Capstone 2-5: Trends, Turning Points, and Tipping Points in Spiritual Abuse Survivor Communities (2014) – Part 2: New Observations, Analysis, Interpretations

It’s been nearly two years since I last posted an article about emerging trends. Overall, it looks like some of the trends I noted before are seeing further development and perhaps differentiation as far as subgroups who are affected. For instance, de-churched Christians are starting to be divided into post-Christendom “nones” (who do not profess a particular religious or denominational affiliation, but consider themselves “spiritual”), and post-Church “dones” (who have given up on enduring church services where everything has been same-old, same-old for decades).

Other trends seem to have become more intensified. They definitely look to be moving toward longer-term influence in driving change. So, they’ve moved up a notch to turning points or perhaps even tipping points. Here is some of what I believe I’m seeing emerge from the fog of observation and gradually into more clarity of interpretation. I won’t be detailing evidences for them, but will mention enough specifics so those in survivor communities or who otherwise follow these issues will have some touchstones for their own research and reflection.

Emerging Trends to Start Watching for More Indicators

TREND #1 – ISSUE INTERCONNECTIONS

Communities of survivors from a wide range of abuse backgrounds are connecting more, and this has helped spark some next-generation resources for recovery that include systems approaches and that show similarities in tactics among different types of manipulators.

TREND #2 – PUBLIC APOLOGIES BY ABUSERS

It is somewhat more common to see public apologies posted by people who realize their direct culpability for abuse, or their indirect complicity in being used to perpetuate the reign of abusers.

  • Here is a public apology from November 2014, signed by 18 elders from Mars Hill in 2007, for their actions and inactions that significantly harmed Bent Meyer and Paul Petry – two elders who questioned Mark Driscoll’s by-law changes and were therefore fired, disciplined, and shunned.
  • For another example from a former Mars Hill pastor, see this October 2014 Christian Today article about the public apology posted by Steve Tompkins, who also signed the group apology noted above.
  • A most extraordinary thread appeared in September 2014 on David Hayward’s blog, Naked Pastor. He posted his response to Tony Jones on Mark Driscoll: What Came First, the Thug or the Theology? As David saw it, Tony says that Mark Driscoll’s problem is theological and that it could happen to any of us. While David partially agrees with that assessment (i.e., bad theology could happen to anyone), he was more concerned about Mark’s pathological behavior, and so believes that toxic theology goes hand-in-hand with personal pathology. Both must be countered. After 40 or so comments, including several responses from Tony Jones himself, then Tony’s ex-wife, Julie McMahon, stepped in to reveal her take on Tony’s own personal pathology. That began the extraordinary nature of the thread, which in three full months tallied 1,079 comments! Some of these comments were apologies from specific individuals called out by Julie. Others were from people not known to her, but who admitted their complicity by passing on gossip that had labeled her as “crazy.” Julie wrote comments to both types of apologizers, expressing her forgiveness. David did not moderate comments, or delete any, but simply provided a safe space for this open exchange to happen. For some of my analysis on this post, see Mars Hill, Emergent Movement, Emergent “Meltdown”?
  • It is understandable that such full-out apologies are difficult for individuals involved with non-profit organizations and businesses to issue, for fear of incurring legal liability for admitting mistakes or even wrongdoing. However, if real, humble, and specific apologies are truly a trend, it may be that failure by organizations and their leaders to take such responsibility could ultimately lead to severe push-back and – who knows – perhaps even lawsuits, if funds, conflicts of interest, and/or issues of inurement (illegal private benefit to non-profit insiders) are involved.

Upgrades from “Trends” to “Turning Points”

TURNING POINT #1 – WISER CROWD-SOURCING

There seems to be a higher level of corporate wisdom and commitment exhibited in survivor communities as they analyze situations of abuse, and push back against abusers and those who try to protect them.

  • About 10 years ago, an article by Tim Bednar of e-church made quite a splash: We Know More Than Our Pastors: Why Bloggers are the Vanguard of the Participatory Church. The idea of crowd-sourcing information and wisdom is not new, but I sense there has been a significant increase in our ability to do this more quickly and more carefully.
  • Group-sourcing is still problematic at times when the internet has so much documentation on spiritual abuse that is decentralized. But we are also seeing people abused at the same church, ministry movement, or mission organization come together to pool their stories, analysis, and official correspondence all in one place. Sometimes this is on a website, other times a private forum. Facebook hosts numerous open and closed groups, some for support and others as work groups for documentation projects.
  • One amazingly effective example is found at Recovering Grace, which focuses on allegations of sexual misconduct by Bill Gothard and failure to make things right by his Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). They compiled the testimonies of over 30 women about their experiences of alleged harassment and other mistreatment by Bill Gothard. They’ve post correspondence with the IBLP leaders, analysis papers, reports, etc. The more that the evidence base grew, the more coherent the patterns appeared, the less likely for success in deniability.
  • Another crowd-sourcing example is Homeschoolers Anonymous, which offers a safe space for men and women from that background to share their experiences and reflections with those who would more readily see the unique homeschooler dynamics involved.
  • Patrick O offers two back-to-back comments on the “Thugs/Theology” article at NakedPastor, where he shares what he believes the significance is of comment threads like this which create documentation all in one place and offer the opportunity to add or correct points. See his Comment #1 and Comment #2.

