A Year On - What have I learnt?
Last year was a very strange year for me personally but also for a lot of my friends who were in the same church that I helped lead and like me found they could no longer stay. Given that it is a year on since I was asked to stand down, I've found myself reflecting on the things that I've learnt and, as can often be the case when having gone through a painful time, what I'm grateful for now that I'm no longer a part of said church. I've given enough detail of the situation in other blog posts that can be found under the church category, so I won't dwell on detail here.
Over the year I shared many thoughts on my Facebook profile as I processed what had happened to me, but also what seems to be happening in many different church contexts. I also found friends who were going through their own stuff who were finding the reflections helpful and got in touch both publicly and privately to say so. This post is a collection of the various thoughts I've put on Facebook as well as a few quotes I've found while reading and listening to others who've navigated or counselled through similar hurts. I've tried to group them into topics as well to help ease the flow between random Facebook posts! I hope this remains helpful for all who read it.
What is a church?
Reflection: Church is a body of people not a service or an organisation. If what happens on a Sunday hides or ignores what has happened to the body through the week then it is no longer being "the church". The church should rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and seek to live in harmony with one another. This is not possible if those who meet together on a Sunday morning are more focused on getting things done, the programmes, the events, and the money, rather than the health of the body, their relationship with God, and the life of the community.
Reflection: Listening well to someone telling you that you are in the wrong is tough. A key aspect of it is making sure you do not make yourself the victim even though hearing someone say you've done wrong can hurt. Reflect on why you are hurt and take responsibility for what you have done wrong, even if you don't agree with all of it. No matter what, acknowledging and apologising for the hurt caused even when it was unintentional shows humility.
The Christian message is one that says we all mess up, often through hurting others. It is also one that says repentance, literally turning around, can bring restoration both to God and humans. For the Christian then, our first instinct, when being told we are in the wrong, should be to respond with, "yes, that is very likely that I am at least in part responsible for wrong. What do I need to apologise for? How can I make this right?"
All that said, telling someone they are in the wrong can be done badly as well. If you think someone is in the wrong but are vague about what they have done without specific examples and/or evidence, then this can become abusive in and of itself. The person seeking to repent and work out their part in the issue ends up feeling guilty and gaslighted into thinking they've missed something. This is especially damaging if done by someone in a position of authority and shared in a manner where they can't respond. And on that note, when giving such critical feedback, have you given the other person the opportunity to respond and are you willing to hear their side graciously?
But a wise man, when rebuked, will love you all the more (Proverbs 9:8).
People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger (Proverbs 10:17).
"Christians can be so desperate to see redemption in an esteemed leader, organization[sic], or in a friend we thought we knew, that we are quick to identify it where it’s never even happened – and that can be very dangerous."
A brief return (I took the Summer off FB) to FB and my feed is filled with another well known pastor stepping down for "not meeting the standards expected of him" (no I'm not sure what that means either). This article has some interesting things to say about the response (applause) given by the congregation to what seemed to be a very vague confession. The bit between the *** stood out most as something that I have both witnessed personally but see again and again in churches claiming to be open and honest when people are hurt by the actions of leaders.
"If a sinner is genuinely repentant, he doesn’t want applause. If he isn’t genuinely repentant, he doesn’t deserve it. ***In most cases, a church has been given only a part of the story or a sanitized version of it—typically the one most favorable to the pastor.***
Yes, these churches love their preachers. As a pastor, I appreciate that. They want to believe the best of and for their leaders. That’s a natural and even honorable[sic] desire. But standing ovations for misbehavior[sic] are not acceptable.
We do not applaud sin. We do not cheer it. We grieve over it."
Quote source: Christianity Today covering Matt Chandler stepping down
A couple months later, Matt Chandler was reinstated. I had some thoughts...
Three issues concerning Matt Chandler* that play out in churches and Christian organisations across the world...
Vagueness dressed up as transparency around the sin of a leader
Restoration decided by close friends (aka. elders) without any further transparency
No mention of the person Matt was inappropriate with...
