Six months ago, the youth ministry community was rocked by safeguarding allegations made against Soul Survivor founder Mike Pilavachi. In September, those allegations were substantiated by the Church of England's Safeguarding Team. Although further questions and allegations remain, there is now a great need among youth leaders, some young people and the wider church to process and learn from what has happened. In some ways, it is also important that those of us who are not directly impacted by these events begin to move on from a place of shock and dismay. This article is designed to help youth leaders in particular to think through some of the issues that have been raised.
This summer, as thousands of people arrived at the Bath and West Showground for the Satellites event, the sense of unease among many adults was palpable. This was of course the location for the Soul Survivor festivals for much of their lifespan, and as youth leaders arrived on site it was clear that for some the return to Shepton Mallet brought up some very complex emotions in the light of recent events. Over the course of the week, those feelings began to subside as leaders – aided by some deliberate opportunities to process – felt more able to focus on the young people in their care. That journey toward some sense of progress or closure is also the aim of this article.
The most important people in the 'room'
As we discuss this situation and how we might feel about it, it remains imperative to remember those who have been directly impacted by Mike Pilavachi's actions. Given that the numbers of people who have been at events where he was speaking or leading ministry may number in the millions, it is helpful to distinguish between those of us who now feel any number of complex emotions as a result of being part of something he led, and those who were more direct victims of abuse.
This smaller group of people have suffered trauma as a result of abuse. They should accurately be described as 'victims.' Their stories are personal rather than public property, and those stories should not be utilised or appropriated. We are convinced, not least because of the number of similar allegations, that they should be believed. In all our attempts to resource the church and help youth ministry to look toward life after Mike Pilavachi and his influence, we certainly do not hold this expectation over victims, who should be properly supported, and not be encouraged to move on and find closure until they are ready to do so.
There is a third group of people who are also seeking to process and make sense of what has happened. These are the many people who had some significant interaction with Soul Survivor and Mike Pilavachi, but were not direct victims of his abusive behaviour. The nature of his life and ministry means that there are many people in this category, from current and former church members, to gap year students, mentees, fellow leaders and more. We recognise that for these people the experience of the past six months may have been different again, and while we don’t want to prescribe the need for them to find immediate closure, we hope that this article is a helpful primer for thinking through a difficult emotive subject. Again though, it is important to distinguish that those of us who find ourselves in this category are not the victims described in the paragraph above. Those brave people, many of whom showed immense courage in telling their stories and shedding light on dysfunction and abuse, should be at the centre of our thoughts as we pursue both justice for them and a better way forward for youth ministry.
Youthscape and Mike Pilavachi
Our organisation and many of our staff have a long history of association with Soul Survivor, and Mike Pilavachi specifically. We detailed the nature of these relationships in our original response here, and remain committed to absolute transparency. Perhaps most significantly, Mike Pilavachi phoned Martin Saunders in May 2018, suggesting that he should consider whether Youthscape could create a new summer youth event, as one of three 'legacy events' to Soul Survivor. This was the genesis of the Satellites event which now runs each August. Mike Pilavachi promoted this as one of his recommended options for youth groups looking for a new summer festival, and also authorised two major financial donations towards the startup costs - one from Soul Survivor itself, the other from a linked Charitable Trust. He subsequently withdrew his support of Satellites in a public Instagram announcement, in September 2022.
With all this in mind, we are aware that we could face some criticism in attempting to resource and support youth leaders, despite being so historically connected to the person at the centre of these allegations. We welcome scrutiny and critique, and understand any unease that may be felt around this. However, we – both as individuals and as an organisation – had no knowledge of the abusive behaviours being perpetrated by Mike Pilavachi. We believe that it is our calling as an organisation which serves and equips youth leaders to continue to play a resourcing role in a moment like this. While we do not believe that our long-term involvement with Soul Survivor should disqualify us from doing so, we will always be quick to acknowledge rather than minimise that relationship, and will remain happy to openly answer questions about it.
What has happened?
It’s important to be clear about the nature of the now-substantiated allegations before we discuss their implications and how we respond. On 6th September, a Church of England press release stated that, after the conclusion of the National Safeguarding Team’s investigation: “The overall substantiated concerns are described as an abuse of power relating to his [Pilavachi’s] ministry, and spiritual abuse; described in guidance as ‘a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context’. It was concluded that he used his spiritual authority to control people and that his coercive and controlling behaviour led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and massaging of young male interns.” The full statement can be found here.
