A World Series MVP's marriage crashes and his pastor is more than a role player in the drama

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Celebrity divorces are rarely tidy and uncomplicated. This is especially true when one of the people in the marriage is alleged to have been sleeping with the couple’s marriage counselor.

Two more details: The marriage counselor was (1) both the couple’s pastor and (2) the leader of a charitable foundation funded by the jilted husband. Now, throw in the fact that the husband was, at the time, a Major League Baseball star — the 2016 World Series MVP — with the Chicago Cubs.

This is not, alas, your usual upbeat Bobby Ross, Jr., story about God and baseball. Several news operations have reported on this sad affair, but the key report ran, logically enough, at The Chicago Tribune. The headline: “Ben Zobrist lawsuit alleges his pastor had an affair with his wife Julianna and defrauded the former Chicago Cubs player’s charity.

The story was written by a reporter who covers “sports pop culture with a Chicago focus as well as a range of other topics from the White Sox to fantasy football.” As you would expect, this story misses one or two religion details that many readers would have liked to have known. Here’s some crucial material right up top:

The lawsuit against Byron Yawn, CEO of the Nashville-area counseling firm Forrest Crain and Co., seeks $6 million in punitive and compensatory damages through a jury trial.

According to the complaint filed May 6 in Nashville Circuit Court, Yawn, while acting as the Zobrists’ marital counselor and executive director of Ben Zobrist’s charity, “usurped the ministerial-counselor role, violated and betrayed the confidence entrusted to him by the plaintiff, breached his fiduciary duty owed to the plaintiff and deceitfully used his access as counselor to engage in an inappropriate sexual relationship with the plaintiff’s wife.”

Yawn’s attorney, Christopher Bellamy of Nashville-based Neal and Harwell, told the Tribune …: “At the end of the day, a woman has the right to choose who she wants to be with. We’re in the middle of litigation, so I can’t really comment further at this point, but that’s what it boils down to.”

Yes, that certainly raises moral questions, in terms of the actions of high-profile conservative Christians. But that is not the stuff of journalism discussions.

I did, however, want to know more about this pastor and the church at the heart of this drama.

You see, one of the biggest stories in American religion right now is the surging number of totally independent, non-denominational churches. When it comes to ethical questions about a pastor, it really helps to know if he or she — in terms of accountability — was answering to any higher church authority. Otherwise, the pastor is, literally, the higher authority and in many cases plays a major role in choosing whatever body of “elders” or “deacons” who are supposed to be governing this congregation.

This is especially true when the pastor is claiming the authority to offer pastoral counseling over a long period of time — as opposed to premarital counseling or a few pastoral sessions with a couple before referring them to a licensed professional.

So what does the Tribune tell us? Not much. But let’s keep reading:

The Zobrists began attending Community Bible Church in Nashville in 2005, where Yawn had been the senior pastor for about 20 years, according to the lawsuit. Yawn served as the couples’ pre-marital counselor in December 2005.

“In addition, they later accepted the defendant’s invitation to officiate the public dedication of their three infant children,” according to the lawsuit.

Ben Zobrist started counseling sessions with Yawn in 2007, and again in 2016 and ’17 when Zobrist was experiencing anxiety and depression, the suit states.

According to the suit, Yawn began having daily conversations with Julianna in August 2018, then “began secretly pursuing an intimate relationship with Mr. Zobrist’s wife” the following month.

Wait. We’re talking about “daily” one-on-one counseling sessions with the wife that went on for a protracted period of time? Was this a business as usual thing?

Any experienced denominational leader or overseer would ask tough questions about a minister claiming that kind of authority as a “counselor.” It’s just plain dangerous to the person in counseling and to the minister, as well.

The late Dr. Louis McBurney, who had psychiatric credentials from the Mayo Clinic, was a pioneer in doing intense counseling work with crashed clergy — many of whom simply could not handle the temptations that came with claiming to be a “pastoral counselor” to members of their flocks. McBurney once told me:

Ministers may spend up to half their office hours counseling, which can be risky since most ministers are men and most active church members are women. If a woman bares her soul, and her pastor responds by sharing his own personal pain, the result can be “as destructive and decisive as reaching for a zipper,” McBurney said.

So were the Zobrists — who were very public with their faith commitments — attending a stereotypical evangelical megachurch, the kind where the pastor is king and there are no accountability mechanisms in place?

Alas, that’s not the kind of detail one gets when a complicated religion story is turned over to a reporter with, it is safe to say, zero experience on the beat.

In this case, all readers know is the name of the church and that’s that. A few clicks of a computer mouse yields a bit of info, with hints that this congregation has roots in Baptist life, with a Calvinist spin on things:

The Church’s final and ultimate authority is the Word of God. There are, however, explanations of biblical doctrine which have served the church throughout its history. The classic and Reformed confessions/creeds of the church have been born out of moments of much-needed clarity. They have also helped the church define orthodoxy, informed its worship and provided it with a trusted exposition of the Gospel of Christ. While they are not inspired, or authoritative, they are helpful. We have attached the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession to our church’s statement of faith in order to assist us in our pursuit of Reformed orthodoxy. To the extent that we can agree with its statements we affirm the usefulness of this document to the church.

My final question: Does the church itself play any role in this sad story? To what degree do basic facts about a pastor and a congregation matter, when there is an ethics and doctrinal trainwreck of this kind?

My prediction: In the court case, there will be questions about who was supposed to be supervising this pastor and holding him accountable.

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