Let’s Help Ted Kober…

October 15, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

The other day, a reader forwarded me a copy of the memo that Ted Kober (of “Ambassadors Of Reconciliation”) sent out to members and former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  After reading the memo, I got to thinking that maybe Mr. Kober would be interested in our feedback.  If you have a story from your time at a Sovereign Grace Ministries church, or if there’s something else you think Mr. Kober ought to know, I would urge you to share that in a comment.

Here is the memo.  My thoughts are interspersed throughout, in blue.  For those of you who don’t like my sometimes acidic tone, I apologize in advance.  Just skip over my responses and continue down to the comments to leave your own feedback.

————————————

October 13, 2011

TO: Members and former members of Sovereign Grace Ministries

FROM: Ted Kober, President

Greetings to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

I write this memo for four purposes:

  • To provide some background information on the Group Reconciliation process and 
reflect on initial feedback we have received so far regarding the process.
    .
  • To answer questions regarding confidentiality in this process.
    .
  • To adjust the teaching requirement in response to the feedback.
    .
  • To confess my part in contributing to confusion and hurt among people invited
    to 
participate.

Background and Reflections on Initial Feedback

At the request of the Board of Directors of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM),  Ambassadors of Reconciliation (AoR) began meeting in July with the SGM Board and a few other people to learn about the reconciliation needs of SGM. As a result, AoR produced a report in August recommending different approaches that SGM could take in order to address their current needs for reconciliation and adjudication.

One of those recommendations included Group Reconciliation Assistance. This is a process we have developed over many years to assist organizations that are struggling with conflict. It incorporates five elements:

  • Teaching biblical peacemaking
    .
  • Interviewing individuals and leadership groups for gathering information and
    coaching people to take steps toward reconciliation
    .
  • Mediating a few key parties (if willing) and identifying others who may desire
    mediation assistance (often from other providers)
    .
  • Evaluation of documents, interview information and other material received
    .
  • Reporting observations and making recommendations

Many organizations that suffer from conflict share common characteristics, and yet each one is unique in strengths, weaknesses, polity, beliefs, and culture. While the process we use works well in many settings, there are times we adjust the process to better serve the unique needs of the people in that organization.

[Kris says:  I think it might be helpful for us to stop right here and do a really basic thing – define a key term.  What does it mean when we speak of “reconciliation”?

Here is a dictionary definition of the root word, “reconcile”:

rec·on·cile

/ˈrɛkənˌsaɪl/  verb, -ciled, -cil·ing.

verb (used with object)

1. to cause (a person) to accept or be resigned to something not desired: He was reconciled to his fate.
2. to win over to friendliness; cause to become amicable: to reconcile hostile persons.
3. to compose or settle (a quarrel, dispute, etc.).
4. to bring into agreement or harmony; make compatible or consistent: to reconcile differing statements; to reconcile accounts.
5. to reconsecrate (a desecrated church, cemetery, etc.).

Here is a definition of “reconciliation” as it is discussed in Easton’s Bible Dictionary – showing how “reconciliation” is regarded in the Bible:

Reconcilation

a change from enmity to friendship. It is mutual, i.e., it is a change wrought in both parties who have been at enmity.

I may be mistaken, but I think I pick up on a tone of slight confusion in Mr. Kober’s memo.  It’s as though he has been surprised by the sorts of reactions he has received, as he and his coworkers seek to assist SGM in reconciling with members and former members whom the organization has offended in one way or another.

Perhaps I can help Mr. Kober here, right out of the gate.  Perhaps I can clear up some of the mystery for him.

Mr. Kober, what you might not be grasping is that many people do not view SGM as a positive or even neutral entity.  Many of the former members with whom I have interacted over the past four years have come to the conclusion that their SGM churches did not function in a “normal” fashion, as “normal” churches – but rather, that the SGM organization had created, in many instances, an environment that functioned more like a “high-demand group” or cult.

The pursuit of reconciliation assumes that it is good and right for the two involved parties to put aside their differences and no longer have negative opinions of one another.  I would argue that for those who have come to view their SGM churches as functioning as “cultic” entities, with spiritually abusive leadership, it is NOT necessarily appropriate or desirable for them to change their opinions.

