Could Churches Lead the Way?

By David Hamilton

After reading Maria Dowling’s article in VOX (Church Bullying, July - September 2014), I was left wondering whether our churches should carry a government health warning. Indeed, the bullying and whistle blowing issues at the forefront of current media coverage make her piece very relevant. 

I am sure that like me, your heart goes out to people who have been impacted in such ways, and it is particularly frightening for abuse to be happening within Christian environments. My question is, “What can Christian leaders do to ensure that employees, volunteers and followers are looked after and respected?”

Should our churches carry a government health warning?

Over the past 30 years, my consulting career has become increasingly involved in the ‘softer’ issues of employee welfare. In the ever-more-demanding world of giving advice for a living, I have had to upskill continually to stay abreast of the evolution of how organisations manage risk. 

In the 1980s: After the horrific Stardust disaster in Dublin, there was a concentrated focus on the quality of building construction. This included a higher emphasis on fire escapes, non-flammable partitions, ceilings and wall linings and the installation of automatic fire and smoke alarms.

In the 1990s: Health and safety of employees came of age. Hard hats, ear protection and safety boots were the ‘must have’ personal protective equipment. Prior to 1989, only 20% of the Irish workforce was covered by statutory legislation. Post 1989, 100% of the workforce was covered - from the greengrocer to the multinational employee. During this time, the term ‘risk assessment’ was enshrined in Irish law. 

From 1997 to 2014: Health and safety began to blend with human resources management. Following the growth of insurance claims for stress, bullying and sexual harassment, businesses became more focused on protecting employees’ wellbeing. Inappropriate behaviour by dominant bosses, tolerated in the past, was now actively challenged in the Irish courts. In the early noughties, a Lloyds insurance underwriter told me he was putting aside 33% of his annual reserves for these “softer” claims as compared with the traditional physical accidents of back injuries, trips and falls.

Considering the changing awareness of how bullying, harassment and stress can seriously impact our wellbeing, the debate I would like to raise for VOX readers is: 

“How can we ensure our churches are emotionally healthy and stable environments that provide an oasis for people in a hurting world?”

Compared to continental Europe, I have always found that in Ireland, we tend to be more curative that preventative. We want to fix a problem rather than asking the more penetrating question of how it occurred in the first place. 

In her article, Maria Dowling addressed head-on the very complex questions surrounding bullying in churches. I am sure many have opinions, but even if you don’t agree with everything she has said, at least let’s discuss it!

To kick off such a debate, there are two precautionary steps that I believe churches could deploy:


1. Avoid the Ostrich Syndrome

It is interesting to note that consultation (employer actually talking to employees and considering their views) is such an alien thing within Irish society that it had to be included as part of statutory legislation in 1989! With so many challenges facing Christian leaders, keeping in touch with reality and seeking out the real opinions of employees can easily be put on the back burner. 

The most effective methods I have deployed over the years have been through structured questionnaires and workshops. I’m impressed by Willow Creek in Chicago. Check out a talk from senior pastor Bill Hybels titled The Courage Leadership Requires (opening session from the 2013 Global Leadership Summit). I recommend you set aside 40 minutes and listen online (available on YouTube). 

I have participated in the type of insightful review Bill Hybels refers to in large charities and government organisations but never within Christian churches. Usually, churches have a veneer of consultation through Annual General Meetings, staff or committee meetings. However, the process of carefully drawing out people’s views, respecting their opinions, and considering how to address revealed deficiencies simply does not happen. 

If we as Christians are to be taken seriously, we need to be at least as equally open and transparent as the secular charities and groups.

2. Lead into the Future

I believe one main challenge churches face is of a systemic nature. If there is no system to gather and review accurate data, it is very difficult to plan for the future. 

I am not saying that no systems or processes exist – just that I have never come across them in Irish Christian groups. In modern Ireland, secular fields are now well ahead in openness and transparency. If we as Christians are to be taken seriously, we need to be at least as equally open and transparent as the secular charities and groups.

I am always apprehensive when an organisation asks for a root-and-branch audit of how they are doing. My concern probably goes back to when I was mandated with such a task for very prestigious company. “Leave no stone unturned” – their boss said. “We want to hear it as it is…”

I still have an original copy of the resultant report – 94 pages with explanatory graphs and diagrams. It was so good, I even had it professionally bound. However, that great Jack Nicholson quote, “You can’t handle the truth,” springs to mind. Even though the report was diplomatically worded, it went down like a lead balloon. They only wanted a root-and-branch review as long as the roots and the branches were to be praised and applauded! 

To avoid autocratic leadership styles in our churches, we need to face another possible reality.  In a secular charity, trusts and boards typically consist of members from different business and financial disciplines. In church circles, trusts or board members are usually appointed from within the membership and are generally hesitant to challenge the status quo or look for an external review. Unless the ‘sin’ of a senior leader is of a sexual nature, accountability is negligible compared to the secular world. 

Of course, I fully accept that secular charities are not perfect. But let’s give credit where credit is due.  In recent months, we are seeing a genuine growth and awareness towards equality and fairness. 

I wonder if my dream of Irish Christian churches actually leading the way in such fairness and transparency could become a reality in our lifetime. If there were enough faith groups ready to create robust management systems to protect and value people’s views, I for one would be delighted to use my time to help build such foundations.

David Hamilton ( helps organisations manage governance, risk and compliance. In 2014, his work has varied from hosting high-level disaster scenarios for the Isle of Man government to developing safety statements for Christian charities. He is a conference speaker on risk management topics and recently participated in Ireland’s first cyber security webinar.