Lessons On The Way 2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

A couple of weeks ago one article kept on popping up in my Facebook feed. It’s the sort of article which ordinarily I’d avoid, but the fact it kept on recurring, from people I know and respect, meant I eventually decided that resistance was futile and clicked the link. It’s a short article with an attention-grabbing idea: that certain professions attract a higher proportion of people with psychopathic tendencies, and the people who reach the top of these professions are reasonably likely to hold some of these tendencies. It’s not a long article, and you can read it by clicking here.

For the purposes of the research from which this article is taken, a psychopath isn’t necessarily a murderer (a relief to us all, I’m sure); rather that he or she is someone with an ‘anti-social’ personality, who exhibits three or more of the following tendencies: deceitfulness, impulsiveness, aggression, irritability, irresponsibility, a lack of remorse and a failure to respect lawful boundaries in the same way that others do. There’s an attraction to power as part of the equation too, a sense that power and success is given to these people, and they feel threatened by other people with power.

So what were those professions? Number 1 is a CEO, number 2 a lawyer, number 3 broadcast media … and number 8 a clergy person. Surely that can’t be right?

Of course it is. After 14 years working in churches and much of my life spent around them, I can recognise these things in myself and others all too easily. I can’t speak to the value or otherwise of this research; the article doesn’t really tell us much, to be honest. It’s more of a hook to reel you in to a website than anything else. However my experience doesn’t lead me to be too shocked that this is even a possibility. I’ve seen how my own heart and actions can all too easily go to darker places; I’ve seen first-hand church leaders bully and scare and abuse staff, church members and people from other agencies; we’ve all been aware of the child abuse scandals in some parts of the church; and many of us have our own horror stories to tell. I’m not a person who only wants to see negative in the church – I am, after all, working for the church and committed to it as an idea. I believe in church. I also believe in the damage it can do to those who are part of it, at all ‘levels’.

So on that basis, here’s an arbitrary, non-exhaustive, in no particular order, list of reasons why I think church leaders may exhibit these characteristics and/or some suggestions of things leaders and church members alike can do to prevent this from happening. This isn’t supposed to end a discussion, but maybe to start one; it is all based on my own experience as observed at first or second-hand … and no, I’m not going to tell tales.

1) The training of church leaders only goes so far

There’s a real variation of skills to church leadership, so training at a seminary and/or on the job tends towards either the spiritual ‘skills’ or practical ones. Whichever the training of a particular minister has tended towards it rarely, if ever, leaves any space for the clergy to work through their own emotional, spiritual and personal baggage. There’s simply too much to learn; and once you get on the job, there’s too much to do. So for many leaders, serious issues are left to bubble under the surface until they erupt at the wrong moment in the wrong way. Those who train clergy should be finding ways to enable us to be working through our stuff as well as learning; equally, church leaders should take responsibility for own growth and seek out counselling, support and spiritual direction.

2) The clergy life is a public one

Everyone tends to know what you’re paid, and the people you’re supposed to be leading have a significant say in various things like expenses, holiday and housing. When you bump into someone from church in the supermarket you don’t know if the encounter is, to the other person a pastoral, a social or a business one. You have to be willing to be ‘on’ all the time – and that can be wearing. If you’re not careful, this sense of living in a goldfish bowl can lead to over-defensiveness … which can look a lot like psychopathic behaviour to some. Allow clergy some private space.

3) Evangelical church culture celebrates ‘success’

Most of us want churches to grow in numbers, and they should do so. But there’s something dangerous in our evangelical sub-culture that elevates those who lead large churches. This can lead to an unhealthy self-regard in the leader of the larger church and a dangerous inadequacy and/or drive to grow at all costs in the leader of smaller churches. So the church can sub-consciously drift into a business mindset and the leader to a CEO role rather than pastor/teacher/priest.

4) Churches don’t do feedback well

My experience is that many church members are not so good at giving feedback to the leader. Most people aren’t able to really hear positive or negative feedback in the minutes after an event; if given in those first minutes it will either go in one ear and out the other, or meet an adrenalised and unhelpful response (read, psychopathic?). Most leaders would benefit from specific feedback in the days following. So, rather than “That was a good sermon”, say “Thanks for Sunday’s sermon. It really helped me think about this passage in a new way/hit the nail on the head with regard to an issue I have with my boss/comforted me because of this [named] situation in life”. Or if it’s negative, round it with positives, and then offer help. Example … “Thanks for all the work you put into Sunday’s services. They are worshipful and I do appreciate the preaching. But sometimes it can feel like it’s all about the services, and not about the people. Is there anything you think we could do as a church to boost the pastoral work of the church so that’s as good as the services are?” Rather than “You only care about Sundays. Please do something about the people in the church”. Don’t save all your positive or negative feedback for one occasion – that will destroy or puff-up a leader; tell her little bits over time. Then you’re saved that psychopathic blow-up or arrogance.

5) Leaders spend a lot of time working with volunteers

Leading volunteers can be really draining, and it’s very hard sometimes to shake the feeling that you are the only who’s really committed. So if you commit to a role, do it for a clearly defined period of time, and do what you’ve promised. That way your leader won’t be wanting to ‘drive’ people all the time, which is where many of us end up. Leaders, ensure people are fulfilling church roles on the basis of call, not drive. I once had a Sunday School leader tell me she had a big vision for how to take the kids work forward over the next year. She detailed to me what she was going to do; I was delighted. The next day she sent me an email to say she and her husband had been praying for some time and felt the time was right to leave and go to another church. If you commit to something, even as a volunteer, make it stick.

6) People often don’t stand up to church leaders

Because church members value church, they don’t want to rock the boat and tell a leader when she’s out-of-order. That’s admirable, but wrong. If a leader is doing something wrong or dangerous, tell them. If they don’t change, get help from the denominational structures. There’s no excuse for bullying in the church; if you see it happening, confront the bullying leader. You help no-one by not speaking up. I’ve seen bullying in churches first hand, and I know it happens often. It’s ugly, dangerous and abuse of authority and position.

7) Pray

Pray for your leader and pray for your church. Prayer does things, in you and in others.

8) Create space in job descriptions, appraisals and the like for the leader to take retreats and spiritual direction

Hold him accountable to this as part of the contract. It will deal with much of the stuff mentioned in point 1), and if you help your leader arrange cover for when he’s away that will ease the process.

9) Manage expectations

Do what you can to make sure the church members (you and your friends) have realistic expectations of a leader; and that she has realistic expectations of herself. If anyone wants to see your nice suburban church of 150 become a church of 1,000, mention that’s an admirable goal but maybe unobtainable in the short-term. To put it mildly.

10) Be kind to each other

Leaders and church members alike could always exhibit a little more intentional kindness to each other. Has a church member given quite a bit of time to the church recently? As a leader arrange for her to receive some flowers from the church to say thank you. As long as she likes flowers. Does your church leader like to eat out? If so, and if you can, take him out for dinner with no agenda other than to spend time together; or send him and his wife out for a nice meal on you. If it’s an Indian restaurant, do make sure they like curry first, though. Christians do sometimes seem to have this habit of giving gifts to people that they themselves would like or think the other person ‘needs’; find out what would be a real treat or injection of happiness and fun for the person and act on that.

So what do you think? What would you add to this? How can church leaders avoid becoming psychopaths? This list is no order and deliberately leaves things out to get you thinking. So get thinking!

Also in this series: Lessons On The Way 1: I don’t have to do it all

A lament for a diseased body, a question redefined … and maybe a calling

How annoying, how unsophisticated, how inconvenient to my intellectual pretensions when a cliché appears to have more than a grain of truth to it. In this instance I’m thinking of “A problem shared is a problem halved”. It’s not true of course, not in the literal sense. If I talk to you about a problem with money, it doesn’t mean that my debt is halved (unless you’re both very rich and also a very free giver). It does mean, if you listen well, that the secret has lost its power. It is in the light now, with someone I trust, and while the situation hasn’t objectively changed, it has done so in a subjective sense. It feels different.

I was diagnosed with a chronic disease in 2000, our first-second year of marriage. I had, it turns out, been experiencing the symptoms for a long time. Severe ‘shin splints’ whilst running or playing football weren’t, it turned out, shin splints. Some nights I would sleep well, many others I would be unable to sleep past 3 or 4 a.m. Not for the reason that newly-marrieds are supposed to lack sleep. Pain would wake me and keep me awake. With diagnosis came treatment, which has been a long journey. The journey is still ongoing. I reached a kind of equilibrium: accepting I had a disease around which my life needs to be centered, and being willing on days I felt able to, to ask for prayer for healing or strength or comfort. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Ironically I’ve never been very good with physical balance; but emotional, theological and spiritual balancing seems to come somewhat more naturally more to me.

In learning to orient life around this reality we (I include my wife in this, for it inevitably exacts a toll on her also) to a certain extent forget what it is we’re carrying. In integrating the joint possibilities of total remission or a wheelchair in later life there’s a strange forgetting that goes on. Until you meet someone else.

It wasn’t until I took a phone call a few weeks ago that I began to recall what we had been carrying. A mother who knew us through a church had found about my diagnosis and got in contact to say that her daughter also has the same disease and wondered if we’d like to all get together for dinner. We did. It was the first time we had deliberately and consciously sat down and chatted with others who had actual, real, personal experience of this evil but strangely relatively unknown disease. A week or so later I discovered a Facebook group for people with the disease.

These two experience, the one across a dinner table the other across the ‘virtual’ (but no less real) reality of social media have worked a strange magic on me. Suddenly there are safe places to ask questions about the disease and its implications which I had never allowed to bubble to the surface simply because there was nowhere safe enough to take them. Suddenly the story of my wife and myself was not just the story of the struggle of two people, but one caught up in a much bigger story in which many, many others are also writing their own chapters.

This experience of suddenly, 14 or so years after diagnosis, experiencing that we are not alone has been one of the removal of a burden I hadn’t even allowed myself to remember I was carrying. I can feel lightness on continually aching shoulders. My back and joints are, of course, no less pained. We’re not talking physical healing here. It’s deeper than that – the healing of no longer walking alone but having eyes opened and seeing there’s a crowd walking around us we’d never noticed before.

In laying that burden of solitariness down I’ve realised what it is that I am carrying. A lot. Pain (on a bad day the equivalent of a severe childbirth), fatigue (a symptom of the disease, the hardest to treat and the most emotionally debilitating), the endless medication, the financial cost, the things I am may not ever be able to do (I miss playing football and running), the dread of cold and wet weather, the  people who don’t believe you really have a problem, the people you think for reasons you can’t articulate don’t believe you, the passing it off as ‘a bad back’, the dread of sleeping somewhere with a bad mattress, the injections, feeling I need to move those chairs because there’s no one else to do it and living with resultant pain for days, the comments like “You’re young to have a back problem”, the well-meaning ham-fisted attempts to help about which you need to be polite, the way it affects intimate aspects of our lives, the taking a long journey at holiday’s beginning and end and living with resultant pain for days, the broken sleep for both of us, the needing to stretch and shift every hour or so … You want more? I could give you more. I typed that list without even thinking, and I could go on. I really could. Along with the relief of discovering we are not alone has come through the “Yes, I have that too” of other sufferers a kind of grieving at grievances foregone. If you need to get on, you don’t have time to mourn. So I’ll be catching up with some of that, I think.

It’s no coincidence that there’s a correlation between this disease and depression. Intense pain and daily fatigue is hard to bear. Trapped in that emotional spiral it’s tempting to ask a common question “Why me?”. “What have I done to have to bear this?”. “Who sinned? Me or my parents?”

As ever, Jesus’s answer isn’t so much an answer as it is a redefinition of the question. He’s whispering a question in my ear. What if, He gently lilts, this is a gift? A gift for being faithful with a few things so you’re being entrusted with much? What if this isn’t a punishment but a calling, asking me to teach with words and deeds and struggles how to seek healing alongside learning to live with what you have? Not that God wishes this on me. Far from it. He wants me to transcend it. To allow Him to show me and others that there’s more to pain than pain, more to a sufferer than a diagnosis, more suffering than just the suffering.

I don’t feel that I’ve been faithful, I can’t see where God may have got the idea that I can drink this cup. I don’t claim much for myself. Bad days can be bad indeed. Many parts of me feel broken and wounded. I’d love the cup to pass from me.

As the prophet sings, however, “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve got to pay”.

In that lament there’s a kind of peace, and a path to healing.

Amen. Let it be to your servant as you will.

The strangest tree in the forest: a South African parable

[Jesus said] … 

Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

(Matthew 13:12-15)

We sit on the roots of an old tree. A tree planted well, but watered and cared for years ago by those to whom the land did not belong, who saw in this tree one that suited their purposes. It grew fast and strong, insistently and irreversibly. It grew wide and high, thick and tall. It grew so that there was plenty of room under its protection. It grew so that those descended from the ones who watered and cared for the tree took the best of the shade. They could sit against the tree’s trunk, lie under the abundant canopy, feeling the sun’s warmth and still able to spread out in the luxury of the wide shadow. Food was shared widely and freely in this space. Wine flowed, children played safely, families multiplied to the sound of laughter and ease.

It was not so for all, though. Those who first lived on the land were not so well accommodated. Some lived on the edge of the shade. Sheltered, but not all day. At the hour of the sun’s fiercest glare they found themselves more in the light than shadow, not able to edge in for this when the happy families of the few would spread out the furthest, snoring off the afternoon’s excess. They could not be wakened. The more those on the edge nudged and shook, shouted and pleaded, the deeper they seemed to doze.

So they tried a different tack. Axes in hand, some of those on the edge headed for the tree’s ancient trunk. Silent and slow at first, with each step they grew more confident and strong. Stride lengthened, speed picked up. As they did so they would catch an elbow or ankle of the ones sleeping. Some of them woke up. When they did different things would happen. Some would fling out a hand to bring the walkers down. Often that would work. Others, roused from slumber would angrily shout at anyone who could hear to watch their step and keep the noise down. Some of the walkers turned back, some lay to sleep, some kept going to the tree’s trunk, axe seemingly somewhat sharper for the interaction. Some who had slumbered rose, found an axe to hand and joined the journey to the centre.

The trunk was immense, twisted in on itself, possessed of a savage habit of ejecting inch long splinters into the ground or the people around. The splinters flew indiscriminately, embedding in grass or flesh, person or beast. When they punctured human skin they did so to those asleep and axe wielding alike.

At first only a few brave souls tried to chip away at the trunk. The splinters seemed drawn to them, as if somehow the wood knew who it was that was assailing it. With so few axe-bearers taking so many wounds, it felt like the tree was growing rather than diminishing.

Still they walked, though. More arrived, small numbers at first, but soon more and more until the air was torn with the sound of metal on wood. More axes meant more splinters; more splinters meant cries of pain as splinters found more targets in the flesh of those surrounding the thick trunk. Some of the axe-bearers were felled such was the rain of splinters, but another and then another and then another would step up to take their place.

By now the noise was cacophonous. Few remained asleep; some were awake but pretended not to be; some could read the signs and made for the shade of another tree; some rushed to help, some tried to work out which way the tree would fall and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Soon the tree started to groan and creek, shake and shout. It teased a few times. Those on the ground grew more fearful but there was no turning back now. Axe swing on axe swing on axe swing until … breathless silence, stillness. The tree, as if suspended for a moment, tipped towards the ground in slow-motion … then clattered earth-wards. Some were taken with the tree, shade dwellers and axe wielders alike. Not so many as you’d have thought, though. To this day it doesn’t seem to make sense that more were not taken.

No sooner was the tree felled than work began. To clear the mess, to burn some wood, to clear some space. The roots and some of the trunk remained. Many chose to work together this time – those who formerly had been forced to lie on the shade’s edge, some newly awake former shade-dwellers, blinking sleep from their eyes. They watered and pruned and admired. The tree was growing fast and quick, admired and cooed-over from neighbours far and wide. This was a tree that those under the shade of others around wanted to see find its new shape.

Something was happening to it, however. It was as if, over the years the roots had got all muddled. Some of them were ancient roots going back years into a scarcely remembered past; some seemed to carry within their fibres the sap of the tree of unequal shade; some roots were young and strong, others young and easily broken. As the tree grew again it did so in strange patterns: parts that seemed to carry the code of the old tree, some seemed malnourished and dying or dead, some young and vital and strong. This was a tree the like of which the forest had not seen before.

Some chose to live under this strange new tree as people had its ancestor: taking up more space than was theirs to take, forcing others to a harsh sun they couldn’t bear. Some were generous and wise and invited those on the outside in. Where these folks were gathered there was laughter and sharing, but friction and dis-ease too. Memories of the old tree ran deep in the veins of all, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.

This tree is tall and beautiful, and is admired. This tree grows and blossoms and is celebrated. Parts are sick, though. Obviously so if you’re close enough; from a distance just a subtle part of the pattern.  The sickness is there all the same. Some sleep, some share. Some water and prune just a branch or two; some help others with troublesome growth.

The tree grows, but many in the shade are not at ease. For some are walking toward’s this tree’s trunk. Some of them carry axes, others watering devices, still more tools of different types. It’s only when those walking reach the tree’s trunk that it becomes apparent to those watching what the walkers are carrying. As they watch them walk, they look to their own hands and realise they too carry something. The items feel easy in their hands, for they are that which they choose to carry, speaking somehow of what’s inside them.

Slowly, gradually, one by one, they turn towards the trunk and walk.

Captain Phillips: Truth, Justice and the American Way

Whisper it quietly, but we may have a masterpiece on our hands. Absurd claim, really, for such status can only be conveyed with the perspective of time. Even so: Captain Phillips is a defining moment for one the better directors at work today and an object lesson in how to entertain and challenge the brain at the same time.

Director Paul Greengrass has form with this sort of thing. The underrated Green Zone and the two best Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum), some of his British TV work and the 9/11 themed United 93. In Captain Phillips he’s on true story territory again, this time with the deceptively simple tale of an American cargo chip, captained by the titular character played by Tom Hanks, which was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Based on Phillips’ own book, there is some controversy over the veracity of the film’s version of events. That’s an important discussion, but perhaps one for another day. For Greengrass has taken the Shakespeare approach to recent history – the use of real-life events as a jumping off point for classy story-telling and the opportunity to tackle bigger themes.

This is a film with less actual ‘action’ than the Bourne movies, but other trademarks remain: close-up shaky hand-held camera work, long scenes of excruciating tension (much like the masterful United 93 in this respect) largely spent waiting for something to (maybe) happen, a remarkable capacity to draw the viewer into the physically enclosed spaces the characters are inhabiting. There’s so much to admire: the performances of both Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (as the lead pirate), the sense of loneliness and desperation as crisis closes in on the unprotected cargo ship and, most significantly, the inter-leaved lives of pirate and cargo ship captains. It’s in this last factor that the film rises to a different level.

In the film’s opening Phillips’ preparations for setting off are cut with telling, short scenes of Somali warlords putting unbearable pressure on desperate locals to get out on the water and find a ship to pirate. As the pirates close on their prey we switch from hunter to hunted with swift cuts; the moment when the pirates burst into the ship’s bridge is fraught with chaos and fear, enhanced by the awareness that this was the moment when the two parties of actors first met each other. A masterstroke. As the crisis draws on, Phillips wonders aloud to his captor “There’s got to be more than kidnapping people”. Silence, then the simple reply “Maybe in America”. Compelled by these three words an emotion bubbles to the surface of the viewers’ consciousness that thus far we’d been dimly aware of but had most likely tried to suppress; that we both fear these pirates, but also feel sympathy for them. There is little choice for them, as at the mercy of their paymasters as Phillips and his crew are at their mercy. As the film’s poster tagline reads, it’s all about survival out here; as much for the gun-brandishing but fearful pirates as the cargo crew. This parallelism continues into the film’s brilliantly acted final minutes as we see the long-term ramifications of the crisis for captor and captured start to take shape; much as there are deeper roots to the events of this film than other directors would show us, so we are also not allowed the easy-out. The ripples will continue to spread for years to come.

So, Captain Phillips is an exceptional film. It challenges the action/thriller’s easy categorisations of heroes and villains; we are given flesh-deep characters with real and full lives; we are drawn in the wider context of politics, global over-fishing and the exploitation of the poor. All that and more – whilst never sacrificing the film’s primary draw card of piano-wire tension which will leave your heart beating over-time twenty-four hours after leaving the cinema. See it, enjoy it and think about it.

I rated this 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 9/10 on imdb.com