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Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

Spiritual Abuse and Keeping Things Quiet

I heard another story of a young woman sexually harassed by a minister of her church who brought the sexual harassment to the leadership of the church and was told, “Just keep this quiet. We’ll take care of it internally.”

This is spiritual abuse.

This is what perpetuates a culture of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Churches and communities of faith should not operate as if they can handle clergy misconduct internally, especially when a law has been broken. This thinking is how communities of faith become hotbeds for sexual abuse and spiritual abuse.

There have been more and more people interested in the clergy misconduct and the sexual abuse and child abuse that has taken place in evangelical churches, but these stories unfortunately are not getting the press and attention that the Catholic church received as they did the hard work of uncovering decades of sexual abuse and child abuse.

This is something we must expose. We must be willing to share our stories. We must be willing to end our silence. We must be willing to listen to the stories of the number of people who have been impacted by a culture of silence and shaming and spiritual abuse. We must be willing to confront the hard truth of uncovering just how many people have been impacted by spiritual abuse and sexual abuse in our churches.

We must read the stories of child sex abuse and the resulting cover up. We must read the reports of task forces seeking to find best practices. We must read the stories of young women and men who were brought into sexual awareness in an abusive situation by a man of God. We must come to terms with the fact that by keeping things quiet and “handling it internally,” we have created a place for abusers to keep abusing again and again and again.

This is spiritual abuse.

This must stop for the sake of our communities of faith and for the sake of our children.

Spiritual Abuse and Female Sexuality

I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach, that intuition so long questioned and quieted, that there is a seismic shift occurring. A shift that is turning back time to a society where women are overtly oppressed and discriminated against rather than the subtext of our culture and conversations. 6.5% of senior pastors and co-pastors in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are women. That number is rising even as women were called this past week to serve as pastors and co-pastors. At the same time, the gender pay gap in the White House has tripled in 2017. This is the tension and conflict that is being a woman in 2017, swinging from hope to disappointment again and again and again.

Perhaps it’s Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that brings to life how quickly a society can turn, how quickly citizens can lose their rights. Perhaps it’s that I can’t get through a week without being confronted with false views of female sexuality that are tied to theological reasoning passed on unexamined generation after generation. The same theology recycled and reused even though technology has changed, the average age of marriage has changed, and churches are in decline.

Or perhaps it’s my own wrestling to try to overcome the lingering impact of growing up in a purity culture so stringent that my biggest fear as a high schooler was getting pregnant, which transformed into the fear of not being able to get pregnant after I was married because female sexuality was so tied into a woman’s ability to reproduce.

Attributing all of female sexuality to the ability to reproduce is spiritual abuse.

It silences expression and creativity. It silences conversation and questioning. It silences a woman’s voice and choice.

It’s not until women start listening to themselves, to that intuition long questioned and quieted, that sexuality will not be full of spiritual abuse, but wholeness and healing. I experienced spiritual abuse, especially surrounding my sexuality, but I am not a child anymore. I don’t have to keep experiencing spiritual abuse about my sexuality. I can listen to my own voice, my center, myself, the one becoming stronger and more sure-footed with God’s help.

Reversing Your Running Path

This morning, I knew it was time, but I didn’t want to.

I didn’t want to run the 3.5 mile course I run on Fridays in reverse. I didn’t want to because I knew it would disrupt and disorient me. Yes, I know all of the reasons as a runner why you should reverse your familiar paths. I know that if you don’t then your shoes wear down in very specific unhealthy ways. I know if you have a nagging recurring injury that reversing your running path can reverse the negative impact on that injury and reorient any compensating behaviors you’ve accidentally taken on. I know this, but I just didn’t want to.

I knew it would mean not seeing my familiar markers, knowing exactly how much further I had to go. I knew I’d encounter the shortcut option 2/3 into my run instead of 1/3 into my run. I knew that I wouldn’t know the exact number of blocks I had to run before the next turn because I wasn’t as familiar with the path from another angle. More than anything I knew that it would mean encountering a hill that rose incrementally and steadily rather than a steep short hill where I could clearly see the end in sight.

But I knew this was good for me and so I did it reluctantly.

As I ran from the safety of the sidewalk, I realized I couldn’t see clearly what was coming towards me, but rather that I heard what was coming first. As I ran I depended on my ears rather than my sight. I could feel my nagging right hamstring relax with relief as my left hamstring took on more. And I began to realize that reversing my running path was very similar to the discipline of renewing my mind as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

As someone who experienced spiritual abuse, it is so easy when I encounter something challenging to fall back into the familiar path of dogmatic, closed theology where everything has a reason and everything has an answer. It is much, much more difficult for me to reverse that pattern of thinking and lean into the disorientation of not having the familiar markers of known answers to the unexpectedness of life, but this doesn’t produce growth. This produces an unhealthy attachment to the theology that doesn’t fit and isn’t applicable at best and theology that hurts and maims at worst.

