Sunday, February 05, 2012

Technology and the Illusion of Control

Let me warn you in advance this is going to be ridiculously long.

I recently put up a post contrasting the supposed mishandling of church discipline at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and my own experience in a Lutheran congregation in Southern California. You can read that post here.
A friend on staff at Mars Hill read that post and reached out to me earlier this week. After a fairly lengthy discussion, I have decided to post this retraction and clarification. There is much more to the story than initial reports, including the ones I linked to, than it first appears. It is a classic case of
The first to plead his case seems right,
Until another comes and examines him. 

While being discreet to protect the identities of those involved, and avoiding many of the gory details, my friend laid out enough evidence to satisfy me that the initial accounts given by Andrew and those promoting his story are at best incomplete, and most likely deliberately misleading. Large parts are left out, including the the majority of action taken by the church to reconcile him. Also, Andrew’s case involves a confluence of several situations that it appears Mars Hill has properly and thoroughly dealt with. Because the details involve the sin of others that are not publicly known, the church has decided the best course of action is to remain silent to protect those people’s reputation and privacy. They did not divulge the identities of the people involved, or the specific details of each situation to me, but they gave me a rough overview of the pieces missing in various accounts of the incident now in circulation. In light of these facts it is only right that I publicly retract my former comments directed at Mars Hill. In the future I will keep Prov.18:17 clearly in mind, and heed the admonition of our catechism to put the best construction on everything.

I have elected to keep an edited version of my original post up on the blog. My point remains valid, and I personally know of a number of instances of abuse of church discipline. However, I no longer feel it applies to Mars Hill or their handling of this case.

When the situation with Andrew first made news I considered that we couldn't be entirely sure he was telling the truth or the whole story.  I also expressed uncertainty that the person leaking his story to Matthew Paul Turner even necessarily had good motives.  I tried to stick to observations that could be made merely in light of claims.  There were certain things that could be ascertained and asked if certain statements were true.  

But if it turned out these statements weren't true then a whole new line of thought would naturally emerge.  I have suggested that if Andrew's statements were true there would be legitimate grounds to ask whether or not the disciplinary protocols and precedents at Mars Hill could be tainted by nepotism, conflict of interest, double standards, and retaliation.  Yeah, I did write that here. 
Well, if Andrew's account was incomplete or deliberately misleading then none of those points apply.  If it be granted that Mars Hill is trying to cover its tail Andrew could certainly be trying to cover his even more.  This must at least be considered as a possibility since he hasn't gone public with his full real name, after all.  Since my real name is easy enough to figure out what one hand types the other can retract.  It may be Andrew may have more to hide than just his last name. I take rather seriously the idea that there are not necessarily any "good guys" in situations like this.  Or, to put it the way Mark Driscoll used to put it, there are no good guys, just bad guys in humanity.  The one good guy is Christ. 

Well, so it seems, now more than ever.  I've seen just enough remarks from members of Mars Hill via Facebook to establish that their understanding is that Andrew is a man-slut liar.  Given that Mars Hill leadership has chosen to be silent about the situation in public it's disastrous that Mars Hill members are willing to try to set the record straight on Andrew when leaders have decided to not clarify things on record.  Facebook comments from Mars Hillians attempting to clarify that Andrew's a man-whore do NOT, let me repeat, do NOT reflect the kind of public non-discussion the leadership has been trying to take in this situation.

What I say here does not depend on any assumption that Mars Hill leaders are covering something up or are being all above board--Mars Hill members, please feel free to shut up about Andrew on social media.  You're not helping at best and are doing nothing more than confirming people's worst suspicions about your church at worst. If Andrew is a man who can't keep his pants on or maintain any physical boundaries that avoid fornication (or tell the unvarnished truth) this would not be hard to learn from even the things he DID go public with. 
But regardless of that proposal, there is something else that warrants discussion.  Let me offer this as an unsolicited constructive criticism.  issuing a public statement to the local church on The City is a stupid way to notify the local church about a disciplinary procedure. 

Maybe it's because I've been writing for Mockingbird for more than a year but nothing shouts "the illusion of control" in a real and painful way quite like posting something to The City to keep it private and then finding out it's been leaked to the public via blogger.  Encryption isn't that awesome and it's a federal crime to tamper with someone's snail mail.  If you wanted to keep this "private" posting it on the internet is the absolute worst way to make a private notification.  At least if you snail mailed everyone a notice about a disciplinary situation then it would stay private for as long as it took to get through the postal system and would require several extra steps besides hitting the "forward" button on an email!

