Dedicated to the women who taught me about the power of storytelling in trauma healing, my professors Vicki and Wendy; to my powerhouse of a therapist, Ellen, who is teaching me that my pain matters too; to my soulmate and best friend Jessica, who was there (and has always been there) for me during this time even though she didn’t understand what was happening; and most importantly – to my mother, Lisa.
Because you had the power to live and survive your story, I have the power to tell mine. I love you.
Between the ages of 17-19, I was a part of a thriving youth ministry in a growing church, under a young youth pastor who was charismatic and electrifying. I quickly grew in leadership under his encouragement – I think he saw a bit of himself in me – and with little accountability from his superiors our relationship quickly became complicated, boundary less, and co-dependent. He groomed me into a person who was easily manipulated, didn’t trust herself, and looked for all emotional, spiritual, and relational direction from a man who, though barely 13 years my senior, referred to himself as my father. I spent nearly all of my free time serving in his ministry, seeking his approval, and the emails I have from this time are fraught with needy exchanges between a young woman looking for love and guidance, and a grown man who should’ve seen the emotional boundaries he was crossing.
In his ministry, there was a culture of “group think” and cult like obedience. I remember this pastor confiding in me about his worry over leaders in his ministry who were listening to messages from other pastors, and asking me to discourage them from listening to these outside voices. Anything from outside our own church was viewed with suspicion, and those who wouldn’t “submit” were either pushed out or were labeled as “rebellious”. I am sad to say that I participated in this culture, revelled at the power I had as this pastor’s close friend and mentee, and became a participant in his ability to manipulate people in his ministry under the guise of spiritual direction. He would ask me to “call out” or rebuke people in his ministry, and I would go where he beckoned. I was writing curriculum for him, speaking at large youth worship nights, and working towards interning under him at our large church. And it was within this context, right around the time that I turned 20, that I was emotionally and spiritually abused by a married man from the same ministry with whom I had become intimate.
Just a few weeks before this relationship began, my parents’ marriage began to dissolve, and the only security I had known since the age of 8 fell to pieces. My mom and my step father separated and the contention in our family pulled us all apart. I stopped speaking with my mom entirely, and my siblings all retreated within themselves too. I was in deep pain, and didn’t deal with the anxiety well. I was so close to this pastor at my church at this point, calling him dad and spending days and sometimes nights in his family home, that he was the only place I knew to turn during this time.
In a heated discussion about how I would never speak to my parents again because of their toxic divorce, it became clear that he was not comfortable with the way our relationship was playing out. I can still see the look in his eyes as he cautions me to reign myself in, telling me he had become “nervous” about me: maybe this is when he realized he had too much power over me, because he gave me the look of Dr. Frankenstein viewing his creation with horror. He had made this monster – this co-dependent and polarizing girl – and now was unable to deal with the fall out. I was shattered by his lack of support, and by my parents separation, and I spiralled when he withdrew from our relationship.
In this disorienting time I became close with this other married man in the same youth ministry leadership team as I was in – in fact, I had been asked by my youth pastor to offer this married man a spiritual rebuke, and out of that we became close friends. He was older than me, but I think he was attracted to the pseudo power I possessed in our ministry, which I had learned to abuse from the one who bestowed it on me.
We became friends, we became intimate, and as predictable as these situations usually are, the relationship was abusive and toxic from the get go.
Within the first weeks of our budding “friendship” we began spending time one on one together, to which his wife obviously objected. He gaslit her intensely, as perpetrators do, and told both her and I that our “friendship” would help her increase her low self esteem. She was simply too insecure, and he was not out of line to have a young, single, female friend with whom he spent evenings alone. Our relationship was important for my emotional healing, from being rejected by my pastor who had become the main source of security and identity in my life. His “touch” would heal me, he would say.