Moreover, the idea of “reconciliation” implies that restoring some sort of congenial relationship will be the end result of the “reconciliation process.”  A good many former SGMers have happily moved on with their lives and have absolutely zero desire to re-enter into a relationship with their SGM churches.  Rather – and this is key – what they desire is for their SGM churches to simply change (fix) what is wrong and what can hurt people.

Perhaps that is why your organization – with the word “reconciliation” written right into its very name – has been met with so much suspicion.  I believe at least part of that suspicion flows out of the reality that a lot of former SGMers don’t really care any longer about restoring warm fuzzies with their former pastors/leaders/churches.  Instead, they are concerned only with warning others to stay away from dysfunctional systems that have hurt people.

Here’s an analogy that might illustrate this point.  It’s a bit melodramatic, a bit extreme, but I think it might be helpful nonetheless.

If there were a mother who, in the throes of post-partum psychosis, ended up harming her infant, it would not make a whole lot of sense for the people in this woman’s life to focus first of all calling in some expert and paying him to help her “reconcile” to her husband so that they could go on to have another child.  Instead, the woman would first need medical help to deal with her sickness.  Only after her organic dysfunction had been dealt with would it make sense to try to help her and her husband “reconcile.”

SGM’s dysfunction is, in the minds of many (including me), systemic.  Foundational, even.  Before focusing on “reconciliation,” SGM ought to be addressing the lack of formal accountability built into its structures…the twisting of key doctrinal terms (like “grace”) to mean something subtly different to SGMers than what they mean to the outside Christian world…an inappropriate overemphasis on the importance of the pastor’s role in the life of a believer…the huge gulf that can exist in SGM pastors’ minds between themselves and the people whom they serve, where SGM pastors believe that they have a different level of closeness to God and a different ability to hear from Him…

I could go on and on, but those are just a few places where SGM needs to start addressing its organic dysfunction first.  Then talk of “reconciliation” can come later.]

As we are receiving inquiries and responses to the invitations for people to participate in this process, we have received a number of different messages that set this case apart from others. These responses have included both criticisms and encouragements.

Feedback: Criticisms

Two areas receiving a number of criticisms include issues regarding confidentiality and the teaching requirement.

Confidentiality

Individuals have been sensitive to the application of “confidentiality” and its application in the various parts of this process. While people in previous cases have asked about confidentiality, this intense focus on it has been unique from other organizations we have served.

[Kris says:  Well, of course it’s unique.  I’m glad you’re beginning to pick up on the strangeness.  That’s a huge aspect of why your organization has been called in to help – SGM is not normal.  SGM churches have historically functioned more like “high-demand” (or “cultic”) groups rather than your typical Reformed/Evangelical Bible-based church.

Here’s a question that would be very helpful for you to consider:    these “other organizations” you have “served” – have you ever “served” an entire denomination before?  Have your services ever been necessary for a whole family of churches?  Have you ever heard story after story that all follow basically the same pattern of authoritarian abuse?  And – this is key – where the authoritarian abuse often flowed out of tight control of information, as well as a mishandling of confidentiality?]

Speculation on our motives, inaccurate information, and misinterpretation of our standard procedures have been shared broadly regarding what AoR is requiring regarding confidentiality. For example, an inaccurate claim has been made that if people talked to someone from AoR they cannot talk to anyone else about these issues again. This false impression appears to have increased anxiety for some regarding this process.

[Kris says:  Well, the Ambassadors Of Reconciliation website specifically lays out all your policies by linking to this site (under “Rules Of Procedure”) where we find the following, under the heading of “Confidentiality”:

16. Confidentiality

A. Because of its biblical nature, Christian conciliation encourages parties to openly and candidly admit their offenses in a particular dispute. Thus, conciliation requires an environment where parties may speak freely, without fear that their words may be used against them in a subsequent legal proceeding. Moreover, because conciliation is expressly designed to keep parties out of court, conciliators serving on behalf of the Administrator would not do so if they believed that any party might later try to force them to testify in any legal proceeding regarding a conciliation case. Therefore, all communications that take place during the conciliation process shall be treated as settlement negotiations and shall be strictly confidential and inadmissible for any purpose in a court of law, except as provided in this Rule.

