Church After Mars Hill with Doug Shirley, EdD | Podcast Season 04, Episode 05

by Jul 11, 2023Transforming Engagement: the Podcast

As we continue to examine the case study that is Mars Hill Church, we’re asking a couple of questions in this conversation: First, how do we create faith communities that know what abuses of power look like and call those behaviors out? And second, how do we build environments that seek to be psychologically healthy for everyone?

Our guest this week is Doug Shirley, EdD, core faculty with The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology with expertise in counseling, Divinity, and pastoral community counseling. Doug’s passion lies in understanding and improving the emotional, relational, and spiritual lives of individuals in helping and healing professions.

The sheer number of individuals seeking help for mental health issues following the Mars Hill debacle underscores the unhealthy nature of the church environment. Our conversation explores strategies for creating psychologically healthy spaces within faith communities, emphasizing the importance of two-way dialogue, accountability, openness, and honesty.

About our guest:

Doug Shirley, EdD, is core faculty in the Counseling Psychology program at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He came to the Seattle area to complete a Masters of Divinity at Mars Hill Graduate School (now The Seattle School) and has never left. Doug lives in the Woodinville area with his family: wife (Laura Wade) and three boys (Noah, Luke, Eli). This podcast sits at the heart of things Doug is passionate about, and therefore areas where he is active in academic research and clinical practice: the emotional, relational, and spiritual lives of folks in helping and healing professions.

About this season’s host:

Joel Kiekintveld is the Co-Director of the Anchorage Urban Training Collaborative. Street Psalms Senior Fellow, and an adjunct professor at The Seattle School of Theology and PsychologyFor 17 years he served Parachutes Teen Club and Resource Center (Anchorage, AK), which he helped found in 2003, as Executive Director and Founding Director. Parachutes serves teens ages thirteen to eighteen years old. Many of the active members of the drop-in center were high-risk and street-involved. Joel has served as a pastor and youth pastor in both Michigan and Alaska.  

Joel holds a PhD in Practical Theology from the University of Pretoria (South Africa), a Master of Arts in Global Urban Ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University, a Bachelor of Religious Education degree from Reformed Bible College (now Kuyper College), and a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from The Foraker Group/ University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was ordained as a Commissioned Pastor by the Christian Reformed Church in 2008.

Joel lives, works, and plays in Anchorage, AK, with his wife Stacey, and has three daughters Naomi, Emma (and wife Kelsy), and Sydney. Joel lives in intentional community in the Dimond Estates trailer park.

Listener resources:

Episode Transcript:

Joel Kiekintveld: This is Transforming Engagement: the Podcast, where we host conversations about change that serves the common good and a higher good. This season we are discussing The Church After Mars Hill and considering how we build healthy faith communities using the fall of Mars Hill as a case study. I’m your host, Joel Kiekintveld.

There is a scene early in the first season of Apple TV’s hit comedy Ted Lasso where Keeley is asking people if they’d want to be a Lion or a Panda. Coach Ted answers Panda. Rebecca, the owner of the team, responds passionately to Ted’s choice saying:
“Are you mad? Pandas are fat and lazy and have piss-stained fur. Lions are powerful and majestic and rule the jungle.”
She even quizzes Lasso,
“What’s black and white and red all over?”
To which Ted replies,
“I don’t know.”
The answer, according to Rebbeca is,
“A panda that gets anywhere near a lion. The answer is lion.”
When star player Jamie Tartt is asked the same question by Ted, he answers,
“Coach, I’m me. Why would I wanna be anything else?”
To which Lasso responds,
“I’m not sure you realize how psychologically healthy that actually is.”

Why am I recounting this scene from Ted Lasso? Other than I really like to talk about the show? The answer is that the Panda and the Lion scene gets to two things we will be discussing on this episode – psychological health and leadership. There is no doubt in my mind that if you asked Mark Driscoll the question “Lion or Panda?” he would choose Lion.

The podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill ran a clip of Pastor Mark a number of times saying: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus. By God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. Either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus, those are the options. But the bus ain’t gonna stop.” That sounds to me a lot like when a panda gets anywhere near a lion.

Driscoll’s leadership style could be described as lion-like as well, but it also could be called aggressive, combative, and even abusive.
That style, and the culture it built, created a very unhealthy environment in the Seattle-based mega-church. One former Mar Hill staffer, Mike Anderson, speaking in episode 12 of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill about the effect that environment had on former staff and members noted: “I’ll bet you that there is a bigger staff of people in Seattle who just deal with the counseling of the PTSD and the panic attacks and the depression and suicidal thoughts. I’ll bet you there’s a larger staff than ever worked at Mars Hill.”

In a weird way, Driscoll ended up being right. There did end up being a mountain of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus – a mountain of people damaged by a toxic environment and abusive leadership. In light of this part of the of case study that is Mars Hill we’re asking a couple of questions:
First, how do we create faith communities that know what abuses of power look like and call those behaviors out?
And second, how do we build environments that seek to be psychologically healthy for everyone?

Joining me on this episode is Dr. Doug Shirley. Doug is going to help us help us think through those questions. Here’s our conversation.

Well, welcome, Doug. The first question that I always ask guests is to have them introduce themselves, however they would like to do that. So I invite you to just introduce yourselves to the listeners.

