When Jean Vanier died last year at age 90, his life and his ministry of working with people with disabilities was nearly universally celebrated.
“We don’t often find people born into privilege and status, and highly educated, who then follow the downward path of Jesus,” wrote Bethany McKinney Fox. “But as founder of L’Arche International, Vanier spent decades in community with people with and without intellectual disabilities and embraced the joys, complications, and demands that go along with such a life.”
Then, last weekend, L’Arche International released a report, looking over a 30-year span, stating that multiple women told an investigative team about experiences of sexual assault with Vanier.
“The relationships involved various kinds of sexual behavior often combined with so-called ‘mystical and spiritual’ justifications for this conduct,” it stated. The report went on to say that the women provided, “sufficient evidence to establish that Jean Vanier engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least 6 adult (not disabled) women. This number does not presume that there were no other cases, but takes into account spontaneously received testimony.”
This news comes at a time when many are undoubtedly exhausted by the number of scandals and exploits of high-profile leaders.
“Right now, that this is starting to feel very routine is pointing to the fact that the church has done a very poor job of dealing with issues of sexuality and spirituality and power,” said Ruth Haley Barton, the founder of the Transforming Center, an ecumenical leadership organization.
“We just don't talk about them and we haven't helped our leaders in our clergy know how to be with themselves around these issues.”
For Barton, one of the keys for leaders is submitting themselves to spiritual direction.
“It really is almost a non-negotiable if you want to stay the course and stay on your own journey of transformation, stay on your own journey of encounter with God while you are leading others,” she said. “ You've just got to have this place outside the limelight where you can bring your whole self.”
Barton joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss how to handle anger when learning these frustrating revelations, how to look at the relationship between power and sexuality, and how to process this seemingly never-ending bad news of disappointing leaders without losing your faith.
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Listen to Quick to Listen: Episode 160: Jean Vanier’s Faith Convicts All of Us
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #201
Can you tell us about the first experience where you felt let down or betrayed by a Christian leader you admired or respected?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, for me, the one that I remember most clearly was when Gordon MacDonald, a pastor and the author of the book Ordering Your Private World, revealed his moral failing. And I remember I was a young woman, a young wife, at the time when the news came out that he had been unfaithful to his wife and their marriage in a consensual affair. I was just filled with so much fear that, oh my goodness, if this can get him, it can get all of us.
You know how people ask if you remember where you were when you heard that Kennedy was shot? For me, it was “Remember where you were when on the day that you heard that Gordon McDonald's had had a moral failing?” Because I really looked up to him, and especially this idea of having an ordered private world, a world that is ordered where it enables you to be God's person in the world.
And it caused a great deal of fear around this whole issue of sexuality as well, that if it can get a man like that, it can get any of us. And I remember being sparked to just build all these boundaries around my marriage, all these hedges around my marriage, and couldn't even have a relationship with another man. There was just the fear that was instilled at that time in those of us who were young leaders who really wanted to do it right.
How do you remember it affecting your prayer life or how you saw God?
Ruth Haley Barton: I think it causes self-doubt. I think what it did most was to cause me to be doubtful about my own ability to live a moral life. Doubtful about the people around me. Honestly, I don't even think I prayed about it at the time. It just was so shocking that I just started building hedges. I don't need to talk about God about this. I just need to start building hedges.
Ted Olsen: There's a spookiness to it. And I do wonder how this hits leaders a little bit differently. McDonald hit really hard. And I know the news about Jean Vanier is hitting that community especially hard cause here's someone that people quote and have learned a lot from.
Ruth Haley Barton: And then, of course, Henri Nouwen was shaped within that community and through Jean Vanier and his leadership. So then that causes you to wonder about him too. And probably even more of us, quote Henri Nouwen then we quote Jean Vanier.
Ted Olsen: Part of the news about Vanier was related to revelations about his own mentor leader, who had been extremely influential in founding L’Arche and part of the spiritual community that Vanier was part of.
As revelations came out about his mentor, Vanier was still alive and he wrote this a letter that you can find online, but I've got a quote here: “There is a tremendous gap between, on one hand, the serious nature of these acts that generated such suffering in the victims and, on the other hand, the action of God in me and in L’Arche through Pere Thomas. I am unable to peacefully reconcile these two realities. All I can say is, ‘I do not understand.’”
And I read that I’m heartbroken. I get the, “I do not understand;” I mean, obviously he was engaged in the same behavior and so in one sense, he understood these two realities extremely well. And on the other hand, I'm sure there's an element of Paul's line, “I do not understand what I do” in that line too. There's a lot of meaning in that, saying I am unable to fully reconcile these two realities. I think that's how many of us feel this week.