If something needs to be told to the whole local church in a region (more about this later) an e-blast may be cheaper but a snail mail is slightly less likely to get hacked or easily leaked to unwanted parties, at least while it's in transit.  How Mars Hill broke news about Andrew within the Ballard campus may not seem like a problem within the church but surely in light of leaks and counterleaks by a former member and members this should give the church leadership some pause about whether it's a good idea to use The City as a bulletin board for disciplinary processes and public shunning.  That the campus has grown so massive public discussion in person is no longer possible should be a huge consideration in itself.
That Andrew leaked his case to a blogger may be miserable proof that Mars Hill didn't really learn anything from the story that was sent to the press about fired pastors in 2007. It's easy to pin blame on one errant member or non-member but maybe a larger issue needs to be confronted, that mastery of technology and a home-grown social network provide an illusion of control, an illusion of control about information that Andrew's case disproves whether or not he's given us the whole or true story.  This is the SECOND STORY about a disciplinary procedure that leaked to the press because the gist of the disciplinary decision was posted for reading in an on-line social medium created by Mars Hill church.  Does there have to be a THIRD case before you reconsider the wisdom of the methodology or the weakness of the technology? 

I mean, don't take this the wrong way but this seems not only unfortunate but really, really dumb.  If Driscoll can poke fun at old guys in dresses preaching to grandmas we have permission to make fun of Mars Hill as a bunch of people who seriously believe, somehow, that posting something for thousands of people to read on a broadcast medium is "private".

Let's face it, the leak from 2007 did not have to be from an ex-member, just someone who still had access to the on-line community and was smart enough to cover his or her tracks.  If the case of Andrew breaking into the public proves anything it's that The City is no better at precluding an insider leaking information to an outsider than the old system was.  What do you know?  There's nothing new under the sun.  Isn't there a verse for that?

Given the few things Andrew said about his sexual behavior I wondered if he might have been keeping things too short.  Let me consider his incomplete anecdotal testimony with my own experience of months of meetings back when I was still part of Mars Hill. Months of meetings worked out very well for me when I met with a pastor over the course of months to work out a difficult situation with people who had become former members of Mars Hill.  In fact after I met with a pastor over the course of months about a difficult my situation ended in resolution, reconciliation, and a lot of mutual good will.  True story. 
Does this mean I agree with how Mars Hill handles a lot of disciplinary settings? Obviously not, but I'm not interested in a broad brush defense or attack of a church I called home for about nine years.  I still consider it deeply problematic that the pastor who helped bring reconciliation wasn't a counseling pastor.  It's really too bad that none of the counseling pastors were the ones who did anything but make a bad situation worse but, hey, I don't care if the pastor was an official counseling pastor now!  I care that the relationships were reconciled. 

Now for people who are dead set on viewing Mars Hill in the worst possible light none of that matters.  But it should matter.  It should matter whether Andrew has told the whole truth.  It should matter whether someone who is an ex-Mars Hill member is necessarily a proof of a problem in the church culture or a problem in the person.  Even people regularly reading and contributing to The Stranger think that Nicholas Francisco (then and now) was a deceptive jerk who did wrong by his wife and children. Not everyone who left Mars Hill is necessarily an admirable or honest person.  Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  There may be people who choose to go public now who are honest, sincere people who have been hurt by a problematic disciplinary process.
But not everyone will necessarily fit into this profile. I've blogged months ago and further back that the woman who left Mars Hill and divorced her husband was someone we Mars Hill members were admonished to not shun, even though her conduct was not exactly above board.  We were told that she wasn't a Christian even though she'd been at the church for more than six or seven years.  As in signed the doctrinal statement and membership agreement a few times. As in members heard that after she left the church they'd heard where she was attending church afterward.  If she was claiming to have never been a Christian, some shared with me, she sure liked getting churched up.  Some members believed then that she pulled a fast one on the pastors. 

In any case, the gap between how Mars Hill members were urged to not shun this woman after divorcing her husband and how we were told to shun Paul Petry in 2007 was one of the big red flags some of us had about the issue of disciplinary precedent within Mars Hill.  These were two people who had signed membership contracts year after year.  What good is a contract if the people who are supposed to enforce it can't even clearly figure out who is or isn't even really on the same team?

Now should that woman seek a public audience in some form to say how she was mistreated by Mars Hill she's going to have some challenges.  Divorce proceedings are not exactly off the public record, and neither are associated custody battles. are they? If she won't even say whether she has custody of her own children consider that a red flag, folks.  There are men, obviously, who have been willing to speak on record, in public, and in their real names about what has happened to them.
If someone comes to you personally in some way using his/her real name, a real email, and their real name but wants to post anonymously feel free, I guess.  It's on you to prove they're not lying if public enquiry happens, though.  Remember that at that point the anonymous source has nothing to lose but you are risking your credibility if you take them at their word without further fact-checking. As I was blogging earlier on this subject, my journalism instructor said a person who wants to be an anonymous source may have his/her own tainted agenda and it's wise to not use them if you can build your story from on the record materials.  As the blogosphere has been demonstrating in the last month or so, there's plenty of material within the public sphere that is on record that anonymous stories are not really necessary, especially not now. 

