Church and Abuse

I'm part of some great online communities that help people process religious trauma, abuse,  and fundamentalism. I've read a couple of great books based on people's experiences with these things as well. As we experienced trauma both inside and outside of the church, I find the way the brain processes trauma and how communities hold or let go of (repress) it to be fascinating, horrifying and redeeming. It makes you feel less crazy, which I think is something women in our culture need to experience daily as that seems to be the number one way to keep us quiet. 

I had something connect for me that I found really insightful. Someone said the church confuses forgiveness with healing. BOOM. Brain exploded. When anyone ever talks about being abused in church, in particular when it occurred within the church community (not just the remote anecdote unrelated to the group), the reaction often comes down to forgiveness. Like the Christian solution to pain and horror is forgiveness and if we just find a way to forgive, the pain goes away or is made to be okay. And while I find forgiveness, true forgiveness not forced victim-silencing "forgiveness" to be beautiful and liberating and most definitely part of Christian community and faith, it does not equate healing. In fact, if we force forgiveness and skip holding the horror, grieving it, assigning blame, creating accountability (hello jail time), and lots of support and help (therapy, meds, support groups) for those harmed, this is the antithesis of healing. Healing must include some sort of reckoning. You can't skip to the end without doing the painful work. (I find one of the obnoxious things about harming others is that by acting out your own shit instead of facing it, you create shit for someone else to have to work through, thus perpetuating the cycle of shame and violation). Then, after all that work, can you imagine how gorgeous, how empowering, how HEALING forgiveness could be?!?! It could be amazing. But please don't call that shoving everything under the rug stuff forgiveness. You might just piss off the king of forgiveness (yea Jesus!) in the process. Ever think of that?

Abuse is not regular sin. We don't treat it like "well, everyone makes mistakes." It's predatory. It's violating. It's just different. Of course, it's sin. But it's sin on crack and we need to treat it differently. Please let your theology and how you handle abuse as a community reflect that. Because if you don't, you're part of the problem. You have little people in your care. If you don't take that seriously, you're putting a target for abusers on your back. I promise you that. They're looking for you, naive ones. And you've been found again and again. 

There's a cool movement I just discovered on top of the #metoo movement. It's called #churchtoo. It's awesome to hear women sharing their stories. Don't get me wrong: the stories are awful. And I would add plenty of trigger warnings to it and ask that you give yourself a lot of self-care if you choose to dive in, because coupling sexual abuse with religious privilege (like having your youth minister force you to give him oral sex) is abuse on another level. BUT IT HAPPENS. And how the church deals with it matters. So far, our track record is not good. Maybe this is the beginning of hearing those voices cry out in truth and create the reckoning that is long overdue. These victims are brave. These victims have been greatly harmed. And many of their abusers have gone on to have successful ministry careers. Time to cause a ruckus, friends. Dear ones, speak your truth. It's time to clean house. 

The Challenge of Holding Space

Is it just me or does it feel like, at least on some days, life is primarily about witnessing pain you can't resolve? I feel like this social trend in "holding space" for others, for their stories, for their pain, for their existence separate from yet connected to mine, is one of the most difficult things for me to practice. Now that I've admitted to myself that it's not healthy or possible for me to try to fix the pain of my loved ones (the real tricky one is not trying to fix your own after you're not distracted by the pain of others'), it is becoming a practice of mine to just hold space. When Black Lives Matter started, it was important to me to watch the graphic videos of black lives being targeted. A lot of people in my inner circle did not make that choice. And that was okay too.

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Why I Write

There are a few main reasons why I write. It is both personal and communal. The personal part is that writing helps me give words to my experiences, feelings and thoughts. Words are the tools I use to process those things and to engage in the world. There is a life-long love affair being conducted between me and words. It's probably one of the reasons I talk so much! The communal part is that I recognize that not everyone has the words for their experiences but when they read someone else's words, their heart recognizes a friend. And I think that is so incredibly important. Seeing yourself in another person's experience gives you a sense of not being alone and sometimes it helps you feel like you're not crazy, which is something we often tell women when their feelings are big. Sometimes how someone responds to a situation is different than how you tend to respond and that's fascinating and maybe even helpful. The human experience of being isolated is so incredibly damaging to who we are. So, in my vulnerability, if I'm able to give words to another mother, another child, another whomever, I am willing to do that because I think this work deeply matters. Stories are life. And life is best when shared.

