PREVIEW: A Case Study in Systems and Ministry Accountability

A Word of Introduction to This Preview of “UN-accountable”

I have been writing about systems of spiritual abuse for nine years. Much of this work will eventually appear in a series of Futuristguy’s Field Guides, dealing with topics about individuals and institutions involved with toxic systems. And my “UN-accountable” case study on systems of accountability will eventually be published on Spiritual Sounding Board as a guest post series.

However, I have been involved in many discussions lately related to what malignant systems are, how to challenge them, what ways individuals and institutions involved can take responsibility for damages they’ve done, and how to implement a balanced process that keeps apparently competing interests together in a dynamic tension. Other questions have come up about the distinctions among facts, assumptions, opinions, analyses, and interpretations. So, I’m posting this article as a preview to the UN-accountable series, because it gives my thoughts on both of those areas.

As background, it’s important to know that my forthcoming series of Field Guides is based on three sources:

1. Working through my own experiences of church and ministry leaders who misused their positions of spiritual authority for their own benefit by controlling others. This involved five major incidents of abuse, totaling 17 of my 40+ years in theologically conservative and evangelical churches. My initial processing and writing about these situations for Barbara Orlowski’s doctoral research project in 2008 took me 40+ hours and was nearly 20 pages single-space. This gave me a lot of questions about what happened and why that I’ve followed up on since then.

2. Producing a series of case studies on spiritual abuse by individual public figures or Christian “celebrities,” and involving ministries, churches, non-profits, and movements within the broad base of evangelicalism. These 12 or so case studies total over 250,000 words. Most are listed in my blog category 1. Spiritual Abuse & Toxic Ministries. Three of these case studies each took 300 hours to research, write, edit, fact-check, and link. Another one (that this case study in accountability issues is based on) took at least 150-200 hours. Although I had personally experienced a wide range of types of abuse and abusers, these case studies greatly expanded my understanding of systemic abuse and processing details for how to deal with such situations.

3. Research reading on spiritual abuse and recovery, both in books and on blogs. You’ll see some of those source materials on this page with Spiritual Abuse Book Lists. I do not claim to have read every word in each book, but enough to categorize them, perceive some major trends, and see how they relate to current issues in spiritual abuse survivor communities.

Actually, the reading aspect has been the least prominent over the past nine years. I did not want to present a mega-book report, just synthesizing what others were saying. My purpose was to do “primary work” — originate a unique set of concept frameworks, practical skills, and measurement tools that helped people clarify questions and formulate solutions for real-world situations. I also wanted it to be more than words, because not everyone is “wired” to learn best from reading. So, I use movies and art images to illustrate most of the concepts.

  • Volume #1 looks at systems, systemic abuse, how to identify malignant leaders and sick systems, and issues of responsibility and accountability.
  • Volume #2 considers recovery for survivors of abuse, advocacy to support survivors, activism to challenge abusive systems, rehabilitation for abusive individuals, and remediation for organizations where abusive practices have become institutionalized.
  • Volume #3 focuses on the future and transformational paradigm shifts that can take us there as individuals or organizations.
  • Volume #4 gives practical working principles for setting up spaces that empower instead of abuse, plus indicators and metrics for “measuring what matters” in the quality of personal and social impact of our endeavors.

I’m certain there will be overlap between what I am writing and some of what others have written. But, I expect some significantly new or different ways of looking at spiritual abuse, because I am taking a multidisciplinary systems approach instead of just a theological, psychological, or sociological approach.

So, that’s the background on this series and the related Field Guides curriculum. I’ll post an update when the series starts on Spiritual Sounding Board. And now, here’s the preview — Part 1 of UN-accountable. If you’re interested in an older, long-form article that gets into many of the specifics, check out my Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse page. And I will respond to comments if/when I can, as I am currently in an intensive editing period for a project with a deadline.

