Newsletter #19: everything on fire
In today's newsletter: Word on Fire, NET Ministries, gender identity, and faith.
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what else is in the newsletter today:
Word on Fire on fire
What I’m reading: Gender Identity & Faith
Word on Fire on fire
Several months ago, a friend of mine reached out to me. He was working for Word on Fire Ministries and had been made aware of a scandal involving possible sexual abuse perpetrated against a group of women by one of its most prominent leaders. This friend had participated in a meeting where he felt the harms against the women were being dismissed, where one of victims was identified by the bishop leading the meeting, and where employees shared that they had been threatened during the investigation and were afraid of the ministry’s CEO. I told him to contact an attorney, to take detailed notes of all his concerns, and to have an exit plan. He conveyed some advice he received from the attorney to some of his coworkers, which made its way back to the ministry’s leadership, which then started an investigation into him. Shortly thereafter he resigned.
Over the next few weeks, I gathered information, did background research, and drafted an essay outlining what I considered to be the most significant problems. And then I sat on it. He hoped that change could occur through “official” channels. But he and I had both seen the common progression of events when Catholic institutions are faced with scandals, and we didn’t have high hopes.
On April 30, I received the permissions I needed to publish that essay. I published it that day.
I wasn’t prepared for what would happen afterwards. Almost immediately, anonymous individuals identifying themselves as Word on Fire employees accused me of lying and simply seeking to destroy the ministry. At the same time, women started reaching out to me to share stories of misogyny and possible sexual harassment against them occurring at Word on Fire, at times in the presence of Bishop Barron. Word on Fire issued a first public statement on the matter. Two days later, another public statement accused me of lying, revealed additional details about one of the victims without her consent, and publicly charged that former employee with illegal activity. A week later, The Pillar reported on two prominent Word on Fire employees who had resigned over these and other issues. A few days later, another prominent employee shared that she had resigned. And a week after that, the National Catholic Reporter published an investigative piece.
I’m still processing all of this. Writing on these issues was a very stressful and painful experience. It was also a really bizarre experience, having a Catholic ministry publicly accuse you of malice and lying.
In the meantime, I’ve been hosting facilitated conversations through my Instagram account. I’ve invited followers to share their thoughts and experiences related to various topics and institutions in the Church, which I reshare (usually anonymously) with their permission. Past topics have included Pride Month, the Theology of the Body, “porn addiction” rhetoric in the Church, experiences at Catholic colleges, FOCUS, gun rights, purity culture, and natural family planning. I have frequently been asked to host a conversation on NET Ministries, which I finally agreed to do about a week ago. As with the Word on Fire fiasco, I was not prepared for what would ensue.
I have now shared more than 300 stories, including stories from more than 100 former NET missionaries and staff members. They've shared dismissed sexual assault reports, being hospitalized for health issues from poor working/living conditions, and being told to lie to immigration officials. But the harm most commonly shared: being led to believe that they were the only one. So many told me about being gaslit into thinking these were isolated issues. I now realize that this, probably unintentionally, is part of the structure of NET.
It starts from the beginning. As people shared stories of harm, I had NET defenders message me sharing "wherever there are people, there will be hurt and brokenness." I actually just had another defender message me with this. It felt like a line they were taught to repeat. One former NETter told me this is part of the rhetoric of NET training. Which explains why it kept coming up over and over again. They prime you to expect hurt. So you're conditioned to not be surprised. And you're conditioned to minimalize harm.
NETters were trained to over-spiritualize. A former team leader told me that when one member of his team got sick because of exhaustion, he blamed her for not doing "god's work," and asked "how could she not push through it." He feels he was brainwashed into brainwashing. Again, this teaches them how when there are harms, it's not because of NET. It's because of your own moral flaws. If you are harmed, it's not because of bad structures or policies. It's not even because of the perpetrator. It's because of your weak spiritual life.
Blaming the victim was a common story. One woman shared how she went to her supervisor because her teammate was overstepping boundaries. She said she didn't want to share it because she was afraid of getting sent home or breaking up the team, which NET warned them about. When she did go to her supervisor, she was led to believe it was her fault. She was told that she was "asking for attention" because she "wore make up / dressed hip." She afterwards suffered panic attacks and an eating disorder, but was convinced this was all her fault. At Wrap Up Week, she tried to take this to her supervisor's superiors, and they just told her to "pray more" and "forgive them." She went home that year, and he served for additional years.
Part of what isolated her and others was a sort of prosperity gospel that was preached. It said that problems were primarily spiritual , and when you're harmed, the way to address it is to pray for the perpetrator. If you work hard enough, God will bless you.
