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.
I have struggled for nearly a week to figure out how to conclude Part 2 on my five top criteria for choosing a relatively healthy fellowship/gathering/church/ministry. 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. It can be exhaustingly heavy material, though necessary for healing from past abuse and preventing ourselves from enduring further abuse. Today I decided to add in one clarifying topic and finish up the detailed criteria, so we can move on to Part 3.
CLARIFICATION: INTERVENTION, INTERCEPTION, AND PREVENTION
Healthy leaders and organizational structures are possible. However, maintaining a trajectory of biblically based health and hope requires discernment and diligence. Could it be that those who have recovered from severe wounding by toxic leaders/systems and rebuilt from temporarily lost hope, may be the very ones Christ can use to implant now a far more preferable future for many generations?
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.
What I have written thus far in Parts 1 and 2 is primarily about how to prevent ourselves from getting snared (or ensnared again) by abusive leaders who want to absorb us into their mini-dramas that replace the Kingdom redemptive story, and use us only as extras and as an audience to promote the development of their own plotline. Discernment is a critical element in boundary-setting and decision-making that will help prevent us from being hijacked off a Kingdom course. But there are other elements to consider that would raise the level of healthiness, sustainability, and preferable futures for our ministry organizations and enterprises.
For instance, I would suggest that a strategic plan for promoting healthy churches in the long run involves moving beyond intervention to interception, all the while also implementing practices that focus on prevention of abuse. Borrowing language that is used in some approaches to counseling issues and recovery groups:
- We need to use intervention in the cases of leaders/systems which are already spiritually abusive. To be brutally honest, I have to say I am pessimistic overall about toxic leaders and systems undergoing radical changes to become healthy. By the time they require intervention to confront them with their abusive and neglectful practices, they almost always have had so much confirmation in their ways that it costs far too much to admit fault, step aside and get help, and allow healthier leaders to step in.
- We need to use interception of leaders/systems which are at high risk of endemic maltreatment of people – but (hopefully) before they’ve crossed the line. This involves evaluating actions and motives carefully, noting problematic patterns, and challenging both leaders and followers against accepting practices that harm people, whether overtly or covertly. I have reasonable hope for interception, but realize it works best where at least some people have earned the respect of both leaders and congregation and thereby can speak the truth in love, mediate conflict resolution, and mentor at-risk individuals toward greater wholeness and health in Christ.
- We need to pursue prevention of risk by learning and living out practices that support spiritual formation toward maturity, biblically appropriate leadership, and vital infrastructures that serve ministry systems. This includes things like mutual learning, mutual practice of the one-anothers of the New Testament, more open processing in communal visioning and decision-making, confronting bullies, and not allowing people to serve in roles too far above their maturity level.
If we were to follow this three-pronged plan, ideally over time we could conduct interventions and interceptions less often, because prevention practices over a few generations would substantially shift the paradigms of our gatherings. In fact, over five years ago I spent a lot of time thinking this through. I put together something I called “Marin Century,” which was this very sort of qualitative strategic plan to move toward prevention and more positive possibilities for Kingdom futures in Marin County over a one-hundred-year period. As I recall, it doesn’t look like traditional church health or church growth plans … integrates a lot of assessment tools for individuals and teams into it … focuses on contextualizing for indigenous culture while also being countercultural … relies on multiple generations and intercultural paradigm practices …
Hmmm … prevention oriented! Maybe it’s time to dust that off and see if that’s part of what I’m supposed to catalyze a team to implement it, since I’m in a time of discerning what is next for me. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be led at some point to develop assessment tools for determining when intervention or interception is needed, and biblically based procedures and recommendations for bringing restoration and health. But in the meantime, it’s time to move onward to some additional details on my five [prevention-oriented] criteria for finding a relatively healthy fellowship.
A MORE DETAILED LOOK AT MY FIVE CRITERIA: INTRODUCTION
For those who may be interested in more details of my five criteria, the following incorporates most of what I wrote on this subject for Barb Orlowski’s survey on recovery from spiritual abuse. I’ve also written some additional material for each criterion to give a bit more substance to it, plus some discernment questions as a D-I-Y/Do-It-Yourself Section. Toward the end, I’ve added a link to my favorite reference book on paradigms.