As I rounded the corner to the end of the run, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finished. Done with reversing the path. Next week I could return to the familiar, known path. I looked down at my watch. I ran 25 seconds faster each mile than I had last week on the familiar, known path.

Maybe disruption and disorientation is what produces strength and growth as it wakes up our other senses and other muscles to something new.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: On Needing Control and Order

“So I see your child has your OCD a little bit, eh?”

I laughed at my friend’s comment shrugging it off as a funny quirk, but as I wrestled with this a little more, I began to uncover another remnant of the spiritual abuse I experienced growing up.

There was always a reason. It didn’t matter if a youth died unexpectedly or a minister engaged in an affair or if someone committed suicide, there was always a reason. God always had a plan. God’s will would always be done. Explanations and reasons that brought about an orderly understanding of the unexpectedness you’re bound to encounter if you live in this world long enough.

There was no room for chaos. The unexpected when encountered fit into a nice, neat theological box of certainty. In times of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, I feel myself reverting back; depending on order, not wanting to ride the waves of chaos; clinging desperately to what I was taught rather than leaning into experiencing the Divine.

There have been too many experiences already in my short tenure as a minister where I have encountered people hurting, gasping for breath after the unexpected wave life has thrown at them. As they have looked at me and asked, “Why?” I haven’t been able to offer those boxed answers of certainty; those flimsy, life-preserver reasons that we toss at people to avoid feeling their pain. Instead, I have tried to look at them and say, “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, but here’s a warm towel and some cold water and I’ll sit right here with you.”

As we near the raging wind that brought tongues of fires to hover over the followers of Christ, I can’t help but wonder how I can avoid the numerous times chaos, the wilderness, the unknown, the rushing wind is a part and indeed central to the narrative of those who follow God. Perhaps in trying to tame Creator God and the Holy Spirit, we are missing the opportunity to participate in the magical, mystical, unexplainable work of the Divine.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Having an Opinion

Elisabeth and I have embarked on a new adventure called The Minister and The Mystic. This new podcast is more real and true to our experiences and our stories . As we have talk each week, I become more and more aware of the impact spiritual abuse has had on my life. It’s overwhelming and scary to admit because I want so much to shed the past and move forward. Elisabeth gives me the courage to recognize and claim the spiritual abuse I’ve experienced as part of my story and yes, even part of my identity.

Part of that identity are leftovers and holdovers from the adherence to a strict set of dogmatic beliefs. One of these beliefs was the idea that women didn’t have their own voice in decision-making whether that be in church or in their families. I didn’t realize how much impact this teaching had on me. I didn’t realize the number of times I still pause in my closet asking myself what impact my decision about what clothes I choose to wear will have on other people; remnants of false teachings of sexuality that a woman is the one responsible for tempting a man by dressing a certain way.

I didn’t realize how I had been conditioned to anticipate and plan for other people’s needs to the point of forgetting my own needs. I didn’t realize how in conversations I had been conditioned to be a silent listener rather than an active participant who voiced opinions and experiences. I didn’t believe my opinions, my perspective, my take on the world mattered because there were absolute truths that superseded my voice.

I thought I didn’t have a choice in forming my voice. I thought I had to weigh my opinions against all the other voices swirling around in my head. These are the voices of spiritual abuse I must silence in order hear my own voice.

“What do you want?” my husband often asks me.

“I don’t know,” has long been my response because what I wanted was so entwined with other people’s wants and needs.

Slowly, but surely I am finding the courage to say what I want. Slowly, but surely I am wading through all the voices in my head that say don’t speak up and am sharing my opinions. Because my voice, my opinions, my story matters.

And so does yours.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.

Spiritual Abuse and Grief

I didn’t realize the disconnect until I heard a reflection from one of my friend’s about the experience of attending a funeral and having an altar call. An altar call is a common part of evangelical communities of faith that invites people attending to “get right with the Lord” to “rededicate their lives” or to “make a profession of faith” or more simply to join of a community of faith with a congregational polity.

All of these terms are insider terms, I’ve heard my whole life. It didn’t ever seem odd to me to have an altar call at a funeral because altar calls were as common a part of the worship experience as singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology are to other communities of faith. These liturgical elements of worship don’t stand out when you are one of the insiders who is accustomed to them.

But when we change funerals to celebrations of life, which there is good reason both theologically and emotionally for doing, we also run the risk of confining grieving loved ones to an expected reaction to death. When we say, “well, at least he or she is in a better place” or the like, then we are saying that you, loved one of the departed shouldn’t be upset or sad because you wouldn’t really choose this existence over heaven, would you? Guilt and shame and anxiety heaped on top of grief.