I recently shared an old story (if you can call three months ago old) that got a lot of response. I like response! It's kind of a writers nightmare to have no one respond to your work. It makes you feel like maybe your experiences aren't shared and that's sad. Some responses are hard to process, especially because they may hit on things that hadn't occurred to me or make me feel misunderstood or hurt. That's part of this process too. And that's okay. But it doesn't mean it isn't hard. It's really hard for me. And that bad ass in me who puts words to feelings is not always present when words are presented back to me directly. I need to be honest about that. I don't write because I can take a lot of hits. I write in spite of the hits that will come.

If there was any kind of "agenda" (does anyone else hate that word?) in my latest post, it was based in this place. This place that wants to give words and honor experience. This place that wants kids to be safe and adults to be careful with them. I think that's a good place to write from, even when anger pours out of it. Anger can be really, really good and that's something I need to continually affirm as anger was not acceptable for me to display as a child and it's still not okay for me to display as a woman, at least not without suspicion of some kind of intended harm. There was no harmful intent here.

It's funny because after the last writing-related blow up, my husband teased me about being a "pot stirrer." And we laughed, mainly because I stir a lot of pots with a lot of discomfort. I stir pots when I find opportunities to advocate for things more important than my discomfort. And that is true here. I wrote in hopes that other parents would have words for those moments when your heart gives pause and you don't know why. I wrote to inspire conversation with children, to empower others to allow their kids to have a say in what's taught to them and to make space for their process. I wrote to engage on a parenting front. This was a conversation I had between me and my daughter that I chose to make public. Fallout with other adults, teachers, church leaders was not even on my radar and frankly, such a lesser concern to me than what my post was about. I would like to point out that I was intentional about not being specific about who was involved or where we received this teaching. I learned that lesson and it was painful! If it was revealed in response who was part of this, that was not my doing. And I could care-take that I should have anticipated that as a possibility but I'm going to release that. I didn't reveal those things. It's not that I don't care how adults view my writing or my approach to my situation from VBS but it's that it entirely misses the point of my post. Adult feelings take a back seat to how we plant seeds in children's hearts about themselves and about God. That's why I didn't process my feelings about my kid with my kid. I processed my kids feelings with my kid and my feelings with other adults. And I did that when this happened. 

I do want to clarify something that doesn't seem to have been clear in my original post.

I HAVE NO PERSONAL PROBLEM WITH THE TEACHER IN THIS SITUATION.

I have no relationship with this person. I do not know her. And if anything, I'VE BEEN HER. You guys realize that I taught things like this, right?!?! Mostly to teens, which was at least slightly more developmentally appropriate but still regretful (there is a future post here for sure), but I have been this person time and time again. And my heart twinged but I read the script (she followed the curriculum, which was why I was angry about the curriculum, not the person following it). And I did it with good intent. And I did it because I did what I was told. And I did it because I believed it. I meant what I told my daughter that morning. I told her we could extend her teacher grace and for once, thank God, I wasn't just trying to do the right thing and be a good example to my kid. I was actually able to do the right thing in that moment. I knew then as I know now that I was being triggered by a whole lot of baggage, decades of baggage, that had absolutely nothing to do with her as a person. So writing this story three months later came with absolutely no negative feelings towards her. And if for some reason, this stranger has come upon my writing (that could only really happen if someone deliberately shared it with her), I want to say - we're cool. I have no beef with you. And if my pain hurt you, that was not my intent. 