This statement, though brief, concludes that Mike Pilavachi was a perpetrator of abuse towards many people who placed their trust in him and his leadership. It is important to recognise – while of course this has created a greater and more significant level of pain and trauma for those directly involved – that this information, no longer caveated by doubt, is not only devastating to the various groups of people described earlier, but devastating to youth ministry itself.
Recognising our own emotions
As youth leaders, we often find ourselves in positions of pastoral responsibility, where our role is to help and support others as they go through difficult moments. For this and other complex reasons, some of us may feel the urge to leap past our own processing, in order to try to assist young people or others who have been impacted by the news. This is a mistake; the simple analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping a fellow passenger holds true. We are far less equipped to help others when we have not yet recognised our own pain and/or trauma.
Those of us who had connections with Soul Survivor and Mike Pilavachi should take time to notice, recognise and appropriately process our thoughts and feelings. This may include taking time to pray, talking to trusted friends, journaling thoughts and feelings and more. It may even include seeking professional help, if these thoughts and feelings become overwhelming. Doing this first is not only a service to yourself, but also to those who you might subsequently seek to help.
One way in which we might ‘leap past’ the processing stage is by seeking to replace what has gone before (and now feels corrupted in some way) with something new. Some of us have a strong instinct to create a better future in response to the realisation of a broken past. While we should value innovation and creativity, this should not be at the expense of properly dealing with the pain that may be driving us.
With all this having been said, our aim in this article is to offer some reflections and address some of the key questions raised by the substantiated allegations against Mike Pilavachi. These questions have emerged in a variety of ways: through conversations with youth leaders over the last six months; during the panel on the subject that we hosted at the Satellites event, and highlighted in online spaces as investigations have concluded.
1. How do we make sense of all the good things which God seemed to do through Mike Pilavachi’s leadership?
Soul Survivor was an incredible event. It was a vital element in the faith journeys of hundreds of thousands of young people across its 27-year lifespan. God moved profoundly, in public and in quiet; in large and small ways. Many people were filled with the Holy Spirit. Others were healed, in a number of ways. Some had deep theological questions answered, and were able to come to a rational understanding of God’s reality and goodness. Jesus was preached with integrity and passion. Young people from small churches found tens of thousands of brothers and sisters they never knew they had. It was fun. It was brilliant. Part of the reason behind our feelings of collective grief is that our memory of the events are so joyful and positive.
The events were a huge team effort. Thousands of faithful people were part of their planning and delivery, and they did so primarily because of their commitment to God, not a human leader. The failings of one leader do not invalidate the faithful work of thousands.
A more uncomfortable reality however is that God clearly and demonstrably uses people who are carrying deep flaws to accomplish good things. This is visible throughout scripture - Matthew 1 records Jesus’ ancestral line, which features among others, Jacob, Judah, Rahab, David and Solomon, all of whose stories include some kind of moral or leadership failure. This does not mean that we should simply shrug our shoulders when leaders fail – the story of Nathan challenging David in 2 Samuel 12 demonstrates this – but it helps us to recognise that sin does not
invalidate gifting or anointing. Two things were simultaneously true: God was ministering powerfully through Mike Pilavachi, and Mike Pilavachi was perpetrating abuse. We perhaps wish that these two truths could not coexist, but this reality seems to be another scandalous element of God’s grace.
If we can make sense of this apparent paradox, then we will perhaps find it easier to retain a positive relationship with our cherished memories of Soul Survivor.
2. Was everything – or anything – that happened in Soul Survivor ministry times ‘real’?
This is one of the toughest questions to emerge from this situation, and something that many of us will be asking. Soul Survivor was a charismatic youth event, driven by the particular spirituality of its founder, and born out of the tradition of the New Wine movement. In the central meetings, powerful times of encounter with the Holy Spirit were led – almost exclusively – by Mike Pilavachi. If such major concerns about him have now been substantiated, what are the implications for what happened in those ministry times?
First of all, it is important to state that Mike Pilavachi is not objectively ‘bad’. There is no suggestion that his entire ministry was false, or originally established in order to enable abusive behaviours. He has been a gifted and anointed leader who – for reasons which we do not yet understand – has perpetrated abuse; a very different thing.
However, it is also true that the strong power dynamics which he cultivated certainly extended to – and were even a feature of – the ministry times. He assumed absolute control of an enormous room in these moments, and his words were given huge weight. It could be argued that he held an unhealthy amount of power in what were incredibly formative times for young people.
