Abuse of power in the church – are we desensitised?

How come so many communities can live with abuse and not be troubled by it? There is a lot in the media lately about sexual harassment and abuse in society. In particular leading figures in the US media, politics, entertainment, business and more widely are being called out. That’s a great thing and it owes a lot to the #metoo campaign that encouraged women to speak out and name their abuse.

Sadly we know that there has been a lot of this kind of harassment and abuse in the church over the years. It continues in many churches, but thankfully in many we are becoming more sensitive to it.

Abuse of power in the church

There is another kind of abuse that is more widespread in the church. It is the abuse that leaves many people feeling belittled, hurt, estranged, disempowered and emotionally abused. Time and again in the church women, young people, persons of the non dominant culture or language, LGBTIQ members, those of different theological traditions, etc are attacked and denied a place. So they are left hurt and feeling worthless because of the way that church meetings are run.

How is it possible that church leaders can behave in ways that are so destructive of people and relationships in the church? Don’t they know what  the Christian way of behaving looks like?! It is like we church leaders have become insensitive to the abuse we do. We are no better than the men accused of sexually harassing someone who say “I don’t remember it that way?”

This week I read a great article by Emma Gray at The Huffington Post, who was exploring why women and men so often have different memories of events. Could it be, as Gray says in her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women”, that people don’t notice the unacceptable nature of their behaviour because it is normal behaviour in their context? As she says people don’t notice abusive behaviour because ” … if this sort of behavior feels “normal,” why would it stand out?”

Abuse- how did we get desensitised?

How can the woman experience something as sexual abuse and the man as flirting, or shared experiences, or a bit of a joke. How can women, minorities, etc experience an event as an abuse of power in the church and others (often men) have no idea what the problem is?

In her article “When men ‘misremember’ violating women” Ms Gray points out that women and men draw the lines about what is acceptable in a different place. Men draw it in a place that gives them far more power and capacity to harm women. This happens because there is a culture that says that men are “entitled”. This sense of entitlement is so deep, and the culture so supportive of the practices that sustain it, that men cease to recognise sexual abuse when it happens.

Let’s think about that in relation to abuse of power in the church. Is it possible that we see habitual and ingrained abuse of power because the people of power draw the lines on acceptable behaviour in a different place to the victims of power? Does it suit the strong to grant themselves permission to behave badly, compared to what the weaker sections of the church community would describe acceptable behaviour?  Yes!

A culture of entitlement

Do the traditional leaders in the church consider themselves entitled to get their way? Do they privilege their voice over the voices of others? Yes!

In most churches we have  a culture of entitlement that gives permission for the established leadership to get its way. So the rules of our church meetings are written to support the interests of the leadership. Similarly, the practices that are seen as acceptable are the ones that work for the privileged group.

Who is the traditional leadership group that is given special place in your church? Who do the rules favour, so that when abuse happens the abusers do not even realise that they are doing it? Some possibilities include:

  • clergy
  • senior office holders – Bishops, General Secretaries, etc
  • people who are well educated in theology and other areas
  • men
  • higher level caste members and tribal chiefs
  • a dominant theological school of thought (it doesn’t matter which one)
  • others that you can add from your context

Who gets hurt by the way these people behave in a meeting?

  • lay people
  • the less well educated
  • women and young people
  • persons from less respected sectors of society – e.g. caste, indigenous people, certain socio economic backgrounds, etc
  • minorities – e.g. LGBTIQ persons, people with disabilities, migrants, etc

Say what! You didn’t realise that your words and actions would hurt me!

We have all been in the situation where someone has expressed surprise that their behaviour in a church meeting was experienced as abusive. I have been shocked when I have been told that the way that I behaved was hurtful to others. I have seen people weep and be very, very angry at the way they have been put down, or deceived, or stopped from having a say in a meeting.

It is no excuse, but it is possible that a majority of the abusers do not realise that they are abusing people. Obviously some people do know what they are doing! But there are people of good will and faith in the dominant group who actually don’t see that what they are doing is wrong. The culture is so strong, and the practices so ingrained, that they are blind. Maybe this is why more than once Jesus said “let those who have eyes see, and those with ears hear.”

How will change be possible?

How will they see and hear? In the US consciousness is rising and change may be possible because sexual abusers are being named and shamed. This is happening because the victims of abuse stand up and name their experience. It is deeply unfair that the survivors of abuse have to confront their abusers. Yet this is often seen to the the most likely way to get the issue before the community.

Many men in the US are now realising that by their silence they have been complicit in supporting the behaviour of abusers. Increasingly men are acknowledging their responsibility to denounce bad behaviour when they see it. They now know that they must support women who resist harassment and abuse. Remaining silent – because “I am not doing it” – is no longer an option when observing abuse.

We have to stop accepting abuse of power in the church and the harm that it does. My encouragement is that we all name it when we see it. Raise points of order or personal explanations in meetings when you see abusive behaviour happen. Call out bad behaviour and offer alternative ways of being in community.

Yes, the people who experience the abuse are going to be the best placed to see and name it. It’s hard, but the recent US experience can give us hope that it can work. Other people of goodwill have to protect and support those who identify themselves as victims of abuse. Persons from the privileged group need to talk to the others and understand their experience so that they can be advocates for justice and peace in their church.

If you have any stories that you want to share then please use the comments section provided below.

Change – take it one step at a time


It is really hard to change your lifestyle in one sudden act. The most effective and long lasting change happens through incremental steps.

Diets and making a change to meeting procedures

We have all done it! We know we need to lose weight, or rebalance our eating so that it is more healthy. So full of motivation we dive into it “boots and all”. With no half measures we go cold turkey on all those unhealthy calories and carbs. As a result we find the change a painful experience!

We know that the most effective way to make long term change in our eating habits is to take incremental steps. Give away the fizzy drinks this week, the popcorn and chips the next week, cut back on the carbs a little bit here and there.

Why would we expect it to be any different if we are changing the way our community engages in discernment? It is most likely that a complete and sudden change of process will be hard to sustain. Make the changes in small steps. You will see that by building them into your processes over time they are more palatable – less of a shock to the system.

Small steps you can take – now

  1. Build in transparency: provide quality information about the subjects under discussion well before the meeting and during the meeting. Make sure that there is plenty of time for questions for clarification.
  2. Grow the quality of your community life: encourage sharing and prayer for one another; attend to any special needs that people may have; show respect.
  3. Listen: provide time so that everyone that wants to contribute can do so. Consider power imbalances and how you can overcome them. Look at how to present your business in a way that avoids jargon or the need for inside knowledge or high levels of ability in the language you are using.
  4. Generate options: think about ways to pick up and explore the fresh ideas that are raised. Perhaps defer a decision to allow consultation between people with different perspectives. Don’t try to conclude every piece of business the first time that you raise it. For example set up working groups to take up the ideas raised in the meeting and to bring something to a later meeting.

Slow and steady wins the race

Years ago the Northern Territory in Australia had a tourism slogan “If you never never go, you will never never know.” Of course the idea was that people had lots of reasons they put forward for not visiting this tropical, hot and isolated part of the country. So the encouragement was to just give it a go and then you will know if it is any good.

People offer all sorts of reasons why consensus building discernment will not work for their context. But if you never never have a go, who will never never know if it will work or not. Just give it a try and see what happens.

The World Methodist Council has become the latest group to “give it a go”. Rather than jump in and change everything they are going to do some training and then “test drive” the process on a piece of the business agenda. That’s right – they are going to practice the process before they decide to take it up.

When the World Methodist Council meets in Seoul, South Korea in July 2018 Terence and Julia will be providing training and orientation to consensus based decision making. There will be a very practical introduction to the processes and the values that lie behind them. This will be followed by a later session where a genuine piece of business will be processed using consensus practices. Terence will chair that session. No decision will be taken at that time. The decision will be made in a business session but it is expected that the material will be close to ready to resolve once it comes to the floor because of the processing that has happened in the workshop. If your church, local or regional,would like to workshop consensus processes just get in contact at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com, and let’s see what we can make possible.

This one of many examples of where an organisation that is considering change is taking it a step at a time. By trying the ideas out without committing to change they can build confidence and learn how to adapt the process to suit their situation. The World Communion of Reformed Churches began this journey with the meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Acra, Ghana in 2002. Subsequently it has implemented the lessons that it learned there and in Grand Rapids (USA) in 2010 into its meeting in Leipzig, Germany in 2017. How did it go? Very well because they have built on the lessons of the past.


Don’t be daunted by the apparent size of the task involved in making a change to consensus based discernment. Take the small steps that are open to you. There is a lot that you can do without having to change your meeting rules! Then look for opportunities to showcase different parts of a consensus building approach. Consider holding a training workshop in your meeting like the World Methodist Council is doing.

Sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk.

Enough! It’s time to show some courage.

Where are the leaders who are ready to show some courage? Where are those who will risk losing everything for the sake of the reign of God?

People are tired of the fighting

I talk with a lot of people from around the world. Many come from churches where there are major disputes. Most Christians are sick and tired of the aggressive, disrespectful way in which debates happen. So, they want leaders who will find a way to resolve problems in the church without trying to control and remove their opponents.

Framing debates as “yes” or “no”; “left” or “right”; “liberal” or “conservative” is not helping. Forcing people to argue from the extremes is proving to be ineffective in resolving conflict. Yet people in many churches seem to be rewarded for being warriors for their extreme position. However this is alienating for people inside and outside the church.

