Category Archives: church and culture

A Cancer Within Evangelical Christianity


There is a serious problem within protestant evangelical Christianity. We love right preaching and teaching more than we love right living. We love power and authority more than sacrifice and submission. We love honor over humility. We love being led by popular leaders who make us feel good more than following the despised and rejected One—who has no “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isa 53)

We want King Saul over young David.

Of course I do not accuse all protestant Christians nor all leaders with this charge. And yet, we must all own this problem together. It is not merely the Catholic Church that has covered up abuse or used power to protect itself. While the system of the Catholic Church enables a wider and deeper cover-up, we have all of the same issues on a (slightly) smaller scale.

A picture of a true leader of God’s church…and the opposite

Leaders of the church are to be representatives of Jesus, individuals set apart to be under-shepherds. They are to care for the flock. And what do we need? We need teaching, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke in their proper times and measures. But most of all we need our leaders to be images/examples of our true Shepherd.

Quite simply, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11) and who feeds, carries, and gently leads (Isa 40:11). Of course this is a picture of a powerful leader. Only one with power who knows right and wrong can choose to sacrifice rights and become smaller for the purpose of care of the most vulnerable.

But we have a pattern of enabling self-promoting leaders of the flock. These want to be listened to, respected and followed for their own sake. Sure, they may speak of the Gospel of grace, but how do they live it? How do they treat the ones who have the least power? How do they handle criticism? Do they even have a Paul (wise older leader with a track record of being willing to encourage and also say hard things) to speak to them as he did to Timothy? Or would they tolerate one who spoke to them as Paul did to Peter when he acted out of accord with the Gospel (Gal 2:11f)?

It seems that when we do see brokenness in our leaders we tend to excuse it, especially when their gifts are attractive and the ones revealing these flaws are expendable.

Consider this warning

What makes Jesus angry? The New Testament records a few instances of expressed anger: Money changers, self-righteous religious leaders, hindering children, and the pain of death (Lazarus). We see it most clearly in his language toward the religious leaders when he calls them “brood of vipers…white washed tombs…hypocrites.”

What are these leaders doing that evoke Jesus’ just anger? Matthew 23 provides some answers.

  • Everything they do is for show to receive the praise and honor of followers
  • They seek power and control. They (try to) decide who can be in the kingdom; they seek converts who will work for their interests
  • They develop special rules that support their apparent position of authority
  • They makes a show of sacrifice yet forget the most important values: justice, mercy, and faith/submission to God
  • Their public and private selves do not match—the outside looks great but inside is abominable

It does not matter if they deliver well-crafted and biblically sound sermons. It does not matter if many flock to their ministries. If their motive, efforts, and tactics (public and private) do not match God’s character of a good shepherd, their good human gifts of are no value. Even worse, they deserve rebuke (Ezekiel 34; Jeremiah 23) and even removal from speaking for God anymore (Ezekiel 44).

The true problem?

There have always been false shepherds. There always will be false shepherds. But, what enables them to stay in positions of power is that we allow it. G. Campbell Morgan minces no words when he highlights the problem of false shepherds.

Now the false in religion stands revealed in Christ’s contemplation of these men [described in Matthew 23], not only in the case of the men themselves, but in the case of the people who are under the influence of such men. The false in religion in the case of the people is due to failure to discriminate between the human and the divine; and consists of submission to unauthorized authority.

Morgan, Gospel According to Matthew, p. 273†

Why do we fail to discriminate between human and divine? We overlook “foibles” because we know our own hidden sins. We fear being ostracized and losing our position in the inner-ring of power. We ignore the words of victims in order to maintain the appearance of health in the system. We love the image of redemption (the happily ever after restoration) more than the long slog of obedience. In short, false shepherds cannot maintain or increase power unless we protect and enable them.

The beginning of a solution

Let us repent of these our sins. Let us study anew what we and our leaders are to be like. Let us listen to the ones we call expendable when they speak about abuse of power. In the words of my former pastor, let us pray to God for better leaders than we deserve and to be the kinds of undershepherds we are called to be in God’s wide kingdom.

Consider these previous posts on related topics:

To avoid spiritual abuse church leaders should do this

Evaluating the Character of a Leader?

Restoring fallen leaders? Possible or Impossible?

Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts

† My thanks to Dr. Diane Langberg for pointing me to this quote in Morgan’s commentary.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Evangelicals, Uncategorized

What is more important to your church when it fails abuse victims? Gospel-driven behavior or reducing liability


Over the years I have had the opportunity to walk with church leaders through the difficult waters of abuse, whether done by leaders or done by congregants. One of the first conversations I try to have with those tasked with responding to the situation is this: What core values do you want to shape your response? Another way of saying this could be, “At the end of the day, who do you want to be, who do you think Christ calls you to be?

