If one member suffers, all suffer together;
1 Corinthians 12:26
I lived in secrets for close to a decade in a church where I worked, volunteered and was a member. I believed the church was healthy. I believed that I was as healthy as a Christian could be. My definition of health meant that I was doing the best that I could to live the Christian life and look healthy on the outside, but it was not the truth.
If you’ve read my story, you know that there were many secrets I kept about my relationship with my former pastor from my friends and my family. I lived a double life.
When I look back on that time, I cannot tell you how thankful I am to be free. I never want to live that way again.
After the truth was exposed and the dust had settled, conversations with friends revealed that they had been suspicious that something was wrong, but they didn’t examine what they were feeling enough to ask questions. It’s hard to believe that in all the ten years of hiding, that not one person who regularly attended the church asked me if anything was going on between us.
There was a lady for a short time who was part of the music ministry at the church. She sent me an email telling me she had some concerns about me and the pastor doing too much on our own. She pointed out to me that it was strange that there were several pictures of the pastor in our family’s photo album. I believe she was sensitive enough to see that something was wrong. She left the church not long after.
Unhealthy systems seem to operate that way. Those of us in them don’t really understand that it’s unhealthy, but often times those on the outside can see things that are not right.
If you are in a church and you feel like something isn’t right, pray and ask questions. If you are a part of that body, you have a right to. If they aren’t open to questions, then maybe it is time to leave.
Clergy abuse is always part of an unhealthy system. Coming out of an unhealthy system and living with the pain that it caused, has caused our family to have a lot of fear that we will wind up in this kind of situation again.
Fear is beneficial in the sense that it heightens our awareness to the things going on around us. But fear can be crippling if one is not able to work through what it is that is causing them to be afraid and make healthy decisions about it. Fear calls us to pay attention and dig deeper into what it is we are afraid of.
Reading Diane Langberg’s article recently on clergy abuse gave me a lot of clarity about some of the manifestations and causes of an unhealthy church environment, and understanding these things helped me to see the problems that were present before and know what I needed to look for in a healthy church. This knowledge has helped to ease some of my fear.
If you have suffered from clergy abuse, I know the church can be a terrifying place. Please do not let anyone minimize your pain and cause you to feel it is not legitimate and that you should just forgive, forget and move on. Healing takes time and is a process. And we only heal, when we are honest with ourselves and God. I have been stunned by Christians who have told my husband that he just needed to forgive without even telling him that they were sorry for what he had gone through. This kind of advice brought even more harm to him, and caused him to back away from them at a time when he needed others in his life to encourage him the most. Give yourself time to heal, and trust God’s Holy Spirit to guide you in moving forward. I believe that a healthy church environment can be very beneficial to healing. God called us to operate as a body together. However, I also know how detrimental an unhealthy environment can be to our souls. Keep trying to find help and support, but know it is OK if you are not ready to go back to church.
However, if you are ready to move forward in finding a church again, here are some insights I gained from Dr. Langberg’s article, Clergy Sexual Abuse.
To find sexual abuse perpetrated by a shepherd in the church of Jesus Christ toward some of the sheep is indeed a crop failure. Many things must be wrong for such an appalling, heartbreaking phenomenon to occur. I believe one of the problems is poison in the soil.
Dr. Langberg goes on to explain that one of these poisons is revealed in the way that we define the role of a leader in the church.
If the person in the position at the top is the expert, then the followers tend to abdicate their power. Diane Langberg
The first thing that caused me to be “awestruck” by my former pastor was the knowledge that he had. He was an expository teacher. He taught with authority and confidence. There were a lot of things that I was not sure about after leaving my previous church environment where the leader was more passive and didn’t take a stand on important issues. This pastor appeared to know what he was talking about, and listening to him cleared up a lot of confusion I had. After only a short period of time, I placed a lot of confidence in what he said. I emailed him for advice, and began to rely on him to help me work through some things that were bothering me. He always seemed to have the answer for everything. I noticed that other people in the church had a lot of confidence in him as well. It wasn’t long before I stopped seeking God and started seeking the pastor for advice.
I have come to understand since this time that healthy environments leave us with questions and move us toward God to find the answers.
As long as we continue to define leadership as the world does – a position demanding expertise and charisma – we will breed leaders who feel isolated and desperately seek omnipotence. Diane Langberg
I admit that my understanding of what I thought a pastor was supposed to be only fed into the abusive dynamic of my relationship with him. Part of this was due to ignorance on my part of understanding exactly what my role was as a woman in ministry. In the church and even in the culture I grew up in, I believed that women didn’t have much of a voice in the church. My understanding of God’s role for man as a leader and my role of submission was out of balance and off skew, so it was easy to give away the little power I believed I had. As the relationship with the pastor grew, I was amazed at his charismatic ability to lead the church and accomplish so much. He just knew how to make things happen, and he seemed to be behind most everything that was going on. Eventually, I thought he hung the moon and offered him constant praise for what he was doing well. I trusted more in his ability to accomplish things for God’s kingdom more than I did God’s power.
Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God. Martin Luther
The drive for power is often a cloak for terrible anxiety….Unmanged anxiety leads to pathology. The more isolated, insignificant, and ineffective one feels, the greater the need for power. Diane Langberg
I imagine a source of anxiety for a lot of pastors is the expectations that are placed on them. I’m not in any way minimizing the damage that is done by abuse or the responsibility a pastor has to lead God’s people to Jesus. It’s a high calling and one that God calls pastors highly accountable for. Their failure to lead the church to Jesus can cause many who follow them to fail. But I also know that being an idol for someone else takes a toll on one’s soul. Power over another comes at a high cost and demands more power to pay it. I don’t know if anyone else idolized my former pastor to the degree that I did, but I do I know he was in a position to help a lot of people in the church, and I saw how upset he got when he didn’t think he had any control over decisions that others were making. It was especially evident when he retired and another pastor took over that the power he had in other’s lives was way too important to him.
How a church views those who are in leadership can contribute greatly to the health of the church. A church that longs for a leader who will be in control and carry out their agenda can result in idolatry and chaos. Things haven’t changed since Israel begged God for a king, and what resulted after that were many evil kings. There is just something in our DNA that wants a strong leader who will accomplish what we desire, but if we place our hope in anyone more than we do Jesus we will experience great despair.
In the poisonous soil of an unhealthy church there are often expectations of knowledge and power that God never intended for us to have in a human leader, but only in Him.
The sad thing about our expectations is that so many of us have been taught wrongly by the church and our culture what true leadership is. In seeking a healthy church, we must examine our expectations in light of what Jesus modeled through His leadership and we must look for that model in a healthy church.
If we want to prevent sexual abuse of the sheep by their shepherds, then we must go back to the Word of God for an understanding of what it truly means to lead, and what it truly means to follow. Diane Langberg.
The next blog will examine what a healthy church looks like.