What the Fall of Jim Tressel Has to do with Pastors

Jim Tressel went from hero to zero in 12 months.

Winning had bought Tressel respect in the state of Ohio. First at Youngstown State and then on the national stage at Ohio State.

As the success increased so did Tresell’s insulation from everyday scrutiny. In the eyes of fans and the administration he could do no wrong. Certainly there were warning signs everywhere. Most notably was Maurice Clarett. As a freshmen, Clarett help the Buckeyes win the 2002 National Championship. But was soon overcome by scandal, eventually being dismissed from the university. There would be others. But none were as vocal or with the national voice that Clarett garnered.

All the while Tressel’s name stayed out of the spotlight. Clarett was a bad kid from the wrong part of town while Tressel was the misunderstood golden child. This would be the response to every allegation to come. Tressel was unaware of the problem and offenders were dishonest, bad kids.

Off and on Ohio State players were punished for infractions of NCAA rules. But Columbus is a one-horse town and no journalist dared to take on what everyone was seeing– lots and lots of NCAA infractions. With all of the success in the football program there was lots and lots of money flowing. No one inside of Columbus was going to blow the whistle and risk their livelihood. Everyone claimed Tressel knew nothing.

The wheels began to fall off nationally during the 2010 season as allegations surfaced that some players had sold or traded some memorabilia in exchange for tattoos. Suddenly, the spotlight was on the program to discover what was really going on. 5 players were suspended for 5 games in the 2011 season by Tressel. This was quickly followed up by a self-imposed 5 game suspension that Tressel took. The spin was that he chose to do it this way so that the players would see that he was the kind of leader who took it on the chin when he got in trouble.

Fans of Ohio State bought it. (And even revered him more for his valiant leadership.) But the national media and non-OSU fans smelled the rotting corpse of a cover-up in the trunk of Tressel’s trophy room.

It all crashed down a few weeks ago as Tressel stepped down when tipped off that Sports Illustrated was about to publish their investigation which revealed systemic violations over and 8 year period. The article documents that Tressel wasn’t ignorant of all of the violations. Instead, he was often involved in the cover-up, and in some instances actually orchestrated inappropriate benefits for players and their families.

Even in his resignation Tressel maintain his arrogant posture. He pretended to fall on his sword and say his resignation was not an admission of guilt but to protect the reputation of the university he loved.

It won’t work. While Ohio State fans are living in denial. The NCAA will act and the punishments will be severe. There’s a good chance that the NCAA may actually shut the program down for 1-2 years as a result of the systemic problems. In all likelihood, since he’ll have to serve suspensions earned while at OSU at any future NCAA job, Tressel is out of college football for life.

It is a sad ending to anyone’s career. But was also entirely of his own doing.

Preventing Tresselgate as a Church Leader

We live in a time where church leaders are put on pedestals similar to that of Jim Tressel. (At least in Evangelical circles) People identify with their pastor so strongly that it’s not uncommon to associate the name of the church with the name of the pastor. People go to Rick Warren’s church, Bill Hybel’s church, Andy Stanley’s church, Rob Bell’s church, Joel Osteen’s church, Mark Driscoll’s church, John Piper’s church, etc. It’s completely ridiculous that we do that, but we do.

A dangerous double-edged sword. On the one hand the church benefits from the notoriety of their pastor. On the other the notoriety of the pastor is the largest threat the organization faces to its present reality and future success of large organizations. The net result is that the pastor lives in a protected bubble. That doesn’t mean he can do no wrong. It just means that if he does wrong everyone in his life is going to do whatever they can to keep that from the public since his failure impacts their financial security.

Practically speaking, how do we prevent Tresselgate?

