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.

Conclusion

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.

Fruit of the Spirit Supports Consensus

Consensus and Choices

Consensus is hard work – it demands that we make choices as a faith community.  Yogi Bera, the Baseball Commissioner in the US, once jokingly said:  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  As ridiculous as it sounds, churches often make the mistake of merging opposing choices to try and keep the peace.  This rarely satisfies anyone. Moreover, this approach can actually cause frustration that results in fights and uncivil behavior.

Galatians 5: Fruit of the Spirit

Paul understood that they way people treat one another often places them in a position to make good or bad decisions.  Think back to the last major decisions you faced.  Was it a good experience?  How did people treat one another during the process?

“But what happens when we live God’s way?  He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard – things like affection for others (love), exuberance about life (joy), serenity (peace).  We develop a willingness to stick with things (forbearance), a sense of compassion of the heart (kindness), and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people (goodness).  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments (faithfulness), not needing to force our way in life (gentleness), able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (self-control).        [The Message and NIV versions]

These are often called the Fruit of the Spirit.  The believer who walks in the Spirit of God does not need a system of laws to produce the right behavior – they rise from within. Jesus told us before he ascended to the Father that he would send us the Spirit to help us live together in community.

Carefully read the 3 categories of these gifts defined below.  Which is easy for you?  Which is harder to accomplish?

Inner Qualities that reflect our relationship to God

The first three fruit (love, joy and peace) have to do with our relationship with God.  Love nurtures an obedience and willingness to serve God before all else.  Joy provides a deep sense of well-being that all is well in God and that the joy of the Lord is our strength.  Peace comes from being right with God – it reminds that God is in control.

REFLECTION:  When you make decisions, how do you live out of these qualities? What practices are a part of your process that acknowledges God and God’s will? How does your method of making decisions take God’s will into consideration?

The Christian’s attitude toward others

The next 3 fruit help us properly focus our attitude toward others.  Often when we are in the heat of a decision, there is a risk of treating others who disagree with you as being wrong or the enemy.  This should never happen.  Consider the true meaning of the next three qualities:

Patience is being tolerant of others even to the point of enduring pain inflicted by them.  It is a calm willingness to accept situations that are irritating or painful.

Kindness is being decent to others – being humane toward others. Especially people different from you.  Not remaining silent in the face of a wrong, really matters; allowing God to use you to make things better is important.  Kindness stands ready to forgive.

Goodness is often called generosity.  It is a moral and spiritual excellence in doing good for others.  think of it as allowing GOd’s grace to pass through you to others so God gets the glory.

REFLECTION: How would you rate your treatment of others who think differently from you?  How do you live out these qualities in the way you listen to another perspective or proposal?  Would you say that God is glorified in the conversations and interactions of people when they gather to make decisions or is more like a power play or competition?

Living out our Christian Calling

The last three Fruit of the Spirit guides how we live out our Christian calling with one another.  Faithfulness is being loyal and trustworthy to God’s best.  It is believing that God has a higher purpose. Gentleness causes us to be humble and work for God’s best in us.  Self-Control is often misunderstood to mean controlling how things turn out so that our choice prevails. Rather, it is restraining anything in us that prevents us from following God whole heartedly.  Sometimes this means that we act in ways that leave us open to fresh perspectives and options to the decisions we face.

REFLECTION: How do people in your congregation or organization live out their calling when making decisions?  Do you seek God’s will together or does your process cause a ‘free-for-all’ of clashing wills and agendas?  How might you foster these fruit in your group?

Ways to use this material

Galatians 5 makes a good study for leadership groups and decision-makers.  Consider ways to keep this material before people such as Devotions, Preaching series, or as an Evaluation tool.

Conclusion

We can learn several things from this Bible passage:

  1.  The Holy Spirit is our Sustainer, Guide and Counselor whose presence makes a real difference in how we live in community and approach decisions.  The Spirit helps us to be in tune with God’s purpose for our lives and religious groups.
  2. We are not perfect! We are all a work in progress – Methodists call it ‘moving on to perfection’. Do not get frustrated or impatient with yourself or others. Strive to let God dwell in you so you are more in God’s image.
  3. The Fruit of the Spirit is not a gauge to judge one other or put others down.  How we live out these fruit in unique although there are common traits.
  4. When people see these fruit in us – they want to come to Christ! People are turned off by infighting and a lackluster witness of how Christians work together to make decisions.  Is God glorified when they see your actions and hear your words?

