A-Pyramid of Abuse / Accountability Scale

Pyramid of Abuse (c) 2018 Brad Sargent

NOTE: An updated 2018 version of the “Pyramid of Responsibility” section on this page has been posted at Futuristguy’s Systemic Abuse Researcher Notes as page 3-03 Pyramid of Abuse and Culpability/Complicity. I have kept the original 2014 version in this page for historical reasons. Updated versions of the material in this entire thread will appear in the forthcoming Futuristguy’s Field Guides training series, in volumes #1 and #2 on how to decontruct systems of abuse.

Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse (Compilation of Posts)

(c) 2014 Brad Sargent (aka “futuristguy”)


  • Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse (2014) ~ Summaries of Posts in Series
  • Part 1 – Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery
  • Part 2A – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems [See updated version of this topic here.]
  • Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems [See updated version of this topic here.]
  • Part 3A – Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory, Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy
  • Part 3B – Steps 1-2-3 – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan”
  • Part 3C – Step 4 – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan”
  • Part 3D – Step 5, Overview. Dealing with Toxic Leaders Who Need Healing and Sick Organizational Systems That Need Repairing
  • Part 3E – Step 5, Layer 1. Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Personal Issues
  • Part 3F – Step 5, Layer 2. Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Interpersonal Issues
  • Part 3G – Step 5, Layer 3. Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders
  • Part 3H – Step 5, Layer 4. Affected Groups Need to Deal with Sick Organizational Systems

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse (2014) ~

Summaries of Posts in Series

This series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse is an excerpt from the book I’m developing as a combination “field guide” plus workbook to exploring why things go wrong in organizations, even when we want to do good, and processes to repair any damages we cause. I have broken down this extensive series into what I hope are more reasonable-length “chunks” for reading and reasoning through. Many of the posts in the series include discussion questions, word studies, visual illustrations, and/or case studies.

Note: This series is cross-listed with the category on Mars Hill Church, which includes the series on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church Research Guide. That series and this one were both written at the same time, and I was sharing some of this material with survivors of alleged spiritual abuse that happened in the Mars Hill system. I believe this helped ensure the material in this series was as practical as I could make it so the how-to’s here could be cross-referenced to the ongoing and unfolding story of authoritarian control at Mars Hill.

Part 1. Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations. Real-world problems in discerning what constitutes a toxic organization, who is a spiritually abusive leader, and what to do about them and others who keep a harmful system going. This post includes a list of questions. Some apply generally to any individual or organization apparently engaged in spiritually abusive practices, and some deal specifically with the current situation of the leaders and institution at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.

Part 2A and 2B. The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems. When it comes to spiritual abuse, who has higher or lower responsibility/accountability and for what – whether they are leaders preaching from the pulpit, or people sitting in the pews, or outside individuals and organizations that keep a sick system propped up? This framework is based on my own experiences of malignant ministers and ministries. I suggest a pyramid of people playing 10 different roles in creating and perpetuating a toxic system that ultimately harms people, despite any good that its leaders or members may do. The 10 roles are sorted into layers of what I believe run from greater to lesser levels of responsibility – from higher culpability on the upper layers of the continuum, to higher complicity (“accomplices”) at the lower layers.

Part 3A. Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory, Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy. People ARE responsible for abuse they inflict – but TAKING responsibility for the damage done is a different matter. This section moves from questions and initial ideas of how to organize observations, to figuring out relevant biblical concepts about levels of responsibility when things turn malignant in a ministry. It reviews the “Pyramid of Responsibility” and organizational roles involving culpability and/or complicity, and overviews cultural and organizational modes of blame-shifting. It concludes with an exploration of three main attitudes it takes to make “remediation” (remedy) plans work, and how that can tie perpetrators and survivors together in a redemptive process.

Part 3B through 3H. Concepts, Questions, and Continuums for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan.” The rest of the series presents a five-step framework for building a comprehensive “remediation plan” in the setting of what’s become a toxic organization. It lays out four Layers to consider: personal growth and recovery, peace-making in personal relationships, qualified leadership in the organization, and how to discern whether a toxic organization should even survive.

Steps 1, 2, and 3 develop a set of questions and concept frameworks to address recovery issues both for organizations that have become toxic and for the people who control them. It begins with a few key ideas for analyzing problem situations for patterns. Then it looks at a general continuum for thinking through how healthy or sick a person is, using analogies like injury triage, hospitalization, and recuperation. It extends that health/toxicity continuum analogy to parallel situations in organizational systems.

Steps 4 and 5 set up the frameworks to apply to four specific layers in a system that needs healing – whether the healing needed by leaders and organization is relatively slight, or all the way to very substantial. Step 5 also includes a series of seven real-world case studies in ministries with toxicity problems. They are presented in order of increasing severity of relational and organizational issues to address, and with ever more likehood of a need to be shut down completely (or probability of implosion, regardless of whether the group affected wants to dismantle it or not).


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 1

Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery

Originally posted August 14, 2014

Over 15 years ago, I took two week-long workshops on learning styles with Dr. Kathy Koch of Celebrate Kids, Inc. It was there that I finally understood some major ways that my brain processed information differently from how other people’s do. Turns out that my default setting on how my brain works best is when there’s a question asked or a problem to be solved. I truly don’t know what I think is AN answer – or THE answer –until I start talking aloud about the question or problem. And even then, it’s not the first thing that pops out of my mouth that is MY answer, it’s the last thing at the end of a trail of verbal processing, regardless of whether that took a long time or short.

There’s no easy predicting as to what questions capture my attention. It might be something mundane, or maybe something extraordinarily complex that will take me a few years of gathering information and reflecting on it before my brain is saturated enough with observations and analysis to yield a next-iteration interpretation or final opinion.

One of my favorite stories about how that works out comes from the last millennium. I was invited to give a guest lecture on culture to a seminary class in church planting. My professor friend introduced me and told a bit about my background in church planting and futurist studies and such, and then he said, “And Brad is someone who is working on answers to questions that no one else is asking yet.”

This post is about questions I’ve had that have emerged from the case study in allegations of spiritual abuse that Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and its co-founding pastor Mark Driscoll, have provided the U.S. Church. This is highly complex and grievous situation, and involves years of problematic leadership and labyrinthine organizational issues. I’ve been watching the situation especially since 2008 when I started research writing on spiritual abuse issues in depth.

Today also happens to be a day when some kind of important announcement is due from Mr. Driscoll. I’d been working on this particular series for a while and this seemed as good a day as any to begin posting. There are people in Mars Hill Church who may find help and hope from this series.

Here are short descriptions of the probable posts in this series. I’ll save extended descriptions for later, but thought I’d help to have an overview up front. Titles are tentative. (They’re kind of clunky, even if descriptive, so I’ll see if I can do better later.)

Series: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse

Part 1. Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations. Real-world problems in discerning what constitutes a toxic organization, who is a spiritually abusive leader, and what to do about them and others who keep a harmful system going.

Part 2. The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Systems of Spiritual Abuse. When it comes to spiritual abuse, who has higher or lower responsibility/accountability and for what – whether they are leaders preaching from the pulpit, or people sitting in the pews, or outside individuals and organizations that keep a sick system propped up.

Part 3. Onlookers Aren’t Necessarily Innocent ~ Moving Toward a Theology of Complicity. This moves from questions and initial ideas of how to organize observations, to figuring out relevant biblical concepts about levels of responsibility when things turn malignant in a ministry. The issues I’ll be dealing with arise out of my own experiences of figuring out responsibilities I had for reconciliation and restitution as a result of involvement in several churches that turned out to be toxic.

There may be a Part 4, Current Case Studies from Abuse Survivor Communities ~ Looking for Larger Patterns. Several situations have dominated the focus of spiritual abuse survivor communities the past few years, and there are some patterns emerging on use of “digital dissent” and online documentation to push back on people/organizations who need to be accountable for the harm they inflict under a guise of righteousness.

Okay, now on to Part 1 …

Part 1. Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery

for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations.

I posted the following questions on my Facebook page a few weeks ago. Some questions are specifically with the Mars Hill Church situation in mind, others apply there but are also general issues that come up with any individual or organization that seems to have problems with abusiveness and toxicity.

This is the original list, with a question or two added, and minor edits to clarify things. I will not be answering these questions on my blog at this time, as I’m already addressing them in a forthcoming book to spiritual abuse and recovery that I’ve been working on since 2009. This is simply to show you what questions I’ve had, with the hope that they could perhaps spark some new thoughts for you.

[UPDATE 08-24-2014. I published this post earlier today, before the announcement by Mark Driscoll about his leave during investigations of the formal charges brought against him. I may write additional posts about the situation there, or include that in the tentative Part 4 of this series, as it is a case study I have been tracking since 2008. Meanwhile, I’ll suggest that even having the list of relevant questions here can be helpful in analyzing and interpreting the situation there.]

1. What factors and character issues make it easier or harder for someone to experience significant transformation when they’ve demonstrated deep-seated problems over a relatively long period of time, and have refused to heed a series of prior warnings?

2. What indicators help us discern whether an organization that’s become toxic can be repaired and renovated, might be partly salvaged if dismantled, or definitely needs to be shut-down?

3. Why are you writing about this about Mars Hill when you don’t go there?

4. Is the Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll situation really as simple – or as complicated – as some people seem to think?

5. What’s happened that could/should disqualify Mark Driscoll from public roles of leadership at this time?

6. He’s a gifted guy and done a lot of good. Shouldn’t that be taken into account?

7. Why are people outside of Mars Hill “jumping on the bandwagon” against him at this time, and doesn’t that ultimately hurt how the world views the Church?

8. When it comes to removing a leader who is abusing his power/authority, you talk about documentation, verification, and reconciliation. What is that about, and what do you mean by those terms?

9. Is Mars Hill sound, organizationally speaking?

10. Mars Hill is a member of ECFA (Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability). Doesn’t that count for something?

11. What about other organizations connected somehow with Mars Hill – do you think they should dissociate themselves from Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill, and why or why not?

12. Is Mars Hill a “cult” – and what constitutes a cult anyway?

13. From your outsider perspective as a student of both abuse of power and toxic organizational systems, what sources would you recommend for getting a perspective on this that’s as balanced as possible?

14. If these problems have supposedly been going on for a long time, why does all this push-back seem to be happening now?

15. What are the standards of evidence for figuring out spiritual abuse – for churches and for non-profits?

16. What can a congregation do if they do not wish to be subject to governmental regulations?

17. If Mark Driscoll and his other two executive elders end up no longer at Mars Hill, will that fix the organizational problems? Or, would there be more to do then, and if so, what?

18. In a personal or organizational transformation process, what exactly needs to be adjusted, and how?

19. Mark Driscoll co-founded the Acts29 Network, which recently removed all Mars Hill Churches from membership. Does that action mean they’ve done enough to clear their organization of responsibility?

20. Seems like a lot more people are distancing themselves from Mark Driscoll these days, and even talking about how it was supposedly obvious that he had problems years back, perhaps even enough to disqualify him from ministry leadership. If these people apparently knew that back then, why weren’t they being so vocal? Whether they challenged him in person privately back then or not, aren’t they partially responsible for his continuing to inflict harm on people during all the years in between? What would they need to do to make things right?

Note: Just so you know, I’ve already worked out one- to two-paragraph responses to almost all of these questions. I may post those at some future point, but not for a while at least, so you have a chance to wrestle through them yourself. I wouldn’t want to remove the learning experience of your doing this very practical “homework” to practice being a Berean!

Questions from Friends

The following questions come from friends of mine and they are presented here with their permission. These are very astute people, and I appreciate the hearts and minds for the Kingdom that I know undergird their concerns.

From “Celtic Son,” who is active in leading a church in Australia:

1. IF indicators do lead us to discern that an organization that’s become toxic CAN be repaired and renovated, what processes are there that can be engaged to redeem the organisation?

2. The church should operate in certain areas on a different set of moral values from the general society that the church is located in – how do we determine what those values are? What measures should the church engage to determine what aspects of behaviour or attitude from a leader in a church compromises church moral values, even if it complies with a society’s standards?

3. How could outsiders, particularly Christians who have genuine concern about the reputation of “the church” in the wider community, contribute meaningfully to this discussion with a redemptive outcome in mind?

4. It’s regularly said that “hurt people hurt people,” in what ways might we consider understanding and support for leaders who are abusive as the consequence of themselves being victims of abuse?

5. What could a reinstatement process look like for someone who has been removed from leadership of a Christian church or organisation, because of their abusive use of power?

6. What level of personal and corporate responsibility applies to co-leaders who fail to voice concerns about abuse of power when it is happening – and particularly in the case of people who appear to “jump on the bandwagon” after the fact?

7. What level of personal responsibility applies to people in a church congregation who fail to voice concerns about abuse of power when it is happening – and particularly in the case of people who appear to “jump on the bandwagon” after the fact?

8. With such a wide ranging understanding of Biblical teaching and published Christian materials, who has the right to make the significant point of accusing another of “heresy” and how should that be determined?

From Rachel Collinson:

9. Is there anything one can do to assist in the redemptive process of a leader about whom they are concerned?

Concluding Notes …

Thanks for your interest. I may respond to comments as time allows … but cannot guarantee doing so, due to an intense writing schedule and deadlines. For details on how I run my comments section, see the Comment Policies page.

[UPDATES: This post has been edited to correct minor mistakes, update the probable titles of subsequent posts, add a few notes, and insert (with their permission) questions posed by some friends of mine.]

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 2A

The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems

Originally published August 24, 2014

Part 2A

  • Section 1. Culpability, Complicity, and a Pyramid of Responsibility
    • Power and Its Abuse, In Social and Spiritual Settings
    • What is “Spiritual Abuse” and Who is “Abusive”?
    • Moving from Culpability to Complicity
    • Why Does a Mayan Pyramid Capture Such Systems?
"Mayan Temple" © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

“Mayan Temple” © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

Section 1. Culpability, Complicity, and a Pyramid of Responsibility

Power and Its Abuse, In Social and Spiritual Settings

I’ve been considering issues of power and its misuse for a very long time – over 40 years, in fact. I had my first taste of studies on social dissent in high school senior history. It was the era of Watergate, and I found myself highly engaged in understanding the practices of investigative reporting. I’d long been interested in politics. (In fact, at the age of nine, I’d asked my parents if I could go to my first local political meeting!) And I’d kept up with national and international news for some years by the time the news of Watergate broke.

In college, I took my first formal course in Political Sociology. I had to get special permission to enroll in the course, as it was an upper-division class and I was a lowly freshman with only Sociology 101 to my credit. I found the studies of values, political systems, and change fascinating. I became intrigued with totalitarian systems especially, and a decade later, was accepted into a master’s program in international relations with an intended focus on Sino-Soviet studies. (It didn’t work out, which was sad at the time but turned out all for the best in the long run.)

