Sunday, November 18, 2012

Detailing Events and Discerning the Times: Part Two

Detailing Events and Discerning the Times: Part Two
© Brad Sargent (brad/futuristguy), November 2012

Individual and Crowd-Sourced Snapshots for a Viable Video

In Part One, I explained why I felt it was worth spending a day analyzing a Covenant Life Church (CLC) Members Meeting, despite my being an outsider to the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) network that CLC has been part of. The analysis I did provides just one cultural GPS snapshot for discerning the direction and trajectory of CLC. I happened to pick a “milestone moment” for this church. The meeting was in August of 2011, after some very significant events occurred in relation to CLC leadership contacting SGM survivor blogs. This occurred after accounts appeared on SGMSurvivors, detailing alleged gross failure of pastoral care and interference with reporting sexual abuse to the police.

Meanwhile, other profile snapshots of CLC and SGM over the years have been in development through crowd-sourcing of observations/details, analysis, and interpretation. This has been accomplished mostly by SGM-insiders - spiritual abuse survivors - apparently done in real life through conversation and digitally through emails, internet research, and survivor blog posts and comments. Granted, we need to be careful to resist ungrounded speculation, but a set of first-hand evidences by a group of principal participants has the definite possibility of arriving at a better “human MRI” composite than the recollections and insights of any one person alone.

The forthcoming class action civil lawsuit against SGM and specific leaders will provide interested parties with additional series of snapshots of how SGM as a system functioned, at least from 1987 when the first incident of alleged damaging pastoral care and cover-up occurred. The amount of evidence is likely to be substantial, and a lack of gaps from first-hand reporters will most likely give it the weight of validity. So, when those snapshots are all lined up in chronological order, like many have already been done on the SGM Crisis Timeline developed by Jenn Grover, they’ll give a reasoned and documented “video” to show the direction and dynamics of the SGM organizational trajectory. 

Also, in a civil lawsuit, the outcome is based on a “preponderance of evidence,” not on it being “beyond reasonable doubt,” which is the standard in criminal cases. So the work that many are doing to document the snapshots that create the “documentary video” will probably have an impressive impact on the futures of SGM and the leaders named as defendants.

Okay … so, suppose we create a viable video that shows the long-term pathway of SGM as individual leaders, as an organization, and as a cultural system. What does one such “video” do for anyone looking at the global/big-picture issue of spiritual abuse in the North American Church? 

From Single-System Trajectories to Mega-System Trends
One documentary video alone isn’t enough to do reasoned analysis of larger patterns and trends within the Body of Christ in this region. But when we start looking at all of 2012, we find quite a list of what seem to be significant situations of abuse of power in individual churches and associations. Similar issues of image-protective leadership in organizations have been surfacing in the secular community as well, and there are also historical trends that will likely prove relevant. Let’s take a look at these three realms – churches, cultures, and history – and some techniques we can use for trend-tracking.


Church- and ministry-based evidence about spiritual bullying has been mounting over the last few years especially. And it does seem in 2012 that the documentation has literally exploded. Men and women with first-hand knowledge of alleged abuse by various Christian organizations have increasingly been posting their accounts and their assessments online, including related evidence: documents, timelines, current website links, and Wayback Machine internet archive links. What bullies want to keep hidden in the darkness is coming into the light anyway.

Consider the following list of individual organizations and larger networks or denominations just at the theologically conservative and evangelical end of the spectrum. In 2012, most of these are ongoing subjects of current “citizen journalist” investigations and, for some, even civil cases. Links behind the ministry name go to survivor blogs where that entity is a primary focus. The world of survivor blogs has become so extensive that I doubt I’ve gotten all the relevant links available – and these don’t even include Facebook pages or other kinds of closed forums where people seek healing through processing their experiences. (Note: Linking here does not imply my automatic agreement with the perspectives presented there.)

For general resources on spiritual abuse and recovery, and focus on multiple situations and movements, including many of the above, see Apprising Ministries, FBC Jax Watchdogs, and The Wartburg Watch.


Meanwhile, a number of high-profile secular cases of various kinds of abuse have emerged in recent months. These have ballooned in importance to where organizational complicity/cover-up has become as crucial as the original offenses. 

Perhaps the media attention and public outcry are evidences that the social tide is turning against bullies, those who actively protect them, and those who passively excuse by their silence. Or perhaps it represents the reasons why these cases are getting so much publicity. Figuring out WHAT is going on doesn’t always tell us WHY it’s happening now. Back to the issue in a moment … but first, in terms of larger trends, I suspect we’ll find that each different system spotlighted adds pixels to an even bigger picture, just as each individual piece of stone or glass in a mosaic adds dimension to a design. 
But how do we figure that out what each contributes, or how clusters of similar elements found across different situations contribute to a “trend”? 

