In ONMB Blog

Blog Post: Chapter 3, “How Toxic Church Cultures Respond to Criticism”

When an allegation arises against a pastor, a leader, or a volunteer within a church, what the pastor or leadership does first will reveal the culture of the church – whether it is toxic or tov. If the response is confession and repentance, or a commitment to finding the truth if all facts are not yet known, that church probably has a healthy, tov culture. On the other hand, if the pastor’s first instinct is denial, some form of story or narrative about “what really happened,” or a defensive posture against “those who would attack our church or ministry,” there are toxic elements at work within that church’s culture. (p. 41)

How does honesty feel? How do we sense when words are truth? The above quote is very clear;

  1. On one side ‘confession, repentance, find the truth’;
  2. On the other side, ‘denial’, ‘this is what really happened,’ or ‘they are out get us.’

Knowing and understanding these dynamics and applying them to a known situation will provide some very clear guidelines for thought and analysis in the cognitive section of our brain and will be very helpful in searching for the truth of a given situation.

What if the situation is not so clear? Or if there are personal allegiances that ‘muddy’ the thinking process? How to determine then what the truth is?

On page 53, the authors describe the responses of the ‘people in the pews’ to lies and half truths a defensive pastor will use: 1. ‘What’s he hiding?’ 2. ‘What’s the full story?’ and 3. ‘What’s really going on with this guy behind closed doors?’ The Polyvagal theory can guide us in understanding what is happening in our internal and external world. Our bodies and emotions, as well as our thinking processes are always giving us information. I give credit to Deb Dana, LCSW and her work in the Polyvagal ‘Science of Safety’ material for the following questions. As one of the ‘people in the pews’, what is your nervous system telling you?

  1. Do you feel safe and secure in your church? Do you feel connected to those around you and especially to your leaders?
  2. Are you feeling alarmed and anxious inside? Is there a sense of hypervigilance?
  3. Do you feel lost, abandoned, invisible? Are you going through the ‘proper’ motions without a sense of awareness?

Notice and pay attention to how you answer these questions in relation to a church that responds to criticism in an unhealthy manner, or perhaps in relation to the church you are currently attending.

Now, carefully and thoughtfully read Jim Van Yperen’s seven step process “for public communication about sexual sin in the church (whether it is a sinner’s public confession or leadership making a public statement).” As I read these questions, I sense a quest for the truth, for transparency, openness, vulnerability, and justice. What do you sense?

As you have read Jim Van Yperen’s process, carefully and thoughtfully ask yourself the above three questions. Compare your thoughts, feelings, and the reactions inside as you ask yourself the same questions in relation to the church that is hiding behind religious words, and the seven steps that lead to reconciliation.

Each one of us is created in the image of God. We have thoughts and feelings that inhabit a body and work together to help us navigate our world. Pay attention to not only your thoughts, but also your emotions and how they show up inside of you. With wise counsel, biblical understanding, and emotional maturity you can more easily become aware of a culture that is toxic.

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

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