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Wholeness After Betrayal
Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct
By Robin Hammeal-Urban
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Robin Hammeal-Urban
All rights reserved.
A Betrayal of Trust
God is at work in the world. The work of the Church is to join in God's mission to reconcile the brokenness of this world to God's ever-present love. Much of this work and witness of Christ's love is carried out by members of congregations. Regardless of variations in polity among denominations, the hearts, voices, hands, and feet of Christ are those of the members of congregations who witness the love and transformative power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
To witness and be the presence of Christ on earth, members of congregations need to know, in their core being, the love and transformative power of Christ. To know this transformative love can be unsettling. It can challenge the rational, logical precepts and values of our dominant culture. It can turn one's plans upside down. It can shake the foundations of people's lives.
When congregations are trustworthy communities of faith, they can invite members to truly know the transformative power of Christ; hardness of heart and closed-minded thinking can be gently softened and pried open by trust. In healthy, vital congregations, members trust one another; they share their whole being, including their brokenness, with God and each other. Churches should be safe places for members to be wholly honest with one another, revealing who one really is in a world where that is rarely safe to do. Trust is essential for spiritual growth.
Members trust their leaders to act in the best interests of the congregation regardless of whether the leader was elected, called, or placed in a leadership position by a judicatory leader. It is this trust that creates an opportunity for members to be vulnerable when seeking a closer relationship with God. Often this trust runs deep.
At its core, congregational misconduct is a betrayal of trust by a leader who puts his or her needs before those of the people to whom he or she ministers. In essence, the leader abuses the power bestowed by virtue of holding a position of leadership in a church. The opportunity to commit congregational misconduct arises from this trust. The trusted leader can be an ordained or a lay minister.
The Characteristics of Betrayal
Many of us have experienced betrayal in our lives; a friend violates a confidence, a family member hides an addiction by creating stories to "cover up" the addictive behavior, a business partner or employee embezzles funds, a spouse engages in an affair. Betrayal occurs when a person we trust acts in ways that are not compatible with the person we believe him or her to be. The depth of betrayal depends on the level of intimacy and trust in the relationship. Betrayal is not new. People have been betraying one another for thousands of years. All people are fallible. All of us have the potential to betray those who trust us.
The pain from being wronged by a friend or a loved one is far greater and more complicated than the pain that flows from being wronged by a stranger. The Bible is full of examples of betrayal in both the Old and New Testaments. Consider the angst and pain expressed in Psalm 55:
It is not enemies who taunt me—
I could bear that;
it is not adversaries who deal
insolently with me—
I could hide from them.
But it is you, my equal,
my companion, my familiar
with whom I kept pleasant
we walked in the house of God
with the throng....
My companion laid hands on a
and violated a covenant
with speech smoother than
but with a heart set on war;
with words that were softer
but in fact were drawn swords.
For the psalmist, the pain would be bearable if the wrongdoer were an "enemy." However, the wrongdoer was not an enemy, but a trusted companion.
Secretive Nature of Betrayal
Betrayal typically involves secrecy; things are made to look one way when in reality, something quite different is going on. A person betraying another may go to great lengths to "cover up" his or her actions or intentions. The psalmist's friend spoke "as smooth as butter" and used words that were "softer than oil," while concealing a "heart set on war."
The pain of betrayal is exacerbated by the secretive nature of betrayal. Secrecy and cover-up makes it hard to know where the truth lies. Secrecy makes reality hard to perceive. The difficulty in perceiving reality is twofold: first, the cover-up and secrecy make it hard to know where reality begins and ends, and second, no one wants to experience the pain that comes with discovering that they have been betrayed. In essence, the effort to avoid the pain of realizing that one has been betrayed combines with the struggle to find reality in the midst of the lies, misinformation, incomplete truths, and cover-ups.
Imperceptibility of Betrayal
Few of us want to "see" or acknowledge that we have been betrayed. This "not wanting to see" is the same dynamic that causes parishioners not to report warning signs when a church school teacher is sexually abusing a child. This phenomenon has been summed up as, "if it's inconceivable, it's unperceivable." This means that "[w]hen an event is inconceivable it's also unperceivable.... Because it's inconceivable to all of us that someone we know, maybe even like or admire or respect or trust, could actually sexually abuse a child. And because we can't conceive it, our minds won't allow us to perceive it, even in the face of compelling evidence!"
Thus, for some members of congregations it is inconceivable that a trusted leader could commit misconduct; they cannot perceive the wrongful acts even when confronted with evidence. For them, like the psalmist, the pain of betrayal is unbearable. It is too painful to face. These members may continue to believe that their trust was, and is, well placed in the offender. Other members will believe that the misconduct occurred, feel the pain of betrayal, and question their ability to assess who is trustworthy.