People are looking for leaders who have courage. The church needs people who have the courage to take the risk of not fighting! People in the pews are tired of the paralysis that afflicts their church when disagreements go on and on.

What does courage look like?

Courage is being prepared to

  • give up my desire to control others
  • value relationships over power
  • trust that God knows best and so be open to change
  • believe that God desires the unity of his family
  • acknowledge that I have made God in my own image when God hates all the same people that I do
  • do unto others as I would have them do to me
  • love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me

Please add to this list from your own heart. What is hard for you to do in support of fostering a faithful, loving, quality Christian community?

Seek relationships instead of control

The only way to get past the paralysis that comes from hyper partisanship is by seeing the other person as a fellow human being.

There are many examples of where constructive and life giving options have been generated as people stop seeking control and work on the relationship. Perhaps the most powerful and common example is in divorces and setting up parenting plans. When a couple have a toxic relationship it harms the children; makes them bitter for longer; it is destructive and costly; makes later adaptations to the plan difficult;  and limits the number of options. As couples focus on the children and take time to understand the needs of the other person, they generate better solutions that are easier to live with.

It’s the same for disputes in the wider society and the church. Of course it is not easy for people to just switch off their desire for control – that’s why mediators are needed. It isn’t easy for some Christians to stop wanting to demonise their opponents and to get their way -that’s why facilitators are needed. Taking up the alternative of showing respect, de-escalating the tension and looking for alternative solutions does not come easy.

Seek relationships over control. You don’t have to change your mind on the issues in dispute. But you should change your attitude to the other person and the issue.

Will people seek relationships over control?

I like to think that the Holy Spirit will make it possible! But faith is an act of will, as much as it is a gift of grace. People have to choose to be obedient to Christ.

God has created a community through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are incorporated into that community through trusting (faith) in what God has done in Jesus. Our responsibility as disciples is to live in this community that gathers around Christ. This community is our primary identity. It is God’s will that we be one for the sake of the witness of Christ in the world.

When we are convinced that the quality of our discipleship as Christians is more important to God than our opinions on theological and ethical issues then we will choose relationships over control. The early observers of Christians did not say “Look at those Christians – see how they agree with one another.” Rather it was said “Look at those Christians – see how they love one another.”

People will seek relationships over control when they have the courage to believe the Gospel that we are one in Jesus Christ. However, this unity is not achieved by what we do, but by what God has done in Jesus Christ.

Does it happen in real life?

It is somewhat sad, but perhaps encouraging, that most of the examples of success come from outside the church. It is encouraging because if fighting spouses, political enemies, and hostile opponents on moral issues in society can do it then Christians should find it easier.

People move from control to relationships when they:

  • know that the present way of working is destructive
  • have a hope that things can work better
  • have a unifying principle, eg being citizens, family, fellow believers, etc
  • show courage by giving up power
  • habit disrupting rules are put in place
  • firm structures are put in place
  • thoughtful questions are offered

Mark Gerzon in The Reunited States of America, offers numerous examples of community organisations that are helping people to make the move from hyper partisan and aggressive approaches to healthy and respectful discussions. I recommend that you buy the book.

You can also look up some previous posts on this site for how change can happen, for example here. Or find examples of where and how change has happened in The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together.

Be of good courage, keep the faith, hold strong to the calling that you have in Jesus Christ.

Trust by Design – a book review

Trust doesn’t just happen. Trust is earned. Trust is learned. This is the heart of Dr Amy Valdez Barker’s exploration of trust in her timely book Trust by Design: the Beautiful Behaviors of an Effective Church Culture (Abingdon, 2017).

The importance of trust

Trust is essential for the effective working of any social relationships. Dr Valdez Barker names the painful reality that in many churches, including her own, trust has broken down. As a result there is discord, division and hopelessness about the future. However, she refuses to lose hope and calls her readers to find the foundations for trust through their trust in God. Ultimately trust is an act of faith. Faith that God has designed a world in which trust is possible and necessary.

The thesis of Trust by Design

Trust by Design  looks at Biblical examples of change and contemporary examples of where systems of trust are being designed. Then this material is followed by opportunity for personal reflection.

Readers are encouraged to recognise that the lack of trust in their context. And to see that it is due to the absence of the faith foundations on which trust is built. Through the chapter headings trust and faith; trust and hope, trust and love Christians are called to examine the quality of their discipleship – personal and corporate; and to identify the places where the foundations of trust are lacking.

Faith in God’s goodness leads us to trust. When there is faith in God that makes it possible to have trust in others who bear the name of Christ. Hope makes it possible to trust as we believe that our actions play a part in making our hopes to come to realization. Having hope / goals provides us with paths / steps that we can take, confident that we have some agency in bringing about that for which God hopes.

At pages 59 and 60 Dr Valdez Barker calls out Christians. “We have fallen out of love with one another.” Our lack of love for each other “has caused us to distrust one another and the institutions that once held us together.”

