I’ll never forget the day that the email came.  The person who headed up the adult education department of my church was asking if he could speak to me that evening.  He gave no indication as to why he wanted to speak to me.  But because he was the senior pastor’s brother and an ordained pastor as well, I could feel the terror.  Tingling and tightness in my upper arms and chest, heart racing, stomach clenching, blood rushing into my face, hands shaking.  Forcing my mind to focus became an act of will.

Questions hurtled through my mind: What could he want? What have I done now? Will I be ostracized again?  Please, please, please God!  Whatever bad thing is about to happen, give me the strength to bear it!

When I arrived at the church that evening, his assistant saw me and asked, “Has Ethan (not his real name) talked to you?”

Terror.  Not only Ethan, but if his assistant knew, how many others?  How much shame and humiliation was already happening and I didn’t even know yet?

“No, but I got an email saying he wants to speak to me.”  I busied myself with my class materials, wondering if I would even be leading the class that night or would I be escorted to a meeting and my class handed over to someone more worthy, more valuable, more . . . wanted.

Within a couple of moments, Ethan poked his head in the door to my classroom and said he wanted to see me after class.

Was there any color left in my face?  I doubt it.  I prayed the terror didn’t show on my face and that no one noticed my shaking hands.

Thankfully, a good portion of the class that night revolved around a video so the lights were dimmed and I didn’t have to say much.  I sat in the shadows and because my mouth had gone dry, I sipped water so I would be able to speak when necessary.

After class, I went to the door of Ethan’s office.  I couldn’t bring myself to actually enter even though the door was open and he gestured for me to come in.  I never entered offices of church staff.  They were prison cells and interrogation rooms.  Best to stay in the hall – it’s easier to run that way.

As I stood at the door he started to explain to me that he would be preaching a sermon series and wanted me to help him come up with some visuals or ideas to use with it.  He didn’t tell me why he thought I would be the right person to help him with this.  I wondered if I was being tested.  They test you, you know.  They give you tasks and wait to see if you will pass the test or if you will unknowingly break some unspoken rule or if you will simply . . . fail.

But the important thing at that moment was that I wasn’t in trouble!  I’m sure that my relief was palpable. My heart rate slowed just a little and the tingling in my arms subsided just a tiny bit.  I couldn’t relax completely.  Ever.  But  I wasn’t being told I was unwanted, unworthy, unable to serve, undesirable.

I agonized over creating something that would be acceptable to Ethan.  Agonized.  Would it be good enough?  Would it be smart enough?  Would it be useful?  Would he like it? Would he see that I was not capable of such a task?  Would he take whatever I offered, laugh at it, and toss it aside?  Would this just prove that all those years of being told “You can’t” were appropriate?

When I came back a couple of weeks later, I was so nervous I was again afraid that I would shake visibly.  I presented the ideas that I had and Ethan actually seemed to understand them.  He even said that he would use one or maybe even two of them!

A few weeks later, when the visual was projected on the screen, it even had my name on it.  And my heart pounded and my arms began tingling and my mouth went dry and the color drained from my face.   Now, the whole congregation was going to get to decide if what I had done was good enough, if I was smart enough, if I was capable, if they  liked it. After the service, a woman approached me.  I was in a panic.  “Here it comes,” I thought.

But she said that the visual really helped her process what the message had been about.  And I was relieved.  This once it was okay.  But what about next time?

You see, that’s how it is for those of us who have been told by pastors and church leaders that we don’t measure up.  That we’re not acceptable.  That we are unwanted.  That we may not even be saved.

I was told so many times and for so many years (more than 20 years all together) and so consistently by the leaders of two churches that I was unwanted, unnecessary, disposable, unsaved, valueless.  The second church was known as the most accepting and grace-full church in the area.  So, when staff and pastor-types told me, how could I not believe them?  They repeatedly said that I wasn’t good enough.  Not good enough to be in the choir. Not good enough to rock babies in the nursery. Not good enough to bring treats to my sons’ youth group meetings.  Not good enough to do anything except warm a pew.  And so,  the leap was not far to believe that if the pastors, staff, and other leaders believed I was so incredibly vile, God must think so, too.

Every mailing from the church, every time a staff person gave me more than a cursory nod, every time I got an email from anyone in leadership, I would panic. Sometimes, I didn’t open mail or email for days.  I couldn’t bear the rejection that I knew might be enclosed.  It had happened so many times before.  How could I ever believe it wasn’t going to happen again?  Especially since they would never tell me why.

Why was I ostracized?  Why was I ignored?  Left out? Denied answers?

I’ve told my husband many times that I wonder if I have PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Then just recently, I read a blog post in which the author wrote about Post Traumatic Church Disorder.

I don’t know if the leadership at my church ever realized how hard it was for me. How their treatment of me after coming from a church that was brutally abusive only exacerbated my panic attacks.  I wonder if they had understood, if they would have been more compassionate.  More careful.

Actually, I thought the senior pastor knew.  We had told him about our experience when we first started attending the church.  “Do you think you were spiritually abused?” he asked.

“Yes.”