A few years into my undergraduate program, my horizons on power abuse got expanded from the political to the spiritual. This was due to an unexpected but horrible event. A friend of mine – I’ll call him “Conrad” – had his faith shattered in a hyper-charismatic church that was part of the Shepherding Movement.

The leaders of the church controlled key life decisions for its members, and the founder-apostle-pastor of the church and his wife got a notion that Conrad would be a great match for a particular young woman in the congregation. Wanting to be obedient to God by being obedient to his overseers, Conrad married the woman – six weeks after being introduced to her. This did not go as the shepherds expected and it was disastrous. The last conversation I had with Conrad was short and poignant as he broke down over what was happening, and he didn’t know that counseling would fix this. He disappeared from the campus shortly after that, and I don’t know what became of him. Eventually, though, that particular church became listed by cult-watch groups. This all turned my attention to the dangers of so-called discipleship that was actually a system of life-dictation-by-leaders that removed personal opportunities and responsibilities for freedom in discernment and decision-making.

These two anecdotes capsulize some of what has captured my attention for the past 40 years. In my reflections on the intersections of social, political, religious, and organizational overcontrol – and my own unfortunate involvements in “malignant ministries” – I’ve come to one main conclusion:

Not every “sociological cult” of control is a theological or religious cult, but every theological/religious cult displays totalist control methods over its members, just like a sociological cult does over its citizens.

That opens a huge topic, but it is crucial to understanding the dynamics of authoritarian organizations, systems, and societies. Research on what a sociological cult is has been available since the early 1960s, primarily in the writings of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. His work has helped me immensely in seeing the bridges between secular and spiritual forms of abuse of trust, authority, and power; and in processing the social and organizational aspects of my own experiences with spiritual abuse.

What is “Spiritual Abuse” and Who is “Abusive”?

The essence of spiritual abuse lies in intimidating, forcing, coaxing, and/or seducing people to the point where they turn over control of their life to you – and then you can do whatever you want with them that benefits your own selfish purposes, even if those purposes have every appearance of being all for Jesus and for His Kingdom.

Such abuse of people for your purposes removes their right and responsibility to self-determination. You remove their function of discernment and deciding. You limit who they associate with, and what are acceptable beliefs, values, and behaviors.

It’s not just that your hijacking of a life is merely unacceptable. It’s utterly insidious. Despicable. Evil! If you do this to someone, you are a life-thief, an emotional vampire, sucking the soul right out of others and replacing their will with your own. You may not be trafficking their body, but you are enslaving their spirit.

This is called spiritual abuse for at least two reasons. First, it happens in a religious context and is justified with religious language – even though similar dynamics happen in political, societal, and cultural settings. Second, it puts a human in the role of God, dictating what must be done as if it is divine will. Theologically speaking, it removes the rights and responsibilities of every disciple of Jesus Christ to act as his/her own priest before God, and substitutes a dictator-pastor-elder as a new mediator between the believer and his/her Lord. It reenacts the heretical overlording control practices of the Shepherding Movement, just like I saw happen so many years ago with my friend Conrad.

Ironically, taking on a role as spiritual overlord is also inhumane. Besides removing victims’ human right of choice, it reduces them to mere contributors of bits of energy to promote the perpetrators’ grand schemes. From decades of my own experiences with spiritual abuse and years of research writing on this since 2008, three things are clear to me:

  • Abusers at that level are without pangs of conscience over the harm they inflict.
  • They are also without compassion for the emotional and spiritual pain they implant.
  • Their culpability becomes fairly clear eventually through both their negative actions and their negligence.

To be responsible for something means to be answerable and accountable for it. These days, we see many people who ARE responsible nevertheless refuse to be answerable for their perpetrating of spiritual abuse. Similarly, people who keep a sick organizational system going, and thus perpetuate the abuse and the abusers, likewise act as if they have absolutely no responsibility for their apparent complicity.

And what about these others people who prop up a sick system? Are all bystanders and pew-sitters actually enablers? Do they accrue some level of blame and moral complicity for keeping the perpetrators in place? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been wrestling with as I attempt to excavate and interpret the landscape of abuse.

Moving from Culpability to Complicity

These days, spiritual abuse survivors are getting more agitated with “secondary people” who keep such toxic systems propped up by supporting the “primary perpetrators.” Those in the pews are not in leadership roles, yet their financial giving and their in-church and online presence helps perpetuate a system that keeps grinding out more victims. The word complicit shows up far more often online these days in reference to them.

But what does complicit mean, really? In general terms, it’s about bearing at least some blame for what happens. We get our word accomplice from the same Latin root – which is related to the word complex as well. So, in a church, ministry, or religious non-profit setting, complicity in abuse means sharing some level of responsibility for the crushing of someone’s spirit – even if you’ve had no direct involvement with the actions or inactions that inflicted such harm.

I’ve been watching the spiritual abuse survivors’ scene online closely since 2008. My gut intuition is that the agitation, push-back, and even animosity has been growing stronger year by year, and has become far more public. And now, it clearly extends beyond the obvious target of people to blame in a particular church or ministry. Now under greater scrutiny are those I’ve termed Commenders – which I defined in an earlier post [see the chart near the bottom] as outsider people of prominence who “use their reputation and organizations to promote Dictators, and oppose Survivors and their Defenders, as complicit partners, not unwitting pawns.” So, Commenders choose to prop up another leader or system that does not deserve it. They can recommend such malignant ministers and ministries various ways:

  • Openly endorsing the questionable colleague by lending the weight of their own personal reputation and their organization’s resources.
  • Including these colleagues in a network or association.
  • Remaining silent when legitimate questions of qualifications arise.
  • Attempting to intimidate any who challenge their colleague, such as by labeling them as “bitter,” or “theologically deficient,” or “jealous.”
  • Refusing to take any kind of disciplinary action themselves when overwhelming documentation makes it clear there is no question of abusiveness.

After several years of reflection, I’ve concluded that Commenders of colleagues who prove themselves disqualified by abusive actions and bad character from positions of leadership are complicit in the victimization of people who followed their recommendations. Commenders are among the propagators who protect the perpetrators of abuse – and thus keep these Dictators in their reigns of control.

Why Does a Mayan Pyramid Capture Such Systems?

That may seem like a lot of random pieces. But that’s how things often work for people with the particular dominant learning styles like I have. Somehow, it eventually synthesizes into something more coherent. And for me, that seems to be when I create a chart or graphic, or find some kind of image or analogy that brings things together.

In processing all this information on abuse and abusers from my research and experiences, I eventually came to the image of a Mayan temple as a good “governing metaphor.” It seems to illustrate well my observations and interpretations. I considered many kinds of pyramids. But I chose Mayan temples for their unique architectural features. They have long staircases, plus periodic platforms that segment the pyramid into layers. Each layer features a ledge that sticks out and blocks some of the view of what’s above from those who stand below. Also, the top is so high up that those with a vantage point lower down can’t really observe what’s going on up there.

Altogether, I felt those concrete features seemed to capture symbolically the kinds of dynamics embodied in a toxic, hierarchical organizational system. It fit the understanding I’d gradually developed of how toxic systems work. For instance:

  • There is the (small) possibility for a few people to move up the chain of command, getting to higher levels of involvement and influence.
  • But there are also blocks along the way.
  • And very few people are allowed to get near the top, so what goes on at the highest echelons of power is typically shrouded in secrecy.
  • People at lower levels are often purposely kept ignorant of the inner workings of the system.
  • But the “plebes” are also given enough perks to keep them involved enough to support its continuance.

Also, when there is such a magnificent edifice that stands out from all its surroundings, some kinds of people will always be almost magnetically drawn in. Who will resist and stay away from even the outer courtyard – and who will be attracted in and begin the climb from low-level complicity for this system, potentially to ascend to high-level culpability for it?

Take another look at the Mayan Temple image and see what you think …

"Mayan Temple" © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

“Mayan Temple” © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

Anyway, time to get specific about the Pyramid and the roles people play therein – so here we go! (Next, in Post #2: The rest of Part 2.)

Meanwhile, if you’d like some more background, I’d suggest reading: Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage versus Agents of Healing.

Thanks for your interest. I may respond to comments as time allows … but cannot guarantee doing so, due to an intense writing schedule and deadlines. For details on how I run my comments section, see the Comment Policies page.

All images licensed by Brad Sargent from Fotolia.

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 2B

The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems

Originally published August 24, 2014

Part 2B

  • Section 2. What’s the Big Picture of the Pyramid of Responsibility?
  • Section 3. Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability
  • Section 4. Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability
  • Section 5. Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers – Moderate Culpability/Complicity
  • Section 6. Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity
  • Suggested Readings/Resources

Section 2. What’s the Big Picture of the Pyramid of Responsibility?

The Pyramid of Responsibility (c) 2014 Brad Sargent.

[All 10 illustrations in the Pyramid are © Scott Maxwell and usage is licensed from Fotolia. See details on each illustration when shown individually below.]

You might be expecting for me to lay out my theology first. Instead, I have based this post on personal experiences, because my learning styles are geared to “action-reflection” more than to “theory-into-practice.” From what I experience, I develop real-world questions that launch me into the Scriptures to explore for relevant concepts that respond to those questions. I believe that helps ensure that whatever theology I come up with covers both beliefs and behaviors. And I’ve been involved with “malignant ministries” from some very different systems. The 10 roles here come from things I’ve witnessed in all of them.

Here is how I set up my “Pyramid of Responsibility.” I put the highest level of direct involvement and therefore attributed blame (i.e., culpability) to the few in the very top Layer. Down at the bottom Layers are the lowest levels of direct abuse and therefore of culpability, but the highest levels of complicity for keeping the system afloat and therefore supporting spiritual abuse/abusers indirectly.

Here is a reference list of the Layers and the 10 roles.

Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability

  • Dictators

Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability

  • Enforcers
  • Commenders
  • Beneficiaries

Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers – Moderate Culpability/Complicity

  • Negators
  • Diverters
  • Silencers

Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity

  • Avoiders
  • Applauders
  • Pawns

Keep in mind that one person could potentially play multiple roles. [Optional Homework: For a fascinating example of how a single person can be any or even all of these roles, watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. After reviewing all 10 roles in this post, see what dialog lines you can find from Dolores Umbridge that fit with each role.]

As a final note in this section, this is not a formula – it’s a heuristic, a rule of thumb … a “fuzzy logic” framework that doesn’t work from a rigid checklist. So, try applying this in situations of spiritual abuse where you’ve been able to see different people in various roles, and see how well it seems to work for you, and maybe adjust accordingly.

Section 3. Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability

“Sitting In Hovering Futuristic Chair” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #12391425.

DICTATORS. “Sitting In Hovering Futuristic Chair” © Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #12391425.

DICTATORS are the people at the top of the Pyramid of Responsibility. They are the main ones who perpetrate the abuse, whether demonstrated directly through their own words and deeds or indirectly through the actions and inactions of those whom they highly influence or even command/control. Dictators rarely function totally alone. They typically act as the authoritarian leader who heads up a rigid hierarchy. The system they create divides leaders from “laypeople,” king from his subjects, prophets from their followers. Even an oligarchy – a group of people who run the show for a system – usually has one person whom it looks to as their chief visionary or strategist.

In the final analysis, it takes Dictators a lot of practice to get into positions of authority over people. Thus, they often appear to have no conscience or compassion in how they treat people. So, they tend to wound people deeply in making them victims. Their “vision” creates division, their “lead” bleeds, their “service” self-benefits.

Organizationally speaking, it is a clear problem when the “servants” become both shareholders (participants) and stakeholders (recipients) in the non-profit. Non-profits gain IRS tax-exempt status in part by functioning in the public interest. When that changes to operating for private benefit, it is illegal. It’s called inurement, and it can lead to the IRS revoking the privilege of tax-exempt status.

Section 4. Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability

Propagators consist of people inside and outside the organization who keep it going, even if it is toxic and people associated with it are treated abusively. They are “promoters of the 1%,” i.e., their main concern is to make things better for the Dictators and for themselves.

Propagators constitute a parasitic elite (oligarchy) who personally reap the most from the system and the underlings who support it, whether they are directly inside the system (Perpetuators) or collaborate with it through formal partnerships or personal relationships (Commenders). Either way, they gain a combination of money, power, and/or prestige from their relationship with the Dictators and other key leaders. This puts them in continual situations of conflict of interest. If they fail to protect the top Layers’ people, or if they disclose their secrets, they put their own resources and power at jeopardy.

ENFORCERS shield their Dictators from challenges and criticism, carry out their whims as commands, and protect them with plausible deniability. They are strategic, though, and only do what is personally necessary to keep others in the system in line. The rest of the dirty work, they leave to the wannabe “leaders” in Layer #3. Because they gain a lot of Pyramid resources from their role, they could be considered loyal mercenaries.

COMMENDERS are people of prominence from outside the organization, for instance, publishers, network facilitators, and event organizers. They use their personal reputation and their organization’s resources to promote Dictators and their visionary agendas. They are aware and culpable partners – not unwitting pawns – and tend to oppose any abuse Survivors and their Defenders through deflection and stonewalling about the Dictators. This means that Commenders gain some of the benefits that both Enforcers and Benefitters do, while carrying out the defensive parts of both roles.

BENEFITTERS get undue preferential treatment, power, prestige, and goods based on their personal relationship with the Dictators. They can be personal friends or professional associates (cronyism) or family (nepotism). Culpability at this Layer suggests they are willingly on board with the program of the Pyramid, and indulge in the benefits. In order to stay on the good side of the Dictators, Benefitters tend to openly support the Dictators, along with their strategies and structures and projects. That makes them not merely a low-level Applauder who goes along because they don’t know any better.

Final thought: Everyone in an organization perpetuates the system in some way, with a greater or lesser degree of knowledge and intention, regardless of whether they are in a paid or volunteer position.

Section 5. Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers –

Moderate Culpability/Complicity

Extinguishers and Reinforcers are people in the middle of the Pyramid of Responsibility. They’re not in the top echelons of leadership or benefit. However, they willingly take on the duties for insulating the upper Layers from the underlings, and for maintaining discipline to the organization among those at and below their own status. They care about the organization appearing to be perfect, and so they are forceful in various ways to impress the importance of conformity on others. They deflect criticism and protect the system. All of this means they promote the Pyramid. They are not mere hirelings, but active accomplices – hence, they are complicit (which comes from the same Latin root as accomplice) and not just culpable. This is true even if they play these roles voluntarily, due to their uncritical loyalty to Dictators and/or the organization.

