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.

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Author: Terence

I am a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. My current ministries focus on consultancy and teaching about consensus based decision-making, mediation, governance training and professional supervision for Ministers. I am co-author of the book “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together”. I live on the beautiful Far South Coast of NSW from where I undertake ministry across the globe. Contact me at terence@makingchurchdecisions.com

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