Church’s Responsibility to Its Own

No church wants to face what Crabapple First Baptist Church faced last week: news that one of its members had murdered eight people on a shooting spree. The church needed to determine its response, and communicate it not only to its own congregation but to the community and the world. Not easy to do while in shock and under media pressure to make a statement.

The statement that the church issued is carefully worded – but odd. The church condemns the sin, and expresses support for the victims. But the statement also condemns the perpetrator. It says that the shooter alone is responsible for his “evil actions and desires,” the result of “a sinful heart and depraved mind” for which he “is completely responsible.” It asks for prayer for the victims’ families, for the communities affected, for the shooter’s family and for the church family. It does not ask for prayer for the shooter himself, an obviously troubled young man.

The church seems to have given up on this young man.

In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines a process for addressing sinful behavior, recognizing that people don’t always repent when confronted with their sin. This passage is the basis for church discipline, a process spelled out in the bylaws of most churches. The process is reserved for serious ongoing sin, and its goal is usually stated as repentance and restoration. Although church discipline may culminate in separating the errant individual from the congregation, the goal is still repentance and restoration. In Matthew 18:17, Jesus said, “If he refuses even to listen to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” That sounds like we get to condemn the sinner—until we recall how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors: he shared the gospel with them and never ceased striving to show them God’s love.

Crabapple Church says it completed the process of church discipline with this young man. Usually the process is lengthy – it can go on for months – so the church has evidently been aware of this young man’s problems for a long time. The outcome of church discipline in this case was to remove him from membership, the ultimate step for an unrepentant member. A church may counsel its members not to have fellowship with a person who is under discipline, in keeping with I Corinthians 5:9-13, which exhorts believers not to associate with an unrepentant sinner. Crabapple Church cited I Corinthians 5 in explaining why it removed this young man from its fellowship. Perhaps this is why its statement distances the church from its former member.

In my church’s Conflict Resolution Policy, the section on dismissing an offender from membership is followed by a section headed “Restoration,” describing how the church will “warmly and lovingly restore” to fellowship a person who comes to repentance. This was by design, to remind both the church and the offender that the primary mission of the church is to seek and save the lost.

Although the official stance of Crabapple First Baptist Church towards this young man seems to be rejection, I hope there are individuals within the church who are praying for him and ministering to him. If he ever needed the support of a loving church, it’s now, when he’s broken.


Are Mediator Statements Confidential Too?

Confidentiality in mediation typically refers to communications made by the parties and their attorneys. What about statements made by the mediator? Are those confidential? And if so, what should a mediator do when a party publicizes a statement allegedly made by the mediator in mediation, especially if it’s inaccurate?

This happened to a mediator colleague recently. In a workplace mediation involving an allegation of sexual harassment against the male CEO, the female accuser sensed that the mediator did not believe her. When other evidence later revealed that there was indeed serious sexual harassment, the female accuser wrote a letter to the board listing all the ways it had missed opportunities to stop the harassment. In that letter, she wrote that the mediator told her she was insane for accusing her boss of harassment, and she named the mediator. The letter went public.

Obviously this party was unhappy with the mediation. She may have assumed that, since the company was paying for the mediation, the board ought to know “what really happened.” She may not have intended for the letter to go public. Nevertheless, she’s damaged the mediator’s reputation.

Was the party free to disclose what the mediator told her in the mediation? The first place to look for an answer to this is the retention agreement between the mediator and the parties. My retention agreement makes communication “between the mediator and any party” confidential. I have an expectation that, just as I am bound not to disclose what they say to me, the parties will not disclose what I said to them. If the mediation is conducted pursuant to rules or laws regarding confidentiality, such as Michigan Court Rule 2.412, they also likely make mediator statements confidential. So the party arguably breached her agreement with the mediator.

She may not have known how to complain about the mediator. Since this was an internal, pre-suit dispute, I assume no lawyers were involved. A dissatisfied party could ask their lawyer for help in addressing an unhelpful mediator, but often the dissatisfied party sees their lawyer as part of the problem. (See, e.g., Vittiglio v. Vittiglio, 830 NW2d 385 (2013)) There are several ways a party can complain about an unscrupulous mediator. If the mediator is affiliated with a court program, the party can complain to the court; if the mediator is a member of a certifying organization, it usually has a complaint procedure; if the mediator is an attorney, a grievance can be filed.

How should the mediator respond? If the party breached her mediation agreement, the mediator could sue – but mediators are dedicated to helping parties avoid litigation and are loathe to sue the source of their business. Should the mediator try to defend himself? If the mediator really did imply that this party was insane, it will be tough to explain how that made sense in the context of the mediation. If the mediator did not say it, his defense makes the party out to be a liar. Either way, the mediator is violating the confidentiality promise, because any explanation will necessarily disclose more mediation communications.

Mediators publicly accused of wrongdoing are in the same boat as anyone else publicly accused: any explanation sounds like an excuse, any defense sounds evasive. Public apologies are difficult to do well, and are not appropriate if the mediator believes he was innocent of wrongdoing. (Saying, “Sorry if you felt hurt” is worse than not saying anything.)

This party could have achieved her purpose of informing the board, without disclosing the mediator’s name in her letter. It might still have breached her confidentiality agreement, but would not have been defamatory too. Then she could have pursued a complaint against the mediator through an organization that certifies, licenses or otherwise authorizes the mediator.

Mediator names are not usually disclosed, for good reason: it’s the parties who settle cases, not the mediator. The remedy for addressing mediator misbehavior is not naming the mediator on the internet, but pursuing a process designed to address mediator misbehavior. Perhaps we mediators need to do a better job of publicizing these “mediator discipline” options so parties don’t feel that their only option is to go public.

James Cameron, Hero

I’m fascinated by stories of forgiveness, and I just discovered another one that needs to be told: the biography of James Cameron.

When he was 16, he and a couple slightly older friends decided one night to pull a carjacking. His buddies gave him a gun. But when he approached the young unsuspecting couple sitting in a parked car on the side of the road, he recognized the young man, panicked, and started running; he didn’t stop until he got home, but, not long after he fled the site, he heard gunshots. His buddies had shot the young man, and he died. Cameron and his buddies were arrested later that night and thrown into jail. The next night, a crowd of angry citizens surrounded the jail, broke in, and dragged out Cameron and his buddies. His buddies were both lynched. The mob leaders, many affiliated with the local KKK, had the rope around Cameron’s neck too, ready to hoist him from a tree branch in the town square, but miraculously they changed their minds and let him return to the jail.

By now you’ve figured out that Cameron and his buddies were African-American. But would you have guessed that this happened in Marion, Indiana? It sounds like another story from the deep South, but it occurred in the Midwest heartland, in 1930.

Based on a coerced confession, James Cameron was convicted by an all-white jury of accessory to murder and sentenced to prison. He was 16, and he served nearly five years, witnessing more abuse and violence while in prison. He could have emerged an angry, hardened man, but he didn’t. While in prison, he went through phases where he felt hatred towards all white people, where he vowed to seek revenge as soon as he was released, where he planned to devote his life to crime. But he was also starting to see God, in the beauty of creation, in his mother’s love, in the kindness of a sheriff who went out of his way to befriend him. As he says, “I was beginning to heal.” He came to a point where he realized that not all white people were bad, but he felt like he couldn’t acknowledge that to anyone but his mother, because it would look like betrayal.

After serving his two-year minimum, and despite being a model prisoner, he kept being denied parole. (He later learned that one member of the parole board was a KKK leader.) At first, he was bitter, but he began reading his Bible, finding comfort in the Psalms. He finally promised God that, once released, he would put aside all thoughts of committing crimes: “I would be the kind of person God wanted me to be.”

Cameron kept that vow. He devoted the rest of his life to racial justice, serving for years as a leader in the NAACP, and establishing what he called America’s Black Holocaust Museum. He was a model husband, father and citizen. Decades after his conviction, he petitioned the Indiana governor and was granted a pardon. And the brother of the gunshot victim was able to forgive Cameron.

Cameron tells his story in his autobiography, A Time of Terror. It’s not preachy, or evangelistic. It’s not even that religious; it’s a matter-of-fact account of an amazing story. Cameron doesn’t portray himself as either a hero or a pitiful victim, but in my view, his ability to forgive is heroic. He modeled Jesus’ command in the Lord’s Prayer, “… we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The New ICC

The Institute for Christian Conciliation (ICC) was formed nearly three decades ago, as the division within Peacemaker Ministries dedicated to managing cases and training “conciliators” to intervene in other people’s conflicts. In 2016, Peacemaker Ministries, in order to streamline its focus, transferred the ICC to a new entity called “ICC Peace.” ICC Peace was organized as a business dedicated to providing Christian ADR, both through case management and training, ably led by Matt Argue and Judy Steidl. This year, ICC Peace re-organized itself as a non-profit organization, and I am delighted to report that I have been invited to serve on its board of directors. I gladly accepted! While I support all aspects of biblical peacemaking, I’m especially interested in seeing the church provide a place where Christians can resolve disputes that might otherwise go to court, in response to I Corinthians 6:1-7. Providing high-quality Christian ADR is the essence of the ICC.  I look forward to seeing how God works through this new — yet decades-old —  ministry to bring about the “peace on earth” that we long to see.

Bishop’s Apology Doesn’t Meet Basic Conditions

The former bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston West Virginia Diocese issued an apology last month for misconduct that occurred while he was bishop. After Pope Francis accepted Bishop Michael J. Bransfield’s resignation in 2018, the Vatican investigated allegations that he had spent millions on personal extravagances and gifts to fellow clerics, and that he harassed seminarians and young priests who worked for him. Investigators established that he had engaged in a pattern of sexual malfeasance and serious financial misconduct.

The plan: Bransfield stepped down in September 2018, and his successor, Bishop Mark Brennan, drew up a “restitution plan” that was approved by the Vatican. It included a requirement that Bransfield make a public apology to the people of his former diocese “for the scandal he created,” and that he apologize privately to individuals he abused or harassed.

The apology: Bransfield’s letter, issued August 15, 2020, says he is “writing to apologize for any scandal or wonderment caused by words or actions attributed to me during my tenure as Bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese.” He acknowledged that, during his tenure, “I was reimbursed for certain expenditures that have been called into question as excessive,” but insisted that he “believed that such reimbursements to me were proper.” Regarding the “allegations that by certain words and actions I have caused certain priests and seminarians to feel sexually harassed, that was never my intent.” He added, “if anything I said or did caused others to feel that way, then I am profoundly sorry.”

Analysis of the apology: This is not an apology. It’s not even an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It’s really just an acknowledgment of the allegations against him. It indicates that Bransfield still hasn’t taken responsibility for his actions, and it’s puzzling why the Vatican and the new bishop accepted this statement as if it fulfilled the requirement that he apologize.

Elements of this non-apology include:

  • “any” – Any time an apology uses the word “any,” a yellow flag goes up. “for any scandal” includes the possibility that there was no scandal, or just something minor. Apologizing for “anything I did that caused others to feel harassed” is tantamount to saying, “I have no idea what I did and I really don’t think I did anything wrong.” Use of any form of “any” weakens the apology. To test it out, substitute the word “the” for “any” – or remove “any” altogether and see how it sounds. There may be appropriate uses of “any” in an apology (“if I have omitted anyone”) but, as a rule, if the speaker cannot apologize without using “any,” the speaker hasn’t apologized.
  • “wonderment” — He apologizes for “any wonderment” he caused. This is the strangest word I’ve ever seen in an apology. What’s wrong with causing wonderment? Is it something to apologize for? Does he mean “doubts,” like people “wondered” whether he’d done something wrong? The dictionary definition of “wonderment” is “a state of awed admiration.” This is clearly not the right word here. It should’ve been corrected by an editor, and he had several.
  • “attributed to me” – He can’t even admit that the words/actions were his; he acknowledges only that they were attributed to him. Taking responsibility for one’s words and actions is at the heart of an effective apology.
  • “if anything I said or did caused others to feel [bad], I’m sorry” – This is a form of “blame the victim.” The speaker doesn’t think he’s done anything that would hurt another, so it must be their fault that they feel badly—in this case, that they felt harassed.

As one of his accusers noted, the apology “does not meet the basic conditions of Catholic contrition, or apology.” This former seminarian, who was sexually abused by Bransfield, noted, “In the Catholic tradition, we do not apologize for actions ‘attributed to’ us or for hypothetical ‘ifs’.”

The danger of permitting a statement like this to pass as an apology is that, far from bringing healing, it causes more pain. Instead of demonstrating the repentance essential to a Christian apology, it further mires the speaker in denial, and further diminishes hope in the victims. It illustrates the risk of “ordering” or “requiring” that someone apologize. Apologies should be voluntary.

We hope and pray that the Holy Spirit, working directly or through one of his servants, will bring Bishop Bransfield to the repentance that would yield to a true public apology.


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