by Dr. Steven G. Minor
Church Politics Administrator
The transition to this stage is so subtle that most will never see it happen. Watch for the pronouns for they are the clues heralding the arrival of this next phase — when the issues take on a second person slant. It’s not just finding a solution to this, but now it’s getting “Old Hard Head” to see the problem in the right light, which of course is your light. Little digs find their way into the discussions, and after a while you begin to see that the original subject is not getting all the attention it needs. What may have been an exciting enterprise to discover new ways of doing church now begins to stall with second thoughts about those who are disagreeing, those with personal power issues in the old system.
Conversation will start to spin topics of who is right and who is wrong, mostly about the other people who are naturally wrong. Diversity is dying fast and tolerance is becoming strained. Frustrations arise and territory markers suddenly materialize. Some moments of walking on egg shells occur and the process has begun to take on appearances of “dispute” instead of “discussion.” Constructive inputs of healthy options are now greeted with rolled eyes and groans. Resistance is the operative spirit now.
Constructive interactions are just not happening anymore and people are starting to take things personal; wearing their feelings on their sleeves. Participants are in emotional overload and need to back off. Their minds cannot tolerate any more and their most favored preferences are starting to fade into the background. Do not pursue any more options – you must urgently pursue a course of mediation before it is too late.
Suggestions become landmines, with the other positions just waiting to be offended. Given enough time, they won’t even need to be directly offended; they will take points to that level all on their own. They are so locked in to their own narrow perspectives that egos are starting to connect to options. The random thoughts and comments are now personal.
Redirect this dysfunctional state to better levels or your church will continue stumbling into the direct path to official conflict. Relationships will deteriorate fast to superficial levels at best, but alienation has begun. The disagreements are becoming skirmishes paving the way for battles, but you will not be able to see this if you have been there all along. The change is so subtle that you will adjust right along with it. That’s why a fresh mind is necessary, someone who can step into your initial gridlocks and point out better options.
Your group needs to lighten up! Your best gift is humor. The participants are getting too serious and connected to their own preferences and losing patience with anything else. Back up the egos and guide them to stop taking themselves so serious.
What initiated the contention is beginning to drift away. Pride is taking over and moving all involved to up the ante and the conflict is taking on its own agenda. Resolving the original problem is losing priority since now the problem is forming a clear attachment to people, the ones disagreeing with me. They are the problem now, instead of the original issues.
Leadership is wise to focus on behavior interactions. Relations are stressing out and reaching their breaking points. The tide is turning and intervention is needed at this precise stage before it goes any further! Mend the friendships! Be the Peacemaker that calls everyone back to their mutual interests and guide them back into their healthier and more pleasing common ground. They were once cooperating, so that relationship is possible. The conflict is moving beyond the issues, the alert leader will roll with this development and address the remedies where the estranged people have gone. The original issue will no longer be tenable at this point, the audience has moved to another venue. Before they slide away into hostility, persuade their common ground and goals to draw them back to the same table. The transition does not have to be all negative. They have taken only a few steps over the gray line of civil behavior; nothing habitual or intractable has happened yet. Depending upon the quality and courage of leadership the outcome can become very positive. The urgency of intervention will be demonstrated if the disagreements escalate into the later stages of outright conflict.
Progression of Pronouns
1) That and Those
The attention is brought to things seeking clarification. The atmosphere is alive and healthy inviting the exchange of ideas and perspectives seeking a solution to an arrived challenge. The presence of an objective encourages everyone to proceed together with cooperation being its own reward at times as the group learns energy/strength from its unity.
2) They and Them
The skilled facilitator is wise to look for expressions that have a slight straying from the immediate topic, shifting to questions of where the parts of the group stand on the issue. Inquiries may be a healthy process of how the group is progressing or regressing and where individual preferences may have moved to positions. This can be healthy providing the spirit remains positive. Look for any efforts of humor which would reveal an attempt toward compliant reconciliation, even though they not know how to get there. The normal human does not want to slide any further into uncomfortable alienation and conflict. It requires anger with a lessening rational influence and rage to proceed any further.
