55: Wade Mullen - Church abuse and cover-up
Tim interviews Wade Mullen, a professor who researches the ways evangelical churches and organizations try to cover up abuse and protect their image. In a conversation that hits a little close to home, Tim and Wade discuss why both abuse and the cover-up of abuse are so prevalent in evangelical churches and how to know if your church and its leaders are lying to you.
Tim: Hey, y’all. Welcome back to Almost Heretical. It’s just Tim this week. Sorry we’ve been gone from your feeds the last couple weeks. Nate just had a baby. He’s a couple weeks in to the new life of his second daughter, and so he’s kind of in baby world right now. So we haven’t had an episode in a little bit, but we’ve got one now. Nate couldn’t be here. I did an interview with Wade Mullen, and I just want to give you guys a little set up for that interview. Wade is a seminary professor, was a pastor, who has personally experienced and then done a tremendous amount of research, actually did an entire PhD dissertation on the subject of how churches and institutions essentially protect their image and the kind of manipulative tactics they go through to protect their self identity when faced with accusations of some form of abuse. So there are a lot of you out there, I know, who have personally experienced being a part of a church or on staff with a church, a leader in a church, or just some sort of connection with a church or other Christian institution that something has happened and some sort of flag was raised, there was an issue, there was a concern, and the way the church responded was to essentially go through some form of covering up that concern to protect their image. If you haven’t personally experienced this, I hope you know how prevalent this is. I mean even just this week, the week that I recorded the interview with Wade, you’ve got the Catholic Church, all of them, the Pope, everybody, all the head honchos of the entire Catholic Church, getting together to talk about the ways that they have systemically covered the cries of victims in the church. And just this same week, you have the entire Southern Baptist Convention getting together to talk about the ways that the entire network, denomination, and so many of the churches and especially the lead pastors within those churches, and especially the celebrity pastors within those churches, the ways they have systematically ignored and covered up cries of abuse within those churches. This stuff is everywhere. It’s rampant. I’ve personally experienced it. I know lots of the listeners to this show also have experienced it. If you haven’t, so much of this show in this interview with Wade is to understand a) it is prevalent, and b) to help you understand how to know when this is happening in your church and to be able to spot it. That’s essentially what Wade’s entire field of research was for. The purpose of it was to help equip people to see when they’re being lied to and manipulated by their churches, in large part so we don’t become complicit in it. One other piece: Wade and I had a chance to talk in depth about his own personal story. We’ve kind of alluded on this show in the past, I’ve got my own story. I haven’t really sat down on the podcast and just told everybody what exactly happened. Part of that is I’ve been waiting for a good friend of mine who went through it all with me to be ready. It’s been two years now, and it is still so hard to actually sit down and just talk it all out. It’s hard personally. It’s also hard knowing that that story being told will then kind of drop you back into that world, getting emails and phone calls from people who have things to say one way or the other. So after having a long conversation with Wade, which we recorded, he sat down with his wife and thought, “You know what, I just can’t share all that right now.” And so what we did is we went back and Wade shared a bit more of a generic version of the story. And I totally understand this. If you haven’t been there, you’ve just got to understand, this stuff is hard. It could be five, ten years down the road; if you’ve been a victim of some sort of spiritual abuse or a church making your life wrong, treating you in a certain way, or even if you’ve just been a witness to seeing someone who is exalted as this great spiritual leader and mentor do atrocious things, it takes a toll. And even just talking about it kind of brings back secondary trauma and stirs the whole pot all over again. So part of why I wanted to have this conversation with Wade is I knew he’d been there, I knew he understood it, I could tell just from his research that he had lived this from the inside. So even though we won’t get that full story, you haven’t even heard my full story yet. Someday hopefully we will. But for all those out there who have similar stories, I just want to use this moment to say I understand. We understand how hard it is to even tell those stories. So for some of you, if you don’t understand why abuse and the cover up of abuse is an important topic for Christians, especially in the west, it’s likely because the thousands and thousands and thousands of stories of abuse and systemic cover up that are out there haven’t been told, or you haven’t been able to hear them because of just how hard it is to tell those stories. So that’s all. Let’s get into the interview. Hope it’s helpful for you guys. Okay, here it is.
Tim: Let’s just jump right in. Wade, I’ve never met you. This is us meeting right now.
Wade Mullen: Yep. Very nice to meet you.
Tim: Yeah, nice to meet you, too. Thanks for coming on. I’ve been following you on Twitter, and I don’t do a lot of Twitter, it exhausts me. But since I found you several months back, you’ve essentially been sharing some of a dissertation that you recently finished, and I’ve told some other people that reading your tweets kind of sharing some of your research feels like you watched everything that I went through a couple years ago, and it’s like reading the script to what I lived through. So however you did it, your research and the kind of topics you’ve been getting into are I think really figuring out something important. So I’m super excited to talk to you. For everybody who’s listening, Nate’s not here. He just had a baby, so it’s just me doing an interview with Wade. So you probably won’t get any accents or dumb jokes or anything like that. So Wade, maybe just tell me a little bit about yourself. Where you live, what you do, all that?
Wade: Yeah, I’m married, my wife’s name is Sarita, we’ve got three kids. We live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I direct the Master of Divinity program at Capital Bible Seminary and Graduate School, which is a division of Lancaster Bible College. I’ve been there now for two years. Before that I was a pastor on staff at a church for about seven years.
Tim: Awesome. I’ll read the title of your dissertation, and then I’ll let you translate that for people. So it’s called “Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image-Threatening Event.” So the way I’ve kind of internalized this in my own brain is it’s kind of about abuse and cover up in evangelical world? Is that sort of right?
Wade: Yeah it is. It includes that. I started out trying to understand how organizations were responding to crises, and what I discovered in that body of research was a specific type of crisis called a scandal, or in some papers that I read it’s called an image-threatening event. I thought that was an appropriate label because that’s often what’s happening in a scandal is the image of the organization is being threatened. And so I wanted to understand how organizations, specifically evangelical organizations, were responding to threats to their image, and what I found in the literature and also in my own personal experience and in my own observation of different situations and cases that I was researching, I found that the predominant behavior enacted by organizations responding to these threats was to use what’s called impression management. And it was a Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman, who in 1959 wrote a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. And he was one of the first people to put forth this idea of individuals and organizations seeking to manage the impressions people were forming of them through their performance.