The third point is pertinent as Matt seems to have persuaded many in the church that he has 'repented' despite the fact that there is no actual repentance towards the person who he has sinned with or against.
Matt and the leaders have now thrown the woman under the bus as she will certainly be known within the community and be seen as some sort of temptress, unable to defend herself from any rumours that will undoubtably arise from the vague statements around Matt's 'foolishness'.
Church leaders failing to learn from the spectre of faux repentance are doomed to repeat these errors and continue the failure of the church to model the repentance and forgiveness that it preaches. Congregants that fail to spot these signs put themselves in harms way.
*Why am I commenting on Matt Chandler, a pastor in the US? Matt was personally influential as a preacher when I was at university and he remains part of a large organisation of churches and pastors that many in the UK (in my circles at least) look towards for Christian teaching.
Reconciliation and Forgiveness
"When we rush people to a place of forgiveness, it may feel as if we are inadvertently placing some of the blame for their experience on to themselves. The message can sound as if you are responsible for forgiving this person and if you can't, you are at fault. If forgiveness is to come it may well be a long and difficult journey. It is also a personal choice. Therefore, it is much more important that someone sharing a story of abuse is first met with care, support and acceptance."
Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse Dr Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys
Thoughts: Joseph didn't *just* forgive his brothers. He tested them to see if they had repented by watching how they treated their youngest brother when he was treated better than they were. He reconciled when he knew they'd changed.
It seems many Christians want to jump to reconciliation before repentance and change is seen. Forgiveness is deemed by many to be a command by Jesus to reconcile without any time to rebuild trust, do justice, disciple, or, in my experience, see repentance.
The wisdom from Joseph is that reconciliation takes time and relationships after serious conflict and abuse need to be tested before being deemed safe. The desire to forgive, forget, and rush to reconcile is neither good, safe, wise, nor Biblical.
"Do not make forgiveness an imperative burden to force a romanticized outcome of "peace", especially on the abused and oppressed. All you'll do is guilt trip already wounded people into a false truce."
J.S. Park seems to make succinct what would take me a blog post to write. He echoes a more ancient wisdom...
"They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace."
Things Christians need to stop saying when they are told about issues of bullying and abuse...
1. They have never done that to me.
2. They do a lot of good so they must not have meant it
3. Oh that is just their personality, they mean well
4. You need to just forgive them
5. Jesus says not to judge
6. Maybe you just misunderstood them
7. "Mistakes were made"
8. You just want to ruin their reputation
9. Going public is against Matthew 18
10. They didn't do anything illegal
Other comments and thoughts can be found on my FB post.
Much of what I have learnt has come from watching others and aiming to not fulfil the de-motivational poster below:
Quote heard today:
"People will trust you when you give them the information they deserve."
Reflection: Giving people half-truths or not sharing the full story will eventually lead to a breakdown in trust and relationship when the truth is brought into the light. Limiting information is easily justified by leaders in churches by thinking they are 'protecting the church'. The church congregation are then treated like children to be protected (or literally like sheep) and are not able to hold leaders to account because they only hear what the leaders want them to hear.
A good leader is willing to share all the information those they lead deserve, even if it brings to light things the leader needs to repent of.
Quote source: People I Mostly Admire, Podcast
"More often than not, fear-based leadership stems from the boss's lack of confidence in their own abilities. Rather than let the light shine on them and reveal their flaws, they use fear so that they can survive—at the expense of the people they're supposed to be inspiring..."
Reflection: If you are feeling insecure as a leader, that is the time to be humble and learn to listen well to those around you. Seek out people who have more experience or are known to be more mature than you. Do not be threatened by those you lead who may be 'better' than you, as a leader you should be expecting and wanting people to be better than you.
It is your role as a leader to inspire others to be their best, not for you to be the best.
Quote Source: 5 Reasons Fear Based Leadership is Ineffective
"Bryan: So a person could have a certain function of management, but not see himself or herself as always the leader.
Dave: That’s right. And you always need to be open to “the least” being the ones through whom God speaks. That’s a biblical principle."