May God’s fruit dwell in you and be evident when you make your next decision.

 

Community based decision-making process – 1st step: Preparation

Be prepared for anything

A sound decision-making process needs good preparation. So put in place the steps to be effective. This series of four posts walks you through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. The first step is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision.The final step 4 is to implement the decision.

How you begin the work of making decisions affects how you complete it. Preparation is the crucial first step. “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 86 – 92; and the Checklist on page 184. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Preparation

In this step of the process focus on organisation. Therefore give attention to the following elements. Then you will cover all the important parts of this phase. Overlooking any of the following six steps can lead to significant negative consequences. Do not underestimate the value of good preparation!

  1. Name the decision to be made

    People need to know what is being asked of them. So put clearly into words the issue, and the form of the proposal. This clarifies what is being considered. Then people can pray and think wisely about the issue.

    Provide information about the possible decision (i.e. the proposal). Also include how and when the decision will be made. People in an organisation are more likely to accept a decision if there is transparency. People need to understand and trust the process or they will want to go over the issue again and again. So tell them the process!

    You have told people the issue / proposal being considered. They know when it will be considered ,and the process that will be used to come to a decision. In addition people need to know who is making the decision. In a local church context this may seem obvious. However when a decision is contentious it is well worth reminding the wider group who has been trusted to lead in this area of decision-making. This is a way of building confidence and trust. If there is an external facilitator involved it is important to share, widely, who they are and why they have been selected.

    The first stage of preparation is to let the decision makers, and those affected by the decision, know what is happening. Be as clear as you can.

  2.  Design the Process

    Consider forming a Process Planning Group to assist in this task. This group will take the leadership (perhaps the responsibility) for designing an effective process. Their role is to draw a road map for the journey towards discernment. On this map will be:

    + Communication strategies for the community affected by the decision.

    + Communication strategies for the decision makers.

    + A process for use within the meeting. It will cover information sharing, ways to explore an issue, strategizing about how to include all voices and how to generate creative options to resolve the matter, etc.

    + The timeline for making a decision – it doesn’t all have to be in one meeting!

  3. Fill key leadership roles

    Name the meeting chair (this is often a person already elected). If you decide to have small group discussion as a part of the process, design the groups and ensure they are inclusive. Recruit small group leaders and schedule as many training sessions as required to make them ready. When making decisions on matters that have a profound impact on your organisation we recommend that you utilize a trained facilitator to guide the process.

  4. Support the entire process with prayer and other spiritual practices

    Don’t forget to call a season of prayer, and if appropriate, fasting for the entire process. If there are Bible passages that people can helpfully study and meditate on, make these known. Immerse your community in the process. Provide knowledge about what is happening. It is nothing less than discerning the will of Christ for His church on this issue, in this place, at this time. This is a spiritual undertaking.

  5. Set Meeting Guidelines

    Be clear about who can participate in the process. Also be able to say what they need to know in order to participate. Now is the time to list respectful ways to work together (listen deeply, ask clarifying questions, be in a spirit of prayer, etc). If you don’t have a Behavioral Covenant now may be a good time to make one. Make these guidelines known well ahead of time.

  6. Provide a safe environment to meet

The location of the meeting matters. The space you choose should allow for people to clearly see and hear each other. We recommend setting the room up in a circular pattern to promote a sense of community. If necessary have a sound system. Think about hospitality and comfort – respect and care for the people who are making the decision.

If you do not already have one, consider establishing a behavioral covenant to guide respectful interactions with people. If you have one ensure that it is before people and they commit to following it.

Do not assume that people know to communicate well with one another. Encourage people to listen before speaking, to ask clarifying questions so they understand what is said, not to monopolize the conversation, etc.

