When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm: Starting Small and Choosing to Be With in Small Oases of Restorative Resiliency

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This is the final installment of a series of articles by Safe Church Ministry titled: When Spiritual Leaders Do Harm. The first: In the Wake of Ravi Zacharias, the second: Lessons to Be Learned, the third: Becoming a Trauma Informed Church

Paul writes to the Romans to urge them “in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12:1-2, NIV).

Many of us have taken a heavy pause to reassess patterns of abuse committed by such renowned leaders in the Church. There are some common threads between them. First, they all used their power to exploit others. Second, leaders around them enabled this behavior to varying degrees. 

How can we learn from these stories and identify these patterns of the world that have led to such deception and harmful behavior? What positive action could have been taken by leaders to support spiritual leaders, hold them accountable and help one another renew our minds?

Amanda Benckhuysen and Tara Boer did this in a variety of ways in the first three entries to this series. In this entry, I hope to identify a positive pattern backed up by a growing movement called restorative practices. To start, I propose just two ways in which restorative practices could be initiated in our church communities: the first, Starting Small and second: Choosing to be With. 

First: Start small

Wendell Berry, a poet and an agrarian philosopher, often writes about the urban-rural divide and rugged individualism. In his essay, Contempt for Small Places he writes:

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places. 

Berry is writing about the way one thing naturally affects everything. He is adamant that we should not simply accept new convenient, profitable techniques that are detrimental to the life of the community. He is also passionate about the interconnectedness of all of life, from the way we extract resources to the way we instill community values and relate to one another.

I’ll take it a step further, and propose that the small ways we relate to one another and form cultures of respect and responsibility add up to either systemic health or systemic sickness. 

We must pay attention to the minor ways people are harmed that often go unaddressed. How often do we cut off relationships by inaction, silence, and avoidance? When we can properly address smaller levels of harm, it gives us the capacity to get it right when major levels of harm come to light.

As I have worked with Safe Church Ministry over the past four years, I have heard a recurring question: how much is abuse really happening in our churches? I often want to counter that question with another question: how safe do people feel to truly come forward with their story of abuse or victimization? I have found that when churches try hard to create communities where people are able to name their experience or victimization of abuse in the past, the more people come forward with their stories. 

The more spaces we create where harms are honorably and restoratively acknowledged, and where responsibility is taken where wrong has occurred, then the natural consequence is that more folks emerge with their stories of being harmed and victimized. 

If you are wondering, “Why would I want that?” Here is why: renewal and restoration can finally begin. When we acknowledge the deep seated harm we have endured, then walls of isolation come down. Harm that has happened in the community or harm within our families of origin may finally be brought to light. Burdens may finally be shared with one another that were never meant to be carried alone, healing may finally begin.

When the Church seeks to engage restorative practices with the small conflicts, the harmful ways of shame-based behaviors that once controlled a culture get derailed. In their place new roads toward reintegration and wholeness are developed within a community’s culture.

Rev. Jen Holmes Curran is a pastor at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. She is passionate about restorative practices and the way they can be used to see conflict as opportunities to build peace and unity (she recently wrote this piece titled: A Gift from the Land of Restorative Justice). One thing that I continue to remember after co-facilitating a restorative circle with Jen, is a dream she has to print off a bunch of “Make a Big Deal Out of Nothing" Tickets for her congregation. She is referring to a physical ticket that can be redeemed to any restorative facilitator in their church to process anything from a minor conflict over spilled milk on the new narthex carpet, to ongoing conflicts around required precautions to limit the spread of COVID. 

Many of us have grown up with two ways of dealing with tension or conflict: ignoring and internalizing it, or spewing it out in ways that give little opportunity for restoration and health. Being together in a way that even our small conflicts lead to processes that are dignifying builds capacity for respecting others and taking responsibility amid major conflicts as well - it may also prevent vulnerable people from great harm and the many divisions that follow.

Second: Choose to Be With

A mark of “strength” in our world, both in the greater society of North America and particularly in Dutch enclaves, is the value that we are stronger when we can survive or thrive in isolation and be self-reliant. In a world connected through social media, fears and anxieties seem to be causing us to turn inward, a place where fear can more easily grow as we close ourselves off from others. What would it look like to choose to be with others in our neighborhoods, churches and communities?

Choosing to live and lead with is one emphasis of restorative practices that would also help us to resist abuse of power by spiritual leaders within our churches. So, let’s take a look at two different cultures, one a power-through-fear culture and the other a power-through-leading-with culture.

Scot Mcknight and his daughter Laura Barringer wrote the book, The Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, released in 2020. (Scot will be a guest for the July Safe Church Webinar - sign up here!) In chapter two, they write, “There can be no escaping the reality that many Christians, some of them abused in awful ways, are scared to death to talk about what they’ve seen or heard at church. They’ve lived in a culture of fear, and fear has driven them to silence. How does a fear culture develop?” They go on to write about eight different phases in the formation of a power-through-fear culture. These include: 

  1. Power and authority are vested in an individual most often a pastor (not always) and most often a man (but not always) and it spreads to other leaders and influencers in the congregation.

  2. The pastor’s approval becomes the gold standard.

  3. Those approved by the power pastor gain “status enhancement.”

  4. Power cuts with both sides of the blade.

  5. Power shaping transitions to a fear-shaped culture.

  6. Judgments and decisions are rendered behind a wall of secrecy

  7. Behind the wall of secrecy lurks a perpetual fear of status degradation

  8. Removal from the circle entirely. 

What would it look like if, instead of exercising power over each other, we practiced “Being With” one another in partnership? This is a culture that lives out high expectations and stewards power well, all the while modeling high levels of support, encouragement and nurture. This is defined as leading with, rather than leading in a way that does things to each other or for one another. The International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) notes that “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.” The chart below compares leadership with, as opposed to leadership to or for.

As leaders in the Church we can apply this concept/framework in a host of ways. If we create cultures in which church leaders lead with, this would be a far more difficult environment for abuses of power to be carried out.

As I reflect on Jesus' approach to leadership, I'm also struck by the restorative posture and practices that shaped his interactions with others. We are called to pattern ourselves after our God who came to be with us, Immanuel. Our God has come to be with us, leading us like a shepherd with his sheep to green pastures, quiet waters, and paths of righteousness in grace. Jesus’ leadership was one of high support and high expectations. Jesus practiced and taught leadership with and continues to be with us through the Holy Spirit to allow us to be wounded resisters and healers. This way of Jesus starts small and cares so deeply, that he continues to stay with us. 

How can we stop being conformed to the patterns of this world? Perhaps we can start small and choose to be with one another in restorative ways. 

 

Want to learn more about restorative practices and forming goodness cultures? Below are some upcoming webinars:

Safe Church Webinar on June 9th (and Workshop on June 23rd): June Safe Church Webinar: On Being Restorative Congregations In the Aftermath of COVID

Also, please note the July 7th Webinar with Scot Mcknight, Author of The Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing

Here are a few other articles as well: 

An Overview of Restorative Practices: This piece connects the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical approval of restorative justice practices, and attempts to stitch together a movement that has seen development by a whole host of different people globally and institutionally. Further, in this blog post titled: Rugged Relationships and a Restorative Church, I tried to connect the phenomenon that as we have become ever more connected via technology that we have become even more ruggedly individualistic, often succumbing to missing our connections to each other, creation and God.

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