So he had to know.  He knew what spiritual abuse was – he even named it without us mentioning the term.

He had to have some idea how damaging the condemnation and judgment was.

And he was okay with it.

 

 

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Comments
  1. Fantastic writing, brilliantly composed. This just expresses so well the anguish of so many in church.
    We make ourselves very vulnerable to hurt when we join a church.

  2. Just thinking this through a bit deeper, and how to deal with it.

    Ethan has in fact behaved in a fairly normal and standard way. I get this occasionally in my secular job, indirect messages via the clerical staff telling me, “Oh, the boss wants to see you at 3 o’clock this afternoon.”of course I feel panicky, what have I done wrong, actually I think most people would feel panicky in that situation. A few strong, self-assured ones might not, but most would.
    Is it worth having a chat with Ethan about it, explaining your situation? Suggesting to him that next time he might put in his email some indication of the reason for the meeting. The danger with that is that it might leave him thinking you are a bit neurotic. That’s why I wouldn’t personally raise it with my secular boss, I’d rather suffer in silence then be branded in her eyes as a neurotic.

    And in fact it probably is a bit neurotic. So I think we both need in that situation to face how own responses. After all, if we really know who we are in Christ, why would we even have these fears? “The Lord is my Shepherd, what can mere men do to harm me?”

    The fear of man is a snare. Ultimately, we need to defeat that and just say No! I fear God only. I refuse to fear men.

    • So maybe that is where God is trying to lead you.

    • Ellen says:

      Norman, thank you for your thoughtfulness. Unfortunately, since I have not yet put the rest of my story out there for you to read, you are not aware that the church I am writing about is the same one that for more than 10 years would not allow me to do anything other than sit in the services – and would not tell me “why.” It was, as I found out after we were told to leave, the senior pastor (Ethan’s brother) who was behind all of those years of ostracism, shunning, and judgment – though through it all, he denied knowing what was going on (He “doesn’t make all the decisions” after all.) After those many years in which I begged to be told what I had done, was repeatedly ignored, avoided, and hung on only because I believed that God works everything together for good, was I finally “allowed” to serve. By then, I was so damaged from those many years of receiving the message that neither the church nor God found me acceptable, that perhaps I was a bit neurotic.

      There is no going back and speaking to “Ethan.” He’s the one who ultimately told us to leave the church. They had discovered that I had “told” my story of their abusive treatment and my husband insisted that they needed to apologize for what they had done to me. Apparently, it was more palatable for them to toss us aside than to apologize.

      Since, then, I have moved forward and I don’t believe I need worry about panic attacks. And I completely healed? No. I may never be. But I am confident in who I am in Christ. I write this blog hoping that others who have experienced deep wounding by the church will read it and know that they are not alone. And that what happened to then – and to me – was wrong and it’s okay to say so.

      Thanks, again. I do appreciate that you are reading and responding. One day, I will tell the rest of the story and this will make better sense.

      • You definitely need to tell the rest of your story! It’s a story that can be very helpful to many people. You have a gift for lucid writing, and I suggest that you turn your story into a book.
        You might find it helpful to download and read the PDF file of my book How to Survive in the Pharisee Church. It’s on PhariseeChurch.com.
        One of the reasons we write is not because we can really do much to help, but because letting people know that “you are not the only one” is such a huge comfort to them.

        On another tack, one needs to be very suspicious of churches with “family” ministers. It’s entirely possible that Ethan was promoted to his ministry position entirely on the basis of his own spirituality and gifting, and that being the brother of the senior pastor was just a coincidence! That one doubts it!
        Apart from anything else, on a practical level clearly if family members are favoured for promotion then that is a killer for anyone who wishes to maximise their own usefulness, which is something I think we should all within reason wish to do.

  3. Hi Ellen,
    I relate on many levels to your description of your experiences, both in terms of the underlying messages you received from your spiritual leaders and in terms of your physical responses to them. The thing that struck afresh me as I read this post was the way their treatment of you redefined you to yourself. I have worked over the past several years to understand this sort of shame. My own experience of shame left me equally terrified of being publicly “seen” and convinced that something was deeply wrong with me. As I have reflected on shame in the Scriptures, I see just how tenderly and sensitively Jesus handled shamed people (particularly the woman who was publicly shunned because of her spiritual uncleanness due to a physical bleeding condition that she had no control over.) He insisted on speaking directly to her, called her by a special term of loving relationship (daughter), publicly affirmed her, and blessed her before sending her on her way. I pray you will experience Him treating you with the same tender dignity, and that the shepherds of His flock will learn to do the same.

    • Ellen says:

      Thank you, Tiffany. As I continue to blog and finish my story (next page should be up soon), you will see that they absolutely did impact my view of myself – with no concern at all for my spiritual well-being. It was a fascinating journey – terrifying, horrific, and agonizing, as well – but also confusing and fascinating. So much just didn’t make sense as I was going through it, but now it makes perfect sense – because I can see that the person on the platform and the person off the platform were not at all the same. Anyway, thanks for your comments – they are very affirming to me. I hope you keep reading and let me know what you think. I have found so much strength in blogs like yours.

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