Like a lot of Christians, I have lived through a number of rotten situations. Like a slightly smaller set of Christians, most of the rotten situations I have lived through were caused by other Christians. They have caused me to question my identity, my faith, and my calling. And because so many of the rotten things that have occurred in my life took place in the context of the church, I thought I had no choice but to tough it out. That became harder and harder to do.
The first time I heard that it was not only OK to leave a toxic situation but was actually described in scripture was after I was accused of heresy, of being a lesbian, and of being a troublemaker… The healthy scriptural advice I needed is found in Matthew 10:14, Luke 9:5 and Mark 6:11. Before I tell you how I began to survive, I need to share one situation I needed to survive. Well, one story, at least. And this story is less tragic for me than it was for several other participants in the narrative. You’ll see what I mean.
The downward spiral began when I received a call being told that one of the girls in the youth group where I served had just been “inappropriately touched” by a friend of her parents, who also happened to be a deacon at my church and the head of the finance committee. I went with her to tell her parents. Her father was understandably angry. Her mother was as well, but not in the way you might imagine. She looked straight at her daughter and said “I thought I raised you better than this! Don’t you know his wife is my best friend? How do you think she is going to feel? What good is telling anyone going to do? You should be able to handle your own business not drag others in to rescue you. You better not mess up my friendship.” I was floored.
I went with her to another family’s house that night. They listened, talked, and prayed with her. It was now my job to report the incident in order to protect her and others.
Our pastor had just retired so I went to our chair of deacons the next day to let him know I had to report the incident. I was after all a mandated reporter. He very gently told me that it was hearsay. It should be handled in-house. I asked to let the deacons know first. He told me that, as a female, I could not attend the deacon meeting but I could send a male representative. Unfortunately, as I was not married at the time, any male I told would constitute gossip so I could not tell anyone. Matter closed…for him.
I did call the police and made my report, but the young woman who was groped and fondled up her skirt recanted. She said I was making something out of nothing. It went down as an incident report and I was vilified by the finance chair and a few others in power at the church. What I found out in this process was that many girls and women had been groped by this man over the years, but all thought it was too disruptive to the community to call him out. He contributed a great deal financially and personally to the church so his indiscretions were overlooked. I was even pulled aside by a well meaning Sunday School teacher and told, “Everyone knows to avoid him, he has always groped women. Just walk on the other side of the sidewalk and you don’t get touched.” Somehow this was acceptable in this church. But not with me. Turns out he also gave porn to boys but no one seemed concerned about that either. Oh…and a year later I learned he had been molesting his own daughter for years. At the age of 13 she was stoned more often than not in order to hide the pain. Still, no one seemed willing to stand up to him.
My time in this church, after all the lies, betrayal, slander, and general angst, ended with the youth group miraculously growing…numerically and spiritually. This is why I stayed. I was witnessing an amazing ministry and believed that if this much good was present, surely something would shift and redemption would come. I had fantastic volunteer youth leaders, wonderful parents, and teens longing to grow more in their faith and put it into action. The time with teens was precious and I really thought I could withstand anything with Christ. What I didn’t see, what I couldn’t see, was that I was losing a lot of weight and getting migraines with the stress of what was happening in church leadership. I was gaunt, sickly and struggling.
After a year, I was pulled aside in the parking lot one night after youth group and told roughly, “We would like to offer you a raise if you would be willing to drop all accusations with the police. If not, we will have to let you go and we will say it is for financial reasons. Sometimes you have to look the other way in order to preserve the unity of the body of Christ.” (emphasis mine). That last part in italics is a direct quote. As if seared into my mind, that phrase surfaces on all too many occasions when I hear horrific stories that have happened in the midst of Christian communities.
And yet here I am. Years later. I am still in ministry. I still love Jesus and the church. I am not the only one to have survived Christians. In the last 20 years I have experienced terrible things. I have walked through even more with countless people. At others times, I have been a listening ear for others to share with me what they have experienced. Sometimes years after the fact; sometimes sharing their story for the first time.
There is power in story and knowing you are not the only one. There is power in hearing how others coped. There is power in learning how to move beyond surviving into thriving. Bullies, predators, and liars all count on one thing: silence by the ones they have wronged.
I want to offer hope to those who are currently struggling. To those contemplating walking away from the church, their faith or worse, their own lives, know this: there is hope.
I was taught as a kid to expect non-Christians to behave like non-Christians. In other words, if they don’t know Jesus how could they imitate Jesus (Eph 5:1). But what happens when they do know Jesus? What happens when it is a Christian or group of Christians destroying the lives of other Christians? These are the things about which we are not supposed to talk. Rapes by fathers, abuse by mothers. Pastors cheating and lying. Professors who are verbally abusive and liars. Church leadership who uses people like pawns. Ministries who dismiss long time employees for fictitious reasons. It all comes down to some form of betrayal. That which was to keep us safe, those who were supposed to be above reproach and trustworthy are too often the ones who torpedo the lives of the next generation. We need to stop the cycle. I no longer expect non-Christians to not imitate Jesus. Many imitate Jesus quite well whether they know it or not. I do, however, call those of us who are professing to follow Jesus to align our lives in such a way as to imitate Jesus intentionally, even when it costs us. Otherwise, what is the point?
What I am looking for are stories from others. Stories of Survival, even if barely. How have you coped? Where did you find hope? I’d love for those in the midst of struggle to know they are not alone. Post your story in the comments. Send it to me directly if you are not comfortable with comments. Use a pseudonym if you need. But share your story. If you know of someone who has a story to share, pass this along to them. Pass it on anyway, you never know who does have a story of survival.
I need your help to get this out there. I will be posting on this topic again. There are many stories that need to be told. We need a repository of hope.