These values do not tell you what to do. They do not give you steps. But, they will help evaluate if a particular response is moving towards or away from those values.

If we don’t start at this point, then a couple of other values will control the conversation and control the decision-making: limiting legal liability, damage control, reputation management, and the like. These are understandable but do not comport with Gospel-driven responses to abuse.

Consider this fictional case.

A decade earlier a youth pastor is caught engaging in sexual activity with a teen. The church does not name it at sexual abuse and allows the youth pastor to leave and does not tell the congregation why he left. All this was done for complex reasons: lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation, desires to protect the victim (requested by the parents), and desires to protect their own identity. Years later, it is discovered the youth pastor has gone on to abuse more children in two other settings. Through a variety of reasons, the church is confronted for its failure to handle the situation properly. They are publicly accused of misconduct. The leadership of the church calls their attorney and their insurance company and get the strong advice to not admit any wrongdoing. Instead they are to make a bland statement and initiate an internal investigation (some of the leaders now were not there ten years ago). The report is issued some time later with policy changes made public. While it reveals “mistakes were made” by one of the leaders no longer present, it offers regret but falls short of an apology or indication that the church bore any responsibility for the subsequent abuse experiences.

What core values shaped the church’s response?

What would a church response look like if shaped by deep apology and behavioral repentance? What would it look like if the church considered the plight of the victims and their needs? Would they feel a responsibility to support their recovery? What if they cared more for kingdom values more than worrying whether they would be sued?

Sometimes, times of trouble reveal which god we really serve the most. And sometimes it is not very pretty.

It doesn’t always go badly. I do know a number of churches who opened themselves up to increased liability in order to speak truth about their failures. Take heart. It is possible!

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Uncategorized

Trauma-informed churches?


Yesterday I wrote a bit about trauma-informed organizations that seek to ensure that the ministries they provide neither harm recipients or staff members. That post focused on para-church organizations serving highly-traumatized populations and encouraged them to do some self-evaluation. But, today I’d like to add just a few additional thoughts on how churches might improve care for traumatized people in their pews.

Types of Trauma in the Church

Churches, by definition, are filled with broken people. That is just as God intended. And also as God intended, most find the church a safe place to heal and be restored–to God and to neighbor. But some find it a bit harder to feel safe in a church setting. In particular, those,

  • who have been harmed (spiritually, physically, emotionally) by church leaders
  • who have deep and hidden shame from interpersonal betrayals (sexual abuse, domestic abuse, forced perpetration, etc.)
  • who have experiences difficult to be understood by many (e.g., veterans)
  • who have secondary trauma (more invisible than most traumas) and who think they should be over it already

How can churches evaluate current policies and practices to ensure that both congregants and staff are cared well for and not unintentionally compounding trauma experiences? Consider the following list as a starting point for conversations among pastors, elders, staff, and lay leaders.

  1. Do we have a basic understanding of the nature, causes, and symptoms of trauma?
    • Search this site for many resources on this topic
    • Watch free videos here about making the church a safe place for victims
  2. Do we understand key features of systemic abuse that might infect our church
    • Use the link just above to explore the symptoms of narcissistic systems and leaders
    • Search this site for more resources as well
  3. Do we have a child abuse prevention plan? Preventing future abuse also provides some level of healing from past victims.
  4. Does our child abuse prevention plan also include ongoing training, care for staff, and a robust response plan when abuse allegations surface?
  5. Are we aware of subtle forms of spiritual abuse? How do we protect vulnerable populations?
    • Explore the dangers of “sin-leveling” (making victim responses on par with offender actions)
  6. Victims often develop poor coping mechanisms (e.g., addictions, resistance to authority, reactive moods, withdrawal, etc. Do we respond to all sins the same or is there recognition that traumatized victims need a different form a response?
  7. Do we have regular spaces for pastors and leaders to address secondary trauma (the result of being deeply involved in the ongoing traumas of congregants)?
    • Explore local resources outside the church so leadership does not need to be expert on every form of trauma and trauma response.

These are just a few questions to start with and will likely elicit many more as you go. By asking the questions you are taking serious the call by God to watch after the flock (including the sheep leading other sheep).

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, pastors and pastoring, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, trauma, Uncategorized

Making the Church a Safe Place for victims of abuse


This Saturday I will be attending and presenting Cairn University’s Faith in Practice conference hosted by their counseling center and department (free but you need to register). I will be speaking about how we can make the church a safer place for adult victims of abuse and trauma. If you want to peak at the slides, click here: 2016 Cairn U Presentation.

