One of the more difficult things I’ve had to deal with regularly in putting together a book is when I sense I should write up something that feels at the time like it’s just a distraction. A blog article on some seemingly irrelevant topic. A comment on a friend’s Facebook post. And, perhaps most angst-producing of all, a full-blown case study or resource bibliography on a situation of spiritual abuse.
These may take anything from a few minutes to many days of work. They seem to delay the finishing of my field guide project – or worse, leads down what seems like a rabbit trail that creates (yet another) false start or extends the end of when I can get this project finished. The kicker is, they often end up being the source for easy extraction of a relatively polished piece for the book. In terms that social scientists, computer coders, and other professionals use, these case studies turn out to be my “proof of concept.” That means they show that the ideas I’m working with are relevant, and work in at least a relatively small-scale situation. Who knew … And I hope I’m not fooling myself here, but I do trust that maybe in retrospect it’ll be more clear how the Spirit may actually have been leading me in this, all the way along.
Anyway, I do sense that the era of such seeming distractions for this book is over, and it’s time for one last push to get over the finish line, hopefully by mid-July. More on that goal and timeline recalibration in Part 2 of my update. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share three last pieces of content development that have come out of those unexpected articles and comments and case studies from March and April. They’re important pieces of the puzzle, and the natural extension of the work I did in putting together sets of 15 indicators of trustworthy versus toxic organizations.
- Some experiments with definitions and descriptions for the term “spiritual abuse.”
- Four categories for evaluating leadership qualifications and disqualifications.
- “The Grid of Background Factors” – and how spiritual abuse isn’t found only in one kind of theology.
These are all crucial elements in book #1 in my multi-book series on how to “Do Good Plus Do No Harm.” The first book is a Field Guide that overviews practical concepts, applications, and early-warning indicators for deconstructing systems that damage (which looks at how and why things go wrong when we want to do what’s right, how to repair damage if it happens), and setting up spaces that empower gives a comprehensive approach for enterprise start-ups and organizational renovations with work environments that are trustworthy instead of toxic. And now, the three elements …
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1. Some Experiments with Definitions
and Descriptions of “Spiritual Abuse”
In April, James Paul, a friend on Facebook, tagged several people and asked us to offer our short definitions of “spiritual abuse and emotional abuse” for this post he was doing on those topics. Since my research writing deals with systems of spiritual abuse, my approach involves scores of elements that are all eventually interconnected. So, here’s my “espresso” definition – trying to condense it to fit the purposes of his post:
Spiritual abuse happens when religious leaders and role models siphon off your Jesus journey in order to fuel their own self-serving story.
Then I tried for a concise description that takes into account the wide range of different ways that personal and organizational story stealing can be done:
“Spiritual abuse” occurs when someone who holds a role of church/ministry authority or influence misuses their position of power to hijack others’ faith so that they orbit around the authority or celebrity instead of get on with their own trajectory toward Christlikeness. This ultimately takes away disciples’ moral agency and responsibility, transfers their trust from God to authority figures, and keeps them in a perpetual state of spiritual childhood instead of moving toward maturity in Christ.
This impact of spiritual immaturity is typically the same, (1) whether the system looks overtly “nice” or openly injects people with guilt, shame, and/or fear; (2) whether it is based in legalistic compliance, the insecurity of chaos, or vicarious prestige by association with people who have charisma; and (3) whether the abusive actions were done intentionally to harm, unintentionally to implement a faulty theological system, or out of immaturity and ignorance on the part of the perpetrator and his/her proxies.
Later, I tried to boil down a mountain of material on systems and abuse into a series of tweets. Tough to squeeze it into 140 characters, but here are two of the series I came up with in that format:
SYSTEMS 1/2. Systems are about how the parts in a set interconnect, and thus make the whole into more than the sum of those parts.
SYSTEMS 2/2. The parts include people, principles, practices, processes, products, partnerships, and impacts (personal and social).