Tim: Gotcha. So you kind of took this field of sociological research, impression management, and then went specifically to evangelical institutions. So what motivated you to do that, kind of what in your background, life history, made this an issue of passion for you?
Wade: Yeah, well around the same time that I started studying crises for my dissertation, I also began to go through one at the church where I was serving as a pastor. And we, my wife and I, had been at the church for seven years, and then the last two years that we were there we went through an incredibly difficult trial. We described it as a fire that kept growing larger and kept increasing in intensity and was bringing a lot of harm to a lot of people, my family included. And so we found ourselves in a very difficult situation where we were present with people that God had called us to serve and we had grown to love them, we had grown to develop very close relationships with them, but as those relationships developed, so did our awareness of some very evil and devastating things that were happening behind closed doors that were inflicting tremendous trauma on people. And that became a cause for crisis, because we sought to advocate for those individuals, we sought to do what was right, and that was met with some resistance from those above us who wanted to protect the institution and wanted to protect its reputation instead of protecting those who were being harmed. At least that’s how we saw it at the time. And so we found ourselves in the last two years that we were there trying to advocate for those who were being harmed while being employed by an organization that we felt wasn’t governed by integrity and truth. And so it was very difficult to both be in a position of serving those and advocating for those who were going through intense suffering and at the same time speak truth to power, be a dissident in an organization that was oppressive at that time. And so for two years we fought to bring change, needed changes. And that change didn’t happen while we were at that church, and it reached a point where we realized there was nothing left for us to do, there was no higher authority to appeal to, there were no processes left to go through. And we ended up leaving. We ended up walking away. We had decided that one, we couldn’t, I couldn’t allow my family to continue to be mistreated, and I also couldn’t work at the church. It reached a point where I realized I could not work at the church one day more and still walk with integrity. And so we made the hardest decision of our lives to leave that we had grown to love without telling them why. We didn’t feel like that was our place at the time, and so we left, and we put the narrative into the hands of this oppressive system. And the months that followed our departure were very, very difficult. We went and lived in a small apartment that one of our family members owned, and we had two small children. Shortly after we left we found out that my wife was pregnant with our third, and we had left without a job lined up, without a plan. We just knew God was calling us to leave. And we were suffering with a lot of anxiety, a lot of fears, a lot of uncertainty, and also with the pain of knowing that the organization was still headed towards darkness and people were still being mistreated and people were being kept from the truth. And in the months that followed our departure, a lot happened at the church. More and more stuff started coming out, certain leaders were forced to resign, and the church was in turmoil. And at one point about six months after we left, we felt that God was compelling us to go back and to speak to the church. And so we did that. We asked the board to call a public meeting. We told them that we were going to meet with the people, we wanted their support, and so they did that and they invited us to go and speak to the people six months after I had resigned. And so I stood in front of them with the board in the front row of the auditorium and I told them why I had left. I spoke the truth that the organization while I was there, the leadership of the organization didn’t want to hear. And that was an extremely difficult moment for me, and I remember sharing the story of what we had experienced and thinking immediately after, “I never want to share this again.” And I had just done it in front of a crowd of people. And I realized that it was the right thing, it’s what needed to happen. And a couple weeks later the board invited us back and they publicly apologized to us and confessed, and it was very healing. We had the opportunity to publicly accept their apology and extend our forgiveness, and then all of the individuals who were still at the church and had ever served as an elder got up on the platform, and together they confessed what they called systemic failure for years to protect the church. And I had never seen something like that. It was moving. People voiced out their acceptance and forgiveness. I’ve never seen anything like that since. But it was incredibly healing. And after that we were able to make trips back to weddings and funerals and birthday parties and were reconciled to the people. So I went through something that felt like winter, but then I also went through something that felt like spring. And I know most won’t get that experience, but for us, we are incredibly grateful for that experience of spring and new life, and then God provided us with a job and a home shortly after that. And so I went through this incredibly difficult journey while at the same time studying these behaviors of deception and impression management for my doctoral work. And I realized that the behaviors that I was observing in the research were the same behaviors that I was seeing in abusive individuals and leaders and an abusive system that I was surrounded by. And so the experience of going through it provided for me a very strong motivation to study it, to research it, so that other people might be helped, validated, and empowered with the same kind of understanding that I was over time developing.
Tim: Wow. And that’s the job of teaching at the school where you’re at now?
Tim: Cool. Wade, thanks so much for sharing that story. I feel really emotional right now listening to you tell that story for the last twenty minutes, partly because there’s so much overlap with my story, but then partly because some of the ending of that story is something I don’t think I’ll ever get to see. The accountability, the repentance, the actual public acknowledgment, confession, that came later down the road for you. I imagine that day with the church where you kind of took a risk and laid it all out on the stage, and then actually had them acknowledge complicity in the issue, I take it that was a very special and profound moment for you.
Wade: Yes. Yeah, it was unlike anything that I’ve experienced because it’s as if somebody lifts from your shoulders a secret you’ve been carrying, a burden you’ve been carrying, and at the same time puts on your shoulder validation. It really is something that is quite remarkable.
Tim: Hmm. I won’t get into all the details of my own story, but I think one of the things you actually point out in your research, and it sounds like you went through yourself, is kind of the spiral effect, where there’s one piece of information presented that threatens the image and reputation of the lead guy or the institution, and then there’s just this snowballing effect of actions and behaviors that make the original thing almost pale in comparison. And you end up, the whistleblowers become the next victims. And at some point in that stage I remember coming home, and there were multiple, I wasn’t even the only one, there were six of us that basically raised a red flag against the lead pastor at our church. It wasn’t child abuse, it was basically pretty similar Mars Hill, just kind of bullying authoritarian leadership style and staff mostly kind of getting beat up from it. But then as soon as we raised that red flag, then we became the scapegoats and the enemies that were trying to take down the church, you know, that kind of lingo. And I remember coming home one day and just weeping in my backyard, and the feeling was something I had never felt before, and it was the need for vindication. And I hear you say when you guys decided not to defend yourselves, and then have a church who you know people trust, there’s authority that people look to, tell a false story about you and what your motivations were and why you’re leaving or why you said what you said or whatever, and know that the road you’re called to take is to not take to social media, not defend yourself. It was one of the hardest moments of my life, and I realized, it was one of the moments where I felt the closest union to Jesus that I had ever felt. And the irony is still so hard for me to grasp, that it was at the hands of my own church, my own pastors that caused me to feel this sense of union in the suffering of Jesus, but I look back on it with this kind of really strange mixture of gratitude and still heartache.
Wade: Yeah, so you’ve walked that territory. It is both the hardest experience of your life and in some ways the most freeing because it forces you to look at truth, perhaps in ways you’ve never looked at it before. And it’s not that you would want to go through it again, but you come out of it and you realize, yeah this really sucked. This was terrible, this was hard in so many ways I can’t even describe, yet it was during that time when like you said, I saw Jesus clearest and I walked with Him in ways that I’d never walked with Him before. And I’ve never thought of it in the terms that you placed it, the irony of the church being a source of that. But I get it.
Tim: Well, okay, let’s… I want to circle back and get to a few different things. I’ve got a bunch of questions for you. But maybe let’s start getting into, sounds like you were actually doing some of this research in your program while going through all this. Is that right?
Wade: Yeah. Yes, yep. And what I was discovering was that the tactics that I was seeing in abusive people in my life, not just those that were mistreating me, but also those that were perpetrating crimes against others. The tactics that I saw in their lives were the same tactics that I was learning about that organizations and other systems use to manage people, to coerce people, to protect their image and their reputation. And so those two things were just over time coming together as one and the same.
Tim: Real quick, then, did it make it easier or harder, you think, for you personally to go through this? Having some of the background, knowing these patterns, knowing these strategies that institutions take? Was that helpful for you, or did it make it even more painful that this was happening at your own church.
Wade: It made it both easier and harder. Easier in the sense that I received some validation. I knew that I wasn’t crazy. I knew that what I was seeing were indeed red flags. It also empowered me to identify these tactics, to give a label to these tactics, and then also to describe these tactics. And I think when you can do that it in some ways gives you power over them. And then this is where it became hard. Once I saw this was true, I felt like in different occasions I needed to say that in the presence of people who were using these tactics or observing it themselves. And that of course was not received very well. So at one point I said to a man, “Here’s what you’ve just said. There are three things that you’ve said, and here’s why I think you said these things. Here’s what I think you’re trying to do.” And after I said that, he just smiled. And I’ll never forget that smile, it was as if he was saying, “You got me, and I’m proud of myself for how tactical I’m being, and now you see that too.” And so that was hard because that then was met with more mistreatment. So if an abuser, if an abusive person or organization relies on their ability to maintain secrecy, and someone comes along and says, “I know what you’re doing, I know what this tactic is, I know the desire, the intention that might be behind it,” how are they going to respond to someone who’s trying to bring down their walls that they’re hiding behind? And so that’s what made it difficult in some ways.
Tim: Hmm. Yeah, gotcha. And so it sounds like a significant part of your motivation then, or the purpose behind the research is trying to enable not necessarily the lead pastors of the world, but those around them to be able to discern and kind of see through the B.S., for lack of a better term, and to know when we’re being lied to. So just kind of give it to us. In all your research, you’ve got a 270-page dissertation, kind of give us some of the most important takeaways in your mind of what people need to know is prevalent, especially in church world.
Wade: Yeah, sure. I think it starts with understanding some theory behind impression management and behind its use. Perhaps most important to understand is that those who learn tactics of impression management and use them to hide dark secrets learn a flexible script. So over time they not only learn what these tactics are, but they learn how to use them interchangeably, depending on the situation and depending on the audience. And so somebody who is perhaps seeking to manipulate those who have less power will perhaps use tactics like intimidation or ingratiation, flattery, favors, knowing that those tactics might be received by those who have less power. But when they get to a room with those who have greater power, they might use a different set of tactics. It’s unlikely that they’re going to intimidate those that they perceive to be more powerful than them, and so they might use what’s called supplication, where the person highlights their weaknesses, their helplessness, their stress, whatever it might be that would engender within the hearer, within the target, a sense of sympathy, and so out of that sympathy they extend help. And so the abusive person is using different tactics for different people depending on their goals for each group. And so I think that’s really important to understand because what often happens is somebody who has less power, when they’re abused, mistreated, by someone who has greater power, they might go to someone who has authority over that leader or even others who know that leader and say, “Listen, this is what he or she did to me. This is how he or she has been treating me.” Well, if the experience of those people is one of only seeing kindness, flattery, ingratiation, supplication, then they’re going to hear about that intimidation, that hostility, aggression and say, “You’re crazy. This is not the person I know.” And so there is in the abusive person I think an ability to shift, to shapeshift, to disguise true intentions. And so that will manifest itself in different ways depending on the context. So I think that’s one theoretical concept that is important for people to understand. I think another concept that needs to be grasped is realizing that often behind the need to manage the impressions that others are forming of you is a desire to protect your identity, to bolster that identity. And so if there is a truth, an ugly truth about you that you don’t want people to discover, you might manage the impressions others are forming of you to protect that truth as a way of maintaining this identity that perhaps you are clinging to about yourself or you want people to see in you. And so what these become, then, are identity threats. And so often someone might, for example, a pastor in a church who has founded his church, who has done a lot of the work to make it successful, might begin describing as his church, as his ministry, as his people. And if something threatens the reputation of that church or the stability of that church, a crisis comes along that has the potential to impact the legitimacy of that church, then that pastor might respond to that by dismissing it or trying to discredit those who are bringing it to their attention, not so much as a means of protecting the church, but as of protecting himself and his own identity, which is tied to the success of the church. And so I think that’s important to understand, too, that often what you’re confronting in an abusive system or church or leader is narcissism. It’s not just that they care about the church, and they might say that, they might even say they care about the reputation of Jesus. I don’t think that’s what they really care about. What they care about is their own reputation, their own livelihood, their own identity, because they’re finding life in these things. This is their lifeline that they cling to, their church, their success, and if something threatens that, if that comes crashing down, then they don’t know who they will be without that. So that’s another concept that I think is important.
Tim: Right. And the identity piece works both ways, right, with individuals and institutions where the lead pastor or the founding pastor has clearly staked his life and identity on the reputation of the church, but then so much of evangelical churches work the opposite, where the church itself is entirely based upon one charismatic personality, the kind of celebrity persona, and so if anything tarnishes that stage performance of that persona, then it’s a perceived threat to the entire church. And I’m sure you’ve seen the language of, “This is an attack on Jesus’s church, this is spiritual warfare,” and then it all gets painted in these over-spiritualized, crazy-making terms.
