Archive for December, 2014

Has anyone else seen the parallels between Elsa and their own experience with spiritual abuse?

I first saw the movie just days after being tossed out of our church and I sat there in tears and in awe as I watched Elsa make the “mistake” of hurting her sister while she was using her incredible gift to create joy and delight.

She then is shut up, not allowed to use her gift any longer and she is told she cannot tell anyone what is happening to her.

When she finally unleashes what must be years of pent up anguish, the townsfolk and dignitaries are horrified, frightened, and even though she flees the kingdom, they want more than that. They want her killed. Destroyed. Elsa’s absence means the kingdom will remain frozen and struggling to survive.

Elsa’s sister, Anna, has a love interest in the story who appears to be a wonderful, loving, devoted prince, but when Anna is about to die, he reveals his true self by telling the dying Anna that his whole plan was to take over the kingdom.

It’s been almost a year, but as I watched the movie again last night, I was still struck. I had been using my gifts to bless and delight. Somewhere along the way, my efforts for good were seen as threatening and so I was told I could not use them any longer. I was “shut up” – not allowed to tell anyone what they were forcing upon me. And when I finally “let it go” by telling my story, I was banished from the kingdom. And not only banished, but there are many indications that efforts have been made to destroy me – my character – and to treat me as dead by the way that I have been shunned.

The “prince”/pastor whom I thought cared and would care enough to help me, to rescue me, to set everything right, instead has abandoned me – probably thinking that I would “die” and he would be free to rule and reign over the kingdom.

But in the end, love wins. No, I didn’t win the kingdom, as Elsa did. But I won my freedom. I won back my joy. I won my ability to use my gifts again without reservation or worry that by doing so I would risk being judged again.

Yesterday, my son gave me the movie Frozen for Christmas. I watched it for the first time since a year ago last night. Only this time there were no tears. Only enjoyment knowing that in the end, Elsa wins.

Implied, inferred, understood without actually speaking.

I was chatting with someone recently about my experience with spiritual abuse. She asked how many of our friends at the church were aware of what had taken place and had spoken up in our defense.

I responded that no one had taken the initiative to contact me or my husband to find out why we were no longer attending. No took the initiative to call, email, message, write, or communicate in any way. We are pretty sure that there was a flurry of damage control that took place those first few weeks after we left. We are aware that the senior pastor’s brother (also a pastor in the church and the one who told us we were no longer welcome) continued to be present in a class that I was taking those first few weeks after we were tossed out even though he was supposed to be preaching during those class times. The only explanation for that is that he needed to explain to people who would be wondering why I was no longer present for the class.

My husband had been taking another class. Not one person called, texted, emailed or otherwise inquired as to his absence.

The only explanation for that is that they were all told not to communicate with us. And that’s not hard to believe given that when I was told that I could not participate in ministry many years earlier, I was ordered to tell no one about what was happening.

The woman I was speaking with was quite confused that no one would express dismay at what had happened and especially that no one – not one person – would make any attempt at all to hear our side of the story. “They must have made it sound like you and your entire family were reprehensible,” she said. “Otherwise, why would these people who had only moments earlier called you ‘friend’ not seek you out? Why would they not speak up in your defense and try to find out both sides of the story?”

“How do you know they think you are the person who is in the wrong?” she asked.

I answered, “It’s called ‘tacit agreement.’ When people didn’t make any attempt at all to find out from our side what had been going on all of those years, whatever they were told, they must have agreed with. The fact that they didn’t say anything – not to us and not in defense of us – says that they agreed with what was done. Even if they didn’t know what that ‘something’ that was done was.”

I think this happens quite frequently when there is spiritually abusive situations in the church. The people blindly follow whatever the leadership has to say about what happened and who was at fault. The people who have placed their trust in the pastor and leadership see them as authority figures whom God has called to lead the church and it doesn’t even begin to cross their minds to question.

And this mentality strengthens and emboldens the leadership. Their power is then multiplied.

How is it that not one person tried to understand our perspective? They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to know. They didn’t care. They didn’t want to risk their own position in the kingdom. I had proven that speaking up was dangerous. Precarious. Spiritual suicide.

It’s better to stay quiet. Agree by remaining mute. And trust that if God wanted it to be any other way, He would make it so.

Nobody wants to consider that perhaps . . . just maybe . . . they could have been the avenue for Him to work everything together for good.

Nobody wants to acknowledge that they are temples of God and His Holy Spirit just might have used them to bring healing and restoration.

