Whatever Happened to Honor? Part II

As I was discussing the first part to this article with my community, the discussion took a new turn. That so many Christian leaders often dishonor their subordinates by disrespecting them in various ways was unquestionable. We had all either seen it inflicted upon co-workers or had experienced it personally. What was puzzling to us was why a large number of workers at Christian organizations allow the leaders or pastors to mistreat or dishonor them with regularity?

Why is it that so many capable, well-qualified, rational, and intelligent people working for churches or Christian organizations continue to work under abusive bosses while barely making a living wage? Most of these people will have very little problem getting better paying jobs somewhere else under a more favorable condition, but to them, leaving their current jobs is utterly unfathomable.

Or, even worse, after years tolerating ridicule, marginalization, humiliation while making next to nothing, when the organization finally terminates them because their usefulness has run its course, if given the opportunity, they will not hesitate to rush back to work under the same abusive conditions.

When questioned, a large number of these Christians not only do not acknowledge any abuse they might be experiencing, but they will readily tell you that God wants them to work where they are. To a point, I believe the last statement. I put up with six years of abuse at a place where the management’s motto was, “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.” because I felt God wanted me to be an anchor of stability for my coworkers. However, I constantly challenged the leadership and demanded that people under them be treated with dignity and honor.

One of the biggest forms of abuse is using God as an excuse to manipulate people into getting them to do your bidding or as I call it, “pulling the God-card.” This way there is no room for discussion. If you say, “God told me to do this or that”, who am I to question God? I also know how often the above phrase is used as an excuse not to face reality. I believe a large segment of the above Christians suffer from what psychologist, Martin Seligman, called “Learned Helplessness”.

Several decades back, psychologist Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness”. Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs given repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power.

Please click on the following links for more details on the above experiment.

You might protest, “Shah, you are talking about dogs and electric shocks! Where in heaven’s name do you see that being done to people in any Christian organization?” We don’t use electric shocks, but we have our own ways of beating people into “Learned Helplessness” that border on cultic practices.

According to psychologists the following are some of the characteristics of a cult group, which produce “Learned Helplessness”:

1. The group’s leader is reputed to have the potential of bringing a resolution to the problems of humanity.

To put it in our terms, church members often expect their leaders to bring solutions to the world’s and personal problems through their callings as apostles, prophets, evangelists… (Eph 4) or their gifts of the Spirit, words of wisdom, knowledge, prophesy… (I Cor. 12).

2. The leader is also drawn into believing the grandiose role accorded to him and justifies his actions by referring to the transcendent mission suggested by the group’s philosophy.

I don’t know why so many of us have the tendency to put our leaders on pedestals, treating them as super humans not realizing that by doing so we create the potential for a man to believe in “the grandiose role accorded to him”. This is not to say that the leaders just fall into this trap. Having been made in God’s image, we all have a god-complex and want to rule as such. Very few of us can resist constant praise and accolades aimed at our gifting or style of leadership and not fall prey to thinking that we, somehow, are better than others and called to rule over them.

If a pastor is constantly told how great a teacher, healer, prophet or leader he is, he eventually will come to believe that he is impressive and magnificent. And soon after, if he is ever questioned about his imposing behavior, he will refer you to all his accomplishments and how God has called him to accomplish the church’s mission statement.

3. To ensure stability as a close-knit social system, the group manipulates the activities and views of its members. All members are required to comply with the group’s norms. If they appear to question the values, they will face estrangement, which results in feeling acutely hopeless, uncomfortable and unhappy. This will also prevent members from leaving the group.

Every church or Christian organization I have ever known had its own set of “biblical” norms. All staff or church members were required to follow those “biblical” standards. Within several of these organizations or churches, you were demanded to obey the norms and be grateful for being a part of the entity. Those who dared to question the norms were marginalized, shunned, and labeled as, “ones who dare to touch God’s anointed”. Naturally, fearing a great feeling of stress and alienation, the majority of members complied with what the leadership deemed to be the norms, especially staff members. To control the people and prevent them from leaving the church, it was not unusual to make them feel that the only entity that would ever give them a place or a job was the one they belonged to at the present. So, by leaving the place, a member, no matter how talented, was always in danger of never being able to find a place or a job somewhere else.

What are the outcomes of such treatments? Creating a generation of helpless Christians who would stay in abusive situations out of fear of alienation, rejection, being deemed unworthy, worthless, or being called a heretic.

We Christians shock our people into helplessness, not by electricity, but with our words and behavior. We may not lock people in cages, but we have our way of keeping them within boundaries which are created by the “dos and don’ts” of the organization. So many of our leaders strip people under them of every ounce of dignity, talents and gifting by showing love and attention only when it meets their needs to control the people. By doing so, many Christian organizations have created a whole generation of helpless Christians who have come to believe they cannot effectively function anywhere else except within the particular organization. They have become like the dog, which, after being given numerous electric shocks, feel that being mistreated is his lot in life and there is nothing he can do about it. This psychological treatment is so effective that even after leaving an organization, many Christians, given the opportunity, in a heartbeat, go back to the same abusive place.

There is a happy ending to the above experiment. It was noted that the only way to get the helpless dog out of its cage was to send in another dog that had never been shocked. With the gate left open, upon receiving the first jolt of electricity, the new dog would bolt out of the cage and by doing so, it would teach the helpless dog to get out as well.

May I challenge and encourage all of you to be the restorers of honors lost. Be like the last dog, when it comes to confronting the abuse that is taking place in our Christian communities, go in, speak up and help a friend or two restore their honor by showing them the way out.

“I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter. The cast-offs of human society, I saw in their eyes love & hope, fear & dread, sadness & betrayal. And I was angry. “God,” I said, “this is terrible! Why don’t you do something?” God was silent for a moment & then He spoke softly, “I have done something,” He replied. “I created you.” Author- Jim Willis