If you are here today because you’ve encountered abuse within the church and you aren’t sure what to do next, you have come to the right place. Or maybe you wonder if what you have experienced or witnessed is abuse. One of the hardest places to sit is in the middle of the mess, sensing that maybe something isn’t right but struggling to make sense of what’s happening. Knowing that things need to change, but unsure what to do now. It’s challenging to think clearly and gain appropriate perspective when you are “in” it. And if this is a new experience for you, it can be overwhelming trying to discern what is appropriate and how to proceed given the circumstances.
I hope to share helpful information with you as you determine what to do next. When I found myself facing church abuse of epic proportions, I was completely unaware of what the appropriate next steps should be. This is my perspective after encountering two church abuse situations and watching them both play out in very similar ways. I hope to offer insight, wisdom, and guidance as you make decisions and strive to bring truth to light.
Each person finding themselves in a less-than-ideal situation has so much to lose in acknowledging that it’s not ok and needs to change. We want desperately to cling to the people and places we love, keeping life unchanged and as is, rather than face uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. But if you are, in fact, in the middle of a harmful and abusive situation, staying creates further damage and harm for you and possibly others. While facing the truth and pursuing accountability or change are extremely difficult and painful, I can promise you that the alternative is so much more so.
I’ve lived through two very different yet very harmful church abuse situations; one was left to fester for years with no one willing to do the hard things, and the collateral damage was and still is significant. So much heartache and pain could have been avoided if it had been handled early on. There likely would have been considerably fewer victims had it been faced years ago, an unbelievable reality. Speaking out about your experience helps you reclaim some of what’s been stolen, but it’s also worth asking, who else might this help? And if you don’t speak up, who will?
The best definition I’ve heard of abuse is “diminishment of personhood.” When encounters cause our humanity, the innate value of any life, to be diminished, we are likely in an unhealthy and potentially abusive situation. This can play out in how we are spoken to, the way scripture is represented, through physical touch, and in attempts to control or manipulate. There are levels to each of these, and sometimes all are involved, but the hardest to identify are the less severe scenarios. Abuse thrives in the gray and subtleties in behavior, stealthily breaking boundaries over time as the abuse permeates more and more. Over this time, we lose sight of what is appropriate, what the original boundaries were, and our worth as human beings.
If left unaddressed, the abuse typically moves from a few inappropriate interactions to full-blown bad. Little by little, it strips away more and more of the abused, leaving lasting damage and impact. I am a firm believer that if less severe encounters are left unchecked, over time, they will escalate to more severe encounters. These less severe encounters are the red flags we need to be paying attention to long before it turns really bad – the red flags show us bits of the real person, and we need to pay close attention to them. When someone is attempting to blur healthy boundaries, take away your voice or ability to think/discern for yourself, manipulate or control parts of your life they have no authority over, and/or ignore the basics of a safe environment for all involved, it’s safe to assume there is abuse involved.
Human life has intrinsic value, and that includes you. You are so abundantly loved by your Heavenly Father, and He grieves any harm done to you, the big and small. We know that Jesus came that we may have life to the fullest, and while that ultimately means eternity in heaven, it also includes a fullness of life lived in Him here on earth. There will be heartache and pain here on earth, but God’s great love was displayed on the cross and leaves no confusion that He loves you and me so abundantly. As a child of God, you are a His temple, and the Spirit of God lives in you; scripture says that if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy them (1 Corinthians 3:17). Your life matters, and knowing your God-given worth matters. God does not desire for you to be harmed by a shepherd of His flock; His desire is for the shepherd to be protecting you.
The actions of those in church leadership speak louder than any words they may say. Actions are a direct reflection of the heart. Scripture makes this clear in Matthew 15:18, “But what comes from the mouth comes from the heart,” and Proverbs 27:19, “as water reflects on the face, so the heart reflects the person.” Church leaders have been called to a noble and holy position that requires they operate within biblical requirements for the role; this includes being above reproach in all things, meaning no claim can be made, and an example for the flock (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9; 1 Peter 5:3-4). Their biblical calling is to shepherd the flock and protect it. This does not include harm, intentional or otherwise. If their actions are inappropriate, then you have seen the state of their heart. Pay close attention to what you are seeing and hearing. Even if you can’t articulate, your spirit knows what’s wrong and I encourage you to trust it.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve gained some clarity regarding your situation. As we process any action or potential next steps, I challenge you to set strong boundaries and stand firm in them, keeping them solidly in place. Boundaries protect us and acknowledge that we know our God-given worth. Let’s now dive into the details of what actions could be next for you; depending on your situation, this could be several things.