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Broken Chains


Series Posts:

  • Part 1 ~ Systems, Systemic Abuse, and Repentance as a Systems Transformation Process
  • Part 2 ~ Three Real-World Examples of Systems Remediation/Repentance
  • Part 3 ~ Elements in the “Industrial Complex” System Surrounding Tullian Tchividjian
  • Part 4 ~ Types of Accountability and Patterns for How They Were Avoided
  • Part 5 ~ Where Accountability Systems for Tullian Tchividjian Broke Down or Broke Through

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Systems, Systemic Abuse, and

Repentance as a Systems Transformation Process

by Brad Sargent

“Broken Chains” masthead designed by Ryan Ashton.

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Introduction to Case Studies

There are different kinds of case studies, with various formats and a variety of uses. But they all tend to share several key features: an organized presentation of evidences, done for a particular purpose.

In general, the purpose of a case study is to offer evidence that persuades people to action by leading them through a systematic investigation of the details. The specific purposes of this case study are to:

  • Present evidence for exploring the dynamics in systems of accountability that were in place (or should have been) in the situation of Tullian Tchividjian.
  • Evaluate how individuals and institutions relatively succeeded or failed in their roles of responsibility and/or accountability.
  • Draw out practical lessons for individuals and institutions that are responsible for holding someone accountable.

Tullian Tchividjian has been a public figure for nearly 15 years. Thus, much of his journey can be tracked online. His former ministry platform involvements provide a very extensive network of individuals and institutions to potentially hold him accountable. Mr. Tchividjian has, sadly, demonstrated propensities to ultimately avoid accountability through a variety of means. His actions (and inactions) have often been paralleled by others’ attempts to either protect him from criticism or to challenge him, depending. So, his changing situation and other peoples’ reactions make for a robust illustration of the range of choices and consequences related to responsibility and accountability.

The way I see it, there is a difference between being responsible (causing something to happened), versus taking responsibility (owning our part in what happened and/or making things right where things went wrong, even if we were not responsible for the actions that resulted in the problems). There is also a difference between being accountable (having responsibility to give an accounting of actions), versus holding someone accountable (having the relationship or role that gives the authority of moral, legal, regulatory agency, or professional association to force someone who is responsible for actions to also be accountable by taking responsibility for them). This case study involves relative successes and failures in carrying out all four of those terms.

As to evidences, expert Robert K. Yin describes six categories in his textbook Case Study Research: Design and Methods (Sage Publishing, 5th edition, 2014, page 105-118).

  1. Documents. Letters, emails, text messages, calendars, meeting minutes, reports.
  2. Archival Records. Government “public use” data, service records, budgets and personnel records, maps.
  3. Interviews. Prolonged interviews (totaling two hours or longer, whether in one sitting or multiple), shorter interviews, and survey interviews/questionnaires.
  4. Direct Observations. Notes and quotes from the observations of the person(s) producing the case study.
  5. Participant-Observation. Notes and quotes from case study producers while they also play an active role in the enterprise or situation.
  6. Physical Artifacts. Physical or cultural items that are evidence, such as technological devices, tools, artworks.

The situation of Tullian Tchividjian provides four of those six types of evidence – all but the kinds of observations noted in #4 and #5. Because he has promoted himself as a public figure, almost all sources used have been accessible online to the public. I have been finding and piecing together the evidence since March 2016, starting with the Resource Bibliography and more recently with the Partial Timeline and other posts. Those two posts, plus this five-part case study on systems and accountability, represent my best efforts and due diligence in providing some comprehensive frameworks and analysis of this situation. I estimate I have spent a minimum of 150-200 hours in these and related posts.

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1-1. Systems and Systemic Abuse

A while back, my friend Julie Anne Smith at Spiritual Sounding Board asked if I had a definition of “systemic abuse and cover-up” that she could quote for a blog article she’s been working on. I told her I’d get back to her, as I’d need to talk about a couple different terms in order to get to what she was looking for. Here’s what I came up with, which is an extract from the chapter on “Paradigm Systems” in a curriculum I’ve been writing about dealing with spiritual abuse from a systems perspective.

If we’re going to talk about “systemic abuse,” first we have to grasp the core concept of systems. Here’s how I describe them:

Systems are a specific set of seven parts – people, principles, practices, partnerships, processes, products, and impacts – that are all interconnected and function within some kind of boundaries as a unit.