B. This Rule extends to all oral and written communications made by the parties or by the Administrator, and includes all records, reports, letters, notes, and other documents received or produced by the Administrator as part of the conciliation process, except for those documents that existed prior to the conciliation process and were otherwise open to discovery apart from the conciliation process. The parties may not compel the Administrator to divulge any documents or to testify in regard to the conciliation process in any judicial or adversarial proceeding, whether by personal testimony, deposition, written interrogatory, or sworn affidavit.

C. Mediated settlement agreements reached by the parties and arbitration decisions shall be confidential, except as provided in Rule 17, unless the parties agree otherwise in writing, or unless an agreement or decision must be filed with a civil court for purposes of enforcement. If an arbitration decision is contested or appealed pursuant to statute, the Administrator, upon written request from a party, shall furnish to such party, at the party’s expense, copies of the conciliation agreement and the arbitration decision.

D. The Administrator may divulge appropriate and necessary information under the following circumstances, and the parties agree to waive confidentiality and hold the Administrator harmless for doing so: (1) when, as part of its normal office operations, the Administrator consults with its staff members or outside experts regarding particular issues or problems related to a case; (2) when compelled by statute or by a court of law; (3) when an arbitration agreement or decision has been contested or appealed; (4) when an action has been brought against the Administrator as a result of its participation in a conciliation case; (5) when the Administrator deems it appropriate to discuss a case with the church leaders of parties who profess to be Christians; and (6) when the Administrator deems it necessary to contact appropriate civil authorities to prevent another person from being harmed.

E. In spite of these confidentiality protections, some of the information discussed during conciliation may not be confidential as a matter of law or may be discoverable outside the conciliation process and used in other legal proceedings, and the Administrator shall have no liability therefore.

I’m not an attorney, but this sounds to me like anyone who would become part of one of your reconciliation processes would be asked to sign some sort of confidentiality agreement.  I don’t think it’s at all illogical to conclude that you would require participants to promise they will no longer talk about their differences of opinion with respect to Sovereign Grace Ministries. 

I’m surprised that you are surprised, actually.]

There appears be confusion of what should remain confidential from a biblical and legal perspective and what should be more transparent (as opposed to inappropriate secrecy).

There appears to be significant distrust of leadership from those who believe that they have been hurt as a result of how “confidential” or “secret” information has been handled.

Teaching requirement

While in past cases, a few people grumbled about the training requirement initially, we have not experienced such an intensity of strong negative reaction from so many as we have in this situation.

Some have pointed out to us that they have received lots of training in biblical peacemaking and either don’t want more or don’t need more.

One person indicated that he felt this was belittling to him because he has been involved in past teaching on this topic.

Some people indicated that they felt this requirement was burdensome and unnecessary.

A few messages compared their situation to one who has been abused, indicating that such a requirement was another way to inflict pain on someone who was already victimized.

Others have referred to the teaching as “jumping through hoops.”

[Kris says:  Allow me to explain.

If you gain enough trust to hear enough exit stories from people who have been harmed by Sovereign Grace Ministries churches, what you will begin to see is that taking a superior “teacher” stance (where the clear potential exists to evaluate and then condemn people for not measuring up to some standard for expressing their differences of opinion and their concerns) has been one of the tools SGM pastors have used to hobble members and keep them from having a voice.  It is natural for SGM’s victims to resent the notion that they need special training from you guys to be able to participate in telling you what SGM did to them.

Also, did it ever occur to you that your organization actually comes across as highly sanctimonious and quite patronizing – judgmental, even – when you start the “group reconciliation process” with some sort of tutorial about what (you think) is a “biblical” approach to reconciliation?  Deny it all you want to, but it’s still clear through this instructional requirement that you are assuming that participants somehow don’t already know what a “biblical” approach is. 

And then, it seems to me you are demonstrating a disconcerting need to exert too much control over this reconciliation process by seeking to control the definition of terms.  Remember – just because your organization believes that you have a corner on a “biblical” understanding of what reconciliation would look like, you actually might not, especially if you do not have a clue about the cultishness and the frightening control that some SGM leaders have propagated.  Instead of starting things off on such a didactic note, you’d do better to go in with an open mind and just spend some time listening.]

