toxic_waste_barrel.jpg Brad “futuristguy” Sargent is on a tear with his series on spiritual abuse recovery. His latest is no exception to the quality of the series. He writes,

I’m in the process of figuring out a new church fellowship/home these days. Unless God clearly leads otherwise, I expect it will be more of a connection point where all participants already engage in some kind of ministry outside the time of gathering, or are exploring while they receive mentoring to help them find a fit. And so the getting together focuses on mutual sharing and worship, and support and fellowship and learning for the journey. Not pragmatic and programmatic, nor weekly performance by The Few, nor holding to an appearance of discipleship but that denies the necessary relationships thereof.

The key thing is, I just want it to be a “normal” gathering where the only problems are typical human imperfections – what a delightful relief that would be! No more Chernobyl Churches where spiritual abuse fallout leaves poisons for present and future generations to attempt to neutralize … if they even survive the radiation.

And that’s the introduction. Solid stuff. He makes the astute observation, “There is just so much more I’d like to say about discerning between acceptably imperfect versus over-the-line toxicity in leadership, organizational systems, and cultures for churches and Christian organizations.” And that’s the real question, isn’t it? I mean, we don’t really expect perfection… but there are a few non-negotiables.

There’s a lot that Brad is writing in this series that is “chewy” and with which I resonate deeply. Apparently we share an orientation. Chew this well:

I am oriented toward making organizations sustainable for the long run, regardless of what kind of paradigm they are now based on. That means dealing with issues that otherwise would lower the horizons on what constitute our “plausible futures.” What COULD happen in the future for any cluster of Christians is directly related to what spiritual DNA they currently share in their organizational life. Toxic leaders and systems poison our life together, and thereby they shrink our future horizons. And that means future options that are less positive and the less preferable for the Kingdom.

Brad now cites governance, difference, sustainability, church discipline, and theological similarity as his five primary criteria for selecting a new church home (refer to his post/series for detailed explanations). Governance was given little import when selecting my CLB, but would now rate quite highly. The CLB in question claimed to look for “consensus”, not as a democracy, and not as a requirement for unanimity, but generally in the “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” sense. It sounded good. The CLB had an eldership rule, and as the veneer came off, it became clear that the elders called the shots and although the congregation pulled in the reigns once in a while, it was generally thought among the leaders that if the congregation wasn’t in agreement, it was because they just “didn’t have faith for it.” This meant that the elders and leaders weren’t wrong, the congregation was wrong… and they just needed to work at it a bit more so they could proceed with congregational support. This sounds to me more like manipulation and less like consensus. I recall once when our daughter-church (we were part of the church-planting team) was looking for a building after having done the nomadic school gymnasium thing for a number of years. Three of us became an informal building search committee, and had found an older church building we could potentially purchase. An evening was arranged for the entire congregation to come and view the facility. After a time of roaming the building, we gathered in the sanctuary for discussion. There were a few questions and concerns, but it was put to a vote, signified by standing. Most people stood to affirm the purchase of the building; only a small few stood to oppose it. The pastor stood and said, “Well, we’ve seen consensus…” many of us thought, “Yes! After all this time, we’re finally going to move into a building and a neighbourhood!” “…and that isn’t it,” the pastor continued. Several of us were gobsmacked, and a number of folks wandered away wondering what happened. The short answer is that the pastor hadn’t liked the building and recast the vote to suit his own will. It became aware to a number of us that he’d actually had a habit of selective memory and reinterpreting events to suit his purpose. Governance in a church system is important. Believe it or not, I didn’t realize until after we left that our CLB had no mechanism for removing an elder except through church discipline. I had just never really thought enough about it.

I liked Brad’s use of intervention, interception, and prevention as three different approaches to the issue of spiritual abuse, depending on what stage you find things. Relatively extensive IRL conversations with a good friend that ran for a couple of years off-and-on recently reveal my conviction (or they would reveal if you’d been a fly on the wall) that a leader who is exhibiting spiritually abusive practices cannot be reformed without being removed from leadership for the transformation or reform to take place. It is my feeling that that such period is more likely to be measured in years, not months. The proper word, rather than “reform” is “healing.” Healing processes should not be rushed, either for the leader or for the community which has been under this influence.

Extreme cases (intervention) may actually require simply shutting down the ministry altogether and allowing people to disperse and find healthy communities of their own. Obviously this may require a process of instructing them on healthy leadership structures and what to look for in a new church home. They could call Brad in to preach his series — but like Brad, I think the instances of intervention actually being practiced are going to be as rare as hen’s teeth. Once a system is well-entrenched in this kind of practice, the leaders are highly unlikely to allow any form of intervention from within or without. Leaders in this category may or may not realize their error, but even if they see it, there is an unwillingness to repent and change. Most often, these will simply continue on as always, or will gradually diminish as people awake and leave. Where the abuse is subtle, there is often an influx of people to replace the leavers, such that the church has something of a revolving door. Whenever the “revolving door” is present, be diligent in seeking to understand the reasons why people have left. My CLB had a revolving door, and when the subject was raised, leaders would provide examples of people who had moved away to other cities or to a mission field of some sort and refer to this form of “leaving” as being “sent out.” “People aren’t really leaving &8212; it’s just that we’re a sending church!” Watch for the recasting of facts and, generally, “spin.”

