Menlo Park pastor placed on leave for 'poor judgment' | News | Almanac Online |


Menlo Park pastor placed on leave for 'poor judgment'

Pastor John Ortberg allowed a volunteer attracted to children to work with youth, church officials say

A Menlo Park megachurch recently placed a pastor on leave after learning he allowed a volunteer who admitted an "unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors" to continue working with children for about a year and a half.

Menlo Church senior pastor John Ortberg was suspended on Nov. 22 after someone alerted church leaders that Ortberg had offered "prayers and referrals for counseling" to the volunteer, but didn't prevent the person from working with minors at the 950 Santa Cruz Ave. campus, according to a Jan. 21 email church officials sent members.

Ortberg did not consult anyone else at Menlo Church – at which 6,000 people attend weekly services across the evangelical Presbyterian church's six locations that run from South San Francisco down to Saratoga – about the situation, the email states.

The board retained an independent investigator, who did not find any misconduct in the Menlo Church community, said Beth Seabolt, the church’s Elder Board chair, in the email. Ortberg was reinstated on Jan. 24, she noted.

"Nevertheless, the investigation showed John exhibited poor judgment that was inconsistent with his responsibilities as Senior Pastor," she wrote.

On Feb. 2, Ortberg's son, Daniel Lavery, a columnist, posted a widely read tweet – which has garnered 200 retweets and 5,300 likes as of Friday afternoon – stating he was the person who alerted church officials to his father’s interactions with the volunteer on Nov. 21, which occurred in July 2018.

Lavery did not name the volunteer, but said that he or she shared with him on Nov. 15 that the volunteer had experienced obsessive sexual feelings about young children" and was seeking out unsupervised volunteer positions with children to treat this obsession. In his tweet, Lavery said he confirmed with his father that his father had encouraged the unsupervised work. Ortberg, Lavery wrote, asserted that the "most important thing was maintaining secrecy over the affair."

The individual in question was a part-time volunteer at the church and has not volunteered at any church events since this issue was raised with the board, said Heather Holliday, the senior director of marketing and communications at Menlo Church.

The church has policies in place to keep children safe, according to officials. For example, all leaders are interviewed and their background checked, they said. Also, they said, a child is never alone with an adult on overnight trips or in a room on the church campus.

In the Jan. 21 email, officials also mentioned they are reviewing their protective measures for children.

The January email was the church's first public acknowledgment of why Ortberg was absent. Church officials told members in an early December email obtained by The Almanac that Ortberg was on an unspecified personal leave, explaining that "he is not ill, and we ask that you join us in praying for him and our church family."

Ruth Hutchins, a church member who has been attending the church's Mountain View campus since 2009, said in an interview with The Almanac that she wants more transparency from leadership. She said she's happy that officials put Ortberg on leave immediately after hearing about his actions, but she's concerned they didn't tell members about it until January.

She said she wants Menlo Church to hire someone who specializes in investigating pedophilia, and added that officials should share detailed results of the inquiry, along with the name of the investigator.

"The number one thing that needs to be done is they (church officials) need to have a proper investigation and make sure no children were harmed," said Hutchins. "It sounds pretty high-risk – someone who seeks out volunteering opportunities and overnights (with children). That should be setting off a lot of red flags."

The board has adopted a "restoration plan" with Ortberg so he can "rebuild trust across Menlo Church, including with the congregation, staff, leadership and elders," the board members said in a Feb. 5 statement.

"John's return to full responsibilities will rely on the progress made in his restoration plan," they wrote. "The Board will make a determination on his restoration based on consultation with the various stakeholders across Menlo Church that John must rebuild trust with. At this time, John is only working internally with staff and the Board, focusing on his restoration plan and seeking to rebuild trust."

Ortberg has been a senior pastor at Menlo Church since 2004, according to the church's website. He has authored several books such as "The Life You’ve Always Wanted" and "Soul Keeping" and has spoken at conferences around the world, according to his website.

Ortberg did not respond to a request for comment.


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25 people like this
Posted by Lordy
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 10, 2020 at 8:28 am

Time and again churches get this wrong. The session should be working on their resignations not Ortberg's restoration.

The Ortbergs put the children and the church at risk. He should have been terminated and the reasons shared with the church. There is no excuse for this reckless a choice.

17 people like this
Posted by MPer
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 10, 2020 at 10:30 am

This guy should be charged under the mandatory reporter law. Why isn't he?

10 people like this
Posted by Sarah
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 10, 2020 at 11:45 am

There is another church in the neighborhood that do bad things to minors but get away with it because people are afraid to report them. They threaten everyone with lawsuit. Horrible churches these all are

29 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 10, 2020 at 12:00 pm

A striking aspect of this incident, is that Ortberg's son - with whom he had strained relations - is transgendered. So many people were up in arms about the transgendered bathroom matter a few years ago; however, here we have a real life example of transgendered person calling out a conservative pastor - his own father - for enabling a potentially risky situation for children. This pastor's congregants look up to him as a moral authority - and his books reflect a degree of thoughtfulness, I wouldn't characterize him as a pedant - but he blew it this time. The person who showed moral fortitude was the person with the non-conventional sexual orientation, and the cost was estrangement from his family.

15 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2020 at 1:01 pm

Restoration plan?!? That is outrageous! Pastor Ortberg should be charged under the mandatory reporter law, and fired! What's wrong with the congregation, allowing Ortberg to return?!? They need to demand Ortberg be fired immediately. Ortberg no longer has any credibility!!!

15 people like this
Posted by Really?
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Feb 10, 2020 at 1:03 pm

Did someone call the police. As was stated here he is what is called a”mandated reporter” who has to report the person within 24 hours. If not he is stripped of any rights to keep working in this. What hypocrites! The pastors son will probably be blamed for making this up. I’ll be watching this closely. I will report him to the police & state boards as I’m also am a “mandated reporter “. If someone knows if the police are involved in this I’d appreciate it. Peoples know very well how to “groom” children & get them alone. What a naive statement” no children are ever alone with an adult “ please.

19 people like this
Posted by Sanity Check
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Feb 10, 2020 at 1:25 pm

While I understand why this triggers visceral reactions, please do not pretend to know the mandatory reporting laws. You clearly do not. This was not a situation of child abuse or neglect. These were unwanted thoughts that a person was trying to deal with. This situation does not trigger mandatory reporting. Still, the Pastor obviously exercised poor judgment and is paying dearly for it. If God can forgive him, so can you.

12 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2020 at 1:46 pm

From Mandatory Reporting Requirements: Children-California (Web Link):

“Reasonable suspicion" means that it is objectively reasonable for a person to entertain a suspicion, based upon facts that could cause a reasonable person in a like position, drawing, when appropriate, on his or her training and experience, to suspect child abuse or neglect. “Reasonable suspicion” does not require certainty that child abuse or neglect has occurred nor does it require a specific medical indication of child abuse or neglect; any “reasonable suspicion” is sufficient.

15 people like this
Posted by Really?
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Feb 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm

Thanks Pearl for the actual quote from the law on mandatory reporting. It is very broad these days due to increased understanding of child abuse. It’s not just “poor judgement” it in fact is putting children in danger. Thoughts are very often part of behavior and very dangerous. There are many studies that show people that’s are pedophiles cannot stop those thoughts that turn to action which is why they aren’t allowed to be near children. And this is part of mandatory reporting absolutely. I am quite familiar with the law. Why anyone (much less a trained person) would think it a good idea to let someone with these admitted obsessive thoughts to be around minor’s by themselves to stop those feelings! That’s staggering frankly. If I had children in that system I would be getting them evaluated by a professional who isn’t involved in this system at all. And yes it triggers people and wonder if any one reading this would think it was fine for their own children to be around such a person.

18 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 10, 2020 at 2:42 pm

'Poor Judgement' is to assume that people in or around churches are somehow more virtuous, more moral, more ethical, or less 'sinful' than everyone else. Much of the outrage is the misplaced expectations (time and time again) that church people are above all of this. The answer is not to 'practice what you preach,' but to stop both practicing and preaching.

14 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 10, 2020 at 3:14 pm

"really?" wrote: "'Poor Judgement' is to assume that people in or around churches are somehow more virtuous, more moral, more ethical, or less 'sinful' than everyone else."

I think this is the crux of the problem, although I would adjust it a bit. I think the mistake is to believe the volunteer could "pray away" their impulses, while acting to hide the matter. This is what a very conservative approach to sexuality has problems with; they don't recognize how sexual impulses are fundamental the way people are wired. That doesn't mean those impulses can't lead people to act in harmful ways, but it does mean coming to terms with and recognizing some things are fundamental to people, and beyond their control. The problem with the pastor is that he was at odds with his son - who appears to have accepted his transgendered personality, but was acting as a responsible human being. The volunteer was not accepting that their impulses were part of who they are - and not removing himself from situations that would be harmful. The pastor really doesn't seem to be equipped for handling this situation; but, I would argue, our society at large - both conservative and liberal elements of it - blunder through it. (I am aware of some difficulty a Unitarian church had in addressing a NAMBLA member who wanted to use the church to promote his values year ago.) It's difficult. I hope the minister comes around to a more mature understanding of these matters; a lot of people have looked to him for guidance.

