There is No Harm like Church Harm
On Church Hurt and Repentance
When my twin sister1 and I stood at the intersection of graduate school choices, we discovered our childhood pastor felt deeply involved. When she took steps toward a decision he did not like she received a shocking phone call. He went on a furious tirade questioning Elizabeth’s wisdom, maturity, and even the validity of her faith. Once his anger was spent, he hung up the phone never to speak to either of us again.
Shocked and confused, we processed together suddenly seeing our relationship with him from a different perspective. What we recognized was years of controlling patterns. The overwhelming praise he bestowed upon me for my choice in opposition to the verbal abuse she had just experience. The way our compliance had always been rewarded with the encouragement, affirmation, and mentorship we craved. His generosity disguised subtle pressure to conform to an image of his making. The flashes of temper that, only in retrospect, foreshadowed the explosion she had just experienced. In many ways, we viewed him as a father figure, a mentor for two homeschooled girls unwelcome in our current theological circles and ill-equipped for the higher education we were pursuing.
It is difficult to sum how deeply our relationship with him interweaved in our spiritual lives. The loss was tremendous.
However, that evening the scales fell of our eyes.
A few weeks or months later, he spoke to other family members expressing regret over his tirade, remembering us as his spiritual daughters, and wishing for things to return to how they were. When we heard about this conversation we retorted in sum, “He knows how to restore the relationship. He needs to talk to us, apologize, make it right. He is being manipulative. He knows what to do; he is pretending not to.”
Raised in a fundamentalist cult, my formative knowledge of a spiritual mentor, leader, or pastor was exclusively limited to toxic, abusive men. Spiritual abuse is nearly ingrained in my DNA. It has required years of difficult lessons, personal development, and therapy to tell the difference between a healthy spiritual relationship and a toxic one. The education was painful and came at a high cost at nearly every stage of my life. In my early twenties experiencing my first spiritual betrayal with too many more to come, I knew that the relationship ended not because my so-called pastor lost his temper, but because he would not repent.
More than this, because his heart was hardened against grief over his own wrongdoings he engaged in a long-term, decided pattern of manipulation and abuse of power not only in our lives but throughout the community he was called to shepherd.
There is no harm like church harm. Jesus promised, “They will know you by your love,” which sums the fair expectation that a church should be the place where you are welcomed with the full dignity God imparted upon you when they formed you. When the opposite is revealed to be the true the effects are devastating. The trust is broken, the former sense of safety and belonging is gone, and these losses often result in an experience of confusion and grief. Oftentimes you lose the spiritual community and with it a significant support and friend system. Moving forward, perhaps you were more cautious or even guarded when it came to participating in another spiritual community. Perhaps you have found that life outside the Church is more safe, more whole. This too is a valid choice.
A significant reason for the church’s power to harm is the power differential between pastors and their congregations. Pastors are leaders, spiritual confidents, oftentimes teachers and preachers. They may know intimate details about your inner life and family system; they are present for intense, vulnerable moments; they may be privy to your emotional and spiritual wounding. They occupy positions of knowledge and wisdoms pontificating in pulpits while you do not occupy the same sphere of unchallenged public discourse.2 They, hopefully, have formal biblical and theological education far beyond any layperson they employ in teaching and preaching roles. Yet none of this is reciprocated. In other words, what the pastor is for you is not what you are to the pastor.
In the therapist’s office, boundaries are clearly delineated (or should be), but the pastor’s role is far more fluid. There may be a relationship akin to friendship and mutual trust, but boundaries are less professional, blurred, and may shift from context to context.3 However it looks, pastors occupy a position of power they can easily manipulate if no one involved recognizes the power imbalance nor tends their emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
A spiritual leader may take advantage of this vulnerable dynamic to abuse, manipulate, gaslight,4 or otherwise harm individuals and the entire community. In many cases, systems of concentrated power, money, religious denominations or factions may rise.5
I highly doubt I am writing to any individual who is not aware of Christian church failings, particularly the American church. In that same vein, I doubt I am talking to many who have never experienced wounding at the Church’s hands. When Paul describes the Church as the Body of Christ he means that the Church is the physical embodiment of Christ in a world where Christ no longer physically dwells. When I say that the church’s hands have harmed you I mean it in the way that you might have experienced it – as though Christ himself struck you.
A common moniker for the Church is “a hospital for sinners.” Versions of this may be offered to people who have experience hurt in a church, with the implied, What did you expect?? The church is full of people, which is to say full of people dealing with their own stuff, grappling with whatever hell life has thrown lately, and deeply invested in a community they feel has eternal ramifications. The pastors too have their blind spots, missed moments, poor word choices, tempers, mess. They are navigating a vocation that is not always or even sometimes easy. The opportunity for mistakes are legion in pastoral and community relationships.