Now that at least two former Mars Hill people have gone on record using their real names the bar has been raised. If some guy wants to talk about how bad Mars Hill was and how bad the women were he might not tell you that he had a couple of restraining orders issued against him.  If a woman talks about how she left her husband from her Mars Hill days because of his problems with alcohol she might neglect to mention how she cheated on him.  A person who talks about how terrible MH landlords were might neglect to mention a history of not paying rent on time.  A MH landlord defending his handling of tenants might not mention a lack of engagement with tenant concerns. As Proverbs warns us, the first side sounds true until the cross examination.  A man may consider his ex-wife a terrible harpy and not mention the parts about his alcoholism, history of violence, or other things about himself.

Of course people could point out that I use a pen name.  Yes, yes I do, but notice that just this last week I linked to two of my published works that list my real name.  A pen name chosen because it sounds cool doesn't mean I'm hiding my real identity.  I've hid neither my disagreements with Mars Hill on culture or disciplinary precedent any more than I have hidden the fact that I'm a fairly conservative evangelical Christian who agrees with Mars Hill pastors on core doctrines like the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection, and other core teachings of the Christian faith. 

As I've been saying for a few years, my desire is to offer constructive criticism from shared beliefs as a Christian.  Just because "Wenatchee The Hatchet" sounds cool doesn't mean my goal is hatchet work.  It just means I've read a lot of Marvel comics and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. If I'm going to eat crow (and at some point I'm sure I will) I figure I might as well be ready to eat crow on record. If Andrew turns out to be a lying man-whore then I'm glad I spent so much time saying we can't be sure his testimony is complete or necessarily trustworthy.

There is nothing as yet I've stumbled across that establishes that what Andrew has said is contradicted by any statements made by Mars Hill so if the church wants to establish Andrew's lack of crediblity they need to do more than just say they won't discuss things publicly.  At some point claims have to be disputed.  If not, then, well, all confirmation biases will persist and it is those confirmation biases pro and con I have found so frustrating over the years.  Oh well, some things really don't change, do they?
When people go on record in public settings about what happened to them at Mars Hill that led them to where they are, and led them to believe there are problematic disciplinary and cultural dynamics in the church this is to be preferred over anonymous accounts for all the most obvious reasons. At the risk of speaking for myself, Bent Meyer, or Kevin Potts--we have made public statements about things that happened to us.  If my experience ended up good overall that's still a sobering story, isn't it? It took one pastor undoing the damage done by three or four pastors over the course of about two years and I've got the story that has the happy ending!  Not everyone else has a story that ended as happily as mine. 

But I still realized at the end of that process that I needed to call a new church my home for theological and personal reasons.  The strike-out rate was too hurtful despite the one glorious God-guided home-run of one of those pastors in helping bring reconciliation and understanding into my situation. I also realized that how I handled myself that got me into that mess to begin with revealed that though I saw things that were unhealthy I had to come to the even more sobering realization that if there was a disease then surely I was one of many symptoms.
I'll be the first to say that when I spent months with a Mars Hill pastor meeting and discussing the relational difficulty I had he told me I needed to be open to the realization that I'd have things I'd need to apologize for and repent of.  I knew that going in and was open to it.  It was very hard and it was no fun but I really wanted relational reconciliation over looking like the good guy.  I'm grateful to report that thanks to the love and diligence of a Mars Hill pastor several relationships I have that are dear to me were restored.  It was also imperative I apologize for the things I said and did wrong. I did that and things worked out.

Yes, a few Mars Hill pastors deeply screwed up some already damaged relationships in my life but it was a Mars Hill pastor that trusted that beneath the hurt and anger these people and I ultimately wanted reconciliation.  When I consider all the pastors I ended up talking with before things finally got worked out it actually took probably two years to get things worked out. It was often miserable but I kept at it anyway even when some pastors said there was no chance at reconciliation. 
Why?  Because Paul wrote that love forgives all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and believes all things, that's why.  You know, that passage somewhere in 1 Corinthians. Love means working toward reconciliation and restitution when necessary because even though it hurts love spurs you on in a way that considers those costs to ultimately be less important than the person you love.  I'm not just willing to write on this blog about things I have considered troubling at Mars Hill I'm more than willing to share how I now consider myself to have been part of that trouble.

So public statements on record are of more value in contributing to a serious discussion of what is good and bad at Mars Hill as a church culture than anonymous tales. We need to have people whose stories can be in the public and, frankly, subjected to at least the possibility of scrutiny. As we're going to continue to discover not everyone who anonymously goes public with a story about time at Mars Hill may be on the level. We need to seek the wisdom to assess things on a case by case basis.
There aren't any good guys in a situation like this. To the extent that a person can speak up about a situation at Mars and have trouble saying, "I, too, have been part of that problem" have some caution.  I was most assuredly part of the problems I have now come to realize existed at Mars Hill.  If we don't find a way to seek repentance together this type of thing will continue.  If we don't seek a humility that not only grants wrongs were done but that we have been part of those wrongs things can't improve.  It's true that the first person to speak seems true until another comes and examines him.  But in light of that proverb this proverb may rebuke us both ways regardless of which side we're on. It can seem right to notify thousands of people through the internet by way of an internal social media site until things leak out into the public and other people point out there's a problem.

