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.

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.

Community based decision-making process – 4th step: implementation

Implementation is step 4 in a series of steps required for effective community based decision-making. This is the most important step because without implementation you don’t have a decision that is worth anything. The first step 1 is preparation. Step 2 is invitation. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. The final step 4 is to implementation of the decision.

“The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 96 and 187. You can get your copy at Cokesbury or Amazon.

What now? Implementation!

Decisions deserves action or follow through. This final step is so important for a community-based process of making decisions. You have taken the time to prepare people, invite them to participate, discern God’s will through deliberation, and…?  Don’t forget the final step: Implementation! This is why decisions matter – things get done.

Implementation of the decision made by your faith group involves easy but often overlooked things. All are important. All are essential. Confusion and lack of synergy shows up in groups that do this step poorly. Groups that do this step well have discovered that their membership own the decision, and just as importantly, own the process. It becomes natural to them. They discover a strength in accomplishing God’s best hopes.

So, what’s involved in this step? Here is a  list of actions for you to consider once a decision has been made.

Meet with people who are affected by a decision

Not every decision needs a special meeting to relay the results. However there are times when something is significant and needs extra effort.

If a decision is complex, contentious or affects a lot of people then it is pastoral to meet people face to face. Listen to the concerns they have. Answer their questions. Explain again the process that was undertaken, the decision and the implications. Care for one another.

Send a letter

People were invited into the process in the first step. They have been partners with you in the process of discernment. So inform members that a decision has been made on the specific matter about which they have been in prayer. If appropriate convene a meeting rather than try to cover everything in a letter.

Of course websites, newsletters, Facebook groups and other communication tools can also be used to share information. However don’t hide behind a computer screen or a piece of paper.

Other people will tell the story if you don’t. Therefore ensure that people get the right information. Do not let people rely on gossip to know what is happening. If your decision impacts a specific ministry or previous arrangement with groups, be sure to let them know in writing as well.

Request continued prayer and support

Making a decision is only half (maybe less) of the story. Implementation of the decision can take weeks, months or years. Request prayer and other appropriate support for those with responsibility for the implementation of the decision.

Make these requests for support very specific. Share the projected timeline, key people involved, and name those who will be positively or negatively affected by the decision.

Think about what specific things can people do to support the decision throughout the timeline. Then offer concrete tasks for action.

Thank people

Discernment is a team effort. Remember, encourage and thank people for participating in the process. Think of specific people who have carried a heavy load in the decision-making process or will have to in the implementation phase. What special blessing can you offer them?

Have clear lines of accountability

The meeting decided who would do what tasks and by what date. The minutes provide a clear record of the decision. The implementation of the decision must be monitored.

Whether it is a small or large decision the decision-making body should get progress reports. There is a saying that people don’t do what is expected, they do what is inspected.

Do not be naïve. A person will delay and divert attention from a project if s/he doesn’t want something to happen. The community has discerned Christ’s will for them and therefore it is the responsibility of everyone to accept that decision. People are held accountable through regular progress reports.

More positively accountability ensures that the implementation of the decision is happening. When people sense that they are being faithful to what God has called them to do, this can be an energising and encouraging time.

Assess the process

Leaders should be clear about what went well in the process and what can be improved next time. Remember, it takes several attempts at a new way of doing things before people feel comfortable. Stay the course.

Strategies for review include setting time aside at a regular meeting to reflect on the process, or hold a special purpose meeting or design a survey.

Remember when you do your review to include all four steps and the people who were involved. For example

  • Were there any steps in the preparations that were missed or could have been done better?
  • Did the members of the congregation feel invited to participate and know how that was possible?
  • How well did we do in the four phases of the discernment process – community building, information sharing, deliberations and determination? What can we do better next time?
  • How was our communication? Did the implementation go to plan?

Celebrate

In an appropriate way acknowledge that you have done well.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many aspects to implementing a decision. More than just the decision matters in a community based process. The community matters. People affected by a decision matter. When your decision-making process has an eye beyond just the decision it is easier to recognise the many steps involved in implementation.

Decisions that are made actually get put into action when you do this step well. Things change. Your faith community becomes stronger.

Let us know your experience in making decisions. We would welcome your feedback to this series. Post a response. We’d love to hear from you!

Community based decision-making process – 3rd step: deliberation and decision

In any decision-making process deliberation and decision is where most people want to rush. This is the part of the process that most people think about when they talk about making decisions. It is the very heart of a decision-making process.

This is the 3rd post in a series of four posts that walk through the steps required for effective community based decision-making. Step 3 is deliberation and decision. Step 1 is preparation, step 2 is invitation and step 4 is implement the decision.

The material below is expanded upon in the book: “The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” in pages 93 – 95 and 186. You can get your copy at Cokesbury or Amazon.

Before the deliberations begin

We are absolutely convinced that when you complete the first 2 steps properly (Preparation and Invitation), then this step is a real delight.

First a reminder. Because this process is community-based, gathering the community for this work is crucial. Therefore people should know the issue(s) in advance and receive all relevant materials before the meeting. They should come to the meeting with a sense of prayer and wonder at what God is about to do through them. Supported this step with deep prayer and reflection. Sadly, some people come to meetings loaded for bear. That is, they take sides in advance and are convinced that they need to argue their point. Winning is their motivation. However, nothing is further from the truth of what community based discernment is about!

Here is a basic outline of an agenda for the deliberation and decision-making part of a discernment process.