I do want us to be careful with our curriculum selection. That was the only "to do" I was hoping to see in response. That's all :)

I also learned something about myself before things got really stressful in the response. I learned that I have allowed my perfectionism into the space of my theology and how I teach theology to my children. My anger came from a visceral response to anyone violating that sacred space. And that comes from a deep protectiveness that was not honored in my soul or in my husband's soul when he was fired. And having that first seed of dishonor planted in my child triggered me in a real way. This is trauma, friends. I was hurt. My husband was hurt. So anything that looks remotely like that trauma placed upon my innocent child brought out the mama bear claws. And honestly, I'm okay with that. I can validate those feelings with or without the understanding of my peers. Because trauma is a tapestry. When you pull at that thread, which I've been doing for six years, sometimes things unravel. That's how we get to the root of the problem. That's the personal side. The church of Christ side is that we've created a dynamic where we do what we're told, especially women, and we honestly believe it's okay to teach young children about sin. We think that's important. I don't. And that's not mine to hold. I get to decide what to do with my experience. It might look like not participating in VBS. That seems like a tidy, obvious answer. Except my kid might conclude that she's missing out on something she enjoys with her friends because she opened up to her mom. Right? I'm going to tread lightly in what this looks like for me in the future. And that's okay. Because it's October. I don't have to know what I'm going "to do" in this moment. Is it possible that there is nothing to do? Just to hold pain and acknowledge it? For me, yes. Sometimes that's more than enough to do for the day. So that's where I'll be today. Home. Holding my pain. And giving it the validation it needs. Hugs to you, friends. Whether you get it or not, pain is universal. 

Ministry - Friend or Foe?

As many of my readers know, I fell head over heels in love with ministry in my youth. It gave me a way to use my talents, honor God and give to the community in a way that fueled me. It compelled me to wake up and hop out of bed every morning. It defined me, in a lot of ways. I was addicted to helping others. It sounds weird and maybe unhealthy to you or maybe really cute and inspiring. It was all of those things. I meant everything I said and did in those days but I also had a real pride issue and an inability to receive what I was doling out. I also was not tuned into my voice and therefore, gave too much power to other people in my life. I lived out of a place that was without healthy boundaries.

I had a weird experience last weekend where I got to unpack our firing from professional ministry trauma a little bit more with someone who had an inside perspective. I have had many talks with people from all sides of that trauma over the years and it has been mostly helpful, though always triggering. This particular conversation centered around my ministry abilities and how that may have affected our firing. What was shared was somehow both infuriating and validating. I will not share the specifics of what was shared, but I do want to share how that information further helped me process how I feel about myself in ministry.

Ministry, in some ways, has felt like the beloved pet who got rabies and became very threatening and unstable not unlike Old Yeller. And so for everyone's sake, you put down the beloved pet and you grieved the loss both of what was and what might have been. But here's the thing, what was a burning fire within me has not been fully snuffed out. I'm not going to lie to you; that scares the shit out of me. How much easier would it be if I could stamp out that little flickering light and walk away? Given a choice, that would be the easier option. And I have in no way fanned that flame. What I do have is a shit-ton of church baggage, confusion about what it means as this new person I've become to use my gifts and also to hold space for healthy boundaries and my pain, and a genuine resistance to risk. Church is a very scary place for me. Miraculously, my new church (I've been there over 2 years but I hesitate to put down roots) is very safe, though moments of triggering come up from time to time. Mostly, when anything is ever asked of me. I'm like a guy who can't commit though he's with a marrying-type of girl. I know what I have there is special but my propensity to run is definitely present. I want everything on my terms. And that's not living in community. I am totally proficient at building community outside of church now, which is an incredible byproduct of our traumatic firing. I didn't know who I was outside of church before and I now I have the opposite problem. How do I use my gifts in a church setting without risking further damage to my soul and fueling the fire that is my ego, the anti-thesis of who I want to be in the world? I DON'T KNOW.