NEGATORS attack people at their point of personal identity. They use guilt, shame, and fear to implant doubts that dehumanize, demonize, and demoralize. These are the Extinguisher / Reinforcer types who call people demeaning names, put negative labels on them, slam their character (for example, calling them “bitter” to put them on the defense).

DIVERTERS block people’s activity. They push others to do what the Dictators want, and prevent people from doing what they would otherwise have decided to do.

SILENCERS seal off people’s expressity. Like human duct tape, they shush people and tell them what they can’t say and what they must say. To keep things quiet, they falsely label truth-telling and criticism as “gossip.”

Section 6. Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity

Underlings at the Layer #4 level may have been more concerned about their possible ascent up the staircase to the next levels than about squelching any dissent they run into around them. They are relatively more ignorant – by choice, as with Avoiders, or by chance – of the issues involved in the organization, yet still make some kind of contribution to keeping it going. After all, “success” and “growth” is often measured by numbers of people involved and by amount of funds raised. So, even at this lowest Layer, a person’s presence and their presents/donations make a difference in keeping the system afloat. If there is a system melt-down, the people at Layer #4, and perhaps Layer #3, would seem the most likely to experience the greatest amount of confusion over what’s happening and why.

AVOIDERS are aware of obvious evil in the Dictators’ system, but refuse to challenge it. They overlook it as if feigned ignorance or pushing down their own cognitive dissonance protects them.

APPLAUDERS are enthralled by the Dictators and with the organization. They only perceive what they interpret as good to proclaim in their systems, and stay oblivious to its bad.

PAWNS are truly ignorant of evil in the system, and may even be relative newcomers to the system. But the organization needs Pawns as followers and for finances to legitimize and fund the Dictators.

Suggested Readings/Resources

See the following posts and explore some of the links in each to start going deeper into what’s within the Pyramid of Responsibility, and initial thoughts on the processes and meaning of recovery.

Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage Versus Agents of Healing.

Safe Versus Abusive Environments for Transformation.

What’s coming next in Part 3 – Onlookers Aren’t Necessarily Innocent ~ Moving Toward a Theology of Complicity and Recovery. 

  • Section 7. X-Raying the Pyramid of Responsibility: What is an Underlying Theology of Culpability and Complicity?
  • Section 8. What Draws People to/into the Pyramid System?
  • Section 9. How Do People Advance Themselves to Layer #1?
  • Section 10. When the Pyramid Implodes ~ What do the Processes of Restitution and Recovery Look Like?

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3A

Taking Responsibility, Being Conciliatory,

Exploring Just and Appropriate Remedy

Originally published September 13, 2014

Summary: Previous posts in this series about the “Pyramid of Responsibility” looked at who OWNS responsibility for what in a system that’s gone toxic. This post is about who OWNS UP TO their responsibility. It reviews the roles people take in the Pyramid, and examines cultural and organizational ways people might attempt to ooze out of taking responsibility. And it looks at what attitudes are essential for plans to remedy broken relationships and toxic organizations to succeed.

Review of the Pyramid of Responsibility

The section summarizes key points from the “Pyramid of Responsibility” that I developed. For details, see the post on “Pyramid of Responsibility in Toxic Systems.

The Pyramid of Responsibility (c) 2014 Brad Sargent.The Pyramid has four levels of varying responsibility in it. They are, going from the top point to the base:

  • Perpetrators
  • Propagators.
  • Extinguishers and Reinforcers.
  • Enablers and Pawns.

It’s based on the idea that people who play specific roles in a toxic system hold different degrees of responsibility for inflicting harm on people. Those at higher levels of culpability hold responsibility for directly harmful actions. For instance, James 3:1 talks about those who are teachers incurring stronger judgment: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (NIV). Those at the opposite end of the scale have higher levels of complicity as accomplices or pawns and hold lower responsibility for their incidental or indirect actions in support of the toxic system.

There are 10 roles in the Pyramid, and an individual can play multiple roles. The roles are divided out among the four levels or layers. Where a particular role is placed depends on such factors as:

  • Their level of authority, and whether they are more of an official leader or a mere follower.
  • How involved they are with creating and sustaining a toxic system.
  • Whether they act directly or indirectly.
  • Their level of knowledge about what they are doing.

The pinnacle layer of the Pyramid is for Perpetrators – authoritarian Dictators who rule over the toxic system, either through their own direct actions or indirectly through the words and deeds of others below them. They hold the highest culpability (responsibility) because they are in charge – by design, by directives, by deeds.

The second layer is Propagators, with three roles: Enforcers, Commenders, and Benefitters. They are responsible for actively carrying out the design and demands of the Dictators, and/or for benefiting excessively from what the system produces. They don’t necessarily connect directly to exert power and pressure over others, but they are constantly engaged in propping up the system, setting the rules, offering plausible deniability to Dictators. Thus, they incur a high level of culpability for their roles of participating in the domination of others.

The third layer is Extinguishers and Reinforcers, with three roles: Negators, Diverters, and Silencers. They may not even connect directly with the Dictators, but strongly support the system by attempting to control what people can and cannot be, do, and say. This means they carry out a significant amount of the “conditioning” that attempts to keep members locked into the system, and keep them conforming to expectations through behavior modification. So, while they are moderately culpable for what they do, they are also moderately complicit as tools – accomplices – of those above them. They keep the system going, whether from their own internal motivation from being enamored of the leaders, ideals, or system – or from external pressure applied by those above them.

The bottom layer is Enablers and Pawns, with three roles: Avoiders, Applauders, and Pawns. These are underlings, and are the least aware of how their actions relate to the system and, through it, to harming others. They may be relatively new to the toxic system and generally ignorant. Or, they may have been there long enough to either be romanced by it and blind to its faults. Or, they might otherwise perceive its problems but are unwilling to say or do anything about it. So, they have a higher level of complicity and lower overall culpability. They are the necessary “feeders” of the system with their presence and donations.

I would suggest that no one is fully innocent who has been in a toxic system for a while. But the degree of responsibility put on relatively passive onlookers surely shouldn’t be the same as for those who most directly instigate and perpetuate a system of harm.

Four Modes of Responsibility-Shifting

There is a difference between who actually OWNS responsibility for something done wrong or gone wrong – and who legitimately TAKES responsibility for it. In my understanding of the world, someone who causes harm should be accountable for the damage and also for personally remedying the damage. If agents of damage care about personal growth and transformation at all, then they will act responsibly and so a process of remediation through by listening to those they victimized, feeling the personal impact on others of the damage they inflicted, making amends insofar as possible, and putting in place safeguards to help prevent that kind of abuse from happening in the future.

But those who’ve become confirmed bullies rarely own up to their responsibility, or take redemptive steps to repair the damaged they’ve done. Instead, they typically deny any fault, or shift it onto others.

There are at least four modes of shifting accountability for toxic activities. Three correspond to specific kinds of cultures, and the fourth is a general tactic found in organizational systems that are hierarchical.

Responsibility and Cultural Dynamics

Here are three different ways that cultures typically function. Each imposes a usual approach in dealing with “responsibility.” The issue of responsibility can be slipped onto others when there are problems in an unhealthy organizational setting. (And I’d suggest that similar dynamics show up in family, social, and cultural situations as well.) This can especially cause problems when one culture’s “solution” is applied either in another culture’s situation, or as the sole “solution” in a multicultural situation. (My thesis – developed elsewhere – is that an integrative/transcultural approach is needed to address what’s gone wrong, through relational means, in an open and safe environment of equipping people to do right instead of simply punishing people for falling short.)

  • A guilt-based culture focuses attention on what’s right/wrong, and who’s innocent/guilty. So, the leaders need to find out who supposedly did the misdeed, point them out, mete out blame to them, and carry out the required punishment. This process is seen as necessary for restoring equilibrium when the social order goes off kilter from disruptive actions. (Western cultures tend to be guilt-based.)
  • A shame-based culture focuses on harmonious relationships in the group or community, and not causing embarrassment or singling out individuals. So, leaders spread anxiety about someone having done a misdeed to the whole group, so everyone works on improving in order not to lose face or disappoint their leaders. Applying pressure to everyone keeps the social order in constant equilibrium, or so the theory would seem to be. (Asian and other communal cultures tend to be shame-based.)
  • A fear-based culture focuses on who holds power and, therefore, control. So, leaders can deny any personal responsibility (they probably set things up for plausible deniability anyway). They can demote or remove someone other than the actual perpetrator(s), simply because they are in charge and have the power to do so. Their power keeps the social order off kilter, making the peons pay attention, lest they be the next one singled out for punishment. (Any culture can be fear-based, regardless of the governing paradigm, and despite whether the “power” involved is spiritual, political, physical, emotional, etc.)

I’ve had interactions with people from all three of these kinds of cultures, and also delved into related case studies. The dynamics behind these different cultures really are distinctive. They are the kinds of things that create a lot of cross-cultural misunderstandings. And culture clash usually leads to some degree of culture shock. And that can lead to disorientation, exhaustion, dissociation and inappropriate elation, depression, etc. The basic problem is that a mismatch in cultural dynamics can add another level of frustration to the mix if you are trying to sort out a situation where offense or abuse has occurred, and work out how to make things right. (From my own experiences of working to make things right in a cross-cultural situation of hurting someone, these differences in dynamics made it take years longer for our relationship to “normalize.”)

There are potential solutions through cross-cultural communications and intercultural collaborations, but for the purposes here, the key point is just that a clash of cultural systems amplifies the problem of trying to create remediation strategies to mend tears in the social fabric.

Responsibility and Dynamics of Authoritarianism

I’ve seen the fourth mode of responsibility-shifting – systematic plausible deniability – popping up sooner or later in every hierarchical organization I’ve been in that turned out to be authoritarian-controlled.

In essence, the Dictators don’t have to say too specifically what they want to see happen. Others around them get to where they can interpret certain words or phrases or even body language as implicit orders for actions that shield their superiors from direct involvement. This requires a period of “conditioning” to understand the system and a strong enough connection to the Dictators or Propagators to motivate follow-through.

Or devotees of Dictators may even initiate of their own accord actions they believe will help promote or protect the organization. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dolores Umbridge knowingly takes illegal actions that she sincerely thinks will help the Minister of Magic stay in power. When she gets called out on it, she simply says, “What Cornelius doesn’t know, can’t hurt him.”

Just because responsibility shifts away from culpable and complicit persons doesn’t make the reality of the injustice go away. Sooner or later, evil deeds do come into the light.  “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” (1 Timothy 5:24, NIV.)

What Does it Take for Remediation Actions to Work?

Like so many things in Christian living, the wisest dynamics involve a both/and paradox. Too often we split into an either/or situation, and get into arguments about which ONE is right – when BOTH are actually required. Here are the three attitudes that I believe are essential to making remediation (i.e., remedies for harmful actions and their impact) work well.

  • 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 involved can work toward a healthy process that produces social justice and restored relationships.

It doesn’t work when those who inflict harm (or their defenders) shut down dialog and/or demand that perpetrators 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 of the perpetrator.

Likewise, it doesn’t work when victims (or their advocates) shut out what may be sincere attempts to make amends, and/or demand severity or specific punishments up front. That isn’t being conciliatory; it’s being punitive. It may seem like protecting and advocating for the victims, but it’s ultimately a reversal of the Golden Rule that suggests survivors should do to their abusers what was done to 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 peace-makers” mean, if it isn’t about working together to bring Christlike redemption to situations of extreme brokenness? It does not mean there are no consequences to those who inflict harm and spiritually abuse others. What it does mean is that people divided by evil cannot find appropriate reconciliation strategies if they come to the table with an untouched conscience or with a lack of compassion toward the other. It will not work without humility 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 both 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 reconciliation looks like, when it’s led by such a person of peace? How can we see what it takes in both attitudes and actions to accomplish restoration?

If you’re interested in working through a significant case study, I’d highly recommend the movie Invictus about the Springbok’s Rugby team in post-apartheid South Africa winning the World Cup in 1995. Get the Blu-ray edition of Invictus and, after you’ve watched the movie, go back to the Blu-ray exclusive Picture-in-Picture feature. You’ll hear important interview clips from the book author, screenwriter, director, producer, main actors, and the real people on whom the characters are based. They give insights into the process that brought together a nation that had been formally divided from 1948-1994, with racial conflicts from white domination of blacks going back centuries before that.

Follow that by watching the PBS documentary Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle. It uses a few clips from Invictus, and features interviews with some of the same individuals, and other central political figures from that era. It goes into greater depth on the reconciliation strategy and process, the importance of survivors sharing their stories and being heard, and of perpetrators coming to express their remorse and being heard. It is an extraordinary account of what spared a nation from destruction in a fragile moment when it was still on the dire edge of deep animosity and division, and inspired hope.

That combination provides the overall contours of what it looks like to draw upon and draw out the good will of people involved in a reconciliation process. But what do the specifics look like, in terms of strategies for reconciliation – and what do those look like in action related to interrelations and organizations?

Part 3B in this series looks at frameworks of concepts for building a comprehensive “remediation plan” in the setting of what’s become a toxic organization. It lays out four levels to consider: personal growth and recovery, peace-making in personal relationships, qualified leadership in the organization, and how to discern whether that toxic organization should even survive.

Part 3C shares some of my own personal experiences of dealing with owning my responsibility for causing damage in relationships, and taking up my responsibility for repairing them. It includes examples from all four levels explored in Part 3B.

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3B

Steps 1-2-3 – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums

for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan”

Originally published September 16, 2014

OVERVIEW: Part 3B – Steps 1-2-3 develops a set of questions and concept frameworks to help us build a comprehensive “remediation [remedy] strategy” to address recovery issues both for organizations that have become toxic and for the people who control them. It begins with a few key ideas for analyzing problem situations for patterns. Then it looks at a general continuum for thinking through how healthy or sick a person is, using analogies like injury triage, hospitalization, and recuperation. It extends that health/toxicity continuum analogy to parallel situations in organizational systems.

Part 3C – Steps 4-5 sets up the frameworks to apply to four specific layers in a system that needs healing – whether the healing needed by leaders and organization is relatively slight, or all the way to very substantial:

  1. How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.
  2. How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.
  3. How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.
  4. How to discern whether an organization that toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

Part 3C also suggests appropriate responses to recovery processes by both perpetrators who are truly repentant and their victims who are receptive to reconciliation and restitution. It concludes with some ideas and questions to consider before we launch into creating a remediation plan that involves specific Christian leaders and organizations.