Wade: Yeah, that’s a really good point because it’s not always the case that the pastor creates all of that. Sometimes the people create this environment and create this structure in which they need a keystone to hold everything together. And so they go looking for a very charismatic person to be that keystone, and then they’ll protect that keystone at all costs, realizing that if the keystone is removed, then the entire structure might collapse. And so just recently I was involved with a case and helping some people in the middle of that case, and one of the comments that was emerging from that group of people was, “Well, what is going to happen to this organization now that so-and-so has been removed?” And so that person can be set up to be this keystone that holds everything together, and I think that’s a mistake that churches make.
Tim: I know you made a point, I think it was the early part of your research, it was kind of when you were differentiating individual and organizational. But you made a point that I can of double-circled it because it just struck such a chord with me, was that it takes a team. It takes a team of people, often the board, often other elders, pastors, sometimes the congregation itself, to all to some extent participate in these image management tactics. And the first thing I thought of, because we had the whole thing: the board, which is sounds like is pretty typical, kind of a bunch of yesmen cronies that kind of all just serve the ultimate decision of the lead pastor. But there was this moment that, I just never thought, I just never had an imaginary space for this, which was a small group leader in the church, so a lay leader, but clearly very invested in the church. And when the confrontation started and this whole sort of crisis escalated, there was a moment where she actually got vocally and visibly upset with another leader in the church for sharing the names of the pastors, myself included, who had essentially raised a flag, because she didn’t want any part of her vision of what this church was to be tarnished. And I’m sure you’ve got a sociological term for this. For me I just thought it was crazy, but it was someone whose life was staked to this thing and yet was in an emotional space based on what the church was to her that she actually preferred ignorance and was willing to say that out loud. “I wish you had never told me so that I could have maintained this facade.”
Wade: Yep. And Goffman has a term that might be similar to that, and it’s called tactful inattention. And so it’s when somebody perhaps is violating social norms, is acting out of line, but people might choose to not give that violation of social rules or norms any kind of attention in order to maintain tact. And so he calls that tactful inattention. And so I think it’s similar in the sense that someone says, “Don’t force me to look at this. We shouldn’t be looking at this. We shouldn’t be looking at this at all because of that might mean, the disruption that that might cause, and it would be better for us to go on without the disruption than to face that if we were to give this attention.”
Tim: So I’ve got two questions, you can kind of tackle them however you choose best. One is so, you studied a few evangelical organizations, two churches and a school, but then I know you’ve seen lots of other case studies in research. So the first question is sort of, what are the main tactics that we need to look out for from the powers that be within those institutions, and how do we spot them? But then the second one, and this is kind of the one I was just getting at, which strikes an equally emotional chord with me, is how do we make sure we’re not enabling this system? How do we make sure that we are not perpetuating, if we’re a lay leader, a small group leader, or even just a long time member of a church, that we aren’t helping this game be played or helping produce the facade? How do we not be complicit?
Wade: Yeah, that’s good. I have a list of about thirty one, thirty two different impression management tactics, and so it’s hard to pinpoint which ones are primary because it depends again on the situation and the audience, but generally speaking based on my own research and based on also my experience, the primary tactic that you might see before any kind of exposure happens is ingratiation. Where the person seeks to win the favor of their target, whoever’s receiving the communication, seeks to win their favor through flattery or through what’s called opinion conformity. So you might see that when someone says, “Hey, we’re really on the same page. There’s more that we agree on than what we disagree on.” So this is all attempts to increase the other person’s liking of you. And if the other person likes what is being said about them or likes what they’re hearing from you, then it’s easier to control that person. And so I do think we see this a lot in the church. I see it in introductions at conferences. When a pastor is introduced by the host they are almost deified in some cases, and then that person gets up on the stage and flatters the host or the audience in return, and it goes beyond just mere encouragement. It exemplifies people telling them perhaps they’re the best group in the world, or they’re the cream of the crop, or they’re premier, or they’re the smartest person that they’ve ever met. Those kind of things I would categorize as ingratiation, and people are watching that, and people are learning that script. And so I think that is pervasive in our churches, and it creates a cycle. It creates a cycle of worship and praise where flattery is expected to be returned, and if it’s not returned then the person who’s doing the flattery begins to question why it’s not being returned. And flattery I think becomes cyclical in the sense that those who receive the flattery feel the need to return it, and as other people join in that, you create a culture of fandom. And the flattery over time pushes out dissenters, pushes out anybody who might try to interject a sincere word of criticism or truth. They’re pushed out because they’re not willing to play the game, and I think that is really dangerous. And so I see that a lot. I think I would call that one of the primary tactics that I see. And what you’ll find is that just about every person, in fact every person that I’ve known to be an abuser in some way, at one point exhibited extreme kindness and was very charming, even R. Kelly, if you watched that documentary, was described as very charming. And so that is a ruse very often. That is a form of deception, it’s a pit, it’s a trap, because people so easily, and for good reason, receive that, accept it, but what they don’t know is behind that flattery is a desire to possess something that you have that the abusive person wants. They see you as an object, they objectify you, there’s something that they want from you that they want to possess, and so they use ingratiating tactics to get you to according, to voluntarily act according to the hidden plans that they have for you. So it’s very seductive and tricky. And then I would say another primary tactic that perhaps is more defensive, there’s a number that are defensive. I think once the threat emerges, once the exposure happens, then you start seeing a lot of different tactics coming out, and often you’ll see multiple impression management tactics contained in just one sentence, one paragraph. And so it can produce a lot of confusion. But what I’ve observed is generally the person or the organization will use excuses or use different types of justifications, and both of those are intended to escape consequences. So if I can be excused for my behavior by suggesting that it was a mistake, that I didn’t mean it, or suggesting that I didn’t have the knowledge that I needed to act. So you see that a lot now, where churches or leaders will say, “Well, knowing what I know now, I would have made a different choice then,” or, “I didn’t have the information that I needed to act.” And so there’s all these different kinds of excuses.
Tim: In my situation it was he was tired.
Wade: Tired. Yeah, yeah, and that’s a specific type of excuse called denial of volition where the person argues that they didn’t have the will or the ability to act in a different way. And the question then is, is that a legitimate excuse? And that’s hard to determine, but I think it’s important to recognize that these are excuses, and ironically oftentimes when you hear someone using these excuses, they will follow it up by saying, “And this is not an excuse.” And I want to say, “Yes it is.” The question is whether or not it is a legitimate excuse. Justifications in abuse scenarios, what we often see is someone justify the abuse by suggesting that the person who was abused is to blame for it or at least is partly to blame because they agreed to it, or because of their attire, or because of their personality, that somehow they brought it on themselves, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this really has caused a lot of harm to people. Another justification is to downplay the damage done. It’s to suggest, “Well, no real harm was done, so I shouldn’t face any consequences.” It’s like if someone said, “Yes, I did start a fire in the house over there, but it didn’t burn anything.” So those are justifications that basically have the same goal as an excuse, but they take different forms. So those are all defenses, and then what I often see attached to those defenses is some kind of promotion or some kind of prosocial behavior. Someone might say, someone might concede the basic facts of an event. “Yes, this happened, the exposure has happened, it’s undeniable that these abuses occurred, that this mistreatment occurred, that this wrong behavior occurred. So we’re going to concede the basic facts of that. But we’re going to offer these excuses or these justifications as a means of escaping any penalty, and then also we’re going to promote our values, we’re going to promote our past successes, we’re going to make promises that this will never happen again,” as a way of saying, “We shouldn’t be linked to this behavior.” And so you have these promotions, and then you also have what I see often is called prosocial behavior, where the organization or the person knows that certain changes are expected of them, and so they might move towards quickly putting on an event or committing to train people or educate people, and that’s all good, but the problem becomes if that is designed to repair an image then the core problem hasn’t been solved. And so I’ve seen that with organizations, and I’ve worked with some where I’ve said, “If you’re going to do this, if you’re going to put on this event, if you’re going to start going through these measures to demonstrate change, you need to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because you simply want to demonstrate to people that you shouldn’t be linked to this past behavior anymore.” So those are some common ones.
Tim: Yeah, so it seems like one assumption, which is probably a big one worth talking about that this is all built on, is that we don’t want to be a part of an institution that is using deceitful, manipulative tactics to preserve its image. So the assumption is, okay, if we see these things, like you said, you talked about ingratiation and flattery. And I have images of all of these things, examples in my head of conferences like you were saying, where we would go to host leadership meetings and it would just be the lead pastors of each church just kind of flirting with each other on stage for three hours. So it’s like, okay I’m seeing that. Now I know maybe this is a part of a culture that will tend toward not being truth-tellers, perhaps, but being image managers, and you and I have both seen that that can spiral to costs of human harm that we probably never would have imagined in the past. But then that’s only helpful if we’re all willing to gather around and say, “And we won’t be a part of anything like that.” Right? So kind of give me a sense—obviously the scope of your research was not how bad is protestant Christianity in America, how much trouble are we in—but what is your take? Like, clearly one of the assumptions of the research project is that cases of abuse and then cases of cover up of that abuse are prevalent in evangelical churches, hundreds of cases just in the last few years, some make the news, some don’t but ruin people’s lives nonetheless. Is this just—I guess first question: how bad is the problem? And then is it worse in religious contexts? Is it worse specifically in evangelical churches? Or is this just something innate to institutions with human beings who are narcissistic at the helm?
Wade: Yeah. Well, first I’ll say that I think we need to be careful, and I’ve seen this a number of times, of saying, “Well this is also a problem over here,” and then sometimes what follows that is, “This is also a human problem.” And that can be a form of justification in which people appeal to what they consider to be normal within the culture. And so it’s a way of saying, “Well then this organization, this denomination, this church, shouldn’t be seen as an outlier.” And so I caution against that anytime I see it. I think those questions need to be asked, “Is this worse in religious settings than, let’s say, education or the culture at large?” Because if we can’t answer that question, then we’re not going to take a hard look at the why. If it is indeed worse then the next question is, “Why is it worse? Are there contributing factors that are unique to religious settings, or unique to this denomination over here, or unique to this group over here that might make abuse more likely to occur in those settings?” Those are really difficult questions to ask, especially if those groups are going to ask it of themselves. And I would suggest that somebody outside of that group asks those questions and seeks to answer those question, but I think they need to be asked. There to my knowledge isn’t any data out there that would suggest with any kind of reliability that this problem is worse in religious circles, protestant circles, than other circles. That data isn’t out there to my knowledge, probably what makes that difficult is we don’t know precisely how many churches there are, we don’t know precisely how many pastors there are, we don’t know how many people are attending church. We know how many people are in the, let’s say in the school system. We know how many schools there are, we know how many teachers there are, we have that data, and so we can look at the number of teachers who have been arrested for a sex crime. One report that I saw suggested that 500 were arrested in 2015. Now you could take that number and calculate the percentage of teachers in a given year across America that are being arrested, but you can’t do that for pastors because we just don’t have the data that we need to determine that. I’ve done some of my own rough calculations, so for example, I have my own database. I have a list of 90 stories of pastors who have been arrested since the year 2000 just in the state of Alabama. And that is, I think, a considerable number when you calculate that percentage after trying to determine how many churches there are in that state. And so every time I do that, every time I look at a state or every time I try to isolate that, it comes out to roughly twice the number, or the percentage is twice as high, the rate is twice as high in protestant circles than it is in the overall population or the education system. And so I do think there is something to that. Those are questions that I’m still trying to seek answers to, but there’s not strong reliable data that I know of that’s out there.
Tim: Right. Which, even if it was that they were exactly equal, I think we would be utterly disappointed.
Wade: Yes, right, we should.
Tim: And the whole purpose of the church is to be a bastion of justice and truth, so if it’s even close, let alone if there’s a chance that it’s double, that is a devastating thing. So you pointed out a couple factors in your dissertation, one being that evangelical churches often have what was called a clan culture, which can support or perpetuate, tell me if I’m wrong, I don’t remember if it was that that makes abuse more likely, but it makes it more likely that the institution will cover up for one of those other members and not necessarily let the truth out about the abuse. And then the second one was one that I certainly saw, and I think I’ve seen this all across in so many of the stories I’ve seen, kind of what we were talking about where the reputation of the church, which is often in evangelical church culture integrally linked to the reputation of the lead pastor, whoever the main persona is, that is deemed as part of God’s reputation, and therefore nothing that hurts that could be good. And anything that poses a threat to that must be bad.
