07 March 2019

Trustworthy, part three: choices

In 1993, when I found out that I had been chosen as the general secretary of Friends United Meeting, I tried to find some books that might help me be a better leader. I particularly wanted to prepare to serve a denomination with deep trust issues, having just gone through a bruising struggle over theology -- a struggle that had calmed down but with no real resolution, and with smoldering suspicions between rural and urban, young and old, liberal and evangelical -- and between personalities representing these divisions.

One of the books I read had this sobering passage:
Religion's socialization process is lethal. It not only offers us the acceptance and affections of a specific group of people, it also offers us the acceptance and affection of God. We become secure in our religious sense of self and vigorously join with the others in defending the fundamentals of our worldview. This is what much of our Christian education is about. A judicious understanding of our fallenness would allow the perspective that a certain percentage of Sunday school classes, sermons, doctrine courses, and seminars are not as much about pursuit of truth as they are about religious socialization.

It's no accident, incidentally, that churches are quite easily characterized along socioeconomic lines. This is a black church from a poor neighborhood, over there is an all-white church from the suburbs, and just a block away is a yuppie church that is not distinguished so much by its ethnicity as by its high percentage of aerospace engineers. Theological seminaries offer courses that ensure the perpetuation of religious socialization: classes are given on the so-called church growth principles, predicated on the idea that the best way to expand is to associate with people who are like yourself. They call it the "homogeneous principle," and in fact it is nothing more than spiritualized racism and classism.

The acceptance and affection of God offered to us by religious socialization comes with high stakes. Any rejection of this religious group's values and behavioral expectations will bring down upon us the wrath and rejection of not only the group but also God.

To become free people is to unleash the indignation of religion.
(Gordon Aeschliman, Cages of Pain: Healing for Disillusioned Christians, published in 1991.)

With Friends' concentric and non-hierarchic structure, there was no real danger that Friends United Meeting would be able to enforce an obligatory worldview or unleash indignation on our international constituency. However, we seemed equally unable to ensure that abuse of power wouldn't occur at more local levels. The more I traveled, the more I found examples of dysfunctional churches and even regional associations where conformity was enforced and freedom feared. Over my seventeen combined years of travel among Friends meetings and churches (with Friends World Committee and then Friends United Meeting), I visited over 300 congregations -- many apparently healthy, but a significant minority reflecting the same sorts of problems that Gordon Aeschliman describes in his book's numerous case studies.

Aeschliman's book shows its age in some ways. (For example, when he wrote the book, his home country of South Africa was still under the rule of apartheid, a heresy backed by much of the country's white Christian establishment.) However, when I reviewed the "untrustworthy church" experiences recounted by my modest recent survey, the diagnoses in his book often still seem all too fresh.

But Cages of Pain doesn't just leave us there. Much of his book includes specific ideas and choices that might help us realize the promise of his subtitle, "healing for disillusioned Christians." For some hints, see Aeschliman's table of contents. In my own comments on choices here today and later in part four, I'm drawing on some of his ideas as well as my own experiences and the advice I've gathered along the way.

Looking at the stories of disappointment and betrayal in my survey responses, and reducing them to their essential causes, I found these top ten interrelated dynamics that made congregations (most, but not all, being Friends meetings and churches) seem untrustworthy. All of them resonate with stories in Aeschliman's book:

(In order of decreasing numbers of examples...)
  1. Backchannel communication patterns, often based around factions and shared enemy lists
  2. Denial of conflict to preserve appearance of peace
  3. Old guard -- sometimes allied with pastor, sometimes allied with pillar-of-church families
  4. Rules (both explicit and tacit) elevated over relationships
  5. False advertising -- attractive invitations, unattractive or nonexistent implementations
  6. Unrecognized family systems and roles leading normally "good" people to behave hurtfully
  7. Private support coupled with public shunning or demonstrative neutrality 
  8. Unethical or nontransparent personnel practices
  9. "Pastor knows best" assumption
  10. Betrayal of trust (specifically involving children's safety)
What choices do we have?