Doug Shirley: Yeah, well, very good. Well, thanks for having me. Let’s see. Why don’t I start with my family and then work my way out. So I am married to Laura Wade Shirley, who is a graduate of The Seattle School just like me. Actually she’s a graduate of Western Seminary. I’m a graduate of Mars Hill Graduate School. I now work at The Seattle School, all the same institution. We have three boys, Noah, who is nearly 16 and nearly driving. Luke, who is 14, Eli, who’s nine. So that’s a home base for me, is those folks. We live in the Woodinville area, which is on the east side of the greater Seattle area. We’re a soccer family. We’ve got a dog. We’ve got a cat. My wife and I are both transplants from the East Coast, she from Virginia, me from Pennsylvania. We came out to do graduate school and we stayed, maybe professionally a little bit, I’m cross-trained, I think maybe even some why I’m here today is I’m cross-trained, I have a master in counseling, master’s of Divinity, and then a doctorate that puts the two together, pastoral community counseling. So my interest has always been kind of the intersection, kind of like The Seattle School theology and psychology. Maybe for me it’s mental health and spirituality. So I think that’s a good bit of what we’ll be talking about today. I have a private practice here in Washington State where I get to serve pastors a good bit. When I went through my MDiv, I was open to the call of pastor. I typically say I’m glad it didn’t come, but right now I get the privilege of really being a pastor’s pastor in a lot of ways. And so you’ll probably hear me even speak out of that experience, of what it’s like to get behind the veil with folks who carry the burden of being a spiritual leader and what that does to their emotional, relational, spiritual lives. And so that is a privilege that I don’t take lightly, the honor of being able to walk with those folks as well as teaching graduate programs, or excuse me, graduate classes in counseling and also in our common curriculum at The Seattle School, which is meant to sort of put a whole bunch of stuff together: anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, theology. So again, hopefully you’ll hear me talking out of lots of sides of my mouth today.
Joel Kiekintveld:  Well, even in your introduction, I mean, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is you are kind of an interesting mix to me of someone who’s trained in psychology, but also in ministry, teaching predominantly folks that are being trained to become counselors, but also in private practice as well. So I want to start with this question of how do you see the relationship between faith and psychology? How do they interact from your perspective?

Doug Shirley: Yeah, you know, were kind enough to give me kind of a trial run of the questions beforehand. And man, when I read this question, I thought pain, pain, pain is how I reconcile those two things. So back when I used to start teach, when I started, excuse me, teaching classes in counseling and psychology, I remember the textbooks, there was like a little itty bitty section, maybe in some final ends of chapters on spirituality in counseling. And these days there’s whole swaths of chapters on spirituality. So to me, faith is about how we reconcile big picture stuff, including why is there pain in the world, what’s it all about, what’s meaning and purpose and like this sort of thing. And psychology is the same thing. What do we do with our pain? And so to me, that these sacred cows sat so far apart for so long was really kind of silly. So now as it comes together, it, it’s kind of interesting, even the eastern world, maybe in some ways we get these strands like Buddhist psychology, even the eastern world seems to understand the integration or the sort of the synchronicity between faith and psychology better than we do here in the West. In the West, we’ve tried to keep them apart. But psychology is a faith, right? Psychology is basically a philosophy with a method that includes the scientific method which people put their faith in. So ultimately, if faith is about I believe, to me, it has everything to do with what do we do with our pain, is the reconciliation of the pain, and how then shall we live? And I think that’s why people go to therapy, and that’s why psychology. Psychology began as the study of soul, spirit, psuxe was the Greek word. And it’s interesting how in some ways, how far we’ve strayed from that. And yet we’re still right there.

Joel Kiekintveld:  It’s interesting, I was interacting with a counselor a number of years ago who I love, but she introduced her, what she does as soul care. And this is a person who wouldn’t necessarily identify herself as a person of faith, but she’s like, yeah, yeah, that’s what I do as a counselor. [DS: Totally.] I care for the soul. And for me, what you’re describing is this interaction of, yeah, both psychology and faith sort of do that.

Doug Shirley: You bet. And that probably would’ve been taboo to say for, I don’t know, a handful of years, handful of decades even. And now it’s coming back into popularity to say, and I would say two things, Joel, Joel kind of that. We as people are inclined to problematize our pain and to professionalize our pain. We problematize it in the form of we don’t listen to it as voice, as symptom bearer, as an important agent. We listen to it as something to be done away with. We do that both in terms of going to church and going to therapy. And two, we professionalize it. So I would say maybe for you as a pastor, for me as a therapist, it’s our pain that we’re working out in our professional lives. You and me are here because of our pain. And so if we know that, again, I think some of the questions you’re going to ask later, if we know that ,that will keep us, I hope, grounded and tethered differently because many people wouldn’t even agree with that statement, that it’s their pain that got them into ministry and vocational lives in the first place. They would think it’s because they’re good with people or they’ve always loved Jesus or whatever. Those things are probably really true. And yet it’s their pain that got them where they are at whatever level of consciousness or less than consciousness.

Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, so on this season, like you said, we’re going to be unpacking some of this stuff a little bit on this season of this podcast. We’re looking at Mars Hill Church and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast as kind of a case study for what we’re going through. And we’re going to use that as a little bit of a way to think about this interplay between faith, faith communities, and psychology. And I want to go a couple of different directions. One is down the road of like, I’ve heard different terms for leadership abuse or spiritual abuse or clergy abuse, what that looks like and how we understand that, and then how do we build faith communities that are more psychologically healthy for everyone that’s involved. So I want to start with kind of this idea of, I don’t know what term you use, but clergy abuse or spiritual abuse or leadership abuse. As communities are dealing with that or maybe preparing for or learning how to respond, what steps should faith communities take to guard against that type of abuse? And then how can they be prepared to spot it and then also respond to clergy abuse or spiritual abuse or leadership abuse? How do they spot it? But also how do they maybe safeguard against it a little bit?

