Is It Normal?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
There is such a thing as “normal”. Used as an adjective, it is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” As a noun, it means “the usual, average, or typical state or condition.” Now, such definitions allow for exceptions, which are described as being “abnormal”, that is, outside of the range of a standard or usual set of circumstances or, perhaps, behavior.
When something is “normal” it usually transcends a variety of settings or expressions. For instance, over the past forty years of pastoral and academic ministry I have been involved with evangelicals, a large charismatic church, an LCMS seminary, and Anglican communities both in the US and the UK, just to name a few. These are very different settings, yet there have been in all these places the opportunity to observe certain aspects of pastoral ministry and church life that I would today classify as “normal”.
Recently, as certain churches and para-church ministries have been credibly accused of pastoral or spiritual abuse, we might do well to consider what we should consider as being normal, that is, what should be expected in a faith community.
Often, spiritual abuse manifests itself in “charismatic” church leaders who make use of their “force of personality” to control or manipulate their followers. Such men or women will engage in bullying, displays of anger, belittling someone, humiliation of an individual, etc. This behavior may take place privately, as in pastoral counseling, or publicly (although this is more rare). Let it be said, loudly and clearly – This is not normal. Indeed, it is altogether outside of the bounds of mere Christian conduct, much less acceptable pastoral practice in 99.9% of the Christian Church. Moreover, this is usually the flip side of the concurrent practice of pastoral favoritism which, in an extreme form, can involve grooming, seduction or financial exploitation. Again, let it be said loudly and clearly – This is not normal.
Now, it might be asked, how do these abnormal situations arise? While the causes may be multifaceted, I believe that there are a few indicators that a problem might arise.
The first is accountability, or the lack thereof. It is normal for a pastor to be accountable to an independent board (or vestry) which will provide oversight, handle the finances, and set salaries and budgets. The board, likewise, is accountable to both the pastor (or leader of a ministry) and to the congregation (or constituent donors). Such a board is not “hand picked”, but is nominated and elected. This is simply normal in the vast majority of churches and, indeed, the vast majority of not-for-profits. If some sort of an arrangement such as this is not in place, one should be worried and start asking questions. Those who say, “I’m only accountable to God”, need to reacquaint themselves with the New Testament. They need to read again the passages concerning mutual submission. They need to consider Paul returning to the council at Jerusalem and submitting himself to others, some of whom he did not know. Moreover, this sort of accountability protects not only the congregation, but the pastor as well. Sometimes those in leadership need to be told, “You’re wrong”. The manner is which a pastor or leader reacts to such correction is an indicator of their understanding of ministry and what they consider to be normal.
The second indicator has to do with preparation and training. The normal preparation for ordination in the US today is as follows: an undergraduate degree, three years of seminary, a battery of psychological tests, six months to a year training under an older pastor/priest, and only then are you set loose upon the world. Some denominations have additional requirements such as a separate denominational exam and hospital chaplaincy training. Even with this, some “bad apples” still get through the process. Additionally, much could be improved in numerous seminaries. There is however, something to be said for the process. Setting aside theology, biblical languages and all the rest, you are required to take courses in pastoral counseling and you are observed as you make your way through the system. You become acquainted with your own church identity and history. You soon learn that you may, or may not, be the smartest person in the class. You are exposed to differing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, you begin your own spiritual formation. Now, for numerous reasons, some placed in pastoral positions have not had the opportunity to go through such a normal process. Some belong to churches in which they were ordained and placed in leadership simply because they “felt a call” and/or they planted their own church or ministry. In such cases, the question becomes, “What are you doing about it now?” There are multiple resources available near to you or even online. The person who despises learning from others is, most often, someone who thinks they already know it all… and they are usually dangerous. They are dangerous because of what they think they know, and they are dangerous owing to what they do not know. It is not normal.
The third indicator is more difficult to address as it has to do with family. Nepotism is defined as, “the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs”. To put it simply, churches are not meant to be “the family business”. Now, in some mainline denominations I do know of husband and wife teams being called to co-pastor churches. Yet, such arrangements are rare, usually resulting from two seminarians marrying and then both being ordained and seeking a post where they can work together. When such a call takes place, very specific contracts are put into place to avoid favoritism. Yet, there are other situations in which you read the staff listing of a church or ministry and read the names of wives, sons, daughters, in-laws, etc., in salaried positions or, perhaps even worse, occupying board positions. Most of us know of churches in which a pastoral or leadership position has been passed from father to son (or daughter). The conflicts of interest created are myriad. The issues of confidentiality as it relates to pastoral care are more than can be delineated in an article such as this. Once again, we need to say it loudly and clearly, “This is not normal”.
Now, you might come up with some additional indicators, but my guess is they will all end with the question, “Is it normal?”.
It is easy, when we love a pastor, a church or a ministry, to make excuses for what, on considered thought, we know to be abnormal. We may even believe that excuses must be made to indicate our loyalty. Yet, if we indeed do love a pastor or a church or a ministry, I would suggest that the most loving thing we can do is to ask the simple question, “Is it normal?” For by asking the question, the pastor, the church or the ministry might be saved, or, we might be kept safe from harm. It is not a difficult question to ask, nor is it a difficult question to answer.