However, the atmosphere may provide your first clue that a negative facet just emerged. The enquiry prefaced with a “they,” just might have another agenda of separation; and that is toxic. One might even accidentally slip their personal or selfish issues in that matter and use an unworthy method to satisfy their ego instead of satisfying the group quest.
The facilitator must make the judgment call. Like a baseball umpire, was that a strike or a ball? Caught in its earliest state it is no more than missing the strike zone and all participants can readjust themselves back to the task. If you must error, error on the side of a strike or else you risk stifling the group’s progress and fluidity. But repeated comments out of the zone must be brought to everyone’s attention, not with a menacing spotlight but with a well-timed comment reminding the group of where the strike zone resides – maintain healthy boundaries of discussion.
3) You and Your
Pay close attention when these terms arise because they are your first danger signals that something has just took a bad turn. Someone’s individual ego just emerged and they are expressing self-interest instead of positive solution. The healthy, united task just allowed pride to infect/pollute their synergy. A personal disagreement shows its ugly head and gentle intervention is the necessary task of a skilled facilitator. Alter the tone back to the challenge at hand. A gentle request for further information may be enough to halt the digression, but be prepared for all sorts of submerged issues to emerge. Try the best you can but like a seasoned attorney anticipate the answer before asking the question.
The facilitator needs to assert themselves more aggressively now, perhaps even calling a foul. The “You” statement may have an acceptable agenda when formed as a question and seeking clarification, but if an over-generalization attaches itself, such as “You always” or “You never,” get into the fray as though a rugby match is ready to evolve. Whether they realize or not they are knocking on the next stage of escalation, aligning “Sides.”
Ironically, the dysfunctional interactions switch the reference when it reaches actual conflict. Before, the references have moved toward the other person disagreeing, but now the reference switches course away from the other person. Whereas before the reference gained friction as they moved closer to focusing upon someone, but now the reference seeks to depersonalize the other. Instead of “You” it now becomes a reference of role or stereotype, from Pastor Joe to “Preacher,” with a dismal tone of pronunciation.
Waffling “Sides” have probably been unconsciously drawn already and offended parts are preparing for more. The speaker is trying to downgrade their unique value and setting themselves up for a target for displaced anger and abuse. This move can be lethal and its potential danger requires attention. Do not allow it to pass by as benign.
If you are Pastor Joe and antagonists are referring you as an office or position, reassert your humanness. Do not let the depersonalizing references have any room in discussions, even forcefully intervene and remind them of your name. Ask those on your side to reinsert your name into all discussions. Block the devaluing or pay the cost. If they can see you as a ‘thing’ or mere ‘animal,’ they can then abuse you without regard of guilt.
Again, discern the atmosphere. If other agendas are suspected and even asserted, intervene for your life. You must not allow people with bad intentions to have control. Jesus never allowed his antagonists to control discussions because these were usually traps. How did he always respond? By side-stepping the question and returning a question back to them (see the “Confrontation Narratives” of Matthew 21-23). Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? Answer no and be a rebel. Answer yes and be labeled a traitor to your heritage. An answer according to their control would have convicted and destroyed him. So you must resist following the foils of those with other agendas. As Napoleon Bonaparte emphasized, “Never allow your enemy to choose the battlefield.” It may not seem natural to rudely sidestep questions and change the conversation, but practice. Your accusers hold not such ethics of consideration. Find your backbone and engage the devious assault.
As with Jesus, try returning questions to the questions. Derail their plan and deny their unworthy control. A more noble question would be, “How does this bring us to a healthy consortium of our responsibilities to God?” Even the foundational question, “what would Jesus do?’ may redirect things toward a healthier playing field. And remember the answer to “What would Jesus do?” sometimes might lead to joining together leather straps to make a whip and head for those tables getting toppled in a hurry. Jesus was not always some weak-willed nice guy, especially when there was business needing tending to.
