Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

By Tim Butler | Posted at 13:26

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of moving on post-church abuse (see my first part of this story) is the matter of regaining trust in people. How could something like this happen? How can it not only happen, but — generally speaking — how can it happen and so few were willing to stand up against it? How can more abuse be going on at the very same church right now and the leadership does not care enough to stop it?

The last question is the hardest to swallow. Just weeks ago another person started being harassed at the old church in ways not very unlike what I faced. The leaders of the church know the person has been hurt, yet they do not act. They know other people have also faced situations like what I faced and yet they do not act. Only a handful of people are willing to rock the boat, others either do not want to see or are fearful of the guns turning on them should they admit that they see.

This is not the way things are suppose to be.

My friend Eduardo, who himself faced an abusive church situation, nailed what happens in abusive church situations in a piece he wrote last week. He writes how leaders, “once challenged […] will unleash living hell on the concerned member. Threats; anonymous letters, emails and SMS; character assassination; blackmail; extortion; and several other cloak-and-dagger techniques are all fair game.”

I experienced almost all of these abuses last summer. The main perpetrators of the abuse in the leadership worked systematically towards not merely forcing me out of the church (or into a broken submission to the abuse) but also took actions that very well could have destroyed my calling and career. Yes, they went that far. If it were only me, I might be able to process the fact that numerous people I trusted deeply were willing to look the other way as I faced church abuse. But how does one reconstruct trust when one can see people he trusted allowing harassment and abuse to occur over and over again?

I would like to think it is cognitive dissonance on the parts of those leaders who do not take an active role in the abuse, yet choose to look the other way or make excuses. On the other hand, maybe it is cognitive dissonance on my part to try to create an excuse for them. But, I desperately want to believe people I always thought to be caring, decent people cannot truly think abuse is OK in a church. I desperately want to believe they do not think a cold, rationalistic “ends justifies the means” view excuses looking over abuse for the supposed “greater good” of the church.

As time rolls on and I learn more and more stories of abuse and misdeeds in my old church — tales not from troublemakers, but from people I know have been sincerely wounded — it becomes harder and harder to understand how those who stand on the sidelines can do so. OK, so I got hurt, that's fine… but how can you let so many other people get hurt, too?

I do not know what to do about this. What I do know is that too much of what I experienced and what I see and hear can be stopped. And, all I can do for those who think abuse might be going on in their church is say this: never, ever be content to mind your own business and assume it is best that things stay quiet. Though abusers may argue otherwise, it is not proper and it is not biblical. The darkness of the quiet breeds abuse.

If you notice people are missing from your church, or — worse, still — know they are not only missing but are also saying they have been attacked, abused, harassed or what have you, ask questions. Learn about the situation. And do not accept the pastor's or leaders' explanations as gospel truth right away, particularly if what they claim about the person who has been apparently wounded appears massively out of character for that person. In my situation, too many people were willing to accept claims about me that they admitted sounded nothing like what they knew of me.

In the end, when people are willing to look the other way, not only does it encourage abuse, it also hurts the leader and pastors. Everyone needs to be held accountable, because lack of accountability, especially in high positions, creates a temptation for abuse that very few people can resist. If the members refuse to allow darkness to cover the sins of abuse, fewer people will be abused.

An inscription from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. has been brought to my attention several times by people in relation to my experience. Most recently, a friend lent me a book on church abuse that quotes it. It is apropos:

Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.

If people refuse to be bystanders, the environment that encourages abuse can be destroyed.

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

Having been thorugh a similar situation, I would add that while we should defend the powerless, we do have God as our defender. We need to make sure we are leaving vengance to him. We are to pray for those that persecute us.

Posted by sjm - Jan 22, 2010 | 21:43

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

Yes, that's certainly true — it is the hard part, but you are right. I think the problem today is that too often it happens that we do not worry about defending the powerless. That is what bothers me so much: I can see people getting hurt and it is so hard to watch when I know it doesn't have to be this way.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jan 22, 2010 | 22:10

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

Tim, thanks for the reference :)

sjm is right — Recently, when my boss was in the brink of having an emotional breakdown because of all the abuse unleashed on him, somehow I managed to tell him. “Don't worry, boss. The Church is the Church of the Lord and He is Master and Owner of her. In the end, He is the one who will prevail”. This seemed to comfort him.

The whole onslaught was hard on him. It was on me, too — but then I'm bordering on 40. He, on the contrary, is 77 and the legacy of his whole life is what was being put into mockery.

Let's pray that God can deliver us from the people described in Psalms 64:2-6.

Posted by Eduardo - Jan 22, 2010 | 23:49

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

One of the benefits of telling a story like this is hearing all the others who speak up about their similar stories. I can tell you a handful of my own. One particularly hard situation resulted in my joining another church down the street, only to find it had a “recovery group” dedicated to people who had been kicked out of the first church. You're not alone. We're not alone historically, either.

I am grateful for the reminder that the power is God's, not ours, that vengeance is God's, not ours. The solution to violence - and violence is the issue here - is never more violence. The way of peace is never aggressive, but it can be assertive. Those of us who have been given voices in this world can use them to speak for those who have not.

Posted by Caedmon - Jan 23, 2010 | 0:06

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

An additional bit of advice to those who ask church leaders for an explanation about another member: if that leader says anything negative about the person in question, characteristic or not, then one should seriously and skeptically question what they are saying. They should ask themselves, if that leader is willing to participate in gossip about that person, then what else might be going on there?

Posted by JAH - Jan 23, 2010 | 3:55

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

Very good point that JAH has made regarding church leaders talking to others negatively about someone. I have indeed heard this done, just little comments that sound innocuous about someone coming from my pastor and it left me wondering what else he says. Just words coming out from a pastor's mouth is taken as gospel by many who forget that the pastor is human just like the rest of us. In fact, because they are human, the temptation has to be so great to let the power that comes from them being adored, make them feel above the others around them.

Posted by Hope - Jan 23, 2010 | 17:23

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

JAH and Hope, those are excellent points. I hope someone who could benefit from them reads them and takes heed.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jan 24, 2010 | 4:57

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

I completely understand Tim. I have (praise the Lord) recently broken away from a VERY religously abusive church and situation. It is idolatry. While I loved everyone very much (whom the VAST majority have been “shunning” me) I now know that is not what the Bible says about leadership and submission to authority and could not carry on - to do so was sin and made me not right with my Savior. Thanks for sharing your story.

Posted by CarolinaGirl - Jan 24, 2010 | 22:01

Re: Unfolding My Story: Church Abuse and Trust

Thanks for stopping by, CarolinaGirl. I am sorry to hear about your situation, though it sounds like you are on the right track now… I will be praying for you.

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Jan 25, 2010 | 8:05

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