  1. Leadership Transparency- I’m all about elder rule in a church. And I’m all about staff teams largely governing their day-to-day operations. But elder meetings should not meet behind closed doors with no ability for anyone in the church to intimately know what’s going on, ask questions when appropriate, and foster a sense of transparency. Likewise, the elders should be congregationally selected and scrutinized as overseers of the congregation and the staff. (The staff can’t pick elders– That’s illogical for their role as overseers.) And their meetings should be open to the general public. Just like municipal boards they should have open and closed sessions. But reserve closed sessions exclusively for personnel and legal matters.
  2. Whistle blowers protected- In most secular work environments there is some level of protection for staff who blow the whistle on inappropriate behavior. The #1 reason this got so big at Ohio State was that no one in the athletic department blew the whistle on Tressel’s years of stuff going on. (The SI article documents this well.) There is no protection for church staff. If little things get dealt with without fear of reprisal they don’t escalate to big things later. A little bit of money miss-spent, a little bit of power abused… that’s just life and can be dealt with. But not dealing with it creates a snowball effect that will one day destroy the entire mission.
  3. Time off from the platform- Early in my leadership development a mentor taught me that leadership prowess wasn’t determined by what happened when I was there. She measured my performance as a leader by what happened with my team when I wasn’t there. We need to create that environment in the church today. It’s great to have figurehead leaders who are amazing communicators. But if those people are truly leaders of a movement of God, they will be measured by their ability to put others in their place. Andy Stanley had a nice-sounding sermon a few years ago built on the premise, “What do you do when you are the most powerful person in the room?” The answer to that question is to be like Jesus and disperse the power to your disciples… and then step away. The power of Jesus’ church isn’t central leadership. It’s that it’s empowered every person to be a priest with direct access to the Father! We need to affirm the priesthood of all believers and get our leaders off the platform.
  4. Don’t believe the hype about yourself- I don’t believe any church leader wants to be on a pedestal. Any “powerful” church leader I’ve ever met is wholly uncomfortable with the reverence they receive. It seems to me that gross failures happen when the person starts to believe the hype about themselves. Fundamental to the problem is that many of these people are the most successful people they know. God blessed them and it just happened. If you find yourself on a pedestal do whatever it takes to find some friends where you are an absolute nobody. It’ll do your soul good.
  5. Cheaters never prosper- Eventually, whatever it is that you are hiding will be public. Plausible deniability never works for long. The best thing you can do is to operate a clean program… even if that means you win less.

What are other ways you think church leaders can prevent Tresselgate from destroying their ministry?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

10 comments

  1. I agree with the above comments. Excellent post and very practical. I’d add, regular third party evaluation. Having a trusted third party mentor or leader come in and evaluate leadership is crucial. Few churches will set aside funds to have consultants come in and evaluate. But… giving someone permission to come in and see with fresh eyes what is going i believe would be most beneficial. (Side note: Not sure if this would be wrong in procedure, but having someone come in to evaluate with little or no notice might even be better. Everyone cleans up when they know company is coming over.) Thanks for the post!!!!

      1. I’m actually not that big of a Tressel fan. I’d say he’s good not great. He’s top 2% where I’d think OSU should have top 1% (they spend more on their college football program than any other school in the country).

        I wrote up my thoughts on the Tressel scandal here: http://www.adamincolumbus.com/2011/05/31/jim-tressel-cheated-im-so-mad-not/
        I don’t diagree with your article, just the tone of Tressel bashing. I get it. You’re a west coaster who is jealous of the Big 10 and you wish you could get some decent football out there. You wish your SDSU fellas would get some love. I understand… 🙂

        1. A lot of assumption there.

          Remember, I’m from South Bend, not San Diego. So we have a common enemy in UM.

          Tressel cheated. And there’s a warning there for anyone who is trusted in leadership. That’s all I’m saying.

  2. Im not an OSU fan, and not a Tressel fan, but the thought I keep coming back to is if I was that Coach I dont know if I could turn in these kids and ruin their lives. Thats the struggle Ive had with it all. Yeah, its against the rules, and the kids shouldnt have done it, but if I find out can I really turn those kids in and take away everything they have been working for for their whole lives? (Granted, some of those kids it wouldnt have affected, theyd still get drafted. And Im also not trying to say whether or not Tressel is guilty, just the thoughts ive had)

  3. Ben- Tressel’s job wasn’t just to win. If you read anything about the job of a head football coach in the NCAA, item #1 or #2 in their contract is to see to it that the rules of the NCAA are obeyed in the program. It’s not just that he is responsible for everything that his players and staff do, it’s that HIS JOB is to ensure that the rules are being followed. On top of that, the SI investigation shows that in more than 10 cases Tressel himself played a part in the violations because he either helped orchestrate OR had knowledge of them and didn’t report them. So it is guilty by association, guilty by silence, and in at least 10 cases… just plain guilty as charged.

    What does this have to do with role of the pastor? It’s the same thing. Is a pastor just responsible for preaching? Of course not. The pastor can never hide behind the staff or make excuses for what happens under his watch. He is the shepherd. If there is a wolf there it is his job as shepherd to remove the wolf. If he doesn’t, he is a bad shepherd and deserves to be fired.

    1. Yeah I wasnt trying to say it wasnt wrong what happened. Just putting myself in that particular exact situation, I don’t know if I could have done the right thing. I’d like to think I have good integrity, but that points out a weak spot for me.

      But in a similar situation, if it was more church related, I can see myself pointing out the faults that need to have light shed on them because I love the bride of Christ. I’d say a Pastors job is to build up the church, not the staff (though building up the staff helps build the church). On the flip side, maybe a football coach should be concerned with building up young men and not just winning. I cant say his motivation, it may have been to have kept winning. But for me, in that case, I would have been motivated by not ruining kids lives.

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