Doug Shirley: Yeah. Well, let’s, sorry for the distraction there. We’ll go a couple different ways here and feel free to join in and go back and forth from here a little bit. But I’ll begin by saying this might be a strange place to begin, but I’ll begin by saying, a service orientation is a forgetting posture. A service orientation is a forgetting posture. And I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Okay? If we’re going to talk about abuse, we’re talking about power and control. Doesn’t matter if it’s spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical, power and control, someone using power and control. I like the definition of a guy named James Carse when it comes to power. He said, he wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games. He proposed power maintains the status quo. Strength allows horizon to move. So to me, much, much abuse, much spiritual abuse, clergy abuse has to do with trying to maintain the status quo. Even running the business, let’s say, of a church, okay. It doesn’t have a lot of strength in, it doesn’t allow the horizon to move. So then if we move on and we say, okay, a serving posture is a forgetting posture. If we think about the role of priest, right? A priest calls people to remember. I cited this great old text in my–Oh, by the way, these things that I research in my Masters of Divinity program, my thesis was on men in fear. In my doctorate program, my dissertation was on the emotional lives of men in spiritual authority, which included their shame. So if research is me search, you hear that I’m working out my own fear and shame. But I cited this great old text, The Priest in Community, where the author, I think his name was maybe Hunter, said, when serving Eucharist, for instance, a priest is keeping one foot in chaos and one foot in order. And so the work of a priest is to call people to remember, to re-member, to put back together that which has been fragmented. The dilemma is once we take up the role of priests or pastor or leader, a lot of times where we lose focus is in our own remembering, and we begin to think we need to re-member on behalf of of the other people that we’re serving. That there is a slippery slope. Okay? Do you know the name Peter Scazzaro? Emotionally Healthy Spirituality? This guy. Okay. I think it’s actually in his text, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, he talks about when we start to do things for God as opposed to doing things with God or doing things because we’ve received from God, again, really similar slippery slope, we begin to lose the sort of subject to subject nature of service. And that group of people out there that we’re speaking to become objects, objects it’s easy to assert power and control over. Does this make sense? So in my counseling practice, for instance, a lot of times the pastors that I work with behind the veil will feel like hypocrites and they’ll feel shame and guilt and all this stuff because they’re speaking messages each week. But they know that they’re not able to live by those messages. And so the thing that I’ll say to them is that if it’s your job to master that message, you’re cooked. But if you’re singing a song that you need to hear, then that’s good news. So I think part of what happens is when, again, we pick up a service posture and we have a sense that now we’re bringing a song to people in need, and we forget that we need it as much as they do. We forget that we need to be re-membered as much as the people that we’re serving. I think it sets us up for the sorts of power and control dynamics that we see in clergy and spiritual abuse. So all that was meant to be a context for, then you’re asking, what do we do about this dynamic? Right?

Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah, absolutely. Like we know that that dynamic exists, and the way that you’ve explained it, [DS: yes], this movement of for or with I think is really important how leaders see their work, but then in the organization. So I guess what’s going through my mind is in the experience I’ve had in inside organizations, in particularly faith-based organizations, you’re really rewarded for doing the stuff for, yes, it’s rewarded as a leader if you’re sacrificing yourself on behalf of the people that you’re leading. Those are things that are kind of exalted. [DS: Yes, yes] you’re praised for yes. And creates more of the situation that you’re talking about. So yes, I guess I’m interested in how do organizations build themselves in a way that doesn’t continue to perpetuate that cycle?

