Dear Church Leader,
I want to begin this letter by saying that I still love the church and believe that the work of the church is the most important work in the world. I do not want to bring further damage to the reputation of the church. I am not here to criticize or point out everything wrong with the church. I am writing this to appeal to the heart of the church; the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I didn’t grow up in church. I only attended Sunday School and church a few times as a child. I began attending church when I was 19 with the man who would later become my husband for now 25 years. We have been attending church and supporting the church faithfully since that time with the exception of the past three years because of disillusionment over spiritual abuse, but recently our family has started attending again.
The teaching that we have received in church has been very beneficial and valuable to our family. The churches we have attended have taught us so much good about the love of Jesus and His life. They’ve for the most part been doctrinally sound, too. What I’ve learned in church has been life transforming for me and has given me the hope I desperately cling to every day. So I have a vested interest in the church and want very much to see her thrive and reveal the love of Jesus to the world, which is why I am writing this.
However, in recent years I’ve been really bothered by what I see happening in the church. In our modern culture of 24 hour news and social media, the church seems to polarize like the world on just about everything. It grieves my heart that from the world’s perspective it’s easy to conclude we are more concerned about issues than we are about loving one another and revealing Jesus through our love.
The polarization seems to happen concerning those who have been spiritually abused by pastors, too. Some Christians refuse to believe that sexual victimization by a pastor is even possible concerning an adult and label it as an affair. Many churches focus on getting the pastor help and restoring him and allow victims to fall by the wayside. It was clear in my own story, that though the church deposed my former pastor from ministry, that they had a real issue with recognizing the fact that I had been spiritually abused, and that others in the church may have been as well. Other similar abuse stories across the country, reveal the same minimization of what is considered a crime in 13 states. See this link for further information on clergy sexual abuse laws.
Clergy sexual abuse is not just an issue to polarize about. Victims, churches and pastors are members of one another and called to work together as a body to bring healing not more division. We are on the same side.
As I’ve had time to reflect on my own story, the most difficult thing for me to understand has been how much responsibility I actually had. I believe that when I confessed my sinful actions in the relationship the church had no problem hearing that and holding me accountable. They also had no problem saying that they forgave me. However, they had a real problem when I mentioned spiritual abuse, and I was accused by one of the leaders for shirking my responsibility. I was reminded of my confession of sin and my consequences were losing my job as an administrative assistant as well as my sin being exposed to the entire church.
After processing through trauma of abuse, I am able to see the responsibility I had in the sinful relationship that occurred as a result of my former pastor not keeping appropriate boundaries with me in counseling. I know that I committed sexual sin that brought consequences on my family, the pastor’s family and the church. These were the sole reasons that I confessed. God convicted my heart that the sin had harmed others and needed to be exposed. I continue to grieve over the losses that my own sinful actions caused.
However, I also now realize that the sin was a direct result of the pastor’s abuse. It was not my fault. When I went to my former pastor for counseling for childhood sexual abuse I was severely traumatized and vulnerable. I was looking for help. It is a well known fact that it is normal for those going for counseling to transfer their childhood feelings to a substitute like a pastor or therapist. Boundaries must always be in place to protect against countetransferance and an inappropriate relationship developing. The secular world does a much better job of educating about this than the church does. However, my former pastor was well aware of these boundaries and even pointed them out to me, but he also spiritualized his love for me by saying it was from God. He became a father figure to me early on, and I believed the love he showed me was from God, but then he confessed to me one day that he loved me as a man would his wife. Not only did my pastor not keep appropriate boundaries with me, but he also crossed them. He also asked me to not tell anyone about our special relationship, because he would lose everything if I did. So I made a promise to carry this secret to my grave, because I’d already developed an unhealthy and codependent relationship with him.
I hope that through reading this that you can see the wrong that occurred. This letter is not about me walking away clear of any responsibility. This letter is about the church being educated on the damage of spiritual abuse.
This letter is also about the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the compassion He showed others who were trapped in many different sins for many different reasons and how His primary purpose was to bring true healing to all of us.
The Hope of Survivors is an organization who supports and ministers to families who have suffered from clergy sexual abuse. These families, in almost every case, have not only been traumatized by an abusive pastor, but also by their churches. Baylor University studies also support these statistics. Some victims say the damage that the church caused was even worse than what the pastor caused by abusing them. This ought not to be so! I read early on that one of the most difficult things to overcome as a spiritual abuse survivor is the lack of understanding from others. I suspect in most cases other victims experience what we did, church leaders who accused them of not taking responsibility for their actions, members of the congregation who were very uncomfortable when the abuse subject came up, friends who wanted to help but didn’t know how, or others who were quick to remind them how important it is to quickly forgive.
The shame and isolation that go along with spiritual abuse is absolutely overwhelming and can feel completely hopeless. We are not meant to suffer alone. Our family, like many other families who’ve experienced abuse, decided we had no choice except to leave our community we’d become disconnected from, so that we could hold our family together and get away from the constant reminders of shame and abuse.
In our case, the church did offer to support us through the healing process, but since they refused to acknowledge the clergy abuse that was the root of the problem, it was clear that healing would not occur.
My counselor asked me early on how could things have been done differently that would have brought healing to everyone involved? We’ve had three years to think about it, and here are some things that we think would have helped.
First of all, the best case scenario is that the abuse would have never occurred. That’s another story, but I do believe a huge missing element in my previous church was someone else sharing leadership with the pastor. Our church had other leaders, my husband being one, but it was clear that the buck stopped with the pastor. Usually, whatever he wanted was done with very little resistance from anyone else. I believe God called the church to work together as a body not just one person. My counselor, Sharon Hersh, did a podcast on the Key Life Pastor’s Chat. This show emphasized the importance of pastors having a support system and she shared some of my story. I believe in an abusive situation this is lacking as well as accountability. You can listen to the podcast here.
But abuse did occur in my case, and it resulted in a ten year inappropriate and sexual relationship. Not only was the church deceived, but our families were tangled up in the abuse as well. The pastor called my husband his best friend. I was very close with the pastor’s wife and his daughter and niece. Actually, they were my closest friends. So needless to say, when the deception was exposed, it resulted in a tremendous amount of pain and confusion.
Looking back on things the main pressure behind the decisions that were made by our church leaders were to do damage control and protect the church from gossip.
The church’s reputation should never come before protecting those who have been harmed by abuse.
In the book of I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul has heard about an extremely messy situation in the church. It is clear from his letter that his first concern was not gossip around the church, that was already going on, but primarily for the spiritual health of the church. Paul does not minimize the sin and make it more palatable. He names it in all of it’s ugliness and calls the church to remove the sin, and embrace Christ’s forgiveness and righteousness in sincerity and truth.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 5:1-8 ESV
In this particular situation, Paul calls for the man who was with his father’s wife to be removed from the church. There are no instructions concerning the woman involved.
Our church did commendably tell those in a position of higher authority in our denomination what I had confessed in detail, and the former pastor was deposed. Following this, the leaders chose to have a meeting informing the church about why the former pastor was deposed. We were not present at the meeting. They did it when we were out of town receiving intensive counseling. During this meeting a letter of apology was read from the former pastor and from me and my counselor. I do not know what the pastor’s letter said, but I do know by our church leaders own confessions after the fact that our letter to the church was edited without my permission to leave out the details concerning the spiritual abuse. My husband and I were told that the relationship in the church meeting wasn’t labeled as abuse or an affair. The true abusive narrative of our story was left out. As a result, other victims who may have been present at the meeting would most likely not have come forth for fear of being exposed as well.
As I mentioned earlier, the pressure to protect the church from gossip was the main driving force behind having a meeting that gave an explanation for what had occurred. The leaders in the church knew that when word got out that the former pastor had been deposed that the congregation would be devastated. They wanted to address what had occurred before gossip was allowed to start. I reluctantly agreed, but was later told when I changed my mind that I had no choice in the matter. I’ve learned since that time that the victim’s name, even in adult abuse cases, should be protected (See SNAP for more information on how to deal with abuse in your church.). Nevertheless, I finally agreed to allow the elders to tell the congregation my name if they would read a letter from me and my counselor in it’s entirity. We believed that this letter would open the door to educating the church about what had occurred, so that anyone else who may have suffered could come forward. Diane Langberg, a trauma and abuse expert (resources here), says that abuse is always a part of a system.
It is critical that churches dealing with clergy abuse also be educated on the abusive system and the damages caused.
Dr. Langberg sent free resources to our church to educate the church at one leaders request, however the regional elder assigned to our church over the disciplinary process declared education was not necessary, and all that was needed was the scriptures. It was clear in our situation that those in higher positions of authority in the church need education, too.
We believed that the only way that we and the church could heal was to expose the abuse and educate the church and begin to untangle the lies. In a conference call with my counselor, our church leaders agreed to this. However, after the congregational meeting was over, and our edited letter was read, we were told that they’d provide a small group support to help us heal, but that nothing further would be done as far as educating the church on abuse.
It’s important to note, that several months earlier before I confessed, there was a large national conference in our church’s denomination where leaders all over the country had signed a resolution agreeing to not turn a blind eye to sexual abuse in the church and to come alongside and minister and protect victims and their families . Reading this resolution at a church staff meeting, gave me hope that the church was going to finally open the door to address an issue that our family had been severely effected by. The resolution was printed for the church bulletin and handed out. We even had the opportunity at that time to order educational materials for the church, but ordering fell to the wayside.
In our situation, there was a tremendous opportunity to apply exactly what our denomination had resolved to do, but the opportunity was lost in covering up the truth.
I understand why the church covered it up. I’d spent most of my life covering up the damage of abuse, trying to protect myself from it’s painful realities, trying to rewrite the narrative of my own story so that it’d be less messy than it appeared. And it only led me more deeply into sin.
The apostle Paul’s first concern was not protecting the church from gossip, it was for the church’s spiritual health. The only way for them to heal was to expose the sin and take every necessary precaution to ensure that it was removed, because it had effected the entire church. And the only way to do this was in sincerity and truth of the Gospel.
The truth was my former pastor’s secret sin hadn’t just effected my family and his, it had effected the entire church. Whether they knew it or not, the fact that they covered the truth up revealed an environment that could not deal with the truth.
Knowing the truth is a long process for all of us that’s starts with being honest about the pain our sin causes. Thus the reason, I’ve been writing this blog for three years.
What could they have done differently? They could have started with the truth. However, the problem was they had had the painful truth minimized and covered up for at least a decade by their pastor. His lies, just like all of our lies, do tremendous damage to ourselves and each other. They’d come to believe the narrative that this pastor was an OK guy who was human just like they were. It was the same lie that kept me repeating the cycle of abuse with him. If our family had gone along with this story, we could have stayed at the church and continued to minimize the damage of sexual abuse and not be healed. But God called us to remove all the sinful leaven and embrace the truth. In the following year, we removed our membership from the church.
Because the church minimized the damage of the sin, they also minimized the power of the gospel to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
They also kept others from knowing the true power of Christ’s love who sees us at our worst and loves us still.
Jesus’ primary concern wasn’t about gossip. He was concerned about the sick being healed. He was concerned about the lost being found. He was concerned about the blind being able to see. He was concerned about the dead being brought to life.
If clergy sexual abuse has happened in your church, please pray for God’s sincerity and truth to reveal who the church truly is in Him through the power of the Gospel and what He calls you to do about this harmful leaven in your midst. No matter how messy the sin or ugly the truth, please do not cover it up. I did and suffered greatly because of it. Expose it and bring it into the light to be healed. Please do not minimize it. Call it what it is and experience the power of the Gospel and Christ’s tremendous power to heal.
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
1 Corinthians 11:28-32 ESV
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV