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. 

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