Charles Thomas: Managing Brokenness

In the last month or so, Watershed Voice has featured a number of excellent articles about a scandal at our area’s largest church. I’ve been riveted by the articlesopinion piece, and Linda Shank’s personal story about her allegations of a coverup and sexual abuse by a Riverside Church leader.  

In April, Ms. Shank posted an allegation on social media that she’d been “sexually abused and groomed” by a youth leader at the church when she was 15-years-old. She alleges that while the church did remove her abuser from youth ministry, they were reluctant to get the police involved, and generally mishandled the situation. In a recently released statement, Pastor Paul Booko refuted some of the allegations while adding that he hoped that the victim can “forgive us for not doing more to help her.”

These stories reminded me of a famous quote by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the persistence of evil. “The doctrine of original sin,” Niebuhr wrote, “is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” 

Niebuhr is right. Humans, every single one of us, are broken in some way. And in spite of hundreds of years of social, moral, and intellectual evolution; great evil persists to this day. It can make a person wonder if these kinds of deep problems— like our propensity to cover things up— can ever be solved.

I personally do not think they can. Racism, exploitation, murder, and abuse will always be with us. These are problems that will never be completely solved no matter how hard we try. But just because these problems are unsolvable, doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and give up.

Instead, maybe it would be better to take a more realistic approach to intractable problems. Psychologist John Gottman may have something to teach us in the way he addresses a very different set of intractable problems.

John Gottman is the world’s preeminent marriage researcher. He has spent over 30 years studying why marriages succeed and why they fail. One of the most fascinating things he learned from his decades of study was related to the problems couples present when they enter couples therapy. 

Gottman learned that 69% of the problems that bring couples to therapy are what he termed “perpetual problems.” These are problems related to fundamental differences in the personalities of the people who are married, and because of this they cannot be fixed. What’s more, Gottman learned that all couples have perpetual problems. Every single one. The goal of therapy when working with these kinds of problems is not to find a solution because no solution exists. 

Instead, the goal of treatment is to help couples develop skills to have more fruitful dialogue about their perpetual problems, and to learn skills that help them be more effective in managing them. We can think of perpetual problems the same way we think of diabetes. While there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, how well the diabetic manages their blood sugar levels can make a huge difference to their overall health. 

What if we treated our unsolvable cultural problems the same way we treat perpetual problems in couples or the disease of diabetes? What if we were able to admit that eradicating abuse from planet earth is an unrealistic goal, and instead focused our energies on creating more accountable systems to catch abusive behavior sooner and deal with it more effectively?

Linda Shank has waited 10 years for her story to get the attention it deserves. What kind of enhanced accountability systems are needed at Riverside Church in order to catch and effectively address this kind of problem in the future? It should be noted that unaccountable religious leaders are not just a problem for megachurches either. My mainline Christian denomination suffers from this problem as well. My church, in spite of having layers of oversight, has a system where bishops have to agree to be disciplined, and where the “punishment” often includes lengthy paid leaves. 

Is it any wonder that churchgoing continues to steadily decline each year in the U.S.?

In spite of the brokenness so often found in religious and other leaders, Reinhold Niebuhr remained hopeful about our ability to manage human immorality. Niebuhr is the author of the famous Serenity Prayer that most people know the first part of, the part that says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change.” But there is a second part to this prayer that doesn’t get quoted often enough. Niebuhr wrote in the second part of this prayer, “Living one day at a time, enjoying each moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it…”

Accepting the world as it is, and being realistic about what we can accomplish may be the best way to address the perpetual problems in our lives. 

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]

Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.