A Needed Reassessment of Christian Conciliation

by | Nov 20, 2021

On November 16, 2021, Live at Peace Ministries released a public confession describing how they had failed to respond effectively to ethical complaints that had been filed against the ministry’s founder and president, Judy Dabler. Later that day Christianity Today published an article describing a professional grievance investigation that I led earlier this year, which had revealed a pattern of serious ethical failings by Judy.

On November 17 Judy released a statement indicating that she disagreed with much of the information reported by Christianity Today. She also stated that she disagreed with both the process and the conclusions of the grievance investigation.[1]

These three internet publications triggered a wave of social media posts that are critical of Judy and various individuals and organizations that had been involved in these matters. Some of these posts have also been critical of the concept and practice of Christian conciliation in general.

The other two members of the grievance investigation panel and I were heartbroken and grieved earlier this year as we heard the stories of clients, students and coworkers who have been harmed through Judy’s actions. We have been equally grieved over the past few days as we’ve heard similar stories through social media about people who were harmed in other situations where Christian conciliation was inappropriately pursued or poorly practiced.

Release of Investigation Decision

As indicated in the Christianity Today article, Judy refused to accept our investigation panel’s conclusions and recommendations.[2] Even so, we continue to pray that God will eventually use our efforts to move Judy to participate in a victim-centric conciliation process (see safeguards below) that leads to authentic reconciliation and full restitution to the people who have been wounded through her actions.

RW360’s Conciliator Grievance Process requires that if a complaint cannot be resolved through an informal resolution agreement between a conciliator and the complaining parties, the investigation panel must render a decision that addresses the elements of the complaints. We are then required to communicate that decision to all of the parties in the investigation. Our panel issued the 30-page decision in this case and conveyed it to Judy and the other thirty-eight witnesses/parties on July 26, 2021.[3]

Once a grievance decision is in the hands of the parties, they are free to either keep it confidential or to share it with others if they believe that they have a compelling and biblically valid reason to do so, such as seeing a conciliator continue with his or her practice without credible evidence of repentance of serious sins or incompetence.

Our panel has learned that some of the parties to this investigation have recently decided to share this decision with others, including the author of the Christianity Today article. Therefore, the full decision may soon be made public. If so, we pray that God will use our conclusions and recommendations to not only encourage justice and healing in this particular situation but also to promote a candid review and discussion of ways that Christian conciliation has been or could be used in inappropriate or harmful ways in other situations.

Potential Pitfalls of Christian Conciliation

As mentioned above, the reports released earlier this week have triggered a wave of social media commentary criticizing the concept and practice of Christian conciliation. Christian conciliation is a biblically grounded form of conflict resolution that may involve conflict coaching, mediation or binding arbitration to resolve legal, employment, personal, family, church, abuse and business disputes.[4]

This recent outpouring of criticism is a wakeup call. As I stated when I was interviewed for the Christianity Today article,

“People can misuse and abuse the conciliation process. If people are not trained to understand power imbalance and the dynamics of abuse, well-meaning Christian conciliators can make serious mistakes and, in that process, can abuse a victim all over again.”

This dynamic is especially applicable when conciliators are blind to their own sinful tendencies or to unresolved traumatic experiences in their past that distort their approach to conciliation. Problems may also occur with conciliators who have strong personalities and communication skills, which can magnify the harmful impact of their actions.

The potential for misusing a conciliation process increases even further in situations where one or more of the following conditions are present:

  • A lack of accountability for the conciliator or any of the parties,
  • A lack of recognition of power differentials between the parties,
  • A bias in favor of the person paying for the services,
  • An agenda to conceal negative or embarrassing information,
  • A lack of understanding of abuse and harmful power dynamics,
  • Inadequate training in trauma-informed mediation, or
  • Inadequate training in other disciplines that may be needed to effectively handle the complexities or challenges of a particular conciliation case.

As was revealed in the Christianity Today article and our investigation decision, many of these dynamics were reported in the complaints others have made against Judy Dabler. But they are certainly not unique to her.

During the forty years that I’ve been teaching and practicing Christian conciliation, I myself have had to guard against or repent of some of these tendencies, as have other conciliators whom I have trained or supervised. We are all fallen and are often blind to our deficiencies and sinful tendencies, which is why every conciliator needs to engage in ongoing training and operate within a structure that encourages meaningful feedback and genuine accountability.

