Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When your Religious Leader Falls Off the Pedestal

Most people walk away from high demand religion on their own because some event or series of them bursts the bubble of wonder that such systems create. A vital part of that process for me involved “gradually waking up” to see the very negative side of my pastor – the side that I denied through most of the time that we were in contact. I was moved to write this after reading about Peter Bradrick's experience who seems to have had a more abrupt awakening and a much longer indoctrination period during a more impressionable time in his life.

In my mid-twenties, my husband and I relocated to a new state, and we soon found new friends and people who seemed to us like family. In fact, the pastor heard a “word from the Lord” when he first fell into the role after a church split, telling him to treat congregants “like family.” (This was not true of everyone, but it became true with me – up until very near the end of my four year experience at the church.) One of the things that I grew to love about this man was his genuine interest in people and an ability to appreciate them, even if he didn't identify with them. He was gentle and compassionate, though I didn't even really think of him as charismatic, save that he had a father-like appeal for me. Before he started pastoring full time, well before retirement age, he shared the same profession as my own father and was the same age. Oddly, his daughter and I were both nurses and also were the same age.

Soon after we started attending the church and without any social contacts after moving to a completely new place, I would often stop in at the church to help with whatever happened to be going on there on days off from my job. To prepare for babies that I waited to come (that never did), I only ever committed to work on an ultra part time basis – a minimum of two shifts per month. This gave me much time off, more weekends off to get involved at church, and I could work full time hours if we needed extra money. This way, we wouldn't get dependent on the money I brought in, and I could easily transition into parenting. I'd fallen in love with the church so much, and lacking any social contacts at that point, I often went over there to offer help with the different things that were going on there. I also would pop on Mondays quite frequently because I would stop in to ask the pastor about things that didn't make sense in Sunday's sermon. (That's another aspect of my experience, for these discussions became cognitive dissonance sessions.) Within five months of joining, I was asked to become the fill-in secretary, a position shared by the pastor's wife and her sister. I loved it, and it helped me build relationships with many people at the church. I ended up working as many as ten days per month and at least one day per week for well over two years.

During this time, of course, I enjoyed many long conversations with the pastor, and I developed what, for me, became a close friendship. I trusted him on a personal level, and I loved feeling special through that. Many times, I heard him speak about other people very kindly. Once, we mentioned New Jersey, and he talked about someone from there that he'd met in the Army during the Korean War. I was struck at how he admired things about this man that most people would normally not even notice, decades later. He was very attentive to people, and I loved this about him. In the middle of the “good” period at this church, I considered him among my closest and truest friends, a list of honor that was not that long. I felt so loved – something I believe was true even after I left that church. I strongly denied anything seriously negative about him throughout the first three of my four years there as a member, but during that last year, my good opinion of him gradually deteriorated until I saw a part of him that I could barely believe.

Near the end of year three, my husband and I noticed that the youth program seemed a little unstable. The guy who used to coordinate things must have had a change in his job and was around much less frequently. We were a little concerned about a couple of kids that we interacted with through the music program, and my husband decided to write a letter to the elders about what he observed. We were not at all interested in offering to take over, but we did offer to help do anything that we could. My husband taught at a local seminary, and he offered to do some teaching with them, if this was needed. He wrote a letter, believing that this was more respectful of the time of all of the elders, a few of whom we knew little, save to greet. My husband was then summoned to an elder's meeting one evening in April, right about the start of our fourth year at the church. He walked through the door of our kitchen after the meeting and said, “We have to get out of that church.” They tried to accuse him of questioning leadership's wisdom in a session that he dubbed “the star chamber.” He also said his experience giving expert testimony on the stand in court when grilled by attorneys made their interrogation seem laughable, but he then said that he imagined that the average person would have found the experience pretty horrible. (I thought that he looked shocked enough that it had to have been horrible for him, just because he had no idea that his letter could have elicited such a response.)