Discerning Relevant Patterns

Part of what I do to answer that question turns me toward content analysis techniques that I learned in my linguistics training. Our homework included making critical features charts – grids of elements that define words and how they are used. If a word does have a certain feature, you mark the grid with a “+” or with a “–” if it does not. Then you find word sets that show only one difference. These are called a “minimal pair.” For instance, the words this and that form a minimal pair; both can refer to a concrete object or to an abstract concept, but this is close to the speaker and that is farther away. The only critical difference is distance. Another minimal pair is this and these; both relate to something close by the writer or speaker, and the critical difference is these is “+ plural” and this is “– plural.” 

This kind of pairing can be especially helpful when things look similar on the surface, but they turn out to be different enough underneath that they are not actually related. For instance, many Christian theologies and world religions use the term grace, but do not mean at all the same thing by it. Or, take the current buzz word, gospel. For some theologies it holds a very specific, limited meaning; for others, it is applied to so many things that it holds little meaning at all.

Critical features grids and minimal pairs help us analyze sets for commonalities as well as differences. They show in chart form the overlaps between items. (Or, if we wanted to go with more of a picture route, we could use Venn diagrams with their overlapping circles to show what the common and different features are.) 

But what elements do we use in our critical features grid list? Some of that depends on the kind of thing we’re analyzing, some of it just depends on practice. It helps to have some stock frameworks. When I’m analyzing words, my framework includes parts of speech, time, and distance. When I’m analyzing a complex organization and the dynamics in it, I use a version of my paradigm layers and elements list:

  1. Deepest layer – thinking: information processing styles, values, and beliefs (theological, philosophical, religious). These govern everything else that we say and do.
  2. Middle layer – organizing: operational systems, strategies, and organizational infrastructures, leadership. These govern how we relate in institutions that we are part of.
  3. Surface layer – relating: cultures, lifestyles, and forms of collaboration. These govern how we and our institutions relate within the larger community and global societies.

If we detail out the paradigm elements in all of the institutions under scrutiny in the above list, I think we’ll find some common points that appear in a large percentage of these case studies. For instance, here is a series of elements that seem to align from deepest to surface layers in their organization’s paradigm system. (I’ll use the church here, but a similar version could be shown for secular organizations.) 

  • Deepest/Thinking. Many hold to black-or-white thinking that leads to doctrines that encourage separation. This results in isolation or insulation of the church from the world, of refusing “worldly methods” (such as psychology and counseling), of handling problems inside the church instead of going to civil authorities.
  • Middle/Organizing. Most stress unquestioning submission to the authority of male leaders in church and home, many to the extreme end of the spectrum of authoritarian leadership and patriarchy.
  • Surface/Relating. Their members submit to the leaders, even when leaders imply or outright demand actions that go against civic requirements. Thus, many of these organizations are riddled with allegations of allowing, not reporting, and/or passively supporting such crimes as the infliction of child sexual abuse, child abuse/neglect, and domestic violence.

Here is another line-up common to these Christian organizations:

  • Deepest/Thinking. Many hold to black-or-white thinking that leads to doctrines of perfectionism. These create a closed system of insiders versus outsiders, righteous versus sinful, and the inside is full of legalism and authoritarianism.
  • Middle/Organizing. Many face allegations of lack of sufficient accountability for leaders. Is it because they are considered “celebrities” as “God’s anointed” and automatically “righteous”?
  • Surface/Relating. If you did a “relationship map” of what leaders and organizations work together in larger networks or cosponsor events, you’d find a lot of connection lines in this larger “in group.”

That helps us with some pictures of WHAT is happening. But WHY is such a major push-back happening now? And WHERE could it be headed?

From Causation to Transformation

The fact that something exists doesn’t automatically explain how it was caused or why we’re noticing it now. Causation of a phenomenon or trend is complex, as is its transformation. Causation may come from combinations of reasons – including a group’s (or its leaders’) beliefs, organizational systems, cultures – and transformation will likely come through change in some of those same causal reasons. That makes sense to me, because causation is about what shaped past history and transformation is about shaping future possibilities. For instance, if we don’t address underlying causes of organizational toxicity, how can the future of that group be anything but toxic?

Transformation is another large part of what being a futurist is about. Specifically, Christian futurists work to bring people hope, to spark their imagination about possible ways their future could turn out, and to help them discern and decide between what is possible and what they want to pursue as preferable. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a tutorial on some key futurist foresight tools: trend-tracking, non-linear extrapolation, and scenario writing.

