Sunday, March 18, 2012

When You're Summoned to the Church Star Chamber

My husband and I attended a Shepherding Discipleship Movement church for four years, and when we joined, we had no idea that there was such a thing called Shepherding. The principles of submission are wrapped so well in careful language that is drawn from Scripture that it is difficult to discern the principles that the ideology creates from Scripture, and it has a degree of truth in it. It's easy to see the truth, and when those who follow the aberrant ideology talk about their beliefs, most reasonable people will give those folks the benefit of the doubt. They will hear the true aspects of what they're being told, but they will tend to dismiss or ignore many of the aberrant aspects. 

Personally, I would tell myself, “I must have misunderstood them, or perhaps they're not effectively communicating what they're thinking, because they surely can't literally believe what they just said.”

The first few times this happens concerning a certain principle, it's easy to tell yourself that the problems with statements people make amount to problems in communication. When you find yourself rationalizing about the same issue on a regular basis to “give people the benefit of the doubt” or when you find yourself misunderstanding multiple people on a whole variety of topics that have to do with the general discussion of authority and submission, it's very likely not a communication problem.

Year Three: The End of the Honeymoon

The first two years of our experience with our church and within their network of churches were great. During that time, we both did a lot of rationalizing away things that didn't make sense. During the third year, we started to have some different types of conflict, and we started to see patterns about how people behaved that didn't make any sense to us. We also started to learn about some of the shepherding practices by way of experience, usually by watching friends get counseled or by learning about the practices by innocently introducing ideas that were poorly received. It was as if the curtain lifted at the start of year three, and the church leadership stopped the love bombing and started to pressure and control us, all under the guise of teaching us “correct” doctrine of shepherding.

On one specific occasion when I had the instant epiphany about one of their teachings at a group meeting, I actually could not see for what probably only amounted to a few seconds, but I remember the sense of something that bordered between shock, panic, and nothingness. I literally could not see for a few moments, and I asked others in the room if they could tell how much distress I was in, because, for a few moments, a part of me felt like I was dying, and my physical body was reacting to the emotional stress. Everything seemed very unreal, and I felt like things started moving in slow motion, an experience of dissociation called derealization because of how threatened I felt. I couldn't believe that I'd become that involved in a church that believed this, that they had not told us about this belief, and that I'd failed to identify that this was a principle within the group.

The matter related to a discussion of doctrine, but there were strong elements of shame and “correction” wrapped around the discussion. The situation painted and all or nothing alternative: either believe what the church doctrine is, or you are sinful. What came along for me on a personal level, in addition to my shock concerning the overt social pressure and the authoritarian constraint that did not invite discussion (through verbal, non-verbal, and social cues), I was immediately forced to question whether I had failed to recognize these teachings or had ignored them. The truth of the matter was, at that time, that I was never given full disclosure about the matter. The unpleasant doctrines were kept hidden from us until we were sufficiently entrenched in the system and in social relationships. In retrospect I would learn that when we met and talked with the pastor, believing that we were asking questions about the church, we were also being assessed by the pastor, too, and later, an elder and his wife did the same with us. They were collecting information that they used to manipulate us, mentioning certain things that they knew we would like, and specifically avoiding doctrines that they knew would send us packing. They were not revealed to us until leadership felt that we were firmly connected with the group.

The Star Chamber

After the year of epiphanies about some of their more unpleasant teachings, we spent an additional
year at the church, believing that we could be agents of positive change. We left at the end of the fourth year, because it became obvious that we were in no position to change anything, based on how poorly our efforts to be change agents were received. At the beginning of the fourth year, my husband wrote a letter to the elders, essentially to offer help with a particular ministry in the church that we saw as beginning to fail. Assuming that this matter was one of interest to all of the elders and pastors, he wrote his concerns in a letter which they could decide to address at their convenience and then could avail themselves to him for questions and further discussion. We were busy, they were busy, and it could all well be addressed that way (at least in our estimation). But things were not perceived that way by our church. We eventually learned that few people wrote letters to them, and it was our habit to do these things to be clear in our communication. I'd written a couple of memos to the group concerning practical matters that concerned the relationship between the seminary and the local church, as I was involved with both, and that sometimes required discussion which I saw as formal. We learned, after some experience, that they viewed anything written in a formal style as a threatening challenge.

My husband was summoned to an elders meeting, and I always wondered why they needed 3 hour meetings to discuss things twice per month. They group met on the same night that I attended music practice, and over the course of the years I spent there, I had a good idea of their habits. From time to time, I also saw people waiting to get into the room with the elders and always thought it strange that people were asked to wait on a metal chair in a dark hallway outside the pastor's study. It was by no means a comfortable place to wait, and I often saw many nervous people waiting in the hall. I understood it better after my husband was summoned to address a letter that they viewed as his way of “challenging their authority” and suggesting that they were out of touch with the life of the church. What my husband saw as our offer to help meet what we saw as the obvious unmet need within the church, they saw as an accusation, an statement of arrogant criticism. My husband was required to wait 30 minutes in that half-lit hallway on an uncomfortable metal chair, just as I'd seen many other people do so many times.

