A Letter To Victims and Survivors of Pastoral Abuse

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*Note: if you or if someone you know has been sexually abused or assaulted by a priest, bishop, pastor, elder, or leader (or anyