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Abuse of Power Training in Pilot Phase

December 9, 2020

The Christian Reformed Church in North America’s new Abuse of Power Training pilot program became available in October, and the program’s developers are already receiving a variety of responses in feedback from participants.

One candidate for the ministry of the Word who participated in the pilot said, for example, “I am really glad the CRC is doing this abuse of power training, but this will not fix our problems. You could cruise through this without ever letting it affect you — without ever considering how you might be complicit in these systems or even abusing your own power. I wonder how this can become an ongoing conversation and ongoing personal work instead of just a ‘one and done’ deal.”

Another candidate, however, said that the training, mandated by Synod 2019 for all candidates for ministry in the CRC, “was immensely helpful — it was clear on what to do in ambiguous situations and will certainly be a resource I will come back to.”

Yet another candidate found the historical perspective of the resources “really helpful.” That candidate said, “By using modern examples of abuse in the church alongside historic examples, the training showed how long-standing an issue this is.”

In its pilot form at present, the Abuse of Power Training tackles a complicated topic in a variety of ways. It presents stories about pastors who abused the power entrusted to them and about councils that enabled abuse to continue, and it grapples with systemic abuse of power in our institutions.

In the process, participants engage with thought-provoking excerpts of podcasts and books by experts such as Chuck DeGroat, Marie Fortune, Diane Langberg, and Rachel Denhollander, among others, detailing the dimensions and dynamics of abuse, said Eric Kas, Safe Church Ministry associate.

After receiving ongoing input and feedback on the pilot program, Kas said, they will do a revision next year.

“It’s very important that this training be easily accessible and credible,” he said. “The training was developed by integrating the work of key trauma-informed therapists who are leading the broader church with regard to abuse prevention and response and who have walked alongside numerous survivors, and it includes the voices of persons who have been victimized by abuse.”

The Christian Reformed Church’s Council of Delegates, acting on behalf of Synod 2020 at a special meeting in June, approved the training program plan for pastors to help them recognize and prevent abuse of power. The Council of Delegates serves on behalf of synod when synod is not in session. The special meeting took place because Synod 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pilot form of the training will be required for all candidates presented to Synod 2021, and their input will help in shaping the final form of the training. At that point it will be mandatory for all candidates for ministry in the CRCNA, all pastors transferring into the CRCNA from other denominations, and all those entering vocational ministry as commissioned pastors in the CRCNA.

The committee that developed the training was  appointed by the Council of Delegates as directed by Synod 2019 and included members from the CRC’s office of Candidacy, Pastor Church Resources, Safe Church Ministry, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Calvin University.

According to Synod 2019, “The training program shall be a requirement for all persons entering vocational ministry in the CRC; focus on dynamics of power within the variety of pastoral relationships, boundaries, tools for positive use of power and influence, and tools for preventing harmful use of power and influence; be widely available and presented as enabling effective ministry (not as an impediment to entering ministry); and take into account the cultural diversity within CRC churches.”

“This is an interagency collaborative work, and we're starting with candidates,” said David Koll, director of the CRC’s office of Candidacy. “The eventual goal is that all pastors will have received the orientation. We're hoping it will help pastoral leaders show understanding and sensitivity in this significant area of life together. The church needs to be a safe place that shows godly respect to all who are present.”

“It is also our hope that we will continue to collaborate as denominational agencies, Safe Church coordinators, and leaders of classes and congregations to adapt this training into accessible interactive presentations and trainings for classes, church councils, safe church teams, ministry leaders, and staff,” said Kas.

The training is divided into four sections: Introduction and Stories of Abuse; Abuse of Power and the Leader; Abuse of Power and Institutional Patterns; and Preparing for and Responding to the Abuse of Power.

Individuals taking the training will not be graded or tested on what they have learned. But they will be asked to answer a few questions. “This is not a pass-or-fail training; we hope it will provide an opportunity for many to learn about the dynamics of abuse of power and, as a result, to become better able to discuss these dynamics in trusted relationships,” said Kas.

A work in progress, the training will not solve all abuse issues. “We see what we have as a good first step forward, and in the long term it will take all of us understanding abuse to prevent it at all levels of the church,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kas added, people are already suggesting that rather than having individuals take the training on their own, it would be better for each participant to go through the training with a mentor or a group of fellow students, given that the material can encourage discussion and deeper reflection.

“People come at this from a variety of different experiences; it will be experienced in a variety of ways by a variety of different people,” said Kas.

What’s more, he added, “This is a sensitive topic for many reasons, and we hope that this training provides an opportunity for the light of Jesus to shine through the darkness in our relationships so that we can all learn together as his church.”