There will be members who vacillate between entertaining the possibility that misconduct occurred and believing that the trusted leader would never engage in such behavior. It is essential that congregations find ways to embrace all members regardless of differences in their experiences of misconduct. To help a faith community come to terms with congregational misconduct, members need accurate, timely information about the transgression(s) and opportunities to process that information as a community.
The Prevalence of Congregational Misconduct
Unfortunately, congregational misconduct is not a rare occurrence. The frequency of misconduct is astounding; the cases most widely reported by the press involve the sexual abuse of children by trusted ordained and lay leaders. Most people can name a church or ordained leader they knew who was implicated, in some way, of this horrific crime.
While clergy sexual misconduct (CSM) with adults does not receive the same attention in the media, it is widespread. A 2009 study of the prevalence of CSM "refute[s] the commonly held belief that it is a case of a few charismatic and powerful leaders preying on vulnerable followers." This Baylor University study found that "more than 3% of women who had attended a congregation in the past month reported that they had been the object of CSM at some time in their adult lives; 92% of these sexual advances had been made in secret, not in open dating relationships; and 67% of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance." Notably, these numbers reflect the rate of CSM experienced by women who continue to participate in congregational life. Many women who experience CSM are unable to bring themselves to attend worship in any church.
Examining these statistics reveals that "[i]n the average American congregation of 400 persons ... there are on average 7 women who have experienced CSM [as primary victims and].... there are, on average, 32 persons who have experienced CSM in their community of faith [as secondary victims or bystanders.]" When one considers the personal connections of each of these people—connections with family, friends, and colleagues—the effects of misconduct expand exponentially to include other individuals and their communities of faith.
No denomination or faith is immune to CSM. In the Baylor University study, the "survivors [of CSM] hailed from 17 different Christian and Jewish affiliations: Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Disciples of Christ, Latter Day Saints, Apostolic, Calvary Chapel, Christian Science, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, Evangelical, Nondenominational (Christian), and Reform Judaism."
Financial misconduct in congregations is also a relatively common occurrence. In 2006, the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University conducted a study of the 174 Catholic dioceses in the United States. The chief financial officers of seventy-eight dioceses responded to the research inquiry, and "85% of the respondents acknowledged serious problems [in their parishes] in the five previous years. While 27% of respondents reported less than $50,000 in embezzlements, 11% claimed embezzlements totaling more than $500,000 and the rest were somewhere in between." When asked why embezzlement occurs in churches, Chuck Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management, replied: "Churches are too busy trusting.... They're more like families. People can't imagine their fellow parishioner would be stealing." Embezzlement readily reveals the monetary costs of congregational misconduct. However, there are other "costs" which often exceed the monetary costs.
The Far-Reaching Effects of Congregational Misconduct
Betrayal can occur in any human relationship. When it occurs in a church, its effects are widespread. By its very nature, misconduct in a community of faith is not a private matter between those directly impacted—the offender and primary victim(s).
The following is a list of individuals and groups most often affected by congregational misconduct. Of course, such a list is not exhaustive.
The offender's partner/spouse, children, and extended family
Primary victim's partner/spouse, children, and extended family
Friends of both the offender and primary victim(s)
Staff of the congregation
Children of the congregation
Judicatory leaders: bishop and others responsible for responding to misconduct
Other churches within the community
Other clergy within the same denomination (if the offender is ordained)
Clergy in other denominations
Members of other churches within the same denomination
Members of churches in other denominations
People who are not members of any community of faith
Future ordained and lay leaders of the church
In addition, the reputation of the church where the misconduct occurred, and indeed the reputation of all churches, can be affected.
The Impact on Members and the Faith Community
Reactions to congregational misconduct occur on two levels, individually for each member and corporately as a community. How individual members react can vary greatly and is often affected by each member's life experiences. These reactions include:
Anger at the bishop or the authority imposing discipline on the offender, at the primary victim(s), at other members for allowing this to happen, at oneself for not seeing the warning signs, and at the offender. Notably, anger at the offender who was, or is, a trusted leader can be a delayed reaction due to the complexity of betrayal.
Blaming the victim for the misconduct or for revealing it.
Blaming one's self for having a role in placing the offender in a position of leadership which provided opportunity to engage in misconduct, e.g., serving on the search/calling committee, or having actively sought to have the person elected or selected.
Shame for being affiliated with a church where misconduct occurred.
Disbelief that a trusted leader could do something harmful, or that this is happening in their own church.
Loss and grief , on many levels. Loss for the way things were before the misconduct; loss of the image of the church as perfect, or from disappointment in how the church responded to misconduct. In addition, trusting relationships among members may be broken, resulting in additional loss.
Opening old wounds from prior experiences of betrayal, loss, victimization, or other trauma. Such prior experiences may have occurred in a church setting or elsewhere. As one church member described it, the grief and loss in the wake of misconduct felt like the grief of losing her husband seven years earlier.
Internal conflict in knowing that the offender engaged in good ministry and also committed misconduct. It is often difficult for members to hold both realities at once—that the leader engaged in extraordinary ministry while also engaging in misconduct. Facing the reality that all of us have the capacity to do both good and evil can be difficult.
Erosion of trust in other relationships is common; members' ability and willingness to trust others erodes. This can affect relationships in and beyond the congregation, and one's relationship with God. The resulting anguish can be deep.
Lack of trust in one's self can flow from having been betrayed by someone deeply trusted. If a member's intuition or "gut feeling" indicated that a leader was trustworthy, the revelation that he or she was not can raise doubts about one's ability to assess trustworthiness. The ability to trust one's own intuition may be diminished.
Lack of trust in other members who encouraged trust in the offender or also trusted the offender.
Lack of trust of clergy , even those who have never committed any type of misconduct.
Lack of trust in God or one's understanding and perception of God.
An individual member may find himself or herself reacting differently at different times. Efforts to care for congregations in the wake of misconduct need to take into account all of these varied reactions. Such efforts must seek to ensure that all members are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of each member's reaction to the misconduct.
Just as individual members react to misconduct, so too congregations as communities react. The consequences of misconduct in a congregation can be profound and continue for generations. The erosion of trust, like ripples from a stone thrown into a still pond, can extend to all members of the congregation and beyond.
Often there is division within the congregation between members who support the offender and those who support the primary victim(s). This division can be deep. (It can mirror the internal conflict of individual members who struggle with knowing and accepting that the offender did wonderful ministry and, yet, committed misconduct.) Members who have been friends for years may suddenly find themselves on different sides of this painful issue; those who supported one another during difficult times may suddenly seem like strangers. The faith community that once felt familiar and safe now feels foreign. Relationships among members are strained; some are broken.
In an effort to support the offender, members may withhold their financial support from the church. Sometimes members divert their funds to assist the offender with living expenses or legal fees. Congregational membership may decline.
There can be an unhealthy disparity of power among members. Information and knowledge is power. Members who have information about the misconduct will have more power in the congregation than those who do not. Those who gain power by having this information may seek to control the flow of information in an effort to protect others or in an attempt to secure power for themselves. The members with information may not be elected leaders or those who legitimately hold authority in the congregation. Those who do not have complete and accurate information about misconduct may fill in the gaps by speculating as to what happened. Members may share such speculation with each other. Speculation may be repeated as rumor and understood as fact.
Even if some members do not know what happened, those members (and even newcomers) will know that something has happened. If the misconduct is not addressed openly and honestly in a timely manner, it sends the message that there are certain things not to be spoken of within the congregation. Members may become careful about what information they share; they begin to self-censor. From a theological viewpoint, this may be one of the most devastating effects of congregational misconduct—members no longer bring their own brokenness to God through their faith community because painful topics are not addressed within the community. Direct communication decreases and triangulation increases.
Excerpted from Wholeness After Betrayal by Robin Hammeal-Urban. Copyright © 2015 Robin Hammeal-Urban. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Ian T. Douglas,
1 A Betrayal of Trust: Misconduct,
2 Speaking the Truth: Disclosure,
3 Legalities and Liabilities: Misconduct and Pastoral Care,
4 Weighing the Risks: Responding,
5 The Disclosure Statement: One Voice,
6 A Disclosure Process: The Congregation,
7 Restoring Trust: Education and Information,
8 The Wilderness: Wandering with Intention,
9 The Tip of the Iceberg: Spiritual and Emotional Abuse,
10 A View from the Pew: The Role of Lay Leaders,
11 The Victims and Offenders: Care and Support,
12 Integration: Healing and Closure,
A Weighing the Risks: Steps and Chart,
B Disclosure Statement: Worksheet,
C Sample Disclosure Statements for Congregations,
D Sample Statements for Press,
E Disclosure Meeting: Sample Invitations for Members,
F Disclosure Meeting: Gathering Questions and Concerns Form,
G Additional Statement and Invitation from Wardens,
H Disclosure Meeting: Outline of Responsibilities,
I Checklist for Care of Victims and Offenders,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An excellent guide to The Episcopal Church's Title IV disciplinary canons and strategies for healing, written with compassion and sensitivity. An excellent resource following General Convention's 2015 vote to increase Title IV training, with a particularly useful section on spiritual and emotional abuse. The latter all too often are ignored or misunderstood by adjudicatories, leaving victims to suffer alone. This book also is useful in other faith traditions, as its strategies for healing and insight will apply to other faith communities as well. Definitely worth reading.