October 12, 2019

Bully Vol 2


This follow up to the Bully Vol 1 post was going to deal with what we need to do about bullying leaders in the evangelical church.  But a couple of questions, particularly some privately asked by a trusted and wise friend in leadership, means that we need to double down on some of the “Why” stuff.

In short: Why is this a problem now?”

My friend asks this:

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Before making this observation:

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He makes the point that the increase in reported violence as a reason for divorce has spiked to more than 90 per cent of all cases in Arizona in the past eight years – and that’s both women and men reporting that.  Can it be that in the safest part of the world, at the safest time of history, that violence in marriage has increased exponentially in less than a decade?  Of course, zero is the acceptable level as he points out.  Calling out actual violence and actual bullies is crucial.  It just seems that we’re on a spectrum somewhere.

And I also note that what I wrote can be used by people who have a gripe about someone that sacked them for good reasons they can’t see yet.  That’s a risk I’m willing to take. But if I’m going to put a caveat on this at all, it lies within this definition:

A bully has a track record within an organisation that follows a particular and repeated pattern.  This includes gas-lighting, shaming, reframing narratives, isolating individuals,  misuse of Scripture to excuse themselves or blame the victim, and then covering their tracks through half-truths or lies.  This is exacerbated by a compliant, wilfully blind, or cowardly management structure  within which that person is working, that, instead of reprimanding or sacking the bully, allows them to continue their work at the expense of the victim.

My friend is right to ask “Why is this a problem now?”  And that’s what I will attempt to answer in four parts that are not exhaustive.  Four parts: Technological, Sociological, Psychological, and Ecclesiological.

1. Technological: It’s always been a problem, but it’s more visible now.

Remember the good old days before the internet?  Remember how slowly news travelled?  Remember how hard it was to connect with other people who you had a vague knowledge of?  Those days are over baby! The visibility of the problem is because it’s simply easier to join the dots.

This is highlighted by cases of sexual abuse.  Abusers have a vested interest in keeping their victims apart.  And they were able to do so for long periods of time.  The past could catch up with them, but not as easily.  The past was another country.  Now it’s an internet trawl away.

So, for example, Steve Randell, one of Australia’s top  international cricket umpires a few decades ago, a man celebrated for his quirky ways, once worked in a girls’ school.  He was at the height of his umpiring career when he himself was caught out.  But it took a while.  It took a school reunion years later for conversations between several girls to manifest the extent of the problem.  17 years between offences and conviction.

You can pretty much shrink that time now, due to the pace of information exchange and the accessibility to corroborating evidence.  That’s true in bullying cases also.  Dots can be joined quickly.

2. Sociological: It’s always been a problem, but it’s less acceptable now.

My friend is right.  Community standards have changed.  And a good thing too.  Why should we put up with bullying colleagues or supervisors?  Yet here was my concern in the article, and one that we need, as a church to pay careful attention to.  Bullying culture in evangelical church is the one overtly person-destructive sin that we seem to give a hall pass to.

Why is this?  Why should we not give a hall pass to the sexually abusive, or even the sexually sinful person, or the greedy person?  Well, too often we do, but our documentation claims we don’t.  Read the church covenants workers sign. Sleep consensually with a colleague and you’re done.  Show clear signs of avarice and greed and you’re going to be reprimanded (in some churches at least).  But a narcissist?  A bully?  Well they get things done!  Yes they throw the furniture around the room some times – occasionally with people still sitting in the chairs – but they’ve achieved amazing things for this organisation.

The culture is ticking any box for sex as long as its consensual sex.  And we’re holding our line against that one. Yet at the same time that the workplace culture is clamping down hard on bullying, and pays a whole HR department trained to sniff it out, we’re far behind on that one. Far, far behind.  And that’s not even in the smaller organisations.

I was told recently by one man who was unceremoniously dumped by a major church organisation for which he had relocated at great cost and risk overseas, that a legal expert within that organisation wouldn’t even look at the official firing letter he received because it would jeopardise her.

