Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014, what a year.

And it's not over yet!  I've had an interesting journey this year, and I think I may write about it at its conclusion. But for now, some songs that are helping me in process.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


"In my opinion, there can be no spiritual growth when one abdicates personal integrity and responsibility."
Steve Hassan in "Combatting Cult Mind Control"

"I know we’re more reserved and see ourselves more as individuals than as a collective in our culture, but we are not a collection of individuals on Sunday."
David Fairchild Lead Pastor of Mars Hill West Seattle *

As a Third Culture Kid and then a student of foreign languages, I have always found culture and the different ways people think to be fascinating. Identifying as a Christian, I trusted Christ as an individual, and believe strongly that though my parents led me to Christ, I must have my own personal faith, and my own kids must be free to trust Christ or reject Him. I have personally always thought outside the box of any given culture I have lived in, whether due to personality or to different experience, I may never entirely know, without a good psychologist.  In any case, after experiencing and observing the pervasiveness of spiritual abuse and feeling the effects of mind control in certain situations, I began to research cults and figure out what was healthy and what was not. 

In my reading, I came across a theme. Cults tend to remove responsibility from members and place too much power in the hands of a few superior leaders or leader. In short, healthy religion allows adherents the freedom to be and think for themselves and have different interests and ways of serving God and builds them up emotionally for this, while unhealthy systems pressure members to give up themselves to the group, and value the leaders' agenda over individual responsibilities and areas of community involvement and friendship. 

So it bothered me when I read this first sentence of a tweet I screenshot from the feed of an Acts29 church:

It bothered me enough to tweet about it and discuss it privately with others with experience of spiritual abuse. I love many people at this church and I am very concerned if they don't see anything wrong with the thinking behind this use of words. It bothers me because I believe that just as we come to Christ as individuals, we are individually responsible for our own spiritual growth, interdependent in our need for community that will help us grow, and free to follow Christ in our personal area of ministry. What this comment, in context of an outreach that particular church was building up to when the tweet went out, what such a comment does is put pressure on individuals to conform to the group and put aside individual concerns, that legitimately need to be tended, in order to supply time for the ministry the church has on its agenda. Regardless of whether the church's agenda and mission opportunity is of personal value to the individuals inside the church as well as those outside, individualism discouraged by leadership can lead to stifling creative works of God's Spirit. 

When churches limit the potential for creativity by their "vision" of ministry they can only produce clones. By teaching collectivism over individualism, I believe churches are becoming cults and actually hindering Christian liberty and even stifling God's Holy Spirit who is not just present in our collective worship but in the individuals who love Jesus. This is dangerous and wrong.  Even Jesus was an individual. 

To ensure I was defining my terms correctly, I googled both "individualism" and "collectivism" and the definitions I found stand in screenshots below:

I think it is important that Christians in every church situation in which they find themselves are freed to be the individuals God created them in Christ to be. This teaching above implies that if we are not on the church's brand of mission we are selfish. I would agree with the statement if the person tweeting had said "selfishness" in the place of "individualism", but as it stands it reminds me of what a pastor at a famous mega church said on FB once about the Church not being comprised of individuals but being a collective*.  

In fact, the Bible seems to say that the diverse unique individuals who come to Christ do indeed form one Body.  But, contrary to collectivist mentality, it also makes it clear we are all individually different and yet absolutely acceptable because of Christ, not for our united service to the community nor for an outwardly happy worship despite our individual emotional state on a Sunday morning. Nor are we "being the Church" just on Sunday, but in fact we are creatively salt and light in the world in our individual circumstances 24/7!  

We can only be empathically  interdependent if we allow differences between us. We cannot all weep at the same time; there must be some who are able to support the grieving because they are not currently experiencing overwhelming grief. And vice versa on rejoicing. 

This brings me to a comment and my reply on my public FB page:

I think it is sad when the place, that should be the safest, most diverse (not just racially or culturally), and most freeing of individuals to worship and serve Christ as He leads them uniquely through the week in their careers and personal circumstances, becomes a place where people feel guilty for not being able or willing to use their free time to serve according to a leader's vision or agenda. I think this is a huge problem in many parts of the Body of Christ, and in that sense, it is hurting us all. 

Though I understand from a ministry perspective how hard it can be when only some decide to serve with their local church, I would still advocate for acceptance and encouragement of individualism as good for the Church, bearing in mind that Jesus had a Zealot among his twelve disciples, Paul and Barnabas disagreed yet agreed in the Lord, and both Jews and Gentiles built up the early church. To pastors and those in ministry I say can we not leave room for God to do things over and above what our limited vision can see?  Do we not trust Him to be far more powerful than our plans or agendas whether or not He chooses to use them as we expect? 

Otherwise I am concerned we are creating a near-fascist church system not entirely unlike Animal Farm where the collective agrees to serve under some who are "more equal" than others.  By checking their brains at the door, many in the Church have surrendered themselves, not to Christ, but to damaging mind control and ultimately destructive cult-like situations where abusive leaders have all the power while the priesthood of every believer is denied by default. 

As an individual, I cannot stand by and not speak up when I see this happening in front of me. I think we have all seen, based on the example of a certain mega church in the news lately, what direction  such thinking leads. 

I am glad God created me to be exactly who I am and puts me exactly where I need to be to do what He has for me right now and day by day, individually tailored to who I am and what my limitations are, letting me be free. 

"When absolute control and rigid obedience pose as love within the family and the local faith-community, we produce trained cowards rather than Christian persons.” -Brennan Manning

Further information: groupthink vs. individualism:

Defining and discussing groupthink:

Monday, June 16, 2014

Spiritual abuse observed and experienced

This is a post I have wanted to write for a while. I actually wrote a post detailing concerns about a former church I was part of when I first started blogging. Due to a private email I received about it, I took the post down. I regret fearing human beings over speaking the truth at the time. I don't regret taking the post down though and taking time to process things that happened. Since that time I have learned more about myself and the dynamics of it all. I've seen ways in which I was over sensitive and where I could have been stronger. I've seen areas I've needed to take responsibility for dealing with: where my personal issues of cultural identity and singleness played into my reactions and enabling of bad situations. So it was good to take the post down to reflect and write it in a way that isn't just for me to process events, but might now resonate with someone going through it or processing out of it.

I have decided to keep things as general as possible. I don't believe in naming for shaming. I do believe there are times to publicize about serious behaviors or dangerous people. My purpose in writing this is not to tear down a ministry or a servant, but to inform of ways in which leaders can lord it over people in unhealthy ways, at times without even meaning to do so. There are many well-meaning leaders who are not transparent, not understanding of those they are called to serve, or who are too quick to label as "divisive" when challenged rather than working with the mavericks among us to create something uniquely led by the Spirit. These things matter because people who love God are finding they have no place to go to fellowship when they get on the wrong side of some kinds of people in the church or church leaders, often through no fault of their own.  At best, a culture of fear in a church is symptomatic of spiritual abuse, where Christians feel afraid to trust their own judgment of a situation and insecure that they will still be loved and accepted by the Body if they express concerns or advocate for change.

I read the clearest definition of "spiritual abuse" outside of Arterburn/Felton's book "Toxic Faith" or VanVonderen/Johnson's book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" recently, and here it is:

"Spiritual abuse occurs when someone uses their power within a framework of spiritual belief or practice to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others. It is a breach of sacred trust. Christians are commanded by Jesus to love one another. When that is projected, articulated, enjoyed and then treacherously betrayed, the wounded person is left with “a sense of having been raped, emotionally and spiritually” – not by a stranger, but by someone who was deeply trusted. (See Recovering from Church Abuse by Len Hjalmarson"

As VanVonderen's book and Steve Arterburn imply, spiritual abuse is destructive because due to the actions of controlling or dangerous individuals who should have reflected God to the victim,  it can instead damage the victim's trust in God who loves them most, thus isolating them spiritually.  I believe spiritual abuse creates the conditions where sexual abuse is more likely to happen, due to secrecy, coding of how we talk and interact, and the propensity to coverup to make the leader or ministry look good. 

Personally, I think one of the most helpful tools to have in an arsenal protecting oneself against spiritual abuse is self-awareness.  I had plenty of time for introspection over the time I struggled with bullies in the church, but I never felt comfortable being honest and actually aware about my strengths as well as my weaknesses, because healthy self-esteem was equated with unhealthy pride. I struggled to be honest without fearing loss of relationship.  I was too concerned with being popular (which I never really was anyway), and I didn't transition well from being the missionary's daughter to being just another student.  I believe a bad understanding of humility and pride played into this too.