Wade: Yeah, I think those two factors are huge. The clan culture we see in a lot of churches and organizations. Every major group that I have studied has a clan culture at the top. That to me is a clear common factor, because what you have are people at the top who perhaps have gotten to the top because of their closeness to each other, because of their family members, because of their friends, and so they get to the top and they together, perhaps, see anything that would threaten the reputation of the organization as a threat to their clan, as a threat to their family, as a threat to their group. And so they might choose to protect each other to protect the clan when they are threatened. And so I see that. And then I also do think that there is a sense within a lot of churchgoers, and I think it’s a sense that needs to be rooted out, that the lead pastor, the senior pastor, is God’s very agent on earth in their life anointed by God. And so if people are viewing that person in that way, and if people are, also what often is the case, taught to view people in that way, then one, it sets them up to not believe anyone who says something that would contradict that role. And so someone comes along and says, a child perhaps who says, “Hey, this pastor abused me.” Well, if the church has been taught to believe that the pastor is anointed by God, then how are they going to reconcile that with what this child is saying about the pastor? And so I think that’s really potentially dangerous. And I also think that it sets the people up then also not just to protect the pastor, but to protect the role itself. So it’s not just that the pastor is considered sacred, the role is considered sacred, the pulpit is considered sacred. So it’s not just that they have to protect a person, but they have to protect a role which the community has established as sacred and holy and set apart in some way.
Tim: And the sheer irony, too, which I know you know this, but it was just dumbfounding for me, is knowing that if, especially in my situation where we weren’t saying that children were abused, we were saying, “You’re being a jerk!” that the church would have loved if the guy just stood up there and said, “Yeah, you know what, I’ve been a jerk.” And I know how much his life and his stress level and this whole frantic energy of having to put on this front, how much he could have relaxed and how healing it would have been for him to do the honest transparent thing. So that was the thing that had us all smashing our heads against the wall is like, the thing that they were most scared of actually isn’t scary! It’s this pretend situation, and then we all now are down this road of more lies and deceit and abuse and all this other stuff just because we’re scared of this thing that shouldn’t have ever been scary in the first place.
Wade: Yep. There’s a line in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that I’m not going to remember off the top of my head, but it’s says something to the effect that, this guy wasn’t ashamed to make all the foolish choices that he made, he wasn’t ashamed enough to do that, but he was too ashamed to do the thing that would have made him wise, which was to confess that and acknowledge that and turn from that. And so that’s the irony of it. They’re not ashamed. For whatever reason they don’t have enough shame to keep them from committing the harm or ignoring the harm, but when it comes time to actually expose it or to be exposed, then they resist that because they’re trying to avoid shame.
Tim: And that makes me think of another question I have for you, which again, this is probably beyond the scope of your official research, but I just kind of want to get your take. What’s the root of the problem? So understanding, being able to explain and describe these image management tactics, is hopefully for people to not be deceived by them. But do you think the C.J. Mahaneys and the Mark Driscolls of the world, if they read your dissertation, is anything going to change? Is it an understanding thing? Is it, like you mentioned earlier, is it simply narcissism? Is it the way narcissism and religious authority kind of interact? What’s the root, for the people who are the biggest players in perpetuating these issues, what is your take on kind of the root of that issue?
Wade: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that for some time now and watching as people respond to these events and try to diagnose the root. You’ll have a lot of different opinions out there. I do think it is a root structure, but perhaps—this is where I’m at currently—the deepest root is one of power. That the person, and it often is a person or group of people, elites within the organization or within the system, who at some point developed a thirst for power, and then they used various means to grasp that power, deceptive means to get it from people, and then have continued to retain that power through deception. And that power can be achieved and retained through various means. It can be through theologies; it could be through defining people’s roles, the roles of men, the roles of women; it could be through restructuring an organization in such a way that the leader is more and more isolated. So I think what is at the deepest root often in a church or a system or organization is a person who is at the top, or a group of people who are at the top and they have a thirst for power. They have a thirst for possession. They want to possess whatever they desire, whatever that might be, they want to possess it, and so they get the power that they need in order to achieve that possession. So it’s confronting that power and then asking the question. This is why I think if someone is exposed to have this history of abusive behavior and corruption and mismanagement, what I think we need to consider is whether or not everything that person did was an attempt to serve their own needs. And so the constitution that they set up, the bylaws they created, the theologies that they pushed, the people they hired, the buildings that they built, everything—was it inherently deceptive and intended to be a feeder to that person’s power?
Tim: That’s a scary question to ask.
Wade: Yeah, and for those people, you asked if they ask that question, if they read this kind of work, will they change? I don’t have hope in that unless somehow all of that power is removed from them. Then perhaps the change will come after they drop that power, after it’s taken from them in some way, or they give it up, and then they live without that power for a significant period of time until they learn, if that’s possible, until they learn to find life in its true source.
Tim: Yeah, one of the kind of catch-22s which I’ve seen, and I think it’s predominant, was we, those of us that were on the staff and kind of raised red flags with the lead pastor, we did it internally at first and we just framed it as an intervention. And we basically said, “There are issues of an addiction to power that we think are killing you, and it’s causing you to hurt people that we deep down don’t think you actually want to be hurting them.” And part of what we suggested was that he needed a break. Not because anybody else wanted his role, that was the last thing any of us wanted was to take his power, right? Of course it was framed as this coup.
Wade: That’s what he thought?
Tim: Yeah. But we basically, “The way life works is you will never get free of your addiction to this power that the role of lead pastor of a big fancy church is giving you if you don’t take a break from it.”
Tim: Like, “You’ve taught on Sabbath. You’ve preached it. This is your chance to walk it out.” And of course what the board did to help and protect this man was to say, “We’ll never take that away from you.”
