Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 7:14 PM

It began one year ago today. A simple plea that some questionable activities be stopped on the computers I administered at my old church turned into an all out war aimed at silencing me legally, vilifying me to my friends and destroying my work towards ministry. Eventually, the war grew so that it also took aim against my family and friends. I have discussed each one of those matters in the past and if I wanted to, I could document them meticulously. That's not my point today. Today, I am writing about the aftermath that makes it hard to even remember what life was like before.

Ultimately, the face of church abuse is not the legal contracts or ringing phones, programs or policies. It is relational. A gaping breach of trust occurs of a magnitude that is (I suspect) impossible to relay. And whatever the manifestation, such a breach is going to have long lasting aftershocks.

I remember visiting a larger church when I started the search for a new church home after it became clear I could not remain at the old church. I observed how the building of the church I was visiting had many rooms and, instead of thinking how great it was that this church was doing so well, I found myself wondering how many people were being abused in the bowels of the building.

As crazy as the thought was, it was tied to what I had experienced and know that others have experienced. If numerous cases of abuse could happen right under my nose, at the very church I grew up in, it is easy to start wondering about other, less familiar churches. How does one allay such fears?

I have a hard time trusting anyone anymore. I suspect ulterior motives in people whom I would have previously trusted without a second thought. I feel the fear and nausia of last summer well up inside of me again whenever I hear certain “trigger” words that related to what happened. My mind is more scattered and I have a harder time focusing on projects I need to complete.

The active assault may be over, but the damage remains. By God's grace, I can overcome the damage inflicted by the abuse. I am overcoming it. But, I would be lying if I said I have overcome it.

My family was at that church for at least five generations. I think of not only the loss of friends who knew me for most of my life, but also people who knew my grandparents for decades, knew great aunts and uncles, and so on. Families whose stories were intertwined with my family's stories. All of that was rent from us and for what purpose?

Some people from the old church have contacted myself or my mother to tell us to “get over it.” The thinking goes, if anything, we are being sinful and hurtful for not being “forgiving enough,” that if we write anything about what happened to us, it must be for revenge.

These people drastically misunderstand what happened and how great the ramifications of it are. I do not wish my experiences on them, but if they had faced the sort of fierce, sustained, abusive force from a pastor and church leaders that we did and escaped beaten, battered and somehow vilified, I don't think they would feel the same way about us. At the time when we most needed the loving care of our church family, many of them, people I would have thought we could lean on in a time of need, simply stood there and pointed at us accusingly.

I think if the roles were reversed, they would hope someone would be trying to stop the abuser rather accusing the abused.

How can anyone assume it is better to cover and excuse abuse than help to stop it? How can so many people care so little when their own church perverts the gospel? How can this be what the Body of Christ looks like?

It is not as if my old church is unique in this. This is a story that is told too many times in too many churches. One only needs to look to the headlines and spot the latest coverage of the scandal in the Catholic Church to see a large scale attempt at coverup. We as a church need to recognize how damaging church abuse of any sort is and refuse to tolerate abuse or subsequent coverups. Instead of protecting abusive leaders, we should help to aid healing in their victims.

How did we as a Church ever come to believe any other reaction was noble or even acceptable?

The sorts of things that happened to my family are wounds that cannot be expected to heal quickly. To have your pastor attempt to mentally break you into confessing things you did not do, repeatedly betray explicitly requested confidences, attempt to cover all of those deeds by trying to force his victim to sign legal agreements protecting the pastor, go on the attack against anyone who questioned his actions towards us and so on… these are scars that last.

I have seen and experienced politicking, blackmail and vengefulness of a level I had only heard about secondhand. At times the mental abuse was so intense I started to believe the lies the perpetrators said about me. I understand now how mental torture can cause a person to snap and believe almost anything just to end the pain.

If people really want to help Christ's Church, instead of seeking to quiet those who have been hurt, they should be a voice of the injured that seeks to end abuse.

The accusations are wrong when they suggest I write for revenge. The obvious question to those accusations is why I should not write about such a significant life event for plenty of good reasons. There has been an assumption from the beginning that those attacking us were free to talk as they saw fit, but we were somehow obliged to help them keep their deeds in the shadows.

My goal now is not an expose, however — I still have kept my original plan not to name names.

My goal is to help people understand what church abuse does so that they might realize that the status quo cannot be accepted when it is damaging and destroying lives. People need to hear real stories, not abstractions, to understand why it is so important to stop this disease in the church. Moreover, people who face abuse need to hear real stories so that they can understand their own situations are not normal and are not biblical — they need to be told God does not support abuse and is with them as they refuse to legitimize abusive leaders.

If people would just stand up, it would not happen. But, abuse does happen.

