Friday, March 23, 2012

What Do You Risk When You Go to a Star Chamber/Hot Seat Meeting? (and more on the never ending Mars Hil/Driscoll Drama)

I was quite surprised that, while I'd already begun posting on this topic, a former elder/pastor of Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill organization came forward online to reveal the details of their own experiences within a spiritually abusive system. The husband and wife team have written some details about different star chamber meetings that they'd attended as a part of their experiences there.

As the matter became public, I have read through unverified sources that Driscoll/Mars Hill (the “church of sex”) now seeks to address what they term “reconciliation” with the former pastor which the church previously dismissed and disfellowshped/shunned for protesting what I would summarize as Driscoll's attempt to establish his own, largely unlimited authority over his church system. In addition to the matter presenting an excellent case for the anatomy of the abuse of power, discussion that has ensued over whether or not the minister and his wife are under any obligation to respond to Mars Hill's request to meet to work towards reconciliation. There is also much reasonable speculation that the matter is only an attempt at damage control, a public relations move on the part of Driscoll and his organization.

The True Nature of Such Meetings

In previous posts, I've detailed some of the experience of others as well as my own when confronting spiritually abusive church leaders with issues of injustice, or when they call meetings of church discipline, whether or not they are parsed as such. Many church followers believe that if the can meet with their church abusive church leaders that they can accomplish good because of their own faith in the process and their faith in the good character and motive of their leaders and pastors. Within healthy churches, this type of confrontation does prove stressful anyway, but within spiritually abusive groups that employ surreptitious and undue influences to manipulate followers, such meetings put subordinate followers at risk.

I've seen many reports online of parishioners who believed that if they could meet with CJ Mahaney (who associates with Driscoll as a mentor to him) to discuss their tragic circumstances within their Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) churches, that he would respond to their situation. It is my belief that when Mahaney changed the name of the cultic Shepherding/Discipleship group of People of Destiny to SGM, that the church most definitely did not abandon the spiritually abusive practices of the movement.

I have been heartsick to hear of the sadness and grief endured by those from SGM whom I encouraged to either decline invitations to meetings which the group desired only for damage control. I also asked members of SGM churches to consider less direct communication modes which would limit the pressure to give immediate, scrutinized responses which a direct meeting in person in Mahaney's territory would demand. Part of the power of such confrontations within spiritually abusive systems not only comes through the hierarchy and social rules, but also through the social pressure to respond immediately without having the ability to gracefully exit the situation. Making a manipulator wait and putting distance of both time and space between a volatile situation helps to balance the gross imbalance of power created by the group power structure, a factor that a direct meeting in person exaggerates.

As I read back through the resources that I have concerning the risks of attending such meetings, I learned that many blogs have begun to discuss whether the family that was disfellowshiped from Mars Hill should or should not attend any meetings proposed by Driscoll. It is my personal belief that they are under no such obligation until the offending group demonstrates true repentance, and I find the proposed reconciliation quite suspicious because it does follow public exposure of the troubling deeds of the organization. I most definitely do not recommend that they involve Peacemaker Ministries, reasons which I detail here in a post I was invited to write for the Wartburg Watch several months ago.

Evaluating the Risks Through Biderman's Chart of the Dynamics of Manipulation

To those who believe in the benefits of confrontational meetings with spiritually abusive leaders, I offer this summary of information that I've based on the perspective of the writings of Dr. Albert Biderman. I frequently refer to Robert Lifton as a framework to talk about such matters of manipulation, but concerning the nature of manipulation that takes place directly in star chamber meetings with leaders of spiritually abusive groups, I've chosen Biderman's writing concerning manipulation, thought reform, and domestic violence. In his book, The Manipulation of Human Behavior, Biderman notes how these dynamics that occur during such meetings actually foster “disturbances in brain function.”

It is my hope that the reader here,will soberly consider the many risks of attending such meetings (as well as the other factors explored in this whole series of posts), profound and lasting effects that such meetings can have for the rank and file member of a group or church. Generally, no matter how they are parsed, these types of meetings seek only to meet the objectives of the spiritually abusive group at the great expense of the follower. Image consciousness, suppression of criticism, and authoritarian control, amongst other factors, characterize spiritual abuse, and they are generally the sole objective of the leaders who already practice behaviors which allow their so stated ends of great virtue to justify questionable means. It is my contention that such meetings have more to do with consolidating the power of the group and its leaders than they do with cooperation and respect for the member. Member compliance always serves as the primary objective, or at the very least, such meetings attempt damage control by suppressing the voice of the abused concerning any matters that the manipulator finds unpleasant or threatening.

Dynamics of Risk During Star Chamber and Hot Seat Meetings

concerning the dynamics of manipulation and control

  • Isolation

Manipulator's goal: Convince the target that his judgments are wrong and that the manipulator has a greater ability to discern truth and arrive at sound decisions.