Feedback: Encouragements

While we have received these and other criticisms of the process, we have also noted some unusual encouragements:

People have thanked us over and again for our willingness to serve SGM, more than we have experienced in other cases. This appears to be one of the positive reflections of the culture.

[Kris says:  Perhaps this over-the-top welcome you’ve received is a positive thing.  But don’t you think it could also be just a plain old case of SGMers trying to butter you up and influence you to be more positively predisposed to the organization?  Don’t be naïve and take all this happy-happy-joy-joy feedback at face value.  Think a little more analytically.]

People have expressed their personal encouragement and indicated that they are praying for us, more so than we usually experience. This has been true even of many who have criticized the process.

Some people have already demonstrated a teachable spirit. This does not mean that each one always agrees with everything that we say, but rather that they are open and have actively sought counsel.

Reflections

While it is early to draw final conclusions from this initial feedback, our initial observations include the following:

Initial responses reveal that there are strong positions ranging from strong loyalty and support of leadership to strong opposition of leadership.

[Kris says:  Ya think?  It’s kind of scary that you guys are getting paid $150 per hour to make such nuanced and astute observations!  (Pardon the sarcasm…but this just seems excruciatingly obvious to someone like me, who has been engaging with disillusioned SGMers for nearly four years.)]

Strong emotional responses from the various positions sometimes result in communications that do not reflect godly behavior.

[Kris says:  And it is your role as “Ambassadors of Reconciliation” to judge people for their lack of godly behavior and use that judgment to…do what, exactly?  Will their lack of godly behavior influence your assessment of the feedback you receive from these people?  Or will you have the wisdom to look beyond their possible “ungodliness” and perhaps analyze why they might be so extremely frustrated that they speak too plainly for your tastes?]

It is apparent to us that something significant has impacted a number of people over time and their views of such things as confidentiality, transparency, and secrecy. This seems to have resulted in increasing sensitivity to these topics.

While support for leadership is present, there is also an obvious mistrust of leadership past and current, including those serving SGM and some of its churches.

[Kris says:  Again, I wish someone would pay me $150 per hour to state the obvious. :D]

We at AoR failed to anticipate the intensity of the concern regarding confidentiality and the requirement for the teaching component.

[Kris says:  Of course you failed to anticipate it.  That’s because I’m guessing you ascribed to SGM the characteristics of your run-of-the-mill Lutheran church.  Just because SGM churches have claimed to be “Reformed” in doctrine doesn’t actually mean that the day-to-day reality of life in an SGM church looks anything remotely like day-to-day life in a Lutheran church.]

Whenever a part of the reconciliation process becomes a major focus, it may indicate some repeated patterns or themes of behavior that have made that area such a hot button. However, there are usually a number of factors that contribute to such an emotional response, and one must use caution about making quick conclusions regarding those factors.

[Kris says:  “May indicate”???  Again, you guys are getting paid $150 per hour to figure this stuff out?  Really?]

As we continue our process, we will be seeking to learn more about why these issues have brought about such intense reactions.

Questions on Confidentiality

What are expectations for confidentiality in the Group Reconciliation Assistance Process?

For Phase 1 (Seminar and personal interviews)

Individuals requesting interviews will not be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. However, AoR’s reconciliation team members will hold identifying information confidential.

As will be explained at the end of the seminar and in our feedback forms, the general substance, but not identifying details, of information collected by the Ambassador team will be shared with SGM in a report. An individual may provide his/her name and contact information on AoR’s feedback form, which will be helpful if the AoR Team has questions or if the individual requests a coaching interview, but individual names will not be shared with SGM leadership.

Contact information will also be useful if someone indicates on the form a desire for reconciliation assistance. Should a person give permission for this situation, his/her contact information may be forwarded to SGM only as it relates to follow-up in reconciliation assistance.

For Phase 2 (Personal coaching, mediation, and oral report to SGM)

Following Phase 1, a few key individuals will be invited to participate in additional coaching and possibly mediation. No one can or will be coerced to participate in any coaching or mediation. All parties and mediators involved must agree to mediation in order for it to occur. AoR does not know if its reconciliation team members will be involved in any mediations, since no one can be required to participate in this voluntary process. Because it is a voluntary process, a party may withdraw from mediation at any time.