In the story of my life, it burst forth on May 4, 2009. One year ago.

It seems like lifetimes ago.

Previous Posts on this Subject:

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
The whole idea of leaving any church is hard enough after only a single year. You become deeply invested, and the ties run in every direction. I can't begin to grasp what it would be for you, because it was not possible for us to stay in one church my whole life (we moved too often, too far). However, I do know what it feels like to be hounded by church leaders with the power and intent to actually do harm.
Posted by Ed Hurst - May 04, 2010 | 9:36 PM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
I served as a Bishop in the CoC for 7+ years. It is a "soul sifting" experience. {I always wondered why Satan needed permission to sift Peter's soul. What did it accomplish or fail to accomplish? But Peter had the Lord praying for him.} CoC's require a plurality of Bishops. This I think helps when conflict rise to that level. I did not always strictly follow the Biblical prescription for conflict resolution. The Biblical approach is geared toward resolving a conflict between a few people. The offended party never reveals his feelings to a living soul until first trying to resolve it PRIVATELY with the offender. Most cases go no further. If there is lack of resolution then each party brings a trusted member with them to hear both sides and endeavor to facilitate a resolution. (Again at this point Privacy is of the upmost importance - if the issue spreads it can rapidly get out of control.) Should this fail then the parties are brought before the WHOLE church to tell their sides. The Church's decision is final. I've told many who came with a complaint about someone, expecting me to correct the problem, that it is their problem to resolve and if they fail I will be happy to set a time and place for the whole church to meet and hear why they are so upset with their brother/sister in Christ. I modified the Biblical teaching on this point whenever the "power" between the parties was significant. Say another Bishop vs. a teenager. This I now feel was a mistake. Church and conflict/abuse is a part of the Christian life -- sometimes we are the cause and don't know it and at other times (ideally) we should pray for them). Finally do not be overly worried about the Church. Simply try to do the right thing. Luther puts it well: Luther: On Sustaining and Upholding the Church It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says: “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” As it says in Heb. 13: “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and today, and forever .” And in Rev. 1: “Which was, and is, and is to come.” Verily He is that One, and none other is or can be. For you and I were not alive thousands of years ago, but the Church was preserved without us, and it was done by the One of whom it says, ‘Who was’and ‘Yesterday’. Again, we do not do it in our life-time, for the Church is not upheld by us. For we could not resist the devil in the Papacy and the sects and other wicked folk. For us, the Church would perish before our very eyes, and we with it (as we daily prove), were it not for that other Man who manifestly upholds the Church and us. This we can lay hold of and feel, even though we are loth to believe it, and we must needs give ourselves to the One of whom it is said, ‘Who is’ and ‘Today’. Again, we can do nothing to sustain the Church when we are dead. But He will do it of whom it is said, ‘Who is to come’ and ‘Forever’. And what we must needs say of ourselves in this regard is what our forefathers had also to say before us, as the Psalms and other Scriptures testify, and what our descendants will also experience after us, when with us and the whole Church they sing in Psalm 124: “If the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us,” and Psalm 60: “O be thou our help in trouble, for vain is the help of man.” … May Christ our dear God and the Bishop of our souls, which He has bought with His own precious blood, sustain His little flock by the might of His own Word, that it may increase and grow in grace and knowledge and faith in Him. May He comfort and strengthen it, that it may be firm and steadfast against all the crafts and assaults of Satan and this wicked world, and may He hear its hearty groaning and anxious waiting and longing for the joyful day of His glorious and blessed coming and appearing. May there be an end of this murderous pricking and biting of the heel, of horrible poisonous serpents. And may there come finally the revelation of the glorious liberty and blessedness of the children of God, for which they wait and hope in patience. To which all those who love the appearing of Christ our life will say from the heart, Amen, Amen. Luther.
Posted by John S - May 06, 2010 | 7:10 PM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Ed: Yes, you certainly know what it is like all too well, don't you? I remember some of that from a few years back, though I certainly understand your pain and struggle a lot more now. John: Good old Luther! He always has something apt to say. I think what you describe sounds more sensible and Biblical than the "peacemaking process" prescribed by Peacemaker. Am I right in guessing the position you are referring to as a "bishop" is analogous to the "elder" in other circles? I also think, though, that there are special, larger issues when the conflict is between a pastor and anyone in the congregation (especially someone who needs some support from the pastor, such as a seminary student or intern). Though I would have preferred an all-church meeting to the secret meetings we had, and I think that would have helped at least somewhat, people naturally want to believe the pastor over someone the pastor is accusing. (At one point, I offered to submit to a polygraph for that reason, if the pastor would as well.) This is one point that has bolstered practically the position I was already floating towards in theory -- Presbyterian governance -- in that our congregational system lacked any real accountability for the pastor. I think Biblically it is good to be "connectional," to use a buzz word, but I think the practical side is there too. In a case where a pastor is abusive, you desperately need accountability towards the pastor, otherwise he simply can use charisma and the power of the position to force "his way."
