Capstone 2-4: Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) – Part 1: Setting the Stage

Futurists, Scenarios, and Spiritual Abuse Survivors

All the futurists I know do a lot of general research and reflection on culture and change. But at some point the information needs to be narrowed down to help specifics client or group figure out how they want to navigate the issues that are most relevant to them. One of the ways futurists do that is through scenarios. Scenarios take into account the information gathered on trends, and related analysis, and put them into a realistic story form that seeks to capture the emotional impact people will feel in struggling to cope with unavoidable changes. Rather than dictating answers to the client’s questions of “So what?” (meaning) and “Now what?” (resolve to act), the futurist facilitates a process for the client to discern and decide his/her/their own answers to them. The scenario doesn’t have to be about distress and disaster to be effective. Various kinds of conflict can be effective sparks for discussing where the client is at in the midst of these changes, and what is plausible in moving on from there. “Success” can create change just as much as conflict can. Often, I find myself looking for case studies in adjusting to change for practice. Sometimes I find them in history, other times in contemporary news, and even beyond those in fictional stories – especially young adult novels and dystopian movies. And, since so much of my research writing is about abuse of authority in religious settings, I look for case studies of churches, ministries, and non-profits. Sadly, the situations that qualify as lessons to learn from are far too easy to find. Mars Hill Church is one of them, and with enough historical detail available online to make it relatively accessible for study by those who don’t want to make the same kinds of mistakes at any/every level of their ministry paradigm. But such case studies serve their purposes for clients – in my case, spiritual abuse survivors and their advocates – when the process is far closer to doing something. Case studies serve my research purposes as snapshots along the way of data on what is happening in culture, and how those might reflect emerging trends. Interpreting accurately what’s happening while it’s happening is difficult, probably impossible. It’s more like seeing snapshots that you can store away and see what patterns come to you from a set of them later. So, as I build up a reservoir of such snapshots from my own experiences and from case studies, I start looking for general patterns of what may have caused things to happen, and to give reasoned speculation as to where things could move from there. In this, I’m especially looking for three things:

  • I’m watching and analyzing for three kinds of trends: (1) Fads that will probably flame out within a couple of years. (2) Short-term trends that seem like they’ll hold influence for a decade or so. (3) Long-term trends that are driving significant social change that will probably last 50 years or more.
  • Turning Points. When an individual or organization makes a noticeable course correction in their trajectory, and whether it is pro-active or reactive.
  • Tipping Points. When a threshold of transformation has been reached that makes course corrections more sustainable for the long run.

While holding on to those patterns lightly – not tightly – I work to apply them as a general framework for the specific situation of a particular client. That application process is what I plan to do with several posts that follow about Mars Hill Church. But first, I felt it would help to provide the backdrop of patterns I’ve been noticing the past few years.

Introducing Trends Among Abuse Survivor Communities

As I mentioned in the previous post on “Decisive Moments” and Trajectories of Transformation, I have been engaged in a lot of research writing on spiritual abuse and recovery since January 2008. In that time, I’ve produced hundreds of pages of material. (See my Spiritual Abuse Article Index for summaries and links to many of the major pieces I’ve written.) Periodically, I take time to post pieces on trends that I sense are emerging among abuse survivor communities. I use the plural, communities, because there is not one completely common profile for everyone who has undergone spiritual abuse, despite there being a lot of common ground in members destructive experiences, recovery processes, and remaining questions. For instance, there are differences in theological background, as authoritarian leaders and toxic doctrines pop up in every denomination and every brand of theology. There are differences in how people become part of these communities, based on their dominant traumatizing experience – religious abuse, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, hostile work environment, etc. All of these have abuse of power in common, but each has some distinct dynamics and personal issues to work through. My focus has been on advocacy for survivors of spiritual abuse. This includes documenting the malignant ministers and sick systems that victimized them and the outside “commender” individuals and entities that keep the victimizers propped up. From 2008 to the present, I have blogged case studies on allegations of authoritarian leadership and toxic systems in a broad range of places and theological perspectives.

As a base for trend-watching, I have used these case studies, my own experiences, and readings from a few key blogs about other allegedly abusive individuals, organizations, and movements. I posted my first trends article in January 2012, and two in January 2013.

Summarizing My Emerging Trends Articles from 2012-2013

Here are partial summaries of those articles, with any follow-up blog posts on specific topics added in square brackets. In January 2012, I posted Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012.

[…] This post considers changes to the number of support and resource networks for survivors of spiritual abuse. It also looks at four emerging issues of note: (1) De-Churched Christians. (2) No virtual pass for abusive actions by leaders. (3) More “citizen journalist” reports with detailed documentation of alleged spiritual abuse. (4) Expanding the concept of accountability to “system partners” that enable abusive behavior by celebrity Christians.

In January 2013, I posted “Hangover Unholiness” Left by Malignant Ministers: Spiritual Abuse Recovery Questions for 2013 and the response piece I wrote to a reader’s comment, Spiritual Abuse Survivors: The “Community” Becomes a “Movement.”

[…] For 2013, it seems my focus may be shifting to writing about organizational and systemic questions dealing with the aftermath of years of intact cultures of toxicity, and how to dismantle them – if they can even be salvaged. And what unique issues will be faced by multiple generations when they have been immersed in these abusive environments of faulty doctrines (e.g., authoritarianism, patriarchalism, legalism, perfectionism), and the organizational structures that institutionalized those anti-biblical rules? […]

So, to restate, after four to five years of research on spiritual abuse, what seemed to be emerging as trends were:

  • People leaving abusive Christian organizations and not coming back.
  • Increasing push-back on victimizers via documentation and dissent by survivors and their advocates.
  • More intense focus on the systems that perpetrate and perpetuate spiritual abuse.
  • Pursuing more holistic recovery for individuals and potential rehabilitation for organizations.

With those main points from the recent past in mind, we’ll look in Part 2 at what seems to be new.

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