Why so cynical? Thoughts on church disillusionment

Why so cynical?

I have for the last 10 years or so lived between the worlds of Christians that run institutions and those that given up on them. As more and more institutions die and the ranks of the disaffected grow tension is growing.

Why are people leaving?

I think people get tired of investing in something that doesn’t seem real anymore. At least it seems like the main thing, whatever it is we put on our mission statement or on the wall or whatever, isn’t really the main thing. Pastors get tired of preaching sermons to people who so rarely seem to learn or change. Volunteers get tired of plugging holes in a program. The more the church or organization is driven by self-preservation, the more contrast there is between the inside story and the public story, the more people are motivated by obligation or hype, more unreal the experience becomes. There is a tension that grows inside more and more until we just can’t keep supporting it anymore.

It has happened to me a couple of times. Now lots of people have come to blame the “system.” Lots of thoughtful people have explored the ways we shape our systems end up shaping us in return. The medium is the message and all that. Those are worthwhile topics to engage in.

The bigger issue is really trust. It isn’t just the system we don’t trust, it is the people in it. Sometimes it is the people in charge, sometimes it is the people who think they are in charge. Even if we change the system we are still faced with issues of integrity and accountability. Having a hierarchical structure or some kind of board doesn’t mean any real accountability is occurring.

We can point to national scandals but the real killers are little scandals. Every little squabble swept under the rug. Every firing that comes out looking like a mutual decision. The awkward silence when another person leaves and won’t say why.

Every organization has a culture and in some cultures there are things you just can’t question, but sometimes they are the very things that need to be questioned. It is a dangerous thing when an organization celebrates and trumpets every morsel of positive feedback and quietly rights off each critical comment because those critics obviously don’t get it.

How do we get back to the place where we are willing engage with each other and build something again? We need to become trustworthy. We need to become faithful. We need to earn back trust by walking sincerely, transparently, and selflessly. Christian leadership has evolved in to management techniques, strategy, and influence with only lip service to integrity and virtue. Christ needs to become preeminent in the church.

But I have this against you: that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the works you did at first. But if you do not, I am coming to you, and I will remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

(Rev 2:4-5 LEB)

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Tony Jones, Julie McMahon and the truth

Having personally walked with and supported people that have been abused in various ways I find the whole story unsettling.  The closest thing to a summary I could find is here at DiagnosingEmergent.wordpress.com.  In short Tony Jones was a recognized major voice in the Emergent movement/conversation and he divorced his wife accusing her of mental instability.  His wife accused him of being abusive, and there are several public documents that verify at least some elements of her story.  Tony Jones and his supporters have accused Julie of making false accusations and claim evidence to back their claims.

Lots of people have weighed in on this issue that are much closer to it so I’m going to avoid trying to figure out that situation.

My experience with abusive situations gives me a grid to process situations like this.

In my all my experiences with abuse situations emotions always twist the perceptions and communication.  We are all skewed by our biases, both the abuser and the abused.  That however doesn’t mean there isn’t truth underneath it all.  For example there may be 5 indisputable events of abuse but the victim sees malicious intent in situations where there was none.  In desperation the victim might exaggerate the severity of the event in order to win people to his or her side.  They may engage in their own malicious behavior and act dishonestly.

There is a mix of truth and untruth in everyone single one of these situations.

If the victim is even the slightest bit unstable the abuser will use that to convince others that all of his or her claims are false.    It is a typical tactic.  When our friends tell us they are being attacked and have proof that at least some of it is unfair we have a tendency to defend our friends without even considering if any of the accusations are true.

When our friends are accused of being abusive we have a personal motivation not to believe the accusations.  We don’t even want to consider the possibility anything that would infer that we’ve been deceived as well.  We all have powerful internal motivations that guide our perceptions.  Jesus talks a lot about having ears to hear and how the light is the lamp of the body.  We often think that the great hinge in discipleship is using our will to act according to a certain behavior, but one step deeper than that is ensuring that we see things correctly, that our own selfish desires don’t cloud our judgment.

Abusive church leaders can be very, very convincing.  Self-professed victims can be just as convincing as well.  All lot of broken people are master manipulators.  They know how to appeal to our values, sensitivities and triggers.  They can convince even their closest friends.

When I hear a story like this I find it is important not to come to rash conclusions, to be diligent in understanding both sides, look at the evidence and consider the weight of each piece of evidence.

One confirmed fact in this is Tony Jones has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  I don’t know the details behind this, how much treatment has been sought, or how much therapy has been successful, but to get diagnosed with any type of personality disorder means there was significant dysfunction at the time of diagnosis.  People do get therapy and get better, and that might describe who Tony is today.  If anyone is so dysfunctional that a qualified professional would diagnose them them with a personality disorder they shouldn’t be in ministry leadership.

Why?  Because leaders are there to serve people, and if they have a serious dysfunction that inevitably results in more people being hurt, that defeats the purpose of leadership.  In Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats the difference between them was the sheep cared for people who could do nothing for them.  The goats did lots of things in Christ’s name but they didn’t care for the people who could do nothing for them.

Paul wrote the following to Timothy : “So an elder must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? An elder must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.”

(1Ti 3:2-7 NLT)

It is time we held our leaders to a higher standard.  If we don’t want to see the church’s dirty laundry aired to the world, than perhaps we should clean our laundry before it gets to that point.  We aren’t doing our friends and leaders any favours by ignoring serious character deficiencies.  If we are covering for a dysfunctional leader in hopes of preserving the reputation of the ministry then we have the wrong priorities.

I don’t know how to make sense of the situation between Tony and Julie, because I am not equipped to figure much out from where I am.  The better question for the rest of us is how can we avoid this stuff from happening in our own communities?  Do we have effective accountability mechanism?  If we had an abusive leader would we be able to figure that out and deal with it?  If people were spreading malicious lies about church leaders how would respond to it?

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What are the factors behind Bethany’s closing?

There are a lot questions, confusion, sadness and even anger over Bethany’s announced closure. I’m going to do my best to say what is appropriate at this time. It is easier to talk about what happened than why it happened because some of those issues are a matter of interpretation.

The two really obvious factors are the number of first year students enrolled this year and debt.

There were only 24 new students this year. Assuming normal levels of retention in to the second year there would be a very small group of 2nd years next year. Project that one year further you really don’t have enough students to make up a class in the 3rd and 4th years.

Why did Bethany have so few students? The most accurate answers lies in the hearts and minds of parents and youth. Without professional level market research it would difficult to determine which factors are the strongest. Here are all the factors that I’ve seen people suggest.

Demographic trends – Bethany’s traditional student came from a rural back ground and families have been migrating to cities for decades.

Church youth engagement – there is a growing trend of youth leaving the church after highschool. If they aren’t interested in church, they are less likely to be interested in bible school.

Cost – The student fees to enroll one year at Bethany and live in residence went from $4500 / year in 1995 when I attended to $15,000 / year today. The cost of other post-secondary education has gone up as well making it more difficult for a student to do both.

Shifting attitudes – young people are more interested in life experience than academics.

Compelling alternatives – Other programs geared at young adults that involve missions, service or were located in more exotic locations were more attractive to some students. Millar college has remained very strong and even started a new campus and appealed to a more conservative demographic.

Accreditation – Some people I’ve talked to suggested accreditation raised costs, and impaired the schools ability to be devoted to scripture and put too many parameters on their programming.

As a close observer of the school I’d say most of these assumptions about the negative impacts of accreditation are exaggerated. Accreditation did modestly raise costs and it did require Bethany to operate to certain standards, but it definitely didn’t impact the school’s devotion to the bible. If accreditation is a significant factor it was how it changed people’s perception of the school. Accreditation did function as worthwhile accountability mechanism, but it never did deliver the hoped for levels of transferability of credits to universities.

According to CRA’s reports found here Bethany had 1.1 million dollars in liabilities at the end of 2012/2013 school year. The numbers for the last school are not posted publicly.

According to the CRA Bethany had $170,000 in liabilities in 2007 and added about million dollars to that amount in 6 years.

I imagine lots of people would wonder how Bethany accumulated so much debt in such a short amount of time. As an outside observer I can only point to the numbers publicly available at the CRA’s website. Those numbers don’t explain the debt levels as the yearly operating budgets were for the most part balanced. I can only guess but the one obvious explanation is the school borrowed money for capital projects and simply didn’t pay it off.

I plotted out the last ten years from numbers publicly available at the CRA. Some noteworthy tidbits:

2010-2012 had record levels of fundraising.
2011-2012 had record levels of revenue.
From 2010-2013 there were significant increases in revenue from student fees while enrollment was declining.
From 2008 to 2012 staff expenditures went from $1.15 million to $1.5 million.
Overall expenditures dropped significantly in 2010 but jumped back up in 2011 and 2012.

In 2013 there was a reduction in expenditures but also a perilous drop in fundraising revenue.

Scale 1  = 1000
Year Charitable Giving Church Giving Fundraising Costs Net Fundraising Revenue from Student Fees Total Revenue Expenditures Rev-Exp Liabilities (Debt) Staffing Expenditures
2013 330 154 298 186 1677 2208 2303 -95 1117 1326
2012 726 194 329 591 1511 2506 2400 106 845 1495
2011 813 204 240 777 1300 2378 2314 64 748 1343
2010 622 207 233 596 1250 2128 2142 -14 754 1222
2009 516 212 254 474 1455 2234 2365 -131 682 1167
2008 416 246 200 462 1536 2295 2336 -41 520 1226
2007 354 246 182 418 1538 2277 2250 27 178 1219
2006 298 251 175 374 1365 2068 2012 56 300 1088
2005 296 202 156 342 1332 1955 1966 -11 243 1052
2004 316 208 116 408 1493 2139 2067 72 270 1048
2003 399 170 51 518 1308 1994 1872 122 160 954

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Logos Mobile Education

I’m a big fan of Logos bible software. It is more than just a bible program. It is a whole library and learning system. Now they have introduced courses that actually integrate with the software. The courses aren’t free, unlike Khan Academy or the stuff available through coursera, but they are a lot cheaper than a bible college/seminary course. The whole idea intrigues me but I think it falls short in couple ways.

In a typical formal course there is about 30-35 hours of classroom time. Most of the logos mobile ed courses only have 4-7 hours of video instruction. That is a lot less than a formal course, even though professors usually don’t lecture the entire time. There is usually group work and discussion in a class but 4 hours of video instruction for a course seems a little light.

There are no assignments, quizzes, or a mechanism to test knowledge.

You are also stuck with the particular theological bent of the online professor. I’d be hestant to embrace professors from certain theological camps.

I can see this being worthwhile if a church bought it and made a little online learning center in their building. That way more than one person could take the course. At that point it becomes much more worthwhile for the money. I think however, that Logos can do better by incorporating more elements being pioneered in Massive Online Open Courses.

However for people who don’t have the flexbility to leave their homes or jobs to go somewhere to learn, or those already in ministry and just want to continue their education it might be the best thing out there. Seminaries haven’t embraced massive online open courses like the universities have.

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My new website on Organic Church

Here is a link to my writings on organic church. I’ve been part of organic churches for over 10 years and am part of a network in Saskatchewan, Canada. It’s book length, but organized like Wikipedia. You can digest the 20 page version or click the links to see deeper stuff on particular subjects. It isn’t intended to be comprehensive, it is my contribution to the conversation.

LT.organicchurch.ca

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How being nice and loving can be two different things

I was once at a conference talking about how loving one another is the most important ministry we have to each other. It is a value I hold to firmly. Once someone objected to this saying we can’t just be loving all the time, that sometimes we have to be tough and be prepared to hurt a few feelings. In a sense I didn’t disagree, I just don’t see how it is inconsistent to love someone and be tough with them. Loving someone means be tough after other options have failed, and especially when other people are being hurt. It also means telling people when they are wrong.

The nice thing to do is to let stuff slide. When a mistake is just a mistake letting stuff slide is a loving and merciful thing to do. Being and nice and loving often overlap. However when a mistake has substantial negative consequences letting it slide is a very unloving thing to do. It is short sighted thinking. Sweeping things under the rug avoids the potential hurt from a confrontation now but it increases the risk of much more hurt later. Integrity calls us to think not just of ourselves and the person we might need to challenge but all the people connected with a situation.

When a culture of niceness becomes deeply embedded in a community conflict starts to leak out in less direct ways. Direct conflict is replaced with passive aggressive actions. When people share concerns they are vague and generalized making it truly difficult to find out what exactly is going on. I was part of one community where half of all issues raised were “communication” problems. I was given the task of finding a technological solution to the “communication” problems. When I set out to discover the real world examples I found that people just weren’t doing their jobs. It is nicer to generalize things as a communication issue. Needless to say, nothing I could think of would have solved the problem.

Another terrible symptom of the niceness culture is over sensitization. People know full well that no one will directly challenge them, so they are on high alert for any decision or comment that just might be veiled criticism or a veiled attack on them. People who tend to speak and act passive aggressively often believe everyone else operates as they do. Heaven help the poor schlep who actually speaks his mind directly and over sensitive people everywhere start to freak out. I’ve found myself in that situation. I tend to mean what I say, and say what I mean. If I’m going to be critical, I’ll be critical and say exactly what I mean. That doesn’t stop people from dragging me kicking in to crazy town.

When a niceness culture dominates it undermines any semblance of accountability and left unchecked it can kill an organization or a community. There is no real accountability when everyone is afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. Without accountability small problems become big problems. People are left in dysfunctional patterns and leave a trail of wounded souls in their wake.

When it comes down to it the culture of niceness isn’t very nice at all.

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The original contemporary worship song!

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Bethany Memories

Something terrific happens when you connect with terrific people.  At Bethany I connected with lots of great people, and many are my friends on facebook.

Here are some of the memorable ones for me:

Harry Unger:

Harry was the maintenance guy.  He was always great to chat with and he had lots of patience for the absurdities of taking care of a men’s residence.  It was during my second stint at the college in 2001 where he really blessed my socks off.  I asked that he be my “mentor” and while there was no formal arranged time we chatted lots throughout that year.  We watched 9/11 together and I observed how it seemed to profoundly impact him.  He spoke about how God wants to “jet” in to our lives.  About how God wants us to be “terrorists for love” and his perception of God’s love and grace was like a huge hose flooding a plain. He kept saying “grace” and “waste” that God’s love is so overflowing it just soaks through everything.  He had a connection with God that he struggled to articulate with words.

Doug Heidebrecht:

Doug was one of my mentors during my internship year at the school.  His hermeneutics course was one of the most influential, if not the most influential formal course I’d ever taken in my whole life.  I took the class with some great guys, and we were thoroughly challenged.  Doug is passionate about the scriptures and if you see his formal writing, passionate about footnotes.  I got to work with him for some time after I graduated and got to connect with him as he led study conferences across the country on women in ministry.  He was pivotal in leading the MB Conference through this issue and I believe to a more biblical position on the subject.

Rick Schellenberg:

One of the most powerful memories I have of Rick is in my second year.  We were in a van heading somewhere for a leadership retreat and we talked about my serious failings in my relationship with a girl in the first year.  He was good for me, gracious and wise.  He was the spiritual heartbeat of the school for many years.  There was another situation when he was president that totally impressed me.  He risked a lot to speak in to a very volatile situation that could have easily turned sour on the college.  His efforts made a huge difference and that situation was eventually resolved.

Rob Neufeld:

Rob was just plain terrific at his job.  As the director of finance he was the supervisor of my department.  He was fantastic to work with and very competently handled the school’s finances.  He also amped up his morning devotions with espresso, so he was always bright and cheery at 7:15 AM for the car pool out to the college.  Rob brought level headed perspective and a confident faith. He was one of those people who brought so much more than the job description required.

Gil Dueck:

Gil came onboard after I graduated.  Besides cheering for the right hockey team, he brought intelligence, passion, and a devotion to quality theology.  Sadly I never had him as a teacher, but based on what other people said about him, he was certainly among the best Bethany had in the decades I was connected to the school.  While I was at Bethany Gil blessed me with lots of great conversations and supported me through the same volatile situation Rick did.

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Religion is…

Religion is what we do to earn something that in fact we’ve already been given.

Baxter Kruger

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The first casualty of religious obligation

The first casualty of religious obligation is the truth, at least any semblance of sincerity in the truth.  The communities I’ve thrived in are communities of sincerity.  The relationships that give life are ones where reality doesn’t have be sanitized.

In an empire of lies telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

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