My husband is a forensic expert and has much experience testifying in court, sometimes for four and five hours strait while attorneys try in every way that they can to get him to foul up and stumble so that they can win the case for their clients. It quickly became apparent to him that he had not been invited to the meeting to discuss with the group about how he could be a part of a solution to a problem, but rather that this was a session of intimidation and discipline in what reminded him of being on the stand in court. He'd made the mistake of violating the informal and unwritten rules of the group concerning authority and submission, rules about which we were never given any direct information or instruction. During our third and fourth years, we learned about these rules by either watching other people pay consequences for violating the rules, or we were required to pay those consequences ourselves. The elders essentially accused him and cross-examined him about a motive he didn't have, and they used all sorts of miserable manipulation tactics to shame and exploit my husband in that meeting. Considering his experience on the stand, he went into the mode he goes into when testifying, and I don't think that these men realized just who they were dealing with. (None of that made the encounter any less stressful or disappointing, however.)

There was no issue requiring church discipline, but it was pretty clear that the church believed that this confrontation was warranted. My husband was able to essentially convince them that he never intended in any way to be challenging their authority because he had no such motive. He'd offered to serve the church, not accuse it of anything. But certainly after that meeting, any “honeymoon glow” that may have lingered concerning our relationship with the church was now gone. He'd been summoned to what we subsequently referred to The Star Chamber, a reference to the 1983 film of the same name starring Micheal Douglas – a film that even featured the theme of the crushing loss of idealistic naivete which we found amazingly relevant. In the film, a group of judges who were unable to convict criminals whom they believed were guilty of capital crime gathered privately in a “star chamber” to pass their own judgements and hire mercenaries to kill the guilty, all in the interest of protecting the greater good of society. We felt that this was exactly how our church had been using the elder's meetings, sessions wherein they used verbal assault to abuse non-compliant or “problem members” into “submission."

(Read here for more on the history of the star chamber.)

My husband came home from the meeting and said when I got in from music practice, all while looking down at the floor with his jaw tightly held and his fist clenched, “We have to leave that church.” I vividly remember the moment, where I was standing, and the feel of the carpet under my slipper socks as I curled my toes into the carpet as he spoke, perhaps trying to stabilize myself. I asked for a little more time there, because I was not yet ready to go. I was not yet convinced that things were as bad as he suddenly described them, and I had not yet seen the true nature of the abuse there. We remained there for another revealing eight months and left because we put a date on the calendar, agreeing with one another to leave the church if certain key things had not changed.

Those eight months were not pleasant, and it was as if God lifted the scales off my eyes in response to our prayers for direction, insight, and wisdom. I almost immediately started encountering battered and abused women who told me that the church placed all responsibility and blame for any of their marital discord on them as wives, though it was blatantly obvious that their husbands were engaged in some serious sins. The men were permitted to remain in leadership and ministry while the elders had full knowledge that they were batterers.

Should You Meet with Leadership if You Suspect Manipulation?

Do you have a duty to confront your elders? If you decide to leave a church that you believe meets the criteria of spiritual abuse, do you have a duty to explain your rationale to the leadership? Does it do any good? These are hard questions, and many online who discuss this topic have offered their own advice. I don't intend to answer all of these questions, but I would like to address just a few of the many problems one encounters when one faces such a meeting.

I am often contacted through this site by people who have begun to realize that they are involved in a high demand idealistic group, be it religious or political. I've even worked with a woman who was subjected to the tactics of spiritual abuse at a complementary and alternative medicine clinic. When people figure out that the problems and the nagging concerns they have about their group stem from the dynamics of these systems which operate through deception and by way of covert manipulation tactics, many of them want to confront their leaders and feel responsible to tell them what they've learned. They assume that their ministers or leaders seek the same things that they do, and when they approach their leaders, they will listen. They assume the good character of their leaders, and they believe that if they are honest with them about their concerns, their ministers will listen and will be motivated to make things right.

My husband says that when walking into these types of meetings with the leadership of a high demand group, most people walk into them “flat footed” because they have unreasonable or unrealistic expectations of the virtue of the leaders. The expectation of mutual respect which is rarely present in these groups puts most reasonable people at a great disadvantage, especially if the leadership is trying to hide some unpleasant controversy that they'd prefer to see disappear. And by showing up at such a meeting when summoned, when you know in advance that the group intends to manipulate you, you're actually giving the leadership an advantage in terms of power. In some sense, you're affirming their power, and in doing so, you give a little bit of your own power away. We are called to submit to one another in love, and at such meetings, this is not what happens. And I am sad to say, in our new age of aggressive church discipline in evangelicalism (a phenomenon that I rarely saw 20 years ago), pastors are not good shepherds for their sheep when they summon sheep to such meetings. The shepherds usually do not anoint and care for their sheep in such meetings. Rather, the sheep are expected if not required to go obsequiously and fearfully before church leaders for a shearing – as a sheep before his shearers is dumb. The balance of power becomes hopelessly inequitable.