Step 1 – “Remediation” and the Language of Recovery

As I worked on this article, I found myself using a lot of vocabulary that starts with “re-.” Repair. Restore. Reconcile. Restitution. Renovate. Reclamation. Rehabilitation. I’m not particularly fond of alliteration. But, gradually, this series of over a dozen re- words made more sense. Actually, there was hardly any way around it. “Re-” is from a Latin prefix that means do again, repeat, go back to, cycle through. So they make sense since our subject is about how to return unhealthy people, toxic systems, and sick cultures to relative health.

You might be wondering why I chose remediation as my main descriptor of a strategy to reinstill health, instead of repentance. I have two key reasons.

First, repentance would be the expected term, but too often we’ve used the expected term too often, and so it has lost its meaning. It’s too easy for readers to skip over such words because they assume they know what I would mean by it – even if I spent time defining and describing it. (At least, I know I do that when I read, if I’m not as engaged with someone’s material as I should be.) Remediation is a rare word, though its relative word, remedy, reflects through. An unfamiliar term causes us to slow down and pay attention to its description.

Second, the definition of repentance is typically seen as something along the lines of “have a change of heart or thinking, regret, make a change.” Those are all relatively abstract ideas, a theoretical turning, a point. I was looking for something that implied concrete steps, a practical plan, a process.

How people misuse repentance to mean a point of supposed change, but without any kind of ongoing transformation process? For instance, as if giving an apology is all that’s needed to “repent,” when the damage done should require substantial work in reconciling the relationship, and potentially even restitution to restore what was taken by the sin involved. That’s why a lot of rehabilitation plans don’t work; the underlying idea of repentance is too weak. They look at one particular point of action only, such as an apology. But then there isn’t much attention given to follow-up evidence of a supposed change of heart or mind or actions to minimize the sin from happening again, and again, and again. To which I’d say, “A point without a process is pointless.”

So I chose remediation, which Dictionary.com defines as “the correction of something bad or defective.” When flaws are fixed, it tends to be observable. And this post deals with external indicators that we can see lived out – points and patterns in a person’s behaviors, and processes and procedures in system transformations. So, Remediation Plan it is … a practical way to heal wounds and cure illnesses, remove evil and restore right functions.

Step 2 – The Problem of Points and Patterns,

Processes and Procedures: Figuring Out Character

from Snapshots and Videos, Plotlines and Rewinds

When it comes to personal transformation, we Christians seem to have a problem with the differentiating points, patterns, and processes. We merge them together, or act as if the smaller thing is the larger thing.

Kind of like the example I used above, about a point of apology being taken as a full process of repentance. I see that happen frequently in push-back against calling out leaders whose actions are spiritually abusive. “He took responsibility and apologized for _ _ _ _ _ [fill in the blank with the offense]. What more do you want?”

But doesn’t the New Testament tell us that transformation (i.e., sanctification) is a continual process while we are on this earth? How is it that suddenly one small part inflates into the whole? It’s kind of like suggesting that the moon is as important as the sun (or more important), instead of realizing its light is just a reflection of the sun.

To help get around this problem, I use the concepts of snapshots and videos, plotlines and rewinds, to illustrate some differences among points, patterns, and processes. (If you want more details later, see my Futuristguy Tutorial on Transformation.)

There are various sayings around like, “Character is how you act when no one is watching.” And while I’d suggest that motives can matter, it’s also true that we can deceive ourselves. We can be alone or with others, and still think we’re doing something good for utterly right reasons, when actually what we’re doing is bad. So, ultimately, our actions (and inactions) – compared to the standards we say we live by – are what demonstrate our character. Good intentions fueled by the Holy Spirit’s work in us, should motivate us to improve our positive consistency in righteous actions over time.

Think of an action being like snapshot that captures the context of what happened, where it was and who was there, and what we did/didn’t do. Say that we take two photos of similar actions from 15 years apart, and put them side by side and compared them. What does it say about who we are if there is no real difference between the two – other than our age? Consistency. But what if we’re doing something detrimental in both of them? Or something virtuous in both?

What if the two photos aren’t alike, even though they’re in the same kind of context, but one has us doing something harmful and the other something helpful? What does that show? Change. But what would it mean if the helpful one is older, and the harmful one is now? How about vice versa?

Two photos 15 years apart can tell you something, but they’re only just two points of documentation. It’d be easier if we had more snapshots, taken over time, and lined up chronologically so we could compare and contrast things over time. Then we move from points to patterns. Maybe then we’d see something like a lot of older photos showing harmful actions, but gradually fewer of those as we get closer to the present. Or maybe we’ll see the same buddies showing up in a lot of the photos. What could that mean? Does the person we’re watching only do certain things when those friends are around? Are they enmeshed so much that they’re negative influences, or are they “soul friends” who’ve journeyed together for years and spurred each other to transformation?

Maybe it’d be even easier in a lot of ways if we had a 24/7/365 video of the people we’re watching, to see how they behave over time. Wouldn’t that aid us in seeing the course of their life, where they came from and where they’re going (despite the mountain of information a life video would mean we’d have to sift through to figure it out)? As an alternative, the larger the series of snapshots we get over time, the more like a video it becomes. Either way – large photo series or life video – we can run it forward from the start to see where the person’s going, or run it backward from a present picture to see where they came from.

So, this is all about a trajectory of transformation. In applying it to a ministry leader’s character, how were they behaving at the outset of their ministry, and how is now different from then? And the biggest question: How do both the before and after pictures compare with biblical requirements for leaders? That, I would argue, is at the core of figuring out how healthy or sick that individual leaders are. And that assessment helps us know whether they are qualified (at least meet the minimum criteria for maturity and for practical skills), unqualified (due to immaturity, but still could grow toward being qualified), or disqualified (due to patterns of behaviors that inflict damage).

And we can use a similar time-lapse photography concept to figure out how safe or toxic an organization is for the people who are part of it. If an organization were like a barn or other building, is the building in the latest picture renovated, or dilapidated? Is it structurally sound, or about to fall down? Similar kinds of analyses could help us see if there are minor problems that can easily be fixed, all the way to structural problems so complex and corrosive that it’s best to condemn and close it so it doesn’t lead to harm.

When I think of churches, ministries, and agencies in this way, I usually do picture them as a building. Do they need repair? Renovation? Dismantling? Demolishing? But when I think of leaders and those they commit to serve, I usually think of injuries and illnesses. Will this take only minor amounts of effort to correct? Or some significant time in recovery and recuperation? Or large amounts of effort and rehabilitation?

Step 3 – Injuries and Illnesses: Slight or Severe?

Temporary or Chronic? Superficial or Systemic?

That analogy of how spiritual wounds are similar to physical wounds comes kind of easily. In my middle-school and high school years, I was in Boy Scouts. One of the important things we learned in first aid was a basic triage order for addressing injuries: bleeding, breathing, poison, shock. That’s been modified in some ways during the decades since then. (In fact, I find the different international triage systems in use now to be fascinating!). But the bleeding-breathing-poison-shock line was a useful framework for hikes and campouts, following the principle of dealing fastest with whatever’s the deadliest. (And we lived in rattlesnake country, so yes, snakebite kits were part of our first aid packs.)

It would be so much easier for treatment and recovery if all spiritual wounds and diseases had obvious external signs to tell of their existence and the extent of damage. But they don’t. And so much about the “impact of sin” is abstract, conceptual – it makes it too easy to negate the reality of concrete damage done. Real people fade into virtual statistics and we minimize the severity of our victimizing. We don’t listen to their personal story of how our actions impacted their lives for ill. We don’t spend time to see and hear what we have done. We don’t invest in caring for them and their recovery from the wounds we inflicted. We issue a generic, impersonal apology to assuage our supposedly small guilt, and think that’s sufficient, when in reality that just adds cruel insult to deep injury.

In fact, thinking through the concrete results of sin and evil in terms of injuries (points) and illnesses (processes) makes the people less objectified and gives the actual impact more weight. For instance, we don’t normally think of an apology for sarcastic words as any big deal. Maybe we should. The word sarcasm comes from Greek roots literally meaning to “rip flesh.” Metaphorically, our sharp words cut chasms into someone’s soul. If someone came up and sliced you with a knife, do you think it would be enough for them just to say then, “Ohhhh. I gave you a boo-boo. So sorry! Here’s a band-aidpology …”

Here’s a chart I made to reflect on ways that physical maladies relate with spiritual maladies, and what it would take for remedies. It covers different types of issues (injuries, infections, invasions, toxins, deficiencies) and a spectrum of increasing degrees of damage/healing. There are some gaps in it, and maybe I’ve even missed some whole categories of maladies. Like so many things in life, I’m still working on filling in the gaps … But anyway, here is the chart, followed by some questions to spark reflection and discussion. [Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Thinking Through Physical and Spiritual Maladies © 2014 Brad Sargent

Thinking Through Physical and Spiritual Maladies © 2014 Brad Sargent

  1. What is your gut response to the idea of there being parallels between physical and spiritual maladies? Does that seem to apply for individuals as well as to for organizations?
  2. What words or phrases would you suggest to capture what you feel are the parallels?
  3. What are your general observations about this chart? Anything missing that you’d add in? Anything you feel is extraneous that you’d leave out?
  4. Which kinds of physical damages have you endured? What do you think could be spiritual abuse parallels to that?
  5. How do you think these categories or elements relate to personal recovery and recuperation from spiritual damages?
  6. What do you see as characteristics of people who do well as “healers”?
  7. Even if we aren’t “healers” to a high level of proficiency, what kinds of things can we be and do and say as friends to those dealing with the results of physical or spiritual damage?
  8. If someone you knew refused treatment for something in the far left column, whether physical or spiritual, how could you help them see their need to move toward healing?
  9. What about if their malady was in the middle column? Would you do things differently to challenge them?
  10. How about if it was in the far right column?
  11. What parallels do you see between physical maladies for individuals, and how they relate to the spiritual condition of institutions?
  12. What aspects of personal healing do or don’t seem to carry over to toxic organizations?

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3C

Step 4 – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums

for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan”

Originally published September 19, 2014

Step 4. Focusing in on “Repentance”

So, here we are. Most of what I think are key elements are in place for us to think through multiple levels for leaders who need healing, and systems that need repairing. There are just a few more preliminaries about repentance, humility, and being conciliatory.

Humility for Perpetrators and Enablers

For transformation processes to work, those who have demonstrated abusive practices need to embrace genuine humility. This is the opposite of pride. It is being:

  • pliable instead of rigid,
  • amenable instead of arrogant,
  • receptive instead of dictating.

In short, it’s the opposite of control.

If leaders who’ve demonstrated their toxicity refuse to listen, if they avoid challengers, if they make excuses for bad behavior, etc., those are indicators of entrenched pride. And the stronger the pride, likely the longer the process of coming to terms with it and the more they extend their time frame for rehabilitation – that is, if it is to be successful at all. Humbled leaders may possibly be returned to a role of role-modeling Christlike character. (Note my use of the passive voice there – be returned – which means once-toxic leaders are not the ones in control of the restoration process.)

This is a big deal. Every abusive leader I’ve encountered in the last 40 years absolutely hates to be seen as weak, not in control, wrong, imperfect. And, given that they’ve found their way into positions of authority where they typically can control other people, they rarely seem to end up positions where they are the least bit vulnerable. And when, by chance or by external situations beyond their control, they end up in a position of disadvantage, they know who and how to manipulate their way out of the problem and back into control.

So, humility is a tough character commodity for them to fake for very long. It’s against their personality and what’s become their public persona. Sooner or later, when pushed beyond their limits, they typically do something that irrevocably demonstrates to anyone listening, or watching, or researching, that they are bullies by nature.

  • They make a misstep that’s permanently captured on social media – tell a lie, berate someone, reveal confidential information.
  • They verbally intimidate someone when they don’t realize others are near enough to overhear their words and the cruelty in their tone of voice.
  • They hand-write and sign an angry letter that accidentally happens to contain a key piece of evidence proving they have lied.
  • They keep doing their same angry, competitive, controlling actions – and issuing remorseful sounding apologies – until one day, those around them can no longer take the abuse of them and of their grace, and they remove the bully from overseeing them.
  • They leave bills and/or loans to them unpaid, which leaves a paper trail that follows them even when they exit that organization.
  • They mistreat someone just barely beyond their repeat victim’s usual tolerance for abuse, and it creates a domino backlash effect when people find out about it.
  • They get reported to authorities by a whistleblower, and that one key action starts unraveling the entire façade of perfection they’ve manufactured.

Those are not hypothetical examples. Each is precisely what I have actually observed happening in one or more incidents. (I was not personally the recipient of the abuse in some of these cases, but I was in the situation and personally knew who the victimizers, enablers, and victims were.) Eventually, the light of truth shines on the lies of darkness that bullies perpetrate and their enablers perpetuate. They cannot hold everything together under their control forever – because, ultimately, there is One who holds all things under His control.

The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed. (1 Timothy 5:24-25, NASB)

This reality gives me hope.

So, as I see it, real “repentance” by abusers and their enablers must include indicators of humility – repeatedly shown over time. Such as:

  • A softening heart with a glimmer of compassion and a stronger conscience about their wrongdoing.
  • A change of direction and a willingness to be overseen in a change process.
  • A listening ear and following through on requirements placed upon them.

The longer these victimizers have been in control of others, the more practiced their manipulative arts, the longer it will take to demolish the strongholds in their life and recuperate. They cannot navigate or complete a transformation process alone. Their self-deceit will sink them. They need help, they need helpers who will show grace and mercy, but never to the point of sacrificing truth or justice. They need conciliators.

Being Conciliatory for Survivors and Advocates

So, what about the rest of us? What is the core character quality for us as abuse survivors and/or healing agents and justice advocates? What do we need to embrace and embody so that we can be constructive partners in the transformation of others? How can we serve to help rebuild a strong organizational structure – if it is not derelict to the point where that is deemed impossible? I believe our part is to be conciliatory.

I see a conciliatory attitude as:

  • welcoming others while not excusing their sins,
  • overcoming relational obstacles and defense mechanisms,
  • promoting healing for both abusers and their victims.

It involves tenacity in

  • persevering with the saints as they undergo challenges and changes,
  • seeking justice even when perpetrators of abuse refuse to take responsibility,
  • refusing to amplify antagonisms on what divides people. It is the human glue that helps bring about reconciliation.

I’d suggest a role model of conciliatory spirit is found in the father in the account of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The father remained committed to both of his boys, the one who ran off into licentious behavior, and the one who stayed home and was stuck in legalistic self-requirements. The father showed himself to be watching and waiting for his departed and errant son, while also present and available for his home-bound and obedient son – both of whom had gone astray in their own ways.

So, being conciliatory and facilitating reconciliation involves hospitality and welcoming, winning over with grace and good will and friendliness instead of hostility. It seeks to help those who at odds in life (whether with themselves and/or others) to overcome difficulties and differences, and bring unity. It seeks to restore and reconsecrate that which has become degraded. The very essence here is that we want the best for the other person and for the community, and we risk the cost to ourselves to help that come about.