Anyway, I know this is not a perfect statement, but it’s an accurate snapshot of where I’m at right now, as of March 2008 – and I own it. Even if there are mistakes and mis-emphases in it, I trust those will become evident over time. And, because I continue on an intentional path to be conformed to Christ, I trust all things in my life will gradually come into greater alignment with an ever-more-comprehensive understanding of Scripture.
Again, I would state up front that there is more to these issues than meets the eye. Although they may look like they are about such esoteric things as paradigms and leadership styles and ministry infrastructures, I see them all, in fact, as being deeply practical issues of theology. If we don’t attend to them, they can manifest in poisonous systemic ways. They are indicators of a church’s or organization’s “spiritual DNA” and its direction toward either sustainable healthy growth, or its eventual toxic implosion/explosion.
Also, please keep in mind that these are the criteria I am using for my own current search for a relatively healthy church fellowship. You may have other kinds of issues that are legitimately more of a priority for you given your own experiences, spiritual gifts, and level of chronological and spiritual maturity.
1. Governance (Authoritarianism, Authority, and Anti-Authority)
1. Governance – I am looking for a track record of healthy group leadership processes and accountability structures that maintain dynamic tension between clarity and flexibility.
In my understanding of paradigms and the cultures and infrastructures that spring from them, the one criteria of governance form alone is a barometer of many, many other issues of probable toxicity. Governance often indicates whether anyone with appropriate maturity and certain spiritual gifts will ever be allowed to develop and/or use them. It also indicates whether there is accountability in the systems and therefore a reasonable chance for there to be sustainability.
What I am therefore looking for is a church fellowship that is: Not Authoritarian. The church does NOT have a CEO/single-pastor-runs-the-show form of governance, either in its documents or in its actual practice. Not Anti-Authority. Also, the church does NOT have a record as being against all forms of leadership/authority, because that creates as many problems, though usually in the direction of chaos. Both of these forms of faulty authority structures are the equivalent of “genetic disorders” that inevitably lead to disruptive conditions in the Body.
Some D-I-Y Discernment Questions on Governance
- Regardless of what may be written in articles of incorporation, or worship bulletins, or promotional brochures, or websites, in actually, who “runs the show” in this church or ministry? Is it one pastor/leader? And his/her family members? The pastors? The staff? The elders or deacons or some other board or team? The congregation? Those who yell the loudest? Those who pull strings behind the scenes?
- Are leaders open to input from anyone with an informed opinion? Or only open to certain privileged people? Or to no one but the board, staff, family members, etc.?
- Are financial details open to inspection and review?
- Do leaders follow through with what they say they will do? Do they at least fulfill the essence of their word, if not the exact details? What other indicators show they are or are not trustworthy?
- Is there evidence that the senior leader tells other leaders only part of the actual story of a problem situation, which leaves a false impression upon which actions are determined?
- Does the senior leader act as if he owns the organization, and therefore uses it for personal goals or gain?
- Is the governance primarily authoritarian, where control is locked up with only one or a few privileged people being allowed to use their spiritual gifts, leadership abilities, etc.
- Is the governance primarily anti-authority, where either no one is in charge or leads, or the nominal leaders passively allow things to unfold and do not directly confront sin or evil, even when it is evident and is evidently victimizing people.
2. Difference (Diversity, Dynamic Tension, and Conflict Management)
2. Difference – I am looking for evidence of how the leadership and the congregation dealt in healthy ways with issues of diversity, culture clash, and conflict resolution.
God designed the Body of Christ to find unity through diversity. If we do not accept the realities of differences, robust qualitative growth is not possible – not for us as individuals, not for us as a body of disciples. This is so because it is only through “the other” that we find the “spiritual spackle” to fill in the holes in our souls and the “spiritual sandpaper” to help smooth off our excesses. Thus, in the fellowship I want to attend, leaders and teachers especially must be open to dealing with conflicts caused by differences in learning styles, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, spiritual giftedness, gender and generational dynamics, etc. They must consider the implications of differences for their modes of communication, organization, and cultural contextualization.