To set the stage for my experiences, I was raised to comply.  Being a missionary kid meant being on display at times, and a certain level of behavior was expected.  This was hard for someone as emotional as me, and I was told at times I was too independent, impatient, or stubborn.  Yet I trusted in Jesus at a young age, and never really rebelled in my teen years.  I was used to people treating me with a level of dignity and respect, and yet somehow seemed to get bullied easily for being different.  Being American in a British culture defined me.  So I was used to standing out.  When I go to college, though, I started assimilating to the culture around me.  I feel I was set up for over-submission to authority.  I was too eager to please, not yet strong enough to question authority, and as a single girl, I felt I wasn't as important as men were because I "couldn't lead".  I denied my leadership skills and got very confused about how to teach rambunctious pre-teens in school when I had been taught by my upbringing to be "nice".  Without going into detail about my family life or third culture kid experience, there were things that I was quietly wallowing through which made me vulnerable to a desire to fit in, when I got church-burnt.

I had always known of bad situations in church, especially growing up in it.  I'd seen my parents get burnt in ministry, and I knew about church politics.  Sadly, when my eyes began to open, I was part of the system; I had accepted it.

I think the hardest part of acknowledging you are in a bad situation is the feeling of being stuck because of the commitments you made to get there. In my case, I was heavily involved in church activities. There was an expectation that singles would be highly involved in church because God would provide a spouse, or keep you single to serve Him. I had very little time to even get started in dating, and dating wasn't exactly supported by the system I found myself in at a time when I should have been learning how to relate to guys and maturing towards a marriage relationship. Instead of maturing at that stage in my life, I was just BUSY. 

I was helping with youth while being exhausted teaching my first years of school in a challenging setting. I felt my career was my ministry, but I also felt so much pressure to be at prayer meetings and involved in church activities that I often sacrificed my mental health and high need of sleep to also do hospital services, visit the elderly, and then, when I stopped officially helping youth, I got asked to be missionary secretary and wrote minutes for meetings in top of my busy job preparing lessons and grading/marking papers. I was also involved in music (we didn't officially call it worship) on and off as needed, and though I was there to be a resource and loved worshipping in song, I felt resented by others who officially led it.  I got so busy that I couldn't relax even when I was relaxing. It was horrible. But I felt like if I got out of one area of service, I would just get asked to get into another one, because service was expected of church members. 

While I was going through this learning curve of balancing life, someone close to me went through depression and no one else checked in with them. I was often asked by a dominant person where my relative was because I was related. I was worried about them.  But no one in the family of God cared to check on my relative themselves. They would ask me where this person was when I was there at church meetings and that person was not, even though we lived in different parts of town. 

At one point, someone popular had sinned, hurting a girl who did not attend church, yet I don't know if anyone except this relative of mine confronted him (or perhaps knew of it because it happened in the student community).  I respected the guy for listening to my relative, but I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. People who were popular could get away with a lot, yet people truly hurting with mental illness were judged as in sin for not showing up on a Sunday because they couldn't get out of bed. That hurt. I began to get depressed. 

During the time I was starting to become aware of the kind of control one family, and particularly one dominant person, had in the church, a member of church staff got seriously burned out.  All I knew was that they were exhausted and stressed, but while we were planning youth ministry together, in full view of certain popular people, with a degree of candor I'd never seen in that church before, this person opened up to me about why they were so stressed.  As I see it, it was clearly to do with constantly having to deal with a difficult person and the culture they were creating.

This dominant person was the one who had an opinion on intricate details of people's lives and one "right" way to handle everything, regardless of other opinions. Women were to stay home when they had kids, not work outside the home regardless of personality or capacity, because in this person's experience it was too much to work and be a mother. House groups who were friends and wanted to go away together on a weekend vacation/holiday shouldn't do that because it was too exclusive or something. And singleness was almost better than marriage, because marriage was hard. Such opinions as these were shared in conversations and by raised eyebrows, and when you would challenge them gently, you would be treated as if you weren't as spiritual as those who stuck to the rules. I feel it filled a need in this person to be looked up to as a wise counselor, when really some of this person's advice kept some impressionable young adults from moving forward in life in the unique ways God has for individuals. 

I remember being sat down with after service one Sunday by a pastor for talking to a man shunned by the church over what sounded like disagreement labeled divisiveness.  I hadn't been told before of what he had done, so hadn't talked to him to be defiant, and I was left with no tangible idea of what his divisiveness entailed, other than challenging church leadership (perhaps after having been in a foreign culture doing things in a different way).  This created anxiety in me about challenging leadership about such things as the pressure to be at prayer meetings if you were a member rather than getting your rest so you could do your job.  It confused and stressed me out because I was struggling with culture shocks of my own, and tend to think outside the box. It made me scared to be myself or disagree with the popular/powerful. 

