How I wish church leaders responded to questions (Day 6)

I wish leaders understood better what advocates are trying to accomplish when we ask for more information or question their decisions. We are a part of the community. We are not trying to bring it down or hurt you. We are trying to make sure victims of abuse are helped and further abuse is prevented. In today’s world, we have seen too many tragic news stories to take this as a given.

A couple days ago, I wrote a list of excuses leaders make when they fail to investigate abuse. My point there was this: much of the time, these reasons sound perfectly righteous when you’re on the other end. This is because bias is in all of us.

Sometimes, yes, there is an intentional cover up going on. But most often what’s happening is that people who do not have experience handling abuse, who suffer from all the usual cultural misconceptions about abuse, who are volunteers with many other demands on their time, who have personal and professional relationships which might be threatened by the allegations—overwhelmed and stressed, operating under time pressure, failing to get more information which would have helped them, these people make mistakes which have the end result of leaving abuse survivors hurt and retraumatized while important information is hidden and left unaddressed.

There are horrible stories of abuse and cover-up which are indeed very, very intentional. However, even in those stories, there are many involved who are neither heroes nor villains… just flawed people.

We are all human. We are all highly motivated to avoid disruptions to our worldview. We all make bad calls when hurt, afraid, angry, or stressed.

The problem is that one side circles the wagons and refuses to talk, or will only talk under NDA. This is a natural fear response, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The problem is that even once time has passed and it becomes clear there has been some terrible mistake, people refuse to admit it or apologize. This is a natural pride response, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

The only way to love survivors well—the only way to pursue truth—is to listen.

I think leaders, whether of a small group of ten or a church of ten thousand, must have these skills:

  1. The ability to listen to unpleasant information, including critical feedback, without becoming defensive, hurt, or angry.

  2. The ability to admit bias (even unconscious) or a lack of expertise and call in an outsider.

  3. The ability to admit a mistake and apologize.

There is no substitute. It is hard. It is so, so hard, especially when you are used to being the one in charge. I admit to being as flawed at this as anyone, maybe more. No one enjoys this process. (But as a side note, this is one reason, contra leaders who usually want to discuss things in person, I think it can be helpful to discuss in writing, if you have a base of trust and you are willing to honestly seek the truth together. Writing allows you think before responding, instead of saying the first thing that pops into your head. It keeps a record so you don’t get stuck in the weeds of misremembrances. It lets you make sure you’re not missing anything.)

This is messy. We all get triggered; we get defensive and overreact; we react to misinformation and say things we shouldn’t. Victims of abuse are naturally going to have even stronger responses.

And we still have to listen.

There’s a lot of talk on Twitter right now about crafting a goodness culture, and I really believe it has to start with listening.

Listening in community. Not behind closed doors. Not playing telephone—the more people a story goes through, the more garbled it will be on the other end. Listening openly, transparently, without an overriding fear of what people will think.

I talked to a lot of people directly for the situation at Menlo—anyone who was willing to talk, and you might be surprised who all were. But you know who wasn’t, at least at the time? The church. And that is sad.

Questions? Comments? Drop me a line on Twitter.