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The Future of the Church and Spiritual Abuse

I was asked recently by a reader whether I thought there was a connection between spiritual abuse victims and the repression of spiritual gifts, which made me think about a connection that has been ruminating in my heart and mind for quite awhile. From the number of people I have heard from who have experienced and are recovering from communities of faith that engaged in spiritual abuse, I have to wonder whether the use of spiritual abuse to coerce unquestioned adherence is the culprit for the decline we see across the board in mainline Protestant congregations. If spiritual abuse results in power retention in those who already have power, then there is a whole generation of young people who were raised in churches and communities of faith tainted by spiritual abuse whose voices, ideas, and, yes, spiritual gifts have been silenced. Those young people raised in these community of faiths would now be adults. Adults whose age happen to correspond with the missing demographic in most churches: the millennials.

Perhaps the rise of the nones and the decline in church attendance is because of the rampant spiritual abuse that has crept into and overtaken our communities of faith. Perhaps the next generation of church leaders and ministers weren’t ever allowed to voice or express their calls to ministry, and so instead have found places to express their calls to ministry in other ways. Perhaps the next generation of ministers have created churches in bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, financial advisor offices, and restaurants because that’s where they have been able to find employment. These would have been ministers can’t help but pour drinks, DJ, restock shelves, plan for your retirement, and serve food without using those spiritual gifts that found no place in their communities of faith. They, like Mary and Joseph, have found no room or warmth in churches and so instead have formed congregations, places of worship, and spaces for others like them to bring their gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet in the most unlikely places.

And now churches are interested in drawing in millennials because churches are starting to realize that millennials have overtaken Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation. Churches can no longer depend on the financial safety net of Baby Boomers. So, churches are desperately trying to woo the millennial back into their sanctuaries and back into giving pledges with overhauls in worship style and book studies about millennial culture, all the while avoiding the difficult conversations about spiritual abuse that’s being practiced through exclusion of members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and women. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse and have fought the hard battle of recovering and found faith again, are not going to be willing to participate in communities of faith still tainted and overrun with spiritual abuse practices.

The most important issue our communities of faith need to be addressing is not the decline in church attendance or giving, but why this is happening. Answering that question will require churches and church leaders to take a long, hard look at how they have participated in a culture of hate, exclusion, and spiritual abuse. But don’t expect these conversations to happen without a fight. Those who have engaged in spiritual abuse practices in order to maintain power have proven they are willing to use any means, even holy scripture, to protect their positions of power and privilege.

Do We Have to Welcome and Affirm All?

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As the conversation about gender and sexuality is more prevalent in American culture, the question, “Do we have to welcome and affirm all?” is circulating in churches.

Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing their rights as religious institutions to express condemnation and judgement. Some churches are responding to these conversations and this question by expressing that it seems like churches are being asked to be politically correct and not faithful, even calling on people who have been saved from homosexuality to speak out. Some churches have even decided to identify as welcoming, but not affirming, but have found grave difficulty in the practical implementation of this theological tenet.

Yesterday, as I lead worship at Transitions with Ministrieslab, I was struck by the reflections of those gathered about being homeless and how people perceive you. “I know this sounds crazy and most people won’t believe me, but homelessness is the best choice I made because I chose a life away from addiction and constantly being in that environment. This is my new life.”

I can’t help but feel the same way. As a woman called to preach, coming out as a woman preacher was the best decision I made. It caused me to cut ties with a past of spiritual abuse and step into a future full of resurrection.

But my story, the stories of members of LGTBQ community, and the story I heard at Transitions challenge the church that has created discriminatory membership practices that teach some people are welcomed and affirmed by God and others aren’t. As churches and denominations continue to debate whether they should welcome and affirm all, those of us who have been rejected, silenced, and treated as outsiders will continue to gather, continue to worship, and continue to tell our stories.

And once churches and denominations have settled on this question, they just might find themselves without members as the rest of us work to bring the kingdom of God here on earth by partnering with organizations who are busy helping rather than busy debating.

When We Come Together

I’m sitting at the local coffeeshop in my hometown, running into family and friends, and in general looking out the window in awe at the way the city has changed. There was a group of people who came together with a vision for making Spartanburg into a place where there was food, books, and coffee that they wanted to eat, read, and drink.

When we come together with a vision about what could be, it really is incredible what can happen. Is it going to take time? Yes. Is it going to take hard work? Yes. Are there times that they didn’t think it would pan out? Absolutely.

If more ministers and clergy were willing to admit that church could be better, imagine what we could dream up. If more churches were willing to admit they needed to change because of the changing dynamics of technology, jobs, and the economy, imagine what we could envision. When we come together to find solutions, we create a future for the church and this crazy gospel message that keeps transforming lives.

