Since I first published my story on this blog, a lot has happened. The hash tags #MeToo, #churchtoo and #silenceisnotspirtual have been appearing regularly in my social media feed. More and more victims have found the courage to step forward and expose the dark secrets of sexual abuse. While I am encouraged by the truth being exposed, I have also been overwhelmed by how much sexual abuse has happened to children and adults inside the church. Boz Tchividjian with the organization GRACE (Godly Response against Abuse in a Christian Environment) has stated that he believes the evangelical church has exceeded the Catholic church in incidences of abuse. This is a terrible tragedy when a place of hope becomes a place where abuse runs rampant. As Christ followers, I believe we must make every effort to protect the church from this. My own personal story is an effort to make Christians aware of what is happening, so that we can prevent further harm.
I wrote my story originally here in 2014. Recently, after discussing it with my therapist, I decided to rewrite my story and leave out some of the specific details that might be harmful to others who were not directly involved if my identity is ever revealed, as well as add some new insights that I have gained since I started the healing process.
I started attending the church where my abuse occurred in December of 2003. My husband, myself and our three kids almost immediately felt a part of this congregation after only a few Sundays. The people were friendly, the teaching was encouraging, and most of all the hurts we had been experiencing in our previous church were no longer right in front of us. My husband’s family had been at our previous church, and we had been caught up in the middle of a lot past trauma that was resurfacing in his family from a lifetime of abuse and manipulation from his alcoholic father. We needed to find a safe haven away from all of that, and believed this church was the answer to our prayers.
The pastor of this church called me out of the blue one day after we had only attended the church two Sundays. He said that he had been thinking about us and wanted to know if there was a good time for him to come visit. A few nights later, he was sitting in our den. He made us feel so cared about that we began to tell him about the hurts we were experiencing from my husband’s family. Up until this pastor came for a visit, we had not had anyone to talk to about these hurts. We were so relieved to have someone listen. And we became fast friends with him.
After a few months, when I was more comfortable with the pastor, I sent him an email asking for advice about a situation in our previous church involving a guy friend who had left the faith. I was beating myself up over the situation, because my husband’s family had told me that I shouldn’t have been close friends with a person of the opposite sex. Even though the relationship had been totally appropriate, I still felt guilty. (This was normal for me. Growing up in an abusive home, I had carried around guilt for most of my life for everything that went wrong. ) The pastor responded quickly giving me encouragement and reassurance. In the email, he also shared how he had formed emotional connections with several women over the course of his ministry, and that it had never been innapropriate. He let me know quickly he welcomed communication from women in the church.
I had never met anyone abused by a pastor before. I had no idea how much this kind of abuse actually happened. I thought it only happened in cults or crazy religious belief systems. I believed if women followed their husband and other male leaders in their lives that they would be protected by God. As our email correspondence turned into more and more phone conversations, I believed that this pastor was just being a good friend and leader to me. The attention he was giving me made me feel very special. He was old enough to be my father, and since my relationship with my adopted father had never been good, I was very happy about this. However, something about the relationship I had with him also began to bring up some past trauma that I had not ever processed with anyone. Memories of sexual abuse by my adopted father began to resurface. I was overwhelmed and confused and started to share with the pastor over the phone what I was experiencing. One day, the pastor called me and said he had developed a strong emotional attachment to me unlike any other he’d had. Even though I was somewhat taken aback by his words, I also felt more whole hearing them. As an adopted child, I had always felt somewhat disconnected from others. I thought his attachment to me meant that I had finally bonded with someone.
In the summer of 2004, the pastor and I met for the first time in his office. The pastor’s wife kept my kids in the church’s back nursery while we sat in his office on the other end of the church. I began talking to him about some of the memories I was having. He listened and told me he believed that I would be delivered from all of the trauma of the past. The pastor asked me what I really wanted meeting with him. I told him that it was to be loved. We had discussed him giving me a hug during our time together on the phone earlier. I believed if he hugged me that it would help me to heal. The moment felt surreal as I knelt on the floor next to his chair and he began to hug me. It felt like a lifetime had passed as he gently rubbed my back. When we got up to leave the room, the pastor looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t understand this, but I love you.” I was so flabbergasted by his words, that I didn’t know what to say. I think I may have mumbled that I loved him, too. I can’t really remember anything other than being flooded with powerful emotions. All I knew was I believed I had found the person I belonged with. I also believed wholeheartedly that God had healed a deep brokenness inside of me. I was so overwhelmed when I left the church that I literally felt drunk.