Gather the Community

Participants are reminded, affirmed and built up as a community in this part of the meeting. When done well people will:

  • be welcomed
  • share a time of worship or devotion
  • build community
  • set boundaries or guidelines to complete the work ahead
  • review and agree to the agenda with appropriate break times
  • receive an overview of the consensus process.

Information Phase

Most leaders tend to ignore or limit this part of the meeting. Many questions and confusion easily arise when this happens. The issue or topic to be discussed is presented and relevant supporting material distributed.

Often this material takes the form of a petition or proposal to considered. Time must be given to answering questions on the topic so everyone is clear what they are being asked to do, understand the matter before them and the implications of their decision.

An often overlooked important piece of information is what is important to the decision makers as they consider the issue. People decide things on what they think is important. If other people don’t know what matters to others then they will not know where each other are coming from. Worse still, important needs and concerns will not surface. This means that all the issues will not be addressed and the full range of possible outcomes will be cut off.

Deliberation Phase

It is very important that you provide enough time for this phase. This is where creative options surface and the shape of the decision starts to come into focus.

In Robert’s Rules of Order, this is often a time of making amendments and substitution which can be confusing. In a community-based consensus process, it is a time for respectful conversation and consultation with one another to share experiences, hopes, values, feelings, and theology on the proposal. By doing this you begin to see what is acceptable in the proposal and whether there are other ways to achieve goals.

There are many ways to help these sorts of discussions and to capture the developing consensus. One valuable technique to foster these conversations is to form smaller groups of 6-8 people to seek direction.

Determination / Decision Phase

This is the place in the meeting where the decision is made. Perhaps the decision is that it is not time to finalise the issue. So the matter will be referred to a group for further work. That group will then bring back the next phase of the discernment in a new proposal.

Often, a group decides they have had enough conversation and are ready to share alternate ideas gleaned from conversation and prayer in the Deliberation Phase.  If you have completed the previous phases with integrity, there may be a clear cut sense of direction. This is the point where leaders ask the group if they are ready to make a decision. A revised petition or proposal may be presented to the entire group from feedback in small group sessions, or through other strategies.  Remember the point is to draw from the wisdom of the community.

Ultimately it is time to make the decision. This can be done with a show of hands, ballots, or other means. Once the decision is made it should be documented so anyone not present at the meeting understands what has happened and what the next steps will be.

Conclusion

Close the meeting by thanking people for their participation and hard work. Where appropriate end the meeting with an acknowledgement of what the group has worked on and been through. This may be a time for a prayer or song.

I am deeply troubled when a group says that this work takes too much time. They prefer a simple yes or no vote. The answer is simple: take just enough time to discern the will of God on a matter with your brothers and sisters. Then people have ownership of the decision. You will know that you have spent time wisely when you hear people say that they fully understand the decision and are prepared to support it.

If you do not take adequate time for this step then you will waste time later revisiting the matter, or suffering from people’s confusion or lack of support. Groups have split over less!

What a wonderful feeling it is when a faith community knows that they have discerned the will of God on the matter and are prepared to embrace it together!

Post your response to this article so that we may hear your experience and insights about making decisions well.

 

 

 

Community based decision-making process – 2nd step: invitation

 

Who would throw a party and not send an invitation to guests? Sounds silly, right? Would you believe that many church leaders plan for an important decision and fail to get the right people to the table? Therefore in an effective decision-making process invitation is essential. So give careful thought to who should be present. It takes effort to think this through. However it is well worth it.

This post is part of a series of four that walk 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.

“The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together” expands on this material in pages 92, 93 and 185. You can get your copy from Cokesbury or Amazon.

Decide who should be present

I know – it sounds obvious, but this step is often overlooked. Who should be on your invitation list? Some meetings have a limited group of people involved in the decision-making. Some decision-making bodies like congregations can be quite large. When holding important meetings make sure to hold them when as many people as possible can participate. The first group of people who need to be present are the people who need to make the decision – plan for maximum involvement.

Decision-makers need good information and good processes. Therefore the second group of people you need at a meeting are resource people. They may be subject experts who offer technical information or other data.

Some discussions are complex and need processes that can maximize participation, exploration of issues, and the drawing out of opinions. Not every Church Board or congregation has experts in meeting processes. So consider – do we need some help in developing the processes for our discussions?

Decision-makers are not the only persons affected by a decision. So it is important to have people who are affected by a decision, present at some stage in the decision-making process. Decisions-makers need to understand the impact of a decision. This is important information for decision-makers. Therefore think about who can help a group understand the impact that their decision will have. Then add them to the invitation list.

When possible, make a list of people who need to participate. This group will include those with authority to decide, people who can assist the knowledge base and processes of the group, and others who help to make the impact of the decision clear to the decision-makers.

Develop a clear communication plan – invitation

Participants need to know what is happening. Encourage people to understand why it is important that they attend. Also they need to know where the meeting will be held and other important details.

A note in the bulletin or minutes is not enough to get the word out. Try some of these ideas: send an open letter to the congregation or organization, make numerous announcements, present involvement as an invitation to something important, and introduce the process leaders to your group and have them explain what will happen.

Practice the Means of Grace

Invite people to be in a spirit of prayer for the meeting. Encourage them to pray and reflect on scripture during this time. Every member of the community of faith is a partner in the process. So respect them and affirm them by providing them with the opportunity to support the process through prayer and other acts of faithfulness.

Conclusion

When you have the right people at the table, the process of making decisions goes better. Take the time to invite people in as many ways as possible. Encourage their participation by providing good information, specific invitations and concrete recommendations for how they can be involved.

Do the ideas in this article match things that you have done? How did that work out?  Let us know your thoughts, experience and questions.