This was from long post which could do with a couple extra paragraph spaces but it is worth the read. There is a toxic culture of leadership across many evangelical spaces and the wisdom in here would unpick a lot of it.
Thanks to Bruce Blackshaw for sharing with me.
Source: Leaving room for doubt
Reflection: Never be OK with spinning a narrative to avoid people having a negative perception of you. Being honest and clear about mistakes made and how you have sought to rectify the situation will be far better in the long term than the risk of people finding out you've not shared the whole truth.
'Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.'
"I first heard this saying two decades ago in a 12-step meeting, but I was on slogan overload at the time and didn’t even think about it again until I saw the data about how most of us avoid clarity because we tell ourselves that we’re being kind, when what we’re actually doing is being unkind and unfair.
Feeding people half-truths or BS to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.
Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind.
Talking about people rather than to them is unkind."
Source: Brené Brown
Opinion: an unhealthy obsession in the non-denom UK evangelical spaces I’ve been in is pastors seeing themselves as leaders of leaders and their churches as “leader factories”.
In my experience this has led to pastors ignoring those who don't fit an ideal of leader quality and having limited discipleship for the whole church. It also sets an unhealthy hierarchy in the eldership with the “lead” being in charge instead of the mutual submission that is needed.
Discipleship of all members should be the focus for church leaders and in focusing even into the margins of the church, rather than just the keen, charismatic, and visible members, you may well find leaders you never anticipated.
"It's a good moment to remind people of the 7 Nolan principles of standards in public life (how politicians, civil servants, charity trustees etc are bound to act in public roles)
1 Selflessness. 2 Integrity. 3 Objectivity. 4 Accountability. 5 Openness. 6 Honesty. 7 Leadership" Martin Lewis
Having never heard of the Nolan Principles, I looked them up: https://www.gov.uk/.../the-7-principles-of-public-life--2
Source: Martin Lewis on Twitter
"I wonder if one of the greatest things that a pastor can do (after the basics are in place — the preaching and praying and teaching; staying true to God and following Jesus) is to treat men and women with simple dignity. That act in itself perhaps does all that needs to be done to bridge the worlds of need and affluence, rejection and acceptance, suffering and prosperity, failure and achievement."
- Eugene Peterson to his son Eric (Letters to a Young Pastor)
Navigating Hurt and Relational Breakdown
The speed at which relationships get thrown under the bus when power in church leadership is challenged gives you emotional whiplash. Like physical whiplash, the pain of loss and after-shocks including things like being unable to trust new leaders can last a long time afterwards.
EDIT: I hasten to add that I'm incredibly grateful to the relationships that have withstood these past few months, many defended me to church leaders graciously to no avail and at the cost of finding themselves pushed out.
There is a secondary pain from leaving a church I didn't anticipate - that of hearing new pain caused to friends as they leave.
Overly efficient removals from the church directory, removal from church Facebook groups, even defriending from those connected with leadership within hours of sharing the news they were leaving.
As friends leave, the reasons for leaving are ignored but the response on repeat is, "we all will be leaving this church at some point, either in a box or for some other reason."
The lack of care for the people I grew up with (you do a lot of growing up between 19-34), served as an elder, and worshiped with for over a decade, breaks my heart.
Integrity and Justice
A person who is unwilling to acknowledge hurt caused or wrongdoing no matter how unintentional, nor repent for specifics, and denies facts as matters of perspective or opinion is not a safe person to be around let alone a good leader. When you don't know the person, watching who is speaking out and who is leaving should give a good picture of a person's trustworthiness and quality of leadership.
A significant minority have spoken out through their votes. Now a man whose role is to keep the leadership accountable feels he has no place to go but to resign.
The red flags have been there all along but now they are as obvious as they'll ever be.
The parallels of what was going on in the news spurred this reflection. For context: BBC News - Lord Geidt quits: as Boris Johnson's ethics adviser
Reflection: If you find yourself defending someone's poor behaviour by stating how gifted or capable they are or that their intentions are good, stop it.