Of course I was uncomfortable with this myself, from the beginning. As much as I was not dealing well with the loss of my “father” – the youth pastor who had pushed me away at the time of my parents divorce – I still knew where some boundaries lay. I would not be involved with a married man. I had no romantic feelings for him, and I made this very clear one evening when we were alone.
“I will not be your mistress”, I said to him plainly. He laughed. I was being ridiculous, it turned out. He wanted only to be friends. I felt silly for doubting him.
These words, and his response to them, would haunt me in the months to come. Had I been too sensitive? Did he know then already that he wanted me for himself? Why was my concern so easily dismissed, when my intuition told me that this wasn’t a safe situation for me? The loss of autonomy and power in abusive relationships is a slippery slope, and I can see now that this is where I lost trust in myself and instead put it in this man, who would use it against me in the weeks to come.
Knowing I was looking for a place to stay and that I was still struggling with my parents divorce and the loss of my close friendship with our youth pastor, this man and his wife offered me a bedroom in their home. I agreed right away and moved in with them that day. In this season of feeling so unmoored and lost, I finally had a home.
Within a week or two we were physically involved, all under the guise of “spiritual healing”. Here was another man, a man to whom I gave my trust, who was using Jesus and spiritual language to cross boundary after boundary. This time though, it was not just emotional boundaries, but also physical.
Spiritual abuse is a tricky thing. It’s unlike other types of abuse, I think, because you begin to doubt yourself and your God. There is a mind control element, where you begin to doubt your grasp on reality. You don’t know what’s real, or good, or true; you are totally dependent on someone else telling you what reality is. I began to see this man as a type of Jesus to me, someone who was using sexual touch to “help” me become redeemed. I never once considered that this relationship was adultery for him, because he had guised it as a spiritual partnership, as a way to help me heal from the betrayal I had experienced from our youth pastor. I thought we were doing God’s work, holy work. Many times when we would be alone and intimate, on our “friend” dates, his wife knew we were spending time together and was simply told to deal with it.
When this relationship was eventually exposed, I was as surprised as this man’s wife to find out that our physical intimacy was over the line. I had fully believed the lie that he was tending to my spiritual needs, even though it’s clear now that he was controlling most of my life through my co-dependency. I never saw this relationship as romantic, or sexual, but more of a discipleship. In fact, I was romantically interested in other young single men from our church during this time, and even went out on casual dates a few times. When he would learn I was spending time with young men from our church, he would tell me why they didn’t actually like me, or tell me which parts of my body they could and couldn’t touch, leaving certain parts of myself only for him. I belonged to him.
It was exciting, and terrifying, and deeply deeply damaging. I felt a great sense of power by being wanted by this man, and also terrified by how much control he had over me. I felt I would die without him. We had our own language, our own theology, and I lost all connection with the outside world except for through him. I have never felt such terrifying loss, shame, and fear as when he texted me to tell me he would never see me again, that he should never have touched me, that our relationship was wrong and was over. I had no idea what had happened; what had I done wrong?
I never spoke to him, via text or face to face, ever again. I was never given that privilege, of facing him and demanding to know why he thought I was so disposable.
The next few days, after he ended our relationship via text message, were a whirl-wind. The pastor who had walked away from me when I was broken and in pain due to my parents divorce, now swooped in to dole out consequences for my sinful actions. He railed at me, telling me why I was condemned and deceived, that I had done something terrible. I could not understand what he was saying.
At his advice, I headed straight to the church to meet with two female leaders. I sat across from them in deep pain, and tried to explain to them that I had supposedly had an affair with a married man in our youth ministry (whom they knew) but that I couldn’t understand how this was possible as our relationship was based in godly friendship and spirituality. I told them how much pain I was in, and that I had been sent here by the youth pastor to receive some kind of direction as to what I should do next. They suggested regularly meetings for “counselling” and helped me come up with a plan to survive the next few weeks, as I battled the depression, anxiety, and confusion that I had been thrown into when I received that text.