Tim: So the thing they thought they were doing to save him was the thing we were saying, “You’re going to kill him with this.” Because, and that’s what I’ve seen so many times, is that person in that role, like you say, and the preeminence of that role has to be protected. But it seems to me that the only thing that would save some of these people and really lead to a transformation and healing would be if they could actually step out of that. And we didn’t even want him fired. We just thought he needed a break, some form of true sabbatical where it was actually a time for him to detach from the addiction to being in that role, being the one with the microphone and all that. And the board tried to save him from us by saying they would never that for him and he could always have that power. And so so much of this to me, I’ve seen that same thing over and over again like you were saying, protecting the preeminence of that role and that person in that role, the lead pastor position. But really it seems like it’s protecting that power, which as we’ve said, so many people think has been ordained by God. And that that power, especially as a church grows or becomes successful, that power is the marker of success. And so if it’s been successful in the past, and we said God did that, and we all gave up our lives to support this thing, then it’s all untouchable. So I guess a question I want to ask you is a question I’ve been asking myself for four or five years, and sometimes I think I have an answer and sometimes I don’t. Which is: is church really possible for Christians without completely rehauling the way we think about power? In every relationship, from me to you, from what leadership is, and then from the way we’ve trained ourselves to think about an organized body of people. Is church possible if it still has the kind of celebrity persona at the top and a whole bunch of people who are trying to kind of feed off of that power, in a sense, underneath?
Wade: Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s a good question and another that I’ve been wrestling with for some time now, because I don’t want to simply deconstruct these things without having in mind how they might be reconstructed, or at least at some point being a part of that if there’s an opportunity to do that. I think a church by its very nature is a body, is an organism made up of various parts. And when one part of that body has too much control, is celebrated by the rest of the body, is granted this celebrity status, then I think it ceases to be what it was designed to be. And so yeah, I do think that we need to rethink the nature and purpose of our churches. I think that’s ultimately, perhaps, where all of this might go, and where I hope it goes. I think we need to radically rethink what we mean by church, what it looks like when people get together. What we have now as a predominant mode of church are buildings, and increasingly larger buildings, that people enter into, and they sit and they watch and they sing, and people are on a stage performing, playing, speaking. And then they leave. And they think that they’ve gone to church, but they haven’t done many of the things that the New Testament says we’re supposed to do when we get together. And so I think what we often have are crowds. Crowds of people that meet to pay, meet to listen to and applaud and watch a performance on a stage. And I do have a hard time with seeing that that is increasingly the model of church today. And what I see it as, I see it as people who are not on the front lines in battle against evil power. So there is evil happening all around us. And church is in so many areas and so many situations sort of like people sitting around a campfire behind the front lines, not realizing that there’s a battle all around them, and they’re singing songs and they’re having a good time, and more and more people are gathering around those fires. Meanwhile, the front lines where they ought to be is growing increasingly thin, and more and more people are being harmed, and more and more people are being destroyed, lives are being destroyed. And we think that we’re being successful because we have a lot of people gathered around these campfires. And what I’d like to see is people leave those big boxes. Not necessarily leave in the sense of, “Hey, I’m not going to attend this church anymore,” but to go out to where the battle is, to where the front lines are, and for that to be their primary experience, and then you get together because you need to. Because you need to be encouraged, because you need to be equipped to go back and do battle against evil. So I think that’s for me perhaps a different vision of what church might be in the future.
Tim: Yeah, that’s good. Okay, Wade, I just have one last question for you. So how has your story and then these years of looking behind the curtain and trying to see the ugliness of this that a lot of us never wanted to see or know that existed, how has all this affected your faith?
Wade: Um, it has strengthened it in perhaps an odd way. I am becoming more and more convinced that evil does exist because I see the patterns. I see the patterns not just real-time now, but also throughout history, going back to the very beginning of time, I see this pattern. And it is a language. It’s a language that I think evil wants to keep hidden. And as I grow more and more convinced about the intelligence of evil, it also reminds me that there must be a good. So in that odd way, it’s taking me into an understanding that I didn’t have before that isn’t just shedding light on evil but also shedding light on good as well. And it’s also exposing me not just to those who are perpetrating these evils, but also to the good and the resilience of people who are surviving those evils and who are advocating for others, who are combating the evil head-on. And so I’ve been amazed at how many people are facing this head-on, even listening to you describe what you and the others did at your church to bring some change and to intervene, and you were willing to sacrifice your own well-being to do that, that to me brings hope and encouragement.
Tim: Awesome. Thanks for sharing. I hope I remember most of what I read in your dissertation.
Wade: [laughing] Me too.
Tim: There’s one piece I know I won’t forget, and that is you dedicated it to your wife and your kids. And you wrote a little blessing, and you said, “May they grow up to be truth-tellers.” And that little line, as simple as it is, I think is a beautiful, beautiful wish, not just for your own kids but for everybody. So I just want to say, Wade, thanks for being a truth-teller yourself. I didn’t know your story and the cost of that for you personally until now, but I’ve appreciated all the truth you’ve been telling on Twitter and with your research, so thanks for your voice.
Wade: Thank you, Tim, and I appreciate hearing some of your story here during our time together, and I also appreciate your interest in this subject. I’m very encouraged to know that you experienced it and also you’re speaking about it.
Tim: Cool. Is your dissertation still available if people want it?
Wade: Yeah, it is. People can find it on the dissertation databases, ProQuest. I don’t know if you have to pay for it there or not, or at least you might have to have access. I do have a link out there where people can download, so it’s somewhere in my Twitter feed. If people search for it they should be able to find it.
Tim: Cool. And what’s your Twitter handle?
Wade: wad3mullen. wademullen, but with a 3 at the end of Wade.
Tim: [laughing] Alright, Wade. Thanks so much.
Wade: Alright, thanks Tim.
Tim: Okay, Nate, you’re here now.
Tim: We are in the future.
Nate: [makes futuristic sound effect?]
Tim: [laughing] You missed the interview because you’re busy.
Nate: I’ve heard it now, though. I’ve heard it now, though.
Tim: Yeah, so just wanted to catch up with you for a few minutes on the tail end of the episode and get your thoughts.
Nate: Yeah, uh. I was sad to miss it. I found myself almost asking a question in a couple different spots and was like, “Oh, that’s not live. I can’t do that.” But I’ve been in baby mode the last I don’t know how many days because I’m in baby mode. So fortunately Buffer, the company I work for, lets me have a number of weeks off, which is awesome, and I’m able to just focus on that. But focusing on that is really crazy, and so the podcast has kind of taken a backseat for a little while. We had a beautiful baby girl, her name is Zinni Leigh, or Zinnia, like the flower. People ask us, “Ooh, where’d you come up with that?” It’s just a flower. That’s all it is. [laughing] Actually, I had to be told it was a flower, too, I didn’t know. So we have two daughters, it’s super fun but also crazy. I’ve used that word a lot, crazy. So super happy that we were able to have Wade on. I thought it was excellent, and mostly because when I first started listening I thought, “Okay, this is like these extreme cases of sexual abuse we see in some of these churches. But you know, it’s not for… most churches aren’t going to experience something like this.” But then he started describing what to look for, what are the things that are in place in a church or in a religious organization where you would see a breeding ground, I guess, for this to happen. And he started describing things, and I was like, “Whoa! This is like nearly every religious institution or church that I’ve help start and lead and plant and all that kind of stuff.” Even if, I wouldn’t say a crisis has happened at most churches necessarily, but these things are in place to where if a crisis did happen, it would almost make sense, like you could see some of these things happening. The cover up or the difficulty in questioning the man of God and criticizing the man of God, I was like, “Whoa!” You know what I mean?
Tim: Yeah, totally. I mean when I first discovered Wade on Twitter and his research, I really mean it, others of us at the church I used to work for, it felt like someone had watched it. Like it was reading a description of what we’d seen. And we went through a situation of abuse and cover up, but it also, some of what he was talking about was like all the things we had watched for years leading up to before the kind of crisis moment had ever hit. Essentially a lot of it’s just describing evangelical church culture that is a culture of protecting the powerful at the expense of victims.
Nate: Yeah. I know a lot of people would have push back on that. And I think I would have push back on that, because I haven’t necessarily experienced that firsthand. But I think what Wade helped me see is that this lifting up the man of God, or the men of God on the elder board, it’s the congregation almost that wants to have this person to look to. And we could talk about why that is but, we’re almost the ones that are setting all this up, and then you combine that with most of the time the person that is planting and deciding to start churches, they tend to be—and this was kind of, we were in this world, so we were involved in this or maybe even kind of headed down this path ourselves—but they tend to be the ones that have power and maybe control issues and some narcissism mixed in. They tend to be the ones that probably shouldn't be doing this thing, even if this structure was good, these probably shouldn’t be the people doing that. And then you have this structure and the congregation that is setting this up and looking for and it’s like a perfect storm, really. It’s like set up for failure, almost. Yeah, so it was really helpful to see him kind of lay all that out. There was one thing he said, though, at the end. When he was describing, I think you asked, “Is it even possible for us, is church even possible? Is there a way that this would even work?” And he laid out, he started saying things that sounded pretty much exactly like the type of church that I was trying to plant with a couple other people in San Francisco. And I was super excited about the idea of, “Let’s just get rid of the stage. Let’s get rid of the one person up front and we point all the chairs to them and just hear what they have to say, and then we all go home and we do that again every week.” And make it more like, “Hey, let’s go out let’s be on the front lines,” as Wade described it. “Let’s be out there,” we called it on mission, “Let’s be out there on mission to reach the lost, to save souls, that kind of thing, and then we’ll have to come back together and get encouraged and lick our wounds.” And so that gathering would be the encouragement, licking wounds, you know, thing. And that would be what church is. And I just wanted to say, there are aspects of that that still, I think, make more sense. This house church, no stage, just people meeting together kind of thing that I like and I think are better. But at least what I saw is it’s still very, very easy to have the head honcho, the guy you’re looking to at the top, and then even in the house churches, the people that are sort of at the top of the thing. Someone still leads the thing, and we still want to lift that person up. I don’t know. I just, from my experience it’s still very, very possible for a lot of these types of things to happen even in that. So I would just say, yeah, I appreciate that take, but I still don’t know if that actually is going to solve the problems. But it might be a little bit better.
Tim: Yeah, I hear you because I know where you’re coming from. I think the key piece, though, is that when Wade talks about the church going out and doing the work of the church, he means going out and calling out injustices and speaking truth to power.
Nate: True. Yeah.
Tim: I mean, this is a pastor and a seminary professor who did his PhD calling out the ways that churches and evangelical institutions rampantly cover up their abuses. So that, to Wade and to the whole stream of people, Julie Anne who’s one that listens to our show and others who are in this advocacy kind of community, especially some of the more vocal, I would say prophetic, advocates for victims who call out churches who rampantly cover up abuse and dismiss the cries of victims, that is the work of the church in these people’s minds. Which is very different than the other world that you and I come from which is saying, “The work of the church is evangelism or planting churches, or whatever.” And if any person comes up and says something that might make the church look bad, that’s going to get in the way of the work of the church, we need to dismiss those voices. This is saying, listening to those voices is what it means to be a church, and finding those victims who haven’t been listened to, exalting their voices, and calling out those in power who have dismissed those voices, that is what it means to do, say, ministry or mission or Christian anything.
Nate: Right. And not just the voices in the church that maybe have been abused or something, but you’re talking about like justice things in our communities and in our cities and flipping the power dynamics in those places, and calling out injustice and lifting up the voices and the cries of the poor. And yeah, if that’s what the work is, if that’s what we’re going out and doing and then getting back together with some of our friends and talking about it, I can get behind that. I can see that as a church, loosely defined, that would potentially work.
Tim: Totally. I mean, this can get it or it can not. All my favorite Christians who give me the most hope and like, Christian “oomph” these days are people who are calling out abuse in churches. That was part of why I wanted to have Wade on. And to so many in the world, so many who are using these impression management strategies, those are the threats to the church. To me at this stage of life, those are the people who are like, the pioneers of Christianity in this culture in this time.
Nate: Alright. [crumpling paper sounds] I didn’t actually have anything on this piece of paper, but you got to have the crumpling paper sound at the end of the interview.
Tim: [laughing] I didn’t even know what that was. I thought a rat had gotten in your garage.
Nate: [crumples paper] Okay! Alright, we are doing a series on hell coming up, so make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss that. We have a lot of responses that we received from you, and we’re super excited about this, so I think it’s going to be fun. It’s gonna be fun.
Tim: Nate, this was supposed to be my show. Hey, so we’re doing a series on hell coming up, so… I mean, I don’t know. Stay tuned? Peace.
Nate: Smash that subscribe button. [laughing]
Tim: [laughing] Smash it!