When We Carry Each Other’s Burdens

Although we might like to think the church models that are currently in place exhibit the gathering of people trying to interpret and understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the 1st Century, they don’t. Our American churches much more closely resemble corporate America with hierarchies, hiring policies, and operating systems implemented directly from the business world.

To think that this model is going to continue to survive in an economy where businesses are having to be innovative and creative in how they engage customers and consumers is naive. The business model from the 1950s isn’t working for businesses, so it certainly won’t work for churches.

Part of the issue with the way our churches are operating is that the pastor and ministers serve as the CEO, vice president, and COO of the church. In this model, the responsibility of the success of the church and the church’s viability falls on their shoulders.

But this isn’t the only responsibility of the ministers. The ministers are also the ones who are to bear the burdens of grief, guilt, shame, sadness, pain, abuse, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, and hurt of the entire congregation. Even in a single-staff church whose membership is forty people, the ratio of burdens to burden-bearer are much too high for sustainability. It’s simply too much for one person to bear in the current economic context of declined giving and membership. Is it any wonder that the rate of  clergy suicide and clergy burnout continues to climb?

Our model is broken and if the decline in giving and church membership and rates of clergy suicide and burnout aren’t red flags that get our attention, perhaps a look back at scripture will open our eyes:

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Paul is suggesting here that to be a community of faith is to bear each other’s burdens, not cast our burdens on those who have been called by God to lead and guide God’s people. In the midst of a letter that reminds God’s people that there are those who will come and deliver a false gospel (ahem model something of God after American culture), perhaps this is just the reminder we need as the people of God. When we commit to a community of faith, we aren’t committing to a preacher or a minister, we are committed to each other. To journey with each other, to hurt with each other, to carry one another’s burdens.

When we carry each other’s burdens, we become evidence of God working in and among God’s people. When we carry each other’s burdens rather than transforming our ministers into burden-bearers, we just might be working to ensure that there will still be pastors and ministers called by God who are alive and vibrant to lead the church into the future.

When We Struggle Together

When I was in Germany, the other American teachers and I decided that we were going to run a half marathon. Now when we decided this we had all been running for a couple of years. I had run the Cooper River Bridge Run a couple of times and had loved it, so I thought doubling that distances would be a good way to stretch and challenge myself.

That was true kinda…the thing I didn’t know about training for a half marathon is that you have to run a lot before the actual race. Not only do you have to run a lot, but you also have to run long distances to train your body to be ready for the half marathon.

When race day finally came, I was so excited because it was an Umlauf through the Zoo in a neighboring town where one of my friends was living. Two of our friends were coming to the Zoo to watch us and we as the runners were so excited because we were going to be distracted on our run as we passed the elephants and the giraffes, but as the was the case many times that year, we missed something rather important in our translation of the German instructions to English. Rather than running through the Zoo, we actually ran around the Zoo, you see Umlauf means run around not run through, so we circled the Zoo and the Zoo entrance five times, never seeing an animal and never seeing our friends who we had told to wait inside the Zoo. They on the other hand had a great time looking at the animals and taking pictures while we suffered around and around the Zoo.

Without the distraction of animals, we had to distract ourselves from the actually running. Although we all liked running, there are parts in every run, especially when it’s a longer race, when you just want it to be over. The way I got through this first half marathon was because I knew I had people running with me and because I knew our friends who weren’t running would finally find us and we would be able to share our experiences together.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

If you’re like me when you first read Romans 5:1-5, you read it as a progression. A way to get from one step or level to the next one, like a Fitbit that rewards us with badges when we take a certain number of steps. But the reason we think that way is because of the hierarchies that exist in our business world and in our culture. We get used to thinking and believing that when we have accomplished or reached one level that’s when we look to the next one, but that’s not what this passage is saying.

Because suffering doesn’t work that way. Whether we have suffered deeply like Paul suggests here or whether we have sat at the bedside of someone who is suffering from physical pain or grief, then you’ll be tempted to read this passage and tell Paul he’s got it all wrong. There is no glory in suffering.

So why? Why would Paul say that suffering can be good? Perhaps because there’s no way we can understand the hope that exists that is from God unless we have been hopeless. There’s no way we understand character, character that has been tested, character that is true unless we have been in positions where we have not had character. It is in the lacking of these virtues that we discover just how important they are.

Although this may read like a progression or like the five steps to find hope self-help passage, that’s actually not how it is meant. Rather what is meant is that suffering can lead to all of these different viruses, but this is only possible if we share our suffering with each other. If we make ourselves vulnerable to a community of faith who is also trying to turn and transform suffering into these different virtues.And we discover this in community. We discover the depths of sufferings as we walk beside those in our community of faith. Although our individual suffering is not the same, what we know is that when we are in community together, in honest,authentic community together, then we experience the power of community to get through that suffering. It’s important here that in this communal suffering we have this divine knowledge, this peace, and this identity and communion with God. 

After we ran the half marathon, I decided that running 10-12 miles was going to be a regular part of my life, so the very next Saturday after the race, I set out on a 10 mile run, running faster than I had in the actual race because I felt so confident that I was now a long distance runner.

I made it through that run fine, but when I woke up the next morning, I realized I had pulled my right hamstring to the point that it was difficult to walk. I had thought I had this running thing under my belt. I had thought any kind of suffering that I encountered while running was something I would be able to overcome and in my overconfidence, I had forgotten that running a half marathon asks a lot of your body and in order to continue to be able to run, I needed to rest.

The same holds true for those of us who have been through suffering and have come through on the other side. Paul isn’t saying you can’t struggle through that journey alone. You can, and if you were raised like I was raised and taught not to air your dirty laundry in public, you might think you should. But when we try the solo, silent suffering we end up with the strained muscle that will cause us to limp every time we experience suffering again, just like my touchy hamstring. We weren’t meant to suffer alone. When we do, the results are anger, bitterness, and hopelessness.

Paul is saying that when you admit that suffering and bring it before the community, it’s there in the midst of the vulnerability of asking for help in walking on the journey, that endurance, perseverance, and, yes, hope found. When we struggle together, vulnerable and in need together, suffering is miraculous transformed into endurance, perseverance, hope and we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Avoiding Difficult Conversations

Although many ministers called for the Methodist to make a decision about the LGTBQ question during General Conference this week, a group of bishops has been commissioned to study the LGBTQ issue and possible restructuring of the Methodist denomination. Putting this conversation on hold is asking those who are a part of the LGTBQ community to continue to put their lives on hold. For those who have been living without being able to fully express who they are, this decision is disheartening.

But it isn’t only disheartening. Putting off and avoiding difficult conversations that continues to ask people to silence part of themselves is a form of spiritual abuse. By avoiding difficult conversations, we are perpetuating exclusion and discrimination within the church.

If you find yourself expressing the same sentiment as expressed at the Methodist General Conference, ask yourself, “Are there people in the LGTBQ community in my community of faith?” If you answer yes (which most people I have talked to do), but find yourself qualifying this statement by explaining, “But it’s different here. Our community of faith isn’t ready to discuss the LGTBQ issue.”

Whether you are ready or not, it’s time as spiritual leaders to be different and not use our power and influence to continue to exclude, silence, and oppress. It’s time for us to not be participants in spiritual abuse anymore. It’s time for us to have those difficult conversations. Instead of creating space that is comfortable for us, let us create spaces and places for the outsider, for those who have had to hide part of who they are to worship, for those who have and continue to experience spiritual abuse.

Let us join the divine and make all things new instead of continuing the old that discriminates, excludes, and oppresses.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Where Spiritual Abuse Happens

There is no one place spiritual abuse happens, but since spiritual abuse is the misuse of power of a spiritual leader, spiritual abuse often happens in the sanctuaries, the fellowship halls, and offices of our churches.

For those who have experienced spiritual abuse, the house of God is tainted making it difficult to worship in a church building. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in church attendance? Perhaps it is not the declining religion in America, but the gross misuse of God’s house by spiritual leaders that explains this trend.

A sanctuary that should be a place of respite and reflection is turned into a place of shame and guilt. A fellowship hall that should be a place to enjoy and be enriched by table fellowship is turned into a place of isolation and exclusion for those who are not invited to the table. An office that should be a place of compassion and healing  is turned into a place of self-doubt and pain.

As a new generation of spiritual leaders emerges to lead and guide God’s people, it will fall to us to transform God’s house for so many who have suffered from the guilt, shame, and self-doubt of spiritual abuse. We will have to be more creative in inviting people who have experienced God’s house as a place of hurt and pain. We will have to be more watchful that power and influence does not leak into our spiritual leadership. We will have to be more present and more active in helping God’s people heal. We will have to study and prepare more diligently to overcome the way the biblical interpretation has been misused to oppress and silence. We will have to be more attentive and more vocal in being witnesses to the evidence that God is working in and among God’s people to urge and lead God’s people to wholeness, not brokenness.

We will have to be the ones who model and embody this by journeying towards wholeness and completeness ourselves. May we encourage each other as we journey together so that God’s house becomes a place of hope and healing again.