I put the word counselling in quotations because what happened over the next few weeks was far from any kind of licensed or trained counselling that I should have received in this situation. Neither of these women were trained, or licensed, and it was never once suggested that I seek legitimate counselling outside of the four walls of our church. This was to be dealt with in house.
I was told, in exactly these words, that this “affair” I had orchestrated was a direct result of my traumatic childhood. In fact, one of these “counsellors” even said to me, that when she had heard about my story (of the trauma in my upbringing) from other people in ministry with me, she wondered when “something like this would happen.” I was so ashamed at being exposed like this, at having my childhood abuse used against me in a way that I didn’t understand. They used psychological terms to describe how abuse shapes children’s brains, and to explain that it had made me susceptible to this type of deception and sin. I was asked to talk about my father, the abuse of my childhood, and hardly ever did we talk about what had happened with the married man, or with our youth pastor.
Once, when I tried to explain that I had never intended to commit adultery with this man, I told these “counsellors” that in the early stages of grooming me, I had told him that I would not be his mistress.
“Maybe you were flirting”, they told me.
I allowed myself to be silenced. I was desperate for leadership, for comfort, for release from the all consuming pain I was experiencing from the betrayal and abandonment from both of these men whom I had come to totally rely on. When I asked for permission to share this pain, and the nature of what I was going through, with a close friend at our church, I was told that I would regret it if I told anyone about this situation once I was healed from it.
I told no one.
Within the first few days of the relationship being exposed, I was obviously kicked out of my only home, as I had been living with this man and his wife. Someone else packed up all my things and shipped them to a family members house, before I even knew that we had been exposed. I was never given an opportunity to share my side of the story, and truly considered suicide. I slept for hours and hours, sought out medical help for my serious and sudden depression, and lived in a difficult to describe haze of being half dead. I was broken.
I was also forced to quit my job. Not only did I now have no home, but I also lost my source of income. This youth pastor, who had so easily walked out of my life when I didn’t conform to his idea of who he needed me to be, now stepped back into it at this moment of crisis, and told me that I had to leave my job (I was working at a nonprofit faith based organization at the time). If I wouldn’t quit, and tell my employer what I had done, he would tell him for me. I obeyed.
I was silenced. I was blamed. I took the fall. I lost everything. I was made to write a letter to this man and his wife, apologizing in gruesome detail for all the wrong I had done them. I wanted to be pardoned, to explain to he and his wife that apparently it was my childhood trauma that had caused all this pain. I let myself be the witch at the stake that they required, and I took every step that was required of me. And what happened to him? I waited and waited for an opportunity to meet with he and his wife, but it was never given. Within a year, he had a prominent position at this church, though I had been required to step down from all my leadership and volunteer roles.
Within another year, he was on staff.
Almost a decade later, and this is still the most difficult part of the story to tell. How could I sit there, as they defined me to myself, as they took my narrative away and instead gave me this false one in its place, as they blamed me and my “traumatic childhood” for what was so clearly caused by a power imbalance in this toxic church culture – how could I have sat there and not said anything? How could I not see that it was not my fault, after all this unfolded in the way that it did?
I don’t know. I’m sure survivors everywhere ask themselves this same question – “how could I have let him hurt me, why didn’t I leave the first time, how could I not have known, why didn’t I shout out for help, why did I go to that party” – I’ve asked myself and my therapist questions like these countless times. There are no satisfying answers, for the guilt you feel as a survivor, but one thing is clear now – I did not have the power in this situation to do any of that. I played the role that I was told to play, and in some ways I think many of the people in this story were also just playing their roles. Power imbalances and silencing tactics in any setting, church or otherwise, make us all victims.