Sadly, I found this really hard to believe. We had only been married for almost six years at that point, and I was young and much more idealistic then. My husband did have some history of getting intimidated if not angry in these kinds of challenges, and he was young then, too. I had to make sense of things in my own mind, and I assumed that he had just misinterpreted something and saw the meeting as adversarial. I was head over heels in confirmation bias, wanting and needing for the leadership of that church to be honorable. Looking back on it after things when sour, I am ashamed and disappointed in myself that I wanted so much to believe that the church was good that I was more willing to doubt my husband's experience. But this was an early moment of awakening for me, and I didn't want to face it. I fought it with all that I had in me. (My husband and I would eventually put a date on the calendar, and if things had not turned around with the leaders, we agreed together to leave. I'm glad that my husband lovingly and graciously gave me that time to accept things as the were, not as I wanted them to be.)

I went on an extended fast after that, and things seemed to get immediately odd on almost every level. (I think that it had more to do with my desire to see the truth than with the fast, in hindsight.) I started to learn that the elders' wives were instructing women in the church to endure physical abuse. I learned of two women who suffered this, and at least one of these husbands was permitted to remain in a prominent role in the church. I'm really not big on church discipline at all, but if a man is beating his wife, this is definitely something that should draw his work within the church into question. It's a felony, for heaven's sakes, and it was never reported to police because the “church handled it.” (???) Then, I learned that wives were blamed if their husbands fell into sexual sin – and I'd already heard a little of the weird teachings at a woman's meeting about giving a husband enough sex. The wives were blamed for their husbands' infidelity, all while nothing seemed to change for these abusive men. How is it that the pastor, my friend, could tolerate such things? Maybe he didn't know about them, but I couldn't make sense of that idea, either. He had to know. The pastor had to know.

During that last year, I filled in as secretary much less frequently, but I found that things had changed. They took on a full time assistant pastor, and because there was so much more activity there, I learned little things that disturbed me. One Monday morning, I arrived early, and the phone started to ring and ring. It was a friend of mine who was desperate to talk to the pastor but would not talk to me. He finally arrived, and I gave him the messages she'd left for him to call her. Before noon, she called a couple more times. When the pastor went to lunch, I asked if it was appropriate to ask what was going on, because I was upset that she was in so much distress. Was there something I could do? The pastor told me where he was going and when he'd be back, and then said that this woman's husband had locked her in the basement, but that she was fine. He said it rather glibly, so I could only assume that this was something that had happened since I saw her at church the previous day. She had access to a telephone, so I could only assume that she was calling to get emotional support after the fact but was in a great deal of distress.

Long story short, I would eventually learn in a month or so that this woman was calling from the basement of her home while actively confined where she access to a phone. She was confined at the time of the call, and she was instructed not to call the police to report her husband! She called the pastor for help, and his best advice was to “wait it out” (while her three boys fended for themselves upstairs). Her husband was dealing with her in the best way that he saw fit, so the pastor didn't want to interfere. (???!!!) I was so shocked at the time that I didn't even know what to say to this woman. I later told her that I would have been there with the police and an axe if I'd had any knowledge that she'd been pushed down the basement stairs and locked there. If I had any doubts before this point, I could no longer deny them.

Not more than a few weeks later, the pastor called me on the phone at home and talked to me for a little over half an hour. He told me that the elders were thinking of “splitting the church” to form a new one because of the growth we'd had recently. (I'm not even sure why he phoned me that day.) When I mentioned this in public with the pastor and another elder, the pastor denied that he'd talked to me about this. He gaslighted me!

In the meanwhile, I had written a letter to the pastor about unreasonable “directives” that the elders gave to us a few months earlier concerning my first service music team. (I'd also voiced a complain therein about the switch of red grape juice for communion to white so that no one would stain the carpet. I found this to be rather serious, and I framed it as a pattern of control with the music issue as another example.) I then was called into the pastors office, about two months before we walked away, to experience my own star chamber session with the pastor and two elders. At that meeting, the pastor was angrier than I could have ever dreamed, for it was said that I'd challenged the authority of the elders, a grave and serious matter. The pastor, seated at his desk, kept pressing his palms down on either side of the blotter, and he kept slowly leaning on his hands as he pushed them forward, over and over. By then, I think that I'd started “detaching” from him, but I was still profoundly shocked at his emotional display while trying to play “Mr. Nice Guy.” I'd done nothing wrong, and I'm not even sure what that meeting was supposed to accomplish. What they said was not true, so I didn't let it phase me very much. I found their bravado quite telling, however. (I'm not so sure that they knew what they'd wanted to accomplish in that meeting.)