However, in the following situations with four layers of taking responsibility, there are other important requirements for doing things that don’t exactly look conciliatory – such as confronting leaders on their points and patterns of sin, and overseeing toxic leaders in their transformation process because they’ve proven not to oversee themselves well. But these are all meant in the larger picture of things to bring about what’s in the best interests of the church and community. (To reflect on the spirit behind this, see Isaiah 58 about those who seek justice.)

Whether dealing with individuals or organizations, their transformational movement needs help from those whom Jesus called “people of peace.” From my observations through the years, I’ve concluded that hospitality and justice are two core aspects of balance that they exude. This means they stand against showing partiality to those with wealth or status, and that they also stand for protection and justice on behalf of the stranger and the marginalized.

I’m making a big deal out of being conciliatory, because it will be a major task in working out your own theology of redemptive relationships and restorative justice in a system that’s gotten sick. For each of the four layers requiring transformation, think about how you could serve as a person of peace, a welcomer, an advocate for the sanctification process.

IF YOU WANT MORE … For more on the personal side of people of peace, see the post on My Dad as a “Person of Peace.” To see what this looks like at the organizational and societal level, review the section on “What Does It Take for Remediation Actions to Work? in Part 3A of this series, and then watch Invictus. This movie shares the story of Nelson Mandela in the early years of his presidency. His legacy as both a survivor and an advocate provides a most stunning example of a conciliatory spirit without a spirit of control, as he sought to spearhead the repair of a nation damaged by apartheid.

There is a scene early on in the movie where President Mandela challenges the Sports Committee of the African National Congress to reverse their vengeful plans of changing the team name and jersey colors of the Springboks rugby team – one of the most beloved symbols of white South Africans, but one that, to black South Africans, had come to represent the worst elements of whites’ privileges and prejudices. Mandela’s speech to his fellow black South Africans captures the essence of the conciliatory role, as he challenges black South Africans to show “compassion, restraint, and generosity” – three qualities that were not shown to them by white South Africans.

How extensively do we embody those three qualities? Are we open to having our capacity for them stretched? How can that happen?

Review and Preview

Okay, let’s move toward integrating this process by going through a quick review, and from there to an overview of discerning and deciding what to do about abusers, survivors, and the systems that are all bound together. (Note: Steps 4 and 5 really won’t make as much sense if you haven’t worked through the concepts in Steps 1, 2, and 3 first.)

Step 1 pointed out how the entire process here is about repentance – personal and organizational transformation into great alignment with God’s mandates. I used remediation to try to get people to stop long enough to figure out what that word means and why it’s important, since repentance is a theological code word that doesn’t necessarily mean any more anything close to what the Scriptures say it means.

Step 2 set up the ideas: (1) of using a series of points (“snapshots”) to figure out patterns, and (2) that a cluster or series of points helps us identify a trajectory of transformation toward greater Christlikeness already in progress, or can help us establish one.

The chart in Step 3 was designed to spark our thinking about degrees of damage that happen in different kinds of physical maladies. That analogy bridges us from the physical to considering the spiritual parallels in actions of abuse and the damages they inflict.

Step 4 looked at constructive responses of humility and being conciliatory, and how they are needed to establish a system of grace for both victimizers and survivors.

So now we get to Step 5, actually considering how to respond to “malignant ministers” and their toxic systems. In this Step, we’ll consider as persons of interest those who are undeniably spiritually abusive leaders who hold a significant level of control in a definitely toxic church or non-profit. So, the question is not whether malady and damage are present, but to what degree and how stark our actions should be in dealing with them.

Keeping those “persons of interest” in mind, there are four specific layers for leaders in a system where both need “healing” – whether the need is only slight, very substantial, or in between:

  1. How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.
  2. How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.
  3. How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.
  4. How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

For each layer, I will suggest a four-segment continuum that runs from relatively healthy/intact to relatively unhealthy/deteriorated, and then describe the degree of damage and recovery in each segment. And now, on to those four layers …

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3D

Step 5, Overview. Dealing with Toxic Leaders

Who Need Healing and Sick Organizational

Systems That Need Repairing

September 20, 2014

So now we get to Step 5, overviewing a process for responding to “malignant ministers” and their toxic systems. In this Step, we’ll consider as persons of interest those who are undeniably spiritually abusive leaders who hold a significant level of control in a definitely toxic church, ministry, or non-profit. So, the question is not whether malady and damage are present, but to what degree and how stark our actions should be in dealing with them.

Keeping those “persons of interest” in mind, there are four specific layers for leaders in a system where both need “healing” – whether the need is only slight, very substantial, or in between. The first two Layers are for individual leaders who’ve been abusive. The last two Layers are for groups to deal with abusive leaders and the organization that’s been affected.

  1. How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.
  2. How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.
  3. How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.
  4. How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

For each layer, I will suggest a four-segment continuum that runs from relatively healthy/intact to relatively unhealthy/deteriorated, and then describe the degree of damage and scale of recovery in each segment. I’ll suggest other do-it-yourself topics and tools along the way to help you work through the material and integrate it for yourself. We’ll start with the whole process first, to be followed by one post for each of the four Layers. (Hopefully that makes it more manageable visually and otherwise!)

You probably already have ideas about what needs to be done and such, from your own experiences and also the suggestions in Steps 1 through 4. Hopefully Step 5 will help your confirm and/or adjust your prior tentative conclusions, and explore more.

The Whole Chart

At the end of this post is a composite chart that covers all four layers of taking responsibility for spiritual abuse. [Click on the chart to view a larger version.] Maybe later I’ll be able to post a version that includes 16 “Gold Guy” illustrations, one for each box = four for each layer. I know that will especially help those who process visually, but I’m not able to get that done right now.

We will look at a few key ideas for each individual layer. However, I designed this to be mostly a do-it-yourself tool where you can apply what you learned from Step 3 especially, on the analogy of degrees of damage in physical maladies as relates to parallel problems with spiritual abuse.

Overview/Preview Questions

Scan the chart of Four Layers of Taking Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse. Keep in mind that this is followed by a separate post to go through practical issues in each Layer, so don’t worry if you feel you haven’t captured a lot of the details yet. I’m providing this first glimpse mostly to help those whose learning styles are such that they benefit from starting with a big-picture perspective on the transformation process – that’ll orient them to the details better. Here are seven lines of questions to see what sparks integration and imagination …

  1. What generally catches your attention in this chart?
  2. Are there particular words, phrases, ideas, and/or images that stand out to you? Why do you think that is?
  3. Which Layer happens to be of the most interest to you at this time, and why?
  4. What responses do you have from seeing the series of four images in each Layer?
  5. How about the series of descriptions in each Layer?
  6. Do you notice anything that seems like it should be included, but isn’t? Or does it feel like a relatively comprehensive process?
  7. What questions does this raise that you hope get answered in the follow-up detailed looks at each Layer separately?
Step 5 Overview ~ Four Layers for Taking Responsibility for Dealing with Toxic Leaders and Sick Systems

Step 5 Overview ~ Four Layers for Taking Responsibility for Dealing with Toxic Leaders and Sick Systems

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3E

Step 5, Layer 1.

Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Personal Issues

Originally published September 20, 2014


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

[Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Step 5, Layer 1 ~ Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Personal Issues

Step 5, Layer 1 ~ Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Personal Issues

Character Requirements for Healthy Leaders – Can’t Haves, Must Haves

Because most churches are set up as tax-exempt non-profit corporations, there are two levels of qualifications to consider: (1) biblical mandates for spiritual qualifications in serving as a pastor and role model for parishioners, and (2) understanding of civic responsibilities and regulatory requirements for running a non-profit.

What are biblical qualifications for elders and others in public roles of leadership ministry? What do you see as differences between people who are qualified for service in ministry, unqualified through lack of skills or maturity, or have made themselves disqualified? (See at least 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 for lists of must-have/can’t-have character qualities and behavior patterns.)

What are the must haves and can’t haves for leaders, in terms of running a tax-exempt non-profit organization? This is not to imply that church leaders must have administrative gifts or be CEO material in order to serve in a church. It does mean they must at least understand what is required and commit themselves to follow through. Otherwise, they may knowingly or ignorantly put themselves and the congregation at risk of serious violations of legal and ethical standards. So – do those in charge of carrying out the legal governance of the corporation hold the appropriate qualifications required?

What are Typical Abuse Tactics of Unhealthy Leaders?

While every experience of spiritual abuse surely feels uniquely horrific, it turns out that the kinds of tactics that different abusers use show a high degree of similarity. Whether you read various personal accounts of abuse survivors, or read research-based material and analysis, sooner or later, the patterns appear.

For thinking through Layer 1, you would benefit from reading a range of narratives and analysis pieces, to come up with your own framework of what most makes sense to you about strategies and tactics for abuse of power. Here are a few suggestions for analysis articles.

Think about what appropriate relational remedies are for each of these tactics.

  • Layer 1 – What does an abusive leader need to do in his/her own life to counteract this destructive domination of abuse?
  • Layer 2 – What does he/she need to do to repair relationships with those he/she victimized?

What Does the “Repentance” Process Look Like for an Individual?

I believe the whole process of dealing with Layers 1 through 4 all together constitutes “repentance.” But for the personal side of things in Layers 1 and 2:

  • It starts with recognizing our propensity to do things wrong and do wrong things, both of which inflict harm on ourselves and others.
  • We must choose to renounce indulging that propensity, and block it as much as possible (empowered by the Holy Spirit and not just legalistically white-knuckling our way through it).
  • We must continue learning where our weak spots and strongholds are, and keep making course corrections to fill in our spiritual gaps and file off our excesses. This is how we stay on track with a trajectory of transformation.

What does “personal repentance” look like? It starts with one’s self (Layer 1) and must include those specific victims who were wounded (Layer 2). And “personal” also means personally taking care of remedying the damage. It cannot be left generic, but must be specific. Nor can the responsibility to fix things or apologize directly to people wounded by assigned to anyone else. Perpetrators of abuse need to both take responsibility for their actions and to repair the effects thereof.

What does “personal repentance” look like? How is it demonstrated? My impression has only deepened over time that those who defend abusive leaders equate an apology or asking forgiveness to “repentance.” While that is necessary, is that enough? I don’t think so. It is insufficient, even if it is perhaps a start. And we can only discern how genuine it was by observing changed behavior over time. That indicates there has been indeed been a “change of mind” (the literal meaning of the Greek word metanoieo). Otherwise, either a commitment to change or an apology without follow-through give evidence of yet another self-serving strategy.

Those who sign on for public roles of leadership and serving as role-models also sign on to be watched carefully and have their attitudes and actions scrutinized. When things go wrong, different levels of repair work will be needed, corresponding to the level of damage. I chose following series of words to represent four stages where each advancing stage of damage requires:

  1. increasing intensity of personal problems to deal with,
  2. a longer period of time for making corrections and demonstrating transformation is happening, and
  3. more oversight and mentoring is needed to help with the personal healing process.

Do some word studies into this series of terms and where they came from. (I’ve added links to Dictionary.com, which is one of my preferred online dictionaries because it includes word origins and a thesaurus.) Also consider the illustration images I picked for the chart, and descriptions I wrote that go with each term. Tie in with material from other Steps – especially Step 4 on degrees of maladies, and see what you think about how these all relate to a process of personal repentance.

And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either.

Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:11, NASB)

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3F

Step 5, Layer 2.

Abusive Leaders Need to Deal

with Interpersonal Issues

Originally published September 20, 2014


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

[Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Step 5, Layer 2 ~ Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Interpersonal Issues

Step 5, Layer 2 ~ Abusive Leaders Need to Deal with Interpersonal Issues

Word Studies

Do some word studies into these terms and where they came from. (I’ve added links to Dictionary.com, which is one of my preferred online dictionaries because it includes word origins and a thesaurus.) Also consider the illustration images I picked for the chart, and descriptions I wrote that go with each term. Tie in with material from other Steps, and see what you think about how these all relate to a process of personal repentance.

And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either.

Go. From now on sin no more.” (John 8:11, NASB)

Interpersonal Issues and an “Interlocking System” of Rebuilding Relationships

I believe these four stages in dealing with interpersonal issues create an interlocking system. By that I mean if the damage abusive leaders have done require a higher stage of relational repair work, they’ll need to apply the other remedies from lower stages as well, while working their way up to the higher stage requirements.

For instance, if you want to be trusted again because of severe damage you caused (Stage 4) you’ll need to rebuild trust by restitution (Stage 3). But that won’t happen unless you restore the relationships by spend enough time together to reconcile (Stage 2), and that can’t happen unless you invest yourself deeply into repairing by listening carefully, seeing/feeling the impact of the damage you did, and being touched in both your conscience and your compassion.

To use a specific example, say a leader has done something serious that substantially loses the trust of the congregation (a Stage 4 problem), such as misspends designated funds, using them for other purposes. (And that happens to be one of the top 10 legal/ethical problems at non-profits.) It’s an organizational issue, but it also has relational consequences. It is foolishness to think – theologically or personally – that the bare minimum of a generic apology to the parishioners would be sufficient to restore full trust. That may set some a few things in the right direction. But failure to conduct significant follow-through in establishing or restoring a transparent accounting system could put the church at risk of allegations and investigations of fraud!

Here are some other thoughts and questions about the series of actions needed to repair differing levels of damaged relationships.

  • If abusive leaders don’t do self-healing, can they restore other’s trust when they’ve betrayed others through victimizing them?
  • If leaders don’t do “relational maintenance” on a regular basis, what does that say about how well they will handle crisis situations when they arise?
  • If leaders don’t conduct restitution when they’ve harmed someone, how can they assume the status of being a role-model of virtue and a trustworthy leader?
  • If leaders who “epic fail” don’t go through all prior stages of taking responsibility, why should the organization they work for survive when they cannot provide it with sustainable leadership?
  • If leaders can’t/won’t go through all stages of repairing the specific issues needed in relationships, that’s a great indicator that they’re not qualified to give oversight into the lives of other people. It may also mean they should have been on a track to become a leader in the first place, and that some other vocation is what they were really designed and gifted to do.
  • If those offended lack a conciliatory attitude, things likely won’t work, regardless of the sincerity and activity of the one who originally caused the offense. This is not meant to “blame the victim,” but just to say that it may require far more patience and perseverance than at first realized.