TURNING POINT #2 – NAVIGATING LEGAL ISSUES

Survivor communities are developing more savvy with navigating legal issues, as leaders in toxic organizations increasingly are revealed to be failing in their civic duties to obey the law and/or in their organizational administration duties to obey regulations and requirements for non-profits. This helps flush out false pretenses about “keeping church business in-house” when citizen-saints are potentially trying to cover up their breaking of civil laws and non-profit regulatory codes.

  • Because of situations like the alleged failure to report known/suspected child sexual abuse by leaders at Sovereign Grace Ministries and Prestonwood Baptist Church, survivor communities have had to learn more about legal issues like state-by-state mandatory clergy reporting laws, and the differences in levels of evidence required for criminal cases (beyond a reasonable doubt) versus civil lawsuits (preponderance of evidence).
  • Situations like those of Bill Gothard and Institute in Basic Life Principles brings up allegations of sexual harassment and hostile work environment.
  • The way Mars Hill Church has been run by its executive elders raises questions and allegations about inurement through financial or other benefits to individual insiders, conflicts of interest on boards of directors and advisors/accountability, spoliation of evidence through the intentional deletion of videos and other online documentation that relates to alleged misappropriation of donor-restricted funds for other uses.
  • There are SLAPP suits and Anti-SLAPPs like occurred with the Beaverton Grace Bible Church lawsuit against five bloggers; discovery processes as in the lawsuit against Douglas Phillips and Vision Forum, Inc., and Vision Forum Ministries; one- or all-party consent laws for recording conversations … issues that would have seemed unfathomable for ministries to have to think about even a decade ago.
  • And then we’ve had to find resource sites and people with legal and/or forensic accounting and/or social services expertise to help our communities understand and respond to the legal issues at hand. Here’s some of what I compiled on related legal and media research.

TURNING POINT #3 – STARTING HEALTHIER SYSTEMS

There has been more discussion and the beginnings of development for prevention-oriented education, alternative approaches to investigations and “mediation,” and certifications with more stringent standards for transparency and accountability. These are seen as needed for the North American Body of Christ at large, but especially for leaders in training in colleges, seminaries, and other kinds of leadership training programs.

  • From my experiences in recovery movement ministry in the 1980s and ’90s, I’ve long considered that a significant indicator of robust organizational health is when the mission moves toward prevention of new cases instead of only conducting intervention for people who are deeply addicted, wounded, or whatever the ministry’s audiences are. This type of early-warning training helps create safer environments where children and adults are less prone to develop dysfunctional patterns of relating, and also where it is easier to identify those “at risk” and intercept them before the patterns are too ingrained.
  • As an example, according to this May 2014 American Prospect article, a team of experts was catalyzed to create a training curriculum on child abuse that can be used by Christian colleges, seminaries, and leadership training programs. This was done by Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E.
  • There are problems with conflicts of interest when an organization conducting an investigation or certification process is answerable to the entity that pays the bills. That is an allegation brought up in relation to Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) hiring Ambassadors of Reconciliation (AOR), whose report in April 2012 basically exonerated SGM and its primary leader, C.J. Mahaney. For instance, here is an initial analysis of the AOR report, and a follow-up analysis, also covering related issues, both written by Deb Martin at The Wartburg Watch.
  • Similar criticisms have been leveled against the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) in relation to Mars Hill Church specifically, but to all members in general – since the members pay for the initial certification process and annual membership fees thereafter, but it seems they are their own watch-dog from then on, unless something extraordinary happens. (Which it did with the allegations of Mark Driscoll and his executive elders approving the use of Mars Hills Church funds to pay for a contract with ResultSource for a scheme that reportedly ensures a book getting on the New York Times Best Seller list. ECFA President Dan Busby reportedly called the scheme “unethical and deceptive.”) Here is an article on Warren Throckmorton’s blog about a letter of concern from nine then-current Mars Hill elders about issues covered by ECFA guidelines. (According to a Seattle P.I. article, within six weeks of their letter going public, all nine were either let go or resigned.) Here is an article about a petition to the ECFA, and two articles about former Mars Hill deacon Rob Smith’s musings about ECFA credibility and ECFA transparency.
  • With investigations or certifications like these, a lot of legitimate questions arise: Who really controls the process, and does that make for highly subjective process and findings? Will those being interviewed trust the people and process involved? Or does the appearance of an investigation or certification just serve as a source for plausible deniability: “We tried to reconcile, but they didn’t want to go by the process our by-laws require …”
  • Over at least the past five years, I’ve had occasional behind-the-scenes conversations about some new approach to certification and mediation with other abuse survivor bloggers. Now there seems to be more interest in it from more than bloggers, so we’ll see what unfolds.

