Church is one of those places where I’ve rarely felt I fully belong. For most of my life, I’ve attended conservative, evangelical churches and perhaps that’s part of it. Perhaps not. I’m honestly not sure as it’s the only thing I’ve known. But with conservative thought about Scripture, which I embrace, tends to come conservative thought about fellow humans, which I tend to shy away from, knowing people are much too complex to put into neat little boxes. I’ve never fit into a box anyway. I believe the gospel. I believe the Bible. I believe Christians in a congregation should be united under those things. And how we live out our lives and how we relate to one another from there depends much on who we are. How God has gifted us. Our personalities. Our experiences.
It is no secret that the evangelical church in America is in a crisis. Sexual abuse. Plagiarism. Spiritual abuse. Financial issues. White Nationalism. Trumpism. Critical Race Theory. You name it, the evangelical church is most likely going through it. It is an imperfect entity made up of sinners. So what do we expect, right? But quite honestly, I’m tired of everything being brushed aside by that pithy sentiment. I’m fed up with the, “Well, there is no perfect church (and if there were, you’d ruin it),” mantra. It seems to me we’ve been excusing poor and hurtful behavior for far too long.
When Jesus turned to Peter, the man on whom he intended to build his church, he did not allow for such a low standard of leadership or pastoral care. Three times he turned to Peter and asked, “Do you love me?” And three times, Peter said, “Yes, Lord.” Christ’s commands to this man who professed love for him were clear. Jesus said, “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.” To put it simply, Peter was to pastor. He was to feed the lambs, the baby Christians, the ones who needed to learn the glorious truths of the Gospel. And once they were rooted and grounded in God’s truth, he was to care for them. He was to know them fully, to love them deeply, and to nurture them, just as the Lord himself would do. And then he was to feed them still, continually pouring the Word of God into them, day after day, to sustain them in abundant living and joy in their fellowship with Jesus and with each other in the church.
And yet, here we are. The evangelical church in America is far from this Biblical picture of pastoral care. When did our standards get so low? When did we become comfortable with church being anything less than what Christ intended it to be? When did we decide pastors and elders were to be anything other than those who teach the Word, nurture and shepherd the flock? So many churches get this wrong and it leads to tremendous problems within the body of Christ.
I think we’re here in some part because pastors are expected to be more than the Lord intended, much like teachers in schools are expected to be more than just teachers. With families and individuals in crisis, the resulting mental health needs are pouring into churches (and schools). Conservative churches tend to shy away from psychological care outside of the church and most do not have the ability to handle such complex mental health situations from within. I am not qualified to go into all the areas of psychology and why they are or are not compatible with Biblical teaching, but I do believe we need to take a more nuanced approach to mental health care within the church. When it comes to situations that bring about negative or even harmful behaviors, the fact is there are scientific reasons for the responses of an individual who has experienced trauma that are different than the reasons for those responses in someone who has not. This is not a “Jesus and” approach. It is an approach that actually understands how Jesus created our minds in all of their complexity and wonder.
The brain of a traumatized individual is simply wired differently. He responds differently. The tendency to see everything around him as a threat or to immediately get angry over benign stressors, for instance, are common reactions for someone who has experienced trauma. This is due to the fact that his emotional brain (amygdala) takes precedence over their rational brain (pre-frontal cortex) whenever he is in a stressful situation. Further, the brain has a memory, so if as a child, he was repeatedly put into high stress, low support situations, his brain will tend to think everything is a high stress, low support situation and will react accordingly. This cycle of emotional response will continue until he has been able to rewire his brain to see situations differently and respond more rationally.
Further, the fact that the evangelical church has drifted (or throttled full speed ahead) into a corporate model that employs a board of directors, a strategic leadership team, and a CEO, causes a vast disconnect between the pastor and his congregation. Even in churches with a more traditionally Biblical model of leadership, some pastors and elders see themselves in an elevated role or in a position of power over their congregation, rather than in a position of humble service. Their goal is not to nurture and guide, but rather to control and admonish. In some churches, they delegate their responsibilities to small group members, who are often less equipped to handle the needs of their group members, and seldom know the congregation intimately themselves. In many evangelical churches, congregants have not even met the pastor personally, much less know him or vice versa.