A Few Resources


My “Slate of Eight” Restitution Suggestions for Sovereign Grace Ministries and Covenant Life Church. This post shares eight particular actions that seemed to me to fit the circumstances of SGM, given then recent disclosures under oath by a senior pastor that he believed he should have reported known child sexual abuse to civil authorities, but that he did not. So the context is specific to issues involving public figures (local pastors) and criminal issues on child abuse. Still, similar points could be applied to spiritual abuse. The restorational actions fall into three categories: Individuals, Institutions, and Injunctions, with several points in each as noted below.

That post, plus this one – Thoughts on Abuse, Postion, Power – and Restitutionare really about a range of actions from Repair to Reconciliation to Restitution. Here are the eight points, adapted from my tweet series for the Twitter campaign #IStandWithSGMVictims.

Overview: Restitution should be holistic, deal with past wrongs, and give survivors and their loved ones hope for the future. Excerpt: Typically, the only way toward that future requires first understanding the past so it truly can be put behind us, not simply denied, overlooked, or thinking it will never affect us again as long as we’ve forgiven the perpetrator … assuming we can forgive-then-forget, which I’m not sure is anywhere in the Bible. Restitution provides survivors of wrongdoing with opportunities to find resolve about what happened to them that was not their fault, and to move toward deeper levels of healing and recovery.”

Individuals – Taking Personal Responsibility – Points #1, 2, 3

  • Restitution #1. We publicly admit to moral, ethical, legal responsibility for failure to report sexual abuse, and we accept the consequences.
  • Restitution #2. We apologize in person to survivors, their families and supporters – if they will let us – THEIR choice.
  • Restitution #3. We use our own resources to help pay survivors’ fees to the counselor of their choice for at least 10 years.

Institutions – Developing a Safer Congregation – Points #4, 5, 6

  • Restitution #4. We ensure the church that we lead institutes and follows preventive practices against sexual abusers and abuse.
  • Restitution #5. We require prevention, interception, and intervention training on abuse by all paid and volunteer leaders.
  • Restitution #6. We teach regularly on and demonstrate God’s care for those made victims by the misuse of power by others.

Injunctions – Dealing with Those Who Refuse Responsibility – Points #7, 8

  • Restitution #7. Anyone with culpability in enabling abuse, but refuses consequences, is fired and whole church is told why.
  • Restitution #8. Any culpable church, ministry, or agency refusing their responsibility should be decried and dismantled.
  • So, I offer that as my “Slate of Eight” concrete suggestions to address enablers of victimization and making restitution
  • Finally: Love covers a multitude of sins; don’t let sins of abuse negate covering survivors with God’s love. Restore!


I think the best example I have to show how trust and authority works in a group is found in my four-part series on Reflections on Doxology. This was an interactive art exhibition in 2005 where the purpose was for viewers to challenge their assumptions about who Jesus was/is. Overview, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Here’s a quote from Part 3, and it should yield clues to what it means to re-establish trust in order to re-engage in ministry.

You know, I just realized that I’ve used the terms trust and entrustment repeatedly in my reflections on Doxology, but haven’t really framed exactly how I mean them. So, here is a description of how I’m thinking about them: So often, we use financial metaphors to talk about our relationships. Investing in others. Expecting relational pay-offs. Account-ability. These words easily carry implications of me sharing the best of what I have with you, so that I can do something productive with the overflow of my assets. Meanwhile, entrustment is my relying on you to share your best, while I do the same, and perhaps in that connection we will also draw out from each other what has been underutilized in each of us. Quite a different set of implications! Entrustment returns the us into trUSt.

Restitution versus Revenge

The original opening I wrote to that “Slate of Eight” guest post had to be edited down for reasons of space. However, I did save the longer version on “Restitution versus Revenge” and put it in this post: Thoughts on Abuse, Postion, Power – and Restitution. It captures that pairing of attitudes that I believe help things work best when there are sincere attempts to make things right in a relationship where wrong things happened. You need humility on the part of the perpetrator, and a conciliatory spirit on the part of the survivor.

I see the essence of restitution as an understanding and public acknowledgement that someone’s actions caused damage, and that they seek to restore conditions to what they were before insofar as humanly possible, or at least to redress the wounds to open new possibilities that were stolen from someone by the damage done. Thus, restitution is a fruit that demonstrates an underlying root of repentance. It isn’t about obediently fulfilling a list of requirements in order to supposedly “prove” you’ve changed. It’s part of a genuine personal change process. And it takes place in sight of others so there’s accountability. That’s needed in part because activity just means motion … it doesn’t mean you’ve done a 180-degree course correction. In fake restitution you could just do some required list and have done a 360-degree pirouette of pride and you’re right back on the same course as an agent of damage – the very same one that led to people being hurt by the agency of your negligence.

In contrast, revenge takes people with already brittle souls and seeks to apply the one cruel stroke that shatters them forever. An eye for an eye, a deadened heart for a deadened heart and all that. But that’s ultimately just more Law – when everybody is dieing to receive grace that calls them to become something more, and gives them a chance to respond. Grace empowers the opportunity for their spirit to be rescued from who they were and be more transformed into someone more conformed to the character of Christ.

Look, restitution may pinch our pride, but it won’t destroy our soul. It simply applies a bit of heat to get the wax of our character soft enough to receive a new impression that reshapes us more and more into the character of Christ. And He’s supposed to be the aim of our endeavors as disciples, right?

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3G

Step 5, Layer 3.

Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders

Originally published September 20, 2014


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

[Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Step 5, Layer 3 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders

Step 5, Layer 3 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders


At this point, we switch from a focus on the individual leader with problems to address, to move to the organizations they’ve built. These are influenced by and infused with toxic strategies and structures, processes and procedures. Addressing them means shifting from individual responsibility to corporate discernment and decision-making. To put it bluntly: At this Layer, the sidelined leader is no longer in the driver seat. Period.

Some points or patterns of actions have put them in jeopardy, as far as their position as leader, overseer, public role model. They do not get to make the first or final decisions here. Hopefully they respond with humility. But if they do not, that provides a sure-enough sign of entrenchment, which means they are at a more advanced Stage in this Layer than people around them previously realized.

And hopefully, problem patterns get intercepted at the earlier Stages where it will be easier to work through, and they haven’t yet taken over as a point around which the organization orbits. The later the Stage, the more likely it will take starker levels of intervention to break through ingrained patterns. But the ultimate goal in all of this – Layers 1 through 4 – is to do whatever needs to be done so that individual and organizational transformation to do good plus do no harm becomes sustainable. When that is the case, the only major thing left to do will be ongoing maintenance through prevention. And if we happen to be in situations needing interception or intervention, may those days of just prevention come upon us soon!

Word Studies

Do some word studies into these terms and where they came from. (I’ve added links to Dictionary.com, which is one of my preferred online dictionaries because it includes word origins and a thesaurus.) Also consider the illustration images I picked for the chart, and descriptions I wrote that go with each term. Tie in with material from other Steps, and see what you think about how these all relate to a process of personal repentance.



Life together in community always has a messy side. That’s okay. We need to get used to that. But when the mess revolves around our supposed leaders or around our organizations themselves, that’s not so okay. We should be protecting the people from harm, not defending a brand from tarnish.

In thinking through our leadership structures, we need to keep in mind that role and goal of protection to nurture individual community development. We can learn much from looking at people that our Scriptures tell us should never have been put into leadership roles in the first place and also about those we are mandated to remove if their theology changes or their character deteriorates. That is what Layer 3 is about.

Here are some thoughts to guide productive thinking about the spiritual siblings who are (or who want to be) in roles as leaders. It is based on the framework of being:

  • Qualified (by personal maturity plus skill match for the role),
  • or unqualified (by general lack of maturity or specific ministry skills missing, regardless of their potential or how nice a person they are),
  • or disqualified (by destructive character, regardless of how great one’s skills) for public roles of service that give that status of leader or role-model.

Unqualified by Immaturity – Lack of Sufficient Time as a Disciple, Regardless of Skills

Just because someone is not yet qualified to serve in a public role of leadership, that doesn’t mean anything about them being bad or less valuable of a person. It simply means it is not their time. As a study exercise, go through the following passages (if you haven’t already) and list out the “must have” character qualities and life/ministry skills (there may be “can’t have” items as well). 1 Timothy 3:1-13. 1 Timothy 5:17-25. Titus 1:5-9. James 3:1-2. 1 Peter 5:1-4. 3 John 9-10.

If we as a community or congregation or organization override this required threshold of maturity plus skills, I think we put the unqualified person at risk of particular temptations that they are ill equipped to handle. It’s not wise to think, “Oh, they’ll grow into it.” No. Instead, putting them prematurely into levels of responsibility beyond their capacity may end up with them creating disasters, falling apart, and even dropping out. They and their eventual service may be lost to the organization in the long run because of our folly in the short run.

As a point of application, I’ll say that I’ve seen this happen in ministries, church plants, and churches. In those experiences, most of the time the congregation and its other leaders (if there are any) fail to intern and mentor people into leadership roles over time. Instead, they put people in before their time. Also, many “pastors” are expected to be CEOs of a non-profit, which requires vastly different skills. Few training programs prepare next generations of leaders to handle that unrealistic requirement. And the havoc that ensues not only stresses the organization’s structures, but inevitably leads to bad pastoral care and oversight of people as well. I’ve concluded that the best approach to leadership is developing a culture of participation, with intergenerational connection and mentoring.

“[An overseer] must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” ~ 1 Timothy 3:6, NRSV

Disqualified by Faulty Theology

Read these entire passages for illustrations of what the words and deeds of false teachers are like, and what implications it has for the individual or congregation that fails to do anything about them.

  • 2 Peter 2.
  • 1 John 4:1-6.
  • 2 John 1.
  • 3 John 1:9-11.

What do you see as common issues in terms of core beliefs in these passages? How major or minor of doctrines are the things mentioned? What correctives are recorded in these passages?

Disqualified by Pathology – Lack of Conscience and Compassion

When we look at key passages on the qualifications for elders-overseers-deacons, I think the “must have” list helps us see what level of character and life-skill development is necessary. That helps us discern those not yet qualified to serve.

When we look at the same passages, I think the “can’t have” list helps us see when there is probable pathology in place the disqualifies such people from going into the service of public ministry or requires us to move them out of those roles if they were already in them. Here are some of the “can’t have” items (all quotes from NIV).

  • 1 Timothy 3:1-13 – “Not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money … not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain … if there is nothing against them, let them serve.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:17-25 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.”
  • Titus 1:5-9 – “Not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient … not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.”
  • 1 Peter 5:1-4 – “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must … not pursuing dishonest gain … not lording it over those entrusted to you.”

If we summarize these “can’t have” lists, it’s about substance abuse, violence, contentiousness, greed, immoderate/wild, controlling, and feeling obligated to lead. Boil these down even more, and I feel like the core issues turn out to be:

  • Lack of conscience – they are not touched by issues of right versus wrong.
  • Lack of compassion – they are not moved by empathy for those who suffer.

Lack of conscience leads to creating situations of personal and social injustices. Lack of compassion leads to infliction of suffering. On both accounts, people with deep pathology show no remorse for either way of wounding. Instead, they show a seared conscience and hardness of heart – two characteristics of false teachers who are disqualified for their theology, but whose lifestyles embody their corrupt teachings.

Abuse perpetrators at advanced Stages in this Layer are least likely to truly perceive their own negative impact. Think of a person with a severe infection who is feverish, exhausted, distracted. Or someone who is at the opposite end of spectrum and is amped up, manic. Neither can diagnose themselves. Someone else has to intervene, because if we don’t realize the seriousness of the wounds we inflict, however will we understand the level of personal recovery we ourselves need to stop behaving in such damaging ways?



Introduction: Basic Principles

Regardless of whether questionable leaders are unqualified or disqualified, and where they are on the Layer from Stage 1 to 4, what are we called up as communities to do about them and for them? How do we discern and decide the appropriate measures to take that protect the group or organization, but also promote healing and recovery for leaders at fault – insofar as depends on us?

This is not meant to be a detailed process-and-procedure manual – it’s a field guide to give an overview. So, I will suggest what I believe are several core principles for how to work with leaders who are already involved in organizations when they are found to have significant enough manifestations to demonstrate issues of control and abuse.

Keep Transformation Integrated

In an agency or community that seeks to do good plus do no harm, I believe we should not divorce the personal from the organizational. One way to work within this paradox is to match the Stages for simultaneous transformation work in Layers 1, 2, and 3. This ties together recovery in the personal, interpersonal, and organizational realms.

For instance, at Stage 1, a troubled leader is still qualified, but needs to invest in their own growth and guard against going off course himself/herself, while also personally repairing the damage done in relationships with others, while humbly accepting mentoring in both the personal and interpersonal dimensions of their life through oversight and mentoring from a qualified representative of the organization who will not show favoritism to him/her. (As a team, work through your ideas of how to integrate the depth of problems in the other three Stages with the elements for Layers 1, 2, and 3.)

Be Careful Not to Minimize or Maximize

No one is only evil or only good. Typically, those in leadership roles have done at least some good, perhaps even enormous good. That is not negated by things they do that are wrong, unjust, inconsiderate. However, neither does the good negate the bad.

In my experiences and observations, it’s far easier to excuse a leader who has exceptional charisma, trainings, and abilities and seems to do a lot of great work. Whenever I see followers deny the bad and overemphasize the good, I suspect they’ll wish they’d done otherwise eventually, as leaders with deep patterns of abuse are usually experts of deception, and the situation for the organization inevitably seems to end up disastrous.

Once the toxicity has reached a Stage 3 or 4 level, it’s likely that many who’ve been hurt will demonize the perpetrator. It is a challenge then to remember the basic worth and dignity of all people. Maybe then is when we most need to remember our commitment to show basic respect to all, even when people’s behavior clearly means they are not trustworthy and they need to undergo deep changes to become whole.

Advanced Issues: Repudiation of Power – And Restoration Versus Removal

Sometimes people in power get to a Stage 3 or 4 in how damaging their abuse goes. It is organizationally irresponsible to reinstate people into leadership roles who’ve shown no signs of genuine repair work on their own life or restitution in the lives of people they directly damaged. Being “nice” and letting them stay may seem like “conciliation,” but really, it is capitulation and the longer-term consequences could end up far worse.

In my opinion, at the very least such individuals need extended time away for personal recuperation and to engage in restitution. Even then, it could be that investigations show evidence of such an addiction to power that the only solution to safeguard the organization and community involves completely removing them from leadership and never, ever reinstated unless they clearly rehabilitate and show substantial change over enough years to validate such a return.

The affected group and not the individual in question must make these decisions, inform the community, and carry them out. Someone proven abusive at this level typically is talented at deceptive arts and cannot be trusted. And, if abusive leaders from a Stage 3 or 4 level truly repudiate their penchant for power, won’t that entrenched of an addiction take the rest of their life to work out? Forgiveness, yes. Counseling and compassion, yes. But re-entrustment for leading, no, not likely at this level.