A few final thoughts on the question of why the push-back on bullying seems to be happening now. With spiritual abuse and churches, maybe sheep have just gotten fed up with shepherds who beat them, and they are bleating back to warn other sheep who may be unwary about wolves in their midst. Maybe because these ongoing controversies and conflicts, such as at Sovereign Grace Ministries, have corroded their corporation to the point of implosion and there is no way to keep it from the public eye. Maybe it’s because of civil cases won by abuse survivors, such as Tom Rich’s case at the FBC Jax Watchdogs blog and Julie Anne Smith’s case at the BGBC Survivors blog. Whatever the source or sources, the impact seems to be that malignancy in ministry is going unchallenged less frequently. Authority figures no longer get an automatic “pass” on questionable activities and attitudes, or on ones that cause outright damage.

But what then?  Once an organization is saturated with spiritual toxicity – as it appears Sovereign Grace Ministries is – can it ever be changed? It would be hard, but I believe there is still hope. It must involve individual change – real repentance – because, as Price Pritchett wisely suggests in The Ethics of Excellence, “The organization can never be something the people are not.” It seems to me a related idea – for better or for worse – is that the organization will be what the leaders are. Jesus Himself said that when a pupil has been fully trained, he’ll be like his master. He also said that if the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch, and that you know a tree by its fruit. (Luke 6: 39-45).

Anyway, I do have a very small measure of hope for the larger SGM system to be able to change enough and soon enough to stop inflicting the damages of legalistic theology and authoritarian leaders on others. But it does seem that the larger the system, the more difficult it is to shift course away from destruction. Think about a rowboat avoiding an iceberg versus the Titanic avoiding it. 

And there is some precedent for this substantial of a paradigm shift. The only large-scale organizational transformation I’m aware of, going from a “cult” (both doctrinally and structurally) to a sound system, occurred with the Grace Communion International – formerly known as the Worldwide Church of God, run by Herbert W. Armstrong. I haven’t been able to do a full-scale case study on how this change came about. But from what I’ve absorbed so far, it seems like the spark for organizational change came from several key leaders who had a personal change of heart and theology, and who saw the damage that their doctrine and organization had done. I don’t know exactly the order of what happened, but those do seem to be some of the elements involved. These change-agents led the way for altering the system, and to do that required them to stand against both the old doctrine and the old order. I’m looking forward to looking into this far more deeply, to reinforce or correct those initial impressions and especially to explore the specifics that sparked change. I think it will prove a very relevant situation for fueling reasoned speculation about the future of Sovereign Grace Ministries.

In short, change happens when there is repentance – REAL repentance – not some kind of quickee “acknowledgement” of wrongdoing in order to satisfy the demands of authoritarian leaders, or to avoid unpleasant legal or social consequences of one’s actions. The word repentance in Greek literally means a “change of mind.” I think of it as a sort of “spiritual U-turn.” 

I think we’re glimpsing signs of this kind of discernment and change in some of the smaller units that have been within the larger SGM system. For instance, changes have been underway at SGM Church of Daytona and at Covenant Life Church (the SGM “flagship” church). They/their leaders have undertaken a change of course, standing against some of the old ways, moving in new ways. (In their cases, this has mean leaving SGM for the Daytona church and CLC considering leaving.) Certainly, it’s not all that survivors of SGM spiritual abuse would want, but it does seem to be progress at least. The larger structure of the SGM network may not be salvageable, but surely the smaller ones seem to be showing they likely are. So, there are continued reasons for hope and for praying that those within the SGM system who can effect changes find the conscience, will, and grace to do so.

Actually, I consider acts of repentance and the resulting transformation as a sort of cosmic surprise that indicate God’s Spirit has been at work. Repentance doesn’t happen without a shift in conscience. And the Scriptures talk about a dulled or seared conscience and a hardened heart as signs of resistance against God. Plus, psychology tells us that lack of conscience is a key feature of sociopaths; they show no true empathy for others, and no remorse about using/abusing others when it gets them what they desire. So, for change to occur for the right reasons, and for evil systems to be dismantled, I’ll watch for signs in SGM of U-turns in how people are valued, how conflict is handled, and how differences are seen as signs of strength. Those kinds of things would be SGM-specific indicators of genuine repentance, and transformation underway.


