The recent Ted Haggard scandal is hardly unusual. But that doesn't make it any less painful for those directly involved. Members of churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, and communes the world over have had their spiritual world shattered—or at least scattered—when they learned that their leader violated their trust. To see how these people can cope, Beliefnet talked to Dan Hotchkiss, a senior consultant at the Alban Institute, a multi-faith nonprofit that serves congregations in many ways, including crisis and conflict management. We've distilled his wisdom into 10 tips for congregants of all faiths recovering from such a betrayal.
1) Distinguish the Messenger from the Message
"To me the basic spiritual challenge and opportunity that this situation presents for people is to learn to distinguish the representative from that which he represents," Hotchkiss says, "and to find other symbols for God's love, to find other ways of connecting with God that don't depend on just one person. That's an important spiritual quest at any time."
2) Take Inventory
One of the first steps of disentangling, Hotchkiss says, is to "take inventory of what that person represents and which of those things are still just as valid without the person. If Einstein had turned out to be bad person that wouldn't make his physics any less valid. If a priest or pastor turns out to have flaws that doesn't mean that everything that he's said, and everything you've learned and gained is invalid. It just means that you need to anchor your belief in those things somewhere else."
3) Lose Your Illusions
"Even in the best of cases," Hotchkiss says, "where clergy are responsible and have integrity in the sense of being who they say they are, it's still true that people adore them or project on them virtues that really don't belong to them as individuals. Even though the match between the illusion and the reality may be a little closer, it's still an illusion. And it's still part of growing up to be disillusioned.
4) Identify Your Own Issues
Often upon hearing about a leader's "fall" people's immediate opinions are "usually based on personal experience more than on the facts of the case," Hotchkiss says. "It hooks something in their personal lives. Try with help to sort out what part of your reaction really has to do with the religious leader and how much of it has to do with unresolved issues in your own life." The process can be deeply healing.
5) Expand Your Support Network
"Seek counseling from outside the system from where the crisis is," Hotchkiss says. It's best to "use the occasion to broaden out the sources of spiritual support."
6) Contribute to Openness a.k.a. Don't Gossip in the Parking Lot!
"Advocate for and participate in open conversations," suggests Hotchkiss. "In other words, don't go out in the parking lot and just talk to people who have a reaction that's the same as yours." He adds that, "Grumbling and feeding a culture of complaining and saying, 'This place is just run by a bunch of 'whatevers,' is divisive and unhelpful."
7) Rely on the Wisdom of Elders
In his counseling work, Hotchkiss has found that often the older congregants "have experienced a lot of disappointment and disillusionment in their lives" and can support younger people who might be newer to these things. The elders can empathize with their pain and tell stories of getting through similar crises—with faith intact.
8) Keep Your Institution Honest
It's crucial that the remaining leaders of an institution be "appropriately open about what has happened because the need is to restore trust," Hotchkiss says. "If the church follows the instinct to minimize or cover up that isn't going to help people to trust again."
9) Forgiveness? Not so fast...
Though forgiveness is ultimately helpful and an important value, says Hotchkiss, "people often talk very quickly about forgiveness and that seems to me to be unrealistic usually." Emotions must be acknowledged and processed: "Depending on the strength of a person's reactions, things that are helpful are journalizing, prayer, counseling—either psychological or spiritual."
10) Spot Red Flags When You Pick Your Next Teacher
Though of course there's no sure way to know who's trustworthy and who's not—Hotchkiss says he's noticed a few key traits of the fallen:
- Claiming to be perfect
- Fuzzy boundaries—moving "into areas of friendship or business relationship or sexual relationship that are not appropriate to that role."
- Stating or implying that only his or her congregation, doctrine, or way will get you closer to God or enlightenment
Hotchkiss says it's a little too "Hollywood" to look for any kind of happy ending in this kind of experience. But it can, he says, nudge us closer to emotional and spiritual maturity: "This is about growing up. … It's an enormously valuable thing to distinguish the ultimate values that religion is really about from the particular symbols, whether they're people, building, doctrines—and even religious traditions. Each in their own way points to those things but they are not the things they point to. And a grown-up knows the difference."