Monday, April 2, 2012

Practical Considerations for Confrontation of a Pastor with Spiritually Abusive Tendencies: When You Decide that You Must Go to the Star Chamber

A few years ago, right after several parishioners at Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) in the Northern Virginia Area came forward publicly about the lack of proper care and the outright abuse they the victims were met with concerning child molesters in their midst, some of those involved were determined to go to CJ Mahaney in order to seek justice. Mahaney was the highest authority within the church system, and it was felt by some that if they could approach Mahaney directly with their concerns, that they would be heard and he would personally make amends needful for healing. After all, he was such a good and earnest man, wasn't he? He cries all the time, so it proves that he's compassionate, right? Knowing his history with People of Destiny as a cultic group through my own former church, and according to the “old” Cult Awareness Network, I offered some advice.

Though I do think such meetings with ministers who have had ample opportunity to do what is right and in the best interest of those under their spiritual care are not advisable, I do respect people who find it needful to attend such meetings or to make an attempt to be heard. Somewhere in the archives at SGM Survivors (if they can still be accessed), in and around the time that the bloggers “Noel” “Happymom” discussed how they should respond to SGM regarding their offers to “make peace,” you can still find my comments. I don't recall that they were received all that well. No one seemed to be very at ease with the idea that Mahaney was still operating or ever did operate using the principles of an aberrant or cultic ideology. And if you search through the 2011 archives at The Wartburg Watch concerning SGM, you will learn that these types of meetings generally don't go well for those who seek out Mahaney's intervention.

I'm no longer able to access those old blog archives, so I will do my best to summarize what I suggested to the survivors of SGM.

Get Away from Ground Zero”

If you think of the confrontation with a known or potentially spiritually abusive leader as one that is
likely to be volatile, it is wise to put as much distance in time and space between you and the people you seek to confront with unpleasant news (or those who wish to meet with you under the guise of Matthew, Chapter 18 for discipline). In real life, those who deal with explosives take many measures to protect themselves, the first being distance between themselves and the blast. You detonate from a distance, you shield yourself behind a safe structure, you wear protective gear including protection for your ears, and you wear safe shoes that can help you stand firmly, run, and traverse debris. I think that the same analogy can be very helpful when people think about the logistics of setting up a meeting that does involve the likelihood of conflict.

Be informed

One way of doing that involves preparing for what you may encounter, the subject of this previous post. Information about what to anticipate gives you options. Even if you don't end up at a full blown Star Chamber/Hot Seat type of meeting, complete with all of the worst possible consequences, the information reinforces your own sense of personal power and your right to hold on to it.


If you are dealing with a manipulator, consider that making them wait is a very simple way of taking back your own power, and it may help to decrease the manipulator's angst against you. Delay helps to reset the balance of power in your favor. The more threatening they are, the more quickly they expect you to respond. Make them wait for a response, and it takes away some of that sense of power that they feel from an immediate answer. George Simon might classify this as “setting personal limits.”

There is also a management strategy that says that many problems will automatically resolve themselves and will cease to be something that demands your time and attention. If you can master the art of figuring out what demands immediate attention and what kind of situations will resolve, you save yourself a great deal of work. Depending on your situation, this might be a wise consideration.

Delay Resulting from Indirect or Non-Immediate Communication

There is the other consideration of delay that a face to face confrontation thwarts. When you meet directly with a manipulative person, and they pour on the pressure, when asking you questions, you're basically obligated to give an immediate response. If the situation is a heated one, you may want additional time away from the stress to think through your responses. It is much easier to do this over the phone than it is to do this in person, just because you do have distance from many of the social aspects of the situation. You can more gracefully and graciously get off the phone, but it's not so simple to decline a response at a direct meeting in person. By email, you have even more opportunity to think before you answer, and this can be a way of preserving your power. You response depends upon you, not the immediacy of the pressure that you encounter at a face to face meeting. So please consider that the more distance you put between a manipulative situation, just through being able to control how quickly you must respond without pressure, the more of your own resolve and freedom you're going to be able to retain.

Die to Self and Just State the Facts (No Emotional Venting)

Some people feel the need to express their emotions, and I did after I left my own group, I felt like I was duty bound to at least tell my pastor and leaders that I believed their system to be disturbingly manipulative. Other people I've talked with believe that they have a duty before God to confront their leaders with specific doctrinal problems within their group's system. Some people need answers about personal situations.

If the leaders are manipulative and are primarily interested in preserving the Sacred Science by the typical and predictable authoritarian means that most spiritually abusive groups tend to demonstrate, they will not take kindly at all to any kind of moralizing. Stick with statements that convey only “'I' statements” that talk about how you feel and think, and about what you want and need. If you make more statements about “what the leaders have done” and use a lot of targeted “'you' statements,” your communication will not be as effective. Though pulling out some material on assertive communication might be helpful, and remembering that the only thing you have real control over is your own responses, a good review of these ideas can be read in Dr. Z's Helpful Hints.

The more emotional containment you can manage, the better off you will be. Otherwise, given our analogy of an explosion, you'll be throwing gasoline on the fire and you will leave a nice trail of gunpowder behind you, giving the group greater access to you so as to manipulate.

Other helpful information you might consider includes some general ideas about how to confront someone who is overtly sensitive to criticism. There are no better examples of this sensitivity than an narcissist, no matter how contradictory that may seem. Their self-centeredness is usually just an attempt to compensate for their own lack of confidence. Consider this quote from the Overcoming Botkin Syndrome blog on the subject of Narcissism, part of three posts on the topic. The post also cites some Christian sources as well.
Randi Kreger, an author who specializes in Borderline Personality Disorder, recently wrote about narcissism on her blog. She recently featured author Bill Eddy’s writings on narcissism there, noting a section from his book on dealing with difficult people. Eddy also has a book about how to best go about divorcing a narcissist. In his book, “It's All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything,” he offers these and other helpful hints (which are reviewed in greater depth in the original post):
  • Find their strengths and regularly compliment them.
  • Prepare to set limits.
  • Resist the urge to “put them down.”
  • Don’t withhold your empathy, attention, and respect.
  • Keep a comfortable distance.
  • Don’t feel like you have to listen too long.
  • Use indirect reasons for changing behavior.
  • Explain the possible negative consequences of certain behavior.

Read the entire post HERE, and visit an entire blog dedicated to The Narcissism Epidemic for even more information on this subject of narcissism and NPD.

Consider Alternate Modes of Communication

During the days when the Bible was penned, there were only two ways of communicating with someone: directly through conversation or through a written letter. Today we have additional options that our predecessors obviously didn't have.

When you attend a face to face meeting, you not only place yourself in a position that tends to demand an immediate response, you're also subject to the social pressures that a direct meeting posts. Do you meet in your territory? Do you meet at the church? If you meet at the church, you're automatically agreeing to allow the pastor and church to have the “home game advantage” that territory lends. You might end up in a seat that is shorter than all the others in the room which adds the non-verbal sense that you are not on equal footing with the other people in the room. Can you take a witness? You'd be best to hire someone who has no connection to the church and only limited connection to you. Will that person you hire be willing to write an affidavit? Can you record the meeting? If you don't, there will likely be many different versions of what takes place during that meeting. Etc...

I would also like to again point out that during meetings that push for confession, when they are challenged with confusing arguments, or when a great deal of emotional appeal or manipulation is used, people very naturally will slip into an alpha state of consciousness (link to another description here). As discussed in greater depth in several posts concerning methods to resist undue influence at conferences, the same types of responses occur in Star Chamber meetings. If you can resist attending a face to face meeting, you can drastically limit the potential for slipping into an altered state of consciousness. Though a direct meeting may make it more difficult because of the social considerations, if you believe that you are so overwhelmed that your mind starts swimming, you can always get up and leave for awhile. You're not restrained, so you can get up and leave to clear your head and stop the pressure. That is also another consideration and liberty that you can plan to take, though it will be difficult. You can always leave if you want, though most people don't.

Written Concerns, Letters and Emails

It may be worth considering “cutting your losses” to just forgo a direct meeting. I'm a great fan of
email which is easy to use, immediate, and provides documentation of any exchange you have with someone. It can be considered and reconsidered, and responses can be prepared thoughtfully which works to balance power. A year after my husband and I left our spiritually abusive church, I prepared letters for my pastors and some of the leaders within my former group to let them know that I was offended over their behavior, that I considered it spiritually abusive, and that I was releasing them of any debt owed to me by way of an apology because I wanted absolutely no further contact with them. I couldn't rightly forgive them because I strongly believed that they would not admit to any wrongdoing, for I was identified as in the wrong for leaving the church against their will.

I needed to make them aware that I believed that they were on a dangerous path, and I needed to declare my own boundary, reclaiming my own dignity. I took responsibility for my part in our relationship, because I did consent to participate, but they were responsible for their own part in the process as well. Making those declarations to them allowed me to move on, defining a specific time that I could look back on as a milestone for me. It was also a commitment to forgive them in the sense that I released them from debt by releasing them to God. I would look to God to restore me and make amends for any loss or harm I suffered as a consequence of my relationship with the church. Doing so by way of a letter worked very nicely for me.

In the event that you do agree to directly discuss matters with the leaders, you can always write out your concerns, especially if you have many of them. Feel free to take your notes with you, and feel free to distribute written material to your pastor and others at the meeting if you believe it could be helpful. That can be helpful for everyone involved, and it can help you stay focused.

Telephone and Video

I know that many feel bound to We have telephones which allow a great deal of expression of emotional content, and we don't have to take a call until we're ready to talk. It's much easier to get off of the phone if we feel pressured, and we don't have to worry about masking our emotional responses, and free from the factors in the environment that would work against us when meeting face to face. Talking on the phone does require more of an immediate response, but exiting the situation becomes much easier.

When I corresponded with people from SGM, several people felt that they could gain more support from Mahaney if they could express their emotions to him, believing that if he saw how troubled they were as they describe events, he would respond favorably. I was of the opinion that they were, in fact, at more risk for emotional manipulation by him which turned out to be the case. But I suggested that if they really felt the need to express these things to Mahaney along with their body language and expression as they talked about their experience, they could easily do that by video. Such a video could be recorded in advance and without pressure to respond immediately. A DVD could be burned and sent or a private channel on You Tube or Vimeo could be created. Even using something like Skype would be better than a direct meeting, face to face. It's easier to step away from the computer than it would be to leave a meeting in the pastor's office.

Think about ground zero and the site of a blast. You would not walk up to a blast site without protecting yourself and without taking many measures to limit damage to yourself and others. Do all that you can to preserve your own personal power so as to limit the imbalance created by hierarchy which is used to “lord it over” church members.

In the next posts to follow,
read more about what the Bible
has to say about confrontations.