October 11, 2019

Bully Vol 1

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The biggest risk to conservative evangelical church movements today is not the hostility of a toxic external culture.  A far bigger risk to the movement, if recent sobering conversations I have had are any indication, is the internal toxic culture.  In short, evangelical church movements have a massive problem with the workplace bully at the moment.   And it’s only getting worse. Or at least it’s only now being revealed, and at a rate of knots.

Bullying, narcissistic leadership is wreaking havoc in evangelical church movements, and when it comes out it goes viral.  We have seen Driscoll, McDonald, Hybels et al, and these men are just the tip of the iceberg.  Hence for every “big fish” there are several small fry throwing their weight around.  For every newsworthy story that makes it into the pages of the Chicago Tribune, there are countless little stories.  Big stories for those people and their families, but not even worth a footnote on page eight in the scheme of things.

Let’s change the metaphor from piscine to ovine.  The Bible has a lot to say about sheep.  A lot. And not just good sheep. Ezekiel 34 speaks of, “the rams” who trample over the sheep, and keep them from being fed and watered, all the while gorging themselves.

And what does God say of these rams?  He’s “against them”.  Against them.  Even while they think they are doing God’s work, – “gonna make an omlette, gotta break a few eggs” kinda work – he’s against them.   This cavalier attitude to God’s sheep in the guise of a bigger vision and project is not new.  And nor is God’s attitude to it.  God’s sheep ARE God’s project.  You destroy them, then it’s project over.

What is new, however, is that in the next ten years we are going to see a tsunami of revelations, and perhaps legal claims over this matter.  Why ten years? Because, as usual, the church is always about ten years behind the culture when it comes to dealing with best-practice in the workplace.  And that is sad.

You would think that the experience of saving grace – not just the common grace of all creation – would ensure the church would be a step ahead.  Yet from the stories I have garnered over the past few weeks, coupled with my own experiences and things we have seen in the media, our doctrine of sin seems to stop in our theology books and never makes it to our employment practices.

I have written about my own experience of the narcissistic bully in the past in ministry. But in recent weeks I have been approached by several people from around the world – with more to come -, who have been bullied and hounded out of well-known international evangelical ministries through behaviour that quite frankly would not be tolerated in the modern secular workplace.

All of our Christian media may be focussed on how secular “wokeplaces” are becoming unsafe places for Christian workers, but the Christian workplace has a nasty habit of consuming its own. While our backs are turned, worrying about the religious discrimination issues in the secular workplace, Christian workplaces are quietly tolerating – and indeed promoting – bullies.

And with nary a mis-gendered pronoun in sight.  The type of bullying I am hearing of comes from the the organisations that would convince us that the biggest concern is to get our theology right.  Well-constructed, well thought out conservative evangelicalism that takes care to tick all the boxes.

Except of course, when it comes to Human Relations departments, and annoying little secular matters such as workers’s rights.  Except when it comes to resolving conflict in a manner that leaves dignity, honesty and a pay packet intact. It’s as if we shouldn’t stoop to deal with matters so non-cerebral in a Christian workplace. It’s as if we believe that the higher cause excuses us. Something is going dreadfully wrong.

Three questions need to be asked.  First, why is this bullying happening? Second, what are the primary symptoms of this bullying?  Third, what can be done about bullying?  In this first post I will be dealing with why this is happening in our Christian organisations.  And the other two questions will be deal with in subsequent posts.

First, why is this happening?  Simple answer; because people that could do something about it are not doing something about it.  Christian leaders are letting bullying happen.

Too many blind eyes are being turned to the bullying of Christian workers by those who could do something about it, but don’t.  There is a lack of godly leadership, exemplified best by the Lord Jesus who would lay down his life for the sheep.  Evangelical movements are struggling to find leaders who would put their job on the line for  the sake of sheep being bullied.  What chance laying down their life for anything?

Hence one of the primary reasons for that blind eye is a lack of courage among leaders further up the food chain.  They are cowards.  They lack the courage to call out bad behaviour from peers, or from influencers, or in the context of a watching secular world that is just waiting to pounce on the church.

Worse still is the one who does not turn a blind eye.  The enabler to the perpetrator.  My wife observes in her role as a clinical psychologist, she rarely meets an ongoing victim of abuse in which these two roles are not filled.  There is one victim, but often two guilty parties – the perpetrator – often a narcissist – and the enabler, always a milquetoast.

