Posts Tagged ‘church abuse’

“You are not to tell anyone that we had this conversation – not even your husband.” I’ll never forget that day – the weather was beautiful, I was wearing a dress with a black skirt and gold and black vest and I had just been told that I could not do anything in the church except attend services. I had been trying to tell the senior pastor for a very long time that something was terribly wrong and that was the day that his proxy informed me that the ostracism become fully realized . . .

I often link to or reblog others posts when they speak directly to my experience.  The blog “A Cry for Justice,” though directed more toward domestic abuse, often does this.  Because, ultimately, abuse is abuse, though it may take various forms.  Here is a link to another post that hits home for me.

Crying Out For Justice

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I recently received a message on the Facebook page for  When Church Hurts in which the writer asked if they should leave a church if no one cares whether or not they come back because they are seen as not contributing enough.  The writer didn’t define  what they meant by “contribute,” but it could mean any number of things – not enough money, time, energy, attendance, spiritual depth, etc.

The question got me thinking about when I went to counseling a few years ago.  I only attended counseling a handful of times because as soon as I finished telling the counselor about my abusive church experiences, she asked me, “Why do you want to be at a church where no one cares about you?”  This was  a shocking question.  After all, this was CHURCH – where people are obligated to care!  Yet, as I thought about it, I quickly realized that the counselor was correct.  I had described absolutely nothing as I told my story that indicated that I was cared for at all by anyone in the church.

(This question was followed almost immediately by another: “Why do you want a relationship with someone who doesn’t respect you?”  This question was in regard to the senior pastor whom I had described to the counselor as someone who allowed me to be abused, never responded to my pleas for help, and never answered my questions regarding why I was being ostracized.”)

Oh, sure, I had people who would chat with me, occasionally have lunch or coffee with me, but usually there was an ulterior motive behind their interactions.  They wanted my help, my support, my intellect, my skills, my musical abilities. But never was I invited to spend time with someone just because they cared about me and wanted to share life.

My husband and I would talk occasionally about how on Sunday morning when we were working in the coffee bar, we would hear about the other volunteers and/or the staff woman who managed the coffee bar, getting together for parties or dinner the night before.  We were never included.  Volunteers, lay people, and staff were often sent to conferences and seminars around the country to develop them as “leaders,” but even though my husband and I held a variety of “leadership” roles, we were never invited or included. And once my husband took a break from volunteering in the coffee bar in order to prepare for our sons’ wedding, the manager would turn her back and walk away whenever she would see us.

When my husband, over a period of three years, was hospitalized three times for various reasons, no one came to visit him.  And even when we lost close family members (parents), no one expressed sympathy and the only visit we received was from a pair of women who were “assigned” to us.  We had no personal relationship with these women and they didn’t even approach us about visiting until nearly a month after my mother passed away.

So, the counselor’s question helped me to take a hard look at reality.  No matter how badly we wanted to develop friendships with people in the church, no matter how much we showed up, no matter how many times we sent cards, made visits and phone calls, invited people to our home or coffee or dinner, brought people treats, etc., there was always an excuse that they couldn’t do it or make it.  And never an offer of “How about next week?”

Aside from how the pastor and leadership had treated me with ostracism, judgment, and persecution, the counselor also helped me to see that the attitude of the people “at the top” was inherent throughout the church.  “Can you see, Ellen, that this is a leadership problem?” she said to me.

She helped me to grasp that if the people in my “circle” were truly friends and truly supportive, they would have spoken up long before when I was first treated poorly.  They would have informed the leadership that what was happening was wrong and would not be tolerated.  Instead, a couple of people had told me over the years that they were afraid to speak up.  Afraid that if they did, they would risk the same happening to them or that they might jeopardize the position of someone in their family who was on staff.

When people allow leadership to denigrate others and leadership allows people to do the same, they are all sending the message that respect, love, care, and concern do not exist.  “Why do you want to stay in a church where no one cares about you, Ellen?”

Yet I did stay – for several more months.  Because I still thought that if I could just be long-suffering enough, if I could love them enough, if I could give enough time, money, resources, etc., the day would come when I would finally win their respect, love, and care.  After all, to have a friend, you need to be a friend, right?  We did our best to be friends.  To no avail.