Ruth Haley Barton: I think, too, because this is falling on the heels of so many revelations, that there's no way to even talk about this as being one thing, one incident. Because it's a part of a larger whole that is really painful.
And I think many of us right now just walk around with a low level of pain about what's happening among Christian leaders right now. And not only the sin factor, the destruction in the lives of people who have been victimized in this way, but also generally, what does it mean about the church that these things can go on in the church writ large?
Catholic, Protestant, Southern Baptist, writ large, we're struggling with the issue of sexuality and power and relationships between men and women, and who will we be when all this is over? I think it raises even bigger issues than any one particular incident with one particular person. There's this general thing that's happening that we simply have to pay attention to and try to discern what is God doing and saying in all of this.
You work with a lot of Christian leaders and ministry leaders. What's kind of the typical range of responses when there is a case like this?
Ruth Haley Barton: It is anger. And I also think though it's deeply unsettling around the questions of who we are as human beings and we think could that happen to me. So there's fear.
I think fear is huge in this conversation and it's hard to face it. It's hard to face how fearful we feel. Could something like this happen to us? For a male pastor, they might be thinking, is there anything about this that characterizes me? Could I be falsely accused? There's a whole world of fear that they have.
Women have another experience cause most women who have been around the leadership ministry block have had some of these kinds of experiences happen to them. And so it touches old experiences. It does make you angry. It touches your vulnerability. The questions of, did I do something to cause that?
I mean, it just takes you to these primal places. I think anger, in some ways, is a surface emotion. I think there's deeper ones that we walk into, and I think fear is a big one.
One thing that occurs to me relative to this is there's sexual sin—that might've been something that you sort of fell into because your passions overtook you, and that's people's fear, that these sexual passions can overcome us. But in this one, you have to add power to it. I mean, you have to add the issue of power, which definitely adds another set of weight and gravitas to it.
Then the prominence becomes another one. And then even the self-deception. I mean, the letter that you read seems to indicate a certain level of self-deception because he was having such a problem with it in his mentor, but these behaviors were going on in his own life. And so there was a level of self-deception going on as well.
So that's several different things right there that all come together in this one incident and it is really disillusioning. It's very disillusioning. And these kinds of sins and patterns have to be dealt with on all of those levels if they are to be dealt with. So it's pretty challenging.
As someone who works in the area of spiritual direction, one of the things that we do is create a nonjudgmental environment where people can be with what's happening in their souls. Even the hard things, even the dark things. So I am really comfortable sitting in these spaces with people, but this kind of a revelation brings us in touch with our humanity.
If we let the complexity of the human experience touch us on those levels, we realize we're not really beyond many of these things. We might do it in more subtle ways, but this is the human experience. And it's vulnerable and it's fragile and it's mixed and it's complicated and awful. And we share it.
On the spiritual direction front, when someone kind of brings this in the context of one of your conversations, where do you start that conversation? What's the first place to go to?
Ruth Haley Barton: I think that this kind of story points to a great lack in our own dealing with issues of sexuality and power within the church in general. I think that what's happening right now that is starting to feel very routine, is pointing to the fact that the church has done a very poor job. The church writ large has done a very poor job of dealing with issues of sexuality and spirituality and power. We just don't talk about them and we haven't helped our leaders, our clergy, know how to be with themselves around these issues.
So in spiritual direction—and this is one of the big reasons why I think leaders need a spiritual director—if you have a good spiritual director that you trust and who does create the safe space, you would be bringing these things into spiritual direction with someone who knows how to guide you in looking at issues of sexuality and spirituality. And I am aghast that more seminaries do not require a course on sexuality as it relates to pastors who are preparing for ministry, and doing what it takes for people to come into a positive, healthy relationship with their own sexuality, where they're able to be with these inner dynamics that are powerful for all of us.
Learn how to be with God with that. Learn how to experience our sexuality and our spirituality as being dynamics of the human person that are closely aligned within us. So if one wakes up, the other one's going to wake up. So a deeply spiritual person is probably going to be very sexual as well because those two aspects of the human person live very close together in the human person. But who talks about that? Who teaches that? Who helps people who are preparing for ministry to actually be healthy in the area of their sexuality?
And then you add to that, if it's Catholic in particular, then we elevate celibacy as being the highest expression of spirituality, but our sexuality is so powerful that it's going to come out sideways most of the time if we don't have an adequate expression for it. And these are systemic realities that we are not addressing very well.