In these churches, it is not uncommon for spiritual abuse to go unchecked for years. Decades even. Members may have concerns, but the model of governance puts those concerns on their small group leader. That leader may bring it to an elder, but it’s often brushed aside as a member being hyper-sensitive or flat out wrong. If concerns are addressed at all, it tends to be a top down approach where the elder board says something like, “We’re the wise ones here, we will handle it, just trust us.” This can be exacerbated in churches where there is nepotism in leadership or where elders have been serving together for decades. Too often, nothing is done and the concerns die a quick death under the rug, only to resurface again, perhaps several years later, under different circumstances. The members or attenders who brought the concerns second guess themselves and learn to silence their gut feelings when it comes to spiritual matters. Those individuals start to think, “If everyone else seems to be fine with it, maybe I’m wrong or maybe I just misunderstood what I saw or heard.” And the cycle of abuse continues.
A few years ago, I went through one of the most spiritually abusive situations I’ve ever encountered. I was on the receiving end of multiple manipulative and spiritually abusive actions on behalf of the pastors of a church where my husband and I were members. I took a part-time job at the church and that job ultimately led us to leaving the church, after I witnessed the inner workings of a place we thought we knew. It became clear that the church was run by individuals who needed to control their flock, rather than nurture their flock. Their interest was in protecting the image of the church, rather than protecting the people in the church. There were lies, uncontrollable anger, threats, and demands.
This was not the first church we attended where there was spiritual abuse happening. In fact, throughout our marriage, we have attended or were members at three churches where spiritual abuse had occurred or was occurring. However, at two of those churches, we were not directly involved in the abuse and did not see it for what it truly was until years later. This is common for people who witness spiritual abuse happening to others, or who experience it themselves. Our hearts do not want to believe the people we trusted, the people who called themselves lovers of the same Jesus we love, could actually be wolves amidst his sheep.
The spiritual abuse I witnessed and experienced happened over the course of several months. I’ll not go into every detail, but I will outline just a couple of incidents that occurred in order to give some examples of the abusive behavior the pastors exhibited. These incidents are not comprehensive and do not include those experienced by others in the church at that time, before or after. In fact, they are just a snippet, a tip of a vast iceberg, as I personally know several other people who have been spiritually abused there over the years. Stories tend to get told after people leave, when they feel safe to share. And we all believe what we want to believe until the evidence is too overwhelming to deny reality any longer.
Shortly after I began working for the church, I attended a weekly all-staff meeting. Shortly after the meeting began, the lead pastor (pastor 1) became very angry regarding a situation with a church family that was in crisis. Several church members and some employees, including myself, were trying to help this family, but he disagreed with the direction we were going and wanted it to stop. He made threats and demands of us that continued for several minutes. He was in a full on rage, yelling and visibly irate, slamming his hand on the table to make his intentions clear. It was like nothing I’d witnessed from my boss in over 2 decades of previous employment experience. It was also like nothing I’d expect from my pastor.
I should have walked out of that meeting and quit my job on the spot. I should have asked him to apologize for his behavior and gone to the elder board to discuss the situation. Unfortunately, I did neither. I remember sitting there as I and others were being berated. I remember looking around the room. Heads were down, eye contact was diverted, and there was complete silence. I had the distinct feeling that this was normal for them. But it was far from normal or acceptable behavior. It was manipulative and jarring.
A few months later, a meeting was called to discuss this same family situation, with the entire elder board, pastors, some staff and several congregants present. During this meeting, I was verbally attacked by the associate pastor of the church (pastor 2), who was my direct boss. He yelled at me, angrily pointed his finger in my face, and accused me of trying to ruin this family I was trying to help. He used sarcasm to belittle me. No one in that room, not one elder or other church staff member, stood up and said his behavior was completely unacceptable for a pastor. No one called him out and no one acknowledged our concerns. Those of us who were trying to get help for this family in crisis were told we were wrong about the situation, even though we had multiple layers of evidence that we were correct in our thinking, compassionate in our responses, and on the right path in trying to help. We were told that the pastors and elders were regularly meeting with this family when they knew that was a lie. The reality of the situation was covered up to protect the pastors and elders involved, and to protect the image of the church. There was no accountability.