For instance, currently, most American church services still feature straight lecture-style teaching, which research has consistently shown is the least effective way for the largest number of people to receive and remember content. I would suggest that there needs to be at least an openness to keeping a dynamic tension between andragogy (meeting felt needs of adult learners) and pedagogy (knowing there are things adult learners need, even if they don’t know they need them), and between participatory teaching styles and expositional teaching. Also, a dynamic tension between earning trust and exercising authority. Also, a dynamic tension between finding cultural relevance (i.e., contextualization) and avoiding cultural syncretism (i.e., being countercultural).
Some D-I-Y Discernment Questions on Dealing with Difference
- Is the composition of the group ingrown – only one culture? Only one or two generations? If so, why is that? What seem to be some of the historical, demographical, theological, and/or cultural reasons?
- If there are multiple generations or multiple paradigms in the organization, do representatives of only one particular generation or paradigm basically control all the decision-making? How many people from the non-dominant generation or paradigm have left because they are not allowed to participate in setting the direction?
- If it is a church, has it attempted to plant a church-within-a-church in order to reach people of other generations or backgrounds? If so, did/do those serving in the church plant hold decision-making responsibility and control over the implementation of the decisions? Or was/is ministry vision, goals, structure, and/or style controlled by one or more people from outside the church plant?
- Can leaders and teachers accept biblical truth and personal feedback from ANY source – man or woman, young or old, poor or privileged, any race, any culture, any spiritual maturity level? If not, are they only saying they hold doctrine dear, but in reality prove they do not? Or is it that no one is ever allowed to ask questions of leaders and teachers? Is asking questions always viewed as outright rebellion, or challenging authority?
- Are there different factions in the organization, and are they at odds with each other? Is there “peaceful coexistence” of different groups within the organization? Is there intentional effort toward bringing unity – but not requiring uniformity?
- Do leaders promote through word and deed the need for everyone to move beyond their comfort zones and thus to relate with people who are different from themselves?
- Do leaders and teachers vary the tools and techniques used in communicating, or does what they say and do only have a limited appeal to people with certain kinds of learning styles? How intentional are they at including the input of people with providentially different information processing styles?
3. Sustainability (Biblical Goal and a Trajectory of Qualitative Kingdom Growth)
3. Sustainability – I am looking for sustainable qualitative growth where leaders are on a trajectory toward Christlikeness.
This past week, I ran across the following quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt, from a “Fireside Chat” about the New Deal program in April 1938: “I believe we have been right in the course we have charted. To abandon our purpose of building a greater, a more stable and a more tolerant America, would be to miss the tide and perhaps to miss the port. I propose to sail ahead, I feel sure that your hopes and your help are with me. For to reach a port, we must sail – sail, not tie at anchor – sail, not drift.” That captures much of the essence of sustainability as adapted to a viable Kingdom perspective – intentional, continual forward movement on a trajectory of transformation that starts where our local culture is at and moves progressively deeper into the biblical goal of Christlikeness.
A sustainable church or organization has an identifiable trajectory of transformation toward becoming more holistic, more Christlike as individuals, and more manifesting of Kingdom Culture (the corporate outworking of Christlikeness). It is a “welcoming and transforming congregation” for ALL people, regardless of their particular forms of personal struggles. It is not a “welcoming and affirming” place that accepts people as-is, but does not challenge them to grow and overcome sin. Nor is it a “rejecting and condemning” place that only wants nice kinds of sinners in its midst and constantly lets people know who is/is not acceptable. Forms of license and legalism both constitute moving away from the dynamic biblical tension between grace AND truth, compassion AND conviction. They may be anything from gentle drifting to rapid repulsion from the whole truth, but either way, it is not sustainable.
Also, multiplication discipleship is understood and emphasized as a key to sustainability. Ideally, this means that multiple generations (both chronologically and spiritually) are present, and there is continuous life development and leadership development, continuous cycles where today’s apprentices become tomorrow’s mentors. If the leaders/systems focus on “stuff” that is segmented from holistic discipleship, then that organization is really all about irrelevant issues and practices that will not lead to health and sustainability. For instance, it is not enough to pursue only learning about Scripture, just as it is not enough to pursue only involvement in some form of social transformation. It is not enough to engage in lots of “good” activities, when they are not done in pursuit of forward movement towards God’s goals as stated for us in Scripture. Also, it does no good to have an appearance of godliness, but to have denied the power thereof. All such segmentation, static status, orbiting around, drifting away, and repulsing away from Christlikeness ultimately lead to spiritual stagnation and death, not to spiritual life and sustainability.