Interception seems promising, as it’s the strata where there is a high risk of spiritually abusive systems or leaders being formed, but there remains an openness to change or a wariness of becoming abusive. Here you might expect to find leaders that are insecure or new in their positions, but open and humble. There is an awareness of reliance on God rather than gifting. I wanted to say this was more common in nondenominational churches that lack oversight, but I’m in such a situation now (a house church), and the one I left was a nondenominational system with oversight. Not to mention that I’m aware of denominational churches (I’m not speaking of entire denominations) that exhibit spiritually abusive behaviour. I’m even aware of a parachurch situation that has oversight, but the oversight is unwilling to act in the face of overtly abusive situations. It can happen anywhere. Denominations tend to put in more checks and balances, but an abusive leader will find ways to subvert them. But again, in this stage the leader most likely doesn’t see what they’re doing that’s abusive, but are open to correction. It seems to me that a system will not remain in this arena for an extended period of time. If a leader or a system begins to behave in spiritually abusive manners, short-term results will be gained and interpreted positively, cementing the practices. The repetition of this pattern solidifies the practice of the leader or system so that the page is turned and intervention is now required… but I’ve already said how unlikely that is.

A word might be said about leaders in these systems. One should initially see them as victims in need of healing. Yes, they are perpetrators, but this is only a part of the story. As Philip Zimbardo says, it is often the case that evil is perpetrated not because of bad apples, but by good apples being thrust into a bad barrel. This is not to excuse culpability, but to understand how things got the way they did. This is why governance is so important, and I might go so far as to say meaningful governance. Bad governance or no governance will corrupt good leaders. A friend of mine often refers to people of our age as “the mentorless generation,” which is a thoroughly sad and dangerous commentary, but also an insightful warning about the importance of mentoring. Even good leaders can create a “bad barrel” which then corrupts them. “Absolute power” is one kind of system, and it’s the barrel itself that “corrupts absolutely.” But of course you all know the saying, and even a moderate amount is a danger. When I say “meaningful governance,” one must take care to ensure that the governance (system) itself is not corrupted with the things one is attempting to avoid. Sometimes the fault for the bad apples lay with the cooper, so the mere presence of a cooper is no guarantee of good apples.

Prevention is the most promising stage of all. In this situation — you will have cooperation, and even an eagerness about setting things in place to steer clear of any hint of abusive situations. I really like this aspect of Brad’s series as he unpacks each of his five criteria. He invited further thoughts, and I want to offer a few ideas toward preventing the development of spiritually abusive leaders or systems. I’ve been running on for a while no, so I’m not going to flesh these out too much, at least not in this post. We’ll see what the discussion brings, and perhaps I’ll flesh them out further. In part, you’ll recognize them as summations of things I’ve said above or before. They actually interrelate like various facets of the same gem.

1) Mind the power imbalance in relationships. Mutuality is essential, and confession of sin and submission to one another needs to be heavy on the “one another” and not on any sort of hierarchical “spiritual authority.” Period. It is Christ and Christ alone who is “in charge” of the church — any pastor or leader is but “the friend of the bridegroom,” and no more.

2) Be cautious in giving out “authority.” I used to think that young leaders were a healthy sign in a church, and that something was slightly amiss when the deacons in a church were all over 70. I’m undecided on the point now, thinking that a mix and a mentoring relationship would be essential. Albert Einstein said, “Premature responsibility breeds superficiality.” The Apostle Paul said, “Lay hands on no man quickly.” Now, it’s just possible that these men understood something about leadership. Superficiality leads to insecurity, which leads to non-disclosure and is covered by assertion of authority. Mentor people into experience and make them leaders, but continue mentoring so that no progression is made down the path of creating bad barrels and abusive leaders.

3) Openness is imperative. There ought to be no hiding of information, financial or otherwise. Respect confidences of course, but remember the axiom that “knowledge is power.” Anyone who knows a salient bit of information has some small bit of power over those who don’t… and I’ve already said a few things about power. Use openness to keep the power balance intact in relationships and to keep from being corrupted.

4) Be wary of size & complexity. Size is not inherently evil, but it does lead to complexity. Both are conditions in which many ill acts can be hidden, be it superficiality or misconduct of any kind. Smaller expressions of church are more prone to having deeper relationships and are actually in many significant ways, less prone to doctrinal or procedural error. In smaller and simpler contexts, there are fewer places to hide: everything is in the open. For me, this is one of the reasons I am enjoying my state as a spiritual vagrant, joined with several journeymates and expressing “church” in an intimate setting. Though we semi-regularly partake with a larger community, I don’t see a “big thing” becoming my main expression of church community ever again.

5) Build and rely on relational authority, not positional authority. I’ve yet to write an extensive treatment of this distinction, but I think I’ve referred to it often. Authority is not vested in one’s position as pastor or leader or whatever, but is vested in relationship. This is the axiom that respect must be earned. If anyone has authority to “speak into” my life, it’s because I give it to them, not because anyone else has given it… including the church, and, I daresay, Including God. God simply doesn’t work that way, forcing himself upon people by forcing others upon them. In the context of relationship, mutuality is built and a healthy form of two-way relational authority is established. The weight of your words into my life is more effective when I know that my words into your life have the same effect. It’s mutuality again.

6) Qualify leaders by the fruits of the Spirit rather than the gifts of the Spirit. This doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation, but the “apostle” over the CLB used to like to say that “What a man builds over years because of his gifting can be destroyed in a moment because of his character.” I think the statement is true, and sometimes I wish it was more of a guarantee… so that people would be less inclined to persist in devotion to bad barrels filled with bad apples.

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