Six or seven years ago when Mars Hill members suggested using the Midrash to call out others' sin I said that was a stupid idea, an immensely stupid idea.  There is a time for the internet and there is a time for snail mail.  It won't have to be "the whole church" it could be to community group leaders.  Driscoll said that if Jesus died for us the least we can do is get on a plane because Jesus was willing to die for what he believed in.  Heh, okay, if you want to keep a church disciplinary action quiet the least you can do is not put it on the internet where there's no chance of keeping it private and instead spend the pennies it takes to print up a letter to snail mail to community group leaders who can then exercise their own judgment.
Even when we consider Proverbs 18:17 in this situation it doesn't merely warn us that Andrew may not be sharing the whole real story, it warns us that just because Mars Hill thinks they handled this in a smart judicious way doesn't mean they really did.  Perhaps we need to take more seriously the warning that there is no one who is righteous, not even one.  It's easy to say that in the abstract, eh?  It's easy to imagine that it will not be true of us.  But it is and very often when we have an opportunity to admit it it's no surprise that we don't and won't.  That hardly means we can't or shouldn't. 

Regardless of who is saying the whole truth about what has happened it sticks with me that on either side there may be a belief that blogging and media promise an illusion of control that is just an illusion. Anonymously leaking a story to the public by itself can't improve things any more than publicly stonewalling about what you know means you've exonerated yourself or that members of your church aren't breaching the non-disclosure policy leaders are trying to stick with.

But if there's anything that seems clear to me it's this--social media and on-line information systems will not keep things "private" when church disciplinary situations arise.  They didn't in 2007 with the Midrash at Mars Hill and clearly they haven't in the last three months with The City in the case of Andrew.  The City has turned out to not be the means by which to keep church discipline private but paradoxically the very means by which it was leaked to the public. "Tell it to the church" on the internet has turned into "The whole English-speaking world can look up something about it now." Technology merely provided an illusion of control. 

If you wanted to go for old fashioned church discipline Mars Hill couldn't you have tried something old fashioned like snail mail? Then it might have stayed private ... at least a little longer than if you'd posted something on The City.  Just the people who needed to know could have been mailed a letter, maybe just community group leaders or community group leader coaches.  If Mark Driscoll can jump on a plane to Elephant Room 2 to meet with T. D. Jakes can't Mars Hill church muster up enough money and time to send a notification of a disciplinary action to people through snail mail? Can they consider using snail mail as a more truly private alternative to an on-line social networking tool that has failed in exactly the same way its predecessor did? 

As I asked way above in this post, does Mars Hill have to encounter a third case like this one before it reconsiders its policies, if not for disciplinary procedures as a whole then at least its methodology for "tell it to the church"? This is, after all, the second time "tell it to the church" turned into "told to the English-reading internet world." The technology provided an illusion of control, an illusion that has now, clearly, been blown away. 


J said...

Good post, this made me aware of some of the other side of the story with the Mars Hill church discipline issue with Andrew. And you raise a good point about internet privacy.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

At this point since Andrew is anonymous and MH refuses to actually disprove any of his claims the only thing that can be said with certainty is that posting the notice about Andrew to The City was just not smart.

Mars Hill has long been proud of its technology and mastery of social media yet that, ironically, is exactly what got them in this mess with Andrew being in a position to share things with a blogger. I sure hope people at Mars Hill can savor that irony and laugh at themselves a bit because it's going to keep happening if they don't change a few things.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Update 2/14/2012

So it turns out a letter was sent but due to "unclear communication" things got posted on The City. Okay ... so a lack of competent communication within the organization led to this? This is hardly reassuring. Best case scenario this makes them look imcompetent at handling organizational communication within their flock.

Worst case they have done nothing to actually disprove or discredit Andrew's claims and have admitted that their own organizational imcompetence is how Andrew even knew about the situation to begin with. Notice the lack of contradiction between the best case and worst case scenarios? Yep, that's the problem here. I don't have to assume either MH or Andrew are in the role of the "good guy" here. Things are not as simple as prooftexting a proverb about two sides of the story, the point of the proverb is not necessarily that the cross examination reveals the truth, it also indicates cross examination reveals a bias. It does NOT necessarily prove that the cross examination or the second account brings the truth. Christian bloggers should go watch Rashamon if they're having trouble figuring out what this means. Besides, Rashamon is a classic movie.