Nobody wants to suffer for doing what is good and right and true and noble.

So they remain mute. Tacit agreement.

And I wonder what Jesus will say to them when they stand before Him?

My husband and I were talking over the weekend about it being the one year anniversary of our being tossed out of the church. He again repeated to me that “None of this would have happened if things had been handled correctly in the first place.”

And he’s right. Because it was in the mishandling of what should have been dealt with easily that turned a tiny little snow flake into a giant avalanche. And that mishandling was based on a very slight twisting of the truth.

That’s how many spiritually abusive situations begin. Take a little truth – a truth that is a bit uncomfortable – and twist it to make the person who has pointed out the problem to be the problem.

Let’s look a little more closely at the beginning of my story at our last church.

I am a musician. I have a degree in music. Over the years, I have worked with every age level from pre-schoolers through adults in many music venues. Back then, I was working part time for a small Christian college. I taught music courses, directed the choir, and was in charge of a small group of student musicians who would travel with the president of the college to perform at various functions. This group of students also provided worship leadership and counseling at various events for churches, camps, youth groups, etc. and it was my job to prepare them for all aspects of their ministry.

We were fairly new at the church when they hired a full-time worship leader/choir director and he immediately began asking me to assist him in leading worship, arranging music, communicating with other musicians, leading a women’s worship team, and, of course, singing in the choir. He “wined and dined” me by playing up to my love of music, singing, playing and just plain being helpful. As time went on, he asked me to do more and more. And as others saw me in the role of assisting him, they began turning to me for advocacy.

For example, when they were rehearsing with him, they would often ask him to help them with a particularly difficult harmony part. He would always so, “Sure! We’ll come back to that!” But he never would. They would ask him at the end of the rehearsal to go over the part again, but he would be out of time and need to get going. I would end up helping them and then later would try to kindly suggest to him that it would be great if he would honor their requests for help as the person in charge because I didn’t want to be seen as usurping his authority. “Sure!” he would reply. “No problem! I’ll make sure to do that!” And then he wouldn’t.

You can read more about that situation in Part Three of my story which is in the menu on the left side of my blog page, but suffice it to say that over time, people became more and more unhappy because they were feeling so insecure and unprepared to stand in front of eight hundred people two or three services a day to lead worship when they didn’t know what they were doing.

Some of the most memorable moments, though, were when he told me that, “Ellen, if you look good, I look good, and if you look bad, I look even better,” and when he completely set me up to fail one Sunday when he had put me in charge and then ran off and told the senior pastor that I was the problem. Again, read Part Three of my story for that mind-boggling scenario.

After speaking with him about helping people to be more comfortable over several weeks/months, and getting promises of change but no actual results, and then being “set up,” I finally asked for a person in leadership to join me in speaking with him. It was obvious that my attempts to address the issues one-on-one with him had failed.

I spoke with the leader whom the senior pastor directed me to and she appeared to be as concerned as I about the situations that were taking place and agreed that a meeting with the worship leader was needed.

It was at this point that this person in leadership decided to bring in the entire personnel committee for a meeting. And it was obvious when I entered the room that they had met with the worship leader first. And that he had twisted everything around – all of the concerns that I had shared – to make it look like I was the problem. I was difficult to work with. I was trying to wrest his job from him. I was making mountains out of molehills.

I was denigrated in that meeting. I was yelled at in that meeting. The ostracism began in that meeting when I was told that I could no longer participate in music or worship under his direction. They absolutely did not want to acknowledge that he needed some mentoring and guidance in working with volunteers under his leadership.

Walking out of that meeting in tears, I then communicated again with the senior pastor (he had directed me to the leader who set up the meeting with the personnel committee) and explained that I had been attacked, yelled out, and judged; that the worship leader had twisted everything around and turned the committee against me.

And that was the first time that he did not respond.

Looking back, I now see that the only explanation for my pastor to not respond – not even to say, “I’m so sorry that happened” – was the first indication that he was aware of, and probably the impetus behind, what was going to be said and done to me in that meeting. He didn’t respond because he didn’t want to help “fix” a situation that he had orchestrated.

What he didn’t plan on, as I have said before, is that I would stay. What he didn’t plan on was that I would actually live a faith that endures all things. That forgives. That trusts that everything works together for good.

And so, as time went on he had to continue to be the catalyst behind every spiritually abusive situation that I endured. And he could never respond when I asked for help. Because he was behind it. Perplexed and mystified each time when I continually tried to “work it out” rather than just taking my toys and marching off to another church.