And yet, that little flame keeps burning. An easy way around the official church stuff is to recognize that there is a lot of good I do in my personal life and relationships and if you're looking to label things, you could call that ministry. I don't like to because it feels cheap to me, but you could. Calling something in my personal life "ministry" now feels like I'm using that opportunity, need, relationship as a project. That it's not equal relationship, but some sort of gift I'm bestowing upon the receiver. I don't like it and I find the implications of that insulting to the people I've come to know and love. I don't like the above/below dynamic of ministry. I know there are many humble people in ministry, but I was of the mind that I had something to give others and that that was my purpose. To give. The problem with that is that it stems from a dirty place that I have something others don't. And that can turn into thinking I'm better than other people. Here's the thing - none of that is true. Giving has no value if you cannot recognize that at any point, the tables can and will turn and you will need people to give to you. I do not having anything more than anyone else. Yes, we all have different experiences, talents and personalities. And I do live out of a place that there is work to be done in life by me specifically that would benefit the world. But I also believe that's true of every, single human. Also, I don't own Jesus and I don't dispense him at will. I think he's awesome but I also think there are many people in the world doing good things, living loving lives who do not claim him. And I'm ok with that now. In some ways, their motives are more pure because they're not motivated by heaven. Their reward is doing good because they are compelled to do good. That should and has always been more than enough. And I am definitely not better than anyone else. I'm not more deserving, more kind or more gifted. I am not "other", "special", "set apart" or "different." Yes, I know we're all special in our own ways and I don't say these things to degrade myself. What I mean is, if any of these ideas cause me to think I am better than someone who doesn't believe or live in the way I do, I have lost everything. There is no value in work motivated by pride.

I know what you're thinking - why does it matter what you call it? Ministry? Living your values? Being a decent person? It doesn't matter. Not really. But I'm like a dog with a bone; I can't seem to pry that damn idea from my mind. Ministry is like the harpoon that scarred me irrevocably. I survived the injury, but the imprint it made on me won't release me to deny its potential. Who knows where this processing will lead me. I am confident that the flame will not go out and there is a reason for that. Thanks for walking with me as I experience this crazy thing unfold.  

When Trauma Comes to Visit

Don't you hate it when you've done all you can to process a trauma and it still comes to visit from time to time? I wish there was a way to not be shaped by our traumas. I know that's not possible and probably not even good as terrible things often shape us in somewhat positive ways, if you're in a frame of mind to see it. Though I must admit, that's hard to do in the middle of the night when you wake up from a nightmare sobbing. It's been 5 and a half years since we left professional ministry. We've been through other traumas since that time that were even more severe and yet that one still leaves a mark. I think I must admit to myself that it always will. My ultimate goal is to not let my traumas make me a bitter, hardened person. Unfortunately, sometimes in order to get to that place, you gotta work through a lot of pain and anger.  

I am still connected to our old church through a weekly MOMS group I attend. Most of the women there are unaware of my history and the church has been through a major overhaul in both style and leadership since we left. Yet, I'm still walking those halls, seeing many of the people from our "old life" and everyone acts like nothing ever happened. I guess that's the only way to move forward. It's not like I want to spend my 2 hours of weekly free childcare sussing out old pain with people I don't really trust. And I know I've already had the hard conversations I needed to have way back when. The group has been a great source of fun and friendship for me (I feel I need to justify my attendance since being in that environment is clearly still triggering).  

Perhaps it is the perfectionist in me that wants to check "professional church ministry trauma" off the list and move on. And I have moved on in ways I am really proud of and genuinely grateful for. I know if the trauma had not happened, we would not be the people we are today. And I think we are better people. I am so much more humble, gracious and honest than I was before. I was always a nice person but leaving professional ministry helped me embrace my humanity, give myself grace and become an all-around kinder person. I've found my voice, my values and my own footing having had that formerly precious security blanket ripped from me. And yet, it's still hard. It's still sad. And sometimes, that trauma comes to call. Maybe that's how you know something you lost really meant so much. When that pain knocks, perhaps the healthiest thing to do is open the door, embrace the pain and let the tears flow.