We are producing this kind of difficult situation. If we don't believe that, we don't have our eyes open. Because the sheer regularity and routine nature of this right now is showing us that something is missing within the church, and how we deal with this in the church, and how we prepare our leaders, and how we resource them to deal with the most important aspects of themselves while they are in ministry.
So that's where I go to. What are we doing as the Christian community to prepare us all to really deal with our sexuality in a healthy way?
And then also to talk about issues of power and how that often connects with our sexuality. Power and sexuality are also really closely aligned in how they express themselves. And in this case, the misuse of power—using one's power to seduce someone who is subordinate to you, and then when you're a spiritual leader using spirituality and spiritual ideas to actually cause someone to move into these behaviors with you—that is really tragic.
That was one of the most striking aspects of the story for me. That there was a spiritualizing, saying this is a spiritual thing we're doing. This is an expression of our spirituality. This is Mary and Jesus. Like, wow. That is manipulation. That is a misuse of spiritual authority in a person's life.
I don't think John Vanier would have had a spiritual director and gotten away with this. Like if he had a spiritual director and was actually bringing his true and his false self to that spiritual director, I doubt these things would have happened. at least not over the long haul, in this sort of long term routine sort of way.
From reports that we've done here at CT, we’ve learned it's really hard to get pastors even to find someone to talk to about pornography. How do we go about helping pastors find a place to be comfortable and vulnerable? Is it a space that they need? Is it a vocabulary that we need to talk about these types? Is it a self-awareness? To what extent is what we're seeing here something that has not been as publicly defined or available for people to address?
Ruth Haley Barton: I think that we lack a positive theology, a positive way of being with our sexuality. So it's all just shameful. So we're going to repress it all and not talk to anybody about it.
How can we experience the power of our sexuality as being a created good? How do we experience that? How do men experience that? How do women experience that? And then when we understand the sexual dynamic in a deeply positive way, I think that changes the conversation and makes it more okay to talk about it. And then what are the positive expressions of that? What are the negative expressions of that? Those should be routine conversations for people who are in ministry, who are working in any helping profession.
So in my training as a spiritual director, and in my training in seminary, thanks be to God that I had excellent coursework and excellent teachers that guided us into positive discussions and conversations about sexuality and how to be with those aspects of ourselves and be with those aspects of ourselves with others.
How do we have spiritual heroes, while also recognizing that our spiritual heroes will, and should, lead from weakness?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, in the case of someone like John Vanier, he wasn't leading with his weakness. He was hiding. I think there's a really profound difference there because I think if he had been more open with somebody, this pattern wouldn't have been able to continue. So he wasn't leading with weakness. He was hiding his weakness, and I think there is a major difference there.
Ted Olsen: He was leading with different weaknesses. He was hiding the biggest weaknesses.
Morgan Lee: I don't know, Ted, I wanted to go back to your point about heroes. I think in general, for me, I tried to actually give up the idea of heroes personally and much more see people as capable of doing good or bad things rather than even seen people as being good or bad people. And at least to me, that's allowed me to kind of admire what people have done almost in spite of themselves.
But almost that I never want to think of someone as being a good person because it only allows my opinion of them to drop over time. There's going to be stuff about them that I don't admire and I don't like, and also I'm really fascinated because they managed to do something extraordinary.
Ted Olsen: Well, there's that tension between putting out your faith in practice. I trust that God is always good and God is the only perfect person. I also want to have a knowledge that God has not just given us a gospel that will be nice in the sweet by and by and in eternity, that there is a lived reality right here and now that we are not going to do perfectly, but that we can actually take steps of doing. And I want to find people who are making good steps and that are like doing better than me at them. The word hero isn't great, but someone who is a little bit ahead of me on the path of following Jesus.
What's the difference between a role model and a hero?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, I do think maybe the word that is problematic is “hero.” Another word I use in my life, which rings really true for me, is to have people in my life that I would call my teachers. And it seems like that's one step down off the pedestal. I mean, heroes, you put them probably way up there, a little bit too high. But for us to have teachers, people from whom we learn that I think that's a really life-giving idea to me and doesn't set the expectations so high that.
I've been thinking about the fact that maybe a spirituality of imperfection could come into the conversation right here. That if we can accept that while we're here on this earth, there is a certain spirituality of imperfection where God's power and his scene work clearly through our own weakness.
But if someone's on a serious transformational journey, a serious journey of self-knowledge, a serious journey of confession, a serious journey of seeing their own negative patterns and being willing to confess those towards the light, there won't be perfection, but there's a consistency in terms of where their life is headed.