And, by the way, never underestimate the convicting power of Jesus’ name. Keep Jesus in the same target viewer and keep the hostiles nervous and off guard harming their frail alliances they try to form with others of dark intentions. Try this with a pesky telemarketer. Just mention Jesus and often that conversation begins a search for an end. Whether you sound like a lunatic or a guru, that conversation does not want to go into that territory. Either way, you can get back to a peaceful, uninterrupted dinner.
The prime motivation for the failure to allow others to hold their own thoughts comes down to the poor strategy of “projection.” Candace Benyei defines projection as,
“The process of playing the image of an emotion, or of an inner self-representation (much like projecting a movie picture), onto another person and imagining that the picture is them, instead of part of oneself. For instance, I might project my anger onto another and imagine that they are angry, not me.”
(Candace Benyei and Harold G. Koenig, “Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power,” Routledge, 1998)
One resorts to projection when they are too lazy or fearful to allow others to maintain their own human uniqueness. Simply placing all people within predefined categories makes life so much easier. Instead of requiring time and mental energy to properly understand situations, just place them where we want them to keep our small universe under control. When the antagonists have a doubtful level limited intelligence in the first place, which they often do, this method is performed as experienced skill! It keeps their shallow reality safe and predictable.
Narcissism fuels the behavior. They merely interpret the world according to their own self-focused issues. Their personal agenda determines reality. If they feel a certain manner then surely the rest of the world would feel the same. The Golden Rule becomes the mantra though with a slight twist of “Let others do as I so desire them to do.” The universe is safe and predictable, but at the sacrifice of what others may need, especially one victimized by the politics of conflict.
As with any untended problem the perception will magnify beyond the actual situation. As William James clarifies, “Belief creates the actual fact.” The more time allowed the problem without remedy the more it will grow. Count on it! When problems abide without being addressed they gain momentum by the hour. What is at first small and very manageable will evolve into a terrible monster. Given time, Godzilla arises from the fragmented thought processes and shall wreak havoc where and when it may finally escape.
When the problem abides without resolution it will finally reach the stage of full catastrophic crisis. Think of it as enraged depression, everything filters through its worst case scenario. Objectivity compromises its affect, giving way to a blindness of reason where only the worst scenarios hold attention. One may wonder how a civilized human being can drift into such depraved intentions.
Why one slides into such darkness may be attributed all the way back to the garden. Fallen human nature will naturally drift to poor perspectives. Only conscious effort averts the internal slide, but an educated awareness will promote the essential civility to enact better responses that will heal and build community instead of uprooting and destroying. One must be comfortable with themselves before they can allow peace to generate from their presence.
Whenever two people meet there are really six people present.
There is each man as he sees himself,
each man as the other person sees him,
and each man as he really is.
– William James (1842-1910)
The Challenge: Perspective
When situations begin to heat up and stress intrudes into your life the first casualty is perspective. What was once small and quite manageable is evolving into something more. The nature of conflict and hurt egos will animate disagreements and magnify their effects, but another danger seeps into your mind and it comes from within. When you become “too serious” and allow pride to have a place you proportionally lose your effectiveness. Creativity and freshness is compromised and your functional IQ spirals downward. The more serious you become the less innovative you can be. The two simply do not exist well together. The somberness produces a mood that undermines the creative perspectives you need to solve a problem which ordinarily apart from the seriousness blurs the better approaches. You develop tunnel vision and your outlook narrows into single issues which tend to benefit survival instead of actual solutions. A wise strategy is to revise the original purposes, firmly state the reasons why they are “supposed” to be here. Recite your Mission Statement, breathe deep and . . . Lighten Up!!!
The Politics of Scapegoating
According to the Old Testament Levitical priest-codes, the priest laid his hands on the selected goat, transferring the sins of the people onto it. Then he would banish it into the wilderness to die bearing the sins/guilt of the people. The practice never really ended, and it extends into our modern times with much similarity. Except goats, it’s now the innocent people who got in the way.