To Love is to Call By Name

I’ve just recently finished re-reading Walking on Water by Madeline L’Engle. I’ve had the experience of having the book mean something completely different to me during this time of my life. That’s the power of words, isn’t it? They can change and transform you again and again as you meet or re-meet them at different point in time.

L’Engle writes:

It seems more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label. To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name.

Her book was published in 1980, so “today” for her didn’t include the discussion about the NC bathroom law or the Marriage Equality Ruling and yet her words ring true for today’s discussions and debates.

We reduce people to labels of sexuality and of gender when we want to generalize and ostracize. We reduce people to labels when we want to oppress. We reduce people to labels when we want to maintain power. We reduce people to labels when we repeat the rhetoric that includes labels rather than people.

I’m finding this to be even more true as we minister to the community of people as ministrieslab.

Oh so you are ministering to the homeless?

No, we are ministering to Lee and Adam and Melanie and Rhonda and…

To love is to call by name, not label.

Thanks be to God for visionary writers who write words that challenge how we minister and how we love.

You’re Doing It All Wrong

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This note fell out of my car yesterday. I found it in the parking lot as I was putting Ben back in the car and headed to Emmanuel Baptist Fellowship. It happened to fall into my path at a moment when I was thinking about the brief time I have with left with my Emmanuel family and wondering whether I am doing this all wrong.

I certainly have had enough people explain to me that sharing with my church that I was resigning before I had something definite lined up was the wrong way to do things. It isn’t wise. It’s not how it’s done. You have a family.

And their chorus of doubt has been ringing in my head and my heart as I wonder the very same thing, especially as I remember how we as a family have been loved and supported during the past two and half years. Sam and I had just gotten engaged when I accepted a call to be their Interim Pastor, and now they have watched me learn how to parent, learn how to pastor, and literally transform as I carried and gave birth to Ben.

So why do it? Why put yourself through the uncertainty of not knowing?

Because I could feel the restlessness that has always indicated to me that God is speaking and calling me toward something else. For me, it has never been that what is next is clear and certain, but that God calls first, asking and inviting me to step out in faith yet again.

Just to be clear, I’ve never liked this process. I’ve begged and pleaded with God if this time could be different. Couldn’t I get just a glimpse of what’s coming, so at least I could sleep at night? I imagine God smiling, hand outstretched and responding, “You know that’s not how this works.”

So, I walk on toward an unknown future, following after Christ who called me to lead and guide God’s people because like MH, I love church, too.

Why Churches Should Pay Attention to Bernie’s Win in NH

Last night, Bernie Sanders won big in the New Hampshire primary. This was not a .2% victory like Hillary’s in Iowa, but a 59.9% to 38.5% win. Does this mean Bernie will be the democratic candidate? No. Does this mean that South Carolina and following states will go to Bernie? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that Hillary now has to pay more attention to Bernie, his message, and his followers.

Bernie’s average donation is just $27. He hasn’t concentrated his efforts and energies in the megadonor, but has touted the power of every person explaining that every gift and every donation makes a difference. His message against Wall Street and giving power to the average person has made him popular among college-aged people as well as young professionals struggling to make ends meet.

Bernie’s financial message and his young followers is something churches need to pay attention to. For years churches have touted and even catered to the megadonors in their congregations who have formed the foundation of the church’s budget, but megadonors are a dying people group, and unfortunately they are leading churches to death’s door.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

 

Churches are made of dust in the form of bricks and drywall. Churches are not immune to the reality that decomposition and death come to all living things. I can show you how real this is to many churches. I can show you the empty wings of churches not being heated to save money. I can show you the empty, roped-off pews urging people to come closer to make the church look fuller, hoping people don’t concentrate on the shadows of people and families who used to be there. I can show you the children’s furniture in empty classrooms collecting dust.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Churches can continue to ignore what millennials are concerned about (and it’s not worship with drums or praise teams), but there will only be more emptiness that invades and begins to overtake churches.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Millennials are concerned about finding enough work to feed their families and pay for school supplies and student loans. Millennials are concerned about the vast wealth discrepancies that exists in our country, in our business, and in our churches. Millennials are concerned about finding a place that welcomes and affirms them as they are trying to figure out who they are in the world. Millennials are concerned about joining a movement that is going to make a difference; that is going to provide hope; that is going to provide a future for their families and themselves. Millennials are concerned with the fleeting nature of life and work.

You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Churches can choose to stay the same and continue to worry about megadonors, but there is a movement going on that Bernie sees.  A movement that sees politics and the world differently. A movement that kicks up the dust, forms it, and creates something new.

It’s time for a breath of fresh air.