Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Gospel according to Yertle

Spiritual bullying is a problem in many Christian communities. It often happens when a congregation is split - whether formally or informally - into an A-team and a B-team. In many churches the A-team consists of those regarded as members in especially good standing. The titles vary, as do the responsibilities. In one community I was part of there were the ministers (themselves graded in merciless order of hierarchy), the deacons (the acceptable local suck-ups) and the "deakers" - wannabe deacons who set out the seating, were entrusted with hymnal distribution at services and were called on regularly to deliver opening and closing prayers. To aspire to such lofty heights you had to be a bloke safely restrained in the bonds of marriage (or at least appear to be), have a modicum of dress sense, avoid asking too many questions, carry a wide-margin leather-bound KJV, and show due obsequiousness to those above you in the food chain.

Then there's the B-team. Again, the markers vary from denomination to denomination. In the community we're describing here, the B-team consisted of women (except those who shared the marital bed with the high-up males), non-assertive males (married men naturally were ranked above singles) and minors. For these folk the appropriate behaviour was to pray, pay and obey. Occasionally one of the peón-level married males might aspire to a spot of "deaking," which was the only form of upward mobility open and involved a huge commitment of  "greasing" behaviour. Did the minister need a hand digging out a space for his swimming pool? The wannabes couldn't wait to arrive early and dig enthusiastically!

Naturally this led to a sense of privilege for those who had successfully clambered part way up the greasy pole. Sermons assumed the people in the pews (except for the front pew, which was where the favoured few usually sat) were near-imbeciles who needed to be told how to correctly comport themselves on the day of worship, dress for services, tithe... the list goes on.

Needless to say, I was not one of the favoured few, for which - in hindsight - I'm deeply grateful. There came a day when I realized that it was all a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. The whole sorry structure depended on the active cooperation and acquiescence of the great unwashed at the bottom of the pyramid. It was a Yertle the Turtle moment!

When churches preach about respecting "leadership," when the people in the pews are directed to do as they're told and even think as they're told, the claxons should be going off louder than a vuvuzela. There are really only two options:
1. Run like hades. Get outa there!
2. Face down the bullies. Refuse to be intimidated. Make a stand.
On balance I prefer the second option because it can inspire others to stand up for themselves too. There's nothing like a subversive role model! Gentle laughter at a preacher with a sense of entitlement is an act of self-confidence by the doer, and enormously deflating for the pompous bully. These guys love to be taken seriously, and when they're confronted with the ludicrousness of their own behaviour (and we're not talking about being obnoxious, but using reason and humour) it's a moment when I suspect even the Good Spirit cracks a broad smile.

Facing down the bullies also forces them to either follow through on their threats or look stupid and ineffectual. These guys would much rather you just walk away; much easier on them.

My anecdotes come from the fringe, but bullying ministers can appear in dog collars and with crucifixes as well. The specifics may change, but the issues are usually the same. And so is the response. That's not to say all ministers are abusive, which is absolutely not the case. Good ministers need to be treasured, and I've known a few. But that doesn't change the fact that many ministers - particularly those functioning in high demand sects - are open to the temptation to throw their featherweight "authority" around - with or without a funny collar. The onus is on you and me to not let him (and it usually is a him) get away with it.

There are Yertle-like poseurs in all kinds of places - not just ponds. It was a little bloke named Mack who brought his reign to a precipitous end.

May your inner Mack be with you.

Adapted from a 2010 blog entry


  1. Looking back on my experiences in the WCG, there never was a time when I completely abandoned my sanity and independence. In the summer, when it was hot, I would shed my suit coat in a hurry. Yes, the deacons and elders would quickly remind me that we didn't take our coats off until the minister did so, but I would always smile and say "It's so hot, I'm sure he's about to take his off too." And sure enough, he usually did. Even so, the looks on those men's faces were priceless - that nasty old spirit of rebellion!

  2. I enjoyed your anecdote. It is very accurate. The implicit cast system you defined was a little different at AC Big Sandy. It went something like this:

    Ordained Administrators
    Ordained Faculty Members
    Ordained Staff Members
    Non-ordained Administrators
    Non-ordained Faculty Members
    Non-ordained Staff Members
    Staff Members and local church members
    Feral dogs roaming campus

    This can create dillemmas. At one time my boss was a non-ordained administrator. In fact, he was not even member of the WCG. (There was a hiring binge in pursuit of accreditation that resulted in may credentialed non-members showing up on campus.) Once a minister, who had nothing to do with our department, showed up and gave me instructions on what to do about a matter that fell within the purview of our department administrator. As a WCG member, you had to do what the minister required. This meant ignoring the non-ordained administrator who had responsibility for the department and its policies.. Even though AC received accreditation on the strength of its credentialed faculty, it was always clear that the ministry ran the show. My guess is that this "hidden government" was concealed for accrediting committee members. The fact that Don Ward was a cross-over and had a secular degree as well as an AC degree and was a minister probably kept some situations from escalating out of proportion.

    I recall in a WCG congregation in the midwest years ago asking an almighty local church elder a question. He gave me an answer and I said that I agreed with what he had said. This was a big, big mistake. In an instant he was toe-to-toe with me and in my face yelling. This was at a crowded Sabbath service. I was taken aback initially but it emerged that he believed that I had no right to agree with him. I was supposed to listen to what he said and then just keep my mouth shut. Like the great Ozymandias, his decrees were above evaluation by lesser beings like myself. If I had disagreed with him, who knows what would have happened.

    He later became a GCI pastor and recently retired. He had a serious anger management problem that probably needed professional therapy. But he seemed to prosper in GCI. I always felt sorry for the souls who had to be in his congregation. And I always felt that GCI Church Administration had no idea what was going on in their local congregations. I have other corroborating evidence of this latter statement.

    -- Neotherm