Within the church community, there are distinct incongruence’s between the in-group membership and the church leadership staff in transferring certain dispersive communication values as it pertains to church risk liability exposures. Certain church cultures and denominations differ in the extent to which they promote individual church policy and procedure values (prevention, achievement, long term planning) verses collectivist values (church benevolence, tradition, religious uniformity). Americans generally prefer a preference for the individual values (Kapoor, Wolfe, & Blue, 1995).
One of the major differences between these two orientations is the extent to which an individual’s goals, or the group’s goals, are given precedence in recognizing the importance in and implementation of preventive policies, procedures, training, and communication within the organizational context to safeguard the church against liability exposure and lawsuits. In this article, I discuss the vacuous gap that exists between church leadership and the expectations of the congregation to provide a safe haven for children, youth, church membership, and volunteers as it pertains to sexual misconduct liability prevention.
As researchers, we use the term culture within the church setting to represent a clique of assumptions and values concerning relationships among and between human beings within their environment that are shared by an identifiable group of people. The Western church today has become a combination of inter- and cross-cultural individuals from different countries, social, ethnic, language, and educational backgrounds. Such organizations present inaugurate variables such as perceived knowledge (awareness or understanding of what needs to be done), perceived cultural distance (independence and private space), perceived history of distance (tradition), perceived similarity (an assumption everyone has the same feelings or understanding regarding specific issues and the level of interest), opportunity for contact and interaction (frequency of contact), and intergroup attitudes (conceptualization, attraction, and acceptance) as reflected in The Triandis Model for Dealing with Cultural Diversity (Grandose & Oskamp, 1997). The role of culture plays an important part to preconceived opinions and attitudes on topics they may not completely understand such as sexual misconduct within the church. Explanatory and instructional communication between the ministry staff and the congregation will determine the success of any educational program designed to establish specific policy and procedures necessary to protect the church. Several means of improving cross-cultural interaction have been addressed by Triandis, Kurowski, and Gelfand (1993). The results of their studies have suggested communication must be tailored to a specific goal.
Churches are unique in the extent to which information is made explicit in one context or is assumed to be understood in context and implied intention on the other. A high-context church culture is one in which much of the organizational, policy, and procedural communication of the church is in the context of one person (e.g., information shared through previous communications, assumptions among congregants, and training sessions). The dissemination of information is assumed to be known by all participants, but it is not explicitly stated in a verbal message with very little content in a coded, explicit, transmitted message (Hall, 1976). Thus, high context is less verbal and more internalized. Openness is not characteristic of high-context communication (Gudykunst & Kim, 1997). In high-context communication, individuals are not prone to reveal large amounts of personal or specific information about themselves, and group-based information is needed (Gudykunst & Nishida, 1986). High-context communicators are perceived to not be open but tend to be reserved (Okabe, 1983). These high-context cultures (Japanese, Latin-American, Korean, and Mexican) place great emphasis on personal relationships and oral agreements (Victor, 1992). It is my contention that having high-context leaders working in a low-context congregational setting is potentially problematic.
Any leader of an organization who assumes all participants are fully aware of all policies, procedures, rules, and regulations regarding the priorities of the organization and elects to not continuously communicate these guidelines and priorities is creating ambiguity. To high-context cultural members, ambiguity is something to be avoided; it is a sign that the interpersonal and social interactions have not proved to be sufficient to establish a shared base of information (Gudykunst, 1983).
By contrast, a low-context culture is one in which most of the necessitated topic-specific information is explicitly disseminated in a verbal message. A low-context culture (German, Swedish, and American) places less emphasis on personal relationships and more emphasis on the verbalized, explicit explanation of detail confirmed within written business contract transactions.
To appreciate the distinction between high and low context, consider providing physical direction within the church complex (e.g., “Where is the church library?”). To the congregation member or frequent attender, you would assume he or she knows the internal landmarks (high-context explanation); therefore, your directions would be such as “near the pastor’s office.” To the newcomer or visitor (low-context explanation), you cannot assume he or she is familiar with the church facility; therefore, your directions would be such as “take this hall, and follow it until you reach the end and turn left. The library is half-way down that hall on the right.” Thus, low-context is more verbal and more specific. Low-context communication involves being precise (Grice, 1975).
After many years working with numerous religious denominations, I have recognized a major communicative gap between the Evangelical church’s pastoral leadership and the congregational membership in the area of disseminating preventive measures to the church body regarding the problem of sexual misconduct in the church community. In 2003, I met with five different Evangelical denominational churches and surveyed their membership regarding their expectations of the ministerial staff to recognize, communicate, and educate the membership in sexual misconduct prevention. Mosques, Temples, or Synagogues did not participate in this study. Over 500 church members participated in the survey and responded to questions such as: Has the church discussed the topic of sexual misconduct vulnerability with the membership? Are you aware if a problem potentially exists regarding sexual misconduct in the church? Are you concerned for the safety and welfare of children, youth, and volunteers in the areas of sexual misconduct exposure and prevention? Do you expect the leadership of the church to be proactive in sexual misconduct prevention through training, background checks, and preventive policy measures? Do you feel the ministry staff is doing an adequate job in implementing safeguards against sexual misconduct liability exposure?
In addition to these five denominational churches, I interviewed the participating church pastors and other ordained staff ministers to determine their personal viewpoint and perceived recognition on the topic of sexual misconduct in their Evangelical church. The results were surprising but yet atypical from my observations over the past 20 years.
The survey results indicated 87% of the responding membership perceived the ministerial staff was negligent in safeguarding the church against real and perceived sexual misconduct activities. The membership expected the pastoral staff to discuss, educate, train, and establish preventive policies and procedures to protect not only children and youth but also the volunteers working with minors. They expected the church staff to take a leadership position and address the issues. In response to their survey results, the ministerial staff stated they felt ill-equipped and untrained to address the sexual misconduct issue. They stated they did not want to offend anyone by bringing the topic before the church and felt uncomfortable in even discussing the topic. As a result, no one did anything, and the issue became dormant. The church expected the staff to be proactive, and the staff avoided the discussion. Such circumstances is the result when people of high uncertainty-avoidance believe that what is different is dangerous (church staff), while people in low uncertainty-avoidance cultures (church membership) is that what is different is curious (Hofstede, 1979).
Temporal communication, known as chronemics, concerns the use of time—how you use it, how you organizer it, how you prioritize it, how you react to it—and the messages which permeate from the church’s culture. The interesting cultural difference in these church settings is the importance (or lack of perceived importance) regarding time orientation. Between the high- and low-context cultures is the sensitivity of time. Monochronic people and cultures schedule one thing at a time; time is compartmentalized, whereas there is time for everything, and everything has its own time. Polychronic people tend to schedule a number of things at the same time. Fellowships, Bible teaching, choir practices, business meetings, youth trips, and other activities will be conducted at the same time. In Western culture, we call this multitasking. No culture is entirely monochromic or polychromic, but tendencies can be observed across both paths. In this survey, the congregation appeared to be heavy on the polychromic tendency, and the ministerial staff appeared to be monochromic. The congregation wanted activity now on the misconduct issue, whereas the staff was reluctant to push the issues forward.
Every church has a culture just like any neighborhood, community, or town. This culture is the sum total of all personalities involved, the ways we relate to each other and those outside the group. The unwritten or perceived rules for social interaction develop either by intent or chance. It is important for the church leadership to recognize how the congregation interacts and then intentionally design the type of culture they want with regards to values, cultural assumptions, or behaviors. This evolving culture is driven by interpersonal relationships, a positive attitude, immediacy in creating a sense of togetherness, empathy, openness, and cultural sensitivity. Church culture is passed on from one generation to the next through norms, mores, and communication, not through genes. Therefore, culture does not refer to the color of skin or the shape of one’s eyes; rather, church culture refers to a belief in a supreme being, to attitudes towards success and happiness, and on the values placed on family, friends, and relationships.
Culture is also transmitted from one generation to another through enculturation, a process through which we learn the culture into which we were born. Parents, peer groups, schools, religious institutions, and government influences are the primary teachers of culture. When these various cultural influences come together in worship, the participants bring with them this varied enculturated history into the church; thus, a cross-cultural entity is formed. An entity comprised of both monochromic, polychromic, high- or low-context culture. It is important to remember that culture is not one single thing but a complex series of activities interrelated in many ways, activities with origins deeply buried in the past (Hall, 1959).
Successful leaders must recognize cultural differences exist within the church and how individual goals or the group’s goals will be given precedence. The challenge is the blending of priorities while reducing uncertainty and the importance placed on reducing it. It is important to recognize that all communication contains some degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. Therefore, it is not surprising uncertainty and ambiguity become greater when there are larger cultural differences (Berger & Bradic, 1982). Drawing from their research on uncertainty reduction, we can surmise the following:
Perception checking skills and active listening skills will help the leadership check on the accuracy of personal perceptions and allow leadership to revise and amend any inaccurate perceptions.
