How to Spot (and Reject) a Broken System: Turnover

How to Spot (and Reject) a Broken System: Turnover January 19, 2016

Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking about broken social systems lately. Last time we talked about how power manifests in broken systems. Today we’ll talk about how to recognize one of the biggest signs of a broken social system: turnover, especially when combined with a particular way of speaking about those who have left.

Leaving Christianity felt like this. (Credit: Paul, CC license.)
Leaving often feels much like this. (Credit: Paul, CC license.)

First, let’s run through the Principles of Power:

First Principle: Those in Power Seek More Power, and They Don’t Like to Share.
Power is a zero-sum game to the masters of a broken system. If someone else gains any, then they must of necessity lose some of theirs. They know exactly what it’s like not to have power within that system, so they’ll do whatever they can to stop others from taking away any bit of their own power.

Second Principle: Power is a Meta-Religion.
Don’t think for a moment that you’ll only find broken systems in the religious world. Some things far transcend religion, and the lust for power is one of those things. To broken people in broken systems, religion is simply the tool they use to grasp after power.

Third Principle: People in Power Have One Goal, and That Is To Protect Their Power.
The masters of a broken system do not use their power to better other people’s lives or to help those who need it. They use their power to maintain power. Lying, silencing and discrediting their critics, and viciously attacking anyone in their own ranks who speaks out–these are the very least of the measures one should expect if one chooses to move against a broken system.

Seeing the Signs.

It is very rare that a system is revealed as broken and everybody is totally shocked. Usually there are signs well ahead of time indicating that the system doesn’t do what it promises and that it hurts people, but for a variety of reasons, the flocks either don’t ever come into contact with these signs, see them but don’t recognize what they mean, or see them, realize they mean bad news, and try to rationalize them away or to avoid thinking about them.

When one is dealing with a tribal system that demands total loyalty from adherents, or threatens massive repercussions for speaking against the tribe or leaving it, then one doesn’t look to the flocks for information about the system. They are too massively invested in it to be honest about it. One might just as well seek information about some snake-oil “nutritional supplement” from the peddler’s website. Of course that website will be filled with glowing testimonials and endorsements; these statements are carefully curated and presented by the peddler to be persuasive, and anybody who has a different experience can be easily discredited or hand-waved away in that carefully-controlled environment.

Only an idiot makes a significant investment (of time or money) solely on the say-so of the people selling that investment.

For a more complete picture of that potential investment, one looks instead to those it has burned, those outside the system, and those who have consistent and reliable criticisms of that system, and also to the reformers within the movement and to the whistleblowers outside of it.

In the homeschooling world, for example, yes, one could certainly stuff oneself full of testimonials about how wonderful homeschooling is–especially on the right-wing end of Christianity. Hell, if some dedicated fundagelicals can make enough people convinced that what they’re doing is producing strong, happy, safe families, then they might even get their own reality-TV show to further spread their gospel! And against all odds, sometimes a family comes through its experience with this kind of homeschooling with nothing but good things to say about it–perhaps despite the regime rather than because of it, but they might not realize the difference.

When we want to see the dark side of what systems like Christian homeschooling can produce, we look instead to Homeschoolers Anonymous and to what other escapees have written, like the fantastic posts that Libby Anne writes on the topic over at Love, Joy, Feminism. You’re not going to hear any of that negative stuff from the people whose livelihoods depend on selling fundagelical homeschooling to parents, nor from the people who have been terrorized and manipulated into thinking that any criticism or rejection of that system will have eternal repercussions.

The masters and true-blue adherents of a broken system will go to any lengths whatsoever to sell their broken system using any means at their disposal, because their system depends utterly upon the group bringing in more new sheep* to fleece than it’s losing in burnt and broken sheep.

A broken system is not self-sustaining, especially in a society where its members lack the legal clout to force people to buy into it. Because the group’s dysfunction constantly drives away members, it needs a constant influx of new adherents. It can get those adherents in one of two ways: it can either breed and raise them, or it can persuade others to leave their group to join that one.

Generally speaking, a genuinely good group that is not based around a broken system will not need these tactics. The people who are involved with the group tend to stay in it and not leave, so their proselytization tends to be minimal–maybe even incidental. The people who do end up having to leave (either by dying or moving away, or sometimes by simply rejecting the group) are more than made up for by the added number of children produced by the group or new people brought in from elsewhere. They aren’t desperate for new people to join up because they don’t need to be.

That’s why high turnover is our first potential sign of a dysfunctional system.

High Turnover Is Often A Bad Sign.

High turnover in members and/or leaders can be a very bad sign, especially if you notice it’s happening with people right under the leader of the group or people who have only just joined up.

Large numbers of people moving into a system isn’t always bad, but this movement can indicate hardcore–and dishonest–sales tactics that oversell the system’s potential and seriously downplay its risks or harmfulness. When those numbers get balanced against large numbers of people leaving the group, that’s worth noticing.

If the masters of the system and their remaining followers tend to badmouth the people leaving, that’s when you can be assured that this movement is not happening in a healthy system. And if the people leaving tend to have negative (or studiously diplomatic) things to say about the group they’ve just left, then beware. In a healthy system, people will naturally come and go to some extent, but the leaders of a healthy group will generally–not always but generally–accept this movement with grace, and the people who leave will generally have good impressions of the group; the worst thing they’ll usually say of it is that it didn’t quite work out for them. But when you hear criticism of the people who’ve left, that’s when you’ll want to pay attention.

Are some of those people leaving because they’re peeved over something ridiculous? Sure, some probably are. All those anecdotes pastors parrot must be coming from somewhere. But when the overall tenor of their complaints consistently paints a negative picture of the group, then chances are these people are honestly representing their true experiences in the group. (Ever heard that saying “rats fleeing a sinking ship”?)

And again, high turnover isn’t just something to look out for in religious groups. Turnover is one of the first things I consider when deciding whether or not I want to join a gaming group (real-life or online). One especially well-functioning online game I still play sometimes has been chugging along for the last 15 or 20 years with largely the same group of administrators (and many of the same players!), while one I quit some years ago had an ever-rotating flotilla of administrators and players. Unless something pressing is pulling them away, people don’t just up and leave a game they love, no matter how diplomatic a face they put on their goodbye messages on the game’s official forum. And when administrators themselves are constantly coming and going, that may point to stability trouble within the game’s power structure.

Worse still, constant turnover means that groups must, of necessity, start appointing substandard leaders. Groups can generally be trusted to choose the best person they can to lead them. When that person leaves, they’re left with appointing someone who is very likely second-best. And when that person leaves, they’re left with the third option. The last time I checked in on that game I left, they had admins there who I wouldn’t have trusted to fetch my dry cleaning, much less to monkey around in players’ confidential files.

The one position in such groups that is probably not going to see a lot of movement is that of the person or people at the very top of the hierarchy; they’re benefiting the most, and have the most to lose by leaving. They’re setting the rules, so if something is going seriously wrong for them then they have the ability to affect change. The people directly underneath that top rung are the ones to watch, which is why I noted with particular interest Mark Driscoll’s treatment of his onetime lieutenants at Mars Hill long before his own downfall.

Retention Efforts For A “Perfect Message”.

Christian groups are well aware of the fact that high turnover says some bad things about their “good news.” It’s not hard to find all kinds of resources written to help church leaders retain the new members they do manage to coax into their ranks. They know it’s important for not only their financial health but their credibility that they keep more new adherents than they generally do.

I used to wonder, in the early days of my time in Christianity, why a perfect message needed us to do so much work to keep new converts in the fold. Surely they’d see very quickly that all this stuff we were claiming was true, right? I sincerely thought in those early days that prayers got answered and that miracles were constant facts of life. But of the dozens of new converts that were baptized along with with me from my high school (during the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare), only my best friend Angela and I remained in the church. Almost every one of them had spoken in tongues, too–except me, weirdly enough–and had claimed all kinds of victories and miracles as a result of their conversions. But they eventually all filtered out again, many of them before the actual Rapture failed to materialize. It baffled me and scared me a little to contemplate just how few people tended to stick around after having these amazing experiences.

How many Christians leaving does a Christian need to see before the excuses offered by the leadership of a church start sounding very hollow? Apparently I never hit that number. I believed that they “just wanted to sin,” or that Satan had persuaded them that the truth wasn’t really the truth. And I believed that right up until I suddenly couldn’t believe anymore myself.

