S. or another country, so the book is highly relevant to anyone involved in ministry.” 

Cooke also pointed out that whilst colorful stories such as sex abuse in church settings gain the most media interest, there are many different types of crises, which can affect a church or ministry.

“From lawsuits over personal injuries, property disputes, insurance issues, embezzlement, and more, my advice is to stop thinking about ‘if’ a crisis will happen and start thinking about ‘when.’ In today’s digital, social media world, there are just too many opportunities for someone on your church staff to say or do something inappropriate. We should always be on our guard.”

Cooke also offers advice for Christians who are not directly involved in church leadership:

“First, don’t join the chorus of armchair ‘theology cops’ who jump on these situations and criticize without really knowing any details. Second, pray that pastors and other church leaders will understand just how important this issue is, and learn how to respond appropriately. Third, if there’s a victim involved, pray and urge leadership to prioritize that man or woman.”

Church leaders have often ignored victims involved in various scenarios “and we need to raise the bar in that area,” opined Cooke.  

“Last, pray that more Christian leaders regain what the Bible calls ‘the fear of God.’ We often focus on what the Bible says about love, which is good, but we too often forget what the Bible says about fearing God. I’m convinced that if we regained that healthy respect, honor, or even awe for God, we would think twice before making a life-changing mistake.”

‘Church on Trial: How to Protect Your Congregation, Mission and Reputation During a Crisis’, endorsed by several prominent church ministry leaders, has only just been released. Copies can be ordered here