Join me in Brazil, March 23-27, 2015!


I will be attending and speaking at the 2015 General Assembly of the World Reformed Fellowship in Sao Paulo, Brazil (March 23-27, 2015) on the topic of recovery from child sexual abuse. Boz Tchividjian, Diane Langberg, Jim Gamble (N. Ireland) and Beatri Kruger (S. Africa) will also be covering topics such as preventing child abuse, sex trafficking and counseling.

These conversations are important everywhere, but this audience will be representing Reformed church communities worldwide, and that makes it very important conversation since churches worldwide need to keep talking about abuse that takes place within Christian environments. ! If trauma and abuse aren’t your cup of tea, there are parallel tracks covering everything from transdenominational ministry, Islam, church ministry and sexuality, church planting, and prosperity gospel.

See WRF GA Assembly for more information about the conference program and how to register for the conference.

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Why are we surprised when we hear of systemic abuses?


Today on my ride home I heard a sports commentator discussing a recent abuse scandal on a high school football team. While the commentator did not dispute the evidence of abuse, he asked another whether he had ever heard of such behavior before by a football team. It seemed he was a bit surprised a team or a coach would tolerate systemic abuses of other teammates.

Why are we surprised when an organization tolerates harm done by one set of members to another set of members?

Whenever an organization (football, school, fraternity, or religious community) seeks to best the competition, limits membership, rejects all who would support other groups, maintains secrecy a strong hierarchy, you have a recipe for systemic abuse. Look closer at this recipe:

  • A population of individuals who deeply desire inclusion, who want to be in the inner circle
  • A population of individuals already in the inner circle and feeling mighty proud of it
  • Everyone feeling the need to protect the organization over individual needs/concerns
  • Secrecy about decision-making processes
  • Leadership who will maintain the hierarchy and encourage fears over what might happen if the system breaks down.

We know hazing and abuse happens on sports teams, fraternities, military units, and any other organization with these above-named features. It is more natural than we would like to admit.

This does not mean that all popular organizations, all private clubs are abusive. Rather, only without significant effort, individual abusive acts will morph into systemic abuse through complicity.

What significant efforts reduce the possibility of systemic abuse? Here are a few for starters:

  • Transparency of leadership and decision-making processes
  • A culture of protecting the weak over the strong
  • A culture of inclusion and collaboration with outsiders
  • A culture of servant-leadership and true mutual submission
  • A willingness to listen to inside and outside critique

He who wants to be first, must be the least of all.

Do we believe this? Or do we believe that associating with bigger, more prestigious groups will bring us value?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture

Conference Opportunity: Redeeming the Impact of Sexual Abuse (10/31-11/1)


the%20change%20seminar%20flyer-001[1]I have the privilege of participating in the Change Seminar at the end of this month. Designed for survivors, family members, church leaders, friends, and clinicians, this Friday afternoon/Saturday seminar will Feature myself and Mary DeMuth and her husband, Patrick. Mary, author of Not Marked: Finding Hope and Healing After Sexual Abuse, will be speaking on church communities and their role in helping victims and their families recover. She will be speaking Saturday, November 1 from 9-2. I will be speaking on Friday afternoon, October 31, on the topic of making the church a safe place for trauma survivors (those who have been trafficked, sexually abused, or have PTSD from other causes.

To register: www.chelten.org/changeseminar or call to 21.5.646.5588.

For those of you in the Philadelphia area, you can’t get continuing education for much cheaper than this: 6 CEs for $100 (NBCC approved). If you don’t need CEs then the price is even lower, $45 for couples, $35 for couples if one is a ministry leader, $25 for individuals.

Isn’t it time the church became know for the leading edge of caring for (and preventing!) sexual violence?

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Thoughts on Gary Haugen’s “The Locust Effect”


Over 2 billion people live on less than 2 dollars a day. If you doubled the population of the United States you would have the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day. As Gary Haugen points out, if you are reading The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence (Oxford, 2013) or are reading this blog, you are not likely to be a member of the extreme poor. And if you aren’t a member of the extreme poor you probably wish you could do something to improve the lives of the most impoverished. The poor need clean water, food, housing, jobs, affordable healthcare, and education among other things.

But Haugen says all of those needs pale to a greater need: the need to stop the plague of “lawless violence.”

Opportunities for education, jobs, healthcare, quality food and water will evaporate or will not be accessed if poor do not have protection from violent forces–security, law enforcement, and a just judiciary.

The book challenges the reader to stay with the problem of poverty and violence as it travels across the globe to recount story after story of vulnerable men, women, and children whose governments fail to (a) protect them from sexual violence, bonded labor, property theft, and (b) defend them or seek justice after becoming prey. Frankly, it would be easy to either turn away from this problem since it is too large for anyone to solve or to just keep offering some form of help (food, water, job creation–all of which are needed and good!) without confronting the epidemic of violence.

Sexual Violence

There are many forms of violence a poor person can face. Their livelihood, home, and communities can be destroyed. But sexual violence doesn’t just take those things but also eviscerates the soul. Haugen recounts that in some locations as many as 68 percent of girls report experiences of sexual abuse. Some 6 to 11 million individuals are trapped in the sex trafficking industry. Some 1 billion women are known victims of sexual abuse. For most readers, this is not new news.

But consider for a minute that somewhere’s between 6 and 50 million people (Haugen tells us to read that as MEN) pay for sex each day. Remember that buying sex is likely supporting violence (pimps, prior sexual abuse, etc.). Look at the problem of sexual violence a different way–the percentage of men who have EVER paid for sex ranges from 15 percent to 85 percent (depending upon the country).

Sit with that number for a bit. You want to stop sexual violence? Yes, we need law enforcement willing to investigate and charge sex offenders. Yes, we need a judiciary system willing to provide justice through convictions and sentencing. But, if we really want to stop sexual violence, we have to deal with demand side of the equation.

Trauma the Multiplier of Violence and Poverty

Gary’s book addresses some of the colonial roots of violence in the developing world (i.e., government and law enforcement built for the ruling/colonial class, not for the local population). While I have not finished the book, I’m wondering about how he sees the impact of trauma on this whole problem. As most recognize, traumatized people tend towards learned helplessness and thus are much more vulnerable to future violent acts against them. And Haugen acknowledges this problem, if briefly (pp 105-106). He identifies the fact that “unrestrained violence” leads to traumatic reactions that will hinder the capacities to take advantage of available resources.

While all true, the problem of trauma is likely causing problems not just for the vulnerable poor but also effecting the entire system (police, judiciary, and government). Trauma often causes individuals to stop thinking of the future. Instead, individuals make impulsive, self-protective decisions that may hinder future opportunities (e.g., drug use stops triggers but harms future health). The same can be true of systems (bribery to survive now, but destructive to safety and stability.

The book ends with a number of ways to address the problem of global violence so make sure you read to the end. But I encourage you to think about ways to respond to BOTH trauma and faith deficits. Check out the work the Trauma Healing Institute as an example of grassroots, lay level response to these two problems.

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Roger Goodell wants to “get it right”: What has to change in the NFL to stop domestic violence


In a press conference today  Roger Goodell apologized for mishandling recent domestic violence scandals and provided specific ways he and the NFL planned to rectify the situation (e.g., education, training, funding national domestic violence and child abuse prevention organizations).

“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter. I’m sorry for that. Now I will get it right.”

Some of the intended efforts should have a positive effect, both for the NFL and for the larger society. However, if Goodell is serious about changing the culture of the NFL and society, he needs to take a step back from these good ideas and start by identifying the roots of the problem. Without getting the root, this problem will not be solved.