There is a reason for the saying, 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'.
Gifts and capability are worthless if they are not used in love. (My paraphrase of 1 Cor 13:1-3)
Reflection: Doing and seeking justice doesn't wait until your life has enough margin to handle the stress and discomfort.
Do justice anyway.
Integrity comes with a cost but it is always worth the price.
Reflection: Be careful not to use gentleness as a weapon to question words you don’t want to hear or that tell you that you are in the wrong.
Someone passionately telling you that you are wrong is not to be discounted because the delivery is not as ‘gentle’ as you would like. Gentle does not mean lacking passion or emotion.
My opinion at the moment is that the question around gentleness in terms of justice and strong disagreement is whether truth is told and if the truth is used to attack character or help a person towards repentance. The latter, I think, is a form of gentleness, the former isn’t.
Some more thoughts on gentleness (these were posted after I blogged on the topic):
There seems to be a generally negative view of gentleness as a trait for a man both in the church and outside it. The rise (and fall) of men like Mark Driscoll (in the church) or Andrew Tate (outside it) highlight an appeal for masculinity to be all about strength, discipline, power, and control.
The majority of Christian articles on gentleness (including my own) have to clarify that even Jesus turned tables so gentleness can't mean being a walkover. Are we inadvertently buying into the idea that masculinity means power, control, dominance, and strength?
Why is Jesus' turning tables or his implied muscular build due to his carpentry necessary to discussions on being gentle. Is gentleness really a "feminine" virtue where if it is preached without reference to the clearing of the temple then men will leave the church?
Perhaps this is an example of where cultural gender stereotypes have been mistaken for Biblical ones. The gospel cuts across our cultures and a Christian, no matter their gender, should be known by their humility, gentleness, kindness, and self control as all are the fruit of God's spirit within them. Turning tables is an exception not a rule!
Paul emphasises in his letter to the Philippians the humility of God in Jesus, leaving heaven to be vulnerable as a man, laying down his life and tells us all to imitate this. His exhortation includes calling Christians to prioritise care for others over themselves, and having tenderness and compassion for all. No mention of the temple clearing either! This is the antithesis of the Driscoll and Tate misogyny dressed up as masculinity.
The characteristics of humility, gentleness, and self control (and all the others listed in Galatians 5) highlight the confidence and trust of a person (be they male or female) in God even if culture (or some aspects of Conservative Christianity) would call them soft.
A regular quote in leadership circles suggests that "humility is strength under control". I think a more scriptural view is that humility is a recognition that you are not in control, possibly not as strong as you would like or feel you need to be, are imperfect and messy, and are therefore reliant on God's goodness, grace, and strength each and every day.
I don't know if it's harder for men to accept this, perhaps due to cultural norms it is, but I've found it to be freeing that I don't need to compare or compete in unhealthy views of what makes a man manly.
"Impartiality is not always possible, necessary or right. For example, take the scenario where you are called in to a family dispute, a marriage break down and asked to counsel the couple. You discover that the husband is both an adulterer and an abuser. Should you seek to mediate impartially in that situation? Absolutely not. The need there is for his sin to be confronted. You may act as his brother in Christ, you may act out of love towards both husband and wife and you may act because you seek his repentance and restoration. But the one thing you can’t do is to claim indifference between the pleas of the wife and the claims of the husband. To do so would be immoral."
“Anything that is done in the name of God but does not bear his character through and through is not of him at all.”
Redeeming Power, Diane Langberg
Navigating Abusive Leadership in Churches
Thoughts: If it looks like fear, coercion, control, or authoritarianism, it isn't the gospel and it isn't a healthy church.
Definition of a bully - kicks you out of your home and then says you are attacking them when you stand up to them.
"True ministry is not domination won in the name of Christ or the claiming of power to rule over others for our own sakes. Whenever the church seeks dominion or loftiness or expresses itself in pride, it becomes the refuge of unclean things."
Abusive leaders want their followers to default to neutral, to view any criticism as merely a matter of perspective rather than a serious flaw in their leadership that calls for their repentance.