Doug Shirley: Great, great. I want to come at that two ways. I want to command it from the sort of window of what to do with the leader, but then also what to do with the community. Okay? And let’s start with the community, because I think we have to come from a group relations perspective. First off, I think all church leadership should have some orientation towards group process and group theory. I, I’ve been trained in part through a group called Tavistock out of Chicago. The work of a guy named Wilfred Bion was significant there. Folks that have lived through the seventies and eighties have heard of tea groups, process groups where all kinds of crazy stuff happened early back in the day. But if leaders aren’t acquainted with group processes and group dynamics, things get go sideways here. Here’s a couple basic things. When a person steps into a group, they will interact with that group as if that group was their mother and specifically their mother of early childhood before they had memories and words. That’s kind of weird. So in other words, a person, when they step into a group, and in fact, the larger the group becomes, the more likely this dynamic is, when a person steps into a group, they lose their minds, they lose their adult selves, and they begin to regress. So already, by the time people gather together on a Sunday, they’re losing their minds because they’ve become one of, and typically this is not very conscious, but they’re acclimating to their environment of this organization as if it was their early mother who did or didn’t do a great job of taking care of them. And oftentimes what surfaces is dependency needs, and often, depending on a primary sort of pied-piper-like figure, a leader who’s going to come through and take care of all of the needs that haven’t been taken care of before. Remember we said, part of what unifies faith in psychology is what we do with our pain. People bring their pain again to therapy, they bring it to church on Sunday or whatever the organizational stuff is, right. So we have to know that people are bringing their pain, they’re not conscious of it, and they’re inclined to act like they acted in their childhood, but without really knowing it. Ok? So then what happens is, we as community members, as group members, as organizational members, as leaders, we take on the roles that we took on early in life. What did they say? That thing is what 90% of the work gets done by 10% of the people or something, right? Yeah. So you figured those 10% were probably sort of go-getters or initiators or whatever we would call it in their families of origin. And the other 90 weren’t, maybe they were the scapegoats or they were the problem children, or they were the dissenters or whatever we call that. So we’ll move into a group, and anytime there’s anxiety ,with that anxiety, we return to what’s familiar, and we begin to pick up roles that are custom. People will find their way into certain ministries, oh, because I have experience there or I have skills there. Oh, that’s wonderful. And all that’s very conscious. What I’m talking about is the kind of less than conscious stuff that happens, where then people start to get disgruntled when things don’t work out. Remember Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, he who, maybe you help me here, but he who can’t be alone, be aware of community, but he who can’t be in community, be aware of being alone. So that sense that we have to be able to both be alone and be in community, and you really only know that you’re becoming a member of a group when you’re disenfranchised. Until then, you’re really not sort of a card carrying member, but the dilemma goes, people come and they get disenfranchised, and then they begin to squawk about it. Maybe they start to serve, right, and a lot of times they lose focus on their own needs. Now, let me pull over and then say the other thing on the leadership side. Leaders, this is going to sound weird, but this is the work of a woman named Karen Maroda. She’s talking about therapists, but I think it very easily applies to healing professionals too. When we couldn’t fix our early life, we couldn’t fix our early parent parenthood, parents, family, this sort of thing, what happens is a lot of leftover anger, rage, upset goes below the surface, and it starts to be experienced consciously as guilt. And so you get a lot of well-intentioned, well-meaning people, really sensitive people carrying a lot of guilt who end up in helping professions and in ministry, working out their guilt, believing that they’re called, which maybe they are, but also trying to assuage their sense of guilt because maybe they didn’t have the capability, the narratives, to be able to address what was undone, unfinished in the first place. So they carried it as guilt. It was reaction. The clinical term for it is reaction formation. Basically, they did the opposite of what they’d be inclined to do, rather than respond in anger and rage, it gets sort of forced underneath into guilt, and now they work out the guilt. And then guilt can be assuaged by serving others. Does all that make sense?

Joel Kiekintveld:  Yeah.

Doug Shirley: Okay. So if all that makes sense, then this is a long-winded way of getting to your question, which is, so we’ve got to pay attention to what were our experiences early in life? What were the roles that we played in our families or in our communities? How much of that had guilt and shame tied to it? What are the needs that went unfinished? And therefore, what are the needs that either we bring to the leadership side of things or to the congregant side of things. If we can have more honest conversations there, I think we’re on to something.

Joel Kiekintveld: So a couple of things come to mind for me as you were talking about that. One is this idea, so you’re talking about, we enter into groups as our much younger self, and I wonder what the interplay there is of, there’s been over the last number of decades. So if I was on my game, I might be able to give you years, but like this movement with churches to provide more and more and more for members as they come in. So like, in some ways, the barriers, the bar is quite low when you come to a service to make that accessible. But in some ways that infantisizes, I dunno if I said that word right [DS: Yeah.] members. And I wonder how much that plays into this. DS: Yeah. Yes. And then also what you just described, I guess you’re the perfect person to ask because you have training on both sides, but how much of that is discussed sort of in seminary training?

Doug Shirley: No it’s not

Joel Kiekintveld: Okay.

Doug Shirley: No. Right. So to this question that you’re asking around, first off, because psychology has been seen as often, even the work of the devil, right? Sacred, sorry, not sorry. Sacred profane, right? So profane, and it should be outside of the realm of church. There’s all this important theory and research that we have around groups and all this stuff that is basically off limits to us, right. So we got to be able to bring that back in. Now. Oh, shoot. I got all wound up about that. And then I missed your first question.

Joel Kiekintveld: Just around how churches sort of are providing things and making –

Doug Shirley: Thank you. Yeah, thank you. Thank you. Yes. It’s so experience driven, Joel. I mean, you tell me if this fits your experience, right? It’s give you coffee and we’ll give you tasty coffee, and we’ll give you cushy seats and you know, we’ll make sure that the worship band sounds really good and there’s flashing lights that go with it, right. It, it’s very Easter Sunday ish without the Good Friday-ness, right? So it doesn’t actually, just to provide an experience to a person doesn’t actually help to acclimate them to their needs. If anything, it distracts them from their needs. And so I think a lot of times what happens in spiritual communities is we get distracted from our needs as opposed to we get called to face our needs to grieve what needs to be grieved so that we can all be working on singing the songs that we need to sing together.

Joel Kiekintveld: So it’s interesting, the, I’m familiar from the Franciscans, but they talk about spirituality being a U-shaped journey, so that it’s always down and in. [DS: Yes.] And it strikes me that what you are saying is that communities and leaders need to take that U-shaped journey down and in to how am I operating in this environment? [DS: Yes.] What are the pains I’m carrying? What are my rules? [DS: Yes, yes, yes, yes.] And then often we build a culture where we’re not able to do that. It it’s, yes, no, there’s a floor built so that we can’t go down and into,

Doug Shirley: Yes. Because people who are coming to church have these dependency needs and are regressing into, they get early life stuff, and they don’t even know that they’re doing it. The setup is that the leaders need to be the parents that we’ve never had fulfilling all of our needs, right. So there’s a setup. And again, the leaders, because they’re working to assuage their guilt and it feels good to be in service, the more they and then more sort of pulled from them, pulled from them, pulled from them. They don’t get to be human. My wife will often talk about being irritated by going to churches and hearing pastors tell sermons that I struggled with this thing 10 years ago, as opposed to, I struggled with it 10 minutes ago before I, in fact, last night, before I wrote the sermon, I struggled with then. That sort of honesty, we get a little skittish around because there’s sort of an evening out of the hierarchy. And at different levels, people don’t want that hierarchy evened out, because that’s going to mean more need, more responsibility, less yummy experience, less feel good at the end of church on Sunday.

Joel Kiekintveld: And I don’t know where to go with this thought that just popped in my head, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway. [DS: Great.] It makes me wonder, though, because we’re hooked on sort of the experience and we’re hooked on the structure that’s there, that we’re used to this hierarchy. And to a certain degree, certainly in the case of Mars Hill, you have like celebrity [DS:Yes.] charismatic leaders. [DS: Yes.] And really that’s still sort of the model in a lot of places, that it seems like it works counter to what Brene Brown and others are talking about around vulnerability and those type of things. It’s interesting to me that there’s been such a rise of her work and others talking about that type of thing. [DS:Yes.] in the culture, whereas the church seems to still be in a lot of corners, I don’t mean to throw everybody under the bus, but in a lot of corners, still avoiding a lot of that.

Doug Shirley: Yes. No, agreed. And at least my experience with Brene, Brene Brown ,is she’ll speak of her sort of Christian roots, but also will, I think she’s, maybe she claims to be Episcopal now, but she’ll also speak of having evolved past certain things. So she is sort of a spokesperson. There’s very clearly sort of a spiritual element to what she’s doing there. Right? [JK: Absolutely. ] And because she doesn’t have the moniker or the mantle of pastor, I think she can get away with saying stuff that maybe many pastors would wish to be able to say.

Joel Kiekintveld:  Hmm. So if a church finds themselves sort of in this dynamic where they have a leader that’s functioning in really unhealthy ways, there’s spiritual abuse or leadership abuse happening, clergy abuse happening, what are some of the steps that they should be thinking about taking in that environment? [DS: Yes.] To safeguard not just themselves, the congregants, but also the health of the leader as well.

Doug Shirley: Yes, yes, yes. Okay. There’s a woman, Judith Herman, who wrote a book called, well, actually her original book was called Trauma and Recovery, where she details how and why people who have been victimized by things like various abuses, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, that sort of thing, why they end up feeling like they’re to blame . In 20-, this was a more data text, maybe it came out originally in the nineties. Herman just updated her text with a new one called Truth and Repair, where again, she’s interviewing folks who have been through lots of different systemic types of oppressions and abuse. And from the victim’s perspective is saying, here’s what’s needed. There were a couple really interesting pieces there, Joel. One is that the person who has been hurt, oftentimes it’s less about, like in court proceedings, let’s say, it’s less about financial remuneration that they’re seeking by way of restitution. They want their story to be told. They want things to be known. The hiddenness, the secrecy, the duplicity, the deceit. That’s the stuff that’s often the hardest to stomach. So they want their story to be known. They want the person to be identified. They want for there to be a sense of, this is what happened. This is what has happened. These the things that have, this is what’s been done to me. This is my story. This is the other thing: She talks about the importance of the bystanding effect in communities. So my guess is a big part of church unhealth these days, maybe even the unhealth that was a part of the Mars Hill community, was a lot of folks were sitting there going like, Ooh, this is kind of weird. Or, Ooh, this is kind of ouchie. Or, oh, I don’t really believe what just happened there. Oh, I don’t like what just happened there. But they went along with it and they were complicit. And so what Herman is saying is not just does the victim of abuse need to have their story be told in the public domain, those people who were complicit in the perpetration in the first place also need repair themselves, because whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’ve experienced the moral injury of complicity in an oppressive system. And so the argument goes, the whole system gets to heal when stories get to be told. This is why I think that podcast held such sway. We had people who were telling their stories and oodles and oodles and oodles of people coming out saying, oh my gosh, they’re telling their story. And I know there were certain slants on the stories, and I know there were certain criticisms of the podcast. I know it’s not the end all be all of the story, but part of why it served an important function was: for that community, people got to talk. And even people who experienced the bystanding effect of being a part of things, and maybe they weren’t active perpetuators of the abuse, but they were passive perpetuators of the abuse, and they too needed to resolve their guilt.

Joel Kiekintveld: Which is interesting. I mean, like you said, the podcast has gotten all kinds of different praise and criticism. But one thing that was striking for me is, well, a couple things. Partway through the season, they were really transparent about the fact that more people were coming out. And it was, it was becoming in some ways, [DS: contagious], more difficult to do the podcast because they had more people wanting to talk that didn’t want to talk early on. And then the sort of lack at the end of the closure for many of those folks, because not all of the leadership, cause some of the leaders have done a really good job of coming back and being introspective about that and being repentant. But Mark basically just skipped town and started it all over again somewhere else. And that lack of closure piece there [DS: Yes] is really glaring, at least for me [DS: Yes] because it doesn’t feel like people are entirely able to move forward because of that.

Doug Shirley: Yes, yes. And so again, you see people, as you’re saying, sort of coming out of the woodwork because they need to be able to lament, they need even retroactively need to be able to protest what they weren’t able to protest before. Closure. I’m not a big fan of closure, but this sense of stories being told in a way that experiences can be integrated, that grief can, grief and lament can be expressed unto something. Yes. A lot of that was cut off. You know the other thing that’s in my mind as we’re talking when we’re talking about how do communities of faith move from unhealth to health, we have to address shame, right? I remember listening, I was driving home from my counseling practice late at night. It’s like a Wednesday night. It was whatever that one. Oh, here in Seattle area. It’s like 105.3. It’s like the Focus on the Family radio station. And I remember hearing Driscoll, he was, this was like some men’s ministry, some retreat, and he’s yelling at men from the pulpit that they’re idiots and they’re stupid. And these very conservative Christian folk are speaking of what a godly message this was. And I thought, this is crazy. What he’s bringing from the pulpit is shame. This is a shame dump, right. And people are feeling shamed into action there. Well, so a lot of times how spiritual communities deal with shame, guilt as I did something wrong, shame as I am wrong, right. How we deal with shame is we say, oh, shame needs to be confessed or repented of, or it’s sinful or what have you. And then you can be pure and recovered and shame-free and this sort of thing. No shame never goes away. Shame is a social emotion that will be with those of us that are not sociopaths until we die. We wouldn’t want for shame to go away because that would mean we were sociopathic. It would mean we’d have no conscience. So communities that don’t in an ongoing way tend to shame as an important piece of the social fabric of their community, but rather again, kind of points it, it puts it into a bucket of problematic and something that needs to be confessed and then recovered from, yes, we can recover from shame. There’s a guy named Resma Menakem who speaks of dirty pain, right? Pain that we carry that really was never ours to carry in the first place. Yes, we can offload some of that shame, but just simply to work within the realm of vulnerability of wounds means we’re always going to be, right, witting right next to our pain colleague here at The Seattle School, Steve Call says, when we’re moving towards our vulnerability, we have to stay close enough to our shame to get to the vulnerability. And so a lot of times we prize vulnerability. We stop talking about shame. Silence is the number one response to shame. So communities that aren’t actively and regularly talking about shame and welcoming shame aren’t welcoming vulnerability. That ironically is also another important piece of a healing path, either on the side of the leader or those folks who are coming to church. We have to have a regular welcoming of the shame that exists between us.

Joel Kiekintveld: So as you were talking, I mean, you mentioned really briefly the act of lament. And I know that in my history with the church, when we first, when I and some others first brought the idea of doing like a lament service, there was a lot of pushback. This was a number of years ago, because why would we want to dwell on something dark, painful, even though in the end it ended up being quite liberating for a number of folks that were there. They were able to like voice things in different ways that were really helpful. So when you talk about like keeping shame close to vulnerability, is lament one tool for that? And then maybe what are other tools for congregations to use that would function that way? Cause what I hear you saying is adding more shame is not helpful. And I know that from my own tradition where we very much start at you, there’s nothing good in you, kind of total depravity. [DS: Yep.] Maybe even hyper-total depravity. [DS: Yep.] That feels very much like what you’re describing as adding shame. But what does it look like for us to keep shame as part of the conversation, but in a way that’s not adding more, if that makes sense.

Doug Shirley: Well, here’s the kick. Here’s the kicker that Joel, you can’t ,where shame and anxiety are different. If you and me were anxious coming into this podcast, if before we started, I would say, oh, Joel, I’m a little bit anxious. It would probably actually help me to share that with you, mammal to mammal. I would probably co co-regulate with you a little bit. I feel a little bit be better, success. If I were to say, gosh, I’m feeling shameful. It actually, I would actually experience shame in acknowledging the shame. To say that I feel shame is a shaming event, backward, rights. So this is why, again, Brene Brown, this is why it has to be ongoing. So to your question of how do we keep those conversations going? We talk about them regularly. We talk about how hard it is to have them be regular. Most leaders– So shame rolls not just downhill, but shame rolls uphill to leadership. And a lot of times what leaders won’t address is that which is most shameful, which is why we have so many moral failures by church leaders, right. They do the shameful thing because shame hasn’t been put on the table. Like, of course, this is what we’re all bringing. So it has to be normalized, it has to be contextualized. There has to be room to tell stories. And then again, it needs to not be spiritualized away. I do a lot of couples work in my private practice and the thing when I’m working with couples and one partner shares with another partner, something that’s shameful. What I’ll say to the partner who’s just received the shame story is the best that you say to them is, thank you for telling me. You don’t try to tell them God loves you. You don’t try to make it better. You don’t try to talk them out of it. Thank you for telling me. So a lot of times we end up spiritualizing shame, trying to put God talk even into it as opposed to mammal-to-mammal saying some version of thank you, and I hear you, and maybe even me too. That’s what we need to be, build more vehicles up. And of course, especially for the leadership, some of the pastors that I work with have some really cool setups. Like their church is funding therapy for them, therapy for them and their partners. If those pastors could go and be a part of spiritual development groups, ongoing group processes, right, where they get to be human and shameful and all the other things. Without that, if they are accountable to a board, for instance, and this is really more evaluative than it is, we get to share burdens one with another, then we can assume that that shame is going to circulate. Remember, anytime we enter into a group, we enter in as if the group is mother, shame is present. That’s another way to say what I was saying there at the beginning. So we got to put a place, we’re going to do spirituality, we’re going to do pain, we got to do shame. All that stuff has just got to be normalized, normalized, normalized.

Joel Kiekintveld: So I remember hearing Nadia Bolz-Weber a number of years ago, talk about, as a pastor, she feels like one of the best things you can do is be the first one to jump in. So, like, to be the first one vulnerable, to be the first one to, I don’t think in the same way that we think of role model as for pastor leader, where we often think about it more of, you have to be perfect or project this thing. But I think more being the one that’s willing to enter in to start the U-shaped journey and invite others to join. That’s one thing that I was thinking about is that role. And then also as you were talking about shame, it occurs to me, and it’s a question I’d love to ask you about is, the role of confession. And then some places would call it absolution. Others would say it’s the assurance of pardon. But is that function in the role of sort of what you’re talking about around the idea of being able to bring our shame, in that case often silently to God. But does that function in that same role as you’re kind of talking about keeping that present in how you interact.

