Church Hurts Part 1: Our Story

It hurts.  Bad.  At first you are in shock.  How could this happen?  How could this person you trusted – this person you thought was such a great man of God – how could he betray you and treat you like this?

This five-part blog series is for anyone who has ever been hurt by leaders within the church and for anyone who knows someone who has been hurt by those charged with the responsibility of leading and guiding God’s people. 

Progression of the Series

As an idea of what you can expect in the coming weeks, here is a rundown of the topics.

Church Hurts Part 1: Our Story

Church Hurts Part 2: Searching for Answers

Church Hurts Part 3: Looking Back: Red Flags and God’s Goodness

Church Hurts Part 4: Lessons Learned

Church Hurts Interlude – In His Words

Church Hurts Part 5: Moving Forward

To Write or Not to Write

It is coming up on a year since our experience, and I’ve been debating and praying about whether or not I should write about it.  Is it appropriate and beneficial? What would be the purpose?  Will I be able to write about the experience from a spirit of love and not hate or bitterness? 

I hope so.  Let me know how I do…

What finally convinced me that yes, I should write this, was the growing knowledge that my husband and I are not the only ones who have experienced this kind of pain.  Over the past year, I have spoken with a surprising number of other Christians who have been through similar experiences: a friend from my college days, a pastor’s wife whose daughter experienced it, various members of a small group from a new church we have been attending, family members…

It happens more often than we would like to acknowledge.  Sometimes we are hesitant and afraid to acknowledge it ever happened, even if we were in the midst of it.  We have been trained to not speak negatively about the leadership in the church.  We don’t want to be guilty of defaming or slandering the character of someone in a position of authority within the church.  After all, God put them there, didn’t He?

And yet, silence isn’t helpful.  Silence convinces us we are alone.  It convinces us we are guilty of that which we may not be guilty.  Keeping such things in the dark recesses of our soul opens the door to hatred and bitterness.

Now, do we have to name names?  No, but I do believe it is beneficial to speak about what you have experienced with others.  If the leader’s conduct was of the criminal variety, it should be taken to the appropriate, non-church related, governing authorities as soon as possible.  If the behavior wasn’t criminal, but was observed to cause great spiritual harm, it should be taken to any higher church-related authorities.  In our situation, the conduct of the pastor, though observed to cause great spiritual harm, was not of the criminal variety, and there was no higher authority, other than God, to whom we could go. 

And on that note, here is our story.

A Weary Beginning

John was spiritually worn down and exhausted when he first met the Pastor.  The discovery of his wife’s affair a few months earlier had ripped away the veil of his reality and brought him to the feet of God.  From that point on, he set out to learn all he could about newly acknowledge God.

In this state – worn down and desperate to learn – John began attending some local Bible classes.  The Pastor was one of the teachers.  He reached out to John and drew him in as a close disciple.  Shortly after meeting him, John began attending the small church that the Pastor led on Friday nights.

By the time I met John (you can read the story of how we met here), he had been regularly attending those Friday night services for a little over a year. 

It is worthy to note that at the time we met I was spiritually worn down and exhausted from having spent a rough year teaching at a small school on the Navajo Reservation.

Anyway, after a couple of months spent getting to know each other, we began dating, and I attended my first Friday night service. 

I can still remember my initial impression of the Pastor– I didn’t like him at all.  He struck me as being arrogant and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. John, however, assured me that I just needed to give it some time.

“People tend to have that initial reaction to him,” John told me, “but then you get to know him and see how good of a man he really is.”

And so, I began attending the small Friday night church service as well. By and by, I came to see John’s point. The Pastor was gentle with children. He expressed an interest in everyone in his congregation and would often have conversations with them that lasted well into the night. He freely gave money to anyone who needed it.  He worked on people’s houses without charging them for the work, and he stayed up late studying scripture.

How do I know he did all this?  Because he frequently told us of these good deeds. 

How could someone this generous and hard-working be arrogant and inconsiderate? By the time John and I got engaged, I had completely discarded my first impressions of the Pastor. He truly was a good man. 

A Loyal Middle

It wasn’t long until I joined John in placing myself under the Pastor’s leadership and guidance.  We trusted him completely and even asked him to officiate at our wedding. We truly believed him to be the most humble, intelligent, righteous person we had ever met.

In response to our full-hearted loyalty, the Pastor showered us with attention and compliments. He spent hours working on our house (he was a contractor and was a partner in a small construction company).  Rather than charging us a direct amount, he generously told us to just pay him what we could and felt led to pay.  He insisted that our primary focus should be on paying off our debts.  We took him at his word and acted accordingly.  These were good things, right?

During those days of working on this project or that at our house, the Pastor would frequently speak about how he was the only person in the city who would do quality work without trying to take advantage of people.  We were certainly lucky to know him because who else could we trust to do a better job?