Individual situations, weaknesses, and needs didn't seem to matter much to certain leaders as much as outward performance did.  I was performing outwardly while I was there, but I began to die inside spiritually, struggling with depression and anxiety on my own.  I didn't feel safe to talk to leadership about my struggles in depth because I was pretty sure sin would matter more than any bereavements or issues I'd also been facing personally.  My spiritual disciplines became drudgery, and my stress level was off the charts.

By members of the popular crowd, I was also told that people (such as myself and others I knew who had a desire to lead in various ways) who hadn't been in the church more than 5-10 years weren't trustworthy for leadership positions, despite there being several very qualified and committed Christians who had served well in other home churches before moving into the area.  It was like this was the only church that really mattered.

I never felt that it was possible to be accepted in this church unless you were born and bred in its surrounding culture, and after a members' meeting where members argued over the style/font of a signpost for an hour yet made no mention of outreach to people in the local neighborhood, including homeless, I was about done.

The experiences I had were not all spiritually abusive as such, nor do they compare to the abuses so many have suffered in church.  Yet the culture was certainly neglectful of people who weren't as popular. If you had nothing to give, you were not, or at least no longer, important. I felt like the life was sucked out of me by the time I left. The small abuses I permitted myself to take rather than challenge beat me down low. I had hoped to get married and settle down there, but I'm really glad I didn't stay and conform further. I honestly don't think people meant to be abusive or understood their own behavior as such. However, it was a shame that "what would X say?" or pleasing X mattered more to so many impressionable young adults than what does Jesus say and want for me as an individual.  I have had to learn it matters little what others' opinions are if objective principles are in play. 

Time and time again, someone would have a burden for ministry and leaders would put them off because they "needed" them to stay there and serve.  This wasn't a small church with limited resources, by British standards.  The controlling-ness got to me, and after a private conversation with a trusted leader where I laid out in detail the painfulness of it all, I knew the environment was making me sick. I had to leave. 

I left quietly, without giving any reason except that God was moving me on naturally.  He was, but I could have gone sooner.  Also, I could have lovingly confronted those who were hurting not just me, but others, including my family member, by their attitudes and behaviors.  There was a stagnant arrogance there that was hurting a lot of people, and it took several people like me too long to leave.  I am still grateful for those who stayed to affect change and those who left without waiting too long.

I have had verses quoted at me by a pastor friend to tell me to stop speaking out publicly about abuse cover-ups in the church.  I disagree with him, respectfully, on Scriptural grounds.  I have also had a pastor friend tell me he understands my concerns about spiritual abuses and that change does take time.  I appreciate it when I am talked to bluntly and graciously.  That is not abuse.  But there must also be room for disagreement with pastors; there must be freedom to be honest about your own perspective, because all authority belongs to God, and I don't think any one of us is on a level with Him. 

Despite the pain of being misunderstood, I am still open to feedback about my attitude on all this.  What I am no longer opening myself up to is being bullied into silence by the threat of being labeled these things like "divisive, contentious, un-submissive, or bitter".  What I want to see is God's church being a safe place for the foreigner, widow, fatherless, orphan, motherless, single, sexually abused, battered spouse, and spiritually abused, amongst others.  It is not currently safe in the evangelical church to get messy about life or sin in many house-group situations without taking on the role of the "black sheep" of the family.  That is dysfunctional.

It is not usually possible to follow the principles of Matthew 18 relationally because the person who has been hurt will be made to share some of the blame, for after all, we are all sinners.  It is not yet culturally acceptable to express deep pain, hurt, or anguish without being told that Jesus is enough.  Forgiveness, acceptance, and focus on Christ is always the goal, but what about the process?  Did Job get there in a day?  Did Christ exude joyfulness all the time?  In fact, though he had every reason for supreme joy, our Lord was a "Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief", which is why "His Spirit comforts us in all our sufferings" means so much to me.  Jesus Christ understands and he expressed strong emotions in healthy ways.  He never just pasted on a plastic smile and praised the Lord.