Twisting and turning. Twisting and turning.

One year ago. It was a Friday. Last year it was the last day of school before we were to go on Christmas break. This year, while today is a Friday, we will have school for two days next week. So, it’s not quite the same. Yet today is much like that Friday one year ago.

On that day, my husband was trying to set up a meeting with church leadership to discuss the spiritually abusive treatment I had received for over a decade and the leadership’s angry response when they found out that I had broken their mandate to keep quiet about what they had done to me all of those years.

It was when my husband insisted that they would need to apologize to me if we were to continue as members of the church that he was told via email that there would be no meeting and we were no longer welcome in the church.

Isn’t interesting that in that church, something so important and life-altering as being tossed out of the church was not discussed in a face-to-face conversation? In fact, there was only one time over those many, many years of being told that I was not good enough to participate in church ministry that a person in leadership actually asked me to come into her office to deliver the news. It was a very brief meeting in which she told me that I would not be considered for a leadership position. Of the other conversations, one was made over the phone, another was on the sidewalk in front of one of the church entrances, and one from the same person with whom my husband was communicating, had also sent me an email several years ago indicating that I couldn’t even take a class.

I think about that today and am awed by the cowardice. This is a church that boasts over 2500 people crossing the threshold every Sunday. This is a church that has a multi-million dollar budget (the details of which are only known to the 3-5 people on the “executive team”). This is a church whose “weekly need” is well over $60,000 per week in order to pay the bills.

Yet, these leaders of one of the largest churches in the entire region – listed as a “mega” church on many websites, couldn’t face a humble, quiet, soft-spoken, sweet gentleman (my husband) and acknowledge that they had allowed me to be treated in such a way that my spiritual health had been massacred.

There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from their gutlessness.

They knew they were wrong.

They knew that if they had to sit down face-to-face and answer for what they had done, they would not be able to defend their behavior.

And they knew that if we were allowed to stay, there was a good chance that more and more people would become aware of the truth. And people would wonder. And people would remember others who left suspiciously. And people would ask questions that were embarrassingly difficult to answer honestly. And the pedestal would erode.

Much better to cut us off without looking either of us in the eye. Much better to order us away and tell lies and half-truths about us in order to placate people. Much better to convince anyone who might wonder or ask, that we are the bad guys.

And so I sit here, one year later, smiling as I write this. It’s a knowing smile. Because knowing the truth is emancipating.

It’s a delightful smile. Because telling the truth and putting shame in it’s proper place is joyous.

It’s a winsome smile – the smile of one who is innocent.

A year ago, on a Friday, I thought my world was crashing down. But now, I know that my world was just opening up. To freedom. To peace. To sweetness.

Welcome home, Ellen.

Yesterday, I was asked to list three things that have happened in the past year that I can celebrate. Immediately, I wrote that both of my sons graduated from college and both have jobs in their fields of study – not always an easy task these days.

My second item of celebration was that I became a grandmother for the first time. No one ever told me that I would become addicted to my granddaughter and that I would need a “baby fix” every few days – but it’s true! I am so blessed to have her nearby so I can see her often.

But then I got to the third thing. And I wrote about being tossed out of the church. Sometimes, it’s in writing and just letting the words flow through my fingertips that I realize something really important, and as I wrote, that’s exactly what happened. And the “something really important” that I realized is this:

I can set the bar for other people.

You see, one of the major incidents in my spiritual abuse story is that when I was told that I could not do anything in the church except attend services. When I asked why, I was told that they could not/would not give me a reason or tell me what I had supposedly done. When I asked what I would have to do to regain the privilege of serving or participating in church activities, I was told that they would simply be “watching” me and that if they saw what they wanted to see, someday I “might be invited” to take a class or two that would instruct me in the ways that I should behave. I immediately pointed out that, not only was this unscriptural, but I also made the point that since they would not tell me what I had done wrong they were setting an invisible bar for me.

What I didn’t realize then, and hadn’t put into words until I began writing about it, is that while they were setting a bar for me, I could also set a bar for them – as well as other people in my life. One of the key things I have come to realize over this past year (I was tossed out on December 20, 2013) is that I have the power to set a bar for people and if they don’t measure up to it, I don’t have to allow them in my life.

So, while yes, I was tossed out of the church, I could have done much more and tried much harder to rectify the situation. I could have groveled and begged and argued and shamed myself in a desperate attempt to continue to reach that bar that was set for me for all of those years. But instead, I reclaimed my power to set a bar for the church. Not only the church leadership – the senior pastor, his brother (the pastor who told us not to come back), the lay-leader of the congregation, but also those who claimed to be my friends but really weren’t.

