Reflecting on “Weaponized Incompetence” and Why it Could Help Explain the Church’s Response to Abuse

By: Jennifer Eichenmiller

I recently read an article about a trending hashtag on TikTok. Don’t judge.

The article described something called “weaponized incompetence” and included videos of (mostly) women who were frustrated by the lack of competence shown by their partners when doing simple and mundane tasks. Think: a child going to school in their underwear because dad dressed them that morning or a woman putting together a detailed grocery list with pictures and descriptions of where to find each item since that is the only way her partner would come home with all of the groceries.

Weaponized incompetence is the idea that one person procrastinates, doesn’t take the time to learn how to do something correctly, or does something so poorly that the other person gets frustrated and eventually just takes care of it themselves. Over time, the person who ends up doing the task learns that it is just easier to always do it, and they stop asking or expecting the other person to help. Sometimes weaponized incompetence is deliberate, like the time my youngest daughter whined and complained about her math homework so much that I was tempted to just do it for her (Don’t worry. I really wanted to, but I didn’t do it.) Other times, weaponized incompetence is more of a subconscious thing, like the time my husband agreed to help our daughter with her math homework and it went so badly that everyone decided I was the only person in our household with the appropriate skill set to handle 1st grade math homework.

The videos and examples are both a little funny and kind of sad when you think about it. But the point of this post is not to bash my husband or yours or anyone else’s. Since we’re being honest here, I use weaponized incompetence when I let the gas tank get dangerously close to empty and then wait until 10:00 on Sunday night to suddenly “remember” that I need gas for work the next day so my husband will generously offer to get it for me. (On a side note, Dave didn’t catch on to my little gas trick until he read my first draft.) So no, this isn’t a husband or man-bashing post because weaponized incompetence is a tool that we all use sometimes. It’s just that some people use it more frequently than others. Is it used more often by men? My husband thinks so, but he can write that blog post if he wants. Frankly, I’m intrigued by this concept because it can offer insight into more than just a mother’s mental overload or a co-worker’s growing frustration. I think weaponized incompetence might be able to help us understand the church’s under-whelming response to abuse.

Weaponized incompetence has several looks. It is:

  • minimizing the importance of something
  • not taking time to learn how to solve a problem or do something correctly
  • displaying over-exaggerated frustration when asked to do something
  • saying we’ll do something, but procrastinating until everyone forgets about it or until someone else does it for us
  • passive-aggressively making the other person regret having asked for help in the first place
  • undercutting personal responsibility with statements like: “that’s not my job,” “I don’t know how to do that,” or “what do you want me to do about it?”

If you have read even one news report about a church that covered up abuse, you most likely encountered at least one of these responses. Take a minute to honestly think about this. Anyone who has a conscience would agree that abuse is wrong. Pretty much every pastor and church leader would say that abuse is wrong. So, if we know that abuse is wrong, then why do so few victims report it? If churches know that abuse is wrong, why do many churches wait so long to respond to it? The answer might be weaponized incompetence.

Research shows that weaponized incompetence happens when we don’t want to do something because it is hard or uncomfortable or inconvenient. Appropriately addressing abuse is every single one of those things. Occasionally, a church will completely ignore an allegation of abuse. More often, they offer half-hearted responses and make themselves feel better by saying or thinking things like:

  • It’s not a big deal
  • It’s an isolated event and not a pattern
  • we’ve always handled it this way
  • It would never happen here
  • Investigating this further would be disruptive to our church
  • I know he did [fill in the blank], but God is still using him to do great things
  • He is such a gifted speaker. Do you see how many people attend his church?
  • We don’t want to ruin a good man’s reputation
  • Don’t touch the Lord’s “anointed” (you all know this verse is about King Saul, right? Anyways…)

Then they make themselves feel better by doing things like:

  • Conducting a less than thorough “investigation”
  • acknowledging that there is a problem and agreeing that more should be done to fix it, but then never getting around to actually doing anything about it 
  • Spending years arguing about how to create a policy that won’t make them legally liable (here’s looking at you SBC)

Let’s just call it what it is. The church’s historically mediocre response to abuse is a terrifying example of weaponized incompetence; and like all forms of weaponized incompetence, it teaches victims and witnesses of abuse that speaking up is pointless and not worth the effort. This is not ok. Honestly, weaponized incompetence isn’t acceptable in any situation. It can cause unnecessary stress at work and serious damage to personal relationships. And it is absolutely inexcusable for this to happen in a church.

