I wasn’t able to participate in the first day of Spiritual Abuse Awareness week due to other demands on my time. I wasn’t sure I was going to write anything today, either. My experiences are mild compared to the horrific things friends and fellow bloggers have shared, and I believe those people who have survived need safe space to heal. That sometimes includes people like me, who only feel it like the residual tremors of an earthquake, remaining quiet and letting others tell their stories. But I had an experience that reminded me that everything has consequences, even if we don’t realize it at the time. So here is my story about the aftermath of dealing with spiritually abusive people and how deep it can make us bleed.
Last Sunday, the pastor asked to speak to us about our son.
I was on my way in alone; I was playing my violin during the service and had arrived early to practice with the choir. My husband and children were driving separately. The pastor stopped me on my way up to the choir loft and said,
I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes in my office after church, about your son.
I must have looked surprised, because she added that it was about his baptism, which is scheduled for the Sunday after Easter. I nodded and told her that was no problem. But inside, I was panicking.
That’s not really a healthy response to a conversation with a pastor.
I need to say here that our pastor is a lovely woman. She is kind and gentle and delivers fantastic sermons. She has been nothing but loving and warm towards our family, our children in particular. My daughter warmed to her immediately, which is fairly miraculous–she has discriminating taste in people. So there are no circumstances under which I should feel threatened or intimidated by this pastor. Even if I had committed some grave error, I suspect she would handle it with grace.
My immediate reaction to anyone in spiritual authority asking to speak to me has become one of fear. I have learned to expect rebukes rather than positive conversations. When I realized what had happened, that my response was out of proportion with reality, I was puzzled. Where in the world did such feelings come from?
I knew that it wasn’t really the result of my experiences as a teenager. I was a little afraid of the pastor of that church, but I don’t believe that I thought of him as genuinely in authority over me. I had no sense of church politics or hierarchy; I was in a bubble of Christian youth culture (as much as there actually was back in the late ’80s/early ’90s). And it certainly didn’t come from the ten years my husband and I spent at our first church as a married couple. That pastor and his family were like an extension of our own. We were close, and we remain in touch to this day despite the 3000 miles separating us.
I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I am not going to sit here and say that I was spiritually abused by our church or the leadership*. That would be lying, and it would be hurtful to those who are still involved. But I will tell you this: There were people in authority there who absolutely, unquestionably used intimidation tactics on me and on others. I was spoken to multiple occasions about my writing, particularly in regard to my feminism and my unwavering stance as an LGBT ally (and once or twice about my parenting). I was never told I shouldn’t blog or use social media, but I received subtle threats about it more than once. Additionally, there were a few adults who used my children for the purpose of coercion and “correction.” (Nothing makes me go all Mama Bear faster than church people using my kids as weapons.)
None of that may sound particularly bad; and perhaps it isn’t. But taken as a whole, it damaged my sense that pastors and leaders are safe people. They may not overtly threaten or shun or shout from the pulpit, but they hold power over the people–in large part because they (or the church structure) dictates that they do. When leaders wield their authority inappropriately, it undermines people’s faith that they can trust them.
This is exactly what happened to me. I believe that over time, I can–and will–regain my ability to trust, because it wasn’t damaged beyond repair. But there are others for whom the same cannot be said. This is unacceptable–not because it’s unacceptable to be non-religious or non-churchgoing, but because the reason for being non-religious or non-churchgoing should never, ever be because it was literally or figuratively beaten out of you.
By the way, the reason the pastor wanted to talk to us was so she could set a time to come to our house to speak to our son about what will happen when he’s baptized, physically and spiritually. We met last night, and it was good–exactly as I should have expected.
I hope you will read the other stories about spiritual abuse this week. There are some remarkable survivors out there. Take the time to get to know them through their words. And if you have been spiritually abused, please read this excellent post by Caleigh on self-care. Meanwhile, I’m going to spend some time praying for the strength to trust again.
*That is not to say that I wasn’t exposed to abusive beliefs or teachings; I’m speaking specifically here about being directly abused, harassed, threatened, mistreated, intimidated, etc. by pastors, elders, and other leaders in the church.
For more posts on spiritual abuse, visit these web sites: