Inappropriate Behavior, No Long Acceptable
By Alan Mead
It would be almost impossible to read any news source over the past few days and not be aware of people, formerly silent, speaking up, revealing incidents of past abuse or misconduct. In many cases, at least those that are making the national news, it is not only individuals unloading a burden of hurt and anger that sometimes had been carried alone for years; but importantly it is a growing number of people gaining strength from each other, finding support and courage, and speaking truth to power.
Perhaps we are in the beginning of a societal change, although from my perspective there has been a growing awareness, at least within the church, for a number of years. We all know stories of moving a priest or minister to another location, of smoothing things over, calming things down, keeping things secret and hidden. In the Episcopal Church we began to see a shift in the early 1990’s with the introduction of extensive background checks being required of all clergy, and the continuance of those background checks before every new ministry and after a set number of years if one didn’t move.
As an interim that meant going through a new background check more than every two years on average. Along with background checks, attendance and participation in education about abuse and misconduct became mandatory, teaching people to recognize signs of abuse and misconduct, and learn ways to create safer spaces in churches and congregations. Importantly, this education has extended beyond the clergy and is being expected and increasingly required for all who desire to teach or serve on a committee or minister in any way within a congregation. This is making a difference! It is changing culture and at the very least, raising awareness.
Maybe the church has actually been leading the way with an insistence that hiding abuse and misconduct and bad behavior will no longer be tolerated. Maybe we are simply in a time when people who once remained silent and suffered alone are finding that they can speak their truth and others will speak and stand with them. It is not by accident that the powerful respond by denial and then attacking their accusers, for that is a tactic of power and privilege that has worked maybe forever. There are growing signals that it may finally be stopped.
But it is not only abuse and predatory behavior; it is also a cultural and societal issue that says, “boys will be boys,” where poor behavior is not only accepted but is thought to be humorous. This may be exemplified perhaps by the photo of a grinning Al Franken as he gropes a sleeping Leeann Tweeden while on a USO tour in 2006.
I remember at a clergy conference, witnessing an elderly minister laughingly patting a young clergywoman on her backside. I noticed that evening that he did this more than once, although never to a male clergy. I doubt if he even thought anything at all about it. As a white male growing up in the previous century we simply had a pass on something like that.
Are we in a time when society will put the brakes on abusive behavior by those who have more power? I can’t answer that; but I know that I have been changing, becoming more aware of boundaries and their importance, more aware of the power that I have by nature of my position. Those of us who minister during times of transition are in a unique position to help a congregation reflect on their strengths and joys; and also to observe and question patterns of behavior.
What do you think? What are some of the ways that you have helped a congregation to become a healthier church and community? Have you observed patterns of behavior by leadership that speak of power rather than respect?