Moreover, AoR will not be conducting all the mediations requested by individuals in Phase 1, but rather identifying those who wish assistance through mediation. Some of those requesting assistance may utilize other mediation services or SGM people who have received training.

Those who may be invited to participate in mediation led by an AoR reconciler will be given the opportunity to review and discuss with the mediators the Rules of Procedure3 including those that define the application and limits of confidentiality. Anyone considering such an opportunity will have the privilege of declining mediation if the rules or procedure or limits of confidentiality are not acceptable. Note that the rules provide that parties in a mediation have
the right to agree in writing on what will not be kept confidential.

Adjusting the Teaching Requirement

At AoR, we were taken by surprise by the negative reaction from a number of people regarding the teaching requirement. Initially, with support from the SGM Board, we made provisions for both a live teaching event and a recorded teaching event available on the SGM web site. Based on what we were told that many had already been exposed to biblical peacemaking, we decided to reduce the total teaching time and focus on material that went deeper than basic
peacemaking. Nevertheless, these plans failed to meet the expectations of many we hoped to serve.

In response to the feedback we have received, we have decided not to make the teaching component a requirement prior to receiving feedback or meeting with people. We do not want the teaching requirement to become a roadblock for people participating.

Nevertheless, we encourage people to either attend the live training or watch the training on the web. We believe that doing so before providing feedback to us will be beneficial to everyone.

We will continue the rest of the process as planned. We will conduct on-site interviews in Gaithersburg November 8-10 following the live presentation of the teaching. After the presentation has been made available on the SGM web site, we will receive requests for telephone appointments for the following two weeks. Then, we will set up as many appointments as we can for the following weeks.

Confession

AoR proposed the Group Reconciliation Process that the SGM Board accepted. I take responsibility for designing and recommending the process.

Although I had some preliminary information that could have informed me prior to our proposal, I confess that I failed to anticipate the sensitivity to confidentiality. Thus, I failed to provide better information on explaining confidentiality in our initial proposal.

I acknowledge that the requirement for attending the teaching portion contributed to confusion and hurt for people. I failed to provide a better explanation for the process in the initial proposal or in a follow-up description. My hope is that the change in our process will open the door for more to participate.

Conclusion

Thanks to everyone who has provided feedback so far. I ask for patience as we continue through this process. Obviously, there is much that we at AoR need to learn about SGM before we can make recommendations, and that will likely take some months. We pray that through our teaching and coaching we can also share some things with you that you will find helpful for personal healing as well as corporate change that will be God-pleasing. But, in spite of our good
intentions, we are likely to disappoint people in various ways, for we are imperfect people. As we work through these challenges together, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3 NIV).

These are difficult times for SGM leaders and members, current and former. Attempting to address these issues will continue to be a challenging work for anyone involved. I encourage all of us to use caution and patience as we respond throughout this process. While God does not desire for us to ignore important issues, he does call us to respond to them in godly ways. He also calls us to trust him and seek his guidance in all that we do.

May Christ’s love have its way with all of us, as Paul writes: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 ESV).

Finally, I remind you that your hope should not be in AoR, what SGM leaders do or not do, how other key people respond to what lies ahead, or what results might occur. Our hope is found only in our Savior, Jesus Christ. In him we not only have forgiveness of sins and the assurance for eternal life, but we have his promises to be with us always, even to the close of the age.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 ESV).

[Kris says:  Trust me, nobody is putting too much hope in the AoR organization.  Those of us who have a working knowledge of the way that SGM does things already know that your group was very intentionally selected to head up this process precisely because SGM leaders were fairly confident that you’d come into it more than a little bit star-struck and overwhelmed.  Your initial communications have not done much to dispell the feeling that you guys are all very eager to prove yourselves, what with the heavy use of Bible quotations and the careful mix of positive observations.   

I personally am praying for you, that your eyes would be opened to how SGM hopes to use you.  I pray that you will lose any schoolgirl crushes you may have on C.J. Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace organization and take a hard honest look at how things actually are.  You have a gigantic job ahead of you, but don’t worry – it’s quite possible that God put you in just this place in time for such a task as this.]

© 2011, Kris. All rights reserved.