Besides working on our house, the Pastor gave of his time to guide us in how to better study and understand scripture. He taught us how to dig into scripture and ascertain the original meaning of the text so that it could be pulled forward and applied.  He built us up and told us we were the most mature members of the church. 

He referred to John as his second in command, the only individuals with whom he had true fellowship.  We reasoned this to be true since, for some reason, there were few men among his disciples and almost none with whom he had genuine fellowship. Additionally, there was absolutely nobody to whom he was in submission to, held accountable by, or was being discipled by. He assured us, time and again, that anyone who had left the church or his discipleship had done so because they were in darkness, hard-hearted, in rebellion to God, etc.  He was at the top of the podium – a lonely position to be sure.

The Pastor became an extended part of our family.  Our oldest daughter was encouraged to call him “Opah”, the name his own grandchildren called him.  We could trust him.  He cared about us.  He was there for us.  With John’s parents living in North Dakota and my parents living in Kansas, having someone local that we could count as family was a big deal.

This closeness we felt with the Pastor worked its way over to church matters.  John was elevated to the status of Elder. I was given the responsibility of teaching the children in the middle of service. We were sure we were on the right track, in the right place, in the only place where the real truths of God were taught.

Why did we think we were in the only place where the real truths of God were taught? 

Well, because he told us that – often.  He would frequently begin the teaching part of the service by describing what other denominations taught and then use scripture as proof of how their understanding was wrong and his interpretation was right.  He often claimed that he was the only one who truly understood and accurately taught, directly from scripture, the truths of God.  And right thinking was essential, for right thinking developed right actions which developed a right relationship with God which resulted in a right spirit of Light rather than Darkness.  Therefore, if you sat under and gained the right teaching, you could be assured or your right relationship with God.  Who doesn’t want to have confidence and assurance in their standing with God?

Since John and I enjoyed studying the scriptures and, more often than not, the conclusions we came to matched the things he taught (especially early on), we reasoned that everything else he said must also be accurate. Right? 

The more time we spent with the Pastor, the more he confided in us about his other relationships and his frustrations.  It wasn’t long before we had heard him describe, with great sorrow, the faults and “darkness” of everyone he knew, including those of everyone in our small congregation. 

But everyone has frustrations, right?  And we were honored and privileged to receive such honest and open communication from him, right?  It was communication that he wouldn’t share with anyone other than his closest of friends, right?

A Confusing Beginning of the End

“Then what happened?” you may be wondering, for you have by now discerned that things did not continue in this deceptively rosy fashion.

The truth is, I’m not quite sure.  I’m not quite sure how or when the change began.

I do know that at some point John began questioning and challenging the confident conclusions of the Pastor.  As his ability to understand the Greek and Hebrew grew and his confidence in his ability to understand the Word of God increased, John began to arrive at a different understanding than the Pastor on some points.  However, if he ever tried to share these findings with the Pastor, or with the church in general, he would be immediately shut down.

At some point, we felt God asking us to start attending other churches on Sunday for the purpose of seeing His people. We went, intending to evaluate how bad the theology was everywhere else.  Instead, we discovered there were other churches where God’s spirit was present.

One Friday night, we shared, with great excitement, the fact that we had discovered another church where God was also working.  Wasn’t it great!  This other congregation had a heart for God!  Sure, maybe the theology and teachings weren’t 100% on point, but they had a relationship with God and with each other! 

“You know,” we said, “we could learn a lot from this church.  What if we could take the intellectual grounding of our church and match it with their relational love for each other and for God.  Wouldn’t that church be a powerful witness?”

Rather than rejoice in our discovery of another church that was pursuing God, the Pastor grew angry. 

“No,” he said with great conviction, “They don’t care about each other.  It’s just a show.”

We were confused.  We knew for a fact that the Pastor had never been to this church.  How could he so definitively deny the work of God within it when he had never been there?

At some point along this journey our beloved father-figure stopped coming around, stopped calling, became increasingly difficult to get ahold of. The times when I was able to pin him down and inquire as to the reason for the growing distance between us, he would give me some answer about John being in darkness, John going through “a long dark night of the soul”, John being hard-hearted, John being the one who was separating and not wanting to get together anymore.

We were confused. What did we need to do to get right? There was no guidance or direction, no explanation given about how John “was in darkness.”  Where was the Pastor?  Why wasn’t he helping John return to the Light?  How would distancing himself help John grow in the Light?

A Distraught End

This state of increasing separation lasted for at least a year and a half.  During this time, we continued to seek God and search the scriptures, continued to periodically visit other churches, and continued to pursue a greater fellowship among the members of our church.  I continued to teach the children’s time and John continued to share what he was learning.

