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Loss of the Assumptive World: Identifying Gaslighting in Evangelical Organizations

by Erin M. Reynolds | May 26, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 winner!

“There’s just something about your voice...”

With these words, my dean suggested that if I changed my voice, my students might like me better. As an accomplished speaker and instructor of public speaking, with my doctorate in communication, I knew my voice was not the problem, nor would changing my voice resolve his perception of me. Something deeper was at work, but what?

This evangelical organization aimed for “Influence Through Excellence.” I assumed this meant each employee using their God-given gifts to pour into our students for greater success. I trusted that faculty, staff, and administration held to the same truths of Scripture, particularly that we were all necessary parts of the body of Christ (Rom. 12). From my first days in the organization, I sought feedback, invited leaders to my classroom to observe, and said, “Yes,” to every request to serve. How then did I find myself under scrutiny just a few months after an “exceeds expectations” yearly review? The answer would rock my assumptive world and challenge my beliefs. While I am still sorting through the trauma, there are some lessons I learned to identify gaslighting and set the feet of victims back in reality again.

Trust

Assumption: We will act and speak in ways that foster trust.

After a change in organizational reporting, I applied to be the chair of my department because my current chair no longer wanted this role. During the interview, two deans were present. The new dean had difficulty making eye contact and admitted he did not have time to read any of my application materials. After the interview I waited two weeks to hear back. My chair followed up with them, and they let him know that he would remain in the position. They also said they would speak to me directly about this. They never did. After another month of waiting I sent an email requesting to talk with them, just to make sure there were no performance concerns. Again, I heard nothing back.

When I returned the following fall I asked again to meet and was granted an appointment with each of the deans independently. I began each meeting by asking if there were any performance concerns. They each, in turn, responded, “No.” They just wanted to keep the continuity of the original chair. I asked again, “So there are no performance concerns you have for me?” Again, they answered, “No.” Three months later, when I was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP), I asked why they had said in those meetings that there were no concerns. They responded, “You should have read between the lines.” That is, I should not have trusted what they said as true but instead second-guessed it.

Later, when my PIP was extended from three months to twelve without any prior communication, I questioned whether I could trust their words again. The new dean said if I could not trust him, then I should leave the organization. I knew trust was not simply about trusting but about being under leadership that could be trusted. To leave because they were not acting trustworthy was a loss for me. I loved my job. I knew the deans could act in a trustworthy manner but had chosen not to. I held out hope they would try to build trust going forward by being true to their words and commitments.

When we are in situations of inequality and power differentials, and our superiors tell us we just need to trust, I think we need to be careful to look at words in light of actions. Otherwise, we can feel shame for not trusting. In other words, are those in power being true to what they say and what they do? I feel my lack of trust was not a character flaw but rather a keen sense of detecting the disparity between words and actions.

Lesson Learned: When words go against Scripture and actions against cultural documents about who we say we are and what we believe, we should be wary to trust.

Silence

Assumption: We will speak up when we see or hear things that are not right.

Those who observed the accusations being made against me did not speak up on my behalf. Workmates supported my performance from behind, but they would not say this to the administration. One fellow faculty member wrote, “You are a light and bring brilliance into every room you enter.” Another said, “I don’t know how to convey how great an example you have been to me in how you have handled this situation with such grace, faith, and perseverance.” Even our pastoral leader remained silent, saying I should just humble myself and learn what I could through this process.

I learned after leaving the organization that there was a culture of silence. As the Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Coming from corporate America, I did not understand this culture of silence that seems to pervade many evangelical organizations. So I encouraged people to speak up and trust leadership to welcome feedback in the pursuit of excellence. I learned later that I was the one who needed to learn. If you speak up in some evangelical environments, especially as a woman, you will be perceived as an outspoken troublemaker.

How many of us have faced these double binds in faith settings? We are asked to fill out surveys, but if we write about anything amiss, we are blacklisted. We are told to speak up, come forward, and trust the system, but we are labeled belligerent when we do. Shouldn’t we, as Christians, seek to build systems that allow for all parts of the body to present information to the brain? What are we communicating if we remain silent when we see that something is wrong, that power is being wielded in an unhealthy way?

Lesson Learned: When we remain silent, the truth is not heard.

Enabling

Assumption: We will use our place in organizations to do what is right, despite friendships and loyalties.

My organization had a couple of strong, female leaders supporting the main men in power. These women enabled the abuses of power, rather than speaking against them. It seemed they would rather remain in power than use their power to call out injustice. In my case the female dean admitted, “Mistakes were made.” I never learned what she assumed were the mistakes they made, nor did I ever hear an apology.

Another female leader said I should feel “encouraged” because of “all the time and effort the male dean put into writing his report.” The very first page of the report said they had “very little hope I could ever come to trust them,” and the second page said, “Your teaching has improved. You are now teaching at the below-average to an average level.” The female leader chose to praise the time and effort involved in writing the report rather than question whether the report was good or helpful.

I wonder how many of our governing boards are unwilling to step into troubling situations because they do not want to call attention to the actions of the person who is committing the offense. They protect the brand instead of protecting their people from harm. By doing so, they are enabling the abuse to continue.

Lesson Learned: When we do not hold each other responsible for wrongful behavior, we enable it.

Power

Assumption: We will use our power in ways that develop the body of Christ, not demean or destroy it.

My evangelical workplace’s culture had a track record of using its administrative power to silence people and dispose of them quietly. Unfortunately, my case was not my administration’s first offense. Their behavior was condoned. More than a dozen strong, capable women, and occasionally men, had been belittled and then left—either by choice or force. And it turns out that in evangelical organizations, this abuse is not unique. Leaders of these organizations are often not trained in human resources. The organizations themselves often grow quickly and do not have the infrastructure necessary to make sure that abuses like these do not happen.

Unfortunately, the story does not end with the severance. After my departure I felt powerless, confused, and broken. I was a shell of the person who entered the organization, and I am still struggling to understand what really happened.

However, I know I have the power to use my words and voice to make a difference. My power could not save my position within the organization. But it can help me utilize my research and writing skills to make sure my story and others’ stories are not swept under the carpet. I began to record and share the stories of others. Stories are not hard to find.

Lesson Learned: The abuse of power is prevalent in evangelical organizations, and we must use what power each of us has to stand against it.

Conclusion

The assumptive world is a way of thinking about life that grounds and orients us, giving us a sense of what to expect. When we experience a loss in our assumptive world, the result is unsettling and disorienting. It can cause us to question our beliefs, our security, and ourselves.

I know there are a lot of things I assumed to be true, based on my knowledge of Scripture and the way I grew up in my Christian faith. Through this experience, my assumptions were challenged about my faith and fellow believers. It turns out that not all evangelical leaders agree in practice that every part of the body of Christ matters equally. I have to admit, I am uneasy about entering another evangelical work environment. However, I do believe that God is still in control, and lies, silence, enabling behavior, and abuses of power cannot thwart God’s desire to make all things new. My calling is now greater than I realized before. I will not just go along with the flow. God has called me to be an agent of change and healing.

Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash.


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