Doug Shirley: Yeah. You’re doing this good job of asking me multiple questions and my brain is like keeping

Joel Kiekintveld: I really shouldn’t do that honestly.

Doug Shirley: No, I like it. I like it. I’ll do the back one, then I’ll ask you to say the first one again. So to the confession part, folks in 12-step communities will say, it’s our secrets that make us sick, right. Liberationist folks will talk about the importance of moving from bystanding to bearing witness. Our pain, this is Parker Palmer, our souls don’t need to be fixed. Our souls need a witness. Okay. So what I would say is confession, if confession is having another bear witness, that’s the good stuff. That helps us to know as mammals, we’re not alone. That’s a priestly role that I think a lot of therapists serve these days, ok. So again, for me, confession, healthy confession is about someone bearing witness to my pain and suffering. Often it’s the pain and suffering that comes from me having perpetrated something I wish I wouldn’t have. And now I need to confess that. It’s still pain and suffering. So confession, moving from bystanding to bearing witness. Can you ask your first question again?

Joel Kiekintveld: Sure. I’ll add before that, I mean, as you were talking about Parker Palmer, one of the things he talks about is the huge need in our culture for space to tell truth about our souls. [DS: Yeah. ] And I think that’s exactly what we’re talking about here.

Doug Shirley: True. Right? Oh, and now I’m back to your question. Should the leader always lead with, let me tell my story first. Right?

Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah. That’s just one way that I’ve heard Nadia Bolz-Weber talk about it. That’s maybe the role of the pastor in some cases, to be the first one in kind of, yeah.

Doug Shirley: Well, maybe, I mean, if it’s nourishing to them, then great. But I think what what’s difficult oftentimes is it becomes a process of objectification where now we look for the leader to do it first. The leader sets the tone for how it’s going to be done. If the leader doesn’t do it, then they’re not seen as as good a leader. And if the, if it becomes obligation, it’s going to just simply exhaust the leader. And a lot of times what’s hard is because again, people are loaded up to bring their dependency needs to the leader. If the leader then says, I have needs too, the chances are that people are going to look away from that leader or get distracted. Oh, thanks for sharing. Now I can share. And it actually isn’t a bearing witness moment for the leader. So what I would say is if the leader can speak in a way that their pain and suffering can have a witness, then yes, I like the idea. Otherwise, it’s probably going to lead to exhaustion and objectification and back to that sort of service mentality. Now I need to find this sexy grief stories to tell that are going to open up other people.

Joel Kiekintveld: Right? Yeah. I could see where would totally become either manipulative or unhealthy for the leader. If it’s seen as an expectation for this, this will happen every week. Or,

Doug Shirley: But can they, right. I mean, I like what you’re working on there. Can they right, is there a place that they can share? Is there also a place that they can put their hand on their heart and say, pass, I’m not going to share it today.

Joel Kiekintveld: Yeah. Which feels like a great work of discernment there to know when’s the right time to be vulnerable. When’s the time to, as you say, bear witness. [DS: Yes.] And work in that role instead. [DS: Yes. Yeah. Yes.] I know that, well, at least one former staff person at Mars Hill talked about that. There’s more people helping folks who were part of that church manage their PTSD and their mental health in the wake of it than ever, maybe ever on staff ever at the church before. And that’s a pretty good indicator that the church wasn’t very healthy. And we’ve already begun to talk about this, but how do we create spaces in our faith communities that can be more psychologically healthy for everyone that’s involved?

Doug Shirley: Yes. Well, my wife and I, who are both therapists and private practice, we were on the referral list of Mars Hill back in the day. We pulled ourself off of that referral list because we found that there was just simply too much power struggle. There wasn’t any way that, a client who was coming to me for therapy, if I said something that was antithetical to what Mark was saying from the pulpit, I was going to lose that power struggle. So there really wasn’t any reason to even engage there. So when I’m working, I’m coming to your question here. When I’m working in a therapeutic space and someone is asking about discernment, I’ll say to them, go ask three to five people that you trust what they think about whatever it is that you’re asking about. And you listen for the themes that come together there. So what I would say is for, [JK: yes] and by the way, I’ve worked a lot with Mars Hill recovering folks in my practice too. It’s a real gift to do that. And part of what we hear is that in that, first of all, there wasn’t church structure set up right? There was no accountability for Mark. And so really then it was either get in line or get out, was the structure, right. As opposed to bring your questions, bring your lament, bring your protests, bring your doubt, all the stuff Brian McLaren’s doing good work on that side of things, right. So there, there’s something about a community being open enough that people’s questions and concerns and asks for discernment can circulate. And it isn’t just go schedule a meeting with the pastor cause the pastor will tell you the right way to think or do. But we are actually going come together as a cloud of witnesses, where at any given time, someone could come and say, Hey, I’m wondering what to do with this really problematic thing in my marriage. Again, go ask three to five people that you trust that there’s enough people around. There’s three to five people at the church that you can ask that. Again, we’re all sort of setting a stage that says, this is what ethical, moral, spiritual health and decision making looks like, our process. This is how the Holy Spirit works, when two or more gathered, that we need to actually function that way as opposed to having the words of wisdom dropped from on high. So there need to be enough spaces of collective discernment, where we don’t rush to the Sunday of Easter, where there is time for lament, protesting questions and doubt and shame and pain and all those things. And in the bearing witness, then a different sort of discernment is possible. Now, I know that that’s not easy, right. This I think is simple why megachurches are so popular because they got resources. They can do small groups and they can do men’s ministries and women’s ministries. They can do all the things right? Because what we’re talking about is, again, enough vehicles where people can drop into whatever size of group works for them, such that they can work to be seen. They can tell their story, they can share a meal and say, here’s my rough childhood. This is some of what I bring to church with me every Sunday. There’s got to be enough of an invitation for that sort of thing, for that sort of health to circulate, I would say.