Years after I had left this church and buried this story within myself, I sat across from a licensed therapist for the first time and the story spilled out. I had never told the story before, except once to my husband before we were married. His response was the same as this therapists response. I told her about an adulteress relationship I had instigated and that I was responsible for, as a result of my early childhood trauma, and how all these years I had struggled to understand how I could do something so terrible. This was the same story I had ashamedly told my husband when we were dating, asking if he could ever forgive me and if he still wanted to date someone capable of such sin – and my therapist said the same incredulous words my husband had. Words I couldn’t believe or understand for another several years.
“I think you were spiritually abused. I think someone took advantage of you. This was not your fault.”
I hadn’t believed my husband when he said these words, and I didn’t believe my therapist either. It would take another 3 years before I could believe her, when I would remember a key part of the story.
It was years in therapy, learning to slowly trust myself and my own mind, before I remembered a small but essential element of the story. This memory, more than any other part of the abusive relationship or the fall out in my church from the relationship, struck me when I remembered it. It revealed to me where the true power imbalance lay. It had been a moment in the story that caused me deep shame when recalled: the moment the married man and I were caught, red handed, so to speak. I would see myself in this memory, knowing how much pain I was about to experience and how badly I had “messed up” by being caught in this man’s arms. In a matter of moments it would all be revealed. I see this desperate girl in my mind’s eye, so broken and used, and I feel such disgust and shame at what she has been through, and is about to face. But almost 10 years later, sitting across from my therapist and finally having language for what spiritual abuse is, I was able to see this moment from another person’s perspective.
The perspective that I was finally able to see, and ultimately the one that helped me understand that I had been spiritually abused, was the perspective of the youth pastor. That night, the night the married man and I were caught and exposed, our youth pastor had seen us through a small basement window, kissing. In that moment, he made a judgement. He became a bystander, a witness to this abuse, and he did nothing.
Instead of bursting through the door and demanding an explanation, instead of asking me if I was ok and assuming the fatherly role he had just months before so quickly stepped into, instead of finally being the spiritual leader he was supposed to be and rebuking both of us, he did nothing to protect me or to try and understand what was unfolding before his eyes. Instead, he took the side of the only person in the room with me who had heard the words, “I don’t want to be your mistress” and took them as a joke.
I wasn’t aware he had even seen us, because instead of doing any or all of those things that night, he looked me in the eye moments later when the married man and I stepped outside, and acted as if he had seen nothing. He chit chatted with me, and I went home with the married man. And the next day, after he had spoken to the married man and got his story on our relationship without ever speaking to me, he then looked me in the eye again and told me that it would be better for me to be thrown into the sea with a mill stone around my neck, for having led others astray (Matthew 18:6).
That’s the dignity and protection I was afforded from the man who had spiritual power over me. A total damnation, loss of autonomy, of income, of community and friendship, and in his eyes the loss of my salvation. By the end of the “counselling” he had recommended for me at the church, I had lost both my faith and myself.
When I finally let this pivotal memory come forward – of me and a married man being spied on through a window, of the youth pastor seeing us and doing nothing, of being exposed the next day for being an “adulteress” and subsequently losing everything – I finally realized what had really unfolded.
When this pastor was given the choice of laying down his power and reputation at the expense of believing the story of someone who was under his authority and looked to him for guidance and even protection, he chose to only intervene in a way that would protect him, and the other man in the room. He chose to abuse his power, instead of use his power to protect me.
Years later, I would be an administrative assistant under a pastor at a different church, and the spiritual abuse would unfold in an all too familiar pattern. Again I was told I was damaged from my early childhood and wasn’t submitting to authority; that because I disagreed with minor decisions he made in the office, I did not love Jesus; again I was gaslit and ostracized when I would speak up for myself. I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I learnt that this new pastor and I had a very significant person in common – he too had worked with the youth pastor from my old church, and held him in high regard. I didn’t stand up for myself then either, and I still regret that. Instead, I left.