This brings to mind a quote that burned into my head that survivor (and social worker) Wendy Duncan wrote in her book, I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult, something noted in the chapter called “Believers in the Hands of an Angry Cult Leader.” While she and her husband, Doug , were working through their equivalent of the “fourth year” of confrontation that my husband and I experienced, she makes note of the state of mind in which group folloers find themselves, if merely just because of the conditioning and habituation within such manipulative groups. It changes the follower, and when you as a member tries to confront a manipulative leader, you don't have access to all of your strength inner strength because of that conditioning. You walk into such confrontations in what is almost like a kind of disability of perception.

 Wendy writes, quoting her husband (a licensed counselor): “I had truly bought into the Trinity belief system. I believed that Ole was the prophet of God who had brought the knowledge of the true faith back into the world. There was no possible way that I could have said to him, 'Ole, you are wrong'” (p 115). Though people believe that the power structure within manipulative, authoritarian groups does not effect them, the subtle nature of the relationship actually poses a profound influence which works to the disadvantage of the member. The relationship and the tremendous social and emotional pressures posed by such meetings of confrontation make it very difficult for members to speak up for themselves and be heard. The dynamics of power work against them.

I actually discourage people from creating confrontations such as this, and ask people to consider that if they see signs of manipulation, avoidance, and punishment before the meeting, it is likely that a confrontation will not result in any positive change. I will say that most people feel a Christian duty to make the attempt to confront the injustice that they see, but I do help coach people to state things in terms of their own perspective as opposed to offering criticism. You must be windsome and not confrontative in your approach when attempting such things. Most people seem to need it to get closure and to come to terms with the biter reality that their leaders are not the virtuous men that they believe. They need to witness the manipulation and what usually turns into aggression on a personal level. They seem to have to witness it for themselves to truly believe it. And I hear that sentiment quite often from people who have endured (or have had their lives nearly destroyed) as a consequence of their own “star chamber” sessions, ecclesial courts, and other ecclesiocentric interference (micromanaging of the deeply private aspects of personal lives by church leaders in the name of authority and counsel).

Lasting Effects

A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine mentioned that they'd been summoned before a group, and it sounded to me like a “star chamber.” My husband and I prayed for this person, and I wrote to them to encourage them to decline. I believed that they were walking into the meeting with some very na├»ve expectations. I sent several emails, and apparently, I continued to write them while the person was actually at the meeting, not realizing that they'd decided to go.

I was amazed by the reaction of my husband. He became notably upset and concerned for someone that he has never interacted with but knows of only through my acquaintance with them. Considering what I'd told him about this person's statements and expectations for the meeting, and reflecting on his own memories of his own “star chamber,” I was amazed at how concerned and emotional my husband became. He is a man of passion, but he has matured into a wonderfully balanced person, some of which has come through the hard knocks education which results from confrontation with manipulators.

I was proud of him and touched at his degree of compassion for this stranger the other evening, and the intensity of his response caught me by surprise. He was aglow with good character and reminded me of what a good and compassionate man he is. But I was also amazed at the zeal of his response as he kept popping his head back in the room, asking me if I'd mentioned this reason and that reason as to why it's unadvisable to go to the star chamber. “Make sure you tell him this...” Then he started talking about an excellent analogy about why the experience was informative, but it was not advisable or worth the great burden of living with the experience thereafter. He said that “it destroys your ability to trust pastors easily, and really makes it hard to trust anyone because you want so much to believe in the good character of your pastor.”

Occasionally, since it happened, we talk about the star chamber evening and what resulted. What struck me this week was the intensity of the emotion that my husband still carries with him from that meeting. We no longer see or interact with that group of people. We've relocated away from that area, so it is not as if we bump into that pastor at the grocery store or the mall from time to time, stirring up the memory. But it gave me cause to think back to how long ago that meeting took place. It happened just three weeks shy of sixteen years ago (because the event was so traumatic for me, the exact date of the meeting he went to is still vividly burned in my mind).

So I tend to tell people that, if they can at all avoid such confrontations, they shouldn't go to them. Talking with one person can be traumatic enough, but the star chamber experience is much worse, and it stays with you. My husband performed well in the meeting and he did not cower, compromise, or concede to the manipulation. But he walked away from that meeting forever changed, as a part of him that hopes and believes all good things in love died a little bit that day when those men tried to crush him in the name of the Lord. None of it had to do with the Gospel or Christian living or doctrine. It was only about power and rage, a disappointing experience that he now carries in his heart. He didn't see the confrontation coming, so he didn't have a choice to decline it as a matter of a wise man seeing trouble coming and avoiding it. For those who do, I hope that you will consider these words.

More to come on the subject....