If we interrogate what actually happened in these ministry times, there is little that we might call objectively unhealthy. Young people were encouraged to spend time in silence – a counter-cultural activity but one that has been practised among Christians since the desert mothers and fathers. The Holy Spirit was invited to move; something we see demonstrated throughout the New Testament book of Acts. Teenagers experienced spiritual manifestations that were consistent with those seen in the book of Acts and described in the Epistles. If our memory is of experiencing God’s power in those meetings, then we have every reason to think that these experiences were real, rather than manipulated.
It is also true however that the environment created by ministry times that were led by Mike Pilavachi were extremely intense, and arguably also suggestive. As we seek to create healthy conditions for young people to meet with God in the future, we should not fear that reducing this intensity will limit the ability of God to move. This was certainly our experience at the Satellites event this summer, where a wide range of leaders facilitated ministry that happened in a democratised model around the room, without ‘call to the front’ moments.It seemed to us that God moved just as powerfully in this context, as healings, prophetic words, gifts of tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work and power were observed.
3. What lessons can we learn about creating better and safer leadership structures?
Abuse is perpetrated when a context allows or enables it. In Soul Survivor’s case, it is becoming clear that the organisation, church and festivals which bore that name were all focused around and driven by a single individual who had been granted an unusual (and unhealthy) degree of administrative and spiritual power. This elevation of a single individual, a founder whose role and decision making had moved above question and challenge, created the context for the abuse that took place and functioned as a form of idolatry, locally and on a wider scale.
Mike Pilavachi was, whether consciously or otherwise, a skilled manipulator of others, and established himself in a position of authority above everyone in his various circles. This authority was even felt at the very foot of that hierarchy, as the young people who attended Soul Survivor events began to look to him as a kind of spiritual father. Team members, including worship leaders and preachers, were kept in a place of deference through ‘banter’ - a subtle flexing of power dynamics which took place through the veil of humour. It also appears that the various leadership teams and boards which were established to govern Soul Survivor, were ultimately filled with people who totally supported and had complete faith in him.
There are some immediate lessons here, and others which will only come to light when more is known. A good rule in the immediate term and for the future of youth (and all) ministry is that no one individual should ever play such a central role as Mike Pilavachi did at Soul Survivor. On-stage and organisational leaders should not hold too much of the microphone or the power, because doing so creates a dangerous power imbalance. Good governance means that it should be impossible for a leader to create a tight and impenetrable ‘inner circle’ where any attempt at challenge is deflected or ignored. Charities, churches and other organisations need to ensure that they have robust trustee boards and transparent processes.
In addition, we should see ‘banter’ - where a senior leader puts down others on a stage or in a public space - not as an acceptable way to enjoy a laugh and encourage humility, but as a subtle tool that exercises and reinforces power. Humour is of course a great tool, especially in youth ministry, but not when the flow of that banter is always to those in a junior role, or the same people are continually the butt of the jokes, or when only one individual is allowed to make those comments.
4. Why did no-one say anything?
Many people – including leaders – are asking themselves why they didn’t recognise the signs of all this much earlier. Now that the ‘spell’ around Pilavachi has been broken, It seems easy to identify that there were always some strange and idiosyncratic behaviours at and around Soul Survivor. So why weren’t significant questions raised a long time ago? Why didn’t we raise them?
Part of the answer is that they were raised – we know from separate allegations that concerns were logged with those involved in the leadership and governance of Soul Survivor, and that these did not seem to result in any serious investigation. When others looking on see that they are not part of a culture where challenges are taken seriously, it means that they are unlikely to take forward any concerns of their own, especially if they believe that doing so may exclude them from participation in groups or activities which they cherish.
Another reason is that less favourable elements of Mike Pilavachi’s behaviour were minimised as ‘quirks’ because it was clear that God was using him so powerfully in so many contexts across the world. It may be that some held a fear of ‘going against God’ by challenging someone who he had clearly anointed, or simply that any negative traits were forgivable because they were outweighed by all the good Pilavachi appeared to be doing.
Thirdly, the idea of any kind of moral failure on the part of such a beloved leader is always a worst-case scenario. Those of us in the youth ministry community always hoped that these days would never come, and so in a very subtle way we may have all participated in a kind of wilful collective ignorance. Because everyone accepted the ‘quirkier’ elements of Soul Survivor, many of us never challenged them. Like a group of thirsty people, hallucinating an oasis in the middle of a desert, we all desperately hoped for the best, even after allegations began to emerge. There were of course, always the outliers - onlookers to the culture of Soul Survivor who expressed concern all along; their voices went unheeded until now.
