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Just Breathe

Since high school, I have had breathing issues. There was this one drill in my training for field hockey that always left me struggling to breathe, which led to a doctor’s visit where I was diagnosed with seasonal asthma. I was prescribed an emergency inhaler and allergy medicine and considered myself lucky that this was a seasonal occurrence that could be solved with medicine.

In college, I had breathing issues during a different season while training for the club sport I played. I concluded that I was in a different environment and that the allergies were impacting my lungs differently. By this time, I had become used to not being able to swim the length of a swimming pool and having to have my inhaler with me at all times.

In seminary, I ended up in the urgent care receiving a steroid breathing treatment on Easter weekend of my second year. At this point, I had student insurance that didn’t cover my inhaler and didn’t have any extra money to buy the inhaler outright. I remember being in the stairwell between classes crying to a helpless insurance agent about how much I needed the medicine and begging him for any avenue to get the medicine covered.

This was the same semester I was in preaching practicum and ended up having to excuse myself from class after I had preached because I was coughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t until this point at twenty-six years old that it dawned on me that my breathing issues could be attached to something deeper, a signal my body was giving me to try to catch my breath and gain perspective.

There has been a lot written recently about the body’s connection to trauma and the signals that our bodies give us to attend to this trauma. It took me twenty-six years while I was in the midst of filling pulpits all over the western North Carolina and receiving feedback from my preaching professor that it seemed like I was out of breath in the middle of my sermons that I made the connection between being breathless and living into my call.

My anxiety was causing my heart to race and the shortness of breath. I was doing something in the form of preaching and seeking to become a pastor that I wasn’t supposed to do according to my evangelical upbringing. It made me nervous and uncertain and anxious. My body was giving voice to that anxiety.

Even now years later, there are some Sundays where the word from God for the people of God in the form of a sermon feels so weighty and dangerous that my breathlessness returns. I struggle to remember my call to deliver God’s word no matter how risky or controversial. I struggle to step boldy into this identity as pastor.

My body isn’t over the spiritual abuse I experienced. It still pops up in the form of not being able to catch my breath at times, but I haven’t used an inhaler in four years. Sometimes our bodies are trying to bring us to healing and wholeness even when our minds aren’t quite ready for it.

Forgiveness and Spiritual Abuse

As a member of the clergy, I get asked a lot of questions. One that has popped up quite frequently recently is, “Do I have to forgive the person that abused me?” This is followed closely by, “Do I have to forgive the people who knew about my abuse and didn’t help me?”

Maybe it’s the recent news of the sex trafficking circle among the elite leaders as more and more details are released about Jeffrey Epstein that has brought the question to the hearts and minds of others who have experienced abuse. Maybe it’s the vast number of people who have revealed that they are victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape in the #metoo and #churchtoo movement.

Whatever the reason, this question comes up again and again. There is rich precedent for confessing to a member of the clergy as a way of cleansing the soul and returning to a relationship with the divine. There are also many studies about how not forgiving can impact not only your spiritual self but your physical self as well.

As much as I want to offer a definitive answer to this question, I always answer, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that the practice of forced forgiveness, which is common in religious settings with religious leaders playing the role of mediator or witness not only revictimized the person who has been abused, but also serves to add spiritual abuse on top of the abuse is harmful and should stop. I have heard story after story of women and men who are forced into these situations and carry the weight of that spiritual abuse throughout the rest of their lives. This harms their view of God, their spirit and causes so many triggers that inhibit healing and wholeness. I also know that there are miraculous stories of forgiveness from those who have experienced horrible pain and grief.

Maybe there are some aspects of living and following after Christ that we won’t ever completely understand. Maybe there is some work, like forgiveness, that is not our work to do, but the Holy Spirit’s work to do. Maybe when we stop trying to find out the answers, we will instead open our eyes and hearts to bear witness to the miraculous ways that the Spirit transforms and resurrects our own lives out of the gripes of death.

 

The Behind the Scenes of Baptist Pastor Search

In response to sharing my story in the recent article Switching Denomination: Why some Baptist ministers are leaving, I’ve heard from so many women who have experienced something similar to what I have experienced. While this is reassuring that I am not alone in my experience, it is also disheartening. As I listened to these stories, I realized that there is a behind the scenes to the pastor search process in the baptist world. I have heard again and again from denominational leaders in the CBF that there is nothing they can do when it comes to congregations actually calling women to be pastors or churches affirming LGTBQIA+ persons. Even when I heard these statements, I challenged and pushed. There was something about these statements that were not only defensive but also passive, allowing leaders the option to not take action or responsibility for what was happening in parish ministry.

