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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

When Your Abuser is Your Pastor


"Do pastors go to hell?"

I stared at the question that appeared in my instant message box and breathed a prayer for the right answer.  The friend who'd asked it had experienced horrendous spiritual, mental and verbal abuse from a pastor and I was trying to encourage her to embrace forgiveness in spite of it.

"Some do," was my answer.
 
There are many examples of compromised men in the Bible who ignored the commands of God while operating in the role of pastor (or priest).  And Jeremiah 23:1 issues a stern warning, '"What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people--the shepherds of my sheep--for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for."'


But isn't it always jarring to discover men (or women) occupying the role of pastor or priest whose actions are evil?  It is completely reversed from what we should be finding in the house of God.  And, depending upon what you've been told,  you may be made to believe that the evils perpetrated by these people are God's will.  This is twisted and perverse and yet, it happens.  The church is taught to revere their pastor.  The pastor is supposed to be the one person, above all others, whom you can trust. 

So what do you tell someone who has experienced abuse from the very one he or she should be able to trust with matters of the spirit?


Let me insert a personal experience that my husband and I walked through with one church that had some pastors who operated in spiritual abuse.

When I first found the church, I was so happy to have found it that I left a glowing review on Yelp.   I felt confident of recommending my church to others and I knew I couldn't be the only one to turn to the internet when in need of finding a place to belong. Then, fast forward about five years.  (A lot can happen in five years.)

Over the course of that time period, my husband and I had experienced quite a few things at the hands of some of those at this church that left us feeling not quite so glowing.  Most of these experiences involved new leadership that had arrived in the church, but I think another facet is like relationships everywhere:  getting to know someone better, you learn more about them than you did initially.  Living in close community with this church, we had come to see that there was actually quite a bit of control there.  1st Sign of an Abusive Church:  Controlling pastors.  

Now in the Yelp review I'd posted about this church, I was radiant in declaring that this church was NOT controlling.  For several years now, I had seen a different side, but I really hesitated before stating this publicly.  After all, it's a church.  And I still knew people there.  And they knew me.  I could be seen as an apostate or worse.  2nd Sign of an Abusive Church:  The environment discourages the questioning of church leaders in any way as a form of rebellion.

But I did not wish to be responsible for leading people to a controlling and abusive environment through my first review which said so clearly "This is a healthy place to attend."

By this time, I knew quite the opposite was true.  One of the pastors lied to and about us so much that we finally began to fact-check everything he told us.   Another pastor was dealing with sexually deviant issues while working with young people, and when the issue came to the surface through his bad decisions, he was removed without anyone knowing why, and his real issues were never exposed to the parents of the children he'd worked with.   3rd Sign of an Abusive Church:  They refuse to be transparent about sin or failings of the pastors. 

We tried to deal with our concerns and frustrations in a Biblical manner and go to the lead pastor but his response slammed the proverbial door in our faces and let us know that any complaints we had about pastoral staff would not be listened to at all, and the church door was open should we choose to leave.

Additionally, story after story had come to our attention regarding this church that my review so heartily recommended.  One pastor told a Godly young couple that they would not receive the blessing of God in their new marriage unless they met this pastor's list of prerequisites.  4th Sign of an Abusive Church:  Manipulating people by taking God's place in directing their lives.

One young woman felt so hemmed in and controlled by her pastor that she was terrified to even leave the church.  Another young woman was put out of the church and accused by a pastor of being a seductress:  as it turned out, the source of the accusation was mentally unstable and threatened to rape her, which eventually led to his admittance into a mental institution.  The church had backed him every step of the way and the pastor involved never apologized for destroying this woman's image.  Yes, all those events and more had come to rest at our door.  We had not sought them out.  We simply loved and knew the people these things happened to.

So, I left a new review.  I explained I could no longer recommend the church based on the controlling abuse I was now aware of, although I still loved many of the people who attended, and believed that there were some pastors there who were truly awesome folks that sincerely loved people.  Heck, I even gave them two stars rather than one, based on the fact that I believed they still taught Biblical content for the most part. 

Reviews on Yelp don't have to be permanent.  I once left a chastising review with a business based on my interactions with it and had the owner of the business contact me.  She expressed that she was desirous of learning how she could fix the problem.  I shared what led me to write the review.  She agreed that based on my experience, my concerns were valid and wished to return the money I'd paid for the poor service received.  I told her I appreciated it and then offered, without her asking, to just remove my review.  She thankfully acquiesced.   The review no longer exists on the internet for the business and I have no bad feelings about my experience.  Everyone involved wins!!!

But, unfortunately, that was not how it went down with this church.  No one contacted us.  Nobody reached out to say, "Man, the things you have shared in this review concern me, too.  They are truly concerning things.  Control is a real problem."


5th Sign of an Abusive Church:  The "Brand" must be protected at all costs.

No.  No, but in a truly controlling fashion, this church did not contact us personally although we were currently in the area, but went about finagling information from our friends and family about us.

And we received a card in the mail from one of the pastors with $100.00 in it.

