As I write this Hurricane Harvey is, finally, leaving Houston and southeast Texas in its wake and heading towards Louisiana. During the several days that the hurricane inundated the Houston area there emerged many stories of heroism, harrowing escapes and increasingly desperate attempts by leaders to cope with a level of flooding never seen in their community’s history. In the midst of all
In the midst of all this the pastor of a very well-known mega-church, Joel Osteen, came under mounting criticism for not opening the doors of his church, a building that was once a coliseum that housed the Houston Rockets, to help the displaced and desperate residents of his city. His church’s initial reaction was to post pictures of their facility showing that it was inaccessible due to flooding, but then some local folks visited it to check it out for themselves and found that the facility was indeed accessible and pretty much dry compared to other parts of the city, and they shared that info (with pictures) on social media and the pressure on Osteen and his church mounted. Eventually, they did open the church as a shelter and to collect donations of clothes and sundry items, which is great, but the fact that the leader of one of the largest congregations in the country took so long to make it happen is a stain that will be hard to wash off.
So how did Osteen proceed to try to wash that stain? He appeared on the Today Show and promptly tried to pass the buck. Here’s a quote from the interview with him: “(The city) didn’t need us as shelter then,” Osteen said. “If we needed to be a shelter, we certainly would’ve been a shelter right when they first asked. Once they filled up, they never dreamed that we’d have this many displaced people, (and) they asked us to become a shelter. I think this notion that somehow we would turn people away or we weren’t here for the city is about as false as can be.”
He went on to say that the church was concerned for people’s safety because the building had flooding issues in the past. That’s all well and good, but here are the problems with his reaction:
- What kind of church leader waits to be asked to help?
- What kind of leader of any stripe tries to shift blame during a crisis?
To be clear, it’s a good thing that the church has rallied and is contributing, especially given the resources it can bring to bear. I’m pretty certain it would have, eventually, even without the pressure of the criticism from social media. But Osteen himself showed some real deficiencies of character and leadership in how he responded to the crisis itself and the criticism that resulted.