Part 5 – The Contours of “Watchblog” Communities
5 – The Contours of “Watchblog” Communities. In a recently filed defamation lawsuit, James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel labeled the people he’s suing as “attack bloggers.” Are they really just attacking him for reasons of revenge – or are they simply attempting to reveal individual and institutional actions that have harmed people whom the church should have helped, and shine a light on the ideologies that drove them?
Blogs have become a significant source of investigative information for survivor communities. So, they have sometimes been called “watchblogs.” But are all sites that engage in exposés of reported abuses actually survivor-friendly? What are the contours of blogging among survivor communities – along with subcategories and the distinctives of each? How does blogging relate to various types of abuse, and what are important patterns and trends that we see among them? This post maps out contours of the wider watchblog communities.
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“Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.” Ephesians 5:11, NASB
Background on My Blogging
I have been blogging since April 1, 2003. (Somehow, starting on April Fool’s Day seems appropriate.) I was then 47 years old, and my GenXer and Millennial friends were pushing me to get going. So I did.
I’ve been using WordPress since 2007, and that is around the time I began checking into spiritual abuse issues more deeply. I found out online from a friend’s blog that Barbara Orlowski was doing her Doctor of Ministry project on church/ministry leaders who’d been spiritually abused by other church/ministry leaders. She was using a 20-question survey for respondents to detail what happened, how they processed their experiences, how recovery was going, and how the experience changed their faith and practice.
A lot of my friends (many of them bloggers) took the survey. I completed the survey in early 2008. It took me nearly a week full time, since I’d had five different toxic ministry experiences in the previous 30 years in theologically conservative churches. The results are in Barb’s book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness (Wipf & Stock, 2010).
But Barb’s survey is part of what got me doing research writing on individuals and organizations that were spiritually abusive. And I began watching the news for abuse, and exploring the “watchblog community” to see what else was going on. I posted my first case study 10 years ago, starting September 2008, on Todd Bentley, the Lakeland Outpouring, and the New Apostolic Reformation that at first supported him. For a list of the resources and case studies I’ve done, see the right-hand navigation bar on my futuristguy blog, section “3 Abuse Case Studies and Articles.”
The rest of this post gives thoughts and opinions I’ve come to on various topics, based on my years in exploring and participating in survivor blogger communities.
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The Layout of the Watchblog Community
In looking at the big picture of abuse issues, a term that is sometimes applied to the landscape of writers is “watchbloggers.” (There doesn’t seem to be a standard term in use yet, so I’ll share what I use, plus what I see as some of the more common language uses.) Unfortunately, this generic mega-label lumps together several two main categories that do have some distinct differences – what insiders more often call discernment blogs, and survivor blogs. So, critics of “watchbloggers” may not be distinguishing between the two.
The key difference I see parallels that which survivors find between two kinds of abuse investigations – an independent one that serves the interests of the victims and the vulnerable, and the other a dependent or internal one that serves the interests of the institution and its ideology. Similarly, survivor blogs focus on the justice for victims and protecting the vulnerable from perpetrators while discernment blogs focus on a particular institution and/or ideology and promote conformity to them.
This distinction does not mean that all discernment blogs are 100% bad, or that all survivor blogs are 100% good. Each kind can be critiqued for strengths, flaws, and challenges. But, in terms of survivor communities, discernment blogs are far less frequently a constructive source of support for survivors and are far more frequently a source of protection for malignant celebrity Christians and their toxic institutions and ideologies. The following chart describes key aspects of discernment and survivor blogs, without getting into extensive critiques of either.
“Watchbloggers” / Composition of the “Watchblog Community”
|Distinctives||Focus on correct doctrine, promote a specific ideology and theology, often very perfectionistic with black-and-white thinking.||Focus on people’s narratives of experiences with abusive leaders, theologies, and institutions.|
|Theological critiques of individuals and their ideology and practices that do not conform to the blog’s stated beliefs of “correct doctrine.”||Research and critique of doctrines, practices, and ministry power dynamics that harm people and crush their faith.|
|Tend to be theologically conservative to fundamentalist, and emphasize right thinking with biblical knowledge as the key to maturity.||Tend to be more theologically moderate and holistic, and emphasize whole-person healing, discipleship, and discernment for maturity.|
|Tendency to be inflammatory, even contemptuous, in opposing those they judge to be false teachers.||Tendency to poke fun at or be sarcastic on occasion, but not to the point of decimating someone’s humanity.|
|Tend to be gender complementarian and for hierarchical power.||Tend to be gender egalitarian and for distributed power.|
|Subcategories||One-issue or one-person-target blogs. (Ex. Anti-Billy Graham; anti-Charismatic/Pentecostal theology.)
|One abusive leader, institution, or situation. (Ex. Recovering Grace, on Bill Gothard, IBLP.)
