In ONMB Blog

Blog Post: Chapter 2, “Early Warning Signs of a Toxic Culture”

At the end of chapter two, the authors quote Jill Monaco describing her journey out of fear, then ask a question:

Seeing fear used to control and silence people grieves us. This is as far from the tov way of Jesus as one can get. What can you do if you begin to recognize the warning signs of a toxic church culture?

In this blog, I hope to describe how we can begin to recognize when the context, choice, and connections in a church culture are unsafe.

We ‘know’ on two levels: 1. Cognition and 2. Emotions/Feelings. Thoughts and words are generally simpler to access; emotions/inner responses/feelings to situations not so easily accessible. The inner response/feelings via our nervous system grants us access to cues of safety and cues of danger. It is easy to dismiss cues of danger with our thoughts. However, it is important to notice both thoughts and feelings and pay attention to what they are telling us. For example: ‘I have a gut feeling about this.’ or ‘This feels so heavy.’ I invite you into a small experiment of sensing of ‘what is happening inside’ as I list a few words. Think of the leaders in your church, one at a time. As you read through the following words, I invite you to pay attention to the ‘sensing’ part of your nervous system. Put words to the feelings, try to refrain from analyzing them and merely be aware of what your nervous system is telling you.

Are you sensing cues of danger or cues of safety?

  1. Integrity
  2. Authenticity
  3. Servant Leader
  4. Genuine

How does this relate to knowing if a church is beginning to enter a toxic culture? Think again of context, choice and connection using cues of safety and danger. For instance, have you ever noticed someone smile, but the smile felt ‘off’; perhaps you noticed a subtle anger underlying the smile, or the eyes looked hard. This is a cue of danger and is sensed internally. If you see this smile from a leader in a church, your thoughts may be dismissing the danger cue because a leader of a church is expected to be trustworthy. And so, the cue of danger is not taken seriously.

One of the basic understandings of the Polyvagal Theory is Neuroception. Deb Dana, LCSW, a clinician and consultant specializing in working with trauma describes it: “Neuroception describes how the nervous system takes in information below the level of our conscious awareness via three pathways: inside our body, outside our body, and in-between our body systems.” It is our body’s ‘warning system’ and is ‘felt’ in various ways inside of us that we often ignore. The above example of noticing a smile that ‘feels off’ is an example of neuroception.

Notice the subtle reactions inside and pay attention to them, especially in relation to the leaders of our churches. The subtle reactions need to be discerned. Perhaps certain movements of your leader remind you of a teacher who was cruel to you in Grade four – OR – perhaps the leader of the church is not genuinely what he or she portrays. Be aware and very prayerful about what is truly happening inside of you and in your surroundings.

On a cognitive level: There will never be the ‘perfect’ church or the ‘perfect’ leader. Look for servant leaders; do a Biblical study on Jesus as servant leader. What qualities of servant leadership does Jesus portray? Do your church leaders present authentically and consistently as a servant leader? Think of Matt. 7:20 “By their fruits you will know them.” What do you notice about the fruits of the Spirit in your leaders? What fruits are consistently displayed at home, at work and at play by your leaders?

Blog Post from Dianne Loerchner, Registered Psychotherapist and Elder at Kingsfield Zurich Mennonite Church

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