Missionaries were also insanely overworked. Some shared stories of working from 5am to midnight most days. When their health struggled, they were told to pray more and to power through it. Because they were surrounded by others doing this, they thought it was fine and normal.
They were encouraged not to share bad experiences with other teams. And they were isolated from the outside world and others who might tell them that this was not right. One told me that when her parents were going through a divorce, she was allowed one hour of phone time a week.
A number of people told me that at the end of the program, NET has you do an activity of "forgiving" individuals for harms. And people described a talk where they were told that harms are the faults of individuals and not NET. One person recalled the message: "Some of you may claim to be upset because you had a hard year. But NET is a building, an organization. And can you be mad at a building, an LLC? You're not really mad at NET." They're told to believe it's impossible to criticize the organization. That's how they close out their time: with a reminder that they can't criticize NET. They're told to remember all the good done by the organization, and to focus on that. This causes them to repress harms and to believe they can't be addressed.
So it's unsurprising, that when former NETters try to talk about harms, they're shut down by other former NETters. They're told this is bashing the organization. So it's actually evil to talk about the evil you suffered.
Anyways, there’s so much more I could share. I'm still processing this and how we can learn from this to build better ministries and help those hurt find healing. If you want to see the conversation, it's saved in my Instagram highlights.
I’m not sure if or how NET will respond. The organization has reached out to me through social media to invite feedback from those who have shared. Some were frustrated by the message, telling me how they had shared these stories with NET and were gaslit or ignored. Most are cynical about the possibilities of change, but many do hope these problems can be appropriately addressed.
What I’m reading: Gender Identity & Faith
I’ve just finished Gender Identity & Faith: Clinical Postures, Tools, and Case Studies for Client-Centered Care by Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky. The book focuses on how mental health and other professionals can support those with faith backgrounds or commitments who are exploring their gender identity. Some may identify as transgender, while others may be simply trying to manage gender dysphoria or coming to a healthy relationship with a sexed body with which they struggle to identify.
Some Catholics will recognize Sadusky through her work supporting “side b” Christians, Christians who uphold a “traditional Christian sexual ethic.” She has been featured on the Life on Side B Podcast, promoting the need for an attentiveness to mental health and well-being in order to have an integrated and healthy life.
At the same time, she and Yarhouse have recognized the challenges for some Christian communities to find the support they need from mental health professionals. They write in Gender Identity & Faith:
“[For a mental health professional t]o steamroll over deeply held religious convictions, or to discount medical and mental health perspectives [clients hold] as a matter of principle, is to fail to adequately address the real challenges families face. If as clinicians we do not offer a posture of cultural humility to the families we work with, they will come to fear mental health professionals and deem us incompetent to support them on their journey. Failure to exhibit cultural humility has had catastrophic consequences in the past; some families have chosen not to seek out any mental health support for their child because they fear their beliefs will be pathologized or outright negated.”
Consistent with the role of the therapist or psychologist, Yarhouse and Sadusky emphasize the need to understand a client’s religious background and commitments when addressing the exploration of gender identity. For some, religious convictions will provide the boundaries for the interventions the client will find acceptable. For others, a knowledge of religious background will help to unpack how clients have been formed to view themselves and the world around them, and how they have established themselves in relation to the various religious messages they have received.
Among the most helpful images in the book is the image of the mountaintop and the plateau. Many clients struggling with their gender identity are inclined to seek the “mountaintop,” the perceived end-point of their gender exploration which will include maximal changes. But Yarhouse and Sadusky recommend instead seeking a “plateau,” the least invasive interventions that allow the client to “stabilize in terms of their self-understanding and their use of management strategies.” This might include changing the client’s name or pronouns or dressing more in accordance with the client’s identified gender. Spending time on this plateau can help a client identify whether they truly desire more invasive interventions, or whether this is a place in which they can thrive. Some will find that they can thrive in this place for a period of time, and then will desire additional interventions in search of a better plateau for them.
As mental health professionals, Yarhouse and Sadusky emphasize the need to focus on the journey, rather than the destination, while a client explores their gender identity. They warn professionals to push neither for full medical transitions nor for a denial of the experience of gender dysphoria. Instead, they argue for a full awareness of the benefits and challenges associated with various interventions, starting first with the least invasive interventions and exploring whether these are suitable long-term solutions, and working to understand the client in their entirety, including in their religious contexts.
This is a book I will be recommending to friends and family who work in medical and mental health, and also to priests, pastors, and Church leaders. Because the book is balanced and thoughtful, I don’t think it will be as popular as other recent books by Christian authors on gender identity. But that’s exactly why you should read it. You can order copies for yourself and your friends here.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
Now accepting submissions!
If you like what I’m doing here and want to join in this developing project, I’d love for you to submit an essay, poems, or a short story for consideration. You can learn more here.