Recent posts here discussed the risks that a person faces, but there are also smart ways to prepare for meetings of confrontations with spiritually abusive leadership. In addition to knowledge about spiritual abuse as discussed in this post, there are pragmatic and physical measures that one can take in addition to exploring what the Bible has to say about such meetings, if it mentions them at all.
Have Realistic Expectations (or Make an Attempt to Get Them)
When I remained involved with my own spiritually abusive group, and for a time after I left, as a Christian, I felt it was my duty to tell leadership about the things that I saw as in direct conflict with the Bible. For their own sake, I also felt the need to tell them about the nature of their own behavior which was more like that in a Chinese POW camp than in what I knew as the Christian church. Though I wanted some closure and to set behavioral limits (I desired no further contact with them because they had hurt me), I felt like someone needed to explain to them what they were doing to people and the harm that they caused. My husband who says that I'm much nicer than he is didn't feel that he had any duty to these men because they strayed so far from righteousness and good intent that he no longer considered them his brethren. I still don't share his perspective on that, and that was fine with both of us. Not being an authoritarian type, he gave me great liberty to do whatever I felt I needed to do to move on and heal, however it worked for me.
Writing that now, more than a decade and a half later, I almost want to laugh, because I know that I had a dreadfully naïve view of the dynamics of the relationship I had with them as a follower. I thought that the pastor and the elders believed what I did about them: that we were fellow believers who submitted to one another in love and who submitted to truth (including what the Bible plainly defined as right and wrong). If asked whether they would agree as a matter of principle in a direct question, they would say that they agreed with me. Our conflict was not one of agreement but one of how those ideas “fleshed out” functionally. I was ignorant of the premises of the Shepherding Discipleship Movement until after I left that church, so I never realized that those ideas took on an entirely different meaning for that church's leadership than they did for me. We used the same language, but that language had a coded meaning that I didn't understand.
I didn't have realistic expectations. Mine were naive.
Never Underestimate the Unwritten Rules of the System (Another Vignette from Experience)
Honestly, even with study of the dynamics of spiritual abuse and retracing my experience of learning their submission doctrine which was so strongly tied to hierarchy, I didn't understand elements of it until I started reading about Complementarianism (gender hierarchy), specifically when I listened to others talk about their experience in Gothardism. Many times, during recent years in my study concerning patriarchy, I had epiphanies about past experiences at my own Shepherding church that made no sense to me at the time.
One of the earliest and very weird reactions I saw involved my resignation from a position wherein I served as a liaison between my church and our affiliated seminary. I was given tremendous responsibilities without any structure and without authority to carry out critical tasks. In resigning, however, I felt that, to some degree, it would be embarrassing to the men in the seminary who abandoned me with impossible tasks to accomplish. I asked to meet with the men, my husband who was on the board of the seminary, and with my pastor in his office at a convenient time when all involved were present. I presented my formally written resignation in the form of a memo which I felt was businesslike, much like this paragraph is turning out to be. I wasn't trying to be adversarial but wanted to be freed from the dilemma. Even so, I felt a duty to tell them why I felt uncomfortable, just for the sake of anyone else who might be drafted into the frustrating role.
I handled things in such a way that no one had cause for recourse against me (I'd considered how to proceed about the matter for a long time), but the emotional reaction of these men bordered on bizarre. Essentially, I presented the matter as a resignation as opposed to a confrontation, but I did convey the message that the lack of guidance and resources afforded to me were inadequate, making the position too stressful and difficult. My pastor seemed fine, but the men from the seminary acted like I'd kicked them in the groin repeatedly or had physically hurt them (though I was 100% business-like and respectful to them, but very formal in my manner). I was no stranger to this kind of process as a manager in the workplace, and I generally handled such matters with compassion, especially when addressing errors. I'd never seen anyone act like they did, but I didn't consider their reaction to amount to some problem that rested with me. One man almost hung his head like a puppy who'd just been beaten, and all of them but the pastor turned so that they stood perpendicular to me (almost protecting their torsos from directly facing mine, as if I would spear them in the heart). I asked my husband about what he understood about the fragility of the male ego in the car on the way home – that perhaps I'd been missing something all of these years.
