Detailing Events and Discerning the Times: Part One
© Brad Sargent (brad/futuristguy), November 2012
After I wrote my analysis piece on Sovereign Grace Ministries in the previous post, I was asked two questions and invited to share more detail on:
- Why evaluating a Members Meeting that happened at Covenant Life Church (CLC) over a year ago holds any importance now, and
- How a case study of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) fits into the larger scheme of what seems to be happening with exposing “malignant ministers,” toxic organizations, and spiritually abusive systems or cultures.
So, I worked on describing how I go about doing these tasks and why they’re important. Because “externalizing” one’s thought processes takes a lot of space, the original version of this post got longer than expected. So I split it into two parts. The first talks about techniques I use from my points of view as a cultural interpreter and a organizational developer to detail events and analyze changes over time. The second picks up with linguistics and futurist/strategic foresight techniques I use to detect patterns and discern cultural trends that drive long-term change.
These are the kinds of intuitive and intentional critical thinking tools that might go with being a modern-day “son of Issachar” (1 Chronicles 12:32) who seeks to understand our times, and discern what the churches should do. Hope you find this different perspective worth the read, despite it delving into some technical skills. I suspect we all have a lot of detailing and discerning to do in the near future because of continuing revelations on the horizon about spiritual abuse in the Church. Perhaps the descriptions and illustrations of these research techniques will help understand some of the content in the forthcoming SGM trial and the larger cultural context in which this is occurring.
Pictures and Profiles: Systems “Snapshots”
I thought it would be helpful to start with some background on why I would bother to do this kind of analysis piece in the first place. As my blogger friend Julie Anne Smith mentioned in her first comment on my post at her blog, [November 11, 2012, 6:45 PM], I seem to have landed in a role of drawing people’s attention from detailed analysis up toward the big-picture patterns, and considering what such trends might mean in light of the larger context of culture and change.
This is what I wrote in the final point near the end of the article:
(4) The only way to refute an allegation of a malignant pattern of mishandling situations or avoiding responsibility is with documentation.
Only the principle people involved can provide “primary documentation” through their emails, notes, daytimer schedules, phone records, etc., at the time of the events and interviews or depositions later on. Those items and observations help establish facts and timelines and participants, etc.
But a “secondary” layer of resources share other people’s analysis and interpretation of the facts. They look at such things as gaps in the evidence, interconnections among people, patterns that appear at a given time or over time, and how various patterns compare with some internal standard (such as the organization’s constitution and by-laws) or external standards (such as legal mandates or “biblical” commands).
Here are some of the techniques I use to create those kinds of secondary resources.
As a cultural interpreter, I personally observe and/or I research events. I gather evidence that seems relevant and much that may turn out to be irrelevant – but I can’t always know that in advance. I analyze the set of evidence, and interpret it as best I can as offering us a “snapshot” of where that subject (an individual or organization or culture) was situated at the time of those events. Think of this snapshot as sort of like pinpointing the subject’s coordinates in a “cultural Global Positioning System” at that moment of time. If I’ve done my role well, my “take” on the subject’s GPS is close to matching the profile of facts about the subject and its surrounding system, mostly supplied by primary source people.
Goals and Trajectories: Shifting from Snapshots to “Video” Mode
Then, as a theologically-based practitioner of organizational development, I plot a set of GPS snapshots taken over time against what I understand to be the ideal ministry. This ideal represents the goal we should be moving toward. This profile of the ideal includes how ministry strategies, infrastructures, and leadership should function for their system to be considered TRULY “safe,” “healthy,” and “growing” – from a biblical standpoint, despite what leadership and organizations are supposed to look like from a business standpoint. (And I am working a set of specific indicators for exactly how I define and describe and measure all three of those terms: safe, healthy, growing.)
If the GPS for that ideal profile represents the goal point of ministry function, then we can figure out what kind of “trajectory” that church or organization is on. And we do that by looking at the change in the profile positions of their snapshots over time, relative to the goal. In other words, we shift from snapshots to “video,” and measure which way the subject of study is moving. (Or, if you are familiar with the media known as “flip books,” movement is captured by slight shifts between successive drawings or photos. The shifts become more noticeable as you flip through the series. This became the basis for animation.)
There are four basic possibilities of how a church body relates with the goal of being/becoming a “safe house for God’s people.”
- Move forward toward the goal.
- Move backward away from that goal.
- Remain static and move nowhere (which we usually associate with a body that is unconscious, in a coma, or is actually a corpse).
- Orbit around some other person(s) than Jesus Christ or some other goal, in which case there may be a lot of activity but it ultimately revolves around whatever keeps it pinned to the ground and prevents it from moving along a pathway.
After figuring out the overall pattern, there are still a lot of nuances in a trajectory: Is the path smooth or erratic, start-stop, relatively slow or fast, etc.? We simply don’t know which trajectory type is happening, or what qualities of movement it demonstrates, unless we take periodic organizational snapshots to see what is or isn’t happening over time. We need a series of snapshots to figure that out.