It wasn’t until I had enough respect for myself to say, “Apologize for what you have done to me or we will leave the church” (a message my husband conveyed to the leadership), and they took us up on the offer – telling us to go – that I began to move toward healing.  For a while, I still longed for those people whom I wanted to claim as “friends” to take a stand on my behalf.  I waited for them to reach out to me and to defend me – to demand that the leadership do the right thing and apologize, make amends, and bring the whole affair to a God-honoring conclusion.

As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, I realized that the counselor had been right.  These people were not my friends and had never been my friends.  Why would I want to continue to be with them?  Quickly,  my self-respect grew and my longing to be with people who cared not a whit for me or my family diminished until I no longer had any desire to have a relationship with any of them.

I have often indicated that were anyone from the church to approach me and apologize, seeking forgiveness, I would welcome them.  I still believe that God can bring reconciliation if they ever experience a softening of their hearts (though I’m not holding my breath).

My advice to the person who messaged me on Facebook was similar to what my counselor said to me.  I wish that I had walked away sooner, that I had listened to my counselor and not kept trying to change other people’s minds.  All of that was just an indication of how unhealthy I was at the time and it wasn’t until I walked away and fully realized my own value and self-worth that I experienced healing.

I no longer have any desire to win over anyone.  I spend my time with friends and family who, for years, demonstrated their love and commitment to me.  My life is filled with love and acceptance, friendship and delight.  And I know now that if you have to try to win people, you will lose.

To anyone who is reading this and is in the same position:  trying to win friends in a church where there is no care or love or respect for you, please walk away.  You won’t change anyone’s mind.  And you don’t have to.  Go love the people who already love you.  Be friends with the people who are already your friends.  These are the people who value you and will stand up for you when others are trying to tear you down.  No matter how badly you want it to be different in the church, the place that has all of the things you are looking for is already there for you in those who already love you.  They are ready and waiting to show you.  Give them a chance.

Every once in a while I am asked, “Have you found a new church yet?”

To which I always respond, “No, we’re not looking.”

“But you need to be in a church!”
“But you need a church for fellowship!”
“But you need a church to grow and to be held accountable!”
“But you need a church . . . . !”

Now I know there are all kinds of reasons why people think we “should” find a church. And sometimes I’m sure those who ask think that we aren’t looking because we were “so hurt” in the past. But that’s really not it at all.

I usually don’t try to explain because I’m fairly certain the person asking will take offense. “Their” church isn’t like that, after all.

Hmmmm . . . Really?

As a musician, I have been invited into more than 100 churches over the years and there are many more than that within a 50 mile radius of our home. I have not heard of one church that doesn’t have this one “little” issue that keeps us from attending there.

Are you ready? Here goes:

We don’t want to attend a church where there is a “food chain.”

That’s it.

What does that mean? Well . . .

We don’t want to attend a church where people are not quite as acceptable if they weren’t born and raised there or married in.

We don’t want to attend a church where people’s status is determined by their “ability to pay.”

We don’t want to attend a church where politics trump ministry.

We don’t want to attend a church where the pastor is “king” and he surrounds himself with “yes people” – and anyone else with a comment, concern, or suggestion is seen as a “problem” or “trouble maker” or “critical.”

We don’t want to attend a church where only the people at the “top” (whether that’s administrative, political, or social) matter.

We don’t want to attend a church where only the people at the “top” are privy to the financial details of the church.

We don’t want to attend a church that quickly puts new people to work but never invites them into their personal lives.

We don’t want to attend a church that is more concerned with what’s wrong with people than loving them.

I’m sure there are more reasons why we aren’t looking for a church, but I think you get the idea. Every one of those listed above are based on a “food chain” mentality – that some people are “better” than others based on political, social, and financial position. Some people are worth more than others. Some people are more acceptable.

And some people are, as my former pastor told me, “disposable.”

I know not every church is perfect, but any church we attend that has a “food chain” mentality will never fully accept us. So, if you know of one out here in rural south-central/south-east Iowa, let me know.

Elders and deacons also fulfill other “traditional” biblical roles and special responsibilities for the church in both structured and unstructured ways, including congregational care, teaching, prayer, church discipline, mediation, theologicial discernment, communion, baptisms and the offering.

Today I came across the annual report that my former church publishes each year.  As I perused the document, this particular paragraph about elders and deacons jumped out at me.  Specifically the words “congregational care,” “church discipline” and “mediation.”

So, knowing there are a couple of people who read my blog who are or have been “elders and deacons” at my former church, I would like to posit a few questions:

1) Though I was never formally told that I was under “church discipline,” wouldn’t the fact that I was tossed out of the church indicate that “church discipline” was taking place?

2) And that being the case, why was no elder or deacon ever involved in communicating with me or my husband – not only when we were tossed out, but during the decade-plus time period during which I was not allowed to participate in any kind of ministry or service in the church – other than attending worship?

3) While there was never a specific reason given for my ostracism, I was ostracized, none-the-less.  Why were no elders or deacons involved in mediation regarding the apparent relational divide that created this judgment and persecution – this “church discipline”?

4) Why is “congregational care” offered to some in the church but not others?  Isn’t being ostracized, punished for unidentified reasons basis enough for us to be offered some “congregational care”?

5) Or are you “elders and deacons” in name only?  Here is the description that comes before the paragraph listed above:

The consistory at ***** Church is the collective group of spiritual leaders who are serving the church body in the formal offices of elder and deacon. Elders and deacons are specialized spiritual leaders that make significant contributions to the care, ministry and strengthening of the church body. God has consistently worked powerfully through the leadership of elders and deacons because of the biblical basis for the roles and because the church grants them formal spiritual authority. While we believe the “priesthood of all believers” is the highest value of ministry participation and leadership, there is something special with the leadership of elders and deacons.

The primary way that elders and deacons serve is through spiritual leadership in ***** Church ministries. Each year every elder and deacon is challenged to lead or serve in a ministry of their choosing or to take a course offered by ***** church. The intent is to release the elder or deacon into a specific ministry role suited for their calling, gifting and experience or for them to expand their spiritual horizons by taking a course.

6) Is it possible that every “elder and deacon” in the church is only leading and serving by participating in a “ministry of their choosing” – which very well could mean that no one has chosen to minister in the areas of “congregational care,” “church discipline,” or “mediation”?  From the above description, it sounds like all you have to do to fulfill the requirements for elder or deacon is to “take a course offered by ***** church.”  And as someone who used to take many classes and even taught a few, I can’t say that even a fraction of the 55 – no, that’s not a misprint, folks, there are fifty-five – elders and deacons participated in classes.

So, question 6) What exactly do you folks do?  Attend weekly meetings?  Count the offering?

i remember there were times when the congregation would be told that if they had questions about the church, they could speak with elders or deacons downstairs in a room near the coffee bar.  My husband and I were at that coffee bar pretty much every Sunday and no elders or deacons ever showed up to answer questions.  A few times, people would come by and ask where you were because they wanted to speak with you.  We couldn’t give them an answer.  So, question

7) Where were you on those Sundays when you were supposed to be available to answer questions?

It seems to me, now that I have that proverbial 20/20 hindsight, that the elders and deacons really benefit no one except those who wear the name tag.  It’s a status symbol.  It somehow conveys to the church that you are someone special.  Not for any particular reason except that you were hand-picked – probably because you don’t question, don’t rock the boat, write nice-sized checks, and have the right last name and live in the right neighborhood.

And nobody really cares until the time comes that they really need some “congregational care.”  Nobody really cares as long as they aren’t the ones being disciplined  spiritually abused.  Nobody really cares until they need a mediator.  Oh, right.  No one is ever going to admit they need a mediator.  Because that would mean admitting that there’s a problem.  And we can’t do that.  Instead, you would have to make that person the problem for pointing out the problem.

Got it.

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.

Ron Edmondson wrote a post entitled 7 Disappointing Reasons People Leave the Church.  His list was as follows:
1) Burn Out
2) Injury
3) Distractions
4) Life Change
5) Mistakes
6) Power struggle
7) Lack of Connection

In his description of each “reason,” the insinuation was that the blame lay squarely with the person/people who did the leaving. And I’m sure that there are those who fit into his tidy summarization.  I’m not one of them.

I rarely speak for others. I speak about my own experiences, knowing that there’s a good chance that someone else out there can relate and be encouraged knowing that they are not alone.

So, here are my “Disappointing Reasons Why I Left the Church.”

1) I was told to go.I’m not saying that I would have stayed, but I probably would have done what I had been doing for upwards of fifteen years and tried to bring my story to a God-honoring conclusion. I would have continued to try to talk to the senior pastor and perhaps other leadership and continued to trust that God was going to work everything together for good. Instead, I was told that I and my family were to leave the church. With an absolute refusal by the pastors to speak with me or my husband.

2) Lies.  Fifteen years of lies that I won’t reiterate here – you can read them in my story – but that culminated with the senior pastor’s brother, also a pastor in the church, standing in front of a room full of people and blatantly lying to all of them.  About me.  And I was standing no more than six feet from him.  Lie after lie and when my husband told him he needed to apologize to me, his response was to tell us that we were to leave the church.  Period.

3) Lack of Respect.  This was most notably played out over the years as the senior pastor allowed others under his leadership (including his wife) and on his staff to denigrate me, ostracize me, persecute me, lie to me and about me, withhold the truth from me, and (literally) to yell at me. The pastor ignored my pleas for help, for an explanation, for answers, for an opportunity to seek a God-honoring conclusion to years of abusive treatment – forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration.  What kind of pastor ignores people’s appeal for help and allows them to be abused if they have any kind of respect or compassion?

4) Shunning.  Once we were told to leave, we were shunned.  One “friend” met with me for lunch shortly after we were tossed out of the church, but expressed fear at being found out and having to explain why she was meeting with me.  Another friend who had set up a breakfast date with me didn’t show up and didn’t respond to my texts asking if she was coming.  Others I have run into on the street or in the coffee shop, etc., turn away.

5) Lack of integrity.  This blatantly occurred right before we were told to leave in the form of gossip when the pastor’s brother talked to others who were not at all involved before even attempting to meet with me or my husband.  But even before that, for years I listened to sermon after sermon in which the pastor and other leaders proclaimed our need to be honest with one another, kind toward one another, forgiving toward one another, long-suffering toward one another, loving toward one another, helping one another, etc. Yet when I was told I could not attend, serve, or participate for over a decade, I was refused a reason. I was lied to about what the pastor knew or didn’t know. I was not given opportunity to face my accusers, nor was I even told that I was under any kind of church discipline so there was no plan for reconciliation. When I asked what I would need to do, I was told simply that they “would be watching” me and I “might be invited” to participate at some point in the future if I proved myself worthy.

6) Nepotism and partisanship. The senior pastor, his wife, and his brother were all employed by the church.  But more problematic than this was that the brother boasted that he was the “leper” and the senior pastor was the “shepherd.”  Before the brother, there were other “lepers.”  According to the brother, the “leper” was to be the bad guy – deliver bad news, deal with negative situations, and be the person that bore the brunt of any negativity.  The senior pastor was only to be seen as a caring, compassionate, shepherd who tended the flock with loving kindness.  This led to the biggest “lie” of all – that the judgment and ostracism and persecution that was dealt to me was at the behest of the senior pastor.  It was his lepers who delivered the messages and he refused to respond to my requests for help because he was not only in total support, but the instigator of it all.

7) Lack of transparency. This began when the leadership orchestrated a change in the organizational structure.  No longer was the church governed by a plurality of elders and deacons, but by a small group of insiders – the senior pastor, his brother, and the business manager.   Those who serve as elders and deacons have no involvement in the major decisions of the church.  People are now hired and fired without explanation.  Job descriptions and positions change without notification to the elders, deacons, or congregation.  No one knows what is going on at the most critical levels except this tiny inner circle.

Financial transparency was also eliminated. Staff salaries became secret.  Itemized financial statements were discontinued. Recently, they justified increasing their weekly offering need by several thousand dollars because the top leadership salaries were being brought into line with other churches of similar size.  But there was absolutely no indication of what churches they were using for comparison or where they were located or the salaries being paid at those churches.