And then I received an unexpected phone call. It was the head of a pastor search committee. The pastor position was not yet listed, but I had been recommended for consideration. At first, I felt extreme affirmation. A surge of pride overwhelmed me that instead of carefully crafting an interest letter and yet again changing the format of my resume, I was having a direct conversation with the head of the pastor search committee. These are the conversations I had been trying to have for five years. Resume after resume, email after email, phone call after phone call, just to try to get in front of a pastor search committee. I have written so many interest letters and sent so many resumes without ever hearing anything at all and now I was in a very important conversation. As the surge of pride ebbed, another realization washed over me. My heart sank as I understood. This is how it works. 

Over and over again, I had been told I was a strong candidate for full-time pastor positions. Conversation after conversation with mentors and denominational leaders led me to reformat my resume, refine my writing, and push myself again and again only to find that I was not being considered for the pastor positions I applied for. Coaching training was suggested. Intentional interim training was suggested. All of these not a financial possibility as a bi-vocational minister.

I was on the phone as it dawned on me that the one thing no one was willing to admit to me as I searched and searched is the behind the scenes phone calls that take place. The insider baseball recommendations. No one was willing to say that there are candidates that are recommended when a church contacts denominational leaders and mentors for suggestions and there are candidates that aren’t. Even as I was engaged in one of those behind the scenes conversations, I was struck by how much harm this not-talked-about, never-discussed part of the search process is harming very talented, very earnest ministers, especially women and LGTBQIA+ ministers. If you don’t know these conversations take place and you don’t know that it actually really matters a lot who you know, then you begin to think it is you as a person and as a minister. You don’t have enough experience. You don’t have enough passion. You don’t have what it takes to pastor because you aren’t being considered anywhere. You aren’t worth a conversation, an email or a letter in response to your submission for consideration.

This is not true.

I know too many very talented, highly educated, and extremely gifted female ministers who simply aren’t being considered or once they are called to pastor have their pastorates end abruptly. Women candidates and women pastors in the baptist world are held to impossible standards. As a woman pastor, you are expected to solve the financial crisis that many churches find themselves in (from male pastors who have mismanaged funds and not adapted with the changing economy). As a woman pastor, you cannot be a good preacher, you must be an exceptional preacher. As a woman pastor, the administrative tasks and expectations are often increased. I know numerous woman pastors who format and print and fold their own bulletins every week. In many cases, an associate pastor and senior pastor position are combined. While balancing all of these expectations, women pastors know that if they misstep and if they are asked to resign or their contract is not renewed, the congregation will be more likely not to call a female again. On top of that, women ministers are also still experiencing sexual harassment and sexist comments as they are trying to minister.

This is not a problem of individual candidates.

This is a systemic problem. This is a denominational problem. This is sexism. This is brokenness. This is spiritual abuse being covered up and denied.

I finished the phone call explaining to the person that based on what I saw on their website, they were not ready for a woman minister. “But we would like to have some resumes of women,” was the response I received. This was not the first time I had personally heard this statement. Three years ago, I would have submitted my resume saying that considering women candidates was the first step in calling a woman pastor. Maybe it is, but for the first time since I was called to pastor and to preach seven years ago, I didn’t have to “put in my time” and “be patient.” For the first time, I could say no. No to the behind the scenes phone calls. No to the systemic problems that allow for baptist churches in 2019 to act as if they are welcoming and affirming when there is no intention to actually call a woman pastor. No to the unrealistic expectations placed on baptist woman pastors. And no to the denominational denial that all of this exists as part of the pastor search process for women and LGTBQIA+ persons.

Halfway There, Living on a Prayer

Yesterday, we hit the 20-week mark on this journey to welcoming a new little one into the Harrelson Pack. It took me by surprise to think that we were already halfway there to meeting this little one. This little one that we just found out is a GIRL!

In the midst of the excitement, I was inundated with the news of the accusations of rape against Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaughn and conversations surrounding this news. To read that Republicans claim this wasn’t a big deal and then to read religious leaders claim it’s not a big deal heaping spiritual abuse onto Dr. Ford have left me speechless. To think that these leaders who are trying to push through a Supreme Court nominee who wasn’t accountable to the law is baffling to me. How can we expect that he will not use the law to get away with other forms of abuse once his power increases if he is confirmed?

