so your faith community is unhealthy? now what?

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors.  His books are a mix of masterful story-telling and fascinating sociological insights.  The man makes everything interesting.  

(Case in point, this TED Talk about spaghetti sauce.  I kid you not.  Spaghetti sauce.  Watch and be amazed.  That's your bonus gift from me today.)

A few years ago, Gladwell wrote a book called Blink, exploring the power of intuition.  

But, oops, I've used a word Gladwell doesn't like:

"You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in Blink. Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings–thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking–its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In Blink I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better? ...

"One of the stories I tell in Blink is about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. That’s the big public hospital in Chicago, and a few years ago they changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: they encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain–like blood pressure and the ECG–while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. And what happened? Cook County is now one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain.

"Not surprisingly, it was really hard to convince the physicians at Cook County to go along with the plan, because, like all of us, they were committed to the idea that more information is always better. But I describe lots of cases in Blink where that simply isn’t true. There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology–”the power of thin slicing”–which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience."

I'm referencing Gladwell here partly just because he just makes my brain happy.  But mostly because my last post was about feeding our good judgment, improving our "powers of rapid cognition," when it comes to deciding if a faith community (or family, organization, or friendship) is healthy or unhealthy.  

We don't need to hang around for years and have a bunch of terrible things proven in a court of law.  

Last time I talked about the work of Dr. Diane Langberg.  Langberg finds that abuse victims are routinely silenced, isolated, and made to feel helpless.

I think our faith communities should be the exact reverse.   

A healthy community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.  

And I think, like Malcolm Gladwell might say, that we can make a good decision about the health of a community pretty quickly, with just that thin slice of of experience.  

 photo:  Michael Bruner

photo:  Michael Bruner

Just to review:

Voice means that everybody is invited to speak and be heard.  

We don't get our own way all the time, because that would probably mean we're bullying others, but we get to speak, we listen to others, and we cooperate together.  That's how voice works in  a healthy community.

  • Adults attend to the needs of children.
  • Spouses value the opinions and input of each other.
  • A pastor is open with and accountable to parishioners.
  • The system for feedback is transparent, easy to navigate, and open to all.
  • People with varying opinions and ideas are welcomed and encouraged to share.

Value means that we are invited to be in honest relationship. 

  • We don't have to pretend.
  • We can be ourselves.
  • We can tell the truth about what we think and feel and want and need.
  • Our story will be respected.
  • We will find strength to help in time of need.

Vitality means that I am invited to be a powerful, contributing person in the community.

  • I contribute according to my gifts, not according to arbitrary rules and regulations.
  • I can have ideas and be celebrated for bringing new life to the community.
  • I'm encouraged to grow and mature.
  • I feel hopeful, motivated, and energized in my community.
  • When I am worn out and discouraged, I know where to turn for help, and I'll actually get help.

So, what if we are NOT experiencing voice, value, and vitality in our faith communities?

What if our community is a place of silence, isolation, and helplessness? 

I'd say the first step is this:  give it a whirl.  We need to be responsible, and do our part.  So try a quick experiment.  

Try speaking up.  Try being really honest.  Try offering to contribute, according to your gifts.

See what happens.  

Community health probably falls on a spectrum, rather than into a simple dichotomy.  Perhaps your system just needs some healthy people to speak up and jolt some life into the thing.  Maybe you could help make it normal and safe to speak up, to be real, to exercise your gifts and grow into maturity.  Communities can grow in health, and it's exciting when that happens.  By all means, try!

But, if you try out your voice and you get silenced, if you tell your story honestly and get isolated, if you try to contribute and are told "no thanks"--then let me pass along the advice a wise friend gave me years ago.

When you find yourself in an unhealthy system, you have three options, and three options only.

  1. Stay and conform.  Be a part of the unhealthy system.
  2. Stay and work for change.  Be a reformer.
  3. Leave.  Shake the dust off and move on.

Stay and conform is what we most often do.  It doesn't even seem like a choice.  We're already in the system, committed for ministry or fellowship.  We stay and conform without thinking, because if we thought about it, we'd have to do something about it.  

But conforming is a choice, and if we make that choice, let's at least make it honestly:  "I'm going to stay here in this unhealthy system and be unhealthy for a while longer."  

Maybe you can't go just yet.  I understand that life is like that sometimes.  But even being that honest about your own choices is a step toward health.

