Gaslighting Heated Up

Posted: December 4, 2014 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
Tags: , , ,

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.

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Comments
  1. K C says:

    I am amazed that you stayed in that church as long as you did given the circumstances. It seemed you were so unwanted. Terrible bunch of people. I have read all of your very well written posts and am still not sure just what kept you there.

    • Ellen says:

      KC,
      Thank you for asking. There were several factors that kept me there. I will list a few here. Not appearing in any particular order: 1) My children loved it. We attended there from the time they were quite young and the children’s ministry and youth ministry were fantastic. 2) We didn’t want to be labeled as “church hoppers” – we had already been in two previous churches and the one prior to this one had been abusive, as well, though in a more blatant, “women are lesser-than” sort of way. 3) We were determined to be the gracious, forgiving, God-is-going-to-work-this-out if we are just patient enough, Jesus never gives up on us so why should we give up on this church and these leaders? kind of Christians. 4) I was busy teaching at a Christian college, then later in a public school so my ministry opportunities were vast. I essentially lived a double life – being sought after and acclaimed in the other parts of my life, which carried me through the one area that was damaging and diminishing (the church). I actually thought that being pursued and having a level of acclaim outside the church would eventually earn some respect inside the church. What I didn’t realize was that just because someone is a pastor or church leader does not mean that they are people of integrity or that they themselves pursue righteousness by working to repair and restore relationships. And so much was so insidiously hidden and “crazy-making” (hence the gaslighting posts) that while we wondered about what was really going on, no one else gave the slightest hint that anything was amiss. This is the “Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” (if you haven’t read it, find this book by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen – very enlightening).

      So, I appreciate your question, but in many ways, the answer is not so different from people who stay in other abusive relationships – whether it be family, friendships, or even jobs. Hind sight is definitely 20/20 – yes?

  2. k C says:

    for sure. i remember staying in job way past the time i should have left. maybe a lot of the same reasons listed above. i needed the $ so i stayed but in retrospect i was a fool. there are parallels everywhere for sure.

    thanks so much for your answer

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