But even more than these details about the overall health and integrity of the most powerful governing body in our country, my mind keeps returning to our baby girl. How are we supposed to raise a girl to become a strong, confident woman in the midst of this climate and context where women aren’t believed? How are we supposed to keep her safe and strong and brave? How when there are so examples of political abuse and spiritual abuse protecting men who break the law? How when we have a president who has multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment and jokes about women’s bodies?

And I think 20 more weeks isn’t enough to create everything I want to create for this little girl and for our 10-year-old and 8-year-old girls. It’s not enough time. There aren’t enough people working to overcome these powerful, powerful forces that have protected crime against women again and again. There’s not enough money to hire the best lawyers to fight NDAs and settlements and discrimination that sets the foundation for this type of oppression to take place. There’s not…enough.

Even as the tears fall in my laments, there are rays of hope. Women supporting Dr. Ford and her courage and bravery from her high school. Women and men coming together to rally again, understanding that the #metoo is not over and there’s still so much work to be done.

Here we are halfway there, living on a prayer and a hope that we will come together and we will create a better place for girls and women.

Spiritual Abuse and Natural Disasters

With Florence about to make landfall in South Carolina, people have been preparing for power outages and damages. In the midst of all of us trying to anticipate the uncertain, bad theology has come to the surface. This theology invites judgment about who deserves God’s protection and who doesn’t deserve God’s protection. This week Pat Robertson called on God and his people to pray a “hedge of protection” around their church and their properties. This is spiritual abuse.

Fundamentalism can’t thrive in uncertainties and so leaders of fundamentalism have to depend on predicting the unpredictable and trying to bring order out of the chaos that occurs during a natural disaster. These theological claims distract us from confronting the stark realities that natural disasters reveal. Over the course of the last week, I’ve heard many people asking condescendingly why people aren’t evacuating during the mandatory evacuations issued by the Governor in South Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to conclude that those not evacuating are people who are stubborn or who think the storm won’t be as bad as predicted. This conclusion allows us to turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divisions that continue to segregate our state.

In reality, many can’t evacuate because they don’t have the resources to evacuate. Many can’t evacuate because of disability, economic restrictions, and responsibility to care for family members who are physically unable to travel. None of these reasons talks about the cost of evacuation: supplies, gas, hotels. For people who were born and raised in the community, evacuation is leaving their whole network. These are people who depend on every shift of work to make ends meet and having their jobs closed means they won’t be able to buy what they need. Evacuation is a privilege.

If there’s still a doubt as to whether evacuation reveals the divisions among citizens, recent reports reveal that the Governor of South Carolina did not make plans to evacuate the prisoners in the mandatory evacuate zones. When asked about those who couldn’t afford to evacuate, the FEMA Coordinator explained that FEMA doesn’t pay for evacuation expenses.

Our eyes are opened as we prepare for a natural disaster to the realities that separate us economically, racially, and socially. The question is will we see these uncomfortable realities or hide behind a hedge of protection laced with spiritual abuse?

Spiritual Abuse: Actions Speak Louder than Words

I’ve been pondering the discussions about Pastor Charles H Ellis and Ariana Grande for over a week. There was so much about this interaction that reminded me of similar situations I have been in as a woman and as a woman who attends religious services regularly. There is no doubt in my mind that Ariana felt uncomfortable in the interaction. I also recognize the exhaustion and pressure Pastor Ellis must have felt as he performed such a monumental and lengthy funeral as a member of the clergy.

But perhaps it is his fatigue that indicates where the problem lies. Perhaps it is when we are tired and when we are under pressure that we revert to our natural instincts and reactions. As a society, our natural instincts or our normal mode of operation is one that includes harassment, sexism, and spiritual abuse. Even with the revelation so the #metoo movement, we all witnessed before millions the way power and position are used to control women. In Ariana’s case, she was stuck in an extended embrace. Many women can tell similar stories of being stuck in too long or awkward or unwanted hugs. We recognize the look on her face and she realizes he’s not letting go. We feel her powerlessness as the “I’m stuck” realization washes over her face.

It’s hard to watch. It’s uncomfortable to watch.