I know.  First thought makes you go, "Wow, what a truly loving and Christian thing to do:  that pastor totally nailed the "turn the other cheek thing, didn't he?" 

But do you know what the immediate fruit of that check and card was?  Guilt.  Ah, man.  What have I done?  I had hurt and wounded this pastor through my review and now he is being so...Christian.  I'm such a jerk!!!

6th Sign of an Abusive Church:  Attempts to Manipulate through Guilt and Condemnation.

And then I thought, "Wait a second.  I'm not a jerk.  I am not acting out of vengeance by writing this review.  I wasn't being vindictive in anything I wrote.  I was thoughtful, sad, even concerned in my review."  And if what I had shared was untrue in any way, this pastor could easily have connected with me and cleared up the situation.  That's what business owners do.

I wanted to send the check back, but Daniel halted me.

"Why send it back?"

"Because you know that he is sending this to make us feel guilty for writing a review about the church.  I don't want his stupid money!"

"Does he say anything about the review in the card?" Daniel asked.

"No.  He is saying "nice" things that he never told us in person in all the years we attended.  Things like believing in our dreams and believing for our future and caring about us.  Pastory things.  Like how much he loves us.  Aaargh.  But you know he is sending it to try to "heap burning coals on our heads", or whatever that Bible verse says about doing nice things when people are jerks."
Daniel smiled:  "If he doesn't say why he is sending it, we don't get to make assumptions about why he is giving it to us.  We have to take what he says at face value.  He is a big boy.  You haven't done anything wrong by changing a review that you no longer believed in.  If he has a real problem with us, the Bible has a protocol for him to follow in how to resolve his frustration.  And if he is doing it to manipulate us, then that just backs up the fact that they are a really controlling church and have major issues."

So we kept the money and I sent a nice, friendly thank you card back letting the pastor know we appreciated his generosity and his words.  And everyone posed very nicely and pretended to smile prettily and nothing else happened, except that we decided we would never attend that church again.

Not every church is an abusive church and not every pastor is an abusive pastor.  Thank God, I can say I know some truly amazing human beings who pastor churches and I am blessed to call them my friends.  They really are my friends.  They know me, care for me, and if I needed spiritual help, I could call on any of them in an instant and they would be there for me, if they possibly could.

7th Sign of an Abusive Church:  The pastors are not interested in healthy personal relationships with you, but consider themselves part of an elite group over you.

Many so called "pastors" are board members, organization controllers, community organizers and management professionals, but not pastors in the truest sense of the word.   Unfortunately, pharisees do exist.  Yet the idea that a pastor can be an abuser is not popular.  It's something people don't want to hear you speak about or believe can happen.  And if you are one who has been abused at their hands, there are many who will try to squelch your story and your voice simply because they believe it better to hide this truth:  that pharisees exist.

 I'm using the term "Pharisee" because the wicked priests of the Bible who rejected even Christ, are a perfect example of the kind of pastors we're talking about here.  You are not crazy: wicked pastors who know plenty of God's word and continue to act wickedly, DO EXIST.


What you need to know is that God profoundly loves you.  And the abuse you suffered at their hands, in the name of Christ, infuriates God. And He will repay.  Galatians 6:7 says, "Don't be misled--you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant."  Justice matters to God.



In our own experience, both at this church and others, forgiveness is key.  It's the hardest thing you will likely ever do, because everything in you is screaming for justice.  But God says that Justice is His.  So, we forgive: actively, daily even, every time the pain hits anew.  Unforgiveness and bitterness will utterly destroy us as people.  It will ultimately hurt us more than the evil we've experienced ever could.  We must release the villainy of pastors who have abused and rejected us so that God can judge them. 

Forgiveness is supernatural.  It is impossible for you to feel like forgiving anybody.  We simply obey God and He works the miracle.  We say, "God I forgive X."  And God is the one who begins the miracle of forgiveness in us.

And we must leave the abuse.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  God is NOT your abuser.  He is not asking you to beat yourself down by staying under the abuse of a ministry or pastor.  Christ suffered for you, once and for all!  While God does take us through difficult times, He does not call us to abuse.  We must treat the prize of freedom that Christ won for us with great value and not place it in the hands of the perverse to malign.

God can handle the darkness.  Perhaps your brokenness has already chased you into dark places in your heart.  Perhaps the continuing evil of these perpetrators is too much for you to handle.  It is too much for us.  You are not the savior of the world, Christ is.  But don't worry:  He's already promised us that "the wicked will not inherit the earth".  Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased it this way:  "The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice."  God is very patient but He is just and He will handle the darkness.

Love your neighbor as yourself.  You are not powerless.  You can be a part of the solution for the next person.  Whatever you'd like others to do for you, do for them:  If you can warn others of an abusive church, do so.  Just keep in mind, you can't make people choose wisely or well.  You cannot make evil pastors change.  You do not control the hearts of people.  God does.  But He cares for people even more than you.  Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before your God.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Live free!

For more insight into this subject, this is an excellent article on Abusive Churches:  http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/churchandministry/Spiritual_Abuse1.aspx

 

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