In that sense, we can see a family, work team, church congregation, or non-profit board as a system. Its members (people) hold in common a particular worldview of shared beliefs (principles) and show what they value through how they typically behave (practices). They work together with compatible other individuals and organizations (partnerships), and all parties involved invest their intention, time, attention, and resources (processes) in accomplishing agreed-upon goals (products) that build the level and quality desired in doing something that makes a difference (impacts).

While we can observe the individual units within the whole, and their actions, we can also analyze the larger system to interpret what elements influence those actions of individual people and other parts in it. Think of it as sliding our scale of view from the micro to the macro – examining the pieces and then the whole – like moving from a microscope to look at the smallest of things on earth, to a telescope to look at the largest things in the heavens.

Other researchers may come up with a different approach or different set of elements to explain how systems work. But for me, the key thing in systems is that all of these of these parts are tied to one another, so they’re interactive. That means if we tug on any one of these elements, the others will get stretched some, too.

Or, to demonstrate this idea with how a wire mobile works, the pieces are made to hang in ways that counterbalance each other. If we add a weight to just one piece hanging from the mobile system, that piece becomes heavier than it was designed to be. That then throws the rest of the mobile out of balance, dragging it in a different direction along the lines of where the additional weight is. Similar things happen if we remove one of the pieces — the mobile tilts due to imbalance. So, with all that in mind, my short description of systems and systemic abuse for Julie Anne was this:

Systems are about how the parts in a set interconnect and make the whole more than the sum of those parts – and systemic abuse is about how people with malignant intentions (1) manipulate the parts to order to take over the whole and then (2) manipulate the connections to keep the whole under control.

When I talk about the people who instigate and perpetuate systemic abuse, I use terms like perpetrators, protectors, promoters, and pawns. The perpetrators benefit the most from warping a system to meet their desires. They cultivate (“condition, groom”) and enlist others to keep things going, either by providing real or perceived benefits to those who carry out their strategies. Those perks could include economic value, political-cultural-social status, and/or psychological esteem. So, basically, those who hijack a system offer their accomplices various forms of prestige and power.

Systemic abuse always includes a degree of relational manipulation to get/keep people hooked in, as well as deception in order to hide the truth. So, the longer that people who abuse the system hold on to power, the more their underhanded processes and procedures get fused into the working strategies and structures of the system. If these people somehow leave or are removed from the system, those toxic ways of doing things don’t simply disappear, because they were created to cover people’s tracks in the infrastructure.

These hidden elements only get addressed by intentional actions that put the spotlight on what’s been done in the dark, and then dealing with them systemically. In other words, “repent” — change the course of our trajectory from destructive to constructive.

But we cannot make intentional corrections when we don’t know what we’re turning from or need to turn toward. So, transforming a corrupted system requires our investigating how abuse got infused into all seven parts (people, principles, practices, products, processes, partnerships, and impacts) and the interconnections among them, and then cleaning out the system. This involves identifying details of how elements in the system were co-opted in ways that misused the resources and caused harm to shareholders (those involved in providing services or products) and stakeholders (recipients of those services or products).

More specifically, in the big picture of things, a “repentance process” requires gathering of evidence, discernment, decision making, implementation of corrective actions, and ongoing evaluation to ensure future damage is prevented. What does that process look like? What follows is an overview of the ideas and details behind systems transformation. “UN-accountable” Part 2 gives three examples that show how these principles have been applied in real-world situations.

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1-2.  Systems Transformation

through Repentance and Conciliation

I describe “organizational repentance” as a transformational process of repair that looks at past and present aspects of all seven systems elements and how they worked together to inflict damage. It  requires:

(1) removing self-induced obstacles that mar the possibilities for a positive, preferable future of people both inside and outside of the system, and

(2) repairing or replacing them with a system of corrective solutions.

Systems transformation involves both attitudes and actions on the part of people affected. It includes both remediation (i.e., remedies for harmful actions and their impact) and restoration to address the past, present, and future. It uses both private and public measures that are parallel to the arena(s) in which the damage occurred, in proportion to the degree of damage inflicted, and last an appropriate length of time. More specifically, this means:

PACE. Taking an appropriate amount of time to consider all seven elements in systems – both the individual and institutional/organizational sides of things – to understand who was involved, what destructive impacts their victims suffered, and the multiple ways that this damage came about and was sustained in/through the system.

