I recently came across an article on Relevant Magazine titled “What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By Church” and it really struck something in me. Here’s the article. If you have the time, read it! It’s good.
We can all learn something from this article. Yes, those of us who have been hurt or spiritually abused and left the church must take responsibility by doing our own part in working toward reconciliation. But, in the midst of that it’s important for us to receive support, love, and understanding from fellow believers. I’ve heard all of the phrases in this article, and, not only do they hurt, but none of them do anything to make me want to join a church again anytime soon.
Spiritual abuse is a very real thing and I would venture to say it’s much more common than we realize, or more common than we want to believe it is. Christians also tend to water it down or gloss it over when we do witness or experience it. And, in many cases, because of the Christian culture there’s quite a bit of push and guilt to get over it, forgive, and move on because the offenders are our “sisters/brothers in Christ” so we must keep unity in the church.
But…..NO. No no no. NO!
I haven’t been in church in over 3 years. It’s been a tough journey. We left the church plant we were part of for a couple of reasons, but what we experienced after leaving was devastating to us. It hurt while it was happening, but as the dust settled and more truth was revealed, we began to realize the hurt and the betrayal was deeper than we first realized. We also realized we had been blind to a lot of unhealthy things that had been going on long before we left the church.
I don’t like to go into much detail about this season in our lives for several reasons. It was a very painful time for us, and the story is far too complex to tell in a few paragraphs. It’s also OUR story and I’m protective of it. I don’t like telling it to just anyone because I don’t trust people to respond lovingly. Maybe that’s my issue, maybe it isn’t. I’m working on it, okay:) ???? I’ll say this: our initial reason for leaving the church involved mistakes made and it was the right time for us to step down and to move on. When that decision was made we were told we would be supported, loved, held, encouraged by our church family. They were not going to abandon us. In fact, that was specifically said. But, guess what? They did. In fact, they did much more than abandon us. There were lies, manipulation, gossip, our secrets shared…some of these things were spoken FROM the pulpit TO the entire congregation on a Sunday morning. Oh yeah. Granted, it was a small congregation, but that didn’t matter to us. It should never have happened. We were completely abandoned. We were alone. Other than one family who barely knew us at the time who chose to reach out to us, we didn’t hear from anyone, not even our closest friends at the church. When we did try to reach out to feel connected, to possibly find out why we were being so ostracized, we were asked to back away and to give space. When we heard about a particular hurtful incident, we called the one family who had been reaching out to us to find out what was going on because we knew we could trust them. They lovingly shared with us and were genuinely concerned for us. We spoke with our pastor about the situation to gain some clarity, but we were reprimanded and told that if we chose to reach out to ANY church member for any reason that we would be causing disunity in the church. Keep in mind this was one of only a handful of times that we contacted anyone during this process. We weren’t talking to anyone from the church, we were staying away, we were doing as we were told. When the family we had remained in contact with (and who had become our friends at this point) decided to confront the pastor about what was going on they were lied to and basically given an ultimatum. They saw this for what it was and chose to leave the church. We tried to reach out to another trustworthy family at the church, hoping if they heard our story and understood what was really happening they would come to our defense. But, just like before, they were reeled back in and made to believe something other than the truth. We felt ashamed and afraid and alone and confused and guilty. It was an ugly situation and it was awful.
We decided to visit a sister church plant for awhile during all of this, but the ties between the two churches were too strong. We had hoped it would be a place for us to heal, grow, and rest, but we were met with the same old lines…”there’s 2 sides to every story”, or, “I just can’t believe they would do that to you”. I felt like I was going crazy. It was like I was watching a movie where the main character has been wrongfully accused or villainized and everyone is treating them unfairly and no one will believe them or step in to help and I was screaming at the screen for someone to recognize the injustice……except that we were the characters in the movie, and we were screaming for help and no one noticed.
After we began to step away and sought counseling and began to look at the situation a little more clearly, we saw that we had been victims of spiritual abuse. And not just after we left. It had been happening for longer than we realized. We saw that our pastor had a history of leaving ministries/churches on bad terms. He had other situations when he had lied about people and basically ostracized them from a community. He was good at manipulation and he had many of us fooled. To be fair, some of these were things we knew before, but because we wanted so badly to be part of this church, part of something real and good, we weren’t able to see those situations for what they were. And, his side of the story always made him out to be the innocent victim, and eventually the hero. Which is what we saw him doing with us.