What is the root that has to change? Let me list two that must be addressed:

  1. We have to stop treating women as objects to be sought after and conquered. An object has no feelings and can be used however I wish. It has no rights, no value…unless I give it value. When we treat women as objects, then we only give them value when we chase them. And when they displease us, what is the big deal if we attack and treat without regard to their personhood? Last summer I heard an African man say that his wife was property because he had paid a dowry for her. Sure, she was special property and he took great care of her. But still, she was property and he could do with her as he wished. We in the West may think we are enlightened, but when we engage in domestic violence (and DV is more than physical!) we agree with this man–that our wives and girlfriends are property, something to be controlled.
  2. We have to stop treating top athletes as having special privileges, as individuals who do not need to conform to social rules. When you believe the rules do not apply to you, then why not get revenge when someone irritates you? You won’t be held accountable. When you see an attractive woman, why not do everything you can to get her into bed? Faithfulness, self-control, respect for others…those don’t apply. I have been told that women working for the NFL are nearly tortured by efforts to get them into bed; that it is nearly impossible to do their job due to the sexual harassment. Some may suggest that any woman working for the NFL ought to know what she is getting into and so has no right to complain. Others might acknowledge the problem with a sigh but point out that the warfare culture of football, the lure of fame, youthful temptations brought on by sudden riches, and the insatiable competitive spirit are to blame for these misdeeds. Baloney. Youth, money, fame, and testosterone may make it more difficult to do the right thing but the problem started long before these young men got their first football check. They were treated as gods and allowed to keep playing their sport when they acted out. Winning and being associated with winners tempted us to look the other way. How do I know this happens? Because I’ve been in a locker room before. Inappropriate speech was ignored, even laughed at. If you learn that rules don’t apply as a child, why will you behave when you are older?

How about a new institutional organizing principle? Out with self-promotion (and self-protection) and in with… 

In the past, organizations, including religious ones, often made decisions about mis-deeds of members by delivering consequences when it hurt their image (or more accurately, hurt their bank accounts). If we want to put a dent in the number of cases of violence (that is all we can do, keep offenders from re-offending under our own watch), we will have to stop being so concerned about image and start putting the care of the most vulnerable as job one.

Want to change the NFL and the world about domestic violence. Let us each start with ourselves and let us adopt this often repeated line of Jesus

“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

That is all there is. Die to self, love others more than yourself. Thank goodness Jesus didn’t merely give us sage advice but led as an example thereby giving us his power to love beyond measure.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership

Institutional betrayal: Secret ingredient to PTSD


We live in the world where human frailty and pathology is viewed in individual terms. When we see sickness we imagine that the person must have some weakness in biology, faith, or behavior. Rarely do we think about the role the system or community has played in the development of that person’s pathology. This is true when we think about a person diagnosed with PTSD. We therapists hypothesize about individual factors (personality factors, early childhood experiences (a slight nod to external causes) and neurobiological risk factors) and situation factors (the frequency, duration, and intensity of overwhelming trauma events) when we try to answer the “why” of the development of PTSD in a person.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into consideration of known research that suggests that environmental response to an individual’s trauma experiences may be a determining factor in whether PTSD or chronic traumatic reactions form.

In the most recent American Psychologist (2014, 69:6, 575-587), Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd write about the concept of institutional betrayal. Traumatologists recognize Freyd’s name as the researcher who developed “betrayal trauma theory”, pointing to the especially toxic form of PTSD caused by those who were supposed to be safe and protective. These begin to examine “institutional action and inaction that exacerbate the impact of traumatic experiences…”

How can an institution betray a victim?

When a person trusts that a system designed to defend, respond, protect, or seek justice will do its job after an interpersonal trauma, and when that system either chooses not to respond (omission) or worse, chooses to lay blame at the feet of the victim (commission), institutional betrayal occurs. Examples include law enforcement accusing rape victims of “asking for it” with their clothing, church leaders allowing offender clergy to “leave with their reputations” or refusal to investigate a case of date rape when the reported offender is an important leader in the community.

