A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities – Part 6C: Processes That Promise Resolution, But Instead Can Promote Silence


Processes That Promise Resolution,

But Instead Can Promote Silence

Part 6C. Initial exploration into three investigation/negotiation/resolution processes (arbitration, conciliation, and mediation), plus a case study from Willow Creek Community Church leaders hiring Crossroads Resolution Group and the women victims refusing to play by those rules, and why.

A note up front: I am not a lawyer. The descriptions in Part 6 come from my work in research writing, and represent my understanding of technical concepts involved. The following topics are here to inform readers about tools that may be built into agreements or covenants you may be asked to enter into.

If you are in a situation of interaction to resolve issues with abusive individuals or institutions that caused or covered up damage, I strongly recommend that you consult a lawyer for legal counsel.

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Why is an Examination of

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Necessary?

I write on a whole range of subjects, from the light and delightful to the intense and disturbing. No matter the topic, the key for me to actually getting it written is finding the way into the subject matter, so way to organize all that information in a way that makes it make sense. Once I find that entryway, the rest usually falls into place – rarely does it do so rapidly, but at least eventually.

What I’m tackling today is one of the subjects about abuse survivor communities that I find most disturbing: as the title says – processes that promise conflict resolution, but instead promote silence about the situation of abuse. I started background research on this piece in May 2018, a few months after the Bill Hybels/Willow Creek sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse scandal erupted. But I couldn’t find my way into the subject yet. Do I just provide information and let readers draw their own conclusions? Or do I post my conclusions, and then show how the information relates to them? Or something else?

Lots of legitimate slants, but I’ve learned from experience that if I can’t yet make the material accessible to my own brain, it’s not time yet to try to do that for others. I needed some kind of question or quote, some metaphor or meme, that would set up a framework for organizing what I was learning.

So I kept taking notes, observing the cultural field of survivor situations, researching relevant concepts and organizations, halfway completing comparison charts and “family trees” of resolution agencies that create problems for survivors … but still, no entryway showed itself. Until today.

As I was wafting into consciousness after a night of insomnia, a metaphor came to mind: hills and fog.

It’s natural for me to talk about this. For a decade, I worked in an area with San Francisco bay inlets close by on the east, the ocean farther away on the west, and a ridge of hills in between. You’d think that hills on the ocean side would protect us from the fogs rolling in. But the impact was just the opposite. During the winter season, something about the configuration of those hills and strategic gaps in it, drew those chill winds right in and smothered us in a thick layer of fog.

However, if I ventured out and drove north up the highway for less than a mile, and the fog would miraculously lift and skies above be totally clear and blue. Or if I drove northwest a mile or two to visit a friend, at his place the nearby hills actually shield the town from wind and cold. Go figure … different configuration of hills, significantly different weather patterns.

In this metaphor, individuals and entities that offer to facilitate investigation, negotiation, and/or resolution processes are the hills. They might be law firms, churches, individual agents, certified consultants or conciliators, non-profit ministries. When there is a conflict involving some form of abuse – and potentially even crimes and cover-up – these all stand out. Their profile has substance. However, these hills stand on the outskirts of the survivor communities, but close enough to influence the local spiritual weather and environment.

The key problem, as I see it, goes back to the issue of integration points (Part 4). These individuals and entities work on behalf of INSTITUTIONS, and limiting their liability, not on behalf of INDIVIDUALS – the vulnerable and the survivors. So, in the context of Christian “reconciliation” and under the guise of investigation, negotiation, and conflict resolution, they ultimately put the freeze on those already victimized.

I found a series of three images that I feel captures that problem, from the perspective of survivors who’ve been given the option of using Christian Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) processes by the organization accountable for the abuser/abuse.

Survivor Views on Christian ADR/Alternative Dispute Resolution

Does that sound harsh? Surprising? I do think it describes what’s happening across the Christian wing of the #MeToo movement. It explains overwhelmingly negative responses by abuse survivors to accused/accountable institutions who want them to agree to ADR and/or investigations that are not independent. Situations where this happened have come up regularly in survivor communities, and are often reported on survivor blogs. Probably the 2018 case of women victimized by Bill Hybels and other Willow Creek Community Church leaders has brought these contentious issues to the forefront more than any other situation in the last few years. (More about this shortly.)

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Three Tools Used for Investigation,

Negotiation, and Resolution

I’ve been research and writing about spiritual abuse since 2007. Numerous terms related to “resolution” and “reconciliation” processes show up in articles, testimonies, and case studies on abuse. The key ones are arbitration, conciliation, and mediation. They aren’t always used with precision, and they often cause confusion. But that is understandable, because there are no standard legal definition (they differ from state to state). There are also some vastly different practical how-to descriptions influenced by differing paradigms and integration points.