I will add a strong word of caution to avoid putting into leadership or keeping in leadership those whose behaviors show narcissism – extreme self-centeredness – or sociopathology – no compassion, no conscience, no remorse. (Often these go together.) Your group needs to have training and identification processes in place to watch for such tendencies – whether in volunteers, staff, or leaders. This is a necessary part of creating a safe environment for teamwork, and avoiding harm.

Final Thoughts

I am concerned that in our culture of individualism and our adoption of the “theology of being nice,” we have lost our will and skill to evaluate leaders firmly and fairly. But the corporate responsibility to consider how to work with sidelined leaders is serious. The process should not be refused by errant leaders at any Stage, nor undertaken lightly by members of the affected group, community, or organization.

Good-hearted leaders prove themselves open to scrutiny and challenge. They will also be genuinely open to input before making decisions, and to corrections afterwards – especially, I expect, in confrontations that are conducted in a truthful and constructive manner.

However, if leaders are poseurs instead of genuine, common sense evidence shows they will always find ways to deny culpability, excuse their irresponsible actions, blame others, avoid oversight, and refuse accountability or consequences. But, sooner or later, their true fruit will show itself and they will reveal themselves as imposters. And what will we do then about the damage done to people, and to the viability of the organization itself?

“The sins of some people are soon in evidence; they lead on to judgment. But in the case of others, they dog their steps. Equally so are good works readily observed; while those which are otherwise cannot remain hidden” ~ 1 Timothy 5:24-25, Modern Language Bible

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Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3H

Step 5, Layer 4.

Affected Groups Need to Deal

with Sick Organizational Systems

Originally published September 20, 2014


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

[Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Step 5, Layer 4 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Sick Organizational Systems

Step 5, Layer 4 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Sick Organizational Systems

There are so many questions when it comes to the people in an organization deciding what to do about problems in it:

  • Why would an organization need to be shut down?
  • What issues make it our choice on what to do with repairing or shutting down our organization, and what issues could take that choice out of our hands?
  • What makes for a “safe” or “optimal” environment for teamwork? Is “unsafe” or “unhealthy” the exact opposite of that?
  • What does “healthy” – not “perfect” – look like?
  • Who should we exclude from input or oversight on carrying out major organizational renovation or actual shut-down?
  • How do we deal publicly with toxic, sidelined leaders who need to be called out?
  • Is there such a thing as “organizational repentance,” and if so, what does it look like?
  • Why is hope an integral part of the process of dealing with sick organizational systems?

All these questions are relevant, but some are outside the scope of this article. I’ll cover the key factors here and leave details and additional issues for the second book in my series on Do Good Plus Do No Harm. (That volume explores and illustrates how to start up a healthy organization that focuses on personal and social transformation, and how to repair a not-so-healthy one, and then maintain either kind so it is sustainable.) Then I’ll focus on some ministry case studies that illustrate the dynamics of decision points that create the divides between Stages 2 and 3 (to renovate or to dismantle/salvage) and Stages 3 and 4 (to dismantle/reclaim or to demolish/shut down).

Note: This article is an excerpt from a curriculum dealing with why things go wrong when we want to do right. I kept this particular article in a longer form than I usually would to keep the flow intact on the case studies. It wasn’t meant to be read through quickly or all at once, but to spark your own questions and engage critical thinking processes. Don’t worry if you feel the need to stop and take breathers … or perhaps to engage in a side conversation with Mr. Coffee!

Word Studies

What is done with an organizational system parallels what happens with an individual. The more damage it inflicts, the stronger the case for increasingly more severe consequences – up to the point of either dismantling the organization and salvaging what can be recycled without re-implanting damage elsewhere, or even complete shut-down when it clearly is so toxic as to be unsalvageable.

Do some word studies into these terms and where they came from. (I’ve added links to Dictionary.com, which is one of my preferred online dictionaries because it includes word origins and a thesaurus.) Also consider the illustration images I picked for the chart, and descriptions I wrote that go with each term. Tie in with material from other Steps, and see what you think about how these all relate to a process of personal repentance.

“Safe” versus “Abusive” Environments

for Personal and Social Transformation

Theory First, or Practice First?

Depending on your learning style, you may prefer to interact with a theory first before you put it into action. Or you might be more the action-reflection type learner, who wants to just jump right into the fray, and figure out later what you learned as take-aways. I’ve suggested below a customized study plan for each kind of dominant learning style. Both plans assume you’ve already worked your way through this current series on four Layers for dealing with toxic leaders and sick organizational systems, so you can synthesize that material with what follows, in moving toward application to your own situations.

Study Plan for Theory-Into-Application Learners

For the theory-into-practice learners, I suggest you first read the section immediately below on Keys to Analyzing an “Optimal” versus Toxic Ministry Environment. Then read this article I wrote in August 2013 on “Safe” versus “Abusive” Environments for Personal and Social Transformation. That will give you the paradigm system theory I’ve been using for the last 15 years as the base for my writings on organizational development and social transformation.

Then, go through this case study that applies my paradigm system to a toxic version of New Calvinism. Definition and Description of the Term “Calvinistas” is relevant to issues going on currently with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church – showing the toxic logical conclusion of Mr. Driscoll’s authoritarian New Calvinism “Resurgence” movement where that entity can no longer be separated from his identity.

Finally, go through the series of eight Ministry Case Studies below to see what you think about applications of the earlier chart on Layer 4 about how affected groups need to deal with sick organizational systems.

Study Plan for Action-Reflection Learners

For the action-reflection learners, I suggest you first read through the Ministry Case Studies below. Further, though you might be tempted to skim and skip around in them, I’d recommend going slower and in the order presented from #1 through #9. That should give you a better grasp on the spectrum of situations and a parallel approaches to the core problems. (If you really do want to do something bolder, you could always jump right into case study #9, the most complex, and work your way backwards!)

If you feel ready for the theory, then tackle either the Keys to Analyzing an “Optimal” versus Toxic Ministry Environment which introduces the theoretical framework of “Safe” versus “Abusive” Environments for Personal and Social Transformation. Or, if you still want more application, go for the case study found in Definition and Description of the Term “Calvinistas”. Your choice, according to your style, but I would recommend going through all the components listed.

Why the Term “Toxicity”?

One final point to make here why I use terms like toxic and toxicity. Toxins are organic types of poisons, produced by animals and plants, and they cause diseases or other kinds of medical emergencies. I just resonate with the idea of these being organic, and “spiritual toxins” being something that humans can produce. So, it makes a difference to an organization if there are toxic people involved with it.

Organic – people – issues are a natural part of all organizations that we create. As Price Pritchett says in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” To which I add my corollary: “The organization will eventually become whatever its leaders are.” This paradigm/people dynamic is why it is crucial to the health of an organization and all of its members that we ensure those set up as public role models and leaders are as healthy as possible for long enough to earn the trust necessary to lead.

Keys to Analyzing “Optimal” versus Toxic Ministry Environment

For my framework of essential background concepts, I use a paradigm analysis system of my own development, which I’ve detailed elsewhere. The paradigm uses three layers itself, with each layer having multiple elements – some concrete, some abstract. And then, paradigms can never be fully separated from the people therein – nor can we (in my opinion) analyze people properly apart from the paradigm that governs their values, beliefs, and behaviors. My paradigm uses the following system of layers. Going from the deepest, least visible layer to the most surface, obvious layer, they are:

THEORETICAL. Default information processing mode dictates how we typically analyze and synthesize information and our interpretations. From this flows what makes sense to us as far as our values and our beliefs.

OPERATIONAL. This is how we build and run our organizations, including where our leadership and power dynamics reside. At the macro, big-picture level, there are strategies and infrastructures. At the micro, detail level, we have processes and procedures.

RELATIONAL. In this layer we have behaviors, lifestyles, cultures, and modes of teamwork and collaboration.

The theoretical layer is the most abstract overall, and most hidden from direct sight – although its influences and impacts become increasingly more manifest in the operational/organizational and relational/cultural layers.

Ministry Case Studies

Here is a series of eight miniature case studies to help explore the landscapes of Stages 2 Renovate, Stage 3 Reclaim, and Stage 4 Raze, for groups needing to deal with sick organizational systems. They also illustrate issues at the borders between Stages. Some of these cases ended well, with positive movement in rebuilding. Others just ended – generally badly and leaving unaddressed damage. A few of these are situations I myself was involved with, while others are ones I know of from research and interviews. I have selected a range of situations and variety of outcomes, and told these tales as accurately as I can recall them, plus in some instances altered a few details.

The key thing is this: I purposely selected this set and the specific order in which they appear, to create a series that starts relatively simple and gets increasingly more complex. Hopefully that helps you work your way up gradually to whatever level of complicated situation you find yourself in.

Stage 1 – Repair / Sustaining Hope and Help

For this edition, I am leaving out Stage 1 Repair as those are more maintenance- and upgrade-related issues that have not progressed to a system-level because they are being addressed regularly. The other Stages represent situations that increasingly lean toward potential crisis or even organizational demise.

Stage 1 does deal with hope, as do all the Stages. And hope is a crucial issue in organizational survival. In my thinking, hope, prayer, and a sort of prophetic imagination of what the future could look like are all tied together. For instance, to pray to exercise placing hope in God and imagining a future different from what seems inevitable if He does not providentially provide or intervene. Here in Stage 1, hope remains strong because issues that would detract from it are identified and deal with before they can take root and choke out the future potential.

Stage 2 – Renovate / Hope on the Line

If Stage 1 Repair deals mostly with minor (but not merely cosmetic) system issues, then the advance to Stage 2 Renovate involves the organizational equivalent of major surgery that requires some substantive time to recover and then recuperate.

Here, hope is on the line, but has relatively more chance to thrive than it does in Stage 3.

#1. A TIMELY MERGER. How to extend the life of our institutions beyond two more generations has become a major problem as our population ages and our culture changes. Using the metaphor of a house, do you build on an addition, sell it to others and move out, renovate the space together, or something else? In the past 20 years, an increasing number of churches have been coasting toward closure because they are missing the involvement of younger generations. One response has been for an established church to merge with a church plant. One of the particular problems experienced in mergers lies with approaches to mixing people from what typically are two vastly different social cultures and ministry methodologies. Do you go with the traditional, the emerging, or some combination? Put another way, is this a symbiotic new relationship that helps both, a parasitic attachment that helps one and harms the other, or something else?

The root renovation issue for mergers is this: When you merge two such different entities, you do not merely birth something new, you simultaneously “kill” the trajectories and probable futures of both of the original entities. You’re not dealing with just one birth, but also with two deaths. How do you allow for both sides to mourn the grief of loss of what they had, so they can appropriately celebrate together a new joint start and singular future?

A friend of mine heard the most amazing account of how a church merger managed this process with a visual timeline and oral history project. The established church had a building, the church plant did not. So they used the wall in the main meeting room to post timelines. Week by week, the older congregation worked through their history a decade at a time. People posted pictures and news articles, and shared their recollections of what happened with their church during that decade. When they got closer to the present time, people from the church plant did likewise, recounting their history. They started from the opposite side of that wall. And when the two timelines met in the middle, the two congregations celebrated their official merging of a new entity with a new name and a new corporate future together. Their process had taken less than a year.

#2. CHAOS AND CONSEQUENCES. Conventional wisdom holds that for every year a particular pastor has led a church, when that pastor is gone, it takes the congregation one month to recalibrate who they are without that person in charge and transition before they are ready to find a new leader. So, when a leader’s been in charge for 10 years, it takes almost a year to reset before there’s deep readiness to start a search for a new lead pastor – despite any growing sense of antsy desperation to get moving on it.

What if your previous pastor had not so much led the church, but let chaos reign in the church? And had done so for 25 or 30 years? What would have to happen in the two to three years needed to get ready for the next leader? As it turns out in one consultation I did in this kind of situation, the organizational infrastructure alone took about that long to renovate.

“Leading” by chaos didn’t mean things were any more creative in the church. It was just as control-oriented as one infused with legalism and overburdened with rules and regulations – but it was just not as predictable. In consequence of this, there were no minutes from staff meetings. Which meant no records of decision-making or to-do lists. And there was no common understanding among staff members of what the official mission statement of the church was. Which meant if you asked three different staffers, you’d get three different answers, meaning know one really knew where this ship was headed in the ocean of supposed ministry.

An organization run that way is vulnerable to certain kinds of problems that non-profits are prone to. The biggest problem is that when you decide based on whim instead of with plans, you can easily end up expending the organization’s assets in ways that benefit insider individuals and not the public interest. Maybe you hire friends who turn out to be inept instead of experts to do needed jobs. And there may be lack of tracking fund usage, and therefore lack of transparency and accountability in financial dealings. The biggest problem created is a lack of trustworthiness. And that’s something you cannot fix directly; you need to renovate the systems in ways that earn (or re-earn) trust. As it turned out, the next pastor was mostly an administrator and he got the fractured infrastructures straightened out. That was his major accomplishment before he moved on. That process took about three years.

#3. MEN’S NON-MOVEMENT. One church plant I was in had been going for several years. The congregation was expanding. And with more people, there were more diverse needs to serve, but still just one full-time pastor and one part-time. These leaders were getting burned out. So the pastor invited all the men of the church to a weekend to spend time together, reflect on the state of the church, and help the pastors brainstorm ways to move forward.

That seemed like a great stride forward – this opening up of input to a larger number of participants. It was obvious already that this pastor had problems with control, an overly competitive spirit, anger, and intimidating behaviors – for which he regularly apologized and told people to hold him accountable. So, giving away control would be good. But it didn’t exactly come as a surprise to the men in the group when they’d suggest a new project or a different way of doing things, and the pastor would almost immediately shut them down. “No, we’re not going to do that.” “We’re not strong enough for that.” “Not in my church.” Those were early warnings signs of an as-yet-unseen problem lurking beneath the surface, but already embedded in the strategies and structures. This pastor was the founder of this church plant, and he would increasingly act like he owned it as an entity, rather than served the people in it. But he continued to hide that reality under the premise that the church was young and needed to be protected.

The kind of shutdown of participation at the men’s meeting stood as just another early point in what became a long line of acts of control. I don’t leave a situation until I sense that I’m released from it and free to go. Because of that, I was at this plant long enough to observe that most singles, couples, and families only stayed about a year and a half, and then they disappeared. Other pastors likewise came and went – most burned out or fired by the founding pastor.

A decade or so later, I heard that the people of this church had eventually told the pastor he needed to leave, because he’d never really dealt with his anger issues, and they would have no more of it. The remnant of that church eventually merged with another church – one that with a long-time ministry of healing for the people who spiritually staggered away from several toxic churches in the area. No renovation really was possible in the original organization, because the man who claimed ownership of it never would allow it.