The presentation that I will do will only be one hour so that limits what I can do. What I wish I could do is also talk much more about the systemic factors that make churches less safe places for vulnerable people. While we can all grow in better understanding the nature of trauma and how to walk alongside victims, our institutions can be systematically harmful, even when the individuals within the system have no intention to hurt others. Thus we need to keep examining the ways our systems operate that can be toxic to some. While this presentation doesn’t cover these questions, it can be good to ask,

  1. How do we handle recent or older allegations of mis-handling difficult cases?
  2. How do we handle allegations of child abuse (the victims, the family, the alleged perpetrator and family, and congregation)?
  3. Are we a safe place for people who are broken and not all tidied up?
  4. Does our system allow for ongoing lament? (Corporate and individual)?

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, church and culture, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering, trauma

Defining an influential church


Take a minute right now and consider what churches you know would make your list of “influential” churches? What criteria would you use? Number of members? Growth? A well-known and revered senior pastor? Active in the community? A killer social media presence?

G. Campbell Morgan talks about influential churches in his commentary on the book of Acts. In discussion of the Spirit-led apostolic sermon in Acts 2, Morgan notes that influence then meant that the people were amazed at what they saw, interested enough to inquire (even if they were “perplexed” and even dismissive) and were attracted to join. How did these churches show lasting favor? Beyond the initial flame of the first days of growth, church members giving generously to each other indicates “influence.” When members are willing (not coerced) to give out of their own hearts then that church can be called influential.

The influential Church is the company of loyal souls who ‘continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and the prayers,’ who eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, who manifest in their individual lives and corporate capacity the strength, the beauty, the glory, the compassion of the Christ. Wherever there is such a Church you will find the Church that has favour with the people.

Faking influence?

In 1924 when this book was published, here’s the kind of church that Morgan felt was called “influential” for wrong reasons,

We call a Church influential now because of the kind of people that attend it, because of the money which it raises for philanthropic objects.

I suspect we could add to this short list other forms of “influence” as how many people visit the church website, the number of times quoted in Christianity Today, or the number of satellite locations.

Is your church influential?

I suppose a few key questions might help us assess our own churches:

1. Are we better known, as a corporate body, for being compassionate or correct? Would your church be attractive to new refugees coming into your community?

2. How connected are the people who regularly attend? Would new attenders want to join in smaller cell groups?

3. Are outsiders perplexed and amazed by what the church is doing and teaching? For example (and these are examples admittedly come from my domain of counseling), does your church ever say anything about mental health issues? Does your church talk about the scourge of addiction–in a compassionate way? Does it talk about domestic violence in ways that do not suggest that staying together is more important than safety?

These questions should not be asked so much of the individuals within the church (though that isn’t a bad thing to do) but of the corporate identity.

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Why are we surprised when we hear of systemic abuses?


Today on my ride home I heard a sports commentator discussing a recent abuse scandal on a high school football team. While the commentator did not dispute the evidence of abuse, he asked another whether he had ever heard of such behavior before by a football team. It seemed he was a bit surprised a team or a coach would tolerate systemic abuses of other teammates.

Why are we surprised when an organization tolerates harm done by one set of members to another set of members?

Whenever an organization (football, school, fraternity, or religious community) seeks to best the competition, limits membership, rejects all who would support other groups, maintains secrecy a strong hierarchy, you have a recipe for systemic abuse. Look closer at this recipe:

  • A population of individuals who deeply desire inclusion, who want to be in the inner circle
  • A population of individuals already in the inner circle and feeling mighty proud of it
  • Everyone feeling the need to protect the organization over individual needs/concerns
  • Secrecy about decision-making processes
  • Leadership who will maintain the hierarchy and encourage fears over what might happen if the system breaks down.

We know hazing and abuse happens on sports teams, fraternities, military units, and any other organization with these above-named features. It is more natural than we would like to admit.

This does not mean that all popular organizations, all private clubs are abusive. Rather, only without significant effort, individual abusive acts will morph into systemic abuse through complicity.

What significant efforts reduce the possibility of systemic abuse? Here are a few for starters:

  • Transparency of leadership and decision-making processes
  • A culture of protecting the weak over the strong
  • A culture of inclusion and collaboration with outsiders
  • A culture of servant-leadership and true mutual submission
  • A willingness to listen to inside and outside critique

He who wants to be first, must be the least of all.

Do we believe this? Or do we believe that associating with bigger, more prestigious groups will bring us value?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture

Can you have “church PTSD”?


