One expert who has helped me think more clearly about abuse in the church is Dr. Wade Mullen.
At the 2023 RESTORE talk, he gave this talk on “Responding well to a scandal”:
Here are some of my notes:
What is a crisis? Dr. Mullen’s definition:
The components of a crisis:
- An unexpected event
- High impact on numerous people
- Loss of control
- The potential for additional losses, conflicts, abuses
Crises become scandals when they involve “reports of leadership failure, misconduct, or abuse that undermines public trust.”
He then explains what to avoid, what to do well, and how to engage in restorative work.
Fundamentally, how we respond to a scandal comes down to character.
There are two basic paths he sees:
- Adopt truth-telling and transparency, regardless of the impact on one’s legitimacy, status, or image; or
- Use impression management and public relation strategies intended to portray and protect legitimacy, status, and a positive image.
This raises the question: what is an impression management strategy?
Dr. Mullen defines this as:
The process by which individuals or organizations attempt to control the image others form of them, usually in order to be seen in a positive light, especially when a reputation or legitimacy is threatened. And research studies indicate that impression management is the predominant focus of organizations and their leaders in the wake of a crisis. Strategic omissions, non-disclosures, ambiguous statements, half-truths, preventing discovery, not allowing people to ask questions, not cooperating with an assessment or an investigation, making misrepresentations, and a host of other communication techniques are often difficult to identify because they tend to be shy of outright lies, and because the audience typically doesn’t have access to all of the information to be able to test what is being said.
What’s the objective? “To control the behavior of others… it’s easier to control people when you can define reality for them or keep them confused.”
So, what are the ways that impression management works?
Tactic: Non-disclosure agreements
They’re a tool used to “secure silence.” It’s easier for the organization to define the narrative by silencing some observers.
He finds that over time, in some organizations, image management becomes the framework by which crises are handled.
In this context, there are two kinds of dark secrets:
- The secret of the wrong itself
- The bigger secret - that such kinds of secrets even exist
Tactic: “Create inner circles”
Leaders that prioritize their image not only learn what strategies to use to maintain appearances, but they also tend to become more insular and fortressed by only [giving] power to those with close relational ties - those who will remain loyal and keep one another’s secrets.
Tactic: “Centralization of power”
A crisis tends to strengthen the hierarchical structure of an organization and increase the power differential between leaders and followers. Followers typically become less powerful and the leaders become more powerful.
Over time, these tactics become a “pattern” and a “cycle,” “widening the gap between what is presented to an audience and what is actually true.”
By talking about themselves, it distracts the focus from the crisis.
He quotes Erving Goffman:
The more there is about the individual that deviates in an undesirable direction from what might have been expected to be true of him, the more he is obliged to volunteer information about himself, even though the cost to him of candor may have increased proportionally.
What is hypocrisy? “Wanting to be seen as good without meeting the demands of goodness.” He then provides examples of what this looks like.
What motivates image management?
- When “a threat to the image of the organization becomes a threat to the identity of the leader.”
At its extreme, this is narcissism.
The antidote? Tell the truth. Acknowledge limitations and failures. Even if others see us as “weak or inadequate.”
- When an organization believes it has “become too big to fail.”
At this point in the talk, I got a bit discouraged. All of these points were a perfect description of how RZIM handled the scandal regarding Ravi.
Thankfully, Wade then turned his attention to providing a solution!
What’s a better response?
Most important: “The first principle… surrender the desire to manage impressions and defend your image. When you do that, it frees you to center the needs of victim-survivors, and it frees you from this prison of deception that we can so easily get ourselves into when we prioritize our image and reputation.”
Interestingly, he provides a list of questions.
Question: “Who is impacted, and how?”
Then respond with love.
Here’s how he defines love (from a talk he heard): “Willing self-sacrifice for the good of another that does not require being loved in return or that the other person is demanding of that love.”
Because love is required, a good response to a crisis “is going to cost you something.”
Question: “What do we have to do to alleviate the suffering and cause healing?”
This doesn’t happen when leaders ask, “What would happen to us if we helped them?”
Wade illustrates this point from a talk by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Levite asks: if I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?
The Samaritan asks: If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?
Leaders can avoid entering the suffering in a variety of ways.
Wade discusses in detail half-hearted apologies (“if mistakes were made…”) and wrongly defining a situation (e.g. verbal abuse called miscommunication).
Principle: Robust policies, procedures, and training
One objection: “We don’t want to policy ourselves to death.”
He usually hears this from people who lack good policies. And this approach puts the most vulnerable at greater risk.
Principle: Establish access to resources and experts
When a crisis occurs, you know where to get outside counsel.
Internally, this looks like developing an interdisciplinary response team.
“What you take into a crisis is what you will have with you during a crisis.”
This helps navigate nuances, complexity, and change in a crisis.
The first habit is updating or openness: safe mechanisms for new information to come to light.
The second habit is flexibility: continually test and revise interpretations and decisions on existing information and as new information comes to light.
The risk of not having wise habits?
Overconfidence and overcautious are two extremes. Dr. Mullen illustrates these with many examples.
The result of not practicing wisdom: Poor decisions, regrets, and even despair.
The benefit of choosing wisdom? Being a gift to others in a difficult situation.
Principle: Speak truth in love
This could include how we speak in many situations - confessions, explanations, and answers.
It requires we surrender our defenses and demonstrating empathy.
It’s also the pathway to confront people: gentle, specific, and an invitation to a redemptive process of accountability and repair.
Principle: Repair and Renew
This includes a willing offer of generous restitution.
You can even ask: What is it that you need?
Try to do whatever the other person asks.
Though these notes are very comprehensive, they don’t capture all of the insight that Dr. Mullen shares - nor the gentle way he presents it.
This is an outstanding resource for ministry leadership teams to watch together and then discuss.
Imagine if every church understood and practiced these principles!