SYSTEMIC ABUSE 1/2. Systemic abuse happens when people–usually intentionally–(1) manipulate the parts to order to take over the whole …
SYSTEMIC ABUSE 2/2. … and then (2) manipulate the connections to keep the whole under control. This clamps down the people and quenches the Spirit.
So – those are some of the “short-form” definitions and descriptions I came up with. There’s a lot to unpack in them. And, in my forthcoming book, I’ll share some of the more long-form versions of the comments I put on James’ post.
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2. Four Categories for Evaluating
Leadership Qualifications and Disqualifications
Since 2008, I’ve published 13 case studies or resource bibliographies on situations of spiritual abuse (see Section 2 in my blog’s right-hand navigation bar). I’ve also written maybe a dozen others as yet unpublished, and tracked some more from abuse survivor communities.
It used to be that Bible passages about leaders provided the only category I used to evaluate whether a leader or organization was trustworthy or not. I used passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which deal with personal character and behaviors – namely, the “must-haves” and “can’t-haves” of qualified leadership. But as time went on, it became clear that not everything fit into those passages. Other kinds of issues were at the core of alleged abuse by individuals, ministries, churches, and Christian non-profits. I needed an expanded “concept framework” with enough “category cubbyholes” to accommodate what was actually happening.
A catalyst to finalize my framework came in early May, when Dr. David Fitch posted this on Facebook:
Moving from Christendom to mission requires that denominations allow conflicts to work out locally versus handing out edicts from above.
I responded that his statement sounded good overall, at least in terms of dealing with issues that were in the local context. However, it didn’t sit right when it came to overarching issues beyond suitable character and behaviors of the organizational leaders. So I mentioned the biblical requirements plus three other categories:
- Evaluating leaders by the biblical standards for character and behavior – the must-haves and can’t haves.
- Fulfilling civil responsibilities – like obeying the laws for clergy mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse.
- Adhering to regulatory requirements for non-profits – such as financial accountability and transparency; governance that avoids conflict of interests; and not providing excessive benefits to board members, staff, or their family or friends.
- Meeting professional fiduciary duty standards – such as not getting into inappropriate relationships between pastor and parishioner, or counselor and client, or teacher and student; and avoiding negligence of duty.
The first one, we can’t opt out of if we’re seeking to be Christians who follow Scripture. The second one, we can’t opt out of if we live in the U.S. The other two, we add on ethical/legal responsibilities when we opt in to these entities. But do you realize how many Christian leaders and their organizations try to evade any or all of the requirements found in these four categories? For instance, check out the 13 listings in Section 2 Case Studies and Articles on the right-hand navigation bar, and use those as source materials for seeing how relevant all four of those categories are.
From what I’ve observed, not addressing issues in this range of potential problems affects the trustworthiness of the individuals or congregation involved. Living them out wisely and well is part of avoiding conflicts and legal problems, plus sustaining a good reputation and ministry stance with those outside the Church. And yet, training for church leaders often does not go deeply into specific of these four categories of requirements. No wonder there end up being so many issues of abuse and negligence – in addition to the big three areas of trouble: money, sex, and power. We need to raise the bar and do all four right and righteously – or perhaps dismantle organizations where their members fail to do so.
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3. “The Grid of Background Factors” – and How
Spiritual Abuse isn’t Found Only in One Kind of Theology
And that all leads to “The Grid of Background Factors.” Polishing this concept framework will have to await the book, but here’s the gist of it.
Every so often, commenters show up on one of the spiritual abuse survivor blogs that I follow, and complain that the bloggers only focus on alleged abusers from XYZ theology. Then they pester the bloggers about why they’re so fixated on that group, and why they don’t seemingly don’t critique anyone else. This analysis is unfounded, because these particular blogs analyze a wide range of issues across many different individuals, groups, and theologies. (For what it’s worth, I do acknowledge that certain kinds of spiritual abuse do seem more ingrained in certain groups/theologies, but to explain that requires a lot of work with paradigm systems and not just with doctrines.) However, there still is a legitimate, key question underneath these commenters’ self-induced angst about the theology they advocate coming under the spotlight:
Is there only one theology that incubates spiritual abuse?