On Friday, March 16, 2018, the Pastor came over while John was at work.  It was getting close to Easter and he said he wanted to talk about plans for the children’s time.  The night before, John and I had gotten into an argument that hadn’t yet been resolved by the time he left for work that morning.  I was distraught and confided in our trusted pastor.  I knew that I’d had a part to play in the fight but was having a hard time identifying out what my part was.  Surely this man, whom I knew from experience was good at helping people recognize their own error in a matter, could help me see mine.  Instead, he verbally went after my husband.  He started talking about how ungrateful John was, how John couldn’t spiritually protect me, how I needed to trust him (the pastor) to protect me…  My guard went up.  Everything he was saying was so counter to anything I had heard him proclaim about John before.  Besides, I wasn’t looking for someone else to blame John for things.  I could handle that on my own, thank you.  Plus, God had recently helped me come to a greater trust that in John’s areas of weakness, He (God) was more than able to be there for me.  If God was there for me, why did I need to trust this other man?

I told John about the exchange that evening.  The account made him as confused and unsettled as I felt.  What was going on? 

On a side note, God himself soon helped both of us see our part in the aforementioned argument.

A few days later, on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, a young woman we had reached out to and invested in over the past several years came to visit.  Due to various factors (self-imposed and otherwise), she was in a tight financial state.  Rather than give her what she was asking for (which wasn’t a direct hand-out), I opted to have her walk me through the trouble.  By the time we had worked through the numbers, I could tell that things weren’t as dire as she thought.  So, I gave her some doable action steps and told her to let us know after she had followed through on them if she was still short on the needed funds.  She left soon after, clearly unhappy that we hadn’t given her exactly what she was seeking.  On our part, we really wanted her to gain confidence in her ability to think through stressful situations and handle life when her money ran low.

The next morning, March 21, I awoke to an email from the Pastor which my inbox showed had been received at 2:04 a.m.  This email contained only one item: an attached Word document.  Curious, I opened the Word file to find a letter written to John (and me, but mostly John).   This letter was filled with a lengthy descriptive list of John’s “sins.” Where John had once been upheld as being the only mature man of the faith in our church, he was now accused of being selfish and arrogant, ungrateful and hard-hearted, of being in darkness and bringing spiritual death to people.  We were accused of taking advantage of the kindness of others in the congregation – of hurting and misleading them.  John was accused of focusing on putting his money toward paying down our debt rather than using it to honor God (the very thing the Pastor had encouraged us to do and praised us for), of pulling away from the body of faith, of disengaging from God’s instruction and conviction.  He was accused of acting with a cold, hard heart and turning callously away from one who had come to him desperately seeking $100 to pay off debt.

I was heart-broken and in tears before John woke up.  As he was getting ready for the day, I vaguely made mention of the email and encouraged him to wait until after work to read it.

Later that morning, I sent a text and an email to the Pastor asking to meet as soon as possible to discuss the letter.

No answer. 

His secretary emailed me and informed me that he wouldn’t be available for at least another week or two.

That night, after the girls were in bed, John and I read and discussed the letter.  Since we weren’t able to contact the Pastor, and since the letter referenced our sins towards others in the group, we decided to make the letter public.

The next morning, I forwarded the letter to everyone in the church, asking them to either confirm or deny the sins that were laid at our feet.  If the contents of the letter were a true reflection of our character, we wanted to change.  If we had hurt anyone, we wanted to make it right.  We asked the group to judge us and determine our guilt.  We offered to step down from the positions we held so that we might focus on correcting our errors.  We offered to stay away from the next service so that they might discuss the matter freely. 

Our offers were rejected, and we were firmly informed, by the Pastor via email, that church would proceed as usual that Friday.

We showed up – broken and teary eyed – seeking to work things out with this group that had become so much a part of our life that we had drifted away from all other friends and acquaintances.

Never have I experienced a bigger elephant in the room.  You could feel the tension, but the pastor refused to address or even acknowledge the issue.  Instead, we played a trivial pursuit regarding Easter Traditions around the world.

At one point, while someone else was presenting and John was walking around with our eighteen-month-old, the Pastor sauntered over and sat down a chair away from me.  He stretched his arm out across the chair between us and gave me a smile, acting as though nothing had happened and we were great buddies.

I suddenly felt like a choice had been set before me.  Either I could side with this pastor who presented himself as being so very righteous, or I could align myself with my husband who had just been accused of being an arrogant, selfish, hard-hearted creature of death and darkness. 

With all the emotional and spiritual strength I had left, I chose my husband.  I suddenly realized, with great resolve, that I would rather be condemned with the broken man who was my husband than aligned with that overconfident leader of this church, even if that leader should be proven right in the end and my husband proven to possess every sin that had been laid at his feet.

We left that service knowing that if we were going to find answers, we would need to look beyond the Pastor and the Friday night service.

___

Next Week: Church Hurts Part 2 – Our Search for Answers

*Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay

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