This is spiritual abuse.

Instead of dictating how people should respond to the shocking reality that someone they loved isn’t here, what if instead, we opted to not shroud death and grief in canned theological responses and simply allowed people to grieve, whichever and whatever way they needed to grieve in that moment, in that day.

A key part of spiritual abuse is coercion to a set of expected behaviors. Grief is not expected or controlled nor should it be. One of the reason communities of faith are so full of spiritual abuse is our need for control, predictability, and order.

But what if God is found not in the predictability and order, but in the unpredictability chaos that is life and death. Perhaps this week more than any other week as we follow Jesus and his disciples to the cross, we would do well to feel the loss and chaos and grief the disciples and loved ones in Jesus’ life felt as he was crucified on the cross. What if instead of skipping over Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to Easter morning, we sat in the grief and confusion and chaos of death as so many in our communities of faith are.

Perhaps then we could sit with those who have felt grief and loss so deeply and actually minister to them rather than adding spiritual abuse to their lives in a time of vulnerability.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: You are inherently full of possibility

This week’s passage from Romans is particularly difficult for me. Hear now the word of the Lord from Paul’s letter to the Romans in chapter 8 beginning in verse 6.

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

This idea of being in the world and not of the world is exactly what Paul is talking about here. When we concern ourselves with things of the flesh than we are concentrating on death because this physical flesh that we reside in will eventually die. We are dust and to dust we shall return

When we concentrate instead on things of the spirit than new life, resurrection, and transformation are possible. Now this does not mean that we shouldn’t tend to and care for our physical bodies for how can we do the work of the spirit if our flesh is not strong enough?

It took me a long time to realize that just like that dust and pollen in the Spring cling to our clothes and cars, so too did the dust of bad theology that taught me to believe that I was inherently bad, insufficient, and inadequate cling to my heart and soul.

Even after three years of theological training, three years of consistent preaching and ministry, only now can I read these words of Paul without guilt and shame overcoming me.

See because I had been taught to read this as an admonishment to overcome my flesh, my sinful nature, the guilt and shame of being sinful always came with this passage. What if instead of believing that we were inherently bad, we realized that at every moment we have the possibility of choosing for our flesh, our dust, or choosing the breath and spirit of God. Perhaps we are not inherently bad or sinful, but rather inherently full of possibility. If we realized this, then we would know that our bodies, our flesh is neither inherently good or inherently bad, but instead it is all about how is it is used. Your flesh in particular. The one God created with your unique passions and gifts.

This is what Paul was trying to remind the Romans of and what perhaps we need to be reminded of today: you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. You are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you.

When you remember this and you let this settle into your soul, then you realize what you can do. You can help those in need. You can become a woman pastor. You can lead a chapel service at the homeless shelter. You can bring the kingdom of God here on earth because you are in the Spirit and the Spirit dwells in you.

As I encounter people at Transitions each week in our chapel service and in communities of faith who have been reminded again and again of their dustiness rather than their spirit-filled possibility, I know that this message of hope is revolutionary. Just as it would have been in Paul’s time.

If we did the important work of not giving into the fleshly temptation to participate in a culture that degrades, devalues, and divides, but instead respected, valued, and welcomed people regardless of whether they agreed with us or not, then wow the things that could happen.

Indeed the kingdom of God could come here to earth.
I know it’s possible because you are in the Spirit and the spirit dwells in you. Just let the spirit of God reach out a fleshy hand to dust off the dustiness of bad theology, past hurt, and the belief that you’re not enough and let’s breathe new life and new hope into a world in desperate need of something different.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: The Power of Story

Today has been filled with community and fellowship and celebration as part of CBF SC 25th Anniversary General Assembly. I couldn’t help but be a bit overcome and overwhelmed by the stories of those who gathered together to help form BWIM SC and CBF SC.

Because it’s this power of story that helped me to uncover the spiritual abuse I experienced. It was meeting and hearing that there were baptists who gathered together and worshipped with women who preached and led worship and chaired committees that slowly opened my eyes to another whole world of possibility.

If there were communities of faith and baptist state and regional groups who gathered together and welcomed and affirmed women in ministry, then maybe this calling that had been wrestling within me trying to find its voice wasn’t something I had to keep telling to be quiet. Maybe I just needed to find a fellowship who worked in cooperation with us each other, who built each other up, challenged each other, and communed together.

And maybe the more we tell our stories, the more people we can help recover from spiritual abuse. Maybe the power of story is just like the power of the spoken word that brings light into the darkness and life from the depths.