Archive for April, 2015

Recently, I ran into an acquaintance from a church we attended several years ago.  It wasn’t long before she mentioned her current church and then asked about ours.  My attempts to be vague were followed by increastingly ardent questions requiring more and more specificity until finally, I found myself giving her the Reader’s Digest version of how we were no longer attending there.  And the more I tried to explain, the more zealous her questions became.

“Why didn’t you just march into the pastor’s office and demand answers?”

“Why didn’t you go to the elders and deacons and tell them what was going on?”

“Why didn’t you just leave when they attacked and blamed you rather than dealing with the problem?”

Every answer that I gave was countered with a question that carried a high level of blame.

If only I had marched into the pastor’s office, it would have worked out.

If only I had called on other church leadership, things could have been fixed.

If only I had left at the first sign of trouble, the spiritual abuse would not have been so deep.

And then she said it.

“I wonder what the pastor would tell me about you if I walked in and asked him for his side of the story?”

And suddenly the conversation turned.

I looked at her and said, “Here’s what you should do.  Go to the pastor and ask him:

“Why didn’t you just talk to Ellen?”

“Why didn’t you respond to her questions and emails and pleas for help?”

“Why didn’t you tell her personally that she was not to be involved, was not to serve, was not to participate, rather than sending staff people who didn’t know her or have any kind of relationship with her?”

“Why didn’t you tell her specifically what was wrong – what she had done to deserve being ostracized?”

“If she was under discipline, why wasn’t she told?”

“If she was under discipline, why weren’t there formal meetings and appropriate paper work and a plan for reconcilliation and restoration?”

“Why haven’t you apologized for treating her in such a way that she questioned God’s love and acceptance for her?”

“Why haven’t you had everyone who demeaned and diminished her apologize?”

And then I added that she would need to be very careful to continually redirect the pastor back to answering for his handling of the situation.  Because I am certain that, rather than answer those questions, he would instead try to point out all of the ways that I had been a nag, a critic, a Jezebel, a trouble-maker.  He would try to make me the problem rather than dealing with the problem.  

Because the only reason that I am a nag, a critic, a Jezebel, and a trouble-maker is because those questions I told her to ask are the same ones that I asked for over a decade.  Those are the same questions that he refused to respond to.  Those are the questions that pointed out the problem.  And pointing out the problem is what made me the problem.

And I told her that if I were to have the opportunity to speak with him, those are the questions I would ask.  The same questions that I have been asking all along.  

When I finally fell silent, she looked down at her feet and said, “I would be too afraid to ask those questions.”

And that’s why he and the other church leaders got away with it.  Because no one will nail his ass to the wall and demand answers.  They are too afraid.  Of being labeled a nag.  A critic.  A Jezebel.  A trouble-maker.

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David Hayward, aka nakedpastor, graciously allowed me to share his cartoon here.  Most of what you see in this picture has been said to me – either overtly or subtly.  Probably the most overt messages I received were from a woman who sat down with me only a few days after we were tossed out of the church.  She kept repeating, “But, Ellen, you told!”  As though telling was worse than anything that had been done to me by the church leadership over the previous decade-plus.  

Telling, in her mind (and I am sure she is not alone), negated all of the years of being ignored, avoided, ostracised, shunned, silenced, judged, condemned, persecuted, and, ultimately, tossed out.  I have read on her blog that there are two sides to every story – as if to say that even though my story may have some relevance, the other side is better able to justify the way that they treated me.  

As she sat there in the coffee shop, worrying that she would be in trouble for being seen with me, I realized that right and wrong don’t matter to most Christians.  Standing up for what’s right is rare.  Though many wanna-be Christians believe that they long and hope for a life in which they are the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in reality, they simply want to be part of the “in” crowd.  So, they stand up for the one whose name they can bandy about, whose shoulders they can rub against, and whom they can get to endorse their next book.  

And they spout accusations like those in Hayward’s cartoon to make themselves feel better.  

I’m not really great at this wordpress thing, so I haven’t mastered the art of links in my posts, but this is just too important so I wanted to share it with my readers.  I have heard every one of these – some much more than others – and if you have been spiritually abused, there’s a good chance you have heard them, too.  Thank you to Jonathan Hollingsworth for writing this article which appears at relevantmagazine.com.

http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-not-say-someone-who-has-been-hurt-church

Information about spiritual abuse is not hard to find.  Not all definitions or descriptions agree and that is why I have refined my personal definition to be this paraphrase from Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson’s book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse:  “[Spiritual abuse occurs when you] are left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about [your] worth and standing as a Christian.”  

There was a time when I didn’t look any further than books, articles, research, and stories that dealt specifically with “spiritual abuse” for information.  But as I have begun to delve further into and farther into tactics of abusers of other ilks, I am seeing that many of the abusers characteristics and the resulting impact on the abused fit very well into my experience – and perhaps others who were ultimately left questioning their value to God Himself.