Stay and work for change seems like a good option, except that most often I have seen that circle back into conforming.  Maybe you're a great reformer.  Awesome.  Just keep a check and make sure that change is actually happening.  

Deeply unhealthy systems often work on a bait-and-switch basis.  You're offered a little piece of pacification, in the hopes that you won't notice that you're back to conforming again.  Just keep an eye on that.

Honestly, I think leave is a really good option if a faith community is unhealthy.  

To me, the point of community is that I give and I receive.  Others give and receive.  And if we're in an unhealthy faith community, how can that giving and receiving actually take place?  I don't think it can.  

An unhealthy faith community is like this.  You are working so hard to plant a beautiful garden.  But every time the seeds start to sprout, someone comes along and sprays weed killer over everything.  Eventually the soil is toxic and nothing grows any more.  It's just a barren patch of dirt.

I think we have to ask ourselves:  why are we here?  What are we accomplishing?

As for all the children trapped in unhealthy faith communities, my heart breaks.  And let me put this in capital letters, bold and italicized:


Talking to the abuser so he can "repent" is colluding with a criminal.  

Reporting it to church leaders is NOT enough.  

The report needs to be made to the police or to child protective services. 

Just this morning, I was encouraged to read that the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) has issued a strong statement about how to deal with the abuse of children.  

Let this be an example of good health to other faith communities.

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voice, value, vitality: the face of healthy community

There's so much stuff that's wrong in the world today.  

I guess that's always been true, but with the explosion of social media, the amount of wrong seems overwhelming at times.  

I mean, I used to live on an island in the South Pacific.  No TV, no internet, no phone, snail mail every two weeks if the ship happened to stop by.  

Mostly we got our news by listening to the Voice of America.  The.  News.  In.  Easy.  English.  

I'd be twitchy by the end of the first sentence.  In-depth reporting it was not.  I missed out on both of Bill Clinton's administrations that way.  With all that blue dress stuff, I count myself lucky.

 Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Makira, Solomon Islands,  Photo:  Andy Bruner

Now I live in Dallas.  I have unlimited access to media, and with the overwhelming flow of endless information, I sometimes wish myself back on the island.  (Until dinner time.  Then I want to call for pizza.)  

I wonder this:  what am I supposed to do with all this information?

I find I am just too old and too tired to sustain a great level of outrage for every single thing I find outrageous.  

Believe me, I find many, many things outrageous.

I'm often tempted to throw something up on the blog here and rant.  

But mostly I pray the prayer that Anne Lamott taught me:  "Help!"


Today there is something I need to write about.  Not just to be outraged, although the story is pretty outrageous.  

But so that we can all learn to look with open eyes at our communities of faith, and asses how healthy or unhealthy they are.

If they are healthy, oh happy day!  If they are unhealthy, it's time to get busy.

Here's the nutshell of the story:  Bob Jones University, a very conservative Christian college, has brought in the nonprofit organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), to investigate how the university has dealt with sexual abuse.

(Hint:  when the GRACE team gets called in, sexual abuse has not been dealt with very well.)

According to this news article, released yesterday:

"More than 100 people have come forward to GRACE investigators, and the report is due out in the next few months.  Boz Tchvidjian, the head of GRACE, believes Christian organizations across the country have failed victims in similar ways, and that the Protestant world could in fact be 'worse' than the Catholic Church."

Did you get that?  It's not just BJU.  The whole Protestant world needs to take a good hard look at itself.  

That's not THEM.  

That's US.  Anybody who sits in a Protestant pew on a Sunday morning.

While only a few people are the actual victims in a situation like this, many times there are systemic patterns that make the environment a safe haven for potential abusers.  

And while only a few people are the actual abusers, many of us can blindly participate in the patterns that create the unhealthy environment.

Edmund Burke famously said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Too many times in unhealthy Christian environments, good people do nothing.  

The problem is, we don't know what to look for.  What's healthy?  What's unhealthy?  

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I am not much interested in the nitty gritty of theology.  I'm mostly interested in how people get treated on the other end.  

How people get treated is the biggest clue to me in whether a theology, whether a system, is healthy or unhealthy.  

Jesus said it this way:  "By their fruits, you shall know them."  (Matthew 7:16)

So here's how I judge healthy.