Joel Kiekintveld: What I hear you say in some of that is, it’s a return in a sense to the priesthood of all believers. It isn’t this idea of one person or a group of people that have the answers that are being kind of passed down. I hear this like working together on, we’re in this journey together. We’re helping each other as we move forward. [DS: Yes.] As well as creating those spaces for your questions and doubts.

Doug Shirley: I think it’s…I love it. I love it. And I think it’s sort of the difference between an apologetic and a testimony. If a church has an apologetic sort of a justification for their faith, that’s top down stuff, and that’s going to miss a lot of people who are coming to be fed and to be healed and all this sort of thing. But a testimony, if you got a testimony, there’s God. And I got a testimony, there’s God, God’s going to pop up in all of these places, not just guys with green shirts on, but all of these unexpected places. We listen for that still small voice of God, A place where more testimonies can have a witness form to them.

Joel Kiekintveld: It was interesting. I was in Russia 20 years ago or so, and we were sitting around one evening talking about the church there, and somebody had asked, what could you use more of? And this is a fairly small congregation in a very small village in far north Russia. And the pastor was quiet for a long time, and then he finally said, well, I don’t think we need any more snow machines, and I don’t think we need another piece of equipment. What we need is more testimony. And I think that’s what I hear you saying too, is yes, we need to hear from each other what’s going on.

Doug Shirley: Yes. And not just with microphones, right? Yeah. Cause that freaks people out. A lot of people are not going to want to stand up in front of a large group and say, hey, there’s this really painful thing that happened to me. The people who are going to stand up are the ones with the polished endings, not the unpolished endings. I lost my kids because I was an addict and I was a negligent parent, and I still don’t have them back. That story’s not going to get told from a microphone, right, but it might get told in a place that isn’t amplified in the same way where someone else could go, oh my God. That’s–how painful for you and what hard work you’re doing to try to get those kids back and how hard that you’ve had to wait for so long. So again, not just the polished endings, the unprocessed, jagged endings, those are the ones, those are the stories. Those are the testimonies that need to continue to unfold.

Joel Kiekintveld: Well, I’ll ask a question that I usually ask towards the end, which is, what am I missing? Or what else would you like folks to know about creating kind of healthy psychological spaces inside our faith communities?

Doug Shirley:Think about something like, even why are you and I doing this, right? A podcast, right? Something where you and I recently were in a conversation with Dr. Tali Hairston, right, who talked about the word between us, right. Anytime we put a word into or onto a person to bring, it loses something, right? But a podcast where, for instance, you and I can go back and forth, now there’s a word between us. When two or more are gathered, the spirit becomes more enlivened and enacted, your mind and my mind can begin, and our stories and our lives and all that can begin to synergize differently. There’s, there’s something about setting up spaces for dialogue, spaces in intersubjective spaces between two people where God in the form of spirit can show up differently. I would love to see more shared leadership models, more dialogical sermons, more questions and answers, even just more questions as opposed to answers. More theatrical displays of things that again, sort of bring something to life. But don’t finish off the, now here’s the three points to take with. So there’s something about a talking head. Our conversation today would not have been nearly as effective as if someone just told me, okay, Doug, start talking. Right? What’s effective is you and I get to go back and forth, and you get to hear something from me, and I get to hear something from you, and I get excited, and then I forget your question. Then I remember your question, right? And the spirit is active. And that way, I think there’s something about even what you’re doing here, Joel, that’s important to this whole healing business.

Joel Kiekintveld: Well, Doug, thank you so much for joining us to talk about [DS: You’re welcome. ]What it looks like to create healthy spaces, how we move forward in that and our faith communities. I really appreciate it.

Doug Shirley: You’re welcome. And could I even just say as we go out, the old Norse root word of health is holy. So when we’re pursuing healthiness, we’re pursuing holiness. So this is godly work you’re up to. So thanks for doing it.

Joel Kiekintveld: There you go. That’s a tweetable right there. When you’re pursuing health, you’re pursuing holiness, and I like that. So thank you so much, Doug.

My thanks to Doug Shirley for joining me and sharing some thoughts about how we build churches that are psychologically healthy and free from abuses of power. I know this conversation has given me a lot to think about, and hopefully it has for you as well.

If you are enjoying this conversation and you want to concentrate more thought on your community and context, I invite you to check out the low-residency Master of Arts in Theology & Culture (MATC) programs at The Seattle School. Those programs are designed for artists, activists, and ministry leaders who want to serve God and neighbor. More information at:

I also invite you to check out the Center For Transforming Engagement. We know that church leadership has never been more difficult and that 1 in 3 pastors is at risk for burnout. That’s why the Center for Transforming Engagement offers support to leaders like you. Through cohort groups, coaching, and consulting, they equip leaders and their teams to transform their service of God and neighbor in their local contexts – and in the process, to be transformed. You can learn more and get connected with a cohort group or a coach at
Until Next Time, I’m Joel Kiekintveld. Grace & Peace.