The Reminder We Shouldn't Need

Another Spiritual Abuse Scandal Shows How We Wrongly Weigh Success

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:20 PM

The little “issue” at the local church might not seem like a big deal. Sure a few people got hurt and the pastor seemed to overreach a bit, but it all worked out OK, right? Those who left were “troublemakers” and keeping things controlled kept the little issue little, they claim. But the little issues become big ones. I know. I have lived the little church issue that becomes the national news story.

You have probably heard something about the Ravi Zacharias scandal. A few years ago, when the first cloud floated by the famed apologist, I believed the early victims because their stories had a ring of truth. It was sad, but distant; I only knew of all the parties involved by reading articles, not any sort of personal connection.

What I didn’t know was that this international scope scandal had a link to the “little local church situation” I experienced over a decade ago.

Yesterday, Christianity Today published Daniel Silliman’s excellently researched, deeply disturbing expose on Judy Dabler, a practitioner of “Christian conciliation” who rose to prominence in that form of mediation created by lawyer-turned-Christian author Ken Sande. The tipping point from ascendent expert to spiritual abuser seems to have come by way of David French reporting on her work with the late Zacharias’s ministry earlier this year.

Everyone who cares about the Church doing what is right ought to read Silliman’s full report. He shows the sort of manipulative techniques spiritual abusers use to suppress dissent, silence whistleblowers and generally elevate their own power at the expense of those they were supposed to serve. The report provides numerous examples of Dabler using these techniques against both her own critics and those who brought up wrongdoing against her clients, such as RZIM and Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church.

That she worked for those now infamous organizations might make her scandal feel as distant as the Zacharias one felt to me for the longest time. Sure, it might be true — but it is happening way over there. Yet, for those of us who had the misfortune to cross paths with Dabler’s ministry years ago, there’s a lesson in her high-profile fall: national scandals often start locally in a church like yours or mine.

We see the big neon lights crashing down the hill and think, “good thing I’m not in a place like that.” I might have thought that, too, except I was very much in a place not-like-that when her “ministry” changed my life.

Before she was doing damage control for such huge names, she was doing it for smaller entities, including the church I grew up at and still attended during seminary. The pastor and Dabler were close, so close that her ministry, at one point, even had a satellite office in the church building. About midway through seminary, I experienced first-hand the deployment of Sande’s Peacemaker system and Dabler’s application thereof. 

I had initially raised a minor alarm in the church about minor misdeeds and was stunned to watch what should have been an easily forgettable little problem turn into the pastor’s all-out war to silence me using Sande’s legal laden system. Just as the Christianity Today report shows a pattern of, Dabler was involved not to bring about reconciliation or some sort of “justice,” but to protect her client and friend, the church’s pastor.

She and the pastor poured out an indescribably painful series of psychological pressures, interrogations (yes, those can happen in a church) and slander to cause people to step back from me. Constant harassment frequently started as a literal wake up phone call in the morning and could continue incessantly into the night — I do not exaggerate. To what end? The constant goal was that I would confess things I hadn’t done and sign a paper guaranteeing my silence and submission to their “conciliation” process forever and for always should I be seen to be out of accord with the pastor’s will.

I nearly left seminary because it so horrified me to think that this was a part of “ministry” in a mainstream, Evangelical church. This wasn’t ministry, it was brainwashing and abuse.

Coming out the other side of it, I learned I was but one of many who went through such tribulations at that church. I learned that Dabler advised her friend the pastor on dozens of such “conciliations,” sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes actively mediating as a supposedly independent party (pay no attention to the pastor’s membership on her organization’s board). Many of her victims there were left looking shellshocked and broken. Many left the faith entirely.

A new term entered my consciousness for the first time: spiritual abuse.

The experience galvanized something in me. Pushing back at the fears and doubts about taking on the role of pastor after seeing a pastor, and his team, act so maliciously, so utterly focused on power and not on pastoral care, so, well, outright hellishly, I focused on the still present sense that God had called me to do ministry. That hadn’t changed, but what that looked like became clearer: I knew that speaking out against abuse in the church was going to be a part of that calling. 

I started by writing an essay entitled “The Hidden Danger of Peacemakers” here on OFB to sound the alarm on the dangers of the Peacemaker program. No matter what success stories might float around Ken Sande’s the Peacemaker and Peacemaker Ministries, here’s a simple fact that has been borne out repeatedly even before the Dabler scandal broke: it has been and will be used effectively to sweep abuse under the rug. Still reeling and trying to understand what happened, I also blogged through my processing of the spiritual abuse I and my family had survived at the church, hoping to comfort others going through such things.

