How a person treats “the little people” or “outsiders” tells you a lot about a person’s character. I once remember interviewing someone with great credential for an upper level job. On paper and in the interview, this person seemed like a perfect fit. But afterwards, I learned that this potential hire had clearly mistreated (with arrogance) a lower level administrative assistant in the organization. That changed everything I thought about the quality of the character of the person.
Most leaders are gifted. They have vision and drive and a capacity to instill both in their followers. Usually, this means the person has an excellent command of language so as to move others to feel as she or he does. But such strengths can be easily cloaked in deceptive languages and what could have been good is used for a bad purpose, most often that of personal gain.
How much more dangerous if the leader combines these gifts with spiritual/religious language. Notice how the cloak of good things could easily cover up evil outcomes:
GOOD WORD ==> CLOAKED INTENT
- unity your opinion doesn’t matter
- trust don’t question my actions and decisions
- truth believe as I do or you are out
An Evaluation Tool Better than Words?
Check how they treat vulnerable people, people who do not tend to listen well, people who need lots of attention due to their weaknesses. See how they talk about those who work for them and who get little public glory. Do they blame underlings for their mistakes. Do they receive criticism well? Do they talk in “we” language (vs. “I”) and back that talk up with giving glory to others where it is due? And finally, how do they describe their enemies or those who are not part of the cheerleader squad?
For all of us who have any leadership, let us remember God’s strong warning to shepherds in Ezekiel 34. False shepherds are those who
- Use the sheep for personal gain (milk, wool, meat)
- Starve the sheep
- Not cared for weak, sick or injured
- Not sought after the lost ones
- Ruled with harshness
- Abandoned the flock altogether
These are God’s enemies, destined for destruction. But we are not left in the dark about what a good leader looks like. Ezekiel 34:11f provides the test of a true shepherd, God himself. He finds, rescues, brings back, feeds, provided pleasant places and peace. He will bandage and heal and bring justice.
Over the summer, I have been writing a few thoughts about the nature and causes of spiritual abuse. At the end of this post, you can find links to those entries. I have been doing this in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I heartily recommend you read her take as well. This post will give you her latest and also provide links to her previous as well. For those of you who are new to the concept of abuse, here is my definition:
Spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).
Like child abuse, spiritual abuse comes in many forms. It can take the form of neglect or intentional harm of another. It can take the form of naïve manipulation or predatory “feeding on the sheep.”
With this post I want to consider two means by which we might prevent spiritual abuse (both to ourselves and to others)
Listen to that little voice inside
If you are experiencing that ping inside that says you are being mistreated…stop and listen to it. Too often, we ignore that voice inside that says something is not right. And in those settings where leaders wield significant authority, those vulnerable to abuse are most likely to believe (or be told) that their feelings can’t be trusted. This is especially true in environments where a significant portion of the community (e.g., children, women) are treated as less trustworthy.
Now, notice I said “listen” to that inner hitch in your soul. Notice I didn’t say to always “believe” your gut. Our gut isn’t any more or less accurate than any other portion of our being, and feelings may or may not be accurate. But just as we out to pay attention to fire alarms and not grow complacent, we ought also to pay attention to that voice that says something in wrong with how we are being treated.
If that voice is ringing in your ears, I suggest you find someone to talk to who doesn’t have a major stake in how you respond to that voice. Such a person will be less likely to have their own axe to grind. You don’t need someone who tries to force you to stay in an abusive situation or someone who believes all spiritual leaders are abusive giving you advice. That sort of problem only continues the manipulation.
The point of listening to your own little voice is to notice your own experiences and to take them seriously as you explore what is happening.
Of course, there is much more objective ideas for preventing spiritual abuse. Education is one of our best means to prevent spiritual abuse
- Educate the entire church about servant leadership and how it opposes power grabs
- Educate the entire church about how the Gospel opposes all forms of oppression/abuse as well as opposed the subjugation of any portion of the community
- Become missional (joining what God is doing in the world, opposed to focusing only on our own mission)
- Teach leaders to listen as much as they exhort
- Teach congregants to be Berean with everything that they are learning–to search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught is in accord with the whole of Scripture
- Teach the congregation that deception and cover-up of abuses by Shepherds never pleases God
Consider Edwin Friedman’s counsel to leaders in book, A Failure of Nerve (Seabury Books, 2007)
In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. (p. 37)
Seems true for counselors as well. How a counselor begins the exploration of a client’s problem narrows the field of answers as to the problem and solutions. Now, assumptions are always present–especially in questions. So, asking questions doesn’t keep the field of view open unless one is willing to ask questions not normally conceived. It is difficult to remember to ask questions that run counter to our initial hypotheses. And yet such questions are necessary if we are going to counsel actual individuals and not mere figments of our imaginations.
last March Biblical Seminary ran a daylong seminar for ministry leaders and their spouses. Podcasts of the plenary and break-out sessions are now available here for a very low price: http://www.biblical.edu/pages/connect/hazardoustoyourhealt0309podcasts.htm
Consider buying some and giving to your pastor and spouse. Other leaders like missionaries, elders, deacons, parachurch workers, etc. would likely benefit.
you can become quite cynical about Christians, christian organizations, etc. is there any church or pastor who isn’t completely hypocritical? Are there churches or boards that handle abused individuals with care? Do any of our leaders actually admit their wrongs and seek forgiveness? Does anyone in a difficult marriage stay and avoid bitterness?
The answer, of course, is yes (to the last three questions). But we counselors rarely get the opportunity to hear those stories. Why would anyone pay us or bend our ear to tell us how great something worked out. But we humans have a propensity to collect “look how screwed up the world is” stories. Isn’t that what the news is all about. When I go home to my parents in Maine they actually do have some feel good stories and it feels rather strange and unnewsworthy. Where’s the killings, the rapings, the pillagings? This is news?
And yet it is good to recount stories where humans treat each other better than they deserve, where they admit to failings and refuse to excuse wrongs. Frankly, we must admit these stories aren’t exceptions. They happen all the time but we are blind to them. We fail to record these behaviors because we know how easy it is to not show mercy, to not show humility–because this is how we act sometimes!
So, listen for those vignettes where leaders, parents, spouses, etc. either suffer well or are willing to own up to failings (and then do the right thing about them). These stories are all around. And while they don’t dismiss those where leaders fail us they do round out the picture.
Grading papers from class and one student illustrated her point by including this quotation from The American President. Not a movie I’ve seen but like this little piece:
President’s Aid (Michael J. Fox): People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President: …People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
Sounds just about right.