Diane Langberg is a Christian therapist who works with the victims of sexual abuse.  She has identified three key components of healthy personhood:  voice, relationship, and power.  These, she says are our gifts from God, and these are the things we find devalued in abusive situations.

When we honor the personhood of ourselves and those around us, we are honoring God's loving intention for healthy community.

Alliteration helps me remember better, so I'll call these elements of personhood voice, value, and vitality.

Voice:  we should be able to speak up, ask questions, and have our story be respected.  When we are told to sit down and be quiet, when our questions are dismissed, and our story is devalued, we are not in an environment of Godly truth.  Simple as that. 

Value:  we should feel valued and welcomed in relationships.  When we are isolated and rejected, accidentally or on purpose, this is not an environment of Godly truth.

Vitality:  we're supposed to be powerful people, growing more and more into the image of God.  When we feel powerless, helpless, hopeless and ignored, this is not a place of Godly truth.

Langberg says this:

"Again and again throughout history, whenever one human beings acts toward another in a way that is not rooted in the truth of God, the same results occur: silence, isolation, and helplessness.  this devastation can occur in milder forms, as when one person speaks sharply or critically to another.  We have all know the experience of being rendered silent in the face of a cutting remark.  Severe destruction occurs whenever one human perpetrates an atrocity against another.  It is here, in our understanding of the nature of personhood, that we can begin to grasp the evil perpetrated in the life of a human being when trauma occurs."  (Diane Langberg,  Counseling the Survivors of Sexual Abuse)

Whenever we have a system or a family or an organizational culture that produces silence, isolation, and helplessness in its members, we've got a problem.  It may not necessarily be a sexual abuse issue yet, although it's an attractive environment for abusers, because it is a place that essentially does not function in the truth of God.

A healthy faith community is a place of voice, value, and vitality for all its members.

He is the Vine, we are the branches.  All necessary, all valued, all growing together.

How do you feel in your faith community?  

  • Do you have a voice, and is your voice welcome?  
  • Are you honestly, openly, truly valued in loving relationships?  
  • Are you experiencing an emotional and spiritual vitality that leads to love, joy, and peace in your life?

Remember this as you evaluate:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.  2 Timothy 1:7

(Next time, I'll talk about what to do when you find yourself in an unhealthy community.)

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the cure for the common optimist

True confession:  I love kids' movies.  And my sons, bless their hearts, will still go with me, scrunching down in their seats so their six-foot-plus frames don't block the whole screen from all the grade schoolers surrounding us.  

On spring break (at my college son's determined urging, in fact) we went and saw the Lego movie, which was incredibly clever and hilarious, with scenes from all the classic Lego sets.  Superheroes, pirates, movie characters, oceans, deserts, cities, giant machines, space ships--you name it, the Lego movie has it.  

My favorite part, though, was Cloud Cuckoo Land, presided over by Princess Unikitty, whose world consists of "no negativity whatsoever."  Inevitably, the course of life does not run smoothly for Princess Unikitty.  As her world implodes, she starts to feel emotions which are not happiness.  

Princess Unikitty is hilarious to me because I have been Princess Unikitty.  

I have been the super-awesome, super-positive, super-functioning queen of my own perfectly constructed life.  

Then I have been the volcanically exploding nightmare whose emotions erupt and wreak havoc everywhere.  

And I suspect that I am not the only person who's ever lived on the swing of that pendulum. 

First we're optimists, focused on seeing the results we want.  We can keep control--or the illusion of control--for quite a while, as long as we're confronted with no negativity whatsoever.

But then the explosion comes, and afterwards we're left wondering what to do.  A certain number of us will pick ourselves up, and put the pieces of Cloud Cuckoo Land back together.  

Others will find ourselves inundated with grief and sorrow, unable to find a way out.  Painful pessimism becomes the answer, as we're cynically convinced that happy endings never happen, and it's better to keep our expectations low.

I know that when you've been in pessimism land for a while, it seems like optimism is the way to go.  

Optimism looks happy!  It looks positive!  It has purple and pink with rainbows!  It even has a theme song!

Here's the problem. Optimism and pessimism are just two sides to an old, tired coin.  Both are about circumstances.  Optimism is about believing in awesome circumstances, and pessimism is about disappointed circumstances.

This spring, I've been slowly reading through Tim Keller's book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.  