After I left the church, I heard more from friends who remained there that only confirmed what I'd learned, and this intensified my grief. It was clear that the pastor was the ring leader of the group, and I think that little went on in that church without his knowledge, approval, if not according to his instruction. He had double standards. He treated certain people in different ways that showed both favoritism and disdain. He took an active role in supporting a physically abusive and unfaithful husband, a role that he continued in family court concerning custody and divorce. He cursed my best friend when she and her husband left the church, weeping on the church steps, because they told the couple that God's judgement would result in the demise of their children. They'd disobeyed the elders, so God would punish their whole family for going against their “covering.” This came out of the pastor's own mouth. (My own cursing, the pronouncement of impending doom for exiting the “umbrella of protection” through submission to the church leadership, came from one of the elders.)

The comprehensive experience of this church was absolutely devastating for me, but the worst part of it for me also was the deep personal betrayal that I felt in my relationship with the pastor. It's true that we were never given accurate information about the beliefs of the group, and we learned the unpleasant ones as a consequence of breaking the rules that enforced those beliefs. I had to cope with the shame and grief of even getting involved with such a group so deeply. Knowledge of doctrine was of no protection to us, for the problems were all related to the politics and socialization – so we were unsafe and unaware which was disturbing in and of itself. But perhaps nothing is as painful as the day that I learned about my friend whom my beloved pastor left locked in a basement. Then the gaslighting experience. And then came his display of anger. I fell from grace, and I could have well become a person that he abandoned, like my friend had been. I ignored the hints until I couldn't anymore. The world that was once safe and the safe people in it were not anymore. I was vulnerable and had been for a long time. He betrayed the precious trust I vested in him.

For a few months, I had nightmares about him. They were disturbing enough that I don't want to describe them here, but the dreams became a primary item of discussion in counseling that I sought for help. (Read more HERE.) On top of running into people from the church who might kiss me or curse me, depending on who was in earshot, I dreaded possibly seeing the pastor in public. My whole faith seemed rattled, as I no longer seemed to be able to correctly discern anything. If I'd been so wrong about him and about the system and if he loved this system.... How could I know anything about anything or anyone. What would prevent this from happening to me again in the future? Why did God let this happen? Why did God let such a skilled man get away with these deceptions so well? How would I ever begin to trust a pastor again? How would I trust a church? No one seemed to understand. (You can also read more about that in the previously mentioned link.) 
Addendum: Sarah Hunt who is profiled in Kathryn Joyce's new article, The Homeschool Apostates, grew up in the spiritually abusive church that I discuss here, one which she calls a "high-control fundamentalist religious organization.”

Making Sense of the Betrayal

Most everyone has experienced aspects of this in their life, no matter who they are, but perhaps not as intensely. If we are optimistic people, especially if we are Christians, we are taught to give people the benefit of the doubt – particularly if they are an authority figure. It's even worse when we consider that religious authorities are supposed to represent truth and that which is the most ethical. If they aren't the best of people in our society, who then can we trust?

We also believe positive things about the people who have treated us well and those whom we like. The more we admire and respect them, the more likely we are to disbelieve negative information about them. Don't fault yourself for this! It is an aspect of being human, and a very good one at that. When circumstances turn out well, those people whom we trust are deserving of the esteem we give them, this natural trait serves us quite well.

A few years ago, a very na├»ve, spiritually abused leader in homeschooling told me that he would have never believed that his life could have been so devastated by the way others in the movement had treated him if he had not experienced things himself. If someone else had told him that they had suffered what he had suffered at the hands of spiritual leaders, ministers, and other devoted Christians, he told me that he never would have believed it. He had to live it and feel the pain because his desire to believe that others were good and credible was so strong. This is called confirmation bias, explored at length in this post. It is an aspect of being human, and it is something that is helpful to us, particularly when it comes to having faith. Christians walk by faith, not by sight – probably the best example of how confirmation bias can help us. The problem comes in when we've been deceived, and that goodness in our character that helps us believe becomes a weapon that is used against us. Understanding this process helps us recover.

Hopefully, such betrayals in high demand religion will push us to ask more questions about whether the system facilitated the leader's abuses. High demand systems are always built around the needs of the leader, one who usually manifests certain negative personality characteristics discussed in this recent post.