Sometimes the confusion probably just unfamiliarity with the technical elements of how that process works. But other times, you have to wonder if it’s just part of an intentional design, by someone who wants things to look like they are functioning in “good faith,” but actually are attempting to remove legal liability.

Abuse survivors frequently see toxic individuals and institutional representatives attempting to deflect responsibility by using vague language. We’ve often seen the use of these resolution process terms along with similar concepts, which ends up confusing. For instance, there could be conciliators who act as investigators for the hiring institution, and use mediation techniques for ADR, and binding arbitration can be a result of negotiations they lead. This may sound like conflict resolution, but is it really just conflict management for image maintenance?

We need to understand the essence of what arbitration, conciliation, and mediation mean so we can answer the questions that regularly get raised when they’re offered to survivors by offending individuals and institutions. Questions like:

  • What is the main focus of the type of ADR being proposed?
  • Are there issues that will affect the process, based on the jurisdiction where the ADR will happen?
  • Who facilitates the process, who chooses that person or group or agency, and who pays?
  • How do the parties involved present or represent themselves – documents only, in person, with lawyer, other methods?
  • Once parties agree to a specific ADR process, is it possible to back out at any time, or is it required to pursue the process all the way to resolution?
  • Are the findings, results, and/or awards legally binding; or is acceptance of them voluntary?
  • What happens if we cannot come to a mutual agreement?

Those are basic questions that I will leave for your own research – though we will take a look at some angles and implications in a later article in the series.

The best quote I found on the key distinctions comes from the Chicago Tribune, in their May 27, 2018, article, “As Willow Creek seeks reconciliation, pastor’s accusers seek independent inquiry” by Manya Brachear Pashman. They posted this at a turning point in the Willow Creek situation, as the church’s elders continued backing off from their initial position that all the women victims were lying, and hired Crossroads Resolution Group to get conciliation efforts going. Ms. Pashman notes:

Conciliation is not to be confused with mediation or arbitration. Unlike arbitration, it has no legal standing and the conciliator cannot offer an award. Unlike mediation, the goal includes the repair of a relationship. But parties can decide to pursue mediation to reach an agreement.

~ Manya Brashear Pashman, reporter for the Chicago Tribune

We can look at the emphases as follows. In very broad terms:

Arbitration is damages-focused. The results have legal standing, and the process is done outside of the court system by a person or group that is independent and neutral. (Similarly, litigation has legal standing, with the process done inside the court system.) *SEE NOTE BELOW.

Conciliation is relationship-focused. It seeks to identify the breeches that have divided the parties, rebuild trust, and repair the relationships.

Mediation is problems-and-solutions-focused. It encourages the parties in conflict to work toward reaching a mutually-acceptable agreement.

*UPDATE NOTE, 01/07/2019. My Twitter friend @XianAtty read this post and noted: “This is really good. I’d add only one small suggestion. To your description of arbitration, I’d add that it’s the only type of ADR in which a neutral party makes a binding decision about which party is at fault. That decision is the basis for an award of damages.” My thanks to @XianAtty, who has helped with important clarifications to my posts, blog comments, and tweets over the years.

I believe it is important to be conciliatory – hospitable, open-minded, kind – in any attempts to resolve conflict, but never at the cost of creating damage or perpetuating injustice. The commitment to hold conciliation with justice together is the essence of the Golden Rule, of doing good without doing harm. So, the key thing becomes to discern whether the offer for ADR is truly conciliatory, or meant to stall truth-finding and promote cover up.

A final note on this for now, as we’ll look at more in-depth questions later: I understand there can be compelling reasons for victims to go through alternative dispute resolution processes – to stop threats, to get it over with, to put it behind, as a means to confront victimizer, etc. I’m not judging that, simply trying to lay out a systematic way for people to think through options.

As I learned long ago from a wise elderly saint, “Your decision is only as good as your information.” The more broad, accurate, and organized our information, the better our decisions will likely be. For survivors, this is not about moral issues – right/wrong and it’s sin if you don’t do the “right” thing. It’s about wisdom decisions and discerning the range of options from worst to wisest – and picking the wisest option that best (not perfectly) fits all the constraints we find in our situation.

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Resources for Additional Study

Articles that Overview Several Kinds of ADR Tools

I found these articles helpful for overviewing multiple kinds of ADR tools, so as to get a feel for the entire field.

From the Program On Negotiation at Harvard Law School comes a relatively short article: What are the Three Basic Types of Dispute Resolution? What to Know About Mediation, Arbitration, and Litigation. Subtitle: How to choose the best resolution process.

A longer article comes from FindLaw dot Com, on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR): Overview. This includes sections on: arbitration, mediation, minitrials, summary jury trials, and early neutral evaluation. Plus it has a final section on Conclusion: Negotiation, ADR, and Litigation.

