by April 23, 2020, Christian Century.
… Church abuse of clergy is quite different. It’s a pattern driven by the congregation’s social unconscious reaction to traumatization. Fowler skillfully builds on the work of Wilfred R. Bion (who helped develop the theory behind psychoanalytic group psychology—including the power of the herd instinct) in explaining how this trauma plays out in congregations.
The motivation for church abuse is usually fear, Fowler explains, and this fear can be especially acute in times of palpable decline. As members of a congregation consider the annihilation of the church they’ve long known and revered, they experience a collective trauma. No longer able to maintain an idealistic image of themselves, they fall into denial and then fear. Abuse may also stem from ancestral trauma that’s passed on to a congregation from a previous generation.
Fowler tells the story of decline across several generations, beginning with Robert Wuthnow’s premise that the 1950s were marked by “a spirituality of dwelling.” After the chaos of World War II and the Korean War, people needed to view the church as a safe space, a sacred place in which to be nurtured, a spiritual home where they did not have to think too much. This was the heyday of the popular children’s rhyme, “Here is the church; here is the steeple. Open the doors; see all the people.”
The 1960s, Fowler explains, “constituted the initial period in the story of Protestantism’s trauma-producing membership decline in the United States.” The spirituality of dwelling was replaced by a “spirituality of seeking.” “Sacred moments of experiencing the divine and a continuing spiritual journey replaced sacred space and the need to know the sacred territory.” This major cultural and ecclesiastical shift stretched across subsequent decades, even as it went largely unnamed.
Christians who see their image of the steeple church shattered are often traumatized by this shift. The shattering of a beloved image is a loss that many congregants find unbearable. They realize that they cannot depend on the church’s culture—including its clergy—to remedy the shocking sense of annihilation that comes with the displacement they’re experiencing.
“When congregations must defend themselves against confronting their fear of congregational annihilation at all costs, their effort is at the expense of the pastor and the pastor’s loved ones,” Fowler explains. In their pain, the congregation begins the movement to get rid of their pastor—even when there is no reason justifying such a move. Common tactics include defamation of character, casting of shame, forced termination, and unemployment.