  1. Holy Hannah!!! Deep stuff to get through. The following "hit" me: "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." I SO believe there is a lot of idolatry towards my former pastor!!! I got caught in it for awhile. However, God helped me with discernment. A friend here, A. Amos, called it Creepo that! In the past I've called it "Dicern-o-meter". I believe He has given me great discernment. However, I have been known to ignore that and in the end I get hurt. I need to practice/learn from that.

    1. Hi Tammy, and thanks for your feedback.

      You talked about "discern-o-meters," and one reason I put this material together was so people could maybe understand their own style of discernment more, and see how it differs from other people's style. Discernment can be a gift, but it's also a skill, and a practice for both individuals and groups.

      Some people discern things "intuitively" -- in their gut, or the hair on the back of their neck stands up (and I have friends that this really happens when they're around something or someone creepy). It happens so fast that you don't even know how you came to the conclusion you did. And so, to some other people, it seems impossible that your conclusion is accurate. But it very often is right on the money. But from what I've learned, it seems intuitive processing involves taking in huge amounts of information in the context of things (like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions) and reading between the lines so quickly that it seems instantaneous.

      For other people, discernment is a way more intentional process. It takes them a lot of observing and analysis and comparing and contrasting before eventually, voila! They reach a conclusion, but it is s-l-o-w and ponderous getting there. Just because intentional process people can point to a lot of evidence as reasons for reaching the conclusion they did, it doesn't necessarily mean their evidence is any different from the intuitive processors, or that their readings are more accurate.

      Neither kind is fully accurate or accurately full all the time. It works best when different people that represent both kinds of processing work together. The conclusions of one type of discerner help the other know they're not crazy. So, for SGM survivors out there who "just knew" something was wrong, maybe this will help you confirm from a thinking style 180-degrees different from yours that you were oh, so right!

      Well that was a wordy way to say this: We need each other. And together, we can help our group get a better sense of the contours and interiors of what is bugging us about who it seems is bullying us.

  2. Brad, You have done a great job of categorizing and listing so that folks can read and ponder these events and circumstances all in one place! Good work!!

    You have touched on a nerve: "...if we don’t address underlying causes of organizational toxicity, how can the future of that group be anything but toxic?"

    This passage of Scripture comes to mind when taking a visual snapshot of what is unfolding as we speak:

    "You can't hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can't whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day's coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town."

    Luke 12:2-3 (The Message)

    1. I know Brad's works are quite technical compared to what i normally post, but I am convinced that it is so important. Brad has personally experienced spiritual abuse and also has been watching the patterns and trends over the decades, having gone through his own recovery. His knowledge and experience combined with his gift of seeing the big picture and analyzing skills has really benefited me and hopefully it will be of help to others.

    2. Thanks for the encouragement, Barb ... and thanks for being such a trooper to be supportive of we survivors of spiritual abuse, and create resources for us to recovery!

      That "nerve" I hit is probably one of the most important lessons I've learned in almost five years of studying spiritual abuse in depth since taking your survey early in 2008. And that is that bullying takes a whole system - bullies, their supporters and excusers, organizational systems and structures and procedures that bullies misuse to benefit themselves, and the relational cultures they create to promote themselves. If bullies are in roles of power, they conform everyone else and everything else into their image. It is idolatry, and God just is not gonna put up with that forever ... regardless of how "successful" the bullies and their systems seem to be.

      Because bullying creates a whole system, even if/when the bully is out of "the pulpit" or the organization, there is a huge amount of clean-up required. Bad processes and procedures have to be flushed out, or if they were chaos kinds of leaders, there are no processes and procedures and something has to be put in place. The culture of who leads, what they teach, how people relate with one another inside the organization and outside -- all that needs to be examined and taken care of. People have to stop excusing sin and EVIL, and have to counteract it with God's grace and truth.

      In other words: "Spiritual enemas" must still be run when the spiritual enemies of truth are gone.

      Meanwhile, we can trust that God is at work to make those masks of false personas drop, and to lead the survivors in moving toward a safe, healthy, and growing re-organization. (Or to escape the unsafe, toxic, and stultifying organization if/when He says to go.)

  3. 56 years a Baptist, mostly SBCNovember 19, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    Bullies in the pulpit who preach the tithe and then take huge compensation and build mansions on earth are having their reward here and will be in different circumstances in the next life. One mansion to a soul, so to speak, but they will be rather warm.

  4. While I haven't had time to read these posts thoroughly, as a former member of SG and CLC, I appreciate this outside perspective and shedding more light on things. The most helpful thing for me in processing all of this has been talking with people outside of the SG bubble who have helped me see a spade as a spade. It's helpful to have a more objective perspective when trying to evaluate your own level of sanity on the matter (am I exaggerating? Is this really what happened? Etc)


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