And that’s where The Grid of Background Factors comes in. After watching and/or writing about 20+ case studies in the past 8 years, I’ve concluded that spiritual abuse can show up in just about any or every kind of church or ministry situation – all it takes is someone to hijack the system, and others to actively or passively keep it going. For instance, disqualified leaders have stayed in prominence in local, national, or international systems with the following range of factors. I won’t give examples for every spot, and no example fits perfectly … but see if you can fill in the gaps with situations you know about.
All major systems and traditions of theology.
- Catholic – See the movie Spotlight.
- Mainline Protestant: Reformed/Calvinist, Lutheran
- Evangelical – Tullian Tchividjian/Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. K. P. Yohannan/Gospel for Asia.
- Emergent/Progressive – Tony Jones/Emergent Village.
- Anabaptist – John Howard Yoder (Mennonite).
- Conservative/Fundamentalist – Bill Gothard/Institute in Basic Life Principles. Doug Phillips/Vision Forum and Vision Forum Ministries.
- Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan – Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill Church. Darren Patrick/The Journey
- Pentecostal – Todd Bentley/Lakewood Outpouring.
All forms of church polity (organizational structure).
- Network/Association/Movement – like Acts 29, 9 Marks.
- “Franchise” – like Calvary Chapel.
Centralized/hierarchical versus flat-structure/decentralized networks – like Mars Hill Church versus Emergent/Progressive Movement, both of which came out of the “emerging ministry movement” of the mid-1990s.
Dealing with issues in any/all of the Four Categories for Leadership Disqualification. (You might want to apply this by making a four-column chart and put each item into the column(s) where it fits best. For instance, adultery goes against #1 biblical standards for character and behavior, but it also can go under #4 professional fiduciary duty standards if a pastor gets sexually involved with someone in the congregation because that is a betrayal of responsibility in a role of power. The former is cause for disqualification from ministry, the latter could be the basis for loss of pastoral license/credentials and even for a lawsuit against the pastor.)
- Adultery or other inappropriate sexual relationship
- Antisocial Personality Disorder
- Authoritarian system/Neo-Shepherding Movement
- Child abuse
- Conflicts of interest
- Cover-up, alteration, or withholding of evidence
- Domestic violence
- Emotional abuse
- Excessive benefit
- Failure to inform (for example, failure to disclose a man’s adultery to his wife , thereby potentially exposing her to sexually transmitted diseases)
- Failure to use restricted funds for the designated purpose under which they were solicited
- False repentance and inappropriate restoration to ministry position
- Frivolous lawsuits
- Handling issues “in house”/separation from the world
- Inappropriate disclosure of confidential information
- Lack of transparency on finances
- Laying on of hands to recognize leaders, but then not taking responsibility if those individuals fall/fail
- Legal contract/membership covenants
- Misuse of donated funds for personal use
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Negligence by non-profit board or staff
- Patriarchy/extreme complementarianism that devalues girls and women and otherwise subjects them to abuse
- Prosperity Gospel theology
- Protecting perpetrators
- Refusal to hear witnesses
- Sexual assault
- Sexual harassment
- Use of shill “investigations” in an attempt to maintain or restore positive public perceptions about the organization
- Verbal abuse
- Word of Faith theology
Sometime soon, I expect I will actually create a series of charts and fill them in with examples from the past 5 to 10 years – and also define the many technical terms in that list.
Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, I stand by my main conclusion:
So far, I cannot find any Christian system that is immune to being co-opted by those who either set out to make it their own, or get corrupted by power in the process of becoming prominent.
Do you know of any theology, polity, or structural format that is definitely off The Grid with no situations of spiritual abuse in its recent history?