I understand that churches are made up of imperfect human beings, but when those imperfect human beings tell us that they have a calling to teach us about God and how we can know Him better, they have a responsibility to do better. Because when pastors and church leaders (consciously or unconsciously) use weaponized incompetence to avoid taking responsibility for abuse, they inadvertently imply that God feels this way too. That’s a precarious position for anyone to be in. James 3:1 warns that God holds church leaders to a higher standard. Moses, the man for whom Calvary Chapel’s “Moses Model” is named, wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land despite his years of devotion and close relationship to God because he struck a rock and misrepresented God to the people. If that isn’t a good enough reason for church leaders to do better, then I don’t know what is.

So how can churches stop using weaponized incompetence to avoid responsibility and start treating abuse as something that is important enough to actually deal with? They have to put in the work. Here are four steps churches can take to do better:

#1:

We can’t fix a problem we won’t admit that we have. So, the first step is to admit that this is happening. Ignorance and good intentions are only good enough until you reach the line of “should have known better,” and that is where we are now. Churches should know better. Pastors and church leaders should know better. They CAN know better if they make an honest effort to see what is happening. It takes about 3 seconds to run a google search and sift through the results to find verifiable accounts of abuse. It takes less than a minute to pick up the phone and ask other pastors and congregants if this is happening. If church leaders didn’t know it before, then they should know it now. And if their response is to minimize or disregard abuse, then they have crossed the line into weaponized incompetence.

#2:

The next step is to put in the time and effort to learn. Church leaders need to ask the questions they have been avoiding this whole time. Questions like:

  • Is abuse happening here? 
  • What exactly is happening? 
  • How does this happen?

They need to get to know the details they didn’t want to know before, the things that make them uncomfortable, and anything they may have previously avoided by using phrases like “what happened is in the past.” Let’s be real for a moment: if it wasn’t properly addressed in the past, then it isn’t in the past. Especially for the person who was abused.

This is a grueling process for so many reasons, including the fact that most of what churches learn in this step are things they genuinely don’t want to know. As a result, this is the step where most churches get stuck. When it gets too uncomfortable, they fall back on weaponized incompetence by deciding their efforts are “good enough already” or by making overly-defensive statements like, “we’re not on a witch hunt.” I empathize with feeling uncomfortable, I really do. Because the very nature of abuse is uncomfortable. Its uncomfortable to experience. Its uncomfortable to heal from. It’s uncomfortable to talk about. Its uncomfortable to hear about. But when abuse happens in a church, the only way to prevent it from happening again is to put in the hard work to root out the whole truth. It’s uncomfortable. Take a moment to acknowledge that, and then keep going.

#3:

Once churches get through the honest conversations about what happened and how it happened, they can finally ask the question: how do we keep this from happening again? The answer to this question will depend on what the questions in step 2 revealed. If abuse occurred because there isn’t appropriate policy in place, then there needs to be better policy. If there is appropriate policy in place and abuse occurred because that policy wasn’t being enforced, then the answer might be to find ways to provide meaningful accountability. Sometimes those who experienced abuse will be able to offer some insight into how to fix things; but relying solely on abuse survivors to provide the answers is just another form of weaponized incompetence. Churches can offer survivors the chance to help find solutions and implement change, but they need to do their own research too. This means finding out what has or hasn’t worked for churches in the past, reading the information on church abuse prevention websites, and asking organizations like GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) for advice on how to respond appropriately. It takes a lot of work to do this, but it is worth the time and effort to do it well. Doing it right the first time will make it less likely that they will have to do it all over again in the future.

#4:

Once church leaders have done all of these things with honesty and integrity, then they can move forward. But moving forward doesn’t mean making a few changes and forgetting what happened. It means acknowledging that abuse can still happen and that it is most likely to occur in churches that think they’ve fixed all the loopholes. Its exhausting, I know. Its also exhausting to try to maintain the status quo while constantly overlooking abuse. Church leaders are going to be exhausted either way, but only one of those ways involves setting a godly example.

———————————————————

Before I close this post out, I want to point out that churches shouldn’t wait for abuse to happen before making positive changes. After all,” an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (that’s good old Ben Franklin). Churches can avoid the traps of weaponized incompetence by proactively researching church abuse (especially abuses that have occurred in their denomination or affiliation) and then having honest and open discussions among leadership and congregants about whether there are appropriate policies and procedures in place. Recognizing that abuse could happen and then frequently assessing the church’s policies and responses makes it easier to stop abuse early on, and that benefits everyone.

My first post details some of my experiences in Calvary Chapel and explains why I believe 3rd party independent investigations are necessary for every church. (You can find it here.) It also includes a list of red flags that congregants can look for in assessing the likelihood that abuse is occurring in their churches. Weaponized incompetence is a double-edged sword. If you have witnessed or experienced abuse in a church, its not your fault. They should have done better. And now that we know this happens, we should educate ourselves about the signs of abuse and ask our church leaders the tough questions. It’s not easy. But if we genuinely care about our churches, we should want them to handle these things the right way.

Blessing,

Jen

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