You would think our view of sin would be so high that we would put those safety features and fail safes in our structures in place first, but we don’t.

3. Psychological: It’s always been a problem, but we’re more individuated now.

We know our rights.  Our individual rights.  And we’re far more individuated now than at any time in history.  And would you go back to another time?  I certainly wouldn’t.  We’ve been taught about boundary crossing, and we’ve seen the results of people having had their boundaries crossed by other people – whether those are physical or sexual or emotional.

And the chickens are coming home to roost.  We’re in a crossover epoch from a more communal age to a more individual age, an age in which we can cross social classes, and communal restraints far more readily.  And one result has been that our psychology clinics are full of people reporting sexual or physical abuse that happened to them fifty years ago, but feeling it like it happened last week.

Yet that person themselves has not changed. They didn’t suddenly get to the individuated age and experience disfunction. The track record of many of these people over those fifty years hasn’t been “Oh well, bullying is a thing, better get on with life.”  On the contrary it’s often terrible!  Long term unhealthy habits, broken relationships, nervousness and anxiety.  They just couldn’t articulate those things in any individuated manner.

We had other ways to explain those things of course, but my wife has discovered that as she unpacks an unhappy past with an older client, and explains why they have been feeling this way for so long, and why they have done some of the things they have done, they start to make sense of themselves.

Just because we once lived in a more communal age, with tighter boundaries, and a general level of subservience from one class of people to another – does not mean that the problems did not exist.  They plainly did, but they were not articulated the same way.

Yes it’s true that sometimes we need to get over things and just let people be offensive and horrible.  And maybe Jordan Petersen is right that none of us have it worse than our grandparents.  But maybe the communal dignity and sense of personal culpability that many leaders felt towards their employees back in the day, in a culture that frowned on hubris and self-aggrandisement instead of rewarding it, put a safety brake on the spiral towards unmitigated narcissistic behaviour.

We take pride in self-promotion that, publicly at least, was frowned upon in previous generations as proof of “vainglory”.  Perhaps we need to recover that word.  I have a book called exactly that “Vainglory”, and it’s instructive that the front cover is a picture of Narcissus staring at his reflection.  In a vainglorious selfie world, Christian culture watchers keep telling us the public square is becoming nastier and more brutish.  Surely that is rubbing off on unsuspecting Christians too.

4. Ecclesiological: It’s always been a problem, but we’re more desperate now.

The church is getting desperate. More desperate to see runs on the board.  In the West we’re in a period of perceived or actual decline, so when we see someone kicking goals we let ourselves think that all must be okay.  And that tells us something about what we think our goals actually are in the first place, and what we think okay actually looks like.

We have unwittingly – or perhaps wittingly – shaped our leadership styles and management expectations towards a set of values and gifts that are about brand rescue.  Read the books! And if you want brand rescue you don’t want a middle-management man, you want a CEO.  You certainly don’t want a pastor-shepherd, or if you do that’s long down the list.

My brother knows an Oxford scholar, Dr Kevin Dutton, who wrote two books about this very tendency in successful CEOs and other business leaders, one – coauthored – called The Good Pyschopath’s Guide to Success. And one of the primary qualities of many a CEO is a psychopathic tendency.   Both books got a lot of press coverage in terms, and sold lots of copies, so I guess he succeeded!  Here’s what Amazon says about it:

Drawing on the combination of Andy McNab’s wild and various experiences and Professor Kevin Dutton’s expertise in analysing them, together they have explored the ways in which a good psychopath thinks differently and what that could mean for you. What do you really want from life, and how can you develop and use qualities such as charm, coolness under pressure, self-confidence and courage to get it? The Good Psychopath Manifesto gives you a unique and entertaining roadmap to self-fulfilment both in your personal life and your career.

That’s the kind of leader that gets stuff done for an organisation!  That can make it succeed?  But did you notice?  Did you see the problem?  The success of the business is a byproduct of their own personal success.

