What I Wish Others in Ministry Knew about Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is an issue that’s making the headlines across a lot of magazines and newspaper articles today, but far too often it’s easy to conclude an “us and them” mentality, and assume after the shock of what we have read wears off that it won’t or isn’t happening in our church.

The church is full of broken people, so we shouldn’t be surprised it’s happening all around us. Rather, we should expect it and be prepared.

The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.
Proverbs 22:3 ESV

My former pastor wasn’t prepared that one day he’d be brought up on spiritual abuse charges when he began counseling me.  I certainly never planned to be the one to bring him up on charges.  I just wanted his help in what was a very confusing time in my life.  

My family had recently become members of the church he pastored.   He was an excellent teacher who appeared very wise.  My husband and I had come out of a recent bad church experience where leadership had fallen weak in dealing with serious issues.  We were drawn immediately to this pastor’s outward strength, grit and ability to lead the church well. 

In early 2004, I did what many church members do and sent an email to my pastor asking for help.   I’d been struggling for a long time with confusing  memories of childhood sexual abuse.  I was desperate for answers, and someone who would understand and care enough to listen. 

From my perspective, this pastor really seemed to care.  He answered my emails in a timely manner, and eventually after communicating that way for a short time, he began to call me.  

During the course of one of our phone conversations, the pastor communicated to me how much he’d started to to care about me,  and what an encouragement I was to him. He said we shared a soul connection. 

I didn’t expect the reaction I had to his words.  I didn’t understand at the time my own desperation and longing for connection and attention.  I believed he was God’s gift of an earthly father who was providing all the things that had been lacking in my relationship with my own father. 

What I didn’t understand was the powerful flood of emotions my relationship with this pastor awakened in me.  He became all I could think about day and night.   The only thing that comes close to describing what I felt was a story of addiction to cocaine I heard a former youth pastor tell me.  He said after the first snort of coke he was so exhilarated he couldn’t wait until his next hit. His journey took him to an actual prison.  I had no idea I was headed to a destiny not so different.

Then a few months later things spiraled even further out of control when, my pastor confessed to me that he would marry me if circumstances were such that he could.  Up until this time,  I’d looked up to him as a father figure. This news shocked and exhilarated all at the same time. I was ashamed but rejoicing; hating myself and feeling more special than I ever had.  I was the woman who brought out the worst in my pastor,  but also the woman he was willing risk everything for.  The little girl who’d told this pastor her most terrible secrets, and who’d hoped she would be free of all of her shame, curled up in the dark corners of my subconscious and began to cry. Self-contempt and ambivalence took over my heart and mind in a consuming flood. I became powerless to think clearly as the rush of conflicting emotions caused me dissociate.  I came to believe I couldn’t live without this man, and I swore I’d never tell a soul.

He (Jesus) also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?  A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.
Luke 6:39-40 ESV

And ten years later, we were still in a ditch all  tangled up in a mess of lies and secrets we were keeping from our families and the church. 

The lies had so wrapped so tightly around my heart over the years until I came to the place that I  knew if they were not cut away that I would die.  After many years of struggling with the Lord(He so desperately wanted me to be free!), I finally confessed the truth to another pastor.

To make a long story short, my abusive pastor, who’d recently retired, was deposed from the ministry, and a public meeting was held at the church with my elders and the new pastor of the church giving a brief and edited explanation of what had occurred. Rather than calling what happened spiritual abuse and treating me as a victim, they gave my name and the pastor’s names to the congregation.  Many walked away from the meeting thinking only an unfortunate affair had occurred. 

Since that time, our family has moved away from that town and withdrawn our membership from that church.  We’ve  been in counseling now for over a year since.  It has a very confusing and difficult time for our family, and one that I believe could have been prevented with more education in the church on ways to prevent spiritual abuse. 

As I said initially,  we are all broken human beings and spiritual abuse isn’t something we can afford to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it won’t happen to us.  In a world where one in every four women are sexually abused, and one in every six men are, there are many victims in churches desperately seeking help, many times from the pastor.  The pastor needs to be prepared when victims come. It is my hope that my story can be one of the ways pastors and church leaders can learn.

I don’t know the reasons why my pastor did what he did, but I can guess some. Maybe he was overworked, burned out, feeling underappreciated, lonely and desperate much like I was. Maybe his own longing for connection caused him to make terrible choices just like me. 

God doesn’t intend for us to live the Christian life alone.  We need one another.  We need love, understanding,  and others who will listen and not judge. We need those who recognize their own brokenness and who will humbly come alongside of us as wounded healers when we fall and help pick us up again.  We need someone who will sit with us in our sorrow,  not be shocked by our sin, who’ll remind us where our righteousness comes from (not our goodness but Jesus!), and who will love us like Jesus does.  Victims of abuse need this.  Pastors need this. Because when we don’t have these kinds of connections in our lives, we look for them in places where we will only do more damage to our souls and others around us.

I think the best place to start is by just being honest about our needs and our brokenness, and to stop pretending we are a perfect church, rather than a desperate church who needs a perfect Jesus. Maybe if we do this we will stop being so shocked by one another’s sins.  Maybe others will find courage to be honest when they hear us being honest. Maybe in our vulnerability we will find connection and learn how to really love like Jesus. His love will never fail even when we do.

My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19 MSG

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