Upgrade from “Turning Point” to “Tipping Point”

SUSTAINABILITY TIPPING POINT #1 – SYSTEMS MINDSET

We are seeing terms like “toxic systems” and “Evangelical Industrial Complex” more often in survivor blogs (and even online Christian magazines). And with it, there has been an increased involvement in “digital documentation and dissent” by spiritual abuse survivors, along with public push-back on institutions that perpetuate a toxic “Christian Industrial Complex.” As I see it, this means there is more of a “systems perspective” at work. This means that push-back will continue expanding from just individual perpetrators of abuse to publishers, speaking events, certification agencies, formal and informal associations, etc., that provide a platform to keep spiritual bullies propped up.

While writing this, I remembered a thread at Alan Hirsch’s old The Forgotten Ways blog, from about 2007 or 2008. It was on the question of, Is there such a thing as “heretical practices”? That is part of what informs my holistic thinking about spiritual abuse systems. An organization and its leaders and members can espouse orthodoxy instead of heterodoxy, but still engage in “heteropraxy” – damaging behaviors – and seemingly get away with it. Having the right doctrine just isn’t right enough; behaviors and organizational systems and corporate cultures and collaboration styles all stem from the ways we think. So, if the rotten fruit of misuse of spiritual authority is present, there is some kind of bad doctrinal root down deep – likely along with personal pathology by one or more leaders. (I will deal with that in the forthcoming Capstone article on Seven “-Ologies” in Mars Hill’s “Parasitic Paradigm.”) And really, doesn’t it seem that much of “survivor blogging” is about fruit inspection and calling out those who declare they are doctrinally orthodox, but the ways they act directly and indirectly harm others?

I think the following excerpt from Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012 describes well what has happened with a systems mentality in survivor communities. Back then, it seemed to be just emerging. Now, it seems we have advanced to a far more sustainable level on beginning to call for accountability of abuse system perpetuators and not just the perpetrators. And I simply don’t see survivor communities going back from this stance.

Here I am thinking of various entities that enhance the status of high-profile Christians: publishing houses that pay and promote big-name authors, venues that run conferences and speaking engagements, non-profit agencies and ministry associations that offer directorships and advisory positions, and other kinds of media sources. These businesses and organizations are acting in a sort of apostolic role, commending to the larger Body of Christ the celebrities they stand behind. They are vouching for the character and qualifications of their authors-speakers-representatives-promotees. As endorsers of high-profile Christians, they, too, are inviting legitimate scrutiny.

In the classic terminology of the recovery movement and “interventions,” these entities function as “enablers.” Maybe they are not directly abusing God’s people, but they have often created a support [system] and safety net and ongoing platform for those who allegedly do. As chains of evidence demonstrating claims of abuse mount – especially online, where digital details cannot [always] be erased – more cases of alleged abuse will have irrefutable weight of evidence behind them. And then the enabler organizations should expect to be examined for their roles and questioned as to whether they are more committed to their own preservation or to protecting the Body of Christ.

I believe in the next few years we will see intensified efforts to hold these organizations – and their boards of directors, staff members, apostles, elders, shareholders – partially responsible for the harm done by those whom they metaphorically laid hands on and recognized and endorsed as qualified for public leadership. I’m not advocating or expecting that all such issues be hammered out in the court system or on the internet. But, if face-to-face confrontations and attempts at reconciliation fail, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see some traditional and emerging indicators of social resistance take their place: civil suits filed against non-profit institutions, online petitions demanding change, boycotts of products, Twitter campaigns, synchro-blogs, etc.

This brings up theological issues about taking fellow followers of Christ to court to settle what should be settled within the church, but again, I’m looking at situations that are no longer centered in “local” churches because of the larger systems of businesses and/or non-profits involved. But the larger issue will still need to be addressed: Perpetrators and enablers of evil cannot count on their victims remaining silent … [Edits noted by square brackets.]

And that last paragraph from 2012 trends sets up the topic of the next post, A Lawsuit Against Mars Hill Church Could be a Just Cause Because …

 

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