And I find myself more inspired by that idea. Where I see someone who is on a serious journey of grappling with their humanity in God's presence and doing that openly and honestly rather than some of the hiddenness that I'm seeing in some of the stories that have come out recently. There's been a tremendous amount of hiddenness and that doesn't strike me as being an authentic journey.
We're in a world where we can read books without meeting people, listen to podcasts without meeting people, or ever having a personal relationship with them. Who do people need to be seen by ultimately for this type of accountability system in your eyes to work?
Ruth Haley Barton: Leaders are entitled to their privacy. And I see privacy as being different than hiddenness, let's just be clear. People who live in the public and live in the limelight, they deserve to have some places in their lives that are private. I'm really all about.
But that's where I'm going to come back to the spiritual direction relationship because that relationship is intended to be outside our normal circles.
And it is a place where that person doesn't have any other vested interest in you except to help you to be on the journey with God and to say yes to God's invitations in your life. And if that is a truly safe relationship—and there is a code of ethics that governs the spiritual direction relationship, just as the therapist relationship—if we can have one place where we can bring these things out into the light, that is the way that we dispel darkness. It’s by turning on a light switch, and spiritual direction becomes a place where you get to turn on a light switch and have somebody who you allow to see you in all aspects of your life.
Now that I know that you've seen so many different leaders go off their paths, what is actually reasonable in your opinion, as far as character expectations for leaders?At what point do you say this is an area that you need to keep working on versus that is disqualifying from ministry right away? And as for people that are not sitting with these stories from our leaders, what is actually reasonable to hold them to?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, one thing I think is reasonable to hold them to is that they are on an intentional journey of transformation. And there are all sorts of practices that go along with that kind of an intentional journey, spiritual direction being one of them.
And then a good spiritual director is going to know those areas of life that need psychological intervention. And will be strongly encouraging a pastor or a leader to deal with things on a psychological level that needs to be dealt with. In my own work with people, it’s about guiding us to our highest and truest and best selves. That’s what spiritual direction is, you're calling someone to the highest and best version of themselves in God.
Parker Palmer has said that a leader is someone who must take special responsibility for what goes on inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership does more harm than good. It is a responsibility of leadership to take responsibility for oneself and one's negative patterns and one's immoral behaviors, one's meanness, and to have regular routine ways of opening that up before God for God's transforming work.
I think we're not expecting perfection, but we're expecting someone to be intentionally journeying in a transforming way in the presence of God and others.
Let's talk about that anger for a second. I have a hard time sometimes knowing to what degree anger is the right response to injustice and to what degree it can be distracting from my relationship with God. How do you work with that with leaders when they do something worth being legitimately angry about?
Ruth Haley Barton: Well, I think the trick is to be angry and not sin, right? That's one of the greatest challenges. It's very easy to be angry and self-righteous. It's not so easy to be angry and not sin.
Anger is an important emotion. When we are angry, it often signifies that there's something really wrong that needs to be paid attention to. So we don't want to flatten that emotion. But if we can be angry and not sin—so be angry and not lash out, be angry and not be self-righteous, be angry and not lie.
From scripture, there is such a thing as righteous anger, right? Part of what righteous anger is, is the desire to protect victims, the desire to make sure that others are not victimized like that again. It can come out of a place that doesn't have to be self-righteous, cynical, and bitter. To use it for the good and to bring out something that needs to be brought out.
You wrote a book about Moses, who is a great example of someone who has a hard time separating his anger at unrighteousness from righteous anger. Any lessons there?
Ruth Haley Barton: One thing that I will say is that in his early life, when he had that murderous rage, I think that his anger was the anger that came from all that was unresolved within him. And it was out of control, it was unrefined, it was volatile. It couldn't be used for good in that state.
So he runs because people around him have seen the evidence that he's a murderer and that his anger is out of control. And there are real reasons for that. Moses was a victim in his life. He was born into a dangerous environment. He was ripped from his family at a very young age. He was displaced and raised in the royal court. And so he had a lot of unresolved anger. And I think he's a great example of what happens in and through unresolved anger.
But then there's this next part. After he goes to Midian, he settles down by the well, and solitude begins to do its good work. He's able to help the shepherd girls water their sheep. He's able to actually help without killing anyone, which is what I call leadership transformation at its best.
Anger is just an energy within us, and energy can be channeled. And I think that the energy of anger can be channeled towards good things in the life of someone who has a heart for justice as Moses did. And so even though he moved in and out of volatility, there were also many more moments in his life where he used his strong emotions, his sense of injustice, his desire for justice for positive helping.