Conclusion

If you take  time to prepare your decision-making process, you will lay the groundwork for a good experience and make better decisions. The goal of your preparation is to give people confidence in the process and therefore to be better able to accept the outcome.

 

5 factors that lead to failure

 

Making changes in any organisation may result in failure. Moving toward a consensus based process of making decisions is no different. Avoid these 5 factors and improve your chance of successfully bringing in consensus discernment.

It takes time and energy to bring change. Obviously there are factors that can lead to failure when implementing change. However it is well worth the effort when you hear people exclaim that they have finally worked together faithfully to discern the will of God. Anyone can make a decision – it takes a faith community to discern a Godly direction!

The process outlined in our book, “The Church Guide For making Decisions Together” involves Preparation, Invitation, Deliberation, and Action. When done properly, people will feel good about the decisions they make together. When not done properly, people feel cheated and misled. There are ways to reduce the risk that your change process will lead to failure.

Here are 5 major mistakes that leaders often make when introducing a consensus building approach to making decisions. Watch out for, and guard against, these 5 factors that lead to failure.

  1. Failure to model the approach

    From the Chairperson to the newest participant, active listening and respect for one another is crucial when making decisions. Leaders must be genuine in wanting to hear all points of view. Show patience and careful listening in their Deliberative Sessions. Be sure to ask people what they mean if it is not clear. Help those who need it to say what is on their mind. This helps people see how it works. Once confident, they will be willing to try it in their own context.

  2. Failure to adequately prepare people

    People deserve to know what is expected of them in this discernment process and how to engage fully. This is the same with anything new.  Therefore, there is no substitute for an Orientation Session that explains the process well and how to participate. When people are confused they make mistakes or find it hard to trust the leadership. As a result they will complain and drag their feet.

    Another failure in preparation is not forming inclusive and diverse small groups ahead of time. Neglecting to identify and train the small group facilitators to guide their work is a recipe for disaster. We recommend hiring a Process Facilitator for the first time the process is used in large groups. This ensures that no preparation is missed and leaders are trained and participants engaged.

  3. Failure to ask open questions

    Open questions (one’s that cannot be answered by “yes” or “no”) lead to a good discussion and creativity. If people are offered only the chance to agree or disagree the conversation quickly grinds to a halt. Examples of open questions are: “What might be some of the things we need to take into account about this idea?” “How do you feel / respond / think about that comment?”

    All too often, leaders unintentionally ask questions that lead people in a specific direction. “Do you believe that…?”  “Don’t you agree that…?”  “Should we do this?” Questions from the Chairperson can make people feel like they are being railroaded into a particular direction. Therefore a consensus building decision-making process crafts questions that engage people around both the possibilities and consequences of their decision. Powerful questions include: “What do you need to know in order to make this decision?” “Why is this issue important to you?”

    Closed questions close off discussion. However open questions generate the response necessary to generate new insights and options. They make it possible to complete the process with integrity.

  4. Failure to get the right people to the table

    Who would throw a party and not make a guest list?  Silly, right?  Leaders who have an important decision looming need to give thought to who should be involved in making it. When possible, leaders (as well as stakeholders) should work together. This eliminates the mistake of making assumptions or not making decisions based on reality.

  5. Failure to provide enough time for the process

    We have seen facilitators not schedule the process wisely. So inadequate time is provided for Information Sharing and not enough time for the small groups to complete their discussions. Time spent doing these things well means that the time used in moving to a decision is often much quicker. Yes, this process invests more time than a traditional “Let’s vote!” approach in the information and discussion stage. However it gets results because the best options for action get raised, there are less amendments from the floor, and reduced confusion about what is being decided. Plus, less time is spent revisiting issues later with this approach!  The book lists various tips that save time. These include the use of colored cards to gauge feelings without the need for people to make speeches at the microphone.

Conclusion

With knowledge, you can avoid making these mistakes. Reading our book:  “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” and using the process in your setting will work. Send specific questions to us through this site and we will respond. We are also available for consultations and training. Contact us for more information at julia@makingchurchdecisions.com or terence@makingchurchdecisions.com.