Dependent Relationship Clusters


Dennis McCallum

[This is a portion from a larger book review of Toxic Faith by Arterburn and Felton written for the a colloquium in 1993. In an effort to head off abuse in the church, students have earlier read and critiqued The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by VanVonderan. Many also have read Toxic Faith. This paper was written in the midst of internal struggles in the fall of 1993.]

I think the largest single source of complaints today come from those who depend on their group and leaders as though they were parents. This is also the least resolved area, and the least understood area. We know of many cases where people expected their home church to meet all their relational needs without any initiative from them. I have been confronted often with cases of people who are furious that others from their group (especially leaders) would not call them often enough. Many of the claims of abandonment, "neglect" and abuse we hear today are only compatible with addictive dependence.

The notion that leadership neglect is abuse, for instance, suggests an understanding of leadership that is analogous to parents and children. This is out of order. Children are entirely dependent on their parents, and must be supervised closely at all times. Therefore neglecting them is abusive. This argument cannot be applied to church leaders and their members without accepting a dependency model that conforms somewhat to the descriptions of addiction in Toxic Faith.

Ministry houses have fostered dependence at times by urging members to avoid certain behaviors or to engage in other behaviors. Young leaders in these houses have often not understood how to lead individuals into a realization of their own Christian convictions, and have simply by-passed this process for the easier solution of telling people what to do. The squabbling in these houses often reminds me of those in families.

Sometimes the fact that leaders have directed their attention to new people has been interpreted as rejection or love-bombing by other members. But I think this again signals dependency and relational addiction. The leader may be culpable in cases where dependency has been encouraged, and no transition was provided. But how are we to keep the evangelistic tone of our church without creating these hard feelings? Certainly moving to gather evangelistically minded people together seems to promise some improvement here.

We hear abuse complaints involving abandonment by leaders who go on to pursue further ministry opportunities. I submit that some of these complaints come from religious and relational addicts who will be satisfied with nothing less than a permanent dependent relationship with their leaders similar to a marriage. In this case, leaders are also being subjected to abuse as they are actually imprisoned by their people. I can cite numerous cases of leaders who have come to me distraught that their people were demanding more love and care than the leader could provide. In recent discussions with angry members who feel betrayed by their leaders because the group went into Ministry Networking, the members were surprised by the suggestion that their leaders should have freedom to do what they want. So many of our worst complaints come from leaders and ex-leaders who felt pressured and controlled, not by church hierarchy, but by the people in their own groups!

Clearly this is not an easy situation to understand. We have been pondering it for years. Sometimes the leaders who feel controlled appear to have been guilty of fostering dependence in the first place, and then resent the result of their own work. Sometimes the most compassionate leaders have lacked the strength to insist on independent action, and have felt forced by demanding people to accept the burden of caring for each member on a relational level. The resulting burden is greater than any person can bear. The leaders reach a breaking point, sometimes quitting, sometimes lashing out angrily at their people.

I addressed this issue in a teaching series on the true nature of leadership from Hebrews 13. My argument there was that leaders are facilitators and equippers, not parents. I worry on this point that the suggestion that we have been weak on emphasizing the emotional realm could be interpreted as meaning that we have to be even more nurturing, more caring and more attentive to our people.

There are some leaders who cannot tolerate angry put-downs and complaints (often unfair) from their people. The clamor that sometimes is the appropriate accompaniment to moving in the right direction is a burden that must be borne by leaders. Leaders who cannot bear this burden without becoming unsettled are probably ill-suited to the role of upper-level leadership. If the leaders cave in to demands for dependency they are on a path that leads to an immoral addictive relationship. If they resist such demands, they will still pay a price at the hands of those who believe dependence is love.

This dialectic is one of the key reasons we see many of our complaints of abuse arising from some of our most sensitive and caring churches. At the same time, abuse complaints can be expected from churches where dependency is not allowed. I for one, don't know what the answer is. But I do know simplistic label-oriented answers are often wrong.

Fostering independence and resisting the urge some have to depend on religious leaders who take the place of parents is an on-going challenge. This area highlights the fact that not only church abuse, but also would-be religious addiction can explain many of the problems we see in the church today. The descriptions of the addict seeking a fix are not far-fetched compared to some of the people I have talked to who feel that their group's move to networking has ruined their lives. We have disrupted clusters of dependent relationships in these groups, from which people draw much of their identity and love feelings.

There just isn't any rationale for this response of despair when nothing has been affected other than the group of people they have been meeting with. We might be tempted to sympathize, but I think we have to resist the notion that this dependency on a particular group is anything other than addiction. I have found that even in our leadership, some feel that it is not bad for people to feel this way, but I disagree. Some sense of resistance can be expected when breaking up an affinity group that the members enjoy. But when this takes on life-destroying dimensions, dependency is indicated.