IDENTIFICATION. Sorting through offenses to distinguish those that occurred in private, and those that occurred in public – or had an eventual public impact – and determining appropriate arenas for solutions to be implemented, where and how to communicate about them, and levels of action that fit with the abuse context.

INTERVENTION: PAST/PRESENT. Taking relevant, concrete steps of remediation to intervene in the infliction of any more harm in the here-and-now, and to repair the damage that has already been done in the past and up through the present.

RELATIONAL. Seeking to engage in a constructive change process with all the parties involved. Due to the nature of the damage inflicted, this may have to be done one-to-one and not in a group setting – and letting the victims decide whether those who perpetrated and/or perpetuated the abuse are present or not.

PREVENTION: FUTURE. Taking relevant, concrete steps of restoration to make things right for the future, and to shift the system in order to prevent further infliction of harm.

COMMUNICATIONS. Responding in a timely way to people inside and outside the system who have legitimate questions. This includes reported victims and members of their support network, accused perpetrators and their representatives, members of the public and the press, and other shareholders and stakeholders.

DOCUMENTATION. Noting and archiving the entire consideration process and timelines involved, the conclusions, the concrete steps taken, the subsequent evaluations of progress, the responses of individuals with concerns and how they were addressed, the course corrections taken, etc.

This careful, transparent approach lays the foundation for dealing with systemic abuse by investigating the elements involving both malignant people and toxic systems. It’s not meant to be a game of “Gotcha!” But neither is the investigation supposed to drag out forever. When do you know you have enough information to proceed? That’s a crucial question. My answer is this: When you’ve unraveled the elements and connections enough to uncover the systemic infrastructures of abuse, not just identify the perpetrators and accomplices of abuse. Here’s an example from the 2015 Academy Awards Best Picture winner, Spotlight:

In the movie Spotlight, then-editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, talked about disclosure based on the purpose of the team’s research. At one point, they had enough to go with a story about child sexual abuse cases within the Catholic churches at Boston — and reporter Mike Rezendes was anxious to publish it. But Marty Baron forced them to wait, and keep working on the report a few more months. He knew the information they had already could stop one pedophile priest. But, if they wanted to prevent future child abuse, not just intervene in past abuse, they needed more in order to publish a story about the system that was covering up these cases involving as many as 90 priests.

So, it took about seven months total before the Spotlight research team hit the systems disclosure threshold. They published their initial mega-story on January 6, 2002, and their phones were busy constantly — mostly with leads from other victims. The Boston Globe followed up with over 600 articles and individuals’ personal experiences over the course of that year, and several hundred more the year after that.

It may have been emotionally satisfying to have published sooner and outed the one priest, Father Geoghan. But, think of the far more positive and widespread impact worldwide of having deconstructed the whole system that shuffled around pedophile priests. For what happened to Cardinal Law and his diocese after the reports were published, see the book on which Spotlight was based, Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church, by the investigative staff of The Boston Globe. Be sure to get the 2015 edition, which includes a Preface from the movie’s director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer; and an Afterward by The Boston Globe staff.)

However, it minimizes the damages done, marginalizes those victimized, and wrongly protects those responsible for incurring harm or accountable for its correction to:

  • Rush the process in order to give the appearance of “dealing with the problem.” Systemic abuse requires systemic solutions which are never quick fixes.
  • Not consider the past (i.e., fail to intervene; minimize the damages done), or the future (i.e., fail to prevent; minimize moving forward).
  • Fail to document the discernment process, decisions made, and actions implemented (or failures to do so), etc.
  • Fail to appropriately publicize the process, findings, and follow-through of solutions. For instance, attempt to keep the process private when the abuse occurred in public, or reveal inappropriate details publicly when the identity of victims should remain private.

System insiders may well have blind spots when it comes to observing, analyzing, and interpreting their situation. So, these processes may benefit from involving outsiders who have expertise to evaluate these aspects effectively, as well as discern how relevant the solutions are in relation to the damages done in and through the system. However, a warning: Do not rely on individuals or organizations to investigate when they have a bias toward the accused abusers, due to connections that involve family relationships, friendships, institutional ties, finances, or shared prestige (such as having recommended each others’ books, done conferences together, cross-listed each others’ ministries, etc.).