One kind of abuse. (Ex. domestic violence.)
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“Anti-Watchblogs” – Counteractive Blogs
Maybe there is a whole other category, but it doesn’t exactly fit easily in the Watchblog Community, and that’s “anti-watchblogs” – websites set up specifically to counter the reports of experiences and research done by survivors of a particular person or program. They aren’t discernment blogs, they are more special-interest protect-the-status-quo-of-the-powerful blogs.
For instance, Recovering Grace focuses on narrative accounts of victims of Bill Gothard’s sexual harassment, and research on related theology and institutional dynamics of IBLP/Institute in Basic Life Principles and ATI/Advanced Training Institute. Over a period of about three years, Recovering Grace posted a portfolio of some 60 personal stories of victims, which gave a base for demonstrating patterns of similar grooming and harassing behaviors by Bill Gothard. The blog Discovering Grace is a pro-Gothard site set up to counter the survivors.
Thinking about this in the moment, maybe Counternarrative Blog or Disinformation Blog would work better as a descriptive term? That’s the intended function.
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Notes on Subcategories of Survivor Blogs
Based on over 10 years of my watching watchblogging, I’ve concluded there are distinct subcategories of survivor blogs. Some have a very narrow focus, others more broad-based. Some have frequent posts, some irregularly. If nothing else, these observations and details show that there is a range of ways to participate in survivor blogging. Here are the kinds and trends I’ve seen.
Single Situation or Denomination Blogs
There have been a number of these over the years. Recovering Grace is perhaps the stellar example of how a more recent one got built up over time with a compilation of personal accounts, analysis of leaders and theologies involved, research on the related institutions, etc.
An earlier, now archived, site worth noting is Stop Baptist Predators, compiled over the years by Christa Brown. It focused on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and various ministers who were “convicted, confessed, or credibly accused” of sexual misconduct. With the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements sparked late in 2017, the #SBCToo hashtag came into being. All the goings-on with then-president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Paige Patterson and some of the related SBC hashtag campaigns started referring to Christa Brown and Stop Baptist Predators, and also to past posts on the Istoria Ministries Blog by SBC pastor and former International Mission Board trustee Wade Burleson. These included the For Such A Time As This Rally website and Twitter account, which began just prior to the June 2018 annual meeting of the SBC, and the Justice for Anne [Marie Miller] website and Twitter account. Anne Marie Miller was reportedly the victim of sexual misconduct by Mark Aderholt, an SBC minister who was later an SBC missionary and leader. This all goes to show how important it is to have archived historical material available when a providential moment arises and a new wave of people are ready to hear.
There are also individuals who wouldn’t consider themselves survivor bloggers necessarily, but who may have a personal connection to a specific situation and therefore post about it. What comes to mind immediately here are a number of bloggers like “Brother Maynard,” Bill Kinnon, and Andrew Jones who were connected with the situation of Emergent Village leader Tony Jones who was credibly accused of abuse against his wife, Julie McMahon Jones. They each did a few posts at critical moments in that situation, and their personal observations/insights proved important. You can find links to their posts by searching for their names in the Diagnosing the Emergent Movement case study site.
Blogs on a Single Kind of Abuse
Some survivor bloggers tend to focus on the main type of abuse they are recovering from: domestic violence, clergy sexual misconduct, sexual assault, abuse of spiritual authority, etc.
Related to this, a number of times over the past 10 years, there have been efforts to cross-list resources for multiple forms of abuse, or to bring together a partnership among some of the bloggers on single kinds of abuse.
Barbara Orlowski is one of those “hub people” who network widely, and she was involved in the now-defunct Abuse Resource Network. It was a relatively early effort in the mid-to-late 2000 decade to connect writers and professionals with expertise in different types of abuse/violence, especially to find the commonalities among their fields of interest. It folded because the person who’d volunteered to do the IT work was not longer able to maintain their website.
There have been occasional behind-the-scenes talks about some kind of clearinghouse or archive for survivor blogs. Sticking points are usually with time and technology. Those who do investigative work and help people tell their stories are often doing this on the side, so their time is limited. And, there has not yet been any consistency of tech workers to produce and maintain such a website. Maybe sometime soon there will be, as survivor blogs take a bit more prominent role in shining the spotlight on malignancies in the Church.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing awareness among survivors and survivor bloggers about the common roots of different forms of abuse – and, really, that they all stem from the desire of an abuser to control the victim and using a specific combination of tactics to do so. The one-page handout from the SBC For Such A Time As This Rally introduced pastors to a spectrum of abuse forms: physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial.
Even within the broadband types of survivor bloggers, there are some distinctives worth noting. Most function within the range of theological conservative to moderate streams of the Church.