Yet back to the question, Why turn a blind eye?  The reasons seems obvious in this culture where the church is increasingly under a hostile spotlight from the secular world.  The reasoning goes: Why give the world more cannon fodder?  We need to stick with our own.  In short, their name badge may read “Leader”, but they’re not a leader in any true biblical sense of the term, and certainly not a shepherd of the sheep.

This “stick with our own” mentality is exactly how a toxic abusive family operates.  And which is how sexual abuse in tight knit communities operates.  We have often been warned off using the language of spiritual abuse to describe toxic Christian leaders because that term is being employed by those affirming gay Christian relationships, who claim that churches that don’t are spiritually abusive.

Well that’s a risk I’m willing to take.  As I have spoken to people about this issue the key point that arises is how exposed and naked they felt spiritually in the face of someone who they had initially trusted, and indeed shared intimate spiritual matters with, who then throws them under the bus.

My wife has seen many victims of sexual and spiritual abuse, and the similarities between them, in terms of presenting issues, anxiety, lack of self-worth, self-blame, despair, and feelings of deep isolation are chilling.  Sexual and spiritual abuse cross intimacy barriers the same way.

It’s like this: The sense of shock, the sense of betrayal is so great in spiritual abuse, that at first the person cannot – like in the case of sexual abuse – believe that it is happening.  That this person is doing that to them!  All that trust built up over years vanishes within minutes  Can it be possible?  It cannot. Yet here it is, happening. Happening to me!

And in many Christians organisations, where there is little recourse for complaint, or worse still, where the complaints process integrally involves the abuser, there is little point in pushing for resolution.

The key strategy of the bully is isolation.  If the victim can be convinced that it is they – and only they who experience this – then they are more likely to be quiet.  They are more likely to lick their wounds, hide, or go find another job somewhere else, and just believe that they drew a short – and rare – straw.  The case I am dealing with ticks all of those boxes.

Yet here’s the risk to the organisation.  People start to find out that they are not the only ones.  We saw it writ large with the fallout from both Mars Hill and Willow Creek.  People start to meet others who have suffered identical abuse at the hands of the same abuser.  And then they put two and two together.  And then four and four, and so on.  Pretty soon it becomes exponential.

And one of the reasons I said that the next ten years will bring a tsunami of cases to the fore, is that it’s never been easier in this social media and internet age to bring those people together.  Abused people are finding each other with a rapidity that will shorten the timeframes between abuse and exposure. Facebook pages, and other groups set up on line where people can share their stories, these are proliferating.

Another reason is that this, for better or for worse, is the Age of the Victim.  When someone is abused, and says something publicly about it, the tendency is increasingly to believe them first.  The first sign that you’re guilty as an organisation these days seems to be when you get your team together to put out a public statement against that individual.  I know this, because that’s what I was threatened with when I wrote about my own experience.  Yet nothing was forthcoming.  Why?  Because a statement would just complicate matters.  Perhaps it would alert people to smoke, and where’s there’s smoke…

Of course the Age of the Victim has arisen for some ignoble reasons, primarily around critical theory playing out in the real world.  But that doesn’t mean to say that victims don’t abound.  They do.  Victims of sexual and racial abuse.  And victims of spiritual abuse.  If your organisation has been involved in systemic abuse of victims in the past two decades – Christian or otherwise – I’d be fairly nervous in this new environment.

Yet here’s what sad about this all when it comes to the Christian organisation that is turning a blind eye, or even an open eye – to abuse of its staff.  It’s not the Age of the Victim they should be worried about, it’s The Age To Come!  Do people not believe that the Lord Jesus is going to come back one day and expose every false practice in his church, every hastily written non-disclosure agreement, every threat to “be quiet about this or you’ll bring shame on the church”?  Have people who preach the return of Jesus so often, display work practices in the church that deny their eschatology?

Christian leaders need to hear the words of 1Peter 5 most soberly, which can, in our context, include not only other Christians, but other Christian workers in their care:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:  shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;[b] not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.  And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.

When the Chief Shepherd appears!  Woe to any under-shepherd who is found to be cooking and eating the sheep put under his or her care on that day.  If Jesus comes back and all he can smell is lamb barbecue, with the under-shepherds fattening their bodies, their bank accounts and their influence, then woe to them.  Woe to any leaders who think that they can push this under the carpet in perpetuity.

Nex time: What can be done about it?


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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