We decided to completely remove ourselves from the situation and cut ourselves off from this group of people. We made this decision based on the advice from our counselor, and because we knew it was right. We would not be able to heal or move forward or join another church if we kept exposing ourselves to that environment. Of course, this decision wasn’t an easy one to make. We would be cutting off the people who had been our church family and our “framily” (aka, friends who are like family) for a long time. It meant we would almost be starting from scratch when it came to finding friends/community. It was really difficult. And they didn’t respond well. Unfortunately, because of our long history and connection to people at the church, it took a long time to sever some of those ties and we were still exposed to some of the lies and hurt. Eventually, though, we were able to get to a place where we could start to work on the healing process.
Within the last year, that church has dissolved. I don’t know everything that happened, but I do know more of the same behavior from the leadership contributed to it, and I know that there were other people who experienced things similar to what we experienced. We have had a couple of people come to us to tell us that they now understand what we went through, and to apologize for their role in all of it. And, to be completely honest, these things do give me a small feeling of vindication. I’m glad to know that we aren’t crazy. I’m relieved to hear that more people are starting to know the truth, to learn that we weren’t lying. And I’m even glad the church is no longer a church. NOT because I want them to suffer or fail. I don’t. I promise. But because I’m happy that no one else is being exposed to that kind of treatment. It’s sad when any body of Christ is no longer together, and I’m sure that church did some good things. But no amount of good can makeup for a church leadership that thrives on manipulation and dishonesty (aka, spiritual abuse).
But, you know what? God held us. He didn’t forsake us. He didn’t leave us. In fact, He never has and He never will. In the midst of those darkest moments, the Lord led me to Isaiah 61, which is all about being in a place of ruin and despair, and God’s promise that He will restore it all. Specifically, I was drawn to verse 7: “Instead of shame and dishonor, you will enjoy a double share of honor. You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.” I underlined that verse and reread it over and over again during that time. I prayed that that would become true for us. Almost exactly a year later, we found out we were having twins. In that moment, God was like “there’s your double portion…I promised to restore you and I am”. Now, at that point we still had, and still do have, a LOOOOOOONG way to go. Just like anyone’s life, there are dark moments. But my girls (and Jud, and all of our other blessings!) are a tangible reminder that no matter what the people at that church or any other church did to us or anyone else, they don’t change God’s character. They don’t get to decide what blessings I get or don’t get. They don’t decide how I respond to any situation. And they certainly don’t get to decide my eternity.
Now, where does that leave my family and me in regards to church?? Good question! I would love to say that we’ve since completely healed and moved on and found a church where we could worship and serve. But that’s not the case. Growing up in church, being on staff at a church, being part of this church plant…left some major scars for us. We still have a lot of junk to work through. Some of it is our own junk. Probably most of it is our own junk. My prayer is that we can get there and find a place to worship soon. I absolutely miss having a church community.
I’m sharing all of this because I hope to shed a little light on spiritual abuse. The Christian community must be more aware of this issue and how damaging it can be. We need to be more equipped to address these situations. When faced with someone who has been hurt by the church, we need to be quick to embrace and love and listen and slow to preach, teach, or guilt. Yes, there are 2 sides to every story, and yes, some people’s “hurts” may seem trivial or ridiculous or just an excuse to not go to church. And maybe that’s exactly what it is. But, responding with love instead of impatience or condescension or holier-than-thou-ness, is ALWAYS going to do more GOOD than harm. If our goal is to ultimately win them back to Christ and encourage them back into a body of believers, we must be ready to support and love.
In Genesis 50, when Joseph is reunited with his brothers, he says (in verse 20), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” Now, I don’t know if I’ll be saving the lives of many people, but I know that my unique experience has given me a different attitude about people, and a heart for those who have been mistreated, forgotten, abandoned. I pray that God will allow me to minister to others who have experienced this kind of pain.
Thank you for reading this far. I’ve never shared this stuff in any sort of public forum. Only a very small amount of people have ever heard this. I am not sharing any of this to hurt anyone or to destroy anyone’s reputation. Each person’s journey and walk with Christ is their own and only they know what’s in their hearts. I’m nervous to actually publish this blog, but writing it has been therapeutic for me. Maybe that’s self-indulgent. I don’t know. Either way, I wanted to use this blog as a form of expression, a creative outlet. This is what I feel like expressing/creating for the moment. I realize you may not know me or anything about my character and you have no reason to believe anything I say. And that’s fine. My ultimate goal is to provide a glimpse at this issue and, hopefully, give anyone who reads this an opportunity to more effectively minister to someone who has been hurt by the church.