And while we did not leave the church when those changes took place, looking back, we now realize that we were like the proverbial frog in the kettle.  As the changes took place, little by little, we allowed them.

As to the ostracism and judgment that led to spiritual abuse: we stayed because we believed that God works everything together for good and that if we just tried hard enough, kept asking for a biblical and God-honoring process, we would one day reach a God-honoring conclusion.

But God was not being honored by the leadership.  Not in the lies. Not in the lack of respect.  Not in the shunning.  Not in the lack of integrity. Not in the nepotism and partisanship.  Not in the lack of transparency.  And not in our being told we were no longer welcome there.

Bottom line.  We only had one reason to leave.

God was not being honored.

Several years ago, at the church I talk about in Part 2 of my story, the pastor surmised that if we were given incontrovertible evidence that God does not exist, that Jesus was just a myth, and that our faith was fallacy, we would still meet together, have classes and programs and serve the organization and the mission because for most, church is merely a country club.

While I eventually suffered spiritual abuse under this man’s leadership, I do believe he was quite correct in his assertion. The church has been and continues to be so much of a club or institution where too many people get caught up in position, politics, and minutia that they have very little thought for the relationship they are to have with God – listening to Him, talking to Him, hearing Him as He directs their lives and moves them toward extending His love and grace to others.

We have turned church into a place where Christians are so busy being taught about how they fall short, how they are not measuring up, the sins they commit – real or imagined. Instead of simply basking in the joy of being forgiven.

My last church was very much a country club in many ways. Some people were highly esteemed members of the club because of their pedigree, their position in the community, their income, their level of giving, the location of their neighborhood, etc. Observe the pastors and staff on Sunday mornings and you would soon see that there were certain people whom they were careful to speak with at length on a regular basis. The owners of the large business in town. The doctors. The politicians. The school superintendent. People with money and prestige.

Early on in our attendance there, the pastor told me directly that he listens to people who donate statistically large amounts of money. He listens to the multi-millionaire business owner who gives a million dollars to increase staffing over a three-year period. And he also listens to the widow who is on social security but still gives $1000 a month to the church. Being attentive to widows is very noble until you realize that he will never consider the thoughts of the widow who is only able to give $2 a week.

For many years the church has provided all-expenses-paid trips to conferences around the country to people who have been identified as leaders, whether it be in the areas of worship, teaching, spiritual growth and development, etc. But those trips were never advertised or open to the general population of the church – even for those who would have been wiling to pay their own way. Opportunities for training and spiritual formation at those events were limited to only those hand-picked by the leadership and rarely did the ordinary person ever hear about them. The hierarchy of the church determined who received ministry, who was to be raised up as leaders, who was worthy and valuable, and, of course, who wasn’t.

I was always one of those people who longed to be “chosen” – to be invited to go to training, to a conference, to a special event. But, even as a worship leader early on, and later as a teacher, and even one who was giving significant time and money to the church, I never met the criteria for being included. And neither did several of the people with whom I have interacted. We would occasionally talk about trips we had heard others discussing – both before and after. And we would express our disappointment in never being part of the “beautiful people” who were repeatedly attending those out-of-state events on the church’s nickel.

Now that I no longer attend a church, I have realized that I am in a wonderful position. Since I no longer tithe to a church, I get to be the church – to others and to myself. My old church used my money and gifts to take others to conferences and for training. Now, I can take myself with my “tithe.” My old church used my money to beautify their building and property. Now, I can use that money to beautify my own life. My old church used my money to buy the pastor hundreds of books. Now, I can use that money to buy myself books. My old church used my money to reach out to others. Now, I can use my money to reach out to others, to serve others, to encourage others, to embrace others.

I believe God is calling me to prepare myself. I believe I have come through the years of abuse as part of that preparation – so that I could know deeply the needs at hand. I believe that God is moving the church outside the walls of an institution – that many churches will become empty shells much like those in Europe. I also believe the church will become less measurable in numbers and more measurable in how they reach out to people. Those who have built their churches based on the political, social, and financial standing of others may well one day discover that they were building on sinking sand.