I set a bar that there are certain behaviors that they must exhibit in order to win back a positive position in my life.

Over this past year, without really thinking about it, I have been living out this “setting the bar” practice in many of my “relationships” outside the church, as well. For example, I have “unfriended” people. I have said “no” to requests to have lunch or coffee with people who I have realized are toxic. I do not allow people who exhibit a pattern of diminishing me or others to have a prominent place in my life.

From my experience with spiritual abuse, I know how important it becomes to want to live up to whatever the church leadership is demanding and often, that people-pleasing mentality spills over into lots of other relationships and we get taken advantage of not only by the church but by people outside of the church, as well.

May I encourage you to set the bar? And if people aren’t measuring up, walk away. Unfriend. Take control.

And celebrate!

Dear Readers,
Occasionally, I have people who write to me or comment on a post asking that I allow them to solicit information from you via surveys or form submissions or most recently, a request that they solicit your stories of abuse for a book they are writing.

I always deny these requests. Why? For several reasons.

1) They never come with a full biographical sketch of the person making the request. I have no idea who they are. They may be legitimate or they may be some kind of stalker. If they are unwilling to offer this information when they make their request, I can only assume that they have ulterior motives that are not in your best interests or mine.

2) I do not want anyone to feel that my blog is for any kind of promotion or gain – for me or anyone else. I have been encouraged by several people to write my own book. And I would love to write a book someday, but that’s not why my blog exists. There are people out there who write blogs and promote themselves as speakers and life coaches and all of that. They are trying to “make it” – to make a living at writing and speaking and coaching. I am not. I just want to help others to recognize spiritual abuse and give them courage as they work toward healing.

3) I don’t want you to be exploited. Recently, I was asked if a would-be author could ask you for your stories for a book. She even claimed that she would compensate people whose stories were selected. But I couldn’t guarantee that your story would not be recast by the author of the book – saying something that wasn’t quite accurate – or that you would actually get paid if your story was chosen. I don’t want to promote someone else’s agenda when neither I nor you have any control over how that information will be used and don’t know if they have the integrity to keep their word.

So, readers, please know that if a solicitor ever gets past me and posts a request for information, unless I have personally vouched for that person, please do not respond to them. Feel free to send me a message to ask about it or to verify if the request is legitimately approved by me for my blog. Unless I have posted the information personally in a post or on a page of my blog, you can bet that it has not gotten my approval and will be removed as soon as I become aware of it.

Thanks so much for reading. I appreciate every one of you and hope that you are encouraged every time you visit here.

Ellen

In my last post, I had just touched my toe to the cess pool of gaslighting and how it had impacted my experience with spiritual abuse. But then a comment on that post prodded me to delve a bit deeper into the practice of gaslighting. It wasn’t long before long-dormant memories were being stirred as I read, listened, and learned more and more about how gaslighters operate and how their behavior impacts their victims.

I do not have the background to dive too deeply into this topic because I am by no means a professional in this area. So I’m sure that this post will not be exhaustive on the subject. I am simply a former victim who is doing my best to tell my story so that others might recognize the abusive behavior of the people who have wounded them, thereby encouraging victims to move toward help and healing.

None of these items appears in a particular order – I am simply discussing them in the order that they had the most impact on my situation.

One of the most confusing aspects of my story was the senior pastor, whom I turned to repeatedly in a desperate attempt for help as each diminishing action was taken against me. I discussed this briefly in my first Gaslighting post a few days ago. His response was to ignore me, to claim that he had no idea what I was talking about, that he didn’t understand me, or that he had never received my requests for meetings nor my requests for him to intervene.

Ultimately, I believe the senior pastor behaved this way because he was behind it all. He was using those who delivered the judgments to me to carry out his wishes of abuse toward me. The senior pastor used others to tell me I was unwelcome, unwanted, unneeded, unworthy, etc. Why do I believe this to be true? Because NONE of the people who handed down these verdicts had ever had a conversation beyond a “Hello” with me before they delivered judgment. The senior pastor was the ONLY person in leadership at that time with whom I had any significant conversations or communications. There was no reason for the teacher of a class to tell me I wasn’t going to be participating in music for a very long time when she had nothing to do with music or worship in the church or the concerns that I had expressed to the senior pastor about the worship leader under whom I had served extensively. There was no reason for the lay pastor to catch me on the sidewalk to tell me I would not be allowed to do ANYTHING in the church simply because I was resigning from my job as a worship leader/choir director at another church. I had absolutely no relationship with any of the people who passed the messages of judgment and condemnation to me.

