Stephanie M. Crumpton: Sometimes it's not enough to say you're sorry

An illustration depicting the shadows of two heads on a maze

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When Christian leaders learn to hold grace and accountability in creative tension, the foundation is laid for responses that are truly transformative, writes a seminary professor.

Moments of challenge are definitive. They bring out the best and the worst in us. This is especially the case when the challenge makes us aware of how we -- or our institutions -- are doing harm to others.

Christian leaders can inflict harm in many ways: by mismanaging the tension between tradition and change; by manipulating our power to exacerbate congregational discord, engage in sexual misconduct, or practice administrative or fiduciary irresponsibility.

When I teach pastoral care and ministerial ethics courses, my students always want to know what to do when they encounter these leadership conundrums.

Often, the complexity of the harm demands more than what “I’m sorry” can offer. In those moments, we have to choose: either we continue with the language and habits we’ve always known, or we move forward into new avenues of redress, repair and growth.

Moving forward requires holding grace and accountability in a creative tension that opens us up to individual and institutional healing.

This sounds good, but how do we do it?

I don’t believe that focusing on what to do (or not) is always the answer. The volume of literature on best practices, the boundary training and the codes of ethics in the professional culture would indicate that the trouble isn’t knowledge about what to do.

Instead, I would suggest that the work begins with a habitus that prepares us to address pain, harm and injustice in our lives and leadership.

Here are some suggestions for developing the capacity for transformative response in times of challenge:

Abandon diversionary tactics. Leaders who feel vulnerable or hurt often respond to crisis by shifting into fight-or-flight mode. This response can be as glaring as an “us vs. them” attitude. It can also be subtle; for example, leaders may use their authority to chip away at a person’s perceived value to the organization.

This scenario often plays out in a crisis when a person is placed in a position of responsibility with no resources to succeed and then characterized as unprepared and at fault for letting down the organization.

Diversionary tactics shift attention away from the sense of organizational vulnerability leaders feel when they recognize that they are ill-prepared or have been blindsided or betrayed.

Although the fight-or-flight response to challenge is common, leaders should move beyond it, because it’s not a position from which to enact transformative change.

Step back. One way to avoid getting stuck in fight-or-flight mode is to leverage a skill that has become second nature for many of us: multitasking.

I want to reframe this skill as the ability to feel the full threat of a challenge while simultaneously evaluating the situation as a call to care for trespasses that rupture community. Multitasking offers the ability to be in a threatening situation but not be governed by it.

This repositions us to lean on the core values that orient how we pursue leadership as a calling to relationship with others.

But it’s hard to lean on something you’ve neglected.

What is in place to help you remember what matters most?

What personal practices empower you to lead from the grounding beliefs that have implications far beyond your own interests? Consider what allows you to embody -- and receive -- compassion, truth, mercy, justice, fairness, equality, love, humor and trust.

How does your organization create noncoercive opportunities for remembering, revising and practicing core values and commitments? Does it encourage participation in practices (such as reading, writing, art, music, play, prayer, meditation, yoga, walking labyrinths) that ground its people in a sense of the sacred?

Personal and organizational practices that return us to what we value allow us to move forward with grace and integrity instead of getting stuck in diversionary tactics.

Grow up. A decision to face life head-on from our core commitments is a decision to grow up.

It’s not always clear how to do this, though. Some people are so new to leadership that they don’t recognize where they need to grow. Others have been in leadership for so long, and have become so respected, that it’s hard for them to acknowledge areas where they need to do some work.

This is where we begin to see the importance of relationships characterized by grace and accountability. Leaders need people who can both honor our vulnerability and escort us down avenues that position us to do better.

There are many options for finding such holy friends: in clergy accountability groups; in mentoring groups within our denominations and larger organizational structures; in spiritual direction, therapy, addiction recovery and counseling groups; in one-on-one relationships that sustain joy.

These are the connections that help us keep ourselves together internally in the face of upheaval. They do the important job of helping us forge congruence between what we say we believe and how we actually show up. But they are not enough on their own.

It’s equally important to connect with others on the business end of our vocational call -- the attorneys, accountants, financial analysts, human resources agents, domestic violence and sexual assault advocates, social service liaisons, mediators, and members of the judicial and criminal justice systems.

These are voices that refuse to collude in any form of denial, because they have covenanted to help us identify and demonstrate accountability and care in our responses, even in spite of our fears and ambivalence.

Accountability to core commitments may start with us individually, but our strategic connections, when taken seriously, can create avenues for addressing harm that go deeper than a simple, personal “I’m sorry.”

These intentional choices can transform us individually and collectively, bringing our core values to fruition as responses that heal.