Some D-I-Y Discernment Questions on Sustainability
- Are the leaders and teachers in this organization stuck on certain doctrines and just orbiting around them – and if so, are these central issues of orthodoxy, or secondary issues? Or have the leaders and teachers definitely been drifting away from biblically-sound teachings? Or is it just that they have a different emphasis from what I am used to?
- In the last five years, what percentage of the organization’s participants have been discipled and mentored toward spiritual maturity? What was the percentage 10, 25, 50 years ago, and what does that pattern suggest about the organization’s goals and trajectory?
- In the last few decades, how many paid and volunteer ministry roles in the organization have been filled by people mentored from within the church or organization? How many have been filled by people who either moved to the area or were hired for their skills, but were trained elsewhere?
- Is evangelism seen as separate from discipleship? Or is evangelism seen as a phase within discipleship?
- If it is a relatively new church or organization, what are the intentions of the founding participants, in terms of vision, goals, processes, and procedures? How could you start a system to help evaluate over time whether it is moving in healthy directions that will be sustainable?
4. Biblical Church Discipline (Follow Christ’s Commands for Restoration of Broken Relationships)
4. Biblical Church Discipline. I am looking for a fellowship with a track record of church discipline conducted in a biblical manner for restorative purposes (or willingness to take this approach, if they have not done church discipline in the past).
I spent several hours recently, just thinking through the various situations of church splits, church discipline, and discipline in a ministry or agency that I had myself witnessed. In some cases, my knowledge was supplemented by that of close friends whose observations and perspectives I trust. It was amazing to realize that in 20 such instances, only two followed the biblical reasonings or rules for this process. I also know of multiple other instances when church discipline should have been conducted in order to restore leaders and/or congregants to a right trajectory, but it was not done.
I’m sure there’s a major paper waiting in these case studies, but let me just share some intriguing initial patterns I noticed. They covered very broad range of perspectives:
- General Theological Views: fundamental, conservative, moderate, liberal, ultraliberal.
- Specific Theological Perspectives: evangelical, reformed, charismatic, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Anabaptist, one-naturist view and two-naturist view of our sin nature. (I don’t have many connections to Catholic or Orthodox situations, but one hears about splits and factions there as well as in any other division of Christendom.)
- Larger organizational ties: Denominational and non-denominational.
Anyway, it’s obvious to me that church discipline suffers from both sins of omission, since it is not done when it should be and thus the flock ends up unprotected and people are traumatized as a result – and sins of commission, since this seems almost universally not to be implemented in a balanced biblical manner. I don’t think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill either. If appropriate church discipline is not a functioning principle within a congregation, likely an emphasis on healthy relationships, personal transformation, and restorative reconciliation from conflict are not there either. Underneath this failure lies a misunderstanding of the role of differences and conflict in spiritual growth, and/or of the reality of toxicity spreading from people who refuse to change.
I know I was sensitized to issues of church discipline misapplied because of my own experiences in church splits. Every one of the toxic churches I ended up in wrongly/unrighteously conducted church discipline at least once, and each failed to conduct discipline at least once. However, I do find it intriguing that we rarely find substantial material on this topic in books or textbooks on church growth or church health. Hmmm … This restorative process is both prescribed and described in the New Testament. How do we explain that omission from our training resources? Is that perhaps an indicator that church sustainability in the organic, Holistic Paradigm sense of the term is not really on the radar of the paradigms that support church growth/health models?
Some D-I-Y Discernment Questions on Church Discipline
- Ask church or organization leaders to share details of the problems, process, and outcomes from case studies in their application of discipline.
- If they are unwilling to share, does it seem to be an excuse to hide embarrassment over mistakes? Or to (supposedly) protect those who were disciplined?
- How does the sharing, or lack of sharing, align with the specific process given in Matthew 18:15-20, especially involving the third stage of the process, which includes public disclosure of the situation? Did the instances described indicate discipline or threat of discipline was used in a punitive manner to intimidate or invalidate someone, or to restore the person to a right relationship with God and others?
- Ask church or organization leaders about their understanding of the process of restoring broken relationships, conflict mediation, and reconciliation. Ask about church discipline. What training have they received on any of these topics, and related guidelines and procedures?
