October 14, 2019

Bully Vol 3

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Imagine a man who was a perpetrator of domestic violence allowing his wife to leave the family home with no threat of stalking, and with a generous pay-out to get her started up again.  His only condition?  Sign an NDA – a non-disclosure, or non-disparagement agreement.

“Look,” he says to her, though she can’t even raise her face to look at her tormentor, “I’ve got a reputation to keep, and a job to go to, and it will make all sorts of problems for me – and for you too by the way – if we don’t keep this thing quiet as you go.  So sign here, and we can get on with our separate lives.”

That would be ridiculous.  It’s a terrible, and tragic, mixing of identities.  A family is not a business.  The ethos of family has been broken by the man’s wicked actions.  He deserves all the opprobrium coming his way.  The family brand he is hiding behind does not deserve to be protected from the chill winds of public disapproval or legal remit.

Never sign an NDA – a non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement – in a church setting.  Never.

That was the great advice from Scot McKnight over the revelation that staff members who were accusing Willow Creek’s Bill Hybels of sexual abuse and bullying, had signed NDAs upon uptake of a severance package.  You can read Scot’s reasonings here.

Central to his argument was this:

 Why in the world is a church in this situation? Are not Non Disparagement Agreements already an admission that something is seriously wrong?

It is my contention that when the Demander has violated “in Christ” relationships (truth-telling, silencing sins and violations, etc) the agreement ought to be reconsidered and considered invalid. But don’t do so until you talk to an employment lawyer.

This third instalment of my Bully series is exploring the way in which the church has gotten caught up in what is ostensibly a worldly practice aimed at solving a branding problem in the church.  Athens is being used to leverage Jerusalem.

If you’re waiting for my promised list of the attributes of the bully or narcissist in the church setting, then have a read of this and this, both of which I wrote a while back.  They cover all of the issues, and to be honest these have been already explored extensively, and probably more incisively, elsewhere.  At the moment, however, the issues around NDAs seems pertinent.

And, as someone pointed out to me, there is also a tendency among some who are poor at their jobs, and who lost their role as a result of neglect or incompetence, to blame their employee as a bully. 

As I’ve stated before, it’s systemic bullying that I’m talking about it, not a one off firing of an employee.  Most people who sack someone from a role because of genuine incompetence generally don’t feel the need to silence the person they sack.  They’re usually confident that time will prove to others that they were right.  I feel I have to repeat this, just to clear the decks about what I am not saying.

Scot’s comments above, while helpful, also reveal the primary problem we have in our modern Western church.  We can’t decide if we’re family or if we’re business.  Or more to the point, we can easily pitch as family, but practice as business.  And this increases the more exposed we are to secular market forces.  Independent evangelical churches and networks that are not part of century-long traditions and institutions can rise and fall pretty quickly, if they don’t build some protection around them.

Have you noticed how our church, network and para-church websites look all family friendly?  We are pitching to families as a selling point.  Of that there is no doubt. It’s the defining feature of independent evangelical networks.

Our language from the stage is that of family.  We try as hard as we can to give the impression – real or otherwise – that what we are doing is showcasing the reality of who we are in Christ – brothers and sisters.  We’re all in this together, and by the Spirit we showcase God’s new humanity to a watching world.

But there’s another reality, especially in newer expressions of church and para-church organisation.  And that reality is we operate like a business, partly out of necessity, especially if we are independent churches which would shut down tomorrow at the first hint of impropriety.

Church organisations, with their finances, employees, policies and procedures etc, are businesses in the eyes of the world.  If we are to remain above board in a secular regulatory sense we’ve got to comply.  

So it makes sense to ensure that our employees are treated in accordance with law.  It makes sense to have good OHS.  It makes good sense to have good HR departments. Good sense indeed.  But for the Christian organisation, although mitigating risk to the organisation is imperative, the key must be serving the interests of those involved in the organisation, not the brand in and of itself.

And that’s where Scot’s comment is crucial.  When “in Christ” relationships have been violated (truth telling, silencing sins and violations), previously enforced, and promised, NDAs should be voided.

The key issue here is the one highlighted and bolded a couple of paragraphs above: hint.  Hint of impropriety to whom?  For example, many staff members within those organisations that have tanked recently – such as Mars Hill and Willow Creek -, knew that something was going wrong. 

Yet NDA’s were being forced because the “in Christ” relationships were considered subservient to the brand.  What social capital would be lost – to say nothing of membership and giving –  if the outside world got  hint of what was going on.  Those who were suffering the abuse were silenced for the sake of the brand.  People – actual brothers and sisters in Christ – became expendable for a “greater” good.

Prospective staff are so often wooed to churches with this website vision, one that utilises the language and practises of family.  The reality is, however, that when things go pear-shaped, the language and practises of business are quickly applied.  Athens leveraging Jerusalem, so to speak.  

This goes to much deeper issues for us in the church at the West, than simply how we handle staff complaints such as ongoing bullying. Because as far as I can see, too many churches, especially independent churches that have flourished in the soil of late modern, individualist culture, desire all of the advantages of being seen as a loving family, without the disadvantages of having to act like a loving family when things go pear-shaped.  They don’t want to do the hard yards that “in Christ” relationships demand.  That Christ demands of “in Christ” relationships!

For many people who are bullied – or experience a toxic work environment at church, before being let go -, it’s the cognitive dissonance between how they are being treated and what is being said from the front – often by the perpetrator – that is most troubling. 

Get sacked by Big Oil or by Big Pharma, and being forced to sign an NDA, is one thing. But being sacked by a senior minister in a church who will, that very Sunday open up God’s Word (well, perhaps they will), and explain how we should love each other in such a way that the world takes notice, is another thing altogether. 

Being let go with threats of legal and financial punishment if you say anything, by an organisation that prides itself on helping churches establish healthy practice, is discombobulating.  Which is why so many people who are bullied out of church roles feel it so intently.  It was all “family family, family”, until it wasn’t.

Carl Trueman disparagingly calls out the surge in the mega-church movement among mainstream evangelicals, Big Eva.  And like Big Oil and Big Pharma, Big Eva becomes about brand all too easily, hence the propensity to operate internally like Athens (dare I say Babylon?) whilst all the while proclaiming Jerusalem from the stage.

And of course the other thing about an NDA is that it allows toxic patterns of bullying, either at the hands of an individual, or of an organisational culture, to perpetuate, simply because no red flags can be seen.   And that’s their aim.

It’s one thing for people to walk open-eyed into a church situation in which bullying has been systemic (I’ve recently heard of one such case and it highlights the pride/naivety of those who think it will be different for them).  It’s another thing altogether to walk into a situation, having received no warning, because people who could say something have been committed to silence.  Yet my experience is that that is happening on an increasing basis.

I’ll leave you with some prescient words from Scot McKnight, who has been exemplary in his discussion around the Willow Creek fall out:

In Non-Disparagement Agreements the money can easily become hush money, bribery, silence for shekels. It’s morally wrong and contrary to truth telling. (And I’m not saying all NDAs are always always always wrong.)

I’m willing to stiffen that judgment with some starch: no one with a theologically-informed ethic should be thinking of non disparagement agreements when the issue is dirt on the floor in the church. Such a person, instead of advocating silence, should be advocating rebuke and repentance and a return to basics, including unflinching truth telling.

Unflinching truth telling.  It’s something evangelicals, particularly conservative evangelicals have prided themselves on.  Let’s not make that something else to join to the list of things we can be accused of preaching and not practising.




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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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