The most obvious and most glib answer is: leave! Escape! In fact, after prayer and consultation and weighing options, that may end up being the best answer. Certainly it was the answer chosen by some survey respondents. But there may be many reasons not to take that route: family reasons, a commitment to others (at least some others) in the congregation, a readiness to confront the roots of your disillusionment or alienation, an unwillingness to surrender a beloved church to some usurping spirit or person, or simply a sense of leading from the Holy Spirit.

On your way to a stay/leave decision, you might also need to confront your own part in the untrustworthiness surrounding you. (One of my respondents wrote: "Not sure if it 'was me' or if it was the congregation.") I like Aeschliman's advice to examine the "bars" around you that make up your own cage of pain, including those factors that you and I need to acknowledge about our own participation in dysfunction. Unacknowledged, these patterns might just go with us to our next church, or rob us of the joy of ever finding a new, more trustworthy church home. Some of those bars include cynicism, spiritual codependency, and our own unexamined mistakes. None of these aspects of self-examination require us to submit to spiritual tyranny or self-flagellation of any kind, or to reconcile ourselves to anything that we, after due thought, continue to consider unacceptable.

Readiness for self-examination and repentance must be coupled with a biblical sense of your uncompromised, non-negotiable self-worth: No matter who is trying to do a power play on you and yours, Jesus infinitely outranks them, yet for all his divine worth, he was tortured, mocked, and executed by the politicians. You have a share in his crucifixion and resurrection; you are his beloved; you carry his name and his authority.

On your way to that grounding in truth and comfort, or re-grounding as the case may be, you may need to re-learn how to express how you actually feel. Aeschliman writes about the risky path of reconciliation with the church:
Some would tempt you to trade in the integrity of facing the abuse head-on, but you must resist. Specific sins have been committed against you, and you will never be free of their influence in your life until you tag them. You must call them for what they are. Some of the pain has serious consequences that are not easily repaired. For example, slander may have resulted in the loss of a ministry that you birthed and to which you gave your life. The emotions you have experienced in connection with the loss probably include everything listed in part two of this book.... Be honest with the hurts, and avoid the advice of those who would have you quickly move on from the shambles. You must dwell on the wrong as long as your heart requires, reliving the painful moments and crying your despair that your life has been irretrievably altered.

This honest encounter will release your rage: you must let rage run its course. It is a gift from God.
And when your rage is has burned through, and perhaps exhaustion and despair replace the fiery pain,
...[Y]ou awake to the friendship of honesty. Your aching body and parched throat are there to affirm your dignity, to agree with the outrage of your heart, to reward you for the honesty of your anger. You are a wonderful person, and you were trespassed. Contrary to the message of the abuser, you are not trash. And you hold your tired head high as you walk back to town, ready to live your worth.
Not every betrayed person in Aeschliman's book, or in my own experience, has a happy ending from the institutional point of view; not all of them choose reconciliation with the church (either their original congregation or the Church as a whole). But happy (or at least happier) endings do happen, and they happen on the basis of honesty.

What are the church's choices? This is the subject of part four.

(Part one. Part two. Related, somewhat: Leaving Quakers.)

The best gift of life -- accept or reject?

Thanks to David Brin for speaking my mind better than I could! Oligarchy and aristocracy and power.

Amanda Ripley on the American town with the least amount of political prejudice.

New Russian satellites promise "Internet for 'everyone' and 'everywhere'..." as long as you don't use the Internet to express disrespect for authorities. (How Russia's Internet detectives work to track down undesirable authors.)

Has even Women's Day become militarized?

Eilen Jewell, "Satisfied Mind"


Pat said...

Thank you for this series, Johan; I'm finding it both affirming and instructive. And the music was just the right piece to hear!

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you for the encouragement! I'm hoping to finish the series later this month.