There are many lessons here, but perhaps the overriding principle is that churches and organisations must urgently evaluate whether they operate cultures which prevent whistle-blowing or even critique. Healthy leaders and organisations invite constant feedback and take criticism seriously, operating a fairly low ‘power distance’ rather than an unassailable hierarchy. Part of moving forwards now as the UK church means putting this uncomfortable aspect of our house in order.
5. Is this the end for charismatic youth ministry… and more?
It is tempting not only to assume the worst about everything that Pilavachi and Soul Survivor have ever done, but to dig deeper, into everyone connected with both. In fact, it goes further than that: it now becomes easy to question the integrity of all charismatic ministry; all leadership; all churches… everyone. While one positive outcome of this very difficult circumstance is that we will have to radically rethink how power is wielded and governed in youth ministry, we should not allow ourselves to become drawn into an abyss of cynicism and despair about the church. Of course, the
power structures that enabled Mike Pilavachi to thrive stretch well beyond Soul Survivor itself, but it is important that we do not proceed from here assuming that the whole UK Church is rotten and needs tearing down.
Of course, there must be consequences for those who have fallen short of or abused their responsibilities (including the unequivocal acknowledgement of failure), but there must also be grace. Cancel culture – by which we mean the practice of trying to silence and permanently deplatform those with whom we disagree – is an ugly, heavy-handed tool that has no place in the Church. As well as consequence, there should also be forgiveness when there is contrition; otherwise the gospel itself becomes hollow.
There is a danger, given the scrutiny applied to this story via social media, that nothing will ever be good enough for us, ever again. We could become sucked into critical habits; constantly looking for ways in which even the most well-meaning leaders, churches and organisations slip up and fall short. They – and we – inevitably will, and that’s the point: what we need to model in all of these things is humility; a lower-status version of leadership, where our weaknesses and uncertainties are visible, not hidden, and helpful challenge is always readily welcomed. As we continue to make sense of what has emerged from these allegations against Mike Pilavachi and Soul Survivor, it is our hope that the focus will shift, toward the priority of service to and with the church and the world, rather than solely on leadership; on accountability rather than unchecked power, ensuring that the only exaltation we crave is God’s (Phillippians 2: 8-9).
A long road ahead
This story is sadly a long way from any conclusion. A new, independent investigation has been commissioned by Soul Survivor Watford (details here), and according to the Church of England’s statement, “the National Safeguarding Team has been granted permission to take out a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against Mike Pilavachi, relating to a safeguarding concern post ordination.” This is separate, but related to the substantiated allegations.
As youth leaders however, we have a duty of care to our young people, which demands that while we commit to learning lessons from the past, we do not remain utterly distracted by it – or give up on our calling as a result of it. Asking and thinking through questions like those discussed above is a vital part of our processing, but it’s also important that having done so we are able to move on. That’s especially difficult when the investigation is ongoing, and perhaps the usual pathway for the stages of grief and trauma does not apply when future developments may yet trigger further difficult emotions.
Ultimately though, some kind of closure is important, for all of us. We should pray that as we learn the lessons from the painful experience of things being brought into the light, we are led by the Holy Spirit toward a bright and hopeful new era for youth ministry.
From the Church of England’s statement:
If you would like to speak to anyone connected to this investigation or have been affected, please be assured that any concerns raised will be treated with the utmost sensitivity and support / access to counselling is available. Please contact email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or anyone you are in contact with are affected by this news and want to talk to someone independently, please call the Safe Spaces helpline on 0300 303 1056
Martin Saunders is the Director of the Satellites Event, and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. He has been involved in youth ministry as a writer, practitioner and leader since 2003, and was previously the long-term editor of Youthwork magazine.
Revd Deacon Alice Smith is Youthscape’s Director of Church Development. She was previously Lead Tutor for Theology and Youth Ministry at St Mellitus College and a Diocesan Youth Officer, and has been involved in youth ministry for two decades.
Two forthcoming episodes of the Youthscape Podcast will deal with the subjects raised in this article. The first, coming on Monday 13th November, focuses on how we support victims in this and related cases; the second will release on Monday 20th November, and will look at how youth leaders can process their collective sense of trauma and/or grief. www.youthscape.co.uk/podcast