Current Safeguards

Having seen the harm that inadequately trained or unaccountable conciliators can cause, I resolved to pay greater attention to these issues when I transitioned to RW360 in 2012.[5] Although the primary focus of RW360 has been to deliver training that would help people to develop relational skills that actually prevent conflict (see Discover Relational Wisdom), we have continued to promote biblical peacemaking and provide Christian conciliation services.

Recognizing the need for improved training and accountability for conciliators, RW360 has implemented several policies and practices to provide greater safety and more effective services to conciliation clients, including:

  • When parties contact us for a conciliator referral, we require them to complete a detailed questionnaire and personal intake process to identify cases that may involve complex legal issues, emotional trauma, power imbalances or abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, child, elder, spiritual, etc.), which require the involvement of conciliators or other professionals who are trained and qualified to deal with these types of issues.
  • In cases involving allegations or signs of significant abuse, we require an independent investigation to unearth hidden facts and patterns before we even consider recommending a conciliation process.
  • We have upgraded our training to equip our conciliators to better recognize their limitations and discern when they need to request the assistance of or refer a case to specially trained conciliators or professionals (e.g., trauma therapists).
  • We recognize that the standard conciliation process used in cases involving normal interpersonal, legal or organizational conflict must be revised in cases involving abuse and power imbalances in order to provide greater safety for a party in a weaker power position. These revisions will include methods that are more victim-centric, such as victim-advocacy and restorative justice, as well as a requirement that an abuser undergo pre-mediation coaching or counseling to insure that he or she has begun to sincerely comprehend his or her guilt and will not attempt to use a conciliation process to shift blame to the victim and trigger further abuse and trauma.
  • We encourage churches and other organizations to be transparent and to accept all appropriate responsibility when one or more of their members has experienced abuse (see, e.g., A Better Way to Handle Abuse).
  • We discourage NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) in settlement agreements, especially when they may be used to conceal and perpetuate serious sin. Recognizing that the confidentiality clauses typically included in our interview and conciliation agreements can be confused with NDA’s in settlement agreements and can create some of the same detrimental effects, we are beginning a process of re-examining how we can use these types of clauses to create an atmosphere where parties feel safe confessing sin but are not later constrained in communicating information to a wider circle of people who have a legitimate interest in a particular situation.
  • We do not accept cases where we believe that the mediation process is not being pursued sincerely and is instead being used simply as a step towards a predetermined outcome (e.g., the termination or preservation of someone’s position).
  • All of the conciliators listed in our Directory are required to encourage clients to candidly evaluate the conciliator’s performance by completing a detailed evaluation form at the end of a conciliation process, the results of which go to both the conciliator and to our case administrator so we can identify conciliators who are not performing up to our ethical and performance standards.
  • Conciliation clients are informed during our intake process (and in each conciliator’s record in our Directory) that they are able to report serious disappointments or problems with a conciliator through our Conciliator Grievance Policy.
  • Parties are encouraged to be accompanied by spiritual advisors who can support them emotionally and spiritually throughout the conciliation process and help them to identify and challenge any inappropriate behavior or practices during the process.
  • We are pursuing ways to expand subject knowledge expertise on power and abuse dynamics and trauma-informed care for all conciliators in our directory. We provided three workshops on these subjects at our 2021 annual conference (see, e.g., Serving Wisely in Complex Conciliation Cases) and have scheduled even more extensive training in these areas for our 2022 conference.
  • We are collaborating with the organizations listed on our Christian Conciliation Providers page to develop improved screening, training, accountability and continuing education “best practices” for Christian conciliators. We hope and pray that God will use our combined efforts to enhance the biblical faithfulness, moral integrity and overall skill and competence of every person who offers to serve as a conciliator, whether as a volunteer layperson or as a pastor, ministry leader or professional. Most of these organizations are already implementing many of the safeguards described above.

Like all other forms of professional service, whether it involves pastoral ministry, counseling, healthcare, law enforcement, or the practice of law, there is always room for improvement and a need for ongoing training and meaningful accountability. To paraphrase what our city police chief recently said about those serving in law enforcement:

“There are great [conciliators] we want to hold onto because they serve others well. There are good [conciliators] who make mistakes and need to be better trained so they can become great [conciliators]. And there are bad [conciliators] we need to identify as quickly as possible and remove from service.”

This can be said about any professional, but it is especially true of those who serve others in the name of Christ.

But This Is Not Enough

As worthwhile as these safeguards are, they are not enough. The heartbreaking article released this week by Christianity Today and the resulting outpouring of criticism on social media about Christian conciliation makes it clear that there is still work to be done to identify past failures and ongoing deficiencies of Christian conciliation and to make needed upgrades in the training and accountability of conciliators.