Here are some ways I've watched this play out:
To keep people as neutral or on side as possible they will divide and conquer, only offering to speak to people individually. Larger meetings will have very restricted question times and will even use prayer and worship to further restrict the time given.
Those who leave because they know it isn't a matter of perspective nor something to be neutral about aren't spoken of in church again other than to be prayed for (without them there) without explanation of why they've left.
New leaders are prayed in with the spin that God is doing a great work raising new leaders rather than acknowledging the loss of Godly leaders who challenged the narrative, called for repentance, and were stonewalled.
To explain why Godly people are gone, reasons such as moving house are emphasised over the fact they challenged the leaders and could no longer trust them.
Current leaders are vague about what the problems were but put the weight of the blame on people who cannot defend themselves in that space.
To be highly selective in communication so that new people only know that it has been a "difficult time" and people are "sad". They justify this control of information as protecting the church.
To encourage people to not bring up the topic with those who have left to "protect" them.
Within the wider evangelical church there is a culture of defaulting to viewing people who have left as the problematic ones, the divisive ones, the ones who just couldn't submit to the leaders. Anyone who has left and makes things public is just bitter and twisted and wants to damage the church. This makes it even easier for the above to be done in a way that sounds Christian and humble and even like repentance when those remaining don't talk to those who have left for fear of being divisive.
I love the church, when it is what scripture shows it to be. Acts 2:42-47 is still what I hope to be part of even though now I find I'm anxious to the point of pain across the chest when I join in with a church. By highlighting how things have played out, I hope and pray for repentance and change, not just in the church I was part of, but across evangelical spaces.
"...How did the Christian faith, which flourished in the first and second centuries among the poor, the marginalised, women, slaves and outcasts, produce institutions in our modern societies which have become breeding grounds for sexual abuse?
Professor Jennifer Freyd, who founded the Centre for Institutional Courage, explains the phenomena of "betrayal blindness" which is what happens when someone can't (or won't) see the evidence of betrayal or abuse that is staring them in the face, because of what it would cost them to recognise it and act upon it... "
Source: An article written by Dr Amy Orr-Ewing shared on her profile.
Thoughts: One of the greatest difficulties with recognising abuse and acknowledging you are being abused is that it is more often done by people you know and love than by a stranger. The human reaction to defend a friend or family member by focusing on all the good they've done or do means the hurt gets suppressed, victims aren't believed, and the abuse is enabled, justified, and sometimes outright defended.
On top of that, not all abuse is initially intentional nor starts out as abuse but it becomes abusive by denying and ignoring hurt caused, over defensiveness, refusing to apologise for specifics, or by claiming the victim is actually the attacker ("they're just trying to ruin my reputation", "they're just angry", "we're all hurting" ...google DARVO).
"For many people it is only when they first ask a question, disagree or raise a concern that they become aware that everything is not as it seems... the 'honeymoon period' [in church] can last a long time. One thing that can end this period is questioning or disagreement...
... The use of censorship runs through stories of spiritual abuse. It is powerful because, if people feel unable to speak out, then the whole system and those who control others stay protected." Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse Dr Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys
"Gaslighting" has become a very well used (possibly overused) term often linked to the way certain politicians try to make the public see things their way (see partygate as an example). While I'm certain the gaslighting was unintentional, much of the things said to me and about me regarding the push to get me out of the eldership were just that. The reasons given for asking me to stand down included things like 'I wasn't available anymore' when we'd agreed as an eldership that I'd go on sabbatical and so was taking a step back from things. Other phrases such as 'trust the process' were used when I quite clearly couldn't trust the process and didn't think it was right that the church instructed a solicitor and told everyone that it was an HR firm.
Gaslighting can look like responding to someone telling you that you are in the wrong by defending, deflecting, denying, attacking the way in which you've been spoken to, and claiming to be hurt all while ignoring the issues raised.