The Church is a place where you will be hurt.
This is not to say that your hurt doesn’t matter, that it was your fault, that because it is expected then you should let it go.
When I say that the Church will harm you, I do not mean that your harm does not matter, that you are being petty, or that your expectations are unrealistic. I am not blaming you for your wounded heart.
In short, I do not believe that anyone is looking for a spiritual community that is perfect. We all know that this does not exist; no one needs this victim blaming insinuation.
I believe that what we should seek in church leaders and communities is that when they fail, and they will, they are sorry.
This is the distinction between hurt and abuse; between a pattern of harm and a moment of harm - repentance.
They are grieved that what they have done or left undone hurt you
They specifically name their failing.6
They can validate and repeat back to you the effects their failing had upon you.
They can apologize without justification (i.e. no “but” no self-victimization).
They understand that trust may be broken, or at least a bit cracked.
They can commit to future repair.
They can hold that you may not be ready and wait for such a time that you are.
You will see the fruit of their self-work in the future.7
There is no harm like church harm. There is no power like repentance to heal. The Church’s failing is not that she houses sinners. The Church harms when she does not repent.
New to my Bookshelf
(A new section I will be including henceforth because I love reading and I love talking about books so why not shove them in your face).
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón was a profound and, in moments, hilarious poetry collection. She possesses an unpretentious yet nuanced voice. I loved this one and I started it over as soon as I finished it!
I admit I almost didn’t pick up The Life by Carrie Fountain because of the glittery cover art, but in the words of Jessica Day, “I have touched glitter in the past 24 hours… and it doesn’t mean I’m not smart or tough or strong.” I repressed my internalized misogyny to deal with at later date, and thoroughly enjoyed these thoughtful poems. Fountain sees a life, a world, that isn’t perfect - but it is ours. If you are a Kate Baer fan (and if you aren’t you should be) then I think Carrie Fountain is a good fit for you.
I am literally obsessed with Naomi Novik’s Scholmance series. I sped through A Deadly Education, am currently binging The Last Graduate, and I cannot wait for the third. Honestly, how dare she make us wait until September for it. ugh. Anyway, Novik creates a dark, deadly, truly imaginative wizarding world with a realized, developed protagonist at the center. Get thee to a bookstore!
What is No Ordinary Life?
An ex-pastor who believes that Christ came that we may have life and have it to the fullest. Life is abundant when we receive God’s love then return it to God, to self, and to neighbor. Did you enjoy reading? I invite you to subscribe and keep reading!
This story is shared with permission.
I recall a professor in divinity school telling us a story of a former colleague discussing some theological perspective that most of his students not only disagreed with but began to mock. The professor stopped his class, looked at his students then warned, “Don’t laugh. If I wanted to, I could make you believe it.” Knowledge is power! Those with it can use it to harm whether it’s the classroom, pulpit, or tire repair shop charging me double because I didn’t know better.
For example, I was comfortable inviting congregants into my home for meals and Bible studies, but I had many peers who held a boundary at their door.
Gaslighting is an insidious form of manipulation that occurs in abusive relationships, whether interpersonal or institutional, when the abuser leads the victim to question their own reality. The abuser will eventually be successful in causing their victims to distrust their own perception of reality – not only questioning what actually happened but their feelings, instincts, and sanity about the events. This twisting of reality awards the abuser the position of dictating the victim’s reality to them. Examples are the insistence that you did or said things you didn’t do, mocking or discounting your recollection of events, labeling you “crazy” or “can’t take a joke,” and revising history to shift blame to the victim. Eventually you are the crazy one who cannot trust your reality while the abuser holds the keys to what is so-called “true.”
See the Ravi Zacharias ministries who shielded and maligned his victims, the SBC who turns a blind eye to rampant sexual abuse through their congregations allowing predators to occupy positions of power. See Acts 29, TGC, Patheos who gave Mark Driscoll praise and support until public outcry and testimonies of abuse was too much to continue ignoring, Bill Hybels whose church first insulated him from allegations of misconduct. Right now the Anglican Church of North America is grappling with allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct in some of their congregations. There are dozens upon dozens of other allegations and abuses I could unhappily provide.
A spiritual abuse leader, individual, community will generally own their failings with a generic statement, “I’ve messed up,” “I’ve made mistakes,” “I’m not perfect,” etc.
Spiritual abusers will repeat an abuse cycle like any other type of abuse with the same pattern of behavior rising again and again.