Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations – Part 3

Top 10 Dimensions Our Systems Need to Equip Participants and Counteract Abuse of Power


I served a total of nearly 20 years of my work life at two universities and one seminary. I spent significant amounts of time in roles where I wrote up processes and procedures, edited catalogues and manuals, researched institutional history and governance, planned conferences, transitioned departments to digital systems, and created visual aids that captured school statistics and data. All of this gave me an insider perspective on many aspects of how educational institutions run their business – for better or for worse. That was complemented by my years of collegiate studies and many practitioner trainings on “recovery ministry” topics, learning styles, futurist skills, and start-up theories and skills for social transformation enterprises and church planting.

These experiences uncovered many gaps and excesses in our conventional systems for equipping people for both vocational and volunteer work. Since the mid-1990s, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the problems I’ve observed and experienced, trying to figure out practical ways to upgrade such systems to make them more holistic and more relevant to the changing times in which we find ourselves. I was particularly focused on approaches that promoted volunteer workers as guests in a host culture rather than as dominators, and relied on intercultural teamwork to get things done.

The following list shares my top 10 list of concepts and components to accomplish that task. I designed this list originally for faith-based trainings, because that has been the majority of where I’ve done most of my work. But, I’ve adapted it here for broader audiences who want to do good plus do no harm.

The items that are ideas generally are interwoven throughout this curriculum. Others require larger components to be added in forthcoming modules as time allows. For instance, plans for the larger Opal Design Systems eventually include the following elements:

  • Field Guides (curriculum for social transformation entrepreneurs).
  • Personal Profiles (assessment tools for self-discovery and team building).
  • Organizational Profiles (evaluation tools for identifying overall “health” of an organizational system, plus pinpoint problem areas that need to be addressed).
  • Cultural GPS system (for dealing with cross-cultural communications and culture shock issues).
  • Group simulation games and practice projects (to apply ideas with teamwork in a more monitored “laboratory” setting where it’s safer to make mistakes).
  • Case studies (media, historical, and quadruple bottom line).

Not all of these elements can be presented in the text of a curriculum, because they require a relational context – teamwork, internships, mentoring. But some such elements can at least be simulated, through case studies. Altogether, these create the Opal Design Systems. I will also recommend other well-developed systems that have compatible approaches. These include assessment tools, organizational systems development, project planning and evaluation tools, and systems of indicators for qualitative measurement of project impact. Continue reading

Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations – Part 2

Top 20 Problems I’ve Encountered in Organizations

I have real-world personal stories that go with every one of these situations and the questions embedded them. I’ve clustered them according to which of the three volumes in my curriculum I deal with them. I’ll share relevant vignettes when I detail frameworks I found or figured out to understand what had happened and applications for what to do about it. Continue reading

Building Blocks in a Certification System for Healthy Leaders and Holistic Organizations – Part 1

This blog series was originally focused on introducing the curriculum I’ve been writing for church planters and social transformation entrepreneurs: Do Good Plus Do No Harm. While piecing together the four parts of the series, I realized it had turned into something else. For over a decade, I’ve been dialoguing with survivors of spiritual abuse in church plants, “legacy churches,” and Christian non-profits. One concern that surfaces repeatedly is, “We need a way to identify toxic organizations and certify ones that are truly ‘safe.’ Who could we do that, and how? What would that process look like?”

After almost seven years of working on my curriculum, I keep coming back to the same elements that I believe are building blocks for exactly that kind of certification system. While they may seem “negative,” because they started from actual, soul-damaging situations of abuse of power in religious organizations, I don’t know a better way to arrive at principles and practices for what’s “healthy” and “whole” than from experiencing the opposite: malignant leaders and toxic organizations.

And it seems to me that too many textbooks that are supposed to be about quality leadership and great systems don’t always seem to take into account the realities of how harmful organizations happen, or the destructive aftermath they leave in the lives of those victimized in them. So, how useful are they for developing a certification system that can identify and intervene in sick systems, or even predict and help prevent them? Maybe this curriculum will serve as a base for building a certification system that can. Continue reading

Happy Blogiversary … 12 years in [2003-2015] and starting into #13 …

In the spring of 2003, friends of mine from the emerging ministry WabiSabi event told me I needed to start blogging. And when 20-/30-something friends talk, I listen … as I hopefully do with all friends of whatever age. Taking up blogging seemed the right thing to do, and so I began …

But, having the strong conviction that we intellectuals should not take ourselves too seriously, I decided to inaugurate my blog curate on April 1st, 2003. Not that I expected everything I wrote to be, uhh, funny. Or punny. Or even noteworthy. It was just a journey that I’d have to see how it unfolded.

I started out with a sort of journal-ish style. Some stuff was memorable, other stuff mundane. My first post had the rather ponderous title of: “The Frodo Syndrome: Overcoming Grief and Melancholia in the Modern-to-Postmodern Transition.” Umm, yeah. But actually, it had some good stuff in it that I go back to periodically to reflect on.

Most of my early blogging was about emerging ministry in the midst of global changes in culture. (Tough to see straight when you’re being whirled around in a vortex of paradigm shifts!) With occasional humor pieces just because. And milestone markers, like this one on the verge of my 10th year in blogging, and at its completion.

Perhaps the most significant change that happened was in 2007 with starting up my futuristguy blog on a WordPress platform. (Most of my previous blogs were digitally destroyed when the platform got hacked by black hats.) After a summit I participated in on “missional orders,” I started blogging a lot more about culture and context. This being “missional” wasn’t exactly anything new in my thinking, more a refinement in direction, which was something happening for a lot of people who’d been involved in the emerging ministry movement that started in the mid-1990s. And through my new friends from the summit, I heard about Barb Orlowski’s doctoral research project on church leaders who’d been victims of spiritual abuse. Sadly, my experience fit that, so, in early 2008, I took her survey. And that got me started on my current phase of the journey to research related issues in depth and create case studies on spiritual abuse and personal recovery and organizational rehabilitation. All this has been designed to adjust the church planters’ curriculum I’ve been working on, so it includes what can go wrong with ministry, even when we want to do what’s right.

And that curriculum looks to be done soon. So … what’s next then, in terms of blogging?

Actually, I have no firm direction, other than a few whisps of ideas for possible pathways forward. I definitely want to take a break from spiritual abuse topics, at least for a while. And I’ve thought about sometime after turning 60 later this year, periodically visiting my home state where there are still four real seasons, stay at least a week or two each visit, and write a devotional book reflecting on seasons of life and what I think I’ve learned about pioneering the future – as a third-generation representative of Western frontier pioneers on both sides of my family.

Anyway, I guess I just have to wait and see, which is what this journey has been since the beginning. An epic journey always has unexpected twists and turns. For instance, who would’ve foreseen that someone my age would have been blogging for 20% of their lifetime …

No matter what, I suspect whatever is next will be intriguing! Hope you’ll join me for that phase of the journey, too, for both the memorable and the mundane.


Please Participate in New Research Survey on Positive/Negative Experiences in Christian Religious Institutions

I occasionally hear through the online grapevine about academic-level research being done on issues related to survivors of spiritual abuse. When I do, I make what efforts I can to participate myself, and to encourage others to do likewise.

The following overview and link comes from Kathryn Keller Lamar, who has created an original survey as part of her doctoral dissertation research. I did the online survey this morning, and it only took me something like just 20 minutes.

One thing I especially appreciated was that you can respond to situations that involved wherever you experienced what you did – church, ministry or small group, Christian non-profit, etc. So the survey is relevant, regardless of the type of organization we were dealing with.

I believe it is well worth our investing in Kathryn’s research project, and I expect some very useful analysis to come out of her work. Here is her overview and invitation — please participate and let your networks know – help her reach the threshold number of surveys she needs! Thanks … Brad Continue reading

What Makes a Ministry “Safe”?

Introducing Four Core Questions

of “Safe” versus “Sick” Systems

OVERVIEW: I have long held the opinion that it is not enough to critique what is wrong with something, if you are not interested in figuring out what is right with it and extending that, or doing something to help fix and then keep improving what is deficient. Much of my research and writing for the past seven years on futuristguy has been about evaluating problems and moving toward solutions. This article on what makes a ministry or system “safe” versus “sick” introduces four core questions to guide our thinking. Detailed versions of the questions and contrasting responses are part of a forthcoming curriculum for social transformation agents, “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm.”

1. Are we treating people with humanization and hospitality, or objectification and hostility?

  • Humanization places objective value on people simply for their existence, regardless of what they may or may not be able to do for the institution. Objectification values people for what they can do for those in power or for the part they play in keeping the organizational machine going.
  • Hospitality welcomes people in and lifts them up. Hostility keeps people out or holds them down.
  • A good indicator of humanization and hospitality is how we divide people into categories or classes, and treated some differently based on those factors (e.g., age, race, marital status).

2. Are our leaders qualified, unqualified, or disqualified from service in a responsible public role of authority, influence, and decision-making?

  • Leaders are qualified by reason of mature personal character and consistent moral/ethical behavior.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are unqualified if they are personally immature, and/or are under-skilled for the specific requirements of the role sought.
  • Individuals who seek leadership are disqualified by reason of bad personal character and harmful/evil behavior (i.e., immoral/unethical).
  • A good project for figuring out what constitutes role-model-worthy maturity is to create “must-have” and “can’t-have” lists of character qualities and behaviors for leaders, based on Galatians 5:19-26 (the desires of the flesh versus the fruit of the Spirit), and leader profiling in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5.

3. Are our organizations structured to dominate and control, or develop and give freedom?

  • With domination, the resources flow from people-as-pawns to their exploiters. With development, the resources flow from and among participants.
  • Control conditions people into functioning outside the demands of their personal conscience and the dreams of their personal direction, and puts the responsibility for directives of “good” versus “harm” on external/organizational sources and forces. Freedom releases people to function responsibly according to their personal conscience and direction, within communal norms of “good” without inflicting “harm.”
  • Very different kinds of organizational structures can still be used to dominate and control its members. For instance, control can be through compliance (like the former Soviet Union), chaos (like the Maoist Cultural Revolution), or charisma (Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple). Authoritarian leaders can control centralized, hierarchical organizations or can co-opt decentralized, “flat structure” networks. And it does not matter whether the scale of the dominated enterprise is small, medium, or large.

4. Are our collaborative social involvements designed for sojourners or colonizers?

  • Sojourners travel together as interdependent people of equal value who serve one another for the benefit of all. Colonizers take over with some people being more important/valuable, and make the rest subservient to those few.
  • Sojourners share, listen, and teach. Colonizers take, tell, and indoctrinate.
  • Either set of dynamics seem to be able to drive any scale of collaborative enterprises from the small and local (projects), or medium and regional (partnerships) to large and global (politics).


A “safe/healthy” space is one where people are treated with humanity, welcomed with hospitality, leaders are role models for their character and behavior, the organization serves to help people develop and find their wings, as the group travels the road of life together to the benefit of both individuals and the group as a whole. A safe space nurtures hope, helpfulness, and human flourishing.

An “unsafe/toxic” space is one where people are viewed with contempt and treated as cogs in the machine that benefit the few, where those in control consistently harm others, where the organization diminishes the personhood of the many to benefit the power-prestige-greed of the few, and it imposes its limited views and unlimited desire for control wherever possible. An unsafe space inflicts despair, learned helplessness, and abuse.

“Add Your Voice” ~ By Completing a Spiritual Abuse and Recovery Survey

January is "Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month"

January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”

I recently received information from Dr. Barb Orlowski about a new phase in her research on spiritual abuse and recovery. I connected with Barb in 2007, and completed her Doctor of Ministry project survey in 2008.

The time I invested in completing her 20-question survey was one of the most important things that happened for me, in terms of entering an in-depth processing of what I’d experienced, defining the specifics of spiritual abuse involved, and how it affected me emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically. I highly recommend it as a helpful step along the way in our journey out of spiritual abuse.

Also, I believe that both quantitative statistics of victimization, and qualitative descriptions of abuse tactics and recovery, are crucial to church and community. Taking the survey continues to add to that knowledge base. And that will continue to make a difference for us as survivors in the long run.

If you haven’t taken the survey already, please consider whether this might be a providential time to do so! Continue reading