Some of the notations I have made just this week about abuse that was not specifically labeled “spiritual” but resonate with me include:

  • Those who are abused pay a high price when they stand up for themselves.
  • The abuser terrorizes the abused by keeping them on edge and wondering when the next abusive episode will occur.
  • The abused works extra hard to please the abuser.
  • The abuser can criticize the abused, but the abused is not allowed to criticize the abuser.
  • When the abused is accused of nagging the abuser, the “nagging” is, in all actuality, the abused attempting to hold the abuser to meeting his responsibility.
  • The abused is more at risk for pointing out a problem that actually exists because the abuser is more frightened when allegations are true.
  • The abuser would rather destroy you than allow you to have or express an opinion.
  • Abusers are very good at getting other people to think like him and he will always win at this.  If the abused tries to win over people, they will lose. People will get defensive if the abused says bad things about the abuser.
  • In order to help others see the abuse, you must get them to identify the same abusive tendencies in others outside of their sphere and hope that they will eventually make the connection to the abuse you have suffered.
  • The abused should not point out the abuses of the abuser, but they must correct misinformation.
  • Trying to talk to an abuser is rarely fruitful.  Rather, it opens the door to further abuse.
  • Talking about the problem is not the problem.  The abuse is the problem and belongs to the abuser alone.

These notes have been very insightful to me this week and I hope that those who are struggling with abuse, as a victim or as an observer, find this list helpful, as well.

My original blog was findingellen.  I began writing it because I love to write and I often process what I am experiencing, learning, and seeing by writing.  findingellen was the blog that turned into a medium for telling my story.  Which turned into the reason we were tossed out of the church.  I deleted that blog as part of an attempt to rectify the situation.  Maybe if I just got rid of the blog, they would take me back. And at the time I desperately wanted to be taken back.  But over time, I have realized that while we were told by one of the pastors to not return, we had already made the decision to leave if there was not an attempt by the church leadership to apologize for their abusive treatment of me over more than a decade.  

Once my husband and I were out of the church, we were immediately invited to the churches of other friends and many people asked us – and still ask us – if or when we were going to find a new church.  We have been very honest in responding that we have no intention of looking for a new church to attend.  In fact, I have told some of the people whom I think can handle understand it, that we are certain that if we were to attend another church, we would simply find ourselves in a similarly abusive situation over time.  Of course, no one wants to be told that their church would be abusive to anyone, but that’s what makes the information in this post so important.
Recently, I listened to a webcast in which a sociologist presented research information about “Dones.”  The sociologist is Josh Packard and his new book, Church Refugees, will be released in May.  Although I consider myself quite healed from the spiritual abuse that I endured, I am always surprised and delighted when I “find” myself in the writings and research of reputable authorities.  As I listened to the webcast, and read a sample chapter from the book, I found myself frantically taking notes.  Once again, I discovered that I am not alone in my experience, and I am in the company of good and faithful “refugees” – Dones, as we are now called.

I often have people ask, “Why didn’t you leave the church years ago?”  Well, as Packard points out, we Dones are some of the churches “most committed, devoted, and energetic”.  Although the crux of my spirtual abuse was in being told that I could not serve or do anything at all in the church except attend worship, my husband and I had always been very involved and I was at times employed by churches or religious organizations.  After the ostracism of not being allowed to do anything was lifted, I once again became very involved in the church – spending hours on landscaping, taking classes, teaching classes, assisting with conferences, etc.  Very few non-staff people logged as many hours as my husband and I during those final years.

Packard’s research also indicates that we Dones are willing to go through extreme levels of spiritual persecution, always “holding out hope that peace will return.”  This certainly proved true in my situation.  The abuse I suffered lasted for more than a decade and certainly was extreme.  But as Packard points out,  we Dones usually won’t leave until we are forced to do so.  

Some of Packard’s other descriptors of Dones with which I strongly identified were:

  • Being “deeply involved and devoted”
  • “often organizing daily life around the church”
  • Not leaving after “just one bad experience.”
  • Having an “extreme level of dedication and devotion to God and religion”
  • Tenacious
  • Resourceful
  • Stayed “long past the point of danger”
  • “Financially stable”
  • “Married”
  • “Higher levels of education”
  • Spent “years in church and ministry positions”

Packard notes that we Dones are truly the kind of Christians that the church needs in order to reach people because of our “active and engaged faith.”  And we don’t abandon our faith when we decide we are Done with church.  Rather , we finally realize that our spiritual life is being threatened and we must remove ourselves in order to further our spiritual growth and maintain our spirtual health.

Perhaps the most gratifying paragraph in the chapter that I read is at the end:

“As sociologists, this indicates to us pretty strongly that this phenomenon is not due to a few misfit personalities or bad church experiences.  Rather . . . [it] is directly attributable to a pattern that exists in the organizational and leadership structure of many, if not all, congregations in the United States.” (pg. 20)

And that, my friends, is another confirmation that my journey to findingellen has been fruitful.

What a great way to frame this! For those of us who have been told we cannot serve in our church – only to warm a pew- one must ask how this is God-honoring? As the author says, we are to use our gifts so if we are denied that opportunity – especially to the point of being told we can do NOTHING in the church, the church is not following basic scriptural guidelines. I believe the author hit the nail on the head in that the truth of the matter is that we who are told that we are not welcome to serve are not wanted at all. How Christian is that?

knitting soul

invisible

“You can come to our church, but you can’t serve.”

The first time I heard those words, I was sitting in a living room one summer evening. There had been countless meetings about my thoughts on music before I took over as the worship director and then countless after I began to implement the changes that I had laid out in those previous months. Despite assurances that what I wanted to do was okay and in line with the vision of the church, when there was pushback, the leadership decided that the old ways were easier.

The second time I heard those words, I was in a sanctuary, trying to figure out how something that I never hid suddenly made me unfit to play the piano in our church. We heard that we were to love our son, but not to support him, and why would we want to attend a…

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_____  Argue.

_____  Beg.

_____  Blame yourself.

_____  Attempt to force communication.

_____  Apologize even though you can’t figure out what you did wrong.

_____  Internalize the projections of negative messages.

_____  Show the person who is giving you the silent treatment that it is bothering you.

 

Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.  Check.

I found this list today  http://echorecovery.blogspot.com/2014/01/getting-silent-treatment-from-narcissist.html in the list of how to respond to those who give you the silent treatment.  Only before each item, it said “Do not.”

Of course, as I read through the list, I realized that I had repeatedly done each and every thing that I was not supposed to do.  For years.  And years.  And years.

The article, if you haven’t clicked on the link yet and read it yourself, is about those who give you the Silent Treatment.  Or Cold Shoulder.  Or Shun.  Or Exile.  Or Banish.  Or Ostracize.  And it is a metaphor for Death.  Because you are being treated as though you don’t exist.  I have often said that I was ostracized so that I would leave the church – so that I would no longer “exist” there.  The silent treatment is defined as “the act of ignoring or excluding a person or group by another person or group.”

Which describes what happened to me rather succinctly.

The word I have used most in telling my story is “ostracism,” so I will stick with that.  And this article reinforces all that happened in my spiritually abusive experience with a senior pastor who refused to respond to my begging, arguing, blaming of myself, attempts to force communication, etc.   Here is a synopsis of what I found:

Ostracism is used to control, punish, test boundaries, and avoid accountability, unpleasant issues, and responsibility toward a victim because said victim has done something the perpetrator does not like.  It includes blocking, stalling, stonewalling, and intentionally resisting communication and resolution.  It leaves the victim feeling abandoned, worthless, and without merit.  And while it is often defined as refusing to communicate, as I would often remind my former pastor, no communication is definitely a form of communication.  To not communicate expresses contempt, a lack of empathy, hostility, remorselessness, callousness, and passive-aggression.

In my case, as far as I can tell (because I have never directly been told) ostracism was the result in that I first pointed out a problem, and then I expressed dismay at the way I became the problem for pointing out the problem.  When the ostracism started and as it snowballed, I continued to ask, argue, beg, apologize, etc., which only brought on deeper and deeper levels of ostracism until, ultimately, we were tossed out of the church.

The results of being ostracized include:

* Being resented by the perpetrator.  He resented me because I kept asking what was going on – what I had done wrong.  He expected me to just “know” – or to read his mind.

*The victim (me) resented being made to suffer ostracism without being told what I had done wrong.  I’m sure this resentment showed through over the years as I continued to beg and argue to be told what I had done wrong and how un-Christian it was for him to allow me to be treated this way.

*Ostracism makes sure that resolution will not occur – how can you resolve a problem if you can’t talk about it?  Years of being ignored and avoided . . .

*Creates a cycle of the same issue arising because it has not been resolved.  Did I mention begging?  Arguing?  Confessing anything and everything I could think of – to the point of giving more reason for being ostracized?

*Anger and frustration are elevated.  Only proving that I was deserving of the ostracism.

*Kills the relationship.  Yep.

Ostracism robs people of their humanity in that it denies them belonging, value, and meaningfulness, and the ability to express their point of view.  It makes us feel that we are invisible, unwanted, unneeded, unworthy, unwelcome, unnecessary.

Interestingly, the abuser often turns the tables on the victim by claiming victimhood themselves.  They vilify the victim and incite others to abuse them by proxy.  This is why the pastor himself never personally spoke to me when I was told I was not to be involved in the church other than warming a pew.  He always had others carry the messages to me.  It is also why any attempts on my part to clear the air or to be understood by others in the group (church) were met with the proxy feigning confusion, misunderstanding, and an inability to see or acknowledge the true problem.  And, once we were tossed out of the church, and damage control was enforced, no one in the church ever contacted us to see how we were doing, what our side of the story might be, or what they might do to help.

There was a time when I would have read an article like this with deep shame.  Why did I grovel?  Why didn’t I just walk away and shake the dust from my feet?  But today, I know that I was operating from a belief that these were good people and I just hadn’t found the right words to get through to them.  Today, I’m not so naive.  Today, I know that people can be very intentional in their abusive behavior and I am not responsible for their choices.

If you have been the victim of ostracism, shunning, exile, banishment, the silent treatment, the cold shoulder, being ignored or excluded – all in the name of Jesus – please know that you are not responsible for others’ bad behavior.  You are loved.  You are valued.  You are worth far better than they were able to give.