To The Beautiful People in Professional Ministry Being Treated Like Shit

I have a lot of friends in professional ministry. I, of course, used to be in professional ministry both paid and unpaid (spouse). And after a traumatic, unwarranted firing from the ministry, we left ministry for our spiritual and emotional well-being. It's been 5 years and there has been a ton of personal growth. That being said, I am often triggered by the stories of my dear friends who remain in professional ministry. The problem with the eldership model in the churches of Christ is that many of our churches on the west coast are small. We have no oversight outside of the local church (something we take pride in) which means that often elderships have no accountability and total control. Sometimes this power falls into the hands of 2-3 men, one of whom is often bordering on senility because for some reason, we don't know when to boot out the old guys. The elder with the biggest swagger is always wealthy. It's rude. But it's true. So I would like to write an open letter to my dear friends in ministry, who give everything they have to the church in often unhealthy, secretly abusive leadership models. 

Dear Friend,

I see you. I see you putting yourself out there. I see you initiating relationship when you'd rather be in bed watching TV. I see you planning events and hoping people come. I see you getting pulled aside at church to listen to someone who doesn't really know you or care about you as a person criticizing the work you do prayerfully and with the utmost care. I see you nodding while tamping down anger and resentment. I see you being unable to defend yourself because that would be considered threatening. I see you trying to decide if you should cater to the bullies or follow your leader gut that's telling you to go in the direction you've been going. I see your exhaustion. I see you tire of pushing so hard. Pushing yourself to keep going. Dragging the dead horse behind you that is everyone's resistance to change. I see you compromising. I see you questioning yourself - your abilities, your calling, your very worth. I see you stagnating in your faith because it's become a function of your work. I see you towing lines of theology you'd love to leave behind but you can't for risk of losing your income. I see you wondering if anyone around you really loves you. You - the person, not the role. I see you proving your worth with activity, calendars, ministry updates. I see you hustling - greeting new people, trying to be friendly all the time. I see you missing your family, missing bedtime routines, missing sex because you're just too tired at the end of the day. I see you wishing you had the energy to be more present in your neighborhood. There's just nothing left when you get home from church. I see you longing for rest, like poor people long for winning the lottery. 

I'm here to say - you are gifted. You are loved. You matter. Not because of how you perform, what you can accomplish, the numbers you can bring in - you matter because. You matter. If you laid down all this today, you would still matter. Your value does not come from your abilities, your performance, your care of others. You matter. Your soul deserves care. Not just from you, not just from God, but from the people around you. Your body deserves care. You are allowed to sleep, eat, relax and breathe. You are allowed to spend time on things that aren't perceived as spiritual. You are allowed to act your age. If you are young, be young. Don't carry the world on your shoulders like it's up to you to save it. It's not. You can't. What you're doing matters and if you intend to stay in it, you may need some therapy. And if you need to leave to shore up your faith, your psyche, your family - you should. You are worthy of emotional health. You are worthy of being poured into not just out of. Do not cast the pearls of your soul before the swines who feel no remorse for stamping it out. Do not let anyone speak into your soul, question your worthiness, make you feel ashamed of who you are. You are beautiful. You are precious. You do not need to live in shame. Do not pay back a debt of shame by giving service to people who don't appreciate it. Do not serve out of some sort of penance. You are loved. You stand in grace. So stand up. Don't let anyone tell you who you are. 

No one's perfect. I get it. Sure, you probably need to work on some stuff. But no one takes the kind of shit people in ministry do. You might not even realize it because you're so entrenched in it right now. Be brave. Don't allow your imperfections to give them a pass. They have imperfections too and you'd never throw it at them like they do with you. Claim your dignity. And be honest with yourself - you'll always be an employee first in the church. So if you are taking more shit than an employee should be taking, know that the ideas of "family" don't really apply to you. That's terrible, but it's honest. So make your peace with that and set your boundaries. Don't delude yourself to thinking you're not expendable. 

I see you. Do you see yourself?