Just as it is hard to hear of yet another victim coming forward in the Willow Creek’s former pastor Bill Hybels’ sexual misconduct case come forward. Not another one, we hope. Because another one would indicate that there were even more people who were silenced and told not to share their stories. Willow Creek’s response has been to concentrate on communication, but some are arguing that communication, or words, are not enough. Action is needed.

But we must open our eyes and see that things have not changed since the #metoo movement. We have heard the stories, but those stories, those conversations haven’t changed our mode of operation or what we do when we are exhausted and tired. If we really want to change these things, we must examine not only our words and language but our actions too.

Actions speak louder than words.

Spiritual Abuse and The Process of Untraining

I found myself in an uncomfortable situation this week that reminded me of my conservative, evangelical upbringing. The semon was similar. The tone was similar. The lack of space for questions or discussion was similar. I found myself shifting in my seat trying to comprehend how I had ended up in a situation that reminded me so much of my past.

If you have childhood trauma of any sort, then you, too, know that these triggering events can creep up on you. Sometimes you can anticipate and predict what is going to take you down into the spiral of where you have been. The doubts. The questions. The emotions. And sometimes these triggers surprise you and threaten to drag you under the wave of remembering when you haven’t had time to take a good, deep breath.

Your mind begins the process of wondering, “How did this happen? How am I here again?” When this happens it would be easy to be hard on yourself telling yourself you haven’t made any progress because here you are again in the whirlwind of self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s easy in these moments to beat yourself up because you put yourself in a triggering situation.

But if you look hard enough in these moments, you can see and recognize little moments of light. If you offer yourself grace and space, then you will see that you behaved differently than you have before. You reached out for support or your center remained steady even in the midst of the situation or you were able to talk about the event in safe community.

Your eyes are opened and you can see that slowly, but surely you’re untraining yourself. Maybe you will never get rid of your past, but you this time you were able to not let the past take over. You were able to bring yourself back to the present. Back to your home.

Spiritual Abuse and Power and Position

This week, a statement made by Paige Patterson in 2000 has resurfaced. The reaction to his statement eighteen years later is much different than the initial reaction his statement received. This is a significant shift. It is enough shift that some people are calling for Paige Patterson to retire and move on. Patterson is known for his role in changing the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention and for his leadership at Southwestern Seminary. The expectation of men in Southern Baptist Culture that touts complimentarianism as the only option for male/female relationships, especially men who have risen to most powerful position, is to be respected and not questioned on matters of faith, marriage, and biblical interpretation.  Calling for Patterson’s retirement marks a shift in his following and unquestioned power that may indicate his influence is waning. When powerful people feel power slipping away from them, they often double down on their efforts to try to maintain control and their position. Patterson’s recent public statement seems to be just that.

Just as Patterson used his power to counsel the woman in his 2000 statement to stay with her husband even though she felt abused, so too is he using his power to say that those who are questioning and challenging his biblical interpretation are full of hate. This is spiritual abuse. When one sex or person is given unquestioned and unchallenged power to speak on behalf of God, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and physical abuse are soon to follow. Even though Patterson claims to never have abused a woman, recent allegations over other powerful male pastors leave room for doubt. The #churchtoo movement has revealed again and again how powerful ministers use religion to abuse and coerce women.

Power and position are dangerous privilege. The allure of being listened to, respected, and followed is hard to shake, but when the lines of religious leadership and power blur, this is spiritual abuse. We have to free our understanding and interpretation from power and position because scripture and Jesus speak too often to power and position to overlook.

Spiritual Abuse and Hidden Lives

When I heard about the resignation the president and Chief Executive of the SBC’s Executive Committee, my atenea went up. Even before the story of the “inappropriate relationship” came out, I wondered if there was another story, a hidden story, that hadn’t been shared before. Many would claim that the #metoo movement has been a reckoning for white, males who have enough power and privilege to keep silent the women who they have abused, harrassed, and mistreated. Decades of stories are coming to the surface raising the question, what is the real story of how our society operates?

As these stories arise, the question of why the evangelical support of the president who has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual harrassment hasn’t wavered is becoming clearer. It’s because many of these evagenical leaders share the hidden life of sexual harassment and “inappropriate relationships” with our president shares. These leaders, like our president, hope that enough power and enough money can keep these stories hidden and out of the public eye. But these leaders, like our president are realizing their power is waning. They are losing the ability to keep up their public personas while keeping hidden the ways they have exploited and oppressed women behind closed doors. Keeping these stories silent while preaching and proclaiming the word of God and calling others to repentenace is spiritual abuse.