When you agree to attend a such a meeting, the manipulator/interrogator seeks to isolate you from what psychologists call “situational supports.” First, the target must stand alone, though sometimes, a family member or another supportive person may come with them. Consider, however, that the supportive person will also be subject to the very same manipulation that the target will be.

It is the primary goal of the manipulator/interrogator to isolate the target from their strengths, convictions, knowledge, objectives, and sense of self by challenging them all. The isolation not only diminishes the target's ability to resist the authoritarian structure and confines of the relationship, these factors automatically make the target dependent on the authority figure.

In terms of Biderman's original writing, concerning isolation, he points out that such encounters also place an intense focus on the target's concept of self which is generally used to induce shame or facilitate manipulation through the red herring distraction of personal matters regarding the target that usually have little or nothing to do with the primary, stated matter of the target's interest. The authority figure wants to emphasize the relationship, not the conflict to posture in order to gain power.

  • Monopolization of Perception

Manipulator's goal: Induce self-doubt and loss of self esteem in the target.

Again, the previous authority structure, even in the target has determined to extricate themselves from it, still poses a great deal of influence during the meeting, just through previous habituation. The interrogator in authority presumes to have a clearer and more significant insight into the situation, they also believe that their position gives them a closer connection to God. The balance of power favors the authority who generally has no interest in sharing power in order to get what they want from the target.

Deception. Targets can be taken in when the authority uses deception to gain the trust of the target by feigning humility, cooperation, and sorrow through language and demeanor, but their demands still remain. Targets often get taken in at this point, due to their good will and desires, hoping to see the best in the manipulative authority. By controlling the setting and the meeting, the authority can control the introduction of evidence that encourages the target to question their feigned humility in order to enforce compliance.

Shame. A focus on shame also enhances the monopolization of perception of the target by the manipulative authority and will focus on self blame and trivial demands that have resulted in the target's past failed attempts to meet certain standards or standards that they did not even realize existed for them. The interrogator will attempt to control the target's ability and opportunity to stop to reflect upon and recall past experiences that prove that they have no cause for shame or that certain matters have no relationship to the matter at hand. They will foster self-doubt, self-blame, and unrelated introspection in the target.

Emotional Thinking and Altered States of Consciousness to Disable Critical Thinking through Shame. Also consider this aspect of a factor recently discussed on this blog in greater detail but in a different context for a different purpose but can give more background for the reader so that they can understand the general principles. The right side of the brain (the cerebral cortex, specifically) processes emotional awareness and meaning as well as the present moment in a very random way. The left side of the brain houses understanding of the past and the future, and it coordinates and categorizes thought and information logically and sequentially. When strong emotions and pejorative topics are introduced, people can often “get stuck” on emotional factors, temporarily losing their ability to focus to think analytically, that function that takes place on the left side of the brain.

In confrontations that people already tend to find intimidating, a manipulator can use emotional arousal to derail a person's ability to think critically. This post talks about what happens to levels of consciousness when this effect is triggered, but on a more functional level, it could be understood that the right side of the brain “gets stuck” in emotional thinking, making it terribly hard to engage rational and analytical thought. The greater the stimulus, the harder it is to get around it. This is something that personal insults and provocative information can do quite well.

Some time ago, I reviewed material that an author wrote which started on page one of the first chapterquoting a magazine with an offensive title. I knew of a nearly identical article that the author had adapted for a different online journal that lacked the offensive magazine title. The subject matter was already troubling, so I suggested to this author that they might consider using the less offensive online journal as a source for the same information to avoid the effect of using the pejorative, something that I was concerned would compete for the attention and the emotional engagement of the reader. The same holds true in these types of confrontations that are already emotionally volatile. The manipulator very often will craft and select certain pejorative material to use as a “red herring” which distracts the target and thwarts his ability to reason with full effectiveness. The person gets stuck in reasoning, using primarily only the left side of the brain. This puts the target at a tremendous disadvantage.

Read more about red herring informal logical fallacy here, and read more here about the affects of such tactics on a person's level of consciousness (noted earlier but mentioned again for emphasis of the profound effects).

  • Induced Physical and Mental Exhaustion

Manipulator's goal: Fatigue and debilitate the target so that they will be too tired to resist manipulation and agree to comply with demands out of frustration, fear and fatigue.

The interrogation experience is both physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. This process can be enhanced by time constraints (“We only have ten minutes...”) and by physical factors like discomfortable within the environment to both distract and fatigue the target, perhaps requiring compliance with these unrealistic standards (e.g., not being permitted to sit comfortably; required to stand for long periods; seated lower than the manipulator). When fatigued, intimidated and strongly emotionally provoked for longer than 20 or 30 minutes, the target becomes too physically and emotionally weak to resist or challenge. Environmental temperature also has an affect on a person's cognition/thought, according to Biderman.

