On the Friday, Feb. 6th, “Front Page,” we continued to talk about spiritual abuse and dangerous religious groups. Rene Couture read the following lengthy testimony of the spiritual abuse faced by a woman attending a Wisconsin church:
In the scheme of life, there are things that matter and things that don’t really matter much. Knowing the difference between the two often requires wisdom. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Anyone who has experienced or is presently experiencing spiritual abuse needs to know that their story matters. It’s time to no longer be silent about something that has affected countless believers worldwide.
Spiritual abuse is not something I profess with flippancy. Nor is spiritual abuse something that happens to weak people who are looking for someone to control them. Spiritual abuse, typically, is something that happens slowly and subtly by a person in leadership in whom you have developed a deep level of trust.
Jeff Van Vonderen, co-author of “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” says it well:
“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority–the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free–misuses that authority by placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own. Nothing about spiritual abuse is simple. Those who have experienced it know it is powerful enough to cause them to question their relationship with God, indeed the very existence of God. And it is subtle too! The perpetrators of spiritual abuse are rarely ‘Snidely Whiplash’ sorts of characters who announce that they are going to drain your spiritual energy. They may be people who seem like they are seeking to guide you to the deepest levels of spiritual maturity.”
Such was the case for me…
It took all of my energy to walk through the doors of my new church. It was my last ditch effort to be a part of a church that I hoped would be different from the last one. Our three children were all still living at home. Being committed to a local church was part of the rich spiritual heritage my husband and I wanted to give our children.
At the time my husband and I owned a successful business; we were both strong leaders looking for a place to grow deeper in our relationship with God.
My new pastor and I connected from the very beginning. I found that I could be candid with him and he was very authentic and genuine in listening to what I had to say. He was aware that I had been hurt by a pastor in the past and he encouraged me to meet with him one-on-one to share my story and to receive counsel. He was a very busy man, willing to make time to meet with me. I was honored.
One meeting turned into many meetings. Little by little he was able to convince me that I could trust him and that he was safe and that I was loved. I was flattered that in a church of substantial size I had caught the attention of–what at the time I believed–was a very charismatic, influential and dynamic leader. His biggest bend always came down to trust, until the day he knew he had fully gained my trust.
In retrospect, the day I gave him my full trust was a game changer.
The man who had been so patient and so kind and so giving of his time suddenly revealed another side of himself to me and I found myself needing his permission and approval on every aspect of my life. Slowly, the space between me and my husband grew further and further apart as I became dependent on my pastor emotionally. I unwittingly allowed my pastor to control me, unaware at the time how slippery and dangerous the slope had become I was scaling.
As our friendship grew stronger, I was rewarded with opportunities within the church. He elevated me in different areas of leadership and, of course, I was honored to have a pastor who saw my worth.
With each new privilege also entered a new level of accountability and I soon learned that nothing short of exclusive allegiance to my leader was acceptable if I wanted to continue to have a voice in ministry.
My strong personality seemed to be a challenge to him as we fought back and forth on many occasions regarding issues that we disagreed about. I also learned that he was able to call me out on anything and everything, but I dare not ever call him out on any areas of his life. He had a ready answer for anything that was happening, and his word and his counsel were taken as the gospel not just by me, but also those who were a part of the inner circle of the church. There was a special vocabulary used among the members of the church that became a part of the culture of only that specific church.
Our family became close friends with our pastor and his family, however we were not able to let anyone know of our secret friendship. He told me that no one needed to know how close we were because they would be jealous. Many people sought after this man’s approval and friendship. I felt special and lucky. My closest friends were all in the “winner’s circle,” so to speak–all on staff and/or in positions of authority and leadership.
As weeks turned into months, I learned how to navigate around what at times could best be described as a volcano waiting to erupt. He could make me feel like the most valuable woman in the church or he could make me feel like the stuff that lies just beneath pond scum. All power rested in his court. I learned what made him happy and I learned through experience what made him angry.
In the midst of what felt, at times, like the best days of my life, if I am honest, I would have to admit that there were red-flag moments that I chose to put in the back of my mind. One such instance was during one of our meetings when my pastor told me that I had no true friends besides him and his wife and that from now on I needed to only talk to them about everything. He also convinced me of people in my immediate family who I should no longer allow to be part of my life. I soon lost touch with friends who I had known for years who were not a part of the church, as my pastor convinced me how these friends were not healthy for me. Two dear friends, not members of my church, had somewhat of an “intervention” with me one day to share their concerns for the path I was walking. I didn’t listen.
As a point of clarity, there is something that I would like to elaborate on for a moment. My story is not about me falling prey to a man or of a man’s power to control me. This is the story about a man of the cloth, a pastor, who proclaimed the words, “God told me,” and “God says” and then would go into detail as to what a person must do to be in the will of God. The idolatrous part of our relationship was the extreme spiritual use of God’s name, will and power and the expectations of my pastor for me to obey him, in the name of God. Serving or worshipping something or someone other than the One True God is idolatry.
In the midst of my idolatry of placing another man on God’s throne, something unexplainable happened. God, in His great mercy and grace, gave me a heart for prayer and an insatiable appetite for His Word. I spent many hours in prayer and studying the Bible. As I look back now, I still shake my head in wonder at how my Father could give such a gift to an undeserving child.
One day in a meeting with my pastor he shared that God had shown him–and one of the other pastor’s at the church–that they were being called to something greater. He said that he knew that there was one other person that God was calling to this new ministry with them and that God had shown them that it was me. The three of us were going to do something great. I was honored at the thought of doing ministry with this giant of a man. We gave the project a secret name and agreed to not let anyone know what was happening until the time was right.
My husband and I committed to spending an extended amount of time in prayer about our future and the future of our family. In doing so God showed both of us something that I did not want to see–that He was asking us to move to a different state to be a part of a different ministry. A ministry apart from my pastor. Had God’s voice lacked clarity I would have probably refused to obey, but He showed us very clearly that we were to move.
In retrospect, I believe the move was a rescue mission that would eventually cost us everything, as God plucked our family out of the hands of danger.
As is often the case, time and distance have a way of helping us see life through a different lens.
God began to heal my eyes and the blinders began to fall off. I saw the danger of my relationship with my pastor and I sent him an e-mail apologizing to him for my sin of allowing him to have a place in my life that only God should have. I also warned him that there were others, like myself, who were looking to him for answers and affirmation instead of looking to God. He never responded to my e-mail.
Several dear friends who also started to question some of the happenings at the church, after years of being prominent members of the church community, were cast aside. After one particularly disturbing incident, I called one of the overseers who I had known for many years. Instead of considering my words, the overseer ran to the pastor and almost overnight I was cut off from everyone. Those whom I had thought were my friends would not return e-mails, texts or phone calls. No explanation. Overnight I became a dead woman.
Although this is not the happy ending anyone would hope for, this is where only part of my story ends. As I write this story, several years after the experience, I am still dead to these people, but not to my Maker.
Here’s the good news: after several attempts to reach out for answers, many sleepless nights, bitter tears and a heart gripped in the throws of rejection, anger and deep anguish, God is fully back on His throne.
Only God is Truth! There are no substitutes! There is no man who can be to any of us what only God was intended to be. The Tree of Life of Good and Evil was a gift to Adam and Eve. It allowed them the freedom to choose whom they would serve. In my own sin of choosing to unwittingly look to a pastor for affirmation, love and answers, God did not leave me nor forsake me. When I fell to my knees in repentance it was my Father who held me and loved me and told me that I was His beloved daughter.
In the years since this experience, our family has gone through great trials. We have also experienced great joys. People have stood beside us whom God has brought into our world because of His goodness. These days, I am much more cautious in friendship and much more in love with my husband. God has brought great healing and restoration to our marriage.
Although I do not know how long a healing process should take, I am finding that each new day is filled with beauty and wonder if I’m willing to seek Him.
Most days I do.
Some days, though, you might find me sitting in the back of the church, arms crossed, struggling to understand the mystery of the church and what church is supposed to look like in an imperfect world.
The effects of spiritual abuse remain and, while I am aware I can not make myself better, I also understand that keeping one of the deepest forms of abuse a secret is creating a speedy exit from our churches by many believers who have been abused as well. Where do these abused believers turn for healing before they give up and join the ever-growing population of “done with church”?