In summarizing a couple of studies, Smith and Freyd point out that institutional betrayal after a trauma experience leads to higher rates of dissociation, sexual problems, and health difficulties. This is even more likely when the trauma takes place in an environment where protection of the members is trumpeted (i.e., church or military).

What are the common characteristics of betraying institutions?

Smith and Freyd note several characteristics found in institutions at greater risk for betraying members.

  • membership requirements to define in group identity. This produces a need for members to act in ways to maintain such an identity
  • Prestige (both leaders and institutions). Prestige produces both trust and fear, dependency and power
  • Priorities. “Institutional betrayal may remain unchecked when performance or reputation is valued over, or divorced from the well-being of members.” As the authors note, maintaining reputation as a priority will lead to neglect or attack of those who challenge reputation
  • Institutional denial. Blame a few bad apples, avoid institutional blame or responsibility

Those institutions that do make efforts to prevent abuse within its community may still yet fail to respond well. They may fail to use adequate screening procedures, normalize abuse, fail to utilize or follow appropriate response procedures, punish whistleblowers, and aid cover-ups.

What to do?

Smith and Freyd argue that transparency (about past actions/failures to act as well as power structures) and priority to protect the well-being of all members will move institutions away from the risk of betraying individual members. I would argue that the shift to protect moves from the institution as a whole to protection of the most vulnerable.

Let me recommend a few resources that have appeared here in the past:

  1. Diane Langberg’s 5 part video about narcissistic leaders and the institutions they lead. She too describes systemic narcissism.
  2. Why some spiritual leaders abuse (and systems allow it)
  3. Narcissistic systems
  4. Resources to combat narcissism one person at a time

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Filed under Abuse, personality, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

Criticism of Biblical Counseling: Are Joyce’s Concerns Valid?


Katheryn Joyce has recently published a long post about the rise of Biblical counseling and the concerns some have about the movement [read it here].

Most people who have thoughts about counseling and Christianity tend to fall into one of to categories: Those who oppose biblical counseling as dangerous and those who oppose the various versions of Christian psychology as shallow and full of humanistic ideology. Very few people try to maintain identity in both worlds. If you have read my “about me” you will find I’m one of those who does accept the label of biblical counseling and Christian psychology (more on this below)

I encourage both proponents and opponents of Biblical Counseling to read her essay. Let me even take the liberty to suggest some starting questions to keep in mind as you read. While the essay may not answer the questions, having them in mind will keep you from solidifying stereotypes of either sides.§ If you are inclined to reject biblical counseling, consider these questions:

  1. Where might I find a more thorough history of biblical counseling and its various permutations?
  2. What main biblical counseling author voices are missing in this piece? [Note that the mentioned ACBC was, until recently, known as NANC (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors)]
  3. What failures in Christian psychology movement(s) led to the need for a biblical counseling movement?

If you are inclined to defend biblical counseling, consider these questions

  1. Even if some of the bad examples of biblical counseling do not represent you or the heart of the movement, what aspects of the movement may support or encourage some of these distortions?
  2. How might you better communicate “sufficiency of Scripture” to outsiders?
  3. Does biblical counseling seek to eliminate symptoms or improve spiritual responses to symptoms? How might it better acknowledge the body when talking about the causes of mental health problems?
  4. Where does fear of “integration” hinder the maturation of biblical counseling as a movement?

Indeed, these questions have already been asked and answers given in a variety of locations. Readers unfamiliar with biblical counseling should start with websites such as this one, CCEF, ACBC, BCC, and the Society of Christian Psychology to find further and deeper readings on related topics.

Where the Concerns are Valid

Not acknowledging benefits from psychological research. Joyce notes that a good biblical counseling session looks a lot like a good professional counseling session. Why? Well, it is obvious that change happens best in the context of kind, compassionate relationships. Why the similarity? While it is true that psychotherapists didn’t discover empathy, it is true that psychotherapy research has expanded our understanding of the best way to encourage trust relationships in therapy. In addition, some of the cognitive, affective, and dynamic interventions developed from these models are used within biblical counseling. I have absolutely no problem from biblical counseling deriving benefit from interventions developed in other models of therapy. I only desire biblical counselors or acknowledge that benefit. It is clear Jay Adams benefited from Mowrer (and said so to boot). We can do the same. We can admit that Marsha Linehan has revolutionized our understanding of how we work with people exhibiting symptoms of borderline personality disorder.

Emphasizing false dichotomies. Joyce quotes Heath Lambert in this piece (near the end),

“I’m concerned [that] if we say, ‘Oh my goodness, people with hard problems need physicians and need a drug,’ we’re going to lose much of what the Bible has to say about hard problems.”

The quote above is in the context of dealing with difficult or serious mental illness. He worries that if the church creates two categories of problems (normal and special), those with serious problems will no believe that the bible has things to say about those suffering with suicidal ideation or schizophrenia. It seems that some biblical counselors take a negative stance on psychiatry and medical intervention because they fear doing so will hinder the work of the Spirit through the bible. I would argue that this dichotomy does not need to exist. I agree that the bible speaks to everyone, whether they are having difficulty or easy problems. I don’t think that use of medications or medical practitioners has to hinder pastoral care. The message that others get when we suggest that medical intervention need to be avoided is that somehow it is less spiritual to seek a medical intervention. This is patently false. Now, not every medicine is worth taking. Some may create more problems then they solve. But that fact should not cause us to lump all professional/medical care into the same category.

Where the Concerns are Overplayed

Heath Lambert gets it right when he claims that all counseling models will fail, due primarily to the quality of the practitioner. Biblical Counselors do much work that is commendable and successful. Joyce’s piece may suggest that most biblical counselors are ineffective and incompetent. This is not true. Matthew Stanford suggest he has never seen a biblical counselor do well with difficult cases. That may be the experience of my friend, but I can attest to seeing biblical counselors working well with people with serious personality disorders, delusions and other difficult mental illnesses. Now, the truth is, these counselors have succeeded because they did not follow the stereotype and reject learning from professional psychology. Further, these same counselors did not take “sufficiency” to mean that they could only use the bible in considering how to respond to their clients.

Take a moment and read her piece. Review the questions above and keep an open mind to both sides of this story.

[§ I have written on the relationship between Christian psychology and biblical counseling in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, volume 25, 1997. You can buy that essay here.]

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Filed under CCEF, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling skills, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology, Uncategorized

Does living in urban settings increase the risk for mental illness? A complex answer with more questions


I think most recognize some of the inherent stresses of urban life, especially if you add poverty and racial discrimination to the mix. Of course, there are stresses that exist in rural and suburban settings, but some parts of urban life can be quite hard. Being anonymous in a crowd, the amount of violence, the pace of life, higher cost of living are just a few of these stressors.

So, are those who live in urban settings more prone to mental illness? Some doctoral student in Sweden looked at the association of Schizophrenia, population density, and neighborhood deprivation. What did he find?

Our results therefore suggest that it is not the adverse neighborhood conditions that cause the morbidity. Instead, it seems as if there are familial selection effects that draw high-risk individuals into densely populated/socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods. In other words, the same factors that explain residence in such neighborhoods also explain the increased risks for psychiatric morbidity. link to article here.

Does this make sense to you? Certain factors draw (or keep?) some families in deprived settings and those same factors explain increase mental illness risk? What would these factors be?

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Responding to Accusations of Racism: Confessing the Sins of our Fathers (And Our Own)


The news and social media seem to be all about race these days. Comments (not necessarily conversations!) range from criticism of police to criticism of the Black community. And surely there are plenty of reasons to criticize. And notice how it is so easy to identify and name the sins of those who are not us! And when others point out our sins, we tend either to get defensive or tell a story. Neither response gets us to where we need to go!

