Penn State scandal: An adult steps into the room

“Joe Paterno is no longer the football coach, effectively immediately.”

With a single sentence, Penn State Board of Trustees Vice-Chairman, John Surma, brought clarity, maturity and leadership to the child molestation scandal engulfing Penn State University. An adult finally stepped into the room.

For the last week, the unfolding story of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse of a series of young boys, actions that apparently took place for over a decade, in Penn State football facilities and with at least some knowledge by Coach Paterno, rocked the university. With a half-dozen victims whose lives were ruined, official accusations, denials, finger-pointing, mounting legal liabilities and a national spotlight exposing, at the least, the complete failure of administrative oversight on the part of Coach Paterno and others in the university’s administration, the situation was spinning out of control. To top it all off, Penn State students were beginning to riot (it doesn’t take much for that to happen; call it Occupy Penn State).

Then came the press conference last Wednesday and the beginnings of order were restored. John Surma is Chairman and CEO of US Steel, and no stranger to hard decisions. He was the spokesman for a unanimous decision by the Trustees to fire Paterno.

His press conference was no where near the conclusion of this sordid and sorry affair. But, as Winston Churchill pointed out an earlier–and much more significant moment in history–“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” When the Board of Trustees acted they did what adults have to do. They looked past the emotions, feelings, stress and pressure and did what was best for the future of the institution they love and serve. They put Penn State ahead of Joe Paterno. They exercised leadership.

I don’t want to draw too many broad conclusions from leadership from the Penn State crisis–for obvious reasons. But any time a leader steps up and leads, and does the right thing, not just be displaying courage but also by speaking the truth and saying what must be said, and making the decision no one else really wants to make but everyone knows has to be made–well, that leader needs to be recognized. In our own day, when there’s so much moral confusion and so little courage among our public leaders, it’s good to see someone who’s willing to step up to the plate and lead.

As our churches head into a challenging and uncertain future, we pastoral leaders need to pay attention to courageous leadership like John Surma. I hope we never have to face a situation quite like his! But neither should we underestimate the scale and scope of the crises we face. Just because our particular situations are unfolding much slower than what happened at Penn State doesn’t mean they’re not urgent. The crises we’re dealing with—declining membership, fewer conversions, antiquated programming, aging congregations and lackluster leadership, are creeping up on us instead of breaking on us all at once, but make no mistake, they’re coming.

Let’s take a lesson from John Surma. Adults need to step into the room, tell the truth and start to lead the way forward.

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