If what has transpired is illegal, immediately call the police. Don’t waiver or wonder if it’s too extreme to go this route… if it’s not legal, it’s not ok. Even if you aren’t completely sure if what’s happening is illegal, an inkling of not sure warrants a phone call to the police to be sure. These are difficult conversations to have, and this step can feel excessive, but trust the professionals to help if and where they are able. Law enforcement will sort out the truth and any necessary consequences. Scripture tells us that we are to submit to the governing authorities of our land, so if the government would find fault in what’s happened, we are commanded to respect that (Romans 13:1-2).
Now it’s time to take your concerns to church leadership. I believe this step should apply to anyone who has read this far and acknowledged that the behavior witnessed or experienced is inappropriate. At this point, there is zero obligation or need for you to address your concerns directly with the individual abusing. I suspect you have already communicated, either through word or action, to your abuser that you are not ok with the way you are being treated, but even if you feel you haven’t done this well (that’s common, by the way), now isn’t the time. We will explore this further in a bit, but at this time, you are taking these issues to the other leaders in charge. There are concerns regarding a Pastor or Elder that needs to be made known to leadership.
Don’t go alone. Matthew 18:15-17 lays out a process of bringing two or three others. I highly recommend you bring a representative of your own and then bring your story to two or three Elders. Prepare to share facts about your experience, there is nothing wrong with addressing feelings, but this space will want to know the cold hard facts. This is where it can become challenging to share the gray of what you’ve experienced, but anything you can articulate from the gray is helpful. For example, his touching seemed innocent, but it became so pervasive that I found myself having nightmares regularly about him touching me, and even began to flinch when my husband touched me. This is gray, but it shows that things have escalated to the point of affecting your mental health and well-being. Inappropriate behavior impacted you; that’s fact.
Oftentimes when addressing inappropriate Elder or Pastoral conduct, it can feel like we are overreacting or upsetting the status quo over something unnecessarily. You may not have been raped or assaulted in a way that is clearly crossing boundaries, but again, if the behavior has left you uncomfortable, been pervasive in nature, and/or is clearly not of Christ, then you are not overreacting. This is an easy lie to believe and sucks many in, but it’s just that, a lie. When you don’t feel safe and your personhood has been diminished, you have every right to shed light, and you should. Jesus flipped tables when it was necessary, and He publicly called out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Matthew 23:1, 23, 25-27, “Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and His disciples, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, and yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you seem righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’” The goal here is to speak the truth with love, but speaking the truth is completely justified and necessary. The sanctity of God’s church is in question, so boldly speak.
This is a really good time to start pouring into your Bible like really get in there and read it. Know scripture and use it to discern truth in all that is happening. All that you need to know can be found in those pages. I will share some scripture with you in the days to come but dig into God’s word. The calling of a Pastor/Elder is clear; know what scripture says. Look at the Old Testament prophets and how God used them, and know the New Testament challenges to the church. These tell us so much about the character of God and His design and desire for the church. The biblical value of human life is abundantly clear; know what scripture says about you and claim that truth.
Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal specific scripture that applies and let it seep into your heart. There are a few verses that God consistently placed in my world when walking this journey; He spoke to me through His word daily. Micah 3:8, “As for me, however, I am filled with power by the Spirit of the Lord, with justice and courage, to proclaim to Jacob his rebellion and to Israel his sin” and Jeremiah 5 were regularly popping up. You will benefit from this foundation in the days and weeks to come. Bringing light to darkness is a challenging and difficult road to walk, and oftentimes we find ourselves walking it alone. Don’t allow any further rejection or heartache to deter you from the love of your Heavenly Father.