A group will engage in scapegoating to appease their fragile and wounded self-esteem. Healthy, functional groups do not resort to such devious practices. Rather than acknowledge and accept their own fallibility they will cover the flaws through the convenient use of shifting the ugly details upon a willing victim. And if the victim is not willing, abusive conditioning will prime them for the duty. The targeted “goat” will be manipulated and worn down until they are willing. A pure “Hobson’s Choice;” do it or die anyway.
Narcissism lies within the heart of every human being. The deep seated need for self-preservation rules over much of our decision making processes. Following Sigmund Freud’s assessment, the “Power Principle” drives our every decision. Altruism and the free giving of self for others is a pure myth. Everyone gets their payback from every decision, whether it be financial favors or especially emotional rewards of sympathy and good regard. Any casual assessment of dream analysis will show that every figure is no more than a facet of ourselves.
The primary motive preserves our own sense of manufactured rightness. We want to be right and favorable, excusing our sins and faulty nature. So if something goes wrong it surely must be the result of something out there somewhere.
The target for our scapegoat plans require someone as harmless and manageable as the Levitical goat of the OT. The diabolical criteria may be:
- Weak enough to not muster up threatening resistance or later retaliation. The dastardly act must be as smooth as possible and cannot tolerate any messy business of exposure.
- One who threatens the general perception of safety and comfort. By ridding such a dangerous person they will assure future safety because a rebel rouser has finally been eliminated. Prophets experienced this very fate in their efforts for community reform.
- Bearer of past grudges. They have irked us too much and caused too many waves already. How handy to gain revenge and substitutionary atonement at the same time. They deserved their fate anyway provides such a handy rationalization for dealing with the undesirable threats to our nice harmony.
- A willing sacrifice. As strange as this may appear a plentiful supply of adults have held over childhood traumas of enabling dysfunctional families. Their unconscious decision to bear the pain in order to maintain family unity has prevailed through their upbringing and sets them up internally to continually pay such a price. They irrationally believe their sacrifice will somehow appease the communal discomfort and resolve the disputes.
Imagine if you will a Board contemplating such a decision. How many Boards have the courage, strength and resolve to stand for justice alone in spite of their open flaws convicting their imperfection. Would many Boards risk ridicule and humiliation by allowing mistakes to remain exposed to a critical public? Would they believe their own community would forgive their mistakes and even incompetence? How much safer to transfer all this blame onto a willing sacrifice and preserve their pride.
Scapegoating is such a convenient tool of an insecure community seeking to preserve their power. First of all, the work is easy. Pick a safe target. Impart all the unpleasant ordeals of life upon them. Purify your life’s resume in one easy swoop and the cleansing baptism of self-made purification has arrived. Be whole once more, just don’t look over “there” and see where the sin went. That’s why the sacrificed target must be expelled from the group and shunned from any useful contact or involvement.
If a situation develops that an easy target will not go along with the plan, then effort must be enjoined to do the supposed right thing. Presenting a Justified Sacrifice works just as well. The group can rationalize that they must do this thing to preserve the whole community itself. As Dr. Spock explains it in “Star Trek 2:The Wrath of Kahn” when he sacrifices himself in the beryllium chamber to save the crew that, “The good of the many outweigh the good of the one.” Let’s rid ourselves of the one that the many might live, just like Jesus did (Romans 5:15-19, that the many might be saved). Even the high priest Caiaphas got into the drama of justifying Jesus’ death that “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). See how easy it is to spin the dastardly act into a noble righteous cause?
But is it really their lives being preserved? Is the death of one truly saving the lives of many? Is it not merely their comfort and assumed safety being protected? What they perceive as death is no more than their nostalgic comfort of an old antedated system. Fear drives them to such an unworthy and vicious act of betrayal of an innocent.
This brings us to the third reason for scapegoating – it’s mostly unconscious. The Board does not convene with a detailed plan of their whole operation out in the light exposing their devious intentions. Only the vilest of committees clarifies their conspiracy as evil steps. They do not propose a list of weak targets and then publicly clarify their goals of destroying the reputation of innocent people to assuage their petty consciences. Such conscious steps would only add to the guilt they are already desperately seeking to relieve. Socially killing someone undeserving (or even deserving) would only add one more accusation to their frail standing in their community. They must turn their own attention away from what they are doing in order to carry out the act.
Does it sound sick? Is it pathetic? Not to mention cowardly. Scapegoating is never an honorable deed once it has been exposed for what it truly is. Humans have an amazing capacity for hiding their behavior from others and even from themselves. Adam and Eve started that process from the very beginning with their attempts to carry on as usual in spite of their rebellious disobedience. The human race has had much time to refine those skills and work them out to a fine art.
Certainly more bizarre is the willingness of some victims to cooperate with the phony quick fix role of scapegoat to try once again to resolve the problems around them. They are noble martyrs in their own mind, but they have done no more but to enable a devious system to continue its methods with renewed resolve that the plan works. Although peace may be achieved it is shallow at best, but mostly a fleeting delusion. The need for more sacrifices will come around again. Until the cheap system is finally broken, long term healing will never be gained. The community will always live out their façade of perfection.
For the church to become and be the “Body of Christ” it must turn from devious plans and find courage to arise to reality. Scapegoating is a work of darkness (see John 3:19-20 and Ephesians 5:11, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them”).
Christ abides in the full light of truth and reality. These old steps of confession and repentance are still the right steps to finally resolving such a sick system. Until the leadership models a broken repentance the circle of pain will abide through the generations. Only a strong, courageous and humble leader will finally put the violence to rest and restrain the blame of imperfection where it belongs – on the fallible human beings who behave as their nature expects.
“But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” 1 John 2:11
Morgan Scott Peck takes the subject further into its most devious scheme, as an act of evil, itself.
“A predominant characteristic . . . of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above approach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection. . . . Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others.”
People of the Lie, pp. 73f.
(New York; Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1983)
The logical analysis of this plight is called Ad Hominem. An ad hominem, Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”, short for argumentum ad hominem, is to argue against an opponent personally, instead of against their argument. Ad hominem reasoning is normally described as an informal fallacy, more precisely an irrelevance.
Deacon Brown — God’s Holy Meddler
Smith and Jones were “on the outs” over a very trivial matter. This deeply concerned Deacon Brown. So he prayed that he might be a peacemaker.
He called on Smith and asked, “What do you think of Jones?” “He’s the meanest crank in the neighborhood!” said Smith.
“But,” said Deacon Brown, “you have to admit that he’s very kind to his family.”
The next day Deacon Brown went to Jones and inquired, “Do you know what Smith said about you?” “No,” said Jones, “but I can imagine how that scamp would lie about me!”
“This may surprise you,” said Deacon Brown, “but he said you’re very kind to your family.”
“What! Did Smith say that?” “Yes, he did.”
“Well, if you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“What do you think of Smith?” asked Brown.
“Truthfully, I believe he’s a lowdown scalawag,” said Jones.
“But you have to admit that he’s very honest in business,” said Deacon Brown.
“Yes, there’s no getting around that; in business he’s a man you can trust,” agreed Jones.
The next day Deacon Brown called on Smith again. “You know what Jones said about you? He claims you’re a fellow that really can be trusted in business, and that you’re scrupulously honest.”
“You mean it?” asked Smith.
“Yes, I do,” said Deacon Brown.
“Well of all things,” replied Smith with a happy smile.
The next Sunday the former “enemies” nodded to each other. Deacon Brown continued his “meddling” until the next annual business meeting of the church when Smith and Jones shook hands and finally voted on the same side!
The tide is turning.
Intervention is ideally needed at this precise point to keep progress on a healthy track. People are anxious about the “new” ideas being discussed and their fears compel them to label those responsible for upsetting their Comfort Zone.
Matthew 5:25, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.”