The Bureaucratic Gaslighting Two-Step
Bureaucratic organizations intent of self-preservation often use what I’m calling the “gaslighting two-step” to hide their failures, those being:
- Minimize and obscure what is happening while the debacle is actively occurring;
- As the debacle dissipates claim that things are getting better while obfuscating the true nature of the disaster.
The goal is to so confuse the people whom the bureaucracy is supposedly serving about what has happened that they don’t believe anything like a debacle has even occurred. And thus anyone who claims that a debacle has occurred is considered to be uninformed or overreacting.
I know this strategy has been effective because I have observed the utter bewilderment by many engaged PCUSA members when confronted by the actual membership and church loss data in context.
The reality of this debacle is that between 2011 and 2017 the PCUSA experienced a net loss of 601,000 members and 1146 churches. Thus, over this period the denomination lost a net of almost 30% of its membership and almost 12% of its churches. But while this was occurring the PCUSA leadership was peddling happy talk and cherry-picked good news.
For example, in 2014 the Reverend Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly made these comments about the massive loss of members and churches.
Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination, but the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year. The membership declined by 89,296 in 2013, compared to 102,791 in 2012. We are meeting the challenges that we have had and it’s showing, and, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady.
As we will see, 2012 was by far the worst year for net membership loss in the denomination’s history. Therefore, the fact that 2013 was a bit better isn’t credibly encouraging.
His comment on church loss is downright deceptive. In 2012 the PCUSA dismissed (i.e., allowed to exit) 110 churches and in 2013 dismissed 148. In 2013 there was a reduction in dissolved churches that partially counteracted the increase in dismissed churches. Thus it is technically true that “our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady” (i.e., -183 churches in 2012 versus -198 in 2013). However, characterizing a substantial increase in dismissed churches as “holding fairly steady” on church loss (with 2013 being the worst year ever for the denomination) simply fails the red-face test. Finally, “holding steady” at the worst levels of church loss in PCUSA history isn’t a positive development.
In 2017, after six straight years of devastating loss, the Reverend J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly said the following about the 2016 data.
Membership loss, which was experienced since the 1970s, is slowing down.
In 2015 net membership loss was approximately 95,000 and in 2016 was 90,000. However, 2016 was still the fourth worst year for membership loss in the denomination’s history. Thus, while it is technically true that in 2016 membership loss “slowed down,” it is also a highly misleading formulation. Thus, even as late as 2017 our denominational leadership continued to have faith in their ability to obfuscate devastating loss by deceptive happy talk.
Finally, in 2018, the denomination admitted that “a five-year period of unprecedented losses” had occurred between 2012 and 2016.
At the same time, a five-year period of unprecedented losses neared an end as net membership losses returned to previous levels over the last 50-plus years. The larger losses between 2012 and 2016 were brought on by the dismissal of about 100 churches (and their members) each year to splinter denominations after the 2010 General Assembly voted to allow the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as church officers and the 2014 Assembly voted to allow same-gender marriage.
Even while admitting that something bad had occurred, they continued to practice deception about the severity. For, as the data will unambiguously show, it is nothing short of dishonest to claim that in 2017 “membership losses returned to previous levels over the last 50-plus years.”
Now, in 2019, the national leadership proclaims that things are getting better. There’s no interest, they hope, to understand the full extent of the debacle, to examine their claims or to seek accountability. Let’s all us nice people just ignore what’s happened and pretend with them that we’re moving into a bright future.
That may serve the interests of the denominational leadership, but it certainly does not the membership who have been deceived by this dishonest bureaucratic “gaslighting two-step.”