A friend of mine has written about her experience as a pastor’s wife and youth worker. Having gone through several painful experiences–“normal” church drama and then way beyond normal–at the hands of other church leaders, she details her current “church PTSD” that kicks in now when considering going to church

What if I WANT the community and the bumping up against different people with different opinions, but I CAN’T, I mean physically CAN’T go?  I have usually discovered in life that if I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.  So it makes me think there must be others out there like me.

What do I mean by “physically unable”?  I shake, I cry uncontrollably, my skin crawls, I am unable to speak.  It’s pretty difficult to be a part of a community, broken or not, with all of that going on.

Honestly, I have something akin to a PTSD (not to take away from anyone who actually has full-blown PTSD) when it comes to church.  When I hear people talking in Christian catch phrases I want to run away.  This is the language of the culture of people who persecuted and bullied my family and me.  If you speak their language, you must be one of them, too.  So I stay away.

Having worked with a large number of current and former pastors and families, this reaction is sadly not unique. So, it begs the question: What might be the root of this “church PTSD” (by the way, I think some of these features sound just like PTSD so we may not need the quotes)?

My friend hits the nail on the head: we accept meanness in the church because we fear disrupting our own safety and security.

there is a culture of acceptance in the church today that allows for people to be treated terribly under the umbrella of it being what is “best for the church”.  I would imagine that if a teacher was abusing children in the toddler department or if there were drunken parties going on at youth group there would be some type of outrage, as there should be.  But somehow just plain being “mean” doesn’t garner any type of outrage.  “It’s not ideal, but we are fallen people, after all, so you can’t expect anything better.”

Read her full post over at Scot McKnight’s blog here. Consider what one thing you might do to stand up to those who put down others rather than image Christ in sacrificing for the weaker party.  

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, conflicts, suffering, trauma

Of Dogs and Christianity…


I have 2 new posts at our Biblical Seminary faculty blog: one about what my dog teaches me about shame and desire and another about a rethinking of Christianity through the lens of evangelisation of the Masai–not into a Western-style church but into their own expression of church and community. You might not have any interest in a tribe from Tanzania, but I think you will find Father Donovan’s book an opportunity for you to re-think what the Gospel is all about.

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Filed under addiction, Biblical Seminary, Christianity, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology

Preventing & Responding to Abuse in Christian Contexts: Plenary Presentation


Check out the link to slides (below) from my talk today in Potchefstroom, South Africa. I spoke on the topic of preventing and responding to abuse in Christian contexts and how this work is THE work of the Gospel.

Responding to Abuse South Africa

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Do you enable spiritual abuse?


There are several kinds of abuse that take place in church settings. On this site we have talked about pastoral sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Most recently, we have been discussing the matter of spiritual abuse in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I commend you to read her post last week about the underlying belief system of spiritual abuse.

This week we both want to consider some of the types of people who may be prone to enable spiritual abuse. No one, as far as I have ever met, intends to enable abuse. But certain beliefs, attitudes, and motivations may make it easier for abusive people to maintain power and position in the church.

Here are a few of those enabling attitudes that you and I, friends of victims, might display from time to time:

  • Status anxiety. Someone in power gives me status. To speak up against that person would jeopardize my position. Therefore I will not speak up. I do not want to disrupt my position or destabilize an organization that feeds me.
  • Mis-application of log/speck metaphor. A friend is showing signs of distress from an experience of abuse. She is angry, hurt, and confused. I see some “over-reactions” and so I focus on the log in her eye and suggest she has no business speaking of the speck in the abuser’s eye. Similarly, I suggest that we leave vengeance to God and deny the right to seek justice.
  • Defenders of leaders. We like to have strong leaders. When someone suggests one of our leaders is not good, we may feel the urge to come to their defense (either to defend character or to forestall a bad outcome for the leader and his family). We may show undue concern for the leader’s legacy or future in ministry.
  • Fixers. Some of us love to fix others. We offer unsolicited advice. We decide to take action to make calls we weren’t asked to make. Unintentionally we may put the victim at greater risk with our advice.
  • Self-Doubt. Did I really see that leader use theology to manipulate another? I must be mistaken. I’d only look like a greater fool to bring it up again.
  • Bitterness. When we come to believe that the church will never do what is right in protecting the sheep, we may send the message to others that we ought not to expect leaders to be just, kind, gracious, and caring. A victim of spiritual abuse may observe our bitterness and feel they are caught between accepting spiritual abuse and being in Christian community. Rather than lose their only community, they stay in an abusive environment.

I am sure there are other forms of enabling. Consider this post of mine about some of the reasons we fail to do what is right in light of allegations of sexual abuse. Some of those reasons are also present when we fail to do what is right in light of spiritual abuse.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology