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Sensitive truth telling helps heal groups

By Mary Stamp

By fostering open, sensitive, loving truth telling, the Center for Organizational Reform (COR) helps congregations, nonprofits and secular organizations avoid relationships that perpetuate dysfunction, abuse, trauma and confusion, and when these conditions occur, to move to healthy relationships that enable them to fulfill their missions.

COR started at Gonzaga University in 1995 to provide organizational support to people who lead and serve others, particularly in nonprofits.  In 2005, after anger, division and decreased donations because of disclosure of sexual abuse, Catholic Charities Spokane called on COR to help. 

COR set up workshops with Catholic Charities staff and volunteers to find ways to come out of the crisis stronger.

COR  leaders
Nancy Isaacson and Carl Green, COR's leadership

Nancy Isaacson, COR’s executive director, said such dynamics as clergy misconduct, abuse of power and manipulation by laity can create “sanctuary trauma.”

That means people are traumatized when they experience distress in places they go for comfort, help, compassion and justice.  For example, a woman reporting being raped experiences “sanctuary trauma” if police imply she may be responsible or people needing medical care experience it when their insurance refuses a claim.

“In churches, people feel comforted by God’s presence and can experience God’s caring through caring people,” Nancy said.  “For some, however, church is the place they have been traumatized and silenced.” 

Carl Green, director of COR’s Institute for Congregational Leadership and lecturer on interpersonal relationships and group dynamics at Whitworth University since 2005, said that because religious organizations are about compassion, empowerment and justice, “we feel different about a violation there than in the dog-eat-dog world.  The breech of idealism is more traumatic, because people are often in denial when their ideals are undermined.”

Because COR’s consultants believe organizations should be safe places for their members, they are committed to help congregations, nonprofits and other organizations resolve conflict, build trust, renew compassion and restore health.

“People want God to be a part of their ‘meaning-making’ process along with friends and family,” she said. 

“Many churches stay healthy by working hard to do so, but others will deny any problem that appears, a sure prescription for a painful future,” she added.

When an organization chooses not to heal, Nancy said, it risks becoming a “culture of rumor or institutionalized silence”:  Some people form cliques, and then blame and scapegoat others.  People second-guess and distrust each other.  Miscommunication abounds.

Nancy pointed out that individuals, families and groups in congregations may even pass dysfunction generation to generation, leaving the next generations to deal with issues that are even more inflamed.  Assuming they know what’s best for the church, some people are blind to how their behavior affects others.

At a recent national gathering in New Orleans with executive directors, priests, bishops, financial officers and attorneys related to Catholic Charities, Nancy gave the keynote address on COR’s healing work with parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, and other religious organizations in pain after crises.  She also led a workshop there on how “rolling crises” occur, each one building to create a new crisis.

Nancy said COR workshops start by helping people talk about issues in their organization.

Healthy organizations discuss problems openly, care for individuals, talk about how they might work better and act on those ideas.

Such sharing can be a time for confession, a faith tool to move people to redemption, she said.

“In situations like the one faced recently by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, financial and legal issues overwhelm everything else, and people may easily overlook that there are human issues at the center of the experience that require caring, forgiveness and restorative justice,” she said. 

Carl, who served the Northwest District Office of the Church of the Nazarene for 12 years and served as pastor of four churches over 21 years, advises also hearing the voices of public relations, theology and ethics.

While it’s good to know legal repercussions, we must also realize how important caring, loving disclosure and truth telling are to healing.  Covering up creates rolling crises, rationalizing, paranoia, faith crises and people leaving.  If we avoid truth and confession to put the sexual abuse behind us prematurely, its ripples go underground,” he said.

“As media retold details of abuse and continued to dig up things people thought were settled, it furthered people’s reticence to talk, along with requirements of confidentiality on personnel matters,” Carl added.

With pressure men face, Nancy said, it took courage for them to speak.  As their numbers grew, they drew attention.  Beyond that abuse, she knows women also have experienced abuse. 

“It has taken enormous courage for survivors of abuse in all faiths to come forward in the past, both men and women,” she said.  “Abuse of power by authority figures leaves any less powerful person aware it’s her or his word against the powerful person.

COR’s resources promote awareness of boundaries in relationships to prevent abuse of power of any kind.

From listening to story after story, COR consultants have learned to recognize patterns of abuse of power as a few people pursue self-interest at the cost of the common good and just relationships.

“It’s easy to dismiss someone overwhelmed by abuse as difficult, but when other people see someone who complains silenced, they remain silent, too,” she said

“Until enough people speak, it’s hard to build traction,” said Carl. “So we help people discern patterns and connect their own dots to identify systemic issues.  We remind people that if they don’t talk about concerns, abuse of power happens again.”

“Any organization in which power is an issue, people will have a difficult time speaking about it,” she said. “Even if consultants are invited to come in to help, they may become scapegoats, and their help may be rejected.  It’s just to scary for people.”

Organizations seek help when they recognize there are problems, she said.  COR can only help when people in an organization want to be healthy. If any powerful individual or faction blocks help, COR can’t help. 

Eventually, an organization will realize it needs help, because people talk with their pocketbooks and do not stay in or want to sustain an unhealthy organization.

Carl said a church may experience multiple problems before it understands the problems are systemic, not isolated situations.

COR’s work is with both secular and religious organizations, but it has seen an overwhelming increase in invitations from churches and religious organizations in the last few years.  Because churches have few financial resources, COR works on a sliding fee scale.

Many small congregations are stressed trying to pay for health insurance and pastors’ salaries,” Carl said.  “Once a church with 50 members was viable.  Now most focus on survival and hope to find a good pastor.” 

Carl knows there’s more at play.  He left one congregation after five years because of dynamics previous pastors also experienced.  The next pastor left five years later for the same reason—a power player manipulated the church and no one would speak up.

To heal, people need to tell the truth so it’s heard and relationships improve.  Sometimes it takes several people, and sometimes a pastor can be a catalyst, Carl said.

In one church he served, a power player challenged him about a decision the board made the previous evening.  Knowing that she often tried to undermine decisions, he said he could not change the board’s decision, but she could raise her concern at the next board meeting.  She came to the meeting angry.  Other members, who had not seen her like that, lovingly told her that her behavior was inappropriate.

As COR’s facilitators help an organization recognize behaviors that undermine its mission.  As outsiders, they can often ask questions and make comments that insiders can’t.  The outside voice sometimes nudges people to take a different look at their own behavior and what it’s doing to the health of the congregation.

“There is not one right approach.  We always have to adjust to a group’s unique culture,” Nancy said. 

“Christians want to think that if they love Jesus, healthy relationships will just happen.  Sometimes people assume any behavior is okay, but misbehavior and conflict cause things to backfire, so we help identify inappropriate behavior,” she said. 

Carl pointed out that a successful marriage is not one without difficulties, but one in which the couple learn to talk about the difficulties. The same is true for churches, he said.

Nancy reaffirmed: “Churches that address abuse can spend energy more productively.”

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