8 people like this
Posted by Jin Jin Lee
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Feb 10, 2020 at 3:28 pm

Drawing conclusions from articles in this publication Is a dubious proposition. The facts are not all there. Note that the son was the one who claimed that the volunteer was in unsupervised role. Who knows if this claim is true? If as alleged by another contributor the son was estranged from Mr.Ortberg then ought we not question the integrity of the source? To those expressing outrage why do you think you know more than the outside investigator? Do you not think the elders of the church are going to make very sure there was no actual wrongdoing before taking the action they did? Finally I ask if all of you are completely devoid of wayward thoughts? Do you have enough courage to tell a trusted counselor about your thoughts? Because you have these thoughts, does that mean you take action on them?

12 people like this
Posted by Mandated Reporter2
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 10, 2020 at 3:55 pm

I am also a mandated reporter and am trained to consult with my superiors, colleagues, or reach out to Child Protective Services or law enforcement, if I am unsure if my duty is triggered. In this instance, I would be fired by my employer, fined, and possibly lose my license if I sat on this information and did nothing. Not sure why Menlo is dragging their feet on terminations. Seems like a no brainer, rather than have the institution’s reputation sullied forever. Maybe somebody knows someone in the Catholic Church to give their opinion on what lack of finite action does.

11 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 10, 2020 at 3:57 pm

@Jin Jin Lee - this issue is discussed elsewhere. The son's personal take can be seen here: Web Link

It should be clear that the pastor was put on leave in response to this situation, so I am not inclined to doubt the details.

18 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2020 at 4:29 pm

Alan says: "...the mistake is to believe the volunteer could "pray away" their impulses..." "The volunteer was not accepting that their impulses were part of who they are - and not removing himself from situations that would be harmful."

Alan is correct. The kinds of impulses the volunteer has are the way the volunteer is "wired" -- for life. The Webmd website (Web Link) provides the following information concerning pedophilia: "Although most experts do not think a person's feelings of pedophilia are curable, therapy may help them manage those feelings and not act on them. Some patients at high risk of committing sexual offenses may need medications to reduce their sex drive."

The pastor needs to be educated, the volunteer needs to stay away from children, and the authorities need to be contacted so they can conduct an investigation. Has anyone accessed the Megan's Law website (Web Link) to see if the volunteer is a registered sex offender?

20 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Feb 10, 2020 at 7:45 pm

Given that there is now no clear and present danger it would seem wise, charitable, and Christian to withhold our judgements until more facts are known.

14 people like this
Posted by Ortberg ethics
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Feb 11, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Forgiveness is not the issue. If warranted, the members can forgive John, but he failed in his fiduciary responsibility to the congregation, as head of the church, to protect the children of the congregation. His decision to allow this volunteer to continue to be around children is fundamentally shocking. This should be the tipping point for the congregation and the Board to fire John Ortberg. If they reinstate him, they will lose all credibility.
Unfortunately, I am not entirely surprised by his actions. He broke the rules of the then parent organization, PCUSA. To protect the church from infighting, PCUSA had a rule that you could not be promoted from within the same church. John was hired as Director of Education. He broke this rule and became the Head Pastor.
Then, in Feb 2013, a speaker from Louisville Kentucky flew out to address the Town Hall meeting at the church to present the case of staying with PCUSA versus changing to ECO (Evangelical Covenant Order). John started by quoting from a blogger stating that USPCA wasn't Christian, all the time stating that this meeting wasn't going to be a debate. I thought that was a low blow. But worse, no sooner had the speaker stated who is was and give some background to his association to our community, signs were held up at the back of the room stating his time was up. I did not see this as I was seated in the audience, but John was standing at the back of the room, and I remember being surprised when the speaker said his time was up. He told me after the meeting what had happened.
I will leave it up to you if you consider this ethical or not.
Will the church reinstate John. Probably, if this dies down and gets old and cold. They have already moved in this direction, giving John a "restoration" period. Follow the money trail. John attracts new members and is a good speaker. I suspect this is not the last unethical action John will take. You just may not hear about it.

13 people like this
Posted by Rick Moen
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Feb 12, 2020 at 10:50 am

In this whole depressing and disappointing story, there is one shining beacon of goodness we should all stop and appreciate: the compassionate, intelligent moral leadership of Daniel M. Lavery, who both tried to help the troubled volunteer (in an appropriate way!) and tactfully called attention to the failure of Pastor Ortberg (his father) and of Menlo Church's executive leadership to do the right thing. And it appears that Mr. Lavery and his fiancée Grace did this at great and tragic personal cost.

Daniel and Grace have my profound respect. Menlo Church's parishioners, in my opinion, ought to spend the rest of this year pondering how they reached this state, where real moral leadership needed to be supplied by an unbelieving outsider, and little to none by their own elders and officials. Were I a parishioner, I'd be considering 'root and branch' remedies.

Rick Moen

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