The Importance of Process & the Perils of Anxious End-driven Leadership
Painting: The Temptation of Jesus Christ, Ilya Yefimovich Repin, 1903.
Recently, the Exec. Boards of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren conferences ordered that three pages from a book commissioned by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission, entitled On Holy Ground: Stories By and About Women in Ministry Leadership in the Mennonite Brethren Church, be removed, copies that had already been printed be destroyed, and that the book be reprinted. Read a CBC story about the censorship here.
The pages in question, which can be read online here, were written by Mary Anne Isaak, a Pastor with 26 years of experience who currently serves at River East Church in Winnipeg. Isaak’s contribution to the book is a form of life writing that tells her story as a female leader at several MB churches. Isaak’s piece shares her experience of wrestling with matters of LGBTQ+ inclusion as analogous to her experience of having an evolving understanding of women in leadership as a result of study, discernment, and practicing a community hermeneutic. The censored pages also explore what it means to struggle with deep cultural questions in light of Scripture and to hold safe space for real dialogue among Christians who have different understandings of the Bible.
In an interview with CBC, Isaak stated that the chair of the board of the National Faith and Life Team reached out to her, and although he did not apologize for the decision to remove 3 pages from her piece, he did apologize for the process – for not including Mary Anne, the editor, or others involved, in a conversation before a decision was made.
Over the past year, those within, and adjacent to, the MB Conference, have witnessed people in positions of MB church and Conference leadership failing to utilize respectful processes when enforcing their decisions when it comes to responding to people who question or express opinions that differ from the Conference in regards to human sexuality. People have been removed from church membership, I have had my credentials removed, and Mary Anne Isaak’s voice has been censored in a book commissioned to lift up women’s voices. According to many, these actions have all occurred without due process.
From my perspective, this failure to utilize respectful, transparent, and honouring processes whereby accountability mechanisms are in place to ensure power differentials are not exploited, is an unsettling example of how a utilitarian ethic, where the ends justify the means, can energize leadership’s action in such a way that creates harm. High power, low accountability, and inadequate processes create an unsafe environment for those with less power, especially when vulnerable people raise questions, courageously ask for open dialogue, or express critique.
High power, low accountability, and inadequate processes create an unsafe environment for those with less power…
Church history, which aligns with my own traumatic recent personal experience, demonstrates that when the highest goal of a religious institution or organization is the policing of a set of doctrinal convictions, then that ultimate end is often anxiously pursued at great cost. Anxiety is generated when people in positions of power freight the protection of their position with eternal weight. For example, theological positions pertaining to the roles of men and women or what a God-honouring marriage is, can be injected with weighty or eternal consequence. To believe the wrong thing can be equated with questioning the authority of the Bible itself. Thus opening up dialogue about biblical interpretation is condescendingly seen as welcoming clumsy congregational fingers to touch the cards that make up the foundation of a theological house. Or, to get the question of marriage wrong is likened to opening an off-ramp from the dominant theological thoroughfare that leads to dire eternal consequences, sometimes equated with eternal conscious torment.
Therefore, a utilitarian ethic says, “The righteous end of protecting peoples’ eternal destinies justifies just about any means.” The goal of advancing salvation (often defined in evangelical terms) and fortifying the theological architecture upon which one’s political/ideological identity and meaning-making conceptual frameworks are built, justify having no (or inadequate) processes. Better to use one’s power to expediently silence dangerous voices of dissent than to expose the whole organization to contaminating influences.
Better to use one’s power to expediently silence dangerous voices of dissent than to expose the whole organization to contaminating influences.
Tragically, forms of this logic fuel the abuse of women, minoritized people, and anyone who is perceived as a potential contaminant to a theological system that is arrogantly and erroneously perceived to be pure and therefore to be protected at all costs – even if it means scapegoating innocent people, portraying prophets as the enemy (an all-too-common reality that Scripture warns us of), villainizing victims, and gaslighting those who give voice to harm received.
This logic underlying the phrase “kill the Indian, save the man” was also used to justify the abuse of Indigenous children at residential schools. The author of an article published by the American Conservative on July 8, 2021, entitled “The Meaning of the Native Graves,” defends this logic with chilling force and clarity writing, “Likewise, the certain fact that souls were saved by the missionaries, the enduring belief of Christians that the Gospel is true and must be spread, is paramount; everything else is secondary….Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.” While this example is extreme, it effectively depicts how a Christian utilitarian ethic can justify harm.
One of the first lessons we learn from Jesus’ adult life is that the ends do not justify the means. At his baptism, Jesus hears the words of his heavenly Father spoken over him– words which echo Isaiah 42:1 – one of the Servant Songs which identify God’s anointed as the one who brings justice and who takes his rightful place of authority in the world by way of co-suffering love. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness where the devil tempts him to forego the path of suffering and to achieve his right ends (authority over the kingdoms of the world) by more expedient means. Jesus replies, “Away from me Satan.” Lesson: righteous ends do not justify ungodly means.
I disagree with the decision to remove these three pages from On Holy Ground, but I’m glad an MB leader apologized for this instance of poor process – not talking with the author, editor, and others involved. I hope this act of humility, and the rightfully deserved attention this incident is receiving, reveals the faulty and unChristlike nature of a utilitarian ethic that can justify harm.
If Conference and church leaders insist on freighting all Confessional issues (or more realistically some issues) with such weight, so that people’s eternal destiny, memberships, credentialing, mental health, jobs, community, and reputations are at stake, then it is morally imperative that processes should be carried out with a rigour, respect, professionalism, attention to power differentials, and human concern for all involved that matches the intensity of the consequences.