- If this church or organization is part of a denomination, what guidelines (if any) does the denomination promote for church discipline and restoration?
- Do you think I have put too much emphasis on this issue? Whether your answer is yes or no, what biblical basis do you have for your response? Do you think it is serious enough to be in a top five criteria for finding a relatively healthy church/fellowship?
5. Theological Similarity (Compatibility in Order to Minister Freely)
5. Theological Similarity. Just because this is fifth on the list does not mean it is insignificant. As one with a spiritual gift of teaching, if I do not have sufficient overlap with the information processing styles and theological approaches of current leaders, I cannot expect to be able to serve in such a church. My paradigm and perspectives would sow discord. And I will not knowingly inflict on others what in the past has been inflicted on me …
I gave a significant overview of my theological perspective toward the end of Part 2A. I won’t repeat that here. I will simply note that that overall theological compatibility has significance – it is still in my top five criteria for discerning and selecting a relatively healthy fellowship. However, through all of my difficult experiences with toxic leadership and spiritual abuse and neglect, I have concluded that full theological compatibility is not as critical to me anymore as the first four issues. As a set, those first four criteria demonstrate whether the church is about growing disciples, reaching out to others, and avoiding (or getting rid of) toxicity – or about power, control, and performance.
Also, I want to note again that my theological similarity concerns are different because of my potential to serve in public teaching and leadership roles. It would be neither fair nor good stewardship for me or for a possible new home fellowship to expect significant theological compromise in order to secure my participation. I am still figuring out where to draw the boundaries on theology, because I have developed a far more paradoxical paradigm system than is used in almost all systematic theologies I am aware of. So, I’m not likely to find an existing church that is 100% where I’m at theologically, or even anywhere near that. If I can “settle” for close to 100% on the organizational issues that provide a healthy framework for critical thinking and solid theologizing, that may be sufficient. We’ll see …
I don’t think I implement these criteria like some all-or-nothing series of “must have” checklist items or else I will not go there. Instead, it is far more complex, like taking readings on each of these areas and coming up with a sort of composite score. That way, it’s more like seeing whether there is a “threshold of healthiness” already present, along with whether I would have the opportunity to make an impact through the use of my gifts within this body.
Finally, I am convinced from my own studies of paradigm/cultural changes that churches which refuse to consider and respond to the gravity of all of the first four issues above are not likely to survive past the next 25 years. Their slow or non-existent response indicates their paradigm is Traditional or Pragmatic (see resource on paradigms below), and/or their leaders want to maintain control. These are incompatible with the emerging era of the Holistic Paradigm (see below). The less holistic a fellowship is or becomes, the shorter their lifespan in the world as it now is. My time left here is too short; if it were fully up to me, I would choose to associate with a fellowship that I believe will survive. I would rather work in the equivalent of the nursery with new life, not in hospice with the homebound.
[The paradigm terms Traditional Evangelical and Pragmatic Evangelical come from Robert Webber’s book, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World. I use the term Holistic Paradigm as a revision for what Webber calls the Younger Evangelical.]
Okay – guess that’s it. Finally, I’m done with Part 2, which means the next post will move forward into the topic of what made me susceptible to being picked off by toxic leaders. Stay tuned … and in the meantime, if you happen to be feeling particularly stirred up, weighed down, and perhaps even depressed by (re)entering this topic of spiritual abuse, let me try to give you a glimpse of hope. On this occasion, it’s from a poem I wrote for a memorial service. Which means it was meant for the living, to help us process our grief and move forward. I hope you will find in it some fresh breezes in what may otherwise be a dry and weary land …
© 2001 Brad Sargent. All rights reserved.
There is a time clouds block sun’s rays
while we trudge silent with no name.
And gloom surrounds us while we long
For passions to rekindle flame.
There is a season vines do sleep
Still, life lies dormant deep inside.
And God gives His mysterious will
When “brass heavens” we think Him hide.
There is a place Christ’s dove alights
To bring us peace beyond our pain.
We’ll yet find beauty in the dusk –
Kaleidoscope colors beyond gray rain.
Back to Part 1 – Five Personal Lessons …
Forward to Part 2E – Mentoring and Moving Toward Hope