I have had too many occasions in the years since that I have heard the heartrending stories of people who have gone through abusive church situations. I was blessed with a pastor who took me under his wing after my experience; I’ve been imperfect at trudging through the swamps of abuse others face, but by God’s grace, I pray each time I do — and each time I write of these disagraces against Jesus’s flock here or elsewhere — it might offer healing to someone hurting or be a call to action to someone wondering if it is worth fighting abuse.

One thing I have found happens a lot is that those who have not experienced such things in the church, don’t understand — and, often, do not want to understand — how incredibly destructive spiritual abuse is. It sounds like something dreamed up by the overly sensitive so they can complain when someone doesn’t handle them with kid gloves.

I assure you, it isn’t, and if you meet someone who has been through that trial by fire and holds onto their faith, praise God for His grace, don’t shame the survivor. Don’t think admitting that the church sometimes does awful things somehow tarnishes God’s message. It tarnishes us when we overlook it, when we allow it, when we excuse it. God is glorified when we support victims and fight abusers.

Spiritual abuse causes a person to question the safety of the institution that represents God on earth. It causes one to wonder if anything that any church says can be trusted, much less if some manifestation of the Church can actually be “safe.” In the moment you face the worst kind of spiritual crisis, the place meant to be a refuge feels like it wants to devour you. For some, it actually does.

Friends abandon you. Church leaders claim you are the problem. You feel deeply and existentially alone.

It is a wicked, wicked thing to use Christ’s Church to silence the hurting and eliminate one’s enemies. Yet, often those observing from the sidelines wonder what the big deal is. Why rock the boat at a church that is doing “God’s work”? Why mess up something for everyone just because a few people were overly sensitive? “Suck it up, buttercup.”

Too often the church seems to riff on the High Priest Caiaphas, thinking it is better that one (or a few) people “die” than their whole local church “perish.” Never mind that Caiaphas’ original reasoning (John 11:50) was to justify putting Jesus to death, not exactly the best inspiration for a church operating principle.

The rationalization machine spins with frenzy today just as it did in Caiaphas’s day, tarring and feathering as needed, until it really does look like the abused are bad and the abusers are just misunderstood. And so it rolls along time after nauseating time like a bad spoof of Orwell.

I’d share my story and people would think I just misunderstood my old pastor, Judy Dabler and their mutual associates. “Yes, your experience sounds unpleasant, but they have done so much good!”

Why speak out and hurt their good work for the Lord?

I think pieces like Silliman’s Christianity Today report show that the wreckage of efforts such as hers outweigh any such good. Like all Faustian bargains, overlooking spiritual bullying and abuse for the illusory greater good doesn’t turn out to be a good deal in the end, because the spiritual force behind those deals never was and never will be God.

I cannot help but wish some people who heard about the efforts around the sphere of Judy Dabler here in St. Louis a decade or more ago had been more prone to recognize the cries of the injured as serious. In my case, I know my cries reached Judy’s organization, my church’s local, regional and national leadership and even representatives Ken Sande’s organization, if not Sande himself. But, if those with the power to do something cared, they didn’t care enough to actually do anything.

That’s heartbreaking more so now then then.

Noting the timeline of events in Silliman’s report, many (most?) of her abuses he reports took place after those aimed at us in that church. Had myself and others been heard then rather than having our injuries rationalized away as inconsequential in the midst of important work, would there even be a national level scandal with a decade of further mangled bodies?

We can’t turn back the wheel of time on Dabler’s case, nor the cases of her associates who likewise welded Peacemaker as a weapon against accountability. But we can learn.

The lesson every Christian needs to internalize is this: listen. Each of us is responsible for our brothers and sisters in Christ. If they are hurting, listen. If seemingly untoward things happen, don’t make excuses. And, don’t — I repeat, don’t — believe the lie that “these are just minor things” that will hurt the Church’s reputation if we blow them “out of proportion.” That lie still smells of the sulfur of its place of origin.

Minor things have a way of becoming big things. And, whether they do or don’t, each of those “things” hurts our testimony as the Church. The victims deserve better. Jesus deserves better.

May we do better.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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