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - May 07, 2010 | 9:19 PM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Your right, we use Bishop, Elder, & Pastor as synonyms. Since each church is autonomous it's not a problem for us, so we go ahead and use the NT usage. Sorry for any confusion. A person must appeal a case to the whole church, except when the accusation is against a pastor. Then at least two members are required (1 Tim 5:19) to substantiate the accusation against the pastor. However, if the pastor is pursuing the case and it is unresolved after due process then it must go to the church. Regardless of structure, peace is never a state that last for very long. I see church operation over the ages as being modeled after powerful secular structures. The Roman Empire, etc. Today the corporation serves as the accepted model. Scripture and tradition are interwoven as possible, but are not normative. We have a "board of directors" and committee after committee. With these structures come their secular attitudes and values of management, how to get things done. Aggression rules, competition is always a threat, higher-ups look for measureable performance increase, any show of compassion and you will/could be dead meat. These behaviors are "not counted as sins" (just hardball business) in the secular world and have been increasingly imported into church operations, and thus the church. This has ever been a serious problem as can be gleamed from the many NT warnings against use of the church for any personal gain (including any personnel agenda). The Church is to be different (...do not Lord it over the flock...). We strive to make our churches a safe haven for the birthing and raising of Christians. But abuse occurs daily. Also, we must be cautious to make sure we ourselves do not over react and escalate a problem or see ourselves as the only hope for stopping abuse. [I speak as a old man from painful experience.] We simply do our best. I try to remember the parable of the weeds when we are ineffective: {He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said,‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ” } Abuse is a universal problem during "this present darkness" in which we contend with the "cosmic powers" (ESV). Tim, you are exactly right in that some, wanting peace at any cost, will actually stress the duty of the offended to "take a punch" for the church for the sake of unity: They may be well meaning, yet they do this as a last resort, fearing themselves to approach a relatively powerful aggressive person for any concessions. Good luck in your efforts to bring some checks and balances to your fellowship.
Posted by John S - May 09, 2010 | 1:04 AM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Thanks, John. I appreciate your perspective here, as usual. I certainly agree with you about the problem of corporate ideas being applied to the body of Christ. That, essentially, is the approach I think Peacemaker brings, hence its danger. It brings corporate style mediation and arbitration (along with all the related contracts) into the church and tries to make them mandatory. Since I am no longer at that church, I don't expect to bring much change to it myself. But, I do continue to pray God would. It is enough of a systemic problem there -- not just a fluke with me -- that it desperately needs God's Spirit to stop it. I mostly hope my writings might somehow be an encouragement to those in other churches.
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - May 11, 2010 | 3:36 AM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
John: "A person must appeal a case to the whole church, except when the accusation is against a pastor." So in other words everything the pastor does is sure to stay hush hush, but the average Joe gets humiliated before hundreds. Tim: I've been in a slightly similar situation of church abuse, but not on a scale or as serious as yours, which is why I do not go to worship in a church anymore. I wrote about it quite a few years ago, I'm pretty sure it was on the list, for which I got a backlash from someone for saying what I did. But anyway, keep your head up and don't back down. Stay strong and I'll be praying for you. David M.
Posted by David McGlone - May 17, 2010 | 10:07 AM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Thanks, David. I recall that thread now that you mention it... I am sorry for you too. One can certainly understand better having experienced such a thing...
Posted by Timothy R. Butler - May 21, 2010 | 4:41 AM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Like they say "Experience is your best teacher".
Posted by David McGlone - May 25, 2010 | 8:59 AM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
Praying that others will eventually realize the truth, come out of the abuse, and that somehow you will be able to connect with at least some of them again and find understanding and reconciliation. That part can be very rewarding, but it is sometimes many years before their eyes are opened to how they participated in the system of evil.
Posted by Paula - May 20, 2014 | 7:04 PM

Re: Unfolding My Story: The Aftermath of Abuse
And yes, you will start at shadows for a long time. It may not even be "shadows," or illusions, but the very real typical admixture of truth and error that exists in every church body. It is so hard to trust again. It's hard to decide which errors to make much of and which ones are just your personal over-sensitivities. I've come to the realization that eventually we will go through it again. I'm trying to inoculate as many people as possible to how the cycle works so that they will be prepared with us. I don't want to have to go through it again of course, but with the cycle of truth/growth/complacency/error there is almost a guarantee that we will, at some point. Heartbreaking.
Posted by Paula - May 20, 2014 | 7:08 PM

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