The church staff who spoke to me about those things, as well as many staff members over the years, ended up leaving the church under suspicious circumstances. Of particular note was the lay pastor (who is now a full-fledged pastor). My understanding is that he wouldn’t leave graciously so he was given a date that would be his last day. Period. I believe most people would say that he was fired. For a long while he had no job and even though he now pastors a church in a neighboring town, I have never heard his name spoken by leadership in the church except in a derogatory manner.

Having others carry out gaslighting is a hallmark of the real abuser. Surrogates are used to stalk (one staff person’s husband followed me around and listened to my conversations after services), communicate (as noted above), control (telling me what I could no longer do), coerce (“If you measure up, we might let you do something eventually” and “We’ll be watching you”), etc. These substitutes are, in fact, victims, themselves and it is common for their willingness to carry out the true abusers wishes to lead to their own judgment and subsequent condemnation.

I know this was true in my story as well. When the lay pastor told another woman that she, too, was a no good, very bad person and she told the senior pastor, the lay pastor was “dealt with.” And it wasn’t so very long after he was “dealt with” that he was fired. So it would appear that the lay pastor paid the price for carrying out the orders of the senior pastor. And he was not the only one. Many, many staff members over the years were quietly let go, encouraged to move on, or blatantly fired. Even that worship leader whom I had expressed concern about.

Another indication of gaslighting is that the victim is told that they must keep secrets. I was told not to tell anyone – not even my husband – that I was being ostracized without being given a reason or being afforded the proper protocol of church discipline. Also, being told that I would be watched and that I must measure up meant that I was going to have to work hard to earn a position of acceptance by being constantly tested and evaluated. Keeping secrets not only shames the victim because they can’t tell what is being done to them if they have any hope of winning the favor of the abuser, but it also protects the abuser because no one is going to find out about the abuses that he is perpetrating.

That’s also why I was tossed out of the church. Because I told. I didn’t keep his dirty big secret and if my telling got around to too many in the church his kingdom was at risk of toppling.

Once the senior pastor’s brother let my husband know that my communications with the pastor were going to be used against me, it became clear that this was where the “legal ramifications” came in. For the senior pastor to betray my confidence by sharing my communications with others, was not only illegal, but also indicated that he fit another gaslighting sign: misusing information.

Rather than using my communications to help me and to deal with the real problems of abuse that I had suffered under, he had used my words to turn others against me. I’m sure he made it sound like I was mentally and emotionally unstable (because his lack of intervention had made me that way), while he, on the other hand, had been the suffering servant doing the best that he could in the midst of all of his other pressing duties of building his kingdom.

Gaslighters also intimidate their victims to the point of paralysis. I was so paralyzed during my years of abuse that I rarely spoke to anyone. I walked around with my head down, could not sing or pray or even stand during worship services. I was completely isolated and afraid to do anything in the way of reaching out without express permission. There were times when my help was requested (treats for youth group) and I was once invited to take some leadership classes. I was too afraid to follow through with these invitations without first checking to see if it would be okay. Every time I was told that, no, I could not accept those invitations – not even to supply treats to children.

All of these things (and more) caused me to lose my sense of worth. The abuse which I suffered started out small – I couldn’t participate in music under the full-time worship leader. But from there it snowballed, becoming more and more devaluing with each new expansion to the ostracism I was under, each thing that I could not do until, being told that I could do nothing created an intense fear and foreboding.

Yet, I could not specifically pinpoint anything that the senior pastor had done that would definitively prove that he was behind it all. He always had an excuse for not responding to my requests for help. He always had a reason to cancel meetings. And this is what makes gaslighting the most insidious form of abuse. Who is going to be believed? The emotionally unstable, critical, demanding woman whose only “proof” is that she feels intimidated and disoriented? Or the gallant, upstanding, compassionate shepherd who is too overworked building a multi-million dollar enterprise to be bothered with such small people problems?

Oh, and finally, those who gaslight simply aren’t interested in relationships that don’t serve them in constructing their kingdoms. Most people are beneath them and they are quick to discard people whom they initially valued (because of their ability to assist in building the kingdom). This was true of my pastor and he even admitted it when he told me that people are “disposable.” He also demonstrated it to others. A notable example is that when he first came to the church, he told the choir director that she and her husband were among his closest friends – until she was no longer choir director. Then he treated them as valueless, too.