More subtle and perhaps occurring without the awareness of the target, they can shift over into emotional reasoning or irrational thought because of their fatigue, becoming more compliant or emotionally labile. Boredom can also be used to fatigue a target, if they are required to wait a long period of time before the confrontation meeting. The anticipation of stress not only heightens the person's emotions, it also aids in the process of fatigue.

  • Threats

Manipulator's Goal: Threaten the target into compliance through negative reinforcement.

The manipulator will remind the target of their position and of their power which they have previously respected and complied with in the past, as well as their ability to deprive them of acceptance by and participation within the system. The manipulator will also take this opportunity to warn of the impending demise that threatens the target if and when they choose against compliance, listing examples of others who failed to comply an suffered as a consequence.

Shunning will be mentioned and threatened, depriving the target of their relationship with individuals within the group and the benefits of the system. Enhancing this emotional blackmail, the manipulator and authority figure will also suggest that failure to comply with their demands will result in eternal consequences and annihilation, what Robert Lifton described as the Dispensing of Existence.

  • Occasional Indulgences

Manipulator's Goal: Soften the target through positive reinforcement in order to gain compliance.

During sessions of confrontation, in addition to feigning humility and collaboration, the manipulator may offer the target some type of reward for their compliance, or they may praise past achievements as an enticement. This can trick the target into believing that they have finally measured up to the standard set by the authority (which may be quite fluid which works to keep the target feeling confused and insecure). The target will falsely assume that the pattern of exploitation has changed. This also fosters the target's dependency on the manipulator for continued praise or feedback.

The target may also start to enjoy the pleasant relief of stress created by the conflict and my start to doubt that there was any conflict, exploitation, or abuse, something that becomes a reward in and of itself.

  • Demonstrating Omnipotence

Manipulator's Goal: Dominate the target so that they willingly comply with handing over their own personal power, thus accepting and embracing their own, “deserved” powerlessness.

In such a setting, the manipulator attempts to establish complete control by focusing on their own authority and dominance over the target, all without real respect or concern for the target, though the manipulator requires the target to trust that this respect and concern exists. In terms of how Robert Lifton described manipulation, I see this point of Biderman's Chart of Coercion as a melding together the Sacred Science which establishes the leader as the ultimate authority and Mystical Manipulation which capitalizes on the assumption that the leader has a special connection with God which does grant him seemingly unlimited insight into all matters concerning the situation and the target.

  • Degradation

Manipulator's Goal: Reduce the target to intense shame and self pre-occupation to defeat the will of the target in order to enhance and ensure their growing sense of powerlessness.

As previously discussed in greater detail as part of both Isolation and Monopolization of Perception, the manipulator will most always use some type of degradation and deeply personal criticism that has no bearing on the matter of discussion or conflict but is introduced to as a distraction to defeat the resolve of the target. The manipulator will discuss scenarios of disgrace and humiliation of others and will threaten the target with the same, exaggerated outcome because of their non-compliance and because of their very identity.

  • Enforcing Trivial Demands

Manipulator's goal: gain the target's behavioral compliance.

Throughout the experience of the target within the group and within the relationship with the manipulator, the target has been asked to comply with many requests that do seem insignificant. In terms of how Hassan explains the BITE Method, dominating behavior gives a manipulator access to all of the elements of self. During such meetings, the pretense of remaining cordial and following certain social rules also puts a target at a great disadvantage when they are not “permitted” to violate those social rules established or assumed by the group. It puts me in mind of “Keep Sweet” directive required of women in the FLDS cult as an extreme example, but the whole idea that Christians should not become angry or challenge a minister also poses an element of enforcement of expected, informal social standards.

In the greater sense, especially in terms of manipulative groups, asking for compliance concerning behaviors that seem to be of little significance “greases the wheel” for continued behavior. If you are in the habit of responding with compliance when a manipulator asks you to do something, you've been conditioned in many respects to trust that person and will often do what is requested without thinking much about the request. Certainly in this sense, in a meeting of confrontation, there will be little if any requests for trivial demands, but the target will have already been habituated to comply with the manipulator's requests, so it does create some influence during the meeting which also puts the target at a disadvantage.


What's the Moral of the Story?

Count the cost before you willingly walk into such types of meetings with spiritually abusive authority figures. You will pay a price, and the situation has been structured and followers have been habituated in such a way that always works to the advantage of the manipulator and to the disadvantage of the follower. If you consent to attend such meetings to confront and inform a leader, or if you are summoned for discipline, seriously consider these factors.

One or two more posts will follow on this subject during the next few weeks, hopefully including practical considerations and possible alternatives or interventions to pursue if you decide to attend a meeting with a spiritually abusive authority, despite the risks.

Related posts of interest:


Biderman's Chart of Coercion in Amnesty International (1975) Report on Torture, London, Gerald Duckworth & Co.
Biderman A., Zimmer H. The Manipulation of Human Behavior (1961) John Wiley and Sons, Inc.