From Single-Person Profiles to Multi-Person Trajectories
The process of helping individuals figure out how they’re doing in terms of Christlike transformation uses similar tools to those for organizations. It likewise involves:
- Identifying their starting point in relationship to the ideal profile of mature Christian character and spiritual formation practices.
- Then profiling their status at different points over time.
- Then tracking all of those to evaluate the type of trajectory they are on, and what specific gap they have that need to be filled in, and what excesses they have that need to be filed down.
Such interpretation of an individual’s spiritual profile snapshots and video is valuable for the ministries they are part of also, because, as organizational specialist Price Pritchett wisely suggests in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” And running this kind of spiritual profiling for leaders is especially valuable because to paraphrase something Jesus said, “Protégés become like their mentors.” More specifically (still paraphrasing), “If the blind lead the blind, they both fall in a ditch” (Matthew 15:14) and “When a pupil is fully trained, he will be like his master” (Luke 6:40).
All of this together means that what individuals do singly adds up to what teams and ministry groups and churches and networks and denominations do corporately. If there are too many toxic leaders and blind followers in a system, it hinders the system from bearing good fruit now and better fruit in the future.
And foresight into the future – that’s where we shift from tools of the cultural interpreter and organizational developer to evaluate a trajectory, to those of the linguistic to identify patterns and the futurist to evaluate culture-shifting trends. Those are the subjects in Part Two, which is forthcoming. But first, here are some preliminary conclusions, based on extensive reading over the past few months about the Sovereign Grace Ministries system and the class action lawsuit filed against it and specific current and former leaders.
Thoughts on Sovereign Grace Ministries and Trajectories
Here is a comment I wrote on a post at The Wartburg Watch after reviewing the extensive SGM Crisis Timeline, produced by Jenn Grover. It gives not only some of my conclusions, but reflects on the process I used. I have edited it slightly to clarify a few points, and added boldface to the key statements about the equivalent of snapshots and videos, as well as trajectories and orbits.
First, whoever you are, Jenn Grover, thanks for your work in putting that together. It was immensely helpful as a “Grand Tour” to get an overview.
Second, I don’t know if I will, but I might go back another time to read/view the documentation materials at each link supplied in the many Dipity information frames. More detail may change my interpretations or fine-tune them, but I still thought it would be beneficial to offer some first-take impressions on what I read, as that might be similar to what a jury member would have to consider upon a first exposure to this information.
Third, I think I “get it” about organizational development and church conflict. Since shifting to evangelical and theologically conservative churches almost 40 years ago, I’ve been in the middle of, or observer to: church systems that failed, others that split, one church that was literally taken over (i.e., commandeered/stolen) by an insider group, others that were held captive to/by malignant leaders or “kidnapped” by outsiders who infiltrated in, some that had toxic doctrine that created toxic internal cultures, and a few had multiples of these factors all rolled into one spiritually suffocating combination.
So — with all that 35+ years of framework in my own background — after reading this timeline, I come away with one overwhelming impression, based on the assumption that this timeline seems documented well enough to give a significantly accurate and sufficient base of observations from which to develop opinions. And here it is, the big-picture impression:
It seems to me that there really has not been much recent “forward trajectory” at SGM based on “fixing eyes on Jesus” as a guide-wire for going into the future. Instead, for at least two decades, the SGM systems (leaders, laypeople, churches, trainings, associations, boards) all have been tethered to the polarizing agency of C.J. Mahaney. If you map out the various interrelationships of *dramatis personae* since about 1997, it appears that ALL the lines of friendship, and dominant theological stances, and who’s in authority, and relational conflicts, and individual and church departures, eventually all connect somehow with Mr. Mahaney.
Thus, as in tetherball, SGM insiders get hit clockwise then counterclockwise, reverse and repeat, to a dizzying degree, based on the metaphorical hits Mr. Mahaney takes or makes. There is a lot of action, but basically the whole thing has gone nowhere for at least the last 15 years but ’round and around on the integrating pole of Mr. Mahaney and the same plotline chain of dramatic controversies.
And if one man has that much direct and indirect preeminence in such a huge amount of activity, I wonder if it’s fair to say then, that there has been an idolatrous amount of attention paid to him. If so, that enormous expenditure of energy on adoration or revulsion, protection or correction — at the leadership level of SGM especially, and with outside celebrity leaders and non-profit organizations — might make sense as system-wide set-ups for many things remaining overlooked or ignored instead of properly overseen, being done in a dysfunctional way, swept under the carpet, slipping between the cracks, etc. Hence, here they find themselves in this lawsuit –- the SGM organization and several of its most prominent individuals.
After my own series of difficult experiences in churches, I’m used to such mega-drama, though I still get emotionally churned up over it (anger, sadness, numbness). However, this contentious history put me on the verge of exasperation. I just wonder how a civil lawsuit jury will respond to what seems to be an organizational context of extreme distraction due to uber-leader-level drama during the exact same time period of the alleged cases of mishandling instances of sexual abuse plus questioned practices of pastoral care or cover-up …
On now, to Part Two …