When leaders misuse power at the expense of the faithful

The Toronto Sun (Canada), Oct. 21, 2002 (Column)

How does Enron happen? Or the political scandal of the week? Or sexual abuse by religious leaders who get shuffled among congregations?

What all these share – besides people who have the ethics of a goat – are structures that allow unethical or criminal behaviour to flourish unchecked, at least for a time.

What are the common characteristics of those structures? For the answer, it’s instructive to turn to the emerging field of spiritual abuse counselling.

One definition of spiritual abuse is the “misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help.”

That definition could just as easily apply to corporate executives and politicians as religious leaders. One misuses power at the expense of the faithful, while the others misuse power at the expense of shareholders, or employees or voters. Heck, some parent-child relationships would fit the definition.

The Watchman Fellowship, a Texas-based Christian organization that provides resources on cults and new religious movements, has identified five hallmarks of abusive religious systems. Those hallmarks are:

Authoritarian: unconditional submission to leaders is expected.

Averse to criticism: the person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue being raised.

Image conscious: protecting the reputation of the leaders or church is more important than truth or justice.

Perfectionistic: individual worth is determined by performance; there is no compassion for weakness or failure.

Unbalanced: they will try to distinguish themselves from other groups by putting excessive emphasis on some minor point of theology.

Steve Cadman-Neu, a Christian counsellor in Cambridge, is something of a local expert on spiritual abuse. He’s personally experienced it in two church settings, and on Saturday led a day-long workshop in Toronto on spiritual abuse, sponsored by the North American Association of Christians in Social Work. Though his workshop focused on abuse in religious settings, the traits he identifies can be found in many other institutional cultures.

The main trait is a hierarchical structure that equates leadership with job title, and demands unquestioning submission and obedience from people lower down the organizational totem pole.

“That whole framework is very abusive,” says Cadman-Neu, who has a BA in psychology from the University of Western Ontario and a masters in social work from Wilfrid Laurier University. “The message is that if you don’t submit and obey, you’re being a rebel, or argumentative, or undermining the organization.”

That’s what he was essentially told both times he tried to raise questionable practices with church leaders. In one case, the pastor sidestepped the issue and offered to point out where Cadman-Neu was wrong and needed to repent. Shortly after that, the pastor began to preach about “wolves in our midst.”

In the second situation, Cadman-Neu became concerned when the pastor told congregants one Sunday, “If you don’t obey me, I’m not your pastor.”

He met with the pastor and, later, the elders but got nowhere. Shortly after that, they told the congregation he was excommunicated and they were to shun him. (We’d probably see the same type of treatment of a corporate whistleblower, or a political non-conformist. They’d be socially ostracized.)

Cadman-Neu left both congregations, but stayed in the same faith tradition (which is proof you don’t have to throw the baby out with the baptismal water). He’s still in the process of trying to get church leaders to deal with the concerns he raised.

Abusive structures tend to attract a particular type of person, adds Cadman-Neu: someone with unresolved hurts in their lives. That’s equally as true of leaders as congregants.

“If they don’t face it, they have to create some overcompensation to drown out the pain, whether that’s hyper-spirituality or another addiction,” he says.

The best defence is to deal with your issues. The next step is to know what a healthy environment looks like. Among other things, it will welcome criticism, forgive weakness, invite participation, build esteem, and foster respect.

All our institutions should be so blessed.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday October 23, 2002.
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