In the book, Keller quotes David Bentley Hart, a veteran relief worker, who speaks about the difficulty of constantly living among the worst disaster zones of the world.  Hart speaks of a sustaining faith in God, and he says this:

"It is a faith that has set us free from optimism, and taught us to hope instead."  David Bentley Hart  (Quoted in Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering, by Tim Keller.)

That statement rang in my heart like a bell.

When my own life fell apart 10 years ago, I knew I couldn't be an optimist any more.  

Slowly, I learned to live with reality, and all my painful emotions.  

I think that to outsiders it looked like I was going to become a life-long pessimist.

But inside, I was learning to hope in the real world.  To be be deeply honest, deeply hurt, deeply sorrowful, and deeply okay anyway.  

Optimism wants to define and separate, to reject the bad, and accept only the perfect. 

Hope, on the other hand, lives in mystery, and receives all of life, trusting in redemption every step of the way down the road toward home.

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excuses for everybody and nobody

I used to think that we all agreed on certain things.

  • If you hit your wife, that's bad.
  • If you sexually molest or verbally abuse or physically neglect your child, that's horrible.
  • If you have a pornography habit, or if you sleep around, then surely surely surely, something is wrong and you have difficult emotional work to do.

But then it turned out that people with patterns of incredibly harmful behaviors toward other people would come in to therapy and say things like this:

Everybody makes mistakes.

Nobody's perfect.

In fact, the more egregious the behavior, the more likely the offender would be to say something like this.  With great conviction.

And I would sit and listen, just struck dumb by the whole thing, because:

  • It's true.  We all do make mistakes, and not one of us is perfect.
  • I'm going to be judgmental if I call bad, bad.  Because I'm not perfect.  I've made mistakes
  • The offender appears to sincerely believe that "nobody's perfect" is an adequate explanation for anything and everything.

For a while now, I've been trying to untangle this whole mess in my head, and here is what I've come up with so far.

1.  There is a difference between mistakes and abuse.  

All of us make mistakes, no doubt about it.  We get mad, we get pushy, we want what we want, and it's not pretty.  We have to apologize and forgive and move forward.

However, in an abusive situation there is a power differential.  The offender is bigger, stronger, the adult, the parent, "the spiritual leader."  And the offender uses that power to hurt another person, in order to meet their own needs, physically, sexually, emotionally.

In the process, the offender creates a mental system that allows the abuse to be acceptable to himself or herself.  (Nobody's perfect.  Everybody makes mistakes.  I was drunk.  She asked for it.  I'm the husband, and she has to submit.)  This set of excuses has been repeated, probably for years.  The offender can deliver the excuses with ease and even sincerity.

Scripture talks about this:  "God gave them over to a reprobate mind" (Romans 1:28).  They've said it so long that they believe the crazy.

But other people's crazy doesn't have to be our crazy.

We own our own stuff, we acknowledge our mistakes.  And we know abuse when we see it.

2.  Knowing where the line is?  That's not judgmental.  

Abusive, addicted people hate it when draw the line, because that stops the gravy train.  Their world depends on having victims to victimize.   And they need for people to be deceived by the crazy, or at least be confused enough not to confront it.  That helps keep their reprobate-mind-mental-system intact.

When you say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," you may get a big backlash about how mean and judgmental you are.  That's no fun.

Or, you may say to an abusive, addicted person, "That is a lie, and here is the truth," and the person may be able to hear it and get out of their mess.  This one we like a lot better.

Either way, being able to tell lies from truth is not judgmental. 

Being able to tell truth from lies is a necessary life skill called good judgment.

3.  Excuses appear to be kind, but they are not.

When we make excuses for the offender, then excuses are all she's got.

Under that reprobate mind, desperately chanting "No big deal, no big deal," is a person who needs to lay down the burden of guilt and shame, repent, and receive the relief of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is available for all of us, but only when we stop the excuses and face the truth.

"But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology...' But excusing says 'I see that you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame.' ...And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves."  C. S. Lewis, "On Forgiveness," The Weight of Glory

I think abusive, addicted people DO know that they're over the line.  They DO know what they've done.  And they have so much guilt and shame that the excuses are about the only thing holding them together.

When we hear those excuses, it can be confusing.

But there is so much more available to us than excuses.

We have repentance.

We have forgiveness.

And, by the gift of God, we have redemption.