Stage 3 – Reclaim / Hope in Definite Jeopardy

The shift from Stage 2 Renovate to Stage 3 Reclaim involves the organizational equivalent of decisive moments in medical situations. It is like the Emergency Room with severe trauma of unexpected onset, or the Intensive Care Unit where the outcome of critical system failure problems could either lead to a miraculous turnaround with significant time for recuperation, or, more likely, a terminal condition where demise clearly is inevitable.

Here, hope is definitely in jeopardy. To expect a positive future requires very substantial work to revitalize systems and foster robust recuperation – but if that fails, perhaps hope shifts to grief and preparing for the equivalent of a funeral for the organization.

#4. SPIN-OFF REELED IN. The “emerging ministry movement” of the mid-1990s through early 2000s provided a pool of younger generation ministry activists along with older generation mentors and those who never fit in til now. This pool eventually sifted out into multiple streams, according to the overall paradigms and cultures of the people in each. Also during that period, many established churches were recognizing the need to pass the baton of leadership on to next generations, and begin transferring on their legacy. It was a time of many experiments that included:

  • Younger generation entrepreneurs starting up an independent church plant or social transformation endeavor that was not directly tied to a pre-existing church.
  • An established church acting loosely as a partner by hosting with space and/or sponsoring with finances to foster a next generation ministry or church.
  • An established church starting its own parallel church-within-a-church next generation style service. This may have been as minimal as offering an “alternative service for postmoderns” to a full-out partnership to incubate a sibling church with its own systems, strategies, and staff.

For a few years during that heady and creative period, I was in an established church that launched a parallel, postmodern-friendly church-within-a-church. While there was some overlap with some singles, couples, and families participating in both the established and the emerging church groups, most of the church-within-a-church were 20/30-somethings. For month after month, the people in this alternative service worked together to establish an intentional “culture of participation” – shared leadership, open brainstorming to crowd-source ideas for how we wanted to do things, everybody helping with general activities along with each contributing more in their particular areas of giftings. That approach went counter to the “consumer culture” that dominated the established church – come, sit, and listen to the paid staff; get involved in pre-processed programs where you can fit into a prescribed role; give to help pay the professionals who provide everything else for you.

As you might imagine, the alternative service moved beyond an activity to becoming a community. When you relate that deeply, and work together to create common ground for the common good, something happens. The group of regular participants looked ever more like an organic church. It really seemed ready to spin off and become an independent entity, but still a sibling interdependent with the church that started it. One of the younger-generation staff members of the established church, who was also very relational and a capable pastor, was already the acknowledged overseer of the would-be spin-off.

However, that was the moment when the senior pastor of the established church stepped in, declared that this was merely meant to be another worship service offered by his church, and that it could not become its own thing. In other words, he “reclaimed” it as full under the authority of his leadership. The would-be next-generation church was reeled back in to being just another service – for a short while. But clearly, the hope was gone, the participants felt defeated and deflated, and the vision died altogether, as did the alternative service. Within a month, it was dead, and many who had been part when it was alive and vibrant now gradually filtered out of that church entirely. The arc of this story took place over less than three years, the denouement barely a month.

#5. EXPLOSION IN REVERSE. Start-ups always seem to involve precarious periods, even volatile. But some things will bust them up perhaps quicker than anything else, betrayal of trust being one of them. An acquaintance told me the story of the church she went to. It started as a church plant and seemed to be going and growing well, both quantitatively and qualitatively. It was well over 150 people, and they were participating and connecting, and sensed this group was going somewhere important and doing something unique.

Then it turned out that several prominent leaders were involved in marital infidelity. The situation was such that some congregation members felt they needed to forgive, let the people recover, and move on. Others felt that was minimizing the severity of what had happened. This difference of approaches got all mixed in with other personal and organizational issues, and it ended up that people were arguing and gossiping and back-biting all the time. It became so bad that the entire fabric of their community completely ripped apart and no one would talk with each other anymore. What had once appeared to be thriving was basically destroyed by the layers of betrayal.

However, there was one “little old lady,” then in her late 60s or early 70s, who reached out to each person who had been in the church. She made no demands or suggestions, only offered to be a listening ear if the other person wanted someone to talk with and process what had happened. Gradually, individuals began healing through the quiet but persistent ministry of this woman. And as that happened, slowly some re-initiated contact with other individuals from the exploded church whom they’d previously cut ties with. And as that happened, eventually some smaller groups formed or reconnected. And that ultimately resulted in a group of about 50 to 60 people who were willing to try to become a community and congregation again.

But what kind of pastor or leader or church planter would ever want to come into a situation with a history like that? In fact, they found a relatively seasoned pastor who was willing. However, when he came to explore that possibility with this reconnected group, he brought conditions with him. If they wanted him to be their pastor, then for the first year, there would be no ministries, no programs, no outreach. He told them gently but clearly that they were still dealing with grief and betrayal and wounding that all went deep. So, for the first year, he would lead them in worship together, and teach through series of Bible passages and stories about healing, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. And then, at the end of a year, they’d re-evaluate and see what needed to happen next. But he believe that if the toxic mix of damages were submerged underneath ministry activity, something as bad or worse would eventually resurface. The group agreed, and they did what that wise pastor suggested, and became what the little old lady had hoped in her heart would come to pass. So that whole process took several years for the group that had been split asunder to be moved from the doorway of death to be resuscitated, rejoin, and recommit, and then at least that first whole year to explore the meanings and purposes of recovery, reclamation, and restoration.

#6. CONCRETE TRANSPARENCY. Money, sex, and power – the triplet temptations, especially for those in positions of authority who have the means to hide them. There was a church that once had a great legacy of sharing the good news of Jesus, and serving in the community. But somewhere along the line, some leaders left the path of righteousness, and all kinds of darkness flooded in. By the time several years of horrible revelations ended, the list included adultery, theft, infidelity with staff and counselees, sexual assaults of teens and children at the church building, and child abuse. The battered and traumatized body of believers who survived all that brought on board a pastor willing to work with them long term to help right the wrongs, heal the wounded, reach the community, and train up new generations of leaders. That way, a redemptive legacy could be redeveloped and passed on.

The pastor and his wife were part of what became a team that included both women and men, and people of different generations and cultures. One of the first things to happen to “clean house” was highly symbolic but also very practical. The nursery, children’s ministry rooms, and all the main offices had the wood walls removed and replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Rooms that shouldn’t have locks, had them removed. This meant full transparency now for rooms where assaults and abuse had occurred then. Solid doors for all staff offices and conference rooms were replaced with ones that had large windows in the upper half. These lined a hallway where other staff and visitors might walk past at any random moment, and so the possibility of hiding was lessened.

Those kinds of concrete actions made a spiritual difference. The content of ministry changed to, to match this new direction and openness. Practical sermons, healing seminars, mentoring meetings, listening sessions, neighborhood study-and-mission groups, community access, leadership development. In a slow investment process that took over 10 years, the sins and evil of this church’s past had been addressed as best as possible. Also put in place were a new course reset toward a vibrant and missional future – with enough strategy and structures to provide for organizational needs – along with enough local connections and relationships to keep things organic, indigenous, and flexible. A church on the edge of destruction had been reclaimed before it was too late.

Stage 4 – Raze / When Hope Fades or Fails

The shift from Stage 3 Reclaim to Stage 4 Raze involves the organizational equivalent of hospice where the damage goes so deep and is so widespread and has gone on for so long that the organization is barely hanging on with the aid of life support. It has hardened into a closed system where the toxicity cannot be reversed. This means hope for survival is faint, and even if it survives it would not be strong or last long.


One church I was involved with in a university town endured a three-way split in the process of trying to find a new pastor. The previous pastor-teacher, who’d been there over 10 years, was a very firm leader, a highly trained exegete, and strongly systematic in his theology. In fact, it would be termed more a “Bible doctrine church” than just a “Bible church.” When the church was at its apex, the pastor-teacher presented one or two verse-by-verse and/or theological classes each weeknight, plus four or five more on Sundays – totaling as much as 13 hours of Bible/theology per week! And though there was no overt requirement to go to every class, many people felt pressure to do so, and so they did.

He left to plant a church, and the deacons had the responsibility of acting as a pulpit committee to search for pastoral candidates. The congregation had a lot of dysfunction going on underneath the surface. And when the pastor-teacher left, those issues emerged, especially in contentions over the meaning of spiritual growth and living a balanced Christian life. Surely, so much teaching with no time for family or friendships wasn’t healthy. So, while people in the pews were expressing a variety of views about what the next pastor should be leading them to do, the deacons were officially the ones with responsibility and authority to conduct the search. And they were getting a lot of push-back about it.

THE SPLIT-OFF. The first split occurred when a group left, months before “The Takeover,” as it came to be called. This group strongly emphasized authority and truth. They could see the handwriting on the wall about the ultimate trajectory of the church. This first-wave Split-Off Group had just a dozen or so people. One of the former deacons of the church was its leader, and he continued to teach and pastor those in that small group.

Under his leadership, people in this group imposed “separation” in the fullest sense of the term, even if it used the severest interpretation of church discipline. They would not speak to those still in the church, except to reiterate the evil influences going on there, plus the lack of authority being listened to. They’d confront those still there about their choice to leave. So, this “ban” existed between the time of their departure from the church and The Takeover. After The Takeover, the separation issue was moot for those who were no longer there, and separation was therefore no longer in effect with them.

THE SHOW-UP. There was a pastor from a nearby town who had gone to this church a decade earlier. He was close friends with a number of the families, including those of several deacons. To help provide some continuity, he commuted to teach regularly, alternating with a protégé of his who’d also gotten his start at the church. The first time the pastor came, he publicly berated as “too big for their britches” a number of young and older adults who had asked questions about the whole pastor search process and philosophy of balanced ministry in the church.

THE TAKEOVER. Meanwhile, after a first candidate failed to be elected, just due to lack of experience, a second candidate came and taught. He ended up being voted on twice and each time very narrowly missed the required two-thirds majority to be “called” as the new pastor. He came across as authoritarian, doctrinal-detail-oriented, and warm to those who’d been positive toward him but cold to others.

When the deacons were supposedly going to present plans for new candidates, something unexpected happened instead. A group that included most of the deacons said they’d called the failed candidate as the pastor for the church, he’d said yes, and those who didn’t like it could just leave. Then they confiscated keys to the building, changed locks overnight, and barred the parking lot so it could only be used when they unchained it. (It was rumored later that “guns were present in case things got out of hand.” This being a regional stronghold for NRA advocates, that was perfectly believable and in no way a joke.) This group strongly emphasized authoritarian leadership and in-depth Bible doctrine.

THE KICK-OUT. When the pastor in question arrived, he did indeed accept the calling to be hired. He and the remaining deacons also called a number of individuals into a conference room separately. These were the men and women who had made any kind of public opposition to his being accepted, or had been teaching adult classes. They were declared persona non grata for “conduct unbecoming a Christian” and removed from church membership. The pastor hid behind such generalities and refused to be any more specific about the supposed offenses. That apparently was just fine with those who stayed behind with him. He fit the mold of what many were looking for – someone who could continue feeding them reams of biblical and theological information, but who expressed no value on fellowship, service, evangelism, missions, or worship. That form of fundamentalism had more in common with Gnosticism than with orthodox Christianity.

THE LEFTOVERS. After The Takeover, a second group gathered from former members and attenders. This was perhaps 60 people or so, and included many people who had initially wanted the man who had been voted on twice to call as pastor. However, they could not accept the conduct of the Takeover Group and the pastor. So, this group was primarily those “ejected and orphaned” by the split. They had stayed at least four to six months longer than those who left earlier on and formed the Split-Off Group. This group strongly emphasized grace and relationships. 

Many in this second-wave group were severely traumatized by the events leading up to the split. Quite a few were university students who were graduating, so they intended to move on soon anyway. Those remaining were mostly long-time area residents. There were not many local options for evangelical, Bible-teaching churches, and the group eventually decided to attempt becoming a church and finding a pastor. They had several regional pastors come in to teach on a weekly basis, to keep their community going.

Although the group seemed to want to move toward a better balance between teaching, worship, and outreach, some of the more outspoken members seemed very reactive about the form of government. After being traumatized by hyper-authoritarian leaders and their cruel words and deeds in the church takeover, these members advocated a more congregational form of government or acquiesced to the idea when they formally started a new church.

THE FALLOUT. Within a few years of the takeover, here is what shook out for the different groups:

The Split-Off Group eventually dissolved as some people joined other churches in the area, graduated and moved, or, sadly, even dropped out of church life completely.

The Leftovers Group eventually hired a pastor to teach them, but apparently he did not really lead (or was not allowed to lead). Within two years, the church of the leftovers folded because they could not financially support their pastor. He and his family moved, and the church people mostly got absorbed into about three other theologically conservative churches in the area.

The Show-Up Pastor apologetically acknowledged in public a few years later that he’d been deceived by people he’d trusted. They’d lied about the pastoral interviews, lied about the finances, and lied about people who’d opposed the hiring of this hijacking pastor. He also said he’d misjudged those who had questioned the integrity of the deacons and of the search process.

The Takeover Group that quote literally stole the church building eventually folded because they could not support this man they considered their perfect pastor. He had limited appeal because his doctrinal approach was hyper-fundamentalist, and his approach to leadership was hyper-authoritarian. They simply did not attract new members, and because the emphasis was dedicated to teaching “Bible doctrine,” there was little (if any) evangelism and they didn’t seem to care. Also, some of the central people in The Takeover eventually came to their senses and left the church, removing their tithes from the income stream. News filtered out eventually that one of the tipping points to closure was when the wife of one of the most prominent take-over deacons realized the pastor was over-controlling. The event? She served as his secretary and brought him coffee, and he required the mug to be set in a specific spot on his desk with the handle turned at a particular angle to make it convenient for him. But one day, she happened to place it wrong … and got royally chewed out. She finally got it, because of coffee mug misplacement. Eventually, the financial reserves ran out, the pastor left, and the church folded, and the building was boarded up. A few years later, transients broke in and set fires. The burn damage was never repaired.

From the time the original pastor left until the split was about a year. From the takeover to demise of the Split-Off and Leftovers Groups was another three years, and the death of the Tookover Church occurred sometime after that.

Postscript: An Unlikely Legacy. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the college students who went to this church during the era of the split have gone on to participate in churches wherever their careers took them, and have used their spiritual gifts to serve and benefit others. It wasn’t that they were unaffected by the conflict, but they grew despite it by overcoming their woundedness from it.

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