You can find more detail about gaslighting here: https://www.verywellmind.com/is-someone-gaslighting-you-4147470
Thoughts: Toxic leaders expect you to remain silent when they talk about you. Any defence you make is an attack on their authority. Any losses that occur to them due to your defence are turned into evidence that they are the victim.
Good leaders are not threatened by opposing views as criticism with evidence can be responded to with repentance and correction. It is an opportunity to be a better leader. Criticism without evidence can be dealt with transparently and often ignored.
That said, good leaders who understand repentance also recognise when it is appropriate to relinquish power and position because they are no longer the right person for that role due the evidence against them. This is sadly rare both in and out of the church.
It shouldn't need to be said but church leadership has an unhealthy view of authority and "protecting the flock" when people they are labelling negatively aren't given a defence in the church and then when said people defend themselves outside the church, especially publicly, they're called divisive.
It also shouldn't need to be said that God doesn't call you to remain in a church with authoritarian leaders who claim to be undermined, become victims, or are unrepentant when they have been shown to be in the wrong.
Christian leaders are called to serve the community of believers, which does not make them higher in any sense that they can be undermined. Christian leaders guide others to Jesus by modelling humility, service beyond the Sunday 'service', and most importantly repentance.
Some points from another case of a church not treating people well to protect the pastor and the reputation of an organisation:
An employee being micromanaged to the extent she can't do her job. "Hyland said she felt bullied, adding that Ortlund disregarded her experience, micromanaged her, and slowly removed her responsibilities. “I was watching my role disappear in front of me,” she told CT."
Said employee speaks out against the way she is being treated.
She is then pushed out to of her role with the blame being put on her.
No pastoral support put in place to the extent the employee can't remain in the church.
Those in leadership and within the congregation who support and believe her not only leave the congregation but can no longer attend churches that were under the same structures.
This isn't a problem limited to the US.
Another globally influential church ignoring calls for accountability (and have done so for many years) by attacking those who have been hurt and the leader (now an ex-leader) who calls for justice on behalf of the hurting. Sadly the pastor will be defended by his congregation because he hasn't done anything to them and because, like the elders have done in their statement, will use the good done to deflect from the hurting.
Jesus said you'll know them by their fruit, and attacking those who ask for repentance is very rotten fruit.
At the time I was reflecting on my own experience of church mess, other stories of mess and poor leadership within the church were being shared through Naomi Dawson's blog here: Stories of a Broken Trellis
Finally, several people early on expected me to stay silent on things related to the church. Here was my response:
1. Many people have reached out, shared that my posts have been helpful and that many have experienced similar issues with Christian leadership in different denominations both in the UK and the US. It is good to know you're not alone and some don't feel they can share as publicly and are glad to see someone do it. I'm OK to be that guy.
2. I have learnt a lot about leadership and what not to do in a grievance that I don’t want to forget and I hope others can learn from. I am doing this publicly so others can interact, disagree, process, and add to. I'm not innocent, and these are reflections around things I've been guilty of either through enabling or by my own actions that I'm repentant for.
3. Accountability. What is shared in public and in writing can be scrutinised and challenged. What is shared in one-to-one or small group conversations can be changed and shifted according to the audience. Christians are called to walk in the light and I think you can do that on social media even with difficult conversations and where necessary, challenging how we view the actions of those who are deemed leaders in the church.
4. While lies circulate about me and my friends behind closed doors, I can continue to invite people to interact with me here or ping me a private message. I believe forgiveness, kindness, and graciousness, and honouring others are vital within the Christian life, but so is justice and repentance. I aim to focus on the latter in a way that shows the former… I clearly also believe in holding things in tension!
5. This is bigger than me and my situation and I aim to have all my posts reflect that.
6. Finally for now, I’m not convinced staying silent is the only way to honour God in this. God hates injustice and those who called out injustice in scripture were often deemed quarrelsome, annoying, and divisive as well. I mean, Jesus grabbed a whip and flipped some tables over. I don’t think I’m a prophet, I’m definitely not Jesus, but when I see something wrong I will call it out as publicly as I need to.
So for now, I’ll keep publicly reflecting on things…