Systems Dynamics in Toxic Organizations: Learning from What Happened at Lakeland

January is "Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month"

January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”

There is far more discussion these days on “systems dynamics” in churches and ministries, especially those that are showing themselves to be toxic. I believe we in the spiritual abuse survivors movement are now exploring these issues because of how much emerged in 2012 on the machinations behind the scenes in ministry organizations like Sovereign Grace Ministries, Mars Hill Church, and numerous other individual churches and mega-churches around North America. I’m especially concerned for all the “collateral damage” of people who’ve been steeped in the Sovereign Grace Ministries network, as they come to terms with the allegations and documentation in the class action lawsuit that has been filed. The “survivor community” is not just about individuals survivors or families who exit toxic churches and how to heal, it’s about entire entities and how to confront ingrained strategies and structures and methods and messages that have tainted the spirits of the people immersed in them.

The need to help new waves of survivors and “nones” will never go away, but it feels like a radically new dimension of diagnosis and treatment has opened up, for dealing with organizational dynamics that need either radical transformation to survive, and closure to shut down. But these are not topics we’re generally aware of. At least, not yet. Where do we go to learn more? Here are links to two case studies …

Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland

If you’re interested in some do-it-yourself study and reflection on toxic systems, consider going through the extensive case study I posted on the “Lakeland Outpouring.” This series of seven posts from five years ago offers a detailed “culturology case study” look at Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland. Many systems dynamics that fed into what happened with the “Lakeland Outpouring” and disqualified leader Todd Bentley in 2008 have eerie parallels to what we’ve been seeing emerge in the analysis of the organizational systems that have shaped Sovereign Grace Ministries and the people therein. The authoritarian leadership systems and forms of legalism in the New Apostolic Reformation have much in common with documentation that has emerged about Sovereign Grace Ministries – despite the doctrinal differences between these two networks. Perhaps there is much to learn from the past, to apply now for a more healthy, constructive future.

Part 1: Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness. This is the first in a series of seven posts related to: (1) Making sense of the recent lapses in leadership concerning the Lakeland “outpouring.” (2) Interpreting the implications of these failings for constructive movement forward. (3) Profiling what healthy/sustainable leadership should look like in emerging cultures.

Part 2: Considering Various Sources …. Further exploration of the concepts of individual and communal discernment, and how they play out in looking at the organizational systems behind what happened in Lakeland. This post also lays out a historical case study on events, responses, and lack of “apostolic” authority figures owning the problems they helped create.

Part 3: Seven Critical Lapses in Leadership and an Appeal to Own Our Responsibilities. Here I offer my analysis of what I see as lapses in leadership and discernment in the “apostolic abuses” at Lakeland. I explore in brief a key issue of making the Kingdom more sustainable, namely, how to move from intervention when situations or people are already out of hand, to interception when they are at risk, to prevention so they do not become at risk. Also, I issue a “challenge and an appeal” to several categories of leaders whom I believe need to take responsibility for their actions regarding Lakeland.

Part 3 – Addendum #1: Notes, Quotes, and Questions on Reconstructing Authority. In this post, I share some other resources as tools for those who choose the route of do-it-yourself reflection: especially quotes and questions for their value as a jolt of provocation. My purpose is not to label specific people, but to highlight behaviors that we are ALL susceptible to. ALL of us can fall prey to shadows, but the searchlights of real biblical discernment can lead us beyond destructive and deconstructive cycles, and into positive reconstruction. This leads into one of the larger big-picture cluster of issues we need to consider with tainted systems: How can we prepare ourselves for a future with less toxicity, more sustainability, and reliable authority instead of authoritarianism?

Part 3 – Addendum #2: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-Six Trends Toward Systems Solutions. This post and the next one pick up the theme of moving beyond the rubble of deconstruction. They deal with reconstructing ministry systems. After these, I’ll plan to continue with the planned posts on reconstructing “spiritual parenting,” and then on to reconstructing leadership. This may not seem like a very logical way to present this material, but all I can say to that is I post them when it seems like time to post them. I trust there’s a Spirit-directed flow to them for reasons I cannot fathom, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. And there you have it, so here we go!

Part 3 – Addendum #3: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-When Churches are Like Leaky Ships, How Do We Fix the Boat? This post looks at faulty church systems as being like leaky ships. It explores the following questions: (1) In the changeover from old-world to new-world paradigms, how do we in the church discern what combination we need in deconstructing our pasts, and reconstructing our futures? (2) But what is stabilization about? If solidifying our systems is such a critical crossroad on the path to adaptation in this chaotic age, why haven’t we heard about it more? (3) When it comes to systems stabilization, are we there yet? (4) Meanwhile, what happens when we don’t have stabilized ministry systems in place?

Part 3 – Addendum #4: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-How Do We Fix a Leaky Boat, and Who Can Best Lead in Doing So? This post suggests questions to ask and tools to use for “fixing the boat” of a leaky organizational system. It also previews who might be providentially best equipped to lead the way in fixing the boat and launching it into new paradigm waters.

Sovereign Grace Ministries

I have also written several guest posts on Sovereign Grace Ministries. These appear on my friend Julie Anne Smith’s blog, Spiritual Sounding Board. These posts address some systems dynamics at SGM, and offer some additional tools for how to analyze the direction and impact of such dynamics. [NOTE: Please keep in mind the historical context of these posts. Much has changed with Sovereign Grace Ministries and its current and former association member churches. Some comments only make sense in light of that history and when my posts were written.]

  • Sovereign Grace Ministries: Analysis of CLC Members Meeting (November 12, 2012). In this guest post, I analyzed the content of an August 2011 members’ meeting at Covenant Life Church (CLC). This church has since dissolved its association with SGM, although CLC is still a defendant in the class action lawsuit against SGM. My analysis focuses on three points: (1) There is a difference between a sin and a crime, in terms of what to do about them. (2) Given that their “pastoral process” has a confused policy/procedure for reporting, there is also evidence that this process was likely more passive than active when it came to dealing with known perpetrators. (3) In the digital era, sincerity will never be enough in responding to conflict and challenges; you must be ready to back up your words with documentation and with deeds.
After I wrote my analysis piece on Sovereign Grace Ministries in the previous post, I was asked two questions and invited to share more detail on:
  1. Why evaluating a Members Meeting that happened at Covenant Life Church (CLC) over a year ago holds any importance now, and
  2. How a case study of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) fits into the larger scheme of what seems to be happening with exposing “malignant ministers,” toxic organizations, and spiritually abusive systems or cultures.
So, I worked on describing how I go about doing these tasks and why they’re important. Because “externalizing” one’s thought processes takes a lot of space, the original version of this post got longer than expected. So I split it into two parts. The first talks about techniques I use from my points of view as a cultural interpreter and a organizational developer to detail events and analyze changes over time. The second picks up with linguistics and futurist/strategic foresight techniques I use to detect patterns and discern cultural trends that drive long-term change.
  • Detailing Events and Discerning the Times: Part One (November 17, 2012). Part One includes sections on: (1) Pictures and Profiles: Systems “Snapshots.” (2) Goals and Trajectories: Shifting from Snapshots to “Video” Mode. (3) Moving From Single-Person Profiles to Multi-Person Trajectories. (4) Thoughts on Sovereign Grace Ministries and Trajectories.
  • Detailing Events and Discerning the Times: Part Two (November 17, 2012). Part Two includes sections on: (5) Individual and Crowd-Sourced Snapshots for a Viable Video. (6) From Single-System Trajectories to Mega-System Trends (in churches and networks, in surrounding cultures). (7) Discerning Relevant Patterns. (8) From Causation to Transformation.