So I think anger is just an energy that needs to be harnessed and used in good ways. I think about the civil rights movement. I mean there's a movement where anger was channeled in good ways by many of those who participated. And of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. who championed nonviolence, was actually working with that—yeah, there's a really good reason for black people to be angry, but let's look at our method. What are we going to do with our energy? And here's a method that will enable us to be really productive with the energy that we have around the injustice that we've experienced.
Having written this thing book on Moses, do you see a difference in the way in which we look at people like Moses in scripture and the way in which we look at our pastors or a Christian leader?
Ruth Haley Barton: I think it’s important to stay in touch with the utter humanity of our existence. I mean, all of us, while we're here on this earth are human. We're never going to fully transcend our humanity.
So can I receive the good gift from someone's life and be inspired by them while at the same time not elevating them to a place that's not appropriate? They're not God. Nobody here on this earth is going to be that. And so when I'm in touch with my own human experience, my own foibles, the limits of my own person. When I can be compassionate towards myself, I'm able to be compassionate towards others when their humanity expresses itself in ways that they're limited.
Now, I do think we're in a particularly hard period of time here where we really are looking at long term patterns of abuse and exploitation and oppression of those who are in subordinate roles. But I don't find just a very strident, bitter sort of anger to be anything helpful in the journey right now. But I do channel the anger that I feel sometimes towards wanting to look at the systems that are producing this and wanting to work really, really hard with the systems.
Rather than being angry at individuals right now, although there'll be reasons to be, I actually am letting the intense emotions that I have about these things propel me to want to look at what are the systems. And is there any other better vision for this? And what's it going to take? And what is God doing?
This is a very broken moment in our church history right now. It's broken, but is there anything that God's trying to do right now? And I feel some hope. This stuff is really dark and it's hard to look at, but I think the fact that there’s this proliferation of all these revelations, we can't ignore this conversation anymore. We can't ignore these darker human dynamics, can't ignore the systems that have produced it.
So is God going to do something new? Is God clearing something out? Is God clearing the decks or something better? So even though I feel angry sometimes, I also am allowing myself some hope that there are conversations happening now that wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for the proliferation of these revelations.
We can't ignore it anymore. We can't pretend it doesn't happen. We can't sweep it under the rug. What is God going to do in this moment of our history in Christian community?
I mean, I don't rejoice. I think it's very hard to rejoice in these things right now because they are really, really dark. The real suffering that people are going through, whose stories are bringing all this out, it's a very tender place. It's a sad place.
There's an aspect of our life together in Christian community that hasn't been right. Relationships between men and women. Relationships between sexuality, spirituality, and power. It hasn't been right. And we've lived this way for a long, long time. We are going to be changed after this. We are going to be changed. I believe it because we can't sweep it under the rug anymore and women's voices are being heard and the stories are being told and we're learning how to listen rather than dismiss and we're not getting away with things that people used to be getting away with.
And the light is coming. The light is coming into a very dark aspect of our life together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and I do feel some hope in that. I do feel like we're going to be changed. We're going to be different after we get through this dark place.
There are some books being written and conversations being had where there is more anger being expressed. That's necessary because some of these things really do warrant anger, and that's one kind of voice. But then there'll be other kinds of voices that will have a different tone, and each one of the voices will bring something to this particular moment in our Christian history.
We're so hurt by these things because many times we loved the perpetrators. But what does it mean to really look out for victims and survivors? For people who are a little bit on the outside, what we might need to give up to truly support the victims and survivors?
Ruth Haley Barton: I think part of the price that has to be paid there is that we don't “get on with it” too quickly. That we actually make sure that all the work that needed to be done gets done.
I know there's been real disappointment that in some of the places where power and sexuality have been misused, that the victims weren't even ever given a chance to speak on their own behalf. We need to let them speak on their own behalf. We need to let them tell their stories. We need to have real confessions—not just the perpetrators, but the systems that allowed these things to happen over years of time. Where are the confessions? What do you need to make it right?
As it relates to the spiritual practice of self-examination leading to confession, I believe the very last part of that is the question: What do we need to do to make it right? So that question needs to be being asked of the people who have suffered and then let them answer the question. Find a way to offer that thing which they say would be most healing to them.
Just even being believed and getting to tell your story is a really powerful experience. I think these are things that the congregations or the organizations or the systems that are in place to create enough space for these things and not just try to rush on. We're not giving very much time and space to people whose lives will never be the same.
So I think not to rush on and to ask to let them speak, to ask them what needs to be done to be made right and then to the best of our ability, offer it. I think those are some of the ways we can really respect the experiences and honor the victims.
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