However, what I thought was my dream come true quickly turned dark. The next day the pastor called me with devastating news. He said his wife was upset over our hug in his office and she was insisting that he refer me to a counselor. He expressed that he wished he had not even told her about the hug, but he said he had been overwhelmed by the experience and told her without thinking. He said when he hugged me it felt like he had stepped on a rattlesnake. Needless to say, I was utterly confused. I had walked away from the experience the day before believing that God had healed me. Listening to him compare it to stepping on a poisionous snake, turned my hope to shame. I became upset and begged him not to refer me to someone else. As I look back on that time, I cannot help but wonder if that had been his plan all along. He called me a little later and said his wife had reluctantly agreed for me to be counseled by him on the phone. After a few days, we began working through the book On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg. Ironically, Dr. Langberg shared in the earliest chapters of her book about appropriate boundaries when counseling victims of sexual abuse. The pastor talked about it with me. He said he knew he hadn’t kept appropriate boundaries with me. He even said others in ministry would call what had happened abusive. He said that no one could understand the relationship we had except God. And I believed him.
It was understood that he could not touch me again in front of his wife. However, our meetings continued. I’d go by the church to see him when it was safe to get a hug. He came by my house sometimes, too. Everytime I was with him those first few months, I felt like I was drunk. I had no idea at the time that what had actually happened was I had become addicted to him. As more and more memories of my past began to resurface, I became even more dependent on him. There were days I didn’t even want to move out of my bedroom as the memories of sexual abuse that came up as a result of our counseling flooded my mind. It was difficult for me to even take care of my kids I was so traumatized. He talked me out my despair, so I could get up and do what I needed to do. Sometimes our phone conversations went on for hours, and we didn’t miss one day of talking. I continued to believe it was because he was the person God had put in my life to take the place of the father I had always wanted.
As I look back on those times, I can see clearly now that I was disoriented, disconnected and sometimes even totally dissociated from reality. It’s still difficult not to feel shame over how decieved I was, and it’s important that I remind myself that I was mentally very ill and vulnerable during this time. I remember even begging him to adopt me and believing that he might actually do it. But then one day after I’d begged him to do this, he dropped a bomb on me. I say a bomb because it crushed all of my hopes about our relationship as soon as it hit. He told me, “Not only do I love you like a father would a child, but I love you like a man would a wife.” He said, “If we lived in another time and place, I would marry you.” Then he made me promise I would take that secret to my grave. He also said that we were soul mates. In those moments, everything changed for me. The lie I had always believed about myself that everything bad that had happened to me was my fault flooded my mind. I believed my adopted father’s sexual abuse was my fault. I believed something dark inside of me brought it out in him. I believed that I had done the same thing to this pastor, and that no one could love me the way they were supposed to.
I believed I was bad and I accepted the sick and twisted version of what I convinced myself was the only kind of love that I was worthy to receive; sexual abuse.
Everything went downhill from there. It’s not helpful to talk about the details to me or anyone else, but a secret relationship continued for almost a decade after that. I learned to live a double life. I learned how to keep secrets even though they were crushing my soul. Even though I tried really hard to convince myself that what I was experiencing with this pastor was love, God wouldn’t let me believe it.
My heart was in chaos and pain every single day, because God never stopped pursuing me.
I have been blogging here for four years now. Every blog has been an effort to understand what happened to me and how to protect myself from it happening again. I’ve met many others on this journey who have shared stories which have been remarkably similar to my own. They are so resembling my story that it feels like abusers all use the same playbook. However, I’ve come to recognize it isn’t actually a playbook they are following, but rather a carefully crafted plan laid out by a very worthy adversary who knows us and our weaknesses better than we know them ourselves.
It is the truth alone that is able to set us free from the lies our enemy uses to snare us.
The truth about ourselves and our weaknesses.
The truth about our legitimate needs.
The truth about how much God loves us no matter what.
His perfect love casts out all fear.
In Christ Jesus, we have been set free.
We are no longer slaves.
He must increase.
We must decrease.
No man can ever take His place.
He does not share His glory with anyone.
These truths are the treasure hidden in the field that once we know it is there we will sell everything to aquire it.
Because we know how priceless it is.
Don’t stop seeking the truth.
God is truth.
We meet Him when we are honest with ourselves.
Honest with each other.
And honest with God.
He is real.
Don’t give up.
My story is a testimony that He is a God who keeps His promises.
Even what the enemy meant for evil, God will work it for our good.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 NLT
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Galatians 5:1 ESV
You are Faithful Forever
Perfect in Love
Michael W. Smith