Victims of trauma often say the justice they seek isn’t from the perpetrator directly, but rather from the bystander. Why didn’t anyone do anything? The bystander sees the injustice, but does nothing to intercede. When the victim finally comes forward, what they really seek is to be believed, to have the autonomy to tell their own story. The justice is in being believed, in being able to tell your own story, as you know it, and having the bystander recognize who is the perpetrator and who is the victim in the story.
This is a justice I was never afforded. For almost 10 years, I told no one my story, and I believed the narrative that I was told to believe. Losing the ability to believe my own story did damage to my psyche and my spirituality that I will never be able to convey to anyone who hasn’t experienced abuse like this. It is decimating.
What was most damaging for me in all of this, was that those in leadership at my church learned about it, and did not believe that I was the victim. When I said I had not wanted to be in this relationship, and that I told him ‘no’ from the beginning, I was responded to with victim blaming (“Maybe you were flirting?”). When I pushed back at the idea that my childhood was to blame and true root of all my pain, and for this relationship, I was told my early childhood trauma blinded me from understanding. When I expressed how much pain I was in, and asked if I could confide in my friends about what I was going through, I was silenced.
All of this done by people who were meant to be spiritually shepherding me, who had become my family, and who had ultimately too much power over me. This is spiritual abuse. I am naming it now, finally, and I will never lose my narrative again. For almost a decade I was silent. I lost my self when I lost the ability to tell and believe my own story, and I will never allow that to happen again.
Of all the things that have shaped me in my life and that I’ve unearthed in 4 years of therapy, learning to tell this story has taught me the most about myself, my faith, and the danger of unchecked power in the church. I share this story to gently show those who may be experiencing something similar, on different levels perhaps, that Jesus never asks us to surrender our autonomy or our ability to be critical thinkers, for spiritual freedom. When a total loss of self or denial or vilifying of who you are and what you know is required, abuse is happening. If you are being silenced by those more powerful than you, abuse is happening. If someone who is meant to be protecting, shepherding, mentoring, caring for you is taking the reality you know to be true and shaping your reality into something you do not understand or do not believe to be true, abuse is happening. If someone is using an invasion of your body or mind to “teach” you about God’s love, abuse is happening. Jesus does none of this.
I am aware that the details of this story, while true to me and vulnerable as I dare to be, are not enough for some people. Some will want dates, names, proof. I do not offer these, and that is on purpose. I wish I could say that I was fearless in telling this story, but that is not the case. It has taken a long time, nearly a decade, for me to tell this story even to my closest friends. But the truth is, that in telling it publicly, I still fear the people who caused me this pain. As all survivors who speak out do, I fear the power of my own story. I’m learning though, that I do not owe the details or the telling of my story to anyone but myself. It won’t be difficult for some people, those who were there or those who are in the story, to identify both the church and the leaders. In a perfect world, these leaders would come forward and take steps to reconcile their actions and seek healing for themselves, and repair the damage they have done (and may even continue to do) in their congregations and to me. Unfortunately, even in a post #metoo world, we know that this is rarely the case. Likely, my story will be dismissed, vilified, or denied. In the end, I don’t tell it to seek justice for myself, but for those who cannot tell their own stories, or who’s stories of spiritual abuse are still unfolding.
But it will not be silenced. I know what I know, and I will never let someone tell me again that my narrative is the wrong narrative. The power to tell our own story is one we, as women, often have to fight for. I certainly have. Narrative and storytelling shape our society, our families, our politics, our churches. If we don’t have the power to tell our stories – or to even believe our own stories – we have nothing. We lose ourselves. What I’ve learned, from my short time back in school working towards a degree in social work, is that who has the power to tell their own story and who is believed matters. I did not have the power to tell my story. I was not believed. But now, I do, and I believe myself.
Things don’t change if we don’t tell the stories. And so while I know that this story may leave some with more questions than answers, this is the way I’ve chosen to tell it – because it is mine to tell.
Personal comments or sensitive stories can be sent directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am here to listen, if you have a story you need to tell.
#metoo #churchtoo #ImWithHer