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to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

So I'm a Methodist. And one of my favorite parts of being a Methodist is the liturgy.  The Lord's Prayer.  The Apostle's Creed.  The Communion Service.  That written-down stuff that we read out loud together, often, to remind ourselves of what the heck we're doing in church anyway.

A few weeks ago, we had occasion to read the liturgy for baptism, and I was struck by this question:

"Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?"

And of course, we all said, "We do."

If we were more honest, we might say this:  "Yeah, we'd like to, but something weird keeps happening between this pew and the doorway."

Because evil, injustice, and oppression present themselves in all kinds of sneaky forms, and we don't always resist very well.

I also find that it's easy to see the bad stuff when it's happening to somebody else.

But when evil, injustice, and oppression are presenting themselves against us, it's often another story.

We get so used to living with life as we know it.

Evil and injustice oppress us so normally, that we hardly even notice any more.

We think about  it this way:

"I couldn't say no.  I'd feel too guilty."

"That would be selfish."

"I'm too weak and too depressed and it won't work anyway."

"I don't know how to do life any other way."

I think about Rosa Parks, with a bully standing between her and that bus seat.  And this is what she said, about that day she finally sat down:  "I just got tired of giving in."

And I think so many times that there is a bully standing between us, and God's grace.

And we have been deceived into thinking that it would be bad, mean, selfish, and pointless to do anything about it.

That is a lie from the pit of hell, my friends.

May we really, truly accept the freedom and power God gives us.

To resist.

So that we can receive.

May we all just get tired of giving in.

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enough already

I don't want to. That is reason enough.

Tomorrow I might want to.

But today I do not.

I won't give all the reasons.

I don't understand them myself.

But this I know, for sure:  I don't want to is enough.

Enough already for right now, for this minute, today.

And so I say no.

And I breathe.

And let go.

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how this grace thing works

Sometimes I think I should just shut up and let Mumford and Sons have this blog. Because they get it right.  Pretty much every single time.


"Seems like all my bridges have been burnt, but you say that's exactly how this grace thing works."

And at some point.

When we have felt our feelings, and faced our terrors, and mourned our losses.

When we have compared our truth to The Truth, and named the lies, and gotten our heads together.

When we have sat in the room with the therapist or the pastor or our best friend or whoever it is that gets us through, talked and listened, and done what we were supposed to do.

When we've done all that and we wonder, "Hmm.  What's next?"

At that point, it's time to burn our bridges and find out how the grace thing works.

Without doing what I always do to prop myself up, whatever that may be.  Without my perfection.  Without my performance.  Without slaving to the approval of others.

Just me and the grace of God.

A while back, I wrote a post in which Bob Newhart helps us understand that sometimes we need to Just Stop It.  (I'm reminding you about it here because I just re-read it, and thought I made some good points.  Plus, it contains one of the funniest things ever aired on television, and no day is complete without a good belly laugh.)

But there's a little problem with the grace thing.  And there's a little problem with just stopping it:  it's scary.  It doesn't feel right.

First of all, we're used to doing it our own way.  Having control.

Being all up on the throne of our own lives.

And then, everybody around us is used to the audience-approved dog-and-pony show.  We have taught our friends and family what to expect from us, and how to treat us.

So many times, a bunch of those others are up on the throne of our lives, too.

It gets pretty crowded up there, which is exhausting, crazy-making, totally unnecessary--and TERRIFYING to rectify.

I get that.  I really do.

Because the hardest thing I've personally ever done is make that change.  Facing the truth, feeling the feelings--those things were hard work, no doubt about it.  But the hardest thing was to finally STOP IT.

Stop living the "I don't know how she does it" life.

I had to get completely depressed and totally crazy before I finally was able to quit.  And although desperation is a great and mighty teacher, and I'm grateful to be where I am today, I wouldn't mind having those two years of my life back from the pit, thank you very much.

This morning, while feeding my Pinterest habit, I ran across this quote, attributed to Jim Rohn:  "Your life does not get better by chance.  It gets better by change."

Amen, Brother Jim.

I would say that it gets better by shoving all the usurpers off the throne (kicking and screaming, if they feel they must).

And I would say that it gets better by burning the bridges and seeing how the grace thing works.

"Be strong and courageous!  Do not be afraid or discouraged.  For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."   Joshua 1:9

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