As a country, we reflect on the assassinaiton of MLK, Jr. fifty years later and we have to wonder what is the hidden life of our country? A country that would extinguish a voice of challenge and change at such a young age. A country that has decades of stories of abuse and harrassement rising to the surface. A country that has in its very foundation racism and sexism. We must learn to confront these difficult truths within ourselves and within our country if we have any hope of rebuilding.

Eastertide offers us the time in the church calendar to contemplate what resurrection and new life mean, but we will never get to the new life if we don’t first die to the selves that seek power and privlege and self-promotion at the expense of other individuals.

Spiritual Abuse and Justification

The question of how prominent evangelical leaders can continue to support a president whose morality and ethics are questionable is perplexing. How can the same people who questioned Obama’s religious beliefs and berated Clinton’s infidelity defend and justify our current president again and again?

Loyalty to Trump has involved progressively more difficult, self-abasing demands. And there appears to be no limit to what some evangelical leaders will endure. Figures such as Falwell and Franklin Graham followed Trump’s lead in supporting Judge Roy Moore in the December Senate election in Alabama. These are religious leaders who have spent their entire adult lives bemoaning cultural and moral decay. Yet they publicly backed a candidate who was repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including with a 14-year-old girl.

The simple answer is that the president finds himself affiliated with the right party and evangelical leaders will back this president because he represents the party they want in power in Congress and in the White House. The acrobatics they must engage in order to justify and continue to support him are merely exercises in ensuring power is kept in their own political party. To address the merit and inaccuracies of their theological reasoning in their support of the president is to threaten their power. These discussions whether in person or on a Facebook comment thread quickly deteriorate into naming-calling, debasing, and dehumanizing rhetoric.

This is not surprising or shocking to me as someone who grew up with these language patterns. In fact, I too default to this type of rhetoric when at levels of stress or uncertainty. The only goal is to be right regardless of the hurt or pain caused in the quest to be right. Ryan Stollar notes:

Fundamentalism is an obsession with getting ideology right, rather than a dedication to doing right by people.

This issue-first rather than people-first religion doesn’t allow evangelicals to admit they were wrong or misguided in their justification and support of our current president. To make such an admission, would be to admit that they had misheard God or misinterpreted the idea that “God used Pharoah and God can use anyone.” The whole basis of fundamentalism is to protect and defend the “right” ideology and so no matter what is revealed about this president, the connection with Russia, or the abuse towards women or foreigners, the voice of the white evangelical right will remain in support of this president. It has to in order to prevent an unwarranted theological crisis and a threat to the evangelical, political power.

Those who bravely call out evangelical leaders who support the president find themselves an outsider to a community and people who once respected their voice and insight. This threat of exclusion is so strong that it causes people to recant and repent in order to be welcomed back into the fold:

A day after a Religion News Service interview portrayed retired pastor and author Eugene Peterson as shifting to endorse same-sex marriage, the evangelical leader retracted his comment and upheld the traditional Christian stance instead. “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

This is spiritual abuse at its most powerful.

Spiritual abuse threatens and excludes in order to keep power in the hands of the powerful. But spiritual abuse must also have a theological basis in order to withstand criticism of seeking power. The theological basis for defending our current political state and president is justification or “an acquittal of guilt.” And this is what evangelical leaders have provided for the president: justification for past cases of infidelety, sexual harrassment, and abuse; justification for language they would not approve of from their congregants; justification for debasing and dehumanizing attacks via social media. This justification will continue along with the spiritual abuse that defends it because evangelical leaders are concerned about losing political power and favor.

There is no defense against this type of theology. Those who engage in debating or disarming this theology will find themselves excluded and debased. Instead, what we who are concerned and weighted down by our current state must do is invite those who are questioning and wondering into sanctuaries where they can challenge the theology and rhetoric they have been taught. We must be compassionate and kind rather than belittling and accusatory. We must not name call. We must not call those who have been raised in these communities ignorant. We must be radical in our hospitality of inclusion. We must extend table fellowship full of grace even to those who might later betray us.

This is the work of hope and healing and indeed the work of Christ Jesus who offered new life to all people.