I’m thankful that I left Christianity before the religion’s masters began panicking about how their system is hemorrhaging members. The situation I experienced has only gotten more extreme over time.

Some of these churches, in their desperation, are now trying to force their converts to stay by coercing them into signing ridiculously one-sided “covenants” which are actually legal documents that strip away adherents’ legal rights when–not if–they are abused or choose to leave. And if you’re still under the mistaken impression that Thom Rainer of Lifeway Christian Resources (a research and publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention) is one of the “nice Christians,” then you might change your mind after reading this creepy, self-congratulatory post he wrote about “Five Incredible Steps to Close the Back Door in Your Church”, which is aimed at church leaders to help them stop people from leaving their groups. He’s written other posts that insist that people leave churches because they’re just so darned selfish and entitled, which might be a huge surprise to the people who actually leave churches.

Mr. Rainer and his like-minded friends blame the people leaving because he thinks they don’t have a “servant” mentality; instead, he claims, the people leaving are doing so for petty reasons–mostly because they didn’t get their way in some minor decision or didn’t feel sufficiently flattered or catered to. He doesn’t talk much at all about people who left because they simply don’t believe anymore or had genuine grievances, and he doesn’t generally have good things to say about those who leave after being abused in some way (though in the comments, when people object to this characterization of their decision, he’s generally quick to backpedal). He doesn’t talk about people who leave the way people who actually leave talk, but he does talk about them the exact same way that his denomination’s leaders talk about them. Yes, this isn’t only something they do to atheists!

What’s happening here is that Christian leaders are weaving a narrative about their high turnover and low retention rate. A narrative is a kind of storyline that explains and illuminates an observed fact. Sometimes the narrative is spot-on, but other times it bears next to no resemblance to what’s really happening to cause that observed fact. In this case, the narrative flogged by the Southern Baptist Convention about the people who leave their ranks runs like this: The TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never leave their churches. Those who leave always do so for a petty or foolish reason, and that reason can be found and fixed if a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ exerts the effort. The product we’re selling can’t possibly be the problem, and neither can the salespeople. The problem is always that the people leaving just can’t handle the searing power and soaring purpose of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

It’s more important to Mr. Rainer and his buddies to maintain their narrative about the people who leave than it is to actually figure out what’s happening and fix it. One can see why. Fixing their system’s problems would entail all kinds of problematic changes, not the least of which would be implicitly conceding that something had been wrong with the supposedly “perfect” message. Worse, if the remaining sheep in the flock start thinking that these departing people have some good reason to leave, then they might start wondering exactly how perfect their message is. And if it’s too easy for them to leave, then they might just do that.

And slogging through all that stuff is worth it in the end. (Credit: Pearl Girl, CC license.)
And slogging through all that stuff is worth it in the end. (Credit: Pearl Girl, CC license.)

The real miracle is that as bad as the fallout can be from leaving a church in some areas, people are still doing it whether their leaders and peers like it or not. Hopefully, prospective new members are listening to what that turnover should be telling them. High turnover plus a really mean-spirited narrative about those who’ve left equals a really toxic environment and a very risky investment of one’s time and money! (If nothing else, wouldn’t you think it’d make people wonder what their “friends” would say about them if they left? If people will talk about others to you, they’ll sure talk about you to others.)

And hopefully, those of us who already know that Christianity is a failed system are applying our experience to avoid getting caught by other failed systems.

See you next time! We’ll be looking at some topical examples of what I’ve been talking about lately, come Thursday.

(B&B get fixed on Thursday, in kitten news. Wow, they grow up so fast! Bother is getting her adult fangs in. They’re growing right on top of her baby fangs, so she looks like a shark right now! It’s the coolest thing ever. Her brother’s just now budding his adult fangs and he is finally starting to grow into those bear paws of his.)


* I don’t use the term “sheep” in a mean or pejorative way here. I know some people call Christians “sheeple” and I am firmly against doing that myself. I mean it in the way that Christians mean it, in that they think of themselves as sheep under a shepherd. No insult at all is intended.

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