I was manipulated by a pastor. This confession makes me feel weak and just plain stupid. I don’t imagine most of us feel good about being deceived. The truth is I am not stupid or easily deceived. I have always been a suspicious person by nature. I am also really nosey. Just ask my kids when they are talking about a new potential romantic interest. It’s just in my DNA to want to know. I believed I was a good judge of character. When I was a kid, my mother would watch TV preachers and send them money. Watching them cry on TV and beg for money felt fake to me even then. When these preachers were exposed for prostitution and misuse of funds, I shook my head wondering why people didn’t know better. My mother even believed their tearful confession after they were caught. I told myself that these kinds of men would not take advantage of me. I was smarter than that.
When I was 19, I started dating the man who is now my husband. He was a faithful member of a church, and a great role model for me. Because I had made unhealthy choices and had been hurt in a couple of relationships, I wanted to do better for myself. Attending church with him made me feel like I was being a responsible adult. I also believed if I followed what the pastor said I would be a better person who God would be happy with and as a result things would be better in my life. I didn’t realize at the time how unstable and abusive my home life had been and how desperately I was looking to belong to a family that would keep me safe.
The first three pastors we had for almost a decade did not set out to bring us harm. They were committed to the church and doing what they believed was God’s will. They taught the word of God consistently according to their denomination’s doctrine and were faithful to it as far as I know.
It was easy to feel safe in the church when things were happening in predictable ways. When the sermons applied to my life and gave me guidance in decisions concerning right and wrong, I felt good about myself when I made the right ones. When I made wrong decisions, I repented and after an appropriate amount of guilt I felt better. For the most part, it was a controlled environment until life happened and it couldn’t be controlled anymore. I learned a lot of my foundational beliefs from these pastors. I am thankful for their faithful teachings about Jesus that helped me to understand His great love and compassion for us. But there is only so long one can convince themselves that things are fine when they are not. Sometimes all it takes is for one little thing to go wrong to unravel the tiny threads holding our belief systems together. In our family’s case, years of unprocessed trauma and abuse began to resurface and the solutions we learned in church fell way short.
We did what most good Christians do when things aren’t working out and we left that church and went to another one. We didn’t know we were stepping out of the frying pan into the fire. We were looking for answers to the problems that were choking the life out of our family. We were looking for a strong leader to guide us out of our pain.
When we are in survival mode, our pain overrides our prefrontal cortex. We are focused on making the pain stop. Sometimes we make choices that are not wise.But it isn’t because we are stupid, it’s because we are suffering. I had no idea how much pain I was in when I made an appointment to meet with our new pastor for a counseling session. I just knew he was the first leader I had ever met who really saw and heard us. He wasn’t afraid of our family’s trauma. He didn’t avoid our difficult questions. He dove right into the complexities and he thrived on them. I thought we had struck gold when we became a part of this church. The people were so kind. They were open and vulnerable about their own problems. They listened to ours and offered understanding. They became the family I had always wanted, and I never wanted to leave. Stronger doctrines held our community together than our previous church. Doctrines that fit the complexities of our lives and helped us to make sense of them. We believed we were sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. There was nothing that faith in God didn’t cover and make pure as the driven snow again. There was also nothing bad that happened in our lives that God wasn’t sovereign over.
When I sat across the room from my pastor and he told me that God was going to deliver me from all of the pain of my past, I wholeheartedly believed his manipulation. When I think back on that moment, I still remember how good it felt to believe that my pain was going to stop. I would have followed him anywhere. And I did. Into the darkness and into the ditch. Far away away from the still waters and paths of righteousness.
When I think of this moment today, my head and my heart feels heavy. I wonder how could I have been so deceived? A lot of people on the outside looking into abusive churches are asking this question today. A pastor is cheered for his confession. Another victim is ignored. Why does it keep happening? How do we stop the insanity?
I went to the church seeking to find relief for the heavy burdens I was carrying. I went to church hoping to make sense out of all the pain and find a family where I could belong. I also went to church to understand who God said I was and to know that I mattered. I did not go to church to be manipulated. Yesterday, I had a conversation with someone who is looking for all of the same things I was. Her confession to me about her hurts and desires made her incredibly vulnerable to me. I chose to listen and love her without an agenda. But a manipulative person could have wreaked havoc on her life.
Most of us go to church looking for a higher power who will make things better for us. Some of us will meet Him. But some of us will meet someone who is trying to take his place. Jesus had a lot to say about false teachers and so did his apostles.
Last week I listened to a sermon online from one of the few pastors I still listen to. He quoted a high profile pastor who was exposed in recent years for abuse in his church that he called a consentual affair. This pastor is now leading another church. When I heard this pastor quoted, I turned off the sermon. Whether or not this pastor quoted him out of ignorance or out of believing this pastor’s abuse didn’t matter, it revealed the lack of understanding in the church of how much damage manipulative pastors are doing. I am tired of fighting the battle of trying to make people understand. If they aren’t going to listen to Jesus, then why should they listen to me?
I was manipulated, and I am sorry that others are being manipulated in similar ways. I left the church to protect myself, and I don’t plan to return or listen to any church leader who is unwilling to look at the abuse and manipulation happening in churches. I choose to give my energy to learning on my own about the God who cares about the broken-hearted and who promises to wipe every tear from our eyes. I choose to love and give my time to my own family and be the parent to them that I always wanted but didn’t have. I choose to take care of myself and pay attention to the things that hurt and honor those things. I choose to only rely on safe people who have proven they are trustworthy with my pain. While it would be helpful to be a part of a church community that offers support and encouragement while I do this, it just feels too risky when the problems of abuse are not being addressed.
Recently I started reading Brian Maclaren’s book “Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned”. I highly recommend this book if you have been harmed in a religious environment. Brian deals with many of the issues in church causing harm and disillusionment. It is one of the most encouraging and eye-opening books I’ve read in a long time.
If you were manipulated, I hope you know that you have nothing to be ashamed of. You deserved better. I deserved better. Jesus desires better for us.
If you would like to connect, reach out to email@example.com.