When we went out to our car after that meeting, my husband looked at me and told me I needed to quit my job. He did not want me working for pastor 2 any longer after witnessing his behavior towards me. When I resigned, pastor 2 called me to ask why I left, so I asked if he wanted me to be honest. He said he did, so I did my best to be forthright in telling him why I did not feel he was qualified to shepherd a congregation based on several things that had happened over the past months of my employment. During that phone call, he repeatedly took my words, twisted them around, and spit them back at me. He did the same to my husband in an email correspondence. There was absolutely no humility. No repentance for his hateful words or actions. No responsibility or accountability. It was simply a layered attempt to protect his image and continue to portray himself as someone he’s not. Sadly, I expected nothing less, given who I knew him to be by that point.
In my exit interview, I told the head of human resources the same things I discussed with pastor 2 in our last phone conversation. Unfortunately, she did not believe me, nor did another pastor (pastor 3) that I and some other members met with shortly thereafter. After a two hour meeting and promises to follow up, pastor 3’s response to our multiple concerns was to contact pastor 1 about pastor 2 to see if what we said was accurate. Pastor 1 covered for pastor 2. Pastor 3 went no further to determine if what we brought to his attention was true. And no one was held responsible for the abusive behavior towards countless people at that church. When pastor 2 finally left his role as pastor that that church, he promptly secured a job as a pastor of another local church, where he remains to this day. The cycle of abuse in churches continues because situations like this happen all the time. All. The. Time.
I will not pretend that I did everything perfectly during that time. No, far from it, and I have contacted several people who were involved to apologize for the things I know I did wrong. After we left, I never felt I could say anything about what really happened. I couldn’t be honest about how we were treated by the elders or pastors. I couldn’t be honest about how we tried so many times to humbly show the leadership in the church what was wrong. Church culture has it’s own gag order called the sin of gossip. And church culture protects its own, often making those who have experienced abuse feel they were in the wrong. They misunderstood. They overreacted. So, I stayed quiet for the most part, only sharing the truth with a few close friends or giving vague details to those who asked why we left. I didn’t know who to trust and didn’t even know if I could trust myself.
After we left and starting hearing more stories of others who had been spiritually abused by the pastors and elders at that church, I kept hoping the Lord would change the hearts of those in leadership, so no one else would be hurt like we were, and many were before us. It has not played out how I would have chosen, but I’m not writing the story, God is. And he always brings darkness to light. He always does. We just never know when he’s going to choose to do it and if it will be this side of eternity.
The same is true for our personal stories of abuse in our homes or in the church. Sometimes we stay quiet our entire lives, never having the courage or strength to make our pain known. It takes a tremendous amount of felt safety and security in our lives to open ourselves up to further criticism or bullying, which unfortunately is often the result of sharing our experiences. But sometimes, the Lord gives us the words we need to speak the truth as he’s working to heal us. Sometimes he wants our stories told and he uses them to bring light into the dark places, in order to renew and restore. I pray that will happen more and more in our churches and communities as people have the courage to share.
I used to be afraid to speak up. I worried I’d be hurt again and I felt responsible for the feelings of others. I chose silence or vagueness over truth because silence was safer. I chose pulling in instead of stepping out because solitude was safer. Much of those thoughts and feelings stem from my experiences as a child in an environment that was not safe. Not secure. And very dark.
When people are abused, as children or adults, we tend to put up a wall that says, “You can never hurt me again.” It’s our protector self stepping forth and trying to control our lives. Our self that creates a fortress. A safe place. But as we heal, we begin to let the walls of the fortress fall down, brick by brick, until we understand that yes, we most definitely could be hurt again. We understand that parts of us are in fact quite fragile. We could be crushed by the same people who crushed us before. But once we begin to heal, we also know we’re strong. We’re resilient. And by God’s grace, we will be okay.
It is then that we can begin to trust again. If the abuser comes walking through the walls of the fortress we let fall, we understand it’s not our fault if they hurt us again. We chose to forgive. We chose to trust. And if the abuser continues to abuse after we chose to forgive and trust again, we can put the boundary up that says, “no more.” We are not responsible to take care of their feelings if they once again say they are sorry. We do not need to continue to let them in and we do not need to trust them. Abusers will most often abuse until they get help to deal with the reasons causing their abuse. And even if they do get help and want back in, we can say “no”. We get to do that. In coming to this understanding, our abusers lose their control over our lives, and we are able to be free. Whole and complete.