Biblical reconciliation was consistently brought up in church conversations as my stories unfolded. Matthew 18 does not apply here; it does not apply to pastoral conduct and is not relevant to what you are doing. Reconciliation is not the purpose here, repentance and sanctity of the church are the issues at hand, don’t allow them to suck you into that story. It’s often used in these scenarios in a misguided way or even to manipulate and control. The spiritual leader needs to repent, pursue reconciliation with Christ, and work toward spiritual healing. Reconciliation with you is a process for much later in his/her healing journey when repentance and heart change have been given time to take place, and that process isn’t a quick one, so don’t accept the rushing of this step.
While reconciliation is not the goal here, you do need to work towards forgiveness for your own heart and spiritual health. The church did not hurt or abuse you; God did not hurt or abuse you. A sinful church leader, or leaders, did. Acknowledging this truth will help in the days to come. I will dig deeper into forgiveness later in this series, but for me, forgiveness has never been found without prayer for the individual(s) I need to forgive. Wrong was done and that’s horrific, but healing isn’t complete until we are able to forgive the wrongdoer. The pain of what’s transpired is likely still raw and sore; that makes perfect sense. But even in the pain of your now, you can allow the Holy Spirit to intercede towards forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean that we accept or excuse wrong behavior, and it does not require reconciliation. It rather frees us from the bondage of anger and bitterness. We can forgive and still pursue justice and accountability.
Once you have shared concerns with leadership, there will likely be an investigation into what has happened. Any investigation should be conducted by a third party, period. Do everything in your power to force this level of accountability and transparency. The persons investigating should not be persons that have a relationship and/or friendship with the leader in question. They cannot be objective in any way. I have never seen anything good come from churches investigating their own misconduct. An attorney who specializes in church abuse cases told me that you will know almost immediately if a church is eager to pursue biblical instruction for this process and find the truth. My experiences confirm this wisdom. The church should desire total truth in the days to come; but if they can’t seem to find a way forward and just flounder with excuses, shift into protection mode, deflect blame onto you, or in any way ignore you and/or the gravity of your story, then you will know the truth is not their motivation. Even a third-party investigator can’t find the total truth if those in charge aren’t cooperative in seeking the truth.
If what’s transpired is sexual harassment in nature, it’s important to note that intent is typically not foundational or necessary for sexual harassment to be proven by law. Intent is irrelevant if actions that were clearly inappropriate transpired. Scripture tells us that we are to submit to the government, adding even more weight to existing laws regarding sexual harassment. If intent is used as an excuse for inappropriate pastoral conduct, it is just that, an excuse. There should be no excuse needed when it comes to interactions with our Pastors or Elders. Your Pastor and Elders should be the gold standard for how people are treated. They should be doing everything they can to make you feel safe and protected in their presence. A person who doesn’t mean to kill someone and does is still charged with manslaughter, even if they didn’t intend to kill them. Most Pastors have been through training on appropriate conduct within their congregation and you should expect no less than appropriate from them.
The journey you are embarking on will be challenging; I will not sugarcoat it. It might be the hardest you’ve ever encountered, but I promise God will use it for good if you just trust Him. Here are some random tips you may find beneficial:
- Trust what God is saying. And then trust some more.
- You will feel crazy at times; you aren’t.
- You will feel like you must be overreacting. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe it’s not a big deal. Maybe you are just paranoid. You aren’t overreacting. You didn’t imagine it. It is a big deal. You are not paranoid.
- It will often feel like the twilight zone… God knows the truth; rest in that.
He will give you discernment, signs, scripture, and people to direct you on this path. Trust what He tells you. I consistently struggled to trust, and doubt was not helpful to the situations at hand. I needed confidence and boldness that I knew what God was saying. I KNEW what He was saying, but I also doubted like crazy and it impacted my confidence and the outcome. Satan wants you doubting, wants you scared and confused; don’t give in. Stand firm and allow God’s boldness to move through you. There is little you can lose; they already took too much. Don’t let them take this too.
As the next chapters of your story unfold, there may be others who find you, people that came before you. People who have their own stories of pain within your church. The people who left before you have stories you need to hear. Listen to them, learn from them, and maybe even pursue community with them
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Rachel Rae Anderson
Featured Image by Elisabeth25 from Pixabay
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