What I failed to realize was that the response didn't have anything to do with male-female interaction issues as normal people encounter them in normal society. I realized later that I'd broken three of the many cardinal rules of a cultic system. I not only proved to be a female that could challenge men based on well stated facts (through the authority that comes with truth to which even Watchman Nee attests in his book), I challenged the Sacred Science (the status of perfection of leadership who never make mistakes), and I stood up for myself (a violation of the absolute requirement to suffer all all costs under a “God-appointed authority”). I didn't realize any of that until I learned about the dynamics of thought reform, years after the conflict. Because I didn't think that any Christian could really derive such ideas from the patterns of interaction detailed in Scripture, I couldn't comprehend that these leaders followed these dynamics. In retrospect and in consideration of other things that I'd heard and the responses of others that followed this meeting, I could see how I failed to accept the real dynamics of the group. They were not formally stated in such direct terms which I would have understood, ideas conveyed through the hidden curriculum. Had they been stated to me directly in a way that reflected how they were acted upon in real life, I would have never joined the group.
Prerequisite of Basic Knowledge Before Confronting Your Spiritual Abusers
Even if you don't think that thought reform applies to your group very strongly, please spend some time reading about the dynamics of spiritual abuse. At a minimum, consider these factors so that you will be able to spot spiritual abuse for exactly what it is. It is my hope that if you end up in a meeting of confrontation, you will be better prepared for the possible outcome that you might not anticipate. I'd rather see you prepared for confrontation with knowledge about how these tactics work than to walk into a meeting unprepared. If your leadership turns out to be reasonable and honorable, then you've lost nothing by reading some of these matters in advance. I failed to consider them, and in hindsight, I wish that I'd known about them. At the bare minimum, I wish that I'd known about these resources. I never dreamed that they were applicable. Many have been discussed in the previous posts on this topic, but I offer them here for easy reference.
1. Dynamics of Spiritual Abuse. Be able to name the five elements listed by David Henke in the Spiritual Abuse Profile at Watchman Fellowship. It only lists five points which are fairly self-explanatory.
Run through the lists proposed by Robert Lifton and by Albert Biderman, and take note of anything that sounds like it might be a problem within your group or your church, or perhaps just among the leadership. They're easy to find and simply summarized in the sidebar of this website. (Biderman's list features the crazy picture from the You Tube video which discusses them.)
Take a look at the typical ways that human nature lends us to manipulation as written by Robert Cialdini. The best summary list I've found appears on Philip Zimbardo's website. Each of those “weapons of influence” which provide manipulators a way of exploiting people You can also watch my review of Cialdini's list via video, noting the primary tactics used in religious settings.
Consider also what Steve Hassan elucidates about the manipulation of emotion, thought, behavior, and information as a means of dominating and controlling a person. If they can get you sidetracked into shame, or if they can use some largely irrelevant red herring argument to sidetrack you, they've dominated the meeting. Be aware of the strong influence about where and how the group demands that you approach them. These are all tactics to reduce your power which gives them the advantage.
2. Read a little material about manipulators and what they're like. I feature material here from Harriet Braiker concerning the machiavellian personality. It's quick and easy to read. There is also a short and straightforward list of typical behavioral traits of manipulators here. Both of these posts can be quickly read, and if you find it interesting, I would suggest that you review additional information here in the archives concerning the resistance of manipulation. The material from George Simon is particularly good (two posts including one on personal empowerment), as are the additional posts from Braiker, both concerning the typical tactics that manipulators use. Mere knowledge of how these tactics work, even if you don't anticipate them, will help prepare you.
If time permits, I would recommend reading your choice or all of the three fairly simple posts that I wrote about narcissists and how to confront them at Overcoming Botkin Syndrome. Another resource along these lines, making the same kinds of points regarding confrontation can be quickly read in Dr. Z's List of Helpful Hints.
3. Investigate material concerning conformity studies and obedience to authority, if time allows. At the time of this posting, this link will pull up a total of nine blog posts that discuss conformity studies, many of which include some brief videos about the phenomenon of social pressure. To see them all to see if any catch your attention, you will have to scroll back by selecting “older posts” in order to skim through all nine of them.
Further Discussion About
Preparing for the Star Chamber
In upcoming posts, I plan to discuss practical considerations for arranging meetings with church leaders who show signs of spiritually abusive behavior. Those who plan to meet with their minister to explain why they are leaving their particular church to find another will also benefit, I hope.
Later, I would also like to explore a little bit about the proper use of Matthew 18 as well as what I believe Jesus presented as a model for those who are called to adversarial meetings.