What’s the real take home message of this approach?  YOUR personal fulfilment!  YOUR career!  What do YOU really want out of life?  Charm, coolness under pressure and self-confidence?  These are qualities?  They sound more like personality traits.  But they have huge social capital in our world today, especially our business world.  And sadly our church world.

In other words the success of the organisation is dependent on the self-focus of that  leader to get what THEY want for themselves.  If they can get what they want for themselves, the happy byproduct is that the brand can live on, indeed outwardly thrive, in the afterglow.  And we run the risk of transplanting that perspective on to church in these desperate times. Actually we don’t run that risk, that’s what we have done.

The fact is people know – leaders knew – that Mark Driscoll was bullying people constantly, but they did nothing about it.  Why? Because the brand was kicking goals. And boy do we need a few evangelical brands that kick a few goals.  And if that is so then then a few eggs can be broken in the process.

And wasn’t he charming, cool under pressure and self-confident?  Actually no.  He proved to be a brittle leader with a vile temper who wanted things his own way.  The church isn’t a business and trying to run it like one will come unstuck eventually.

What did it take to get the leaders to listen?  Sadly, the same thing it takes for secular leaders to listen; the risk to the brand.  Mars Hill not only started not to kick goals because of Driscoll, but the press coverage was making it kick own-goals.  Once that happened, but only once that happened, was Driscoll in trouble.

Driscoll and Hybels were unimpeachable, until the brand started to suffer.  Then everyone who had enabled them for so long, and suppressed the bleating of the sheep, suddenly found voice, chucked them out; before ironically, and with no level of insight, offering themselves as the solution to the problem that they had exacerbated in the first place.

The other thing I’ve noticed too is that, depending on our theological framework, we give more leeway to our own, than to others.  So Driscoll was always the enfant terrible to the progressive crowd, what with his commitment to complementarianism and substitutionary atonement and all.  So it was obvious wasn’t it? Well, not to many in the Young, Restless, Reformed crowd, who were all too often “Yeah, I don’t like his style, but…”

Yet many within that same crowd gave no leeway to Hybels ever, and when he fell, pointed to the business leadership structures that he had in place, and his unfortunate tendency to surround himself with women leaders in senior pastoral roles.  There was equal shock by many egalitarians that the man who most championed these women, was abusing his power over them! When should either side be surprised?  When they don’t take sin seriously enough, especially in relationships that involve power disparities.

The person I mentioned above who lost his job said that in his organisation, that ticked all the evangelical boxes – the brand was everything.  It’s like there’s almost an unstated agreement in some of these well-resourced, well known organisations that if we go down then Christianity in the West will suffer a mortal blow.  The fact is, it’s this sort of stuff that is killing the church through the death of a thousand cuts.  The church will survive without that organisation.  It has done, is doing, and will do.

Jesus said he would BUILD his church, he didn’t ask us to BRAND it.

You’ll notice too, that the two “whales” I mentioned started and led their own churches that turned into mini-denominations.  They were the supreme leader of the church and the brand.  And that is a phenomenon of the can-do attitude of the 21st century, late capitalist West.  You can be your own mini-Pope, yet, ironically, with far more direct power than the actual Pope, who has all sorts of historical caveats restraining him. And for good reason.  The Pope is not sitting around thinking of a new vision statement for the Church every three to five years, and then hiring and firing those around him to make it happen.

That’s why Donald Trump, regardless of what Trumpmania says, can be President for two terms and only two terms.   The most powerful nation, the USA, limits the most power office in the most powerful nation.

Of course that doesn’t mean institutional church is the answer, not from what I hear.  The key is not an institutional process for bullying, in fact that’s often the problem!  The key is having an external process outside the institution, because the self-interest of the institution will over-ride justice unless someone very, very brave is willing to become a pariah with their own people – for the sake of other people.  Which, incidentally, I seem to recall, is what Jesus both risked, and did.

Well, I’ve said a lot! And probably not answered it all.  But hey, that’s a PhD somewhere! But it was probably worth going down this particular route before we look at some of the features of the bullying leader in the next instalment.


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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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