How to use this book

Readers are offered a tool through which to diagnose the theological / faith reasons for why there is a lack of trust in their community. Her hope is that once recognised, leaders will work at rebuilding the faith in God, lack of hope and the abandonment of love that has resulted in a breakdown of trust. The book would have been helpful to a wider audience by the inclusion of some practical tools and guidance about how this might be done. Not everyone is able to devise the ways of doing this theological work and some worksheets or illustrations would have been helpful.

As I read the book I was moved to prayer and reflection. I remembered situations where trust was lacking in my life – in me or others. My mind raced with examples and wonderings about what to do in the face of these realities. I wanted a prayer journal next to me so that I could write down the people, places and things that the text was bringing to mind. I encourage readers to use this book as a devotional text. It can draw you into deep prayer and honest reflection about your part in the trust systems of your church.


The author understands very well that it is hard to restore broken trust. So she offers many examples about how trust is formed and rebuilt in society, as well as churches.

In the face of sad and harsh realities Dr Valdez Barker refuses to let the members of her church off lightly. She challenges them that it is not an option to decide to not trust each other. In this way she takes the stance of the Old Testament prophet. She calls out the unfaithfulness of God’s people and points them to what the living God expects of them.

At the end of the day trust is not an optional extra in the Christian life. Trust is a core practice that arises from faith. Belief in God’s goodness, the hope and the capacity for love that God has put in us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes trust a core test of our faithfulness to Jesus.

Trust by Design by Dr Amy Valdez Barker (available from Cokesbury and Amazon) is a thoughtful, well prepared resource. It is both a challenge and a gift to the church.

Finding a creative solution in conflict


A creative solution to conflict is rarely found by living at the extremes. Usually the solution to a conflict needs the center – the “middle voices”. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” – Albert Einstein.

The “middle voices” – a creative center

Mark Gerzon in his book The Reunited States of America notes, at p. 19, that the largest political cohort in the US is neither Republican or Democrat. Rather it is Independents, and those who refuse to vote, that make up the largest groups.

In churches it is often the same situation. Whenever an issue becomes so contested that the extreme voices dominate the conflict, one could be forgiven for thinking that they form the majority views in the church. However that is rarely the case. Very often it is those who have not chosen to be partisan, or who have withdrawn from the debate, which form the largest groups.

It is among these “middle voices” that it is possible to find a creative way through a conflict. The non partisan members of a church are the key to a deeper insight into how to respond to a conflict.

Conflict – what keeps it going?

It is only natural that we want to have our views confirmed. Our opinions and values are key elements in how we define ourselves. For people of faith our convictions can carry the extra weight of being associated with what God wants. If we sincerely believe that something is the will of God then we will hold to it very dearly. The first thing that keeps a conflict going is that to change may mean changing our understanding of ourselves and God. That can be very hard to do!

Validating our identity and faith by having our views reinforced by others is a comforting place to be. “Confirmation bias” is seeking and valuing information that confirms our opinions and reinforces our preconceived ideas, while avoiding and dismissing information that challenges us.

Conflict often keeps going because people only listen to like minded people. This consolidates the rightness of their point of view. It hardens their resistance to receiving, and taking seriously, alternative views.

Conflict – what can diffuse it?

Gerzon (p.29) tells the story of people going on a 30 media fast. During the fast they stop listening to, and reading, their normal diet of news. They stay away from the information that confirms their bias. Instead they pay attention to the alternative news sources that they usually reject because they speak the “enemy’s” point of view.

He is offering advice for people wrestling with the problem of being hyper partisan around politics. But could Christians in conflict benefit from a 30 day media fast? What would it be like to attend carefully, respectfully to the people who have the opposite view to you on critical issues in the life of the church? The issues are many that have the potential to divide Christians around the world: abortion, euthanasia, LGBTQI ordination or marriage; what evangelism means; justice advocacy; etc.

This is not an encouragement to get educated, but to get empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and appreciate the feelings of another without having to make them your own. Empathy is about trying to understand the other person and their point of view – to walk in their shoes for a moment.

Conflict – be part of the problem or the solution

If you are in conflict with people then you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. One way to contribute to resolving conflict is to genuinely understand the people who think differently to you.

  • Stop listening only to those who think like you
  • Listen to the “other side” – not to critique them but to understand
  • Try to discover the grey parts of an issue and not just the black and white
  • Respectfully express in your own words what the other side is saying
  • Talk to people who are not at the extremes – why are they in the middle?

Conflict continues because we don’t value the other person or their point of view. Respect one another. Show respect by listening to those who have a different perspective. As this listening happens more people will understand that issues can be complex and solutions are not so simple. When this insight comes then more people will move from the extremes to the middle. In the realistic middle the issues are properly understood and the solutions can be found.