A story of abuse at a Midwestern church
My story is not one of violent abuse or long-term abuse or super-controlling abuse. This is a case of creeping, subtle abuse. But it destroyed nearly an entire body of believers.
When our pastor first arrived, the church was full of several eager, active, sincere couples and young families. After two years under this pastor, all but two had left or been kicked out. As of today (April 2011) I understand that every regularly-attending family there when the pastor was called in 2005, is out of the church. One couple who attended right about the time the pastor came is still in it, but the wife knows it is an abusive church and has been vascillating. New people have come and gone, even newer ones remain, for now, but the situation there is spiritually toxic and it takes a strong stomach to stick it out for long.
The first inkling I had that our new pastor had a problem was during a meeting on hosting a Halloween alternative at our church. We often did this, opening the church to provide a safe and fun time for church kids who don't celebrate Halloween.
Our new pastor, however, had other ideas. He came to the meeting armed with literature and made it clear that even so much as an acknowledgment, by the church, of the existence of Halloween was evil. The only proper response for Christians to Halloween was to cower in the dark in their homes.
The pastor nursed a persecution complex. He began to preach frequently about "attacks of the enemy" and it was pretty clear what - or rather who - he was referring to. The enemy, at first, was the young woman who had hosted the meeting on Halloween alternatives. She and her family were among the first to leave.
Those who attended the business meetings that followed told me that the pastor demanded obedience at these meetings, that he went to lengths to point out his scriptural authority over others. Not attending meetings, since I wasn't part of the board, I found this behavior hard to believe. I thought people must be misinterpreting something.
Defending the wrong
To me, the pastor might have a few awkward moments, but he was preaching scripture and getting us back to the basics from which I felt we'd wandered for some time. I had the idea that this pastor was leading us to greener spiritual meadows than we had known for years, and I didn't want anything interfering with this wonderful dream. So I ended up taking his part whenever there was conflict, and I even came down pretty hard on those who had trouble with him.
The pastor once denounced Bible studies from the pulpit, spitting out the word "Bible study" as if it were toxic. I thought of some Bible studies where people tried to show off their knowledge of scripture, and agreed with him. Waste of time. But I had been in many, many studies and adult Sunday schools, where people met to look into God's word together. Was there really anything wrong with that?
This should have clued me in, but instead, I came up with excuses for him. He wanted to keep in control of teaching to keep the church from heretical teachings, I told myself. He must have been in some bad Bible studies and thinks they are all like that. He doesn't want some boring lay person driving out new folks.
Though the pastor didn't make us take notices of our Tuesday women's prayer group out of the bulletin, his wife never came to them. I made up excuses for her absence. And when we added a Bible study component, I knew we had to keep that part a secret.
Rock Star Pastor
While tension built among board members -- or former board members -- something even more surreal was happening with the worship team, and few knew of it. Few knew of it because the church this man came into was a humble church, a church not used to gossip or rumor-spreading. People generally kept quiet out of respect. But in case they didn't, any number of sermons elevating gossip almost to murder and adultery status was now cascading down on the blinking congregation.
For a long time, the only thing demanded of worship team members was that they practice the night before church, if they wanted to play that Sunday. The pastor wanted to be on the worship team. In fact, he wanted to be front and center with a 12-string guitar. But he did not want to practice. He would not come to practice, despite pleas from the worship leader.
He also did something else very strange. Whenever he'd get on the platform with his guitar, he'd reach over and turn the volume up on his guitar mic and turn down the volume on everyone else's. Our worship leader spent hours beforehand adjusting the balance because the team was his ministry and he wanted excellence for the Lord. He was not paid for any of his time. This man loved God and the church and put in many hours trying to produce beautiful music for Sunday services, in honor of the Holy Lamb of God. With a few twists of knobs, all the balance and care was wiped out by the pastor.
The other problem was that despite his loud guitar, the pastor was frequently out of tune. Other worship team members said that they usually had to tune their instruments to the pastor's out-of-tune guitar, in a last ditch attempt to provide harmony.
When the worship team leader mentioned the need for practice and the volume controls problem to Pastor X, he would agree to do things the right way, but then renege on his promise repeatedly. Finally, the worship team leader brought the matter up at a prayer meeting. Big mistake. You don't criticize Pastor X.
Immediately, the pastor retaliated by replacing the entire worship team with one new guy for the last song. Previously, the last song, after the sermon, was a time of jubilation. Kids would come running up from Sunday school to join their parents, big smiles on their faces, and the whole congregation would worship loudly and joyfully in celebration. To take that song away was petty and hurt more than a few people.
That was enough for the worship leader, who had remained for months after the first wave of members had left, trying to reason with and understand the pastor, to no avail.
When the worship leader quit, another musician, Pete, demanded an honest answer why. The pastor gave the same speech he always did about some people not understanding -- or needing to worship elsewhere. God had "revealed to him" that people would leave, he always said.
But Pete wasn't going to let him get away with the same explanation again and told him, gently but firmly, that he needed honest answers. He would not be back, he said, the next day for church.
Two weeks later, when Pete's wife came to worship, she was told that she was not welcome to worship there. The pastor's wife called a "bouncer" over to escort her out. No hearing. No good explanation. She was not allowed to stay.