Pointing out the sins of others (individuals and groups) fails to promote healing and reconciliation. As Jesus calls us, we must start with our own log before removing the speck in the eye of the other (Matthew 7:3f). And our own log exists beyond our own specific misdeeds. We must also acknowledge the ways we have participated in and benefitted from the sins of our “own kind” (culture, ancestors, etc.)

Being Nehemiah

By all accounts, Nehemiah was a godly man. I suspect he was born in captivity and so therefore not culpable for the sins that got Judah carried off to Babylon. He was suffering, a servant to a foreign king). And yet, he was moved to confess the sins of his “ancestors” (v. 1:6) as his own. Later, when Ezra reads the law, Nehemiah and the rest hear it then confess the sins of Israel starting with the failures to obey God in the wilderness (chapter 9). They do not call out the sins of their captors (which are evident) or even their detractors but choose to stay focused on their own failings. Not content just to confess, Nehemiah and the returnees sign a covenant and make promises for specific and objective changed behavior going forward (chapter 10).

How might this apply to our current situation? Can those who are white (no matter the economic class) confess benefits of privilege not available to many of our brothers and sisters of color? Can we do so without deflecting to the flaws and sins of those who respond sinfully to racializations?

Can we acknowledge the massive impact of hundreds of years of discrimination and why it makes sense that resulting poverty, destruction of families, and hopeless still show up today? Can we own our sins with the detail shown us in Nehemiah? Can we covenant to be different? Will we call our families and communities to be different?

Maybe then we might be free to point out the sins of those who are “other.” Until then, let us let the Holy Spirit be the one to teach “them” about following Jesus.

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Filed under Christianity, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Relationships

Why Oppressed People May Not Jump At Chance For Freedom


Ever wonder why those who experience systematic abuse and violence don’t jump when they get a chance for freedom? Consider the abused teen choosing not to reveal the abuse to an inquiring teacher but rather stays in the abusive home in silence. Consider the victim who refuses the help of a friend in order to leave a domestically violent spouse. What is the psychology that supports these responses to oppression?

Brilliant Mhlanga has written a short memoir of his experience of being from an oppressed people group in Zimbabwe. Under the guise of “independence” his people and his family suffered tremendous violence. Family members were raped and murdered in grisly fashion. He labels what happens a genocide (from 1980-1987).

Here’s how he describes the impact of this systematic oppression (emphasis mine, British spellings his)

The psychology of oppression, then, becomes a phenomenon derived from the state where the oppressed, given their existential experience, adopt the attitude of ‘adhesion’ to the oppressor (ibid: 45). Freire adds that under these circumstances the oppressed cannot consider their situation clearly and objectively in a bid to discover themselves outside the spectacles of their oppressor. As discussed earlier, the oppressed rationalise and internalise their suffering. Their state of mental warping makes them appear as walking symbols of conformity. Such conformity makes them reject their enlightened brethren whom they tend to perceive as ‘trouble makers’. To them anyone who advocates change of their state of being is likely to bring them more trouble, as they cannot know the likely outcome. They fear change. This is the state of people who have lost a sense of hope in their full potential without the help of the oppressor.

Notice some of the features of the oppressed:

  • Identity tied to oppressor
  • Belief that one cannot exist outside this relationship (fear of being in relationship, fear of not being in relationship)
  • Internalize suffering (blame self)
  • See those who would fight for their freedom as dangerous (the devil you know may be better than the one you don’t know)
  • Reject change as dangerous

Now these features are not found in everyone who is abused but they are worth noting. Those who would want to help the oppressed must consider these challenges and develop interventions that do not automatically trigger the fear reactions. This might include,

  • Identifying self-blame and raising doubts
  • Giving freedom to control response to oppressor (not coercing leaving oppressor)
  • Identifying possible future
  • Validate change as scary

Quote: Mhlanga, B. (2009) On the psychology of oppression: Blame me on history! Critical Arts, 23:1,106 — 112

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