Being specific reduces ambiguity and the probability of perceived misunderstandings. Seeking feedback on group expectations helps leadership correct any possible misconceptions almost immediately. Seek clarity on group expectations.
Try and resist the natural tendency to judge others quickly and permanently. Prejudices and biases complicate further communication and, when combined with high uncertainty, are sure to produce judgments that will need to be revised in the future. Flexibility and a willingness to revise personal opinions are essential skills for reducing uncertainty. One must be willing to move slow to make a final judgment on what is valuable, important, and meaningful to the group. A judgment made too early is likely to be based on too little information.
Another factor that will stand in the way of effective cross-cultural communication is the element of fear (Gudykunst, 1990; Stephan & Stephan, 1985). The church leader may have a fear of losing self-esteem, thus hindering his or her effective communication. There may be a fear of rejection or a lack of acceptance. The leader may become anxious about his or her ability to communicate effectively a difficult topic of discussion, feeling stress as a result of a lack of training or professionalism. There may be a level of discomfort speaking on a sensitive topic in a mixed group. There may be questions asked to the communicator that he or she is not prepared to answer. The leader may fear a negative response from members of the group. These fears coupled with the greater effort of intercultural communication can easily create a high level of anxiety that is difficult to comprehend and overcome.
For some, recognizing culture shock as a psychological reaction of being in a culture they are unfamiliar with is complicated (Furnham & Bocher, 1986). Such culture shock is normal and can become unpleasant or frustrating to a church congregation unfamiliar with social challenges which are becoming prevalent in the church today. Twenty years ago, we were not discussing the necessity of background checks, windows in classrooms, the training of volunteers on how to hug children and youth, or how a volunteer can find themselves set-up by false allegations. Times have changed, and lawsuits prevail. Even if a sexual violation never occurred, just the allegation can be significantly detrimental to the church’s reputation. The world has entered the church, and the world wants the church to fail. Those with evil intentions will seek out any crack or crevice, any weakness, in a church’s policy or procedure to exploit, expose, and destroy its credibility or reputation. It took the church years to develop a good and ethical reputation in the community, but it can be immediately destroyed with one allegation, one newscast, one lawsuit because of a sexual misconduct allegation.
It is not the discord that creates the problem but the manner in which leadership approaches and deals with the conflict. Specific methods of reconciling conflict over contentious issues can resolve difficulties and actually improve interpersonal relationships. Unfulfilled expectations can only hurt the relationship; poor judgment in reconciliation can destroy self-esteem, create bitterness, foster suspicion, and create ambiguity. The task of the church leadership is not to try and create relationships that will be free of conflict but rather learn appropriate and productive ways of managing conflict in hopes of strengthening the church body (DeVito, 2000).
Finally, conflict in the church is not a new occurrence. One of the problems of cross-cultural communication is that church leadership may be operating with false assumptions about what the conflict is and what it means. As experience has dictated, relational conflicts can be formed by various types—goals to be pursued, allocation of resources such as money expenditures, specific decisions that must be made, decisions that are considered appropriate or acceptable by one person and inappropriate or undesirable by another. Simple answers are usually wrong. Conflict is neither good nor bad. Conflict is part of every interpersonal relationship, and the relationships between church leadership and church members are no exception.
This study confirmed the complexity which exists between a high-context culture (Pastor and ministerial staff) in which much of the organizational, policy, and procedural communication is assumed to be understood, and agreed upon, within the body and a low-context culture (church membership) which expects leadership to verbalize precise information for the good of the organization. The low-context participants expected the church leadership to take a position of being informative and address the issues. Over 87% of the low-context members felt the church leadership was negligent by not addressing the issues of sexual misconduct. A factual-inductive style of management would have taken the important facts relevant to the church and led toward a conclusion. Yet leadership demonstrated an avoiding style of management which evokes a low concern for others by avoiding conflict or the situation. Such avoiding style involves nonconfrontation of conflict (Putnam & Wilson, 1982). Ultimately the issues regarding sexual misconduct within the churches were never resolved.
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About the author: Michael B. Russell, MA, MBA is a 30 year Licensed Consulting Agent in the Religious and Non-Profit sector conducting seminars and workshops on current liability issues facing these sectors. He holds a Masters in Communication and Research from the Fullbright College, University of Arkansas; an MBA from the School of Business and Technology, Webster University, St. Louis; and holds an earned Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 479-268-4471.
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