NO CRITICISM ALLOWED
The pastor, in rooting out worldly behaviors in the church, focused on potlucks. He arbitrarily decided that the monthly potluck would have to go. One couple in the church was devastated because inviting people to potlucks was a ministry for them, and a very good one. They invited many friends and relatives to potlucks, people who would not come for a sermon but would come for a special event. Some whom they invited ended up staying and even helping with the toddlers and children and becoming a part of the church family.
The pastor and his wife, however, who never opened the parsonage for social events and had trouble socially, felt ill at ease with potlucks and decided to ax them.
When the couple came to express their concerns, the pastor remained adamant and would not even agree to allow them to make baloney sandwiches and clean up, or use the church property in any way at all. Until this pastor came, anyone was able to use church facilities at any time.
The following Sunday, the pastor preached against potlucks. Really. This was a church from a group that prided itself on preaching chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse to get the "whole counsel of God," but he was able to preach a sermon against the couple anyway, twisting the scriptures to serve his purposes.
The couple, who'd been in the church more than 20 years, left. I didn't know they had come to the pastor about potlucks and that the sermon was aimed at them. I chided the woman, my friend, for being a wimp and leaving the church without trying to work things through. I am ashamed now that I partook of a kind of spiritual abuse myself by shaming her and causing more pain.
A week after that couple left, the pastor reinstated the monthly potluck. At first I thought he must have felt bad about the couple leaving and decided to sort of undo what he'd done. But he never called them. He never called any of the sheep he'd driven away. I think now, the potluck mandate was likely a loyalty test.
ANSWERS TO GOD ONLY
The pastor's contract was up for renewal, and there had not been a meeting. The pastor had replaced board meetings with prayer meetings and disbanded the board. He also wrote up his own statement of faith, replacing the congregational one. Also the state required a meeting each year for churches to renew their tax exempt status and we had not had one for more than a year except for a kind of sham prayer meeting where the pastor prayed for one woman's back for hours to avoid any kind of discussion on church business. So, at a prayer meeting, things that had been neglected for some time would be discussed.
But word had reached the pastor that trouble was brewing at the prayer meeting, and he and his bouncers physically blocked a public sidewalk to prevent anyone entering the church for a meeting. He had turned away people who arrived for the meeting and when the last remaining elder arrived, there was an altercation and the elder was excommunicated.
Months later, the pastor blew up at a member of the new worship team (the old one was long gone), and most of the new team ended up fellowshiping with the other outcasts in another church. Much of the old church reunited at this church, and more and more families from the old place would join the new one. I am still amazed that God put so many pieces of our jigsaw puzzle back together again, and the harsh feelings toward each other melted away as we all begin to learn what was behind the destruction of a once-harmonious church family. Even some of the former bouncers are now fellowshiping with us at the new church!
Even so, the effects of the abuse continue.
When I read of the experiences of other churches and groups, I see that our church was only beginning to sink into an abusive pattern when we left. Many groups experience much more direct control and more cult-like behavior. Nevertheless, the roots of an abusive system are in place, and I fear for those still caught in the church and for those in the future.
For years I could not drive by the building without a shudder. I remember one time, not long after we were out, my husband drove right in front of the building. I felt like a cat trapped in a box, trying to scratch my way out. I yelled at my husband to go a different way, but he wanted to break my fear. I have never been so panicked ever.
When I'd go to a store, I'd always drive up and down the parking lot lanes trying to spot the pastor's car. If I saw one that looked like his, I would not shop there.
One time I woke up in a panic. I'd remembered that I had placed the pastor's wife's name and phone number on our children's emergency number card on file at their school. If they got sick at school and I was out shopping, this man and his wife could have control of my child! Who knows what terrible thing he or she could do to them?
Another woman in the church told me she feared he would burn down her house when she and her husband were sleeping. These fears were not entirely rational, but the pastor was so random, would turn against people so quickly and seemed so disturbed at times, that anything, anything at all seemed possible.
Thankfully, I no longer have the same fear and paranoia as I did after were were first out. As the church shrinks, so does my fear and worry.
Every so often I hear of a new family or individual attending the church and I wonder how long until they see the damage. I have received calls from newer members asking about the history of the church, because to strong Christians or experienced believers, something seems "off" from the beginning. The pastor is better at roping in novices and inexperienced believers. But the damage done to them is incalculable.
It felt like playing crack the whip at the end, being whipped one way and then another as I tried to determine who was right, the pastor or his critics. I was a staunch supporter until the end. I had made custom bulletin covers to go with his sermons each week. I put together and printed out the bulletins at my own expense, taught Sunday school, did whatever I was asked and flattered him constantly. But I was still uneasy. The people complaining were those I had spent years with and knew to be honest.
Because my spouse yelled at the pastor in front of the church (when the church bouncers were blocking people from entering) we were out the next day, with a letter of dismissal. I am utterly grateful for that development, difficult as it was when it happened.
It took two years before I had any sense of peace, and next month will mark our fourth year out. I still have some residual effects even after all this time, but nothing like those of people in more severe situations. Because, relatively, we had a mild and short-lived case of spiritual abuse (only two years of suffering under this man) I stand agape in wonder at those who have survived severe or long-running cases. Their stories always humble me.