TYPES OF EMPHASIS. Some cast a very wide net for what they investigate and report on (for example, The Wartburg Watch and Spiritual Sounding Board). A lot of this may depend on emerging news, and who contacts them for support and possibly sharing their personal story.
Others may have a few situations or denominations that they tend to focus on (Watchkeep – SBC, SNAP/pedophiles in ministry, clergy sexual misconduct. Thou Art The Man – Neo-Calvinism, Acts29, 9Marks, ARBCA, Sovereign Grace Ministries/Churches).
Professor Warren Throckmorton tends to focus on the academia and institutional angles of stories instead of personal experience narratives.
At futuristguy, I focus on the big picture issues of toxic systems and in-depth case studies from a range of different theological streams and church/ministry organizational forms.
GENDER-INTEGRATED TEAMS. I mentioned in the chart that survivor bloggers tend to be gender egalitarians. I find it intriguing that many of the broadband survivor blogs have women and men partnering in teams to write, edit, and discuss posts. Many sensitive issues arise in preparing blog posts, and this kind of teamwork not only helps get research and writing done, but contributes to a better discussion on whether or when it is time to post on a particular situation.
- The Wartburg Watch has Dee and Deb (who has stepped back for the time being), and Guy Behind The Curtain who keeps the site going.
- Spiritual Sounding Board has Julie Anne, Kathi, me, and several women who occasionally help with research and writing.
- Thou Art The Man teams up Todd as the main writer and Jana as his editor.
SPAN OF COVERAGE. From my work writing case studies on spiritually abusive individuals, institutions, and ideologies, it is my firm belief that abuse infects every type of church or ministry. This includes: every theological stream, every form of church polity/ecclesiology, and both hierarchical and “flat structure” organizations.
This seems important to note right now, for at least two reasons. First, no theology or denomination can claim they are free of abuse. Somewhere in survivor blogdom, there is likely something from an article all the way to an extended case study that proves that assertion wrong.
Second, certain people or situations become a litmus test of whether someone or some organization is serious about abuse or it’s just a buzz word to expand their platform. How someone responds to the credible accusations (or acknowledgments) of abuse are telling. Do you critique these individuals, or protect them? Some examples we’ve seen in the last year, all of which have issue trails that go back at least a decade:
- SBC’s Paige Patterson.
- Evangelicalism’s Tullian Tchividjian.
- Progressives’ Tony Jones.
- Megachurch’s Bill Hybels.
- Neo-Calvinism’s C.J. Mahaney and John Piper.
An intriguing tweet showed up in my Twitter feed in late October 2018 and, unfortunately, I haven’t been able to relocate it. A survivor who blogs commented on the Tony Jones situation and said something to the effect that he found it much easier to identify with “exvangelicals” who’ve left the Church than with progressives, because so many progressives talk a good line about abhorring abuse but then say nothing about the case of Tony Jones or openly support him.
A lot of abuse survivors end up as nones, dones, or gones from the Church. So these kinds of litmus-test people can become indicators of whether a survivor is interested in going back to some kind of church, or (re)adopt some kind of Christian label. If a particular local minister is supportive of a litmus-test leader, they’ve likely repulsed abuse survivors. Malignant leaders who are not removed from positions of power are millstones to survivors and may be ongoing milestones as to whether they ever return to a church.
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For what it’s worth, I am increasingly convinced that lawsuits – and perhaps even instigation of RICO (racketeering) criminal cases – will be the only way to break through denial where leaders in Christian institutions refuse to listen to those they victimized and to offer genuine remediation to repair the damages done. In the U.S. at least, it is common for churches and ministries to become non-profit corporations. This makes the whole an “individual” in the eyes of the law. The state and the IRS give the corporation certain legal rights, but also legal responsibilities, and potential accountability and liability for misdeeds perpetrated by the corporation.
When sin and evil end up in unethical and illegal activities, these corporations – and those in roles of responsibility – should beware the authority God has given civil government. Demands by church leaders for victims to engage in quiet conciliation or an impossible Matthew 18 confrontation process or unconditional submission to authorities will not alter the reality of corporate responsibility as a legally constituted entity. Perhaps lawsuits and such won’t spark personal repentance, but at least they may lead to some justice, financial reparations, and maybe even dismantling of a corrupt organization.
Meanwhile, for the victims and the vulnerable, survivor blogs have been a godsend. Many survivors have left their church. They often have nowhere to process their experiences and emotions, no one who is trauma-informed to listen and help interpret what happened – until they stumble across survivor blogs. There they find a community of people who care about providing a listening ear, functional justice, and spotlighting evil in the Church to prevent more people from being victimized. Far from perfect we are, but a bridge to rebuilding one’s soul and spirit and body we can be.