Articles from The Law Dictionary on Key Terms

As I surfed the internet for resources on ADR terms, The Law Dictionary, featuring Black’s Law Dictionary, seemed to have the widest coverage with concise descriptions. I’d recommend reading all of the following (and most are short).

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

Arbitration, and Binding Arbitration.

Conciliation, with sections on conciliation is not (quite) mediation, conciliation is not arbitration, and conciliation is conciliatory.

Mediation, and Grievance Mediation.


Good Faith, and Bad Faith.

Due Diligence.

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Resolution Processes Case Study:

Willow Creek Community Church

The Willow Creek Community Church situation of reported sexual misconduct by senior pastor Bill Hybels, and of abuse of spiritual authority by numerous church leaders, has given us the most prominent case for remediation (repair work) in the last year of Christian #MeToo. I created the above-linked website as a time capsule and case study of links to documents, articles, and commentary for March through August 2018. That gives extensive information and some analysis.

What I believe will help most here is to focus in on what I earlier termed a turning point in that situation, and give a few guides for analyzing it. Namely, when the Elders hired Crossroads Resolution Group and put forth an alternative dispute resolution process to the women victims.


1. Read the Elders’ Statement, for a snapshot of the proposed process.

This May 23, 2018, update from the Willow Creek Elders introduces their hiring of Crossroads Resolution. Here is an excerpt:

We have asked Crossroads Resolution Group (CRG) to serve as an independent, neutral third party to listen to the women involved and discuss with each of them their requests and desired process outcomes. CRG will work toward mutual agreement on any further investigation or mediation. Crossroads’ focus is to work with each woman individually and with the church on a plan that is agreeable to everyone.

Additionally, Crossroads has agreed to provide trained conciliators to serve as an independent confidential resource for anyone who has concerns and does not feel comfortable contacting the Elders. We are committed to providing this resource—and confidentiality—to those in need of it. [Contact i]nformation can be found below.

This snapshot of their proposal for reconciliation seems good. But is it? How can we discern if it is or not?

The Elders use many key words in these two paragraphs: independent, neutral, investigation, listen, mutual, mediation, agreeable, conciliators, confidential, comfortable. What do you think they mean by them? Do the details of any terms here contradict each other?

2. Read the Chicago Tribune article posted after the Elders’ Statement, for the larger context that frames the Elders’ proposal.

As Willow Creek seeks reconciliation, pastor’s accusers seek independent inquiry, by Manya Brachear Pashman (May 27, 2018).

This Chicago Tribune article includes a historical overview of the Willow Creek defensive moves in response to the reported sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse by Bill Hybels. It also reports on some of the typical evangelical reasonings behind “reconciliation” practices, and some of the reasons for opposing these theological interpretations.

What does this historical and theological context contribute to our broader understanding of the situation? Do you think it helps or hurts the Elders’ case? Does it help or hurt the case of the women survivors?

3. Read the women survivors’ responses, for more  backstory and why they all said “No.”

The Cart Before the Horse, by Vonda Dyer (May 24, 2018).

Sequence Matters, by Nancy Ortberg (May 24, 2018).

Updated Statement from Betty Schmidt, by Betty Schmidt (May 25, 2018).

What “Caring for the Women” Would Look Like, by Nancy Beach (May 25, 2018).

If the Elders’ Statement seemed good / nice / conciliatory, how does seeing some of the history from the victims’ points of view potentially flip the script on that evaluation?

As a group, what elements of the Elders’ plans are these women rejecting, and why?

If you composited what these survivors state is needed from Willow Creek in order for genuine repair work to happen, what would be on their list?

4. Read Dee Parson’s article on The Wartburg Watch, analyzing this development and giving some commentary from survivor communities.

Willow Creek’s Attempt at Conciliation and a Smart Rebuff by the Victims, by Dee Parsons (May 27, 2018).

How does this backstory and commentary on Crossroads Resolution Group and David Schlachter shed additional light on critiques of the Willow Creek Elders’ approach?

5. Read my article for my interpretation of the situation, and two background pieces that help differentiate between “snapshots” that can look good, but “videos” that are bad.

Willow Creek and Rapprochement: Truth THEN Reconciliation; Accountability OR Consequences, by Brad Sargent (May 25, 2018).

Snapshots versus Videos: read Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3B, and tutorial on Transformation.

How has your opinion of the Willow Creek situation evolved over the process of reading and thinking about this series of articles?

Going back to the core of this post, what details on the processes of alternative dispute resolution hoped for by the Willow Creek Elders made their plans seem either truly conciliatory or problematic?

Last questions: If you were in a position to recommend processes for resolution to both the Willow Creek Elders and to the women victims, what would you suggest and why?

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Next: Part 6D. Analysis of key problems in these legal tools and resolution processes and their impacts, how these have affected (and disaffected) survivor communities, and the better way of truth-finding before reconciliation.

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