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1-3. What Does it Take on Both Sides

for Remediation Actions to Work?

I mentioned conciliation in the headline for section 1-2, but didn’t elaborate on it. I will here.

Like so many things in Christian living, the wisest dynamics involve a both/and paradox. Too often we split system solutions into either/or situations, and get into arguments about which ONE is right – when BOTH are actually required. Here are the two attitudes that I believe are essential to making remediation processes work.

  • Perpetrators and their defenders need to accept their personal responsibility with humility.
  • Victims and their advocates need to respond to offenders with a conciliatory spirit.

With these complementary attitudes joined together, the people who have been entwined in a system of abuse can work together in a transformation process that leads to a healthier system. This holistic process holds perpetrators, protectors, and promoters accountable for their deeds, but also offers hope that they will not face unending guilt, shame, and fear. (It does not guarantee, though, that they will be restored to a role of public influence.) And for survivors, their advocates, and activists, this process leads toward social justice, restored relationships, and removal of damaging power structures.

The latter — dealing with systems infrastructures — is especially important to survivors so that what happened to them will not continue happening to others. This is a common concern among spiritual abuse survivors. I believe it indicates that survivors “get it” about systems, at least at some level, whether they consciously know it or not because they see how people are interconnected and how evil infrastructures can corrode a system for the next generation.

System transformation doesn’t work when those who inflicted harm (or their defenders) shut down dialog and/or demand that they be treated with grace and mercy. That isn’t taking responsibility; it’s a denial of it. Such demands are a form of blame-shifting. They attempt to protect their privilege, position, and power – when those are what they used to perpetrate and perpetuate evil.

Likewise, it doesn’t work when victims (or their advocates) shut out what may be sincere attempts to make amends, and/or demand severe or specific punishments up front. That isn’t being conciliatory; it seems more vengeful and punitive, even if it may look like it’s protective and advocating for victims. But couldn’t it be seen as ultimately a perverse reversal of the Golden Rule, and suggesting that survivors should do to their abusers what was done unto them?

To draw out what is potentially the best from both parties in a dispute, it cannot be about power or punishment in either direction. Instead, it must be about humble compassion and restorative justice in both directions. No doubt about it, this is difficult to work through – but what does “blessed are the peacemakers” mean, if it isn’t about working together to bring Christlike redemption to situations of extreme brokenness?

However, conciliation does not mean being naïve. It does not mean there are no consequences to those who inflict harm and spiritually abuse others. Trust is earned, which means there will be ongoing evaluation of the state of change and status of progress. Those who are disqualified from public roles as thought leaders, ministry practitioners, etc., are not requalified by the forgiveness of those they harmed. Restoration to a role of influence is never guaranteed; disqualification from leadership may be permanent.

What a holistic systems transformation process does mean is that people who have been divided by evil can find appropriate reconciliation strategies if they come to the table with their conscience touched and with a sense of compassion toward the others engaged. It will not work without both humble acceptance of accountability, and a conciliatory spirit.

I believe these complementary attitudes represent what I’ve observed in people I would consider what the gospels call, “people of peace.” They welcome others and show hospitality, while also have a justice streak that is set on edge when someone misuses power or position to marginalize people or otherwise harm them.

But what does real-world remediation/repentance look like, especially when it’s led by such persons of peace? How can we see what it takes in both attitudes and actions to accomplish restoration? Part 2 gives three examples — one dealing with a product, one with a denominational organization, one with a social system.

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2 thoughts on “PREVIEW: A Case Study in Systems and Ministry Accountability

  1. I hope your writing helps a lot of people.

    As the saying goes, Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When church leaders – or any leaders – get treated like they’re wonderful they start to believe it, and I think a lot of the corruption results from that belief.

    Jan – Writer, Teacher and Speaker

  2. Pingback: A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6E: What Makes Systemic Abuse and Historic Oppression Different from Isolated Incidents of Abuse? | futuristguy

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