Here's where I feel the evangelical church fails.  I don't believe we are to tell a sex abuse victim "Jesus understands".  That's like saying, "God bless you, be at peace" and walking away without feeding the hungry.  Don't tell a young mother who loses her baby that "all things work together for good to them that love God".  Just because something is ultimately true doesn't make it right for the moment or process of grief.  We shouldn't preach Calvinism at the parent of an angry and unbelieving adult child. Why can't the church let go of the need to control, explain, subdue, and hide pain, and allow God to use individual members to sit with people, to "weep with those who weep" and "rejoice with those who rejoice"?  Why isn't empathy part of our theology over and above getting our doctrinal "i's" and "t's" dotted and crossed?  Why are we not known for how we love each other? 

Love includes speaking honestly about sin.  Love includes giving grace to the most unworthy and healing to those in pain because of the sin of others.  Love doesn't check its brains or discernment at the door.  Love doesn't have to negate lawful or ethical consequences for sin or serious errors of judgment.  Love is objective, not something we just do when we feel like it.  Love is what shows Whose we are.  Love is what Christians are to be known for, and if we are known for our book or community projects, or for good teaching, but not for our genuine love, we have lost the plot.

I write this because I wish I had had the courage to "go direct" back when I had a chance to speak face to face to those who were blind to how they were controlling impressionable others.  I don't want anyone in my company to think it's ok to be positive rather than real when people are hurting and not being healed.  I can't change the past, but I have hope the future will be better because of what Jesus Christ is doing in this world through His people, even the ordinary and weak ones. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Cliches can be true

There in the garden a traitor is coming
A kiss for the king and betrayal he brings
Love seems destroyed now
Here in this garden
But Jesus will suffer and
Love conquers all. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The skeleton in the closet

So I had a dream last night. I don't put much stock in what my crazy brain concocts, and I don't trust dreams over God's Word the Bible. But I had a very vivid dream in two parts that fleshed out much of what I have been working through in the whole Cult of personality at a certain Calvinistic mega church saga (please see my "on religion" posts for more information). Here is a basic dramatic summary. 

I dreamed that my eldest son and my husband were in a small town that for some reason had a little cabin you could rent instead of a hotel. We were passing through and decided to stay. We opened the door, and walked in. Quite nice. 

We walked into the bedroom, and a skeleton with ragged clothes lay on the bed!  We jumped in horror. Should we inform someone? Stay somewhere else? Call the police would be the normal thing to do. 

But we liked the cabin, though there were actually two hotels on either side of the corner facing the cabin. So as it is in dreams, we decided to do the abnormal thing and put the skeleton out of sight. We literally put the skeleton in the closet and sat down to eat and relax. 

The second half of the dream was scary. Two ordinary-looking men came walking into the house without permission. They saw that we had seen the skeleton. They turned on us and tried to hold my son hostage. They were fighting with my husband and he told me to get out and get help. 

I ran out. I guess I had my cell phone because I dialed 911. One of them started chasing me, so I ran into a mall and found somewhere to hide. I got on the phone and very emotionally told the operator where I was and that they had my husband and son. The operator was sending the police to help ASAP. With that I woke up. 

Why am I sharing this? Well, first, I don't put much stock in dreams, or in a guy saying he sees visions of people having sex. That says much about his psyche and little about his purity. 

Second, I do believe dreams are a God-given way of working things out. I read once about a scientist who was confused about something, and he dreamed about the concept at night and when he woke up, he had it all worked out. His brain worked out in sleep what he couldn't do with obsessing. 

Third, I do believe in the spiritual battle. I believe that my brain and God's Holy Spirit can work to show me what I can't work out rationally. These are mysteries. But in any case, an application of this silly story occurs to me. 

When a cult of personality and the mafia surrounding that person develops in the church, it is not the time to hide the skeleton in the closet. When abuse happens in family, we call the police, we tell the world what is happening lest it envelope us to our destruction. We cannot sit down and relax with a skeleton in the closet. At some point, the stench will suffocate us or the mafia will destroy us to hide the truth. 

We must, when faced with a skeleton in our bed, expose it, not hide it in the closet even though a crime has taken place. When evil has occurred, we cannot hide it. Otherwise, we are complicit in that evil and it will destroy us all. Even those we love. 

That, I believe, is what my crazy brain was trying to tell me. I have difficult decisions ahead. I cannot allow the bad to over-run the good. I do think it is time for accountability in large corporation-type churches, and as Toxic Faith (Arterburn/Felton) says, there is a time to exit immediately because (paraphrase) our butts in seats equal support for the leader. 

We must not support the continued hiding of skeletons in closets.  We must speak out without fear.  Expose the skeleton so it can be laid to rest. 

Or maybe I'm just crazy. 

The end. 

[edited for clarity 9/25/15]