With this in mind, I will be personally reaching out to some of the people who have recently voiced complaints about their past conciliation experiences. I want to learn where Christian conciliation has failed them and especially how any materials or training that I developed or promoted in the past may have contributed to those failures.

At the same time, I invite anyone else who has had a negative experience with Christian conciliation to email me at mail@rw360.org to describe their experience and, if they wish, to arrange a zoom conversation where they can tell me their story in more detail.

Finally, our ministry will be reaching out to all of the people and ministries that may have contributed in some way (by acts of commission or omission) to the failures and harm described in these recent articles and social media posts. Only by learning from the mistakes of the past can we implement better practices and safeguards to prevent similar failures in the future.

I cannot undo the harm caused by other conciliators in the past, nor can I provide accountability to conciliators who have not qualified for our Directory. But I am committed to learn from any such failures and to incorporate these lessons into our efforts to improve the ministry of Christian conciliation in the days ahead.

I continue to believe that appropriately conducted Christian conciliation is a biblically sound and God-honoring way to address a wide range of personal and organizational conflicts, as illustrated by these six example cases.

But hundreds of successful cases don’t cancel the harm done in even one case where Christian conciliation is inappropriately or poorly applied. Therefore, we still have work to do.

I hope you will join with me in identifying ways that this vital ministry can be made safer and more effective in promoting repentance, justice, healing and reconciliation for all those who seek to resolve conflict in a redemptive and God-honoring way.

~ Ken Sande

December 5 Update: By God’s grace, the negative social media triggered by the CT article stopped immediately after this blog post was published on November 20. In the days that followed, several of the people who had posted critical social media comments responded to my offer to have a video conversation so they could share their stories and dialogue about how we can work together to ensure that conciliation is practiced in a safe, effective and biblically sound manner.

As a further evidence of God’s grace, every one of these conversations has been respectful, constructive and healing. I have several more calls scheduled for the days ahead and will remain available to anyone who wants to share their story and offer suggestions that may strengthen our efforts to improve the ministry of Christian conciliation.

Please pray that God will enable us to continue to practice the relational and peacemaking principles he gives us in Scripture in such a way that the negative events reported above will ultimately result in a positive testimony to his redeeming, unifying and sanctifying grace.

Endnotes

[1] Judy’s November 17 statement reads as follows: “After allegations of mismanaging a 2018 conciliation process arose earlier this year, I requested that Ken Sande lead a professional performance review of my services. He expanded his review into an investigation, and his report has been given to Christianity Today and has been made public. I do not agree with Ken’s conclusions about me, nor do I affirm the process he utilized. I also do not agree with much of the information reported by Christianity Today. There are people that I have both hurt and harmed. I am truly sorry for the pain and damage that I have caused. I am and have been sincerely desiring to hear the stories of anyone who has been negatively impacted by me so that I can take responsibility for my failures. A possible process to pursue healing and resolution might be for any injured parties to contact Peacemaker Ministries at 1-800-711-7118 for assistance. I am no longer serving in vocational ministry, nor am I looking for an avenue to be restored. I am sincerely seeking God’s guidance as I strive to live in a way that reflects my gratitude for all that he has done for me through Jesus Christ.” [Click here to return to post body]

[2] Judy is not certified by or professionally accountable to RW360. The reason that our ministry was involved in this particular grievance investigation is that Judy requested that we use our grievance process to evaluate a complaint that was raised against her by a former conciliation client. [Click here to return to post body]

[3] Judy’s November 17 statement refers to an investigative “report,” which she says was given to Christianity Today and made public. This is incorrect. Our panel did in fact write a 115-page “report,” but it was shared only with Judy herself so she could respond to the allegations others had made against her. (Each of the witnesses also received an excerpt from the report that showed how we summarized their particular testimony.) Many of the witnesses spoke with us on the condition that neither their name nor their testimony would ever be made public, so this report was not given to Christianity Today and will not otherwise be made public. Our panel also wrote a 30-page investigation “decision,” which contained less confidential information. This is the document that was released to Judy and the thirty-eight other parties to this investigation. [Click here to return to post body]

[4] For a more detailed description of this concept, please see Frequently Asked Questions about Christian Conciliation. [Click here to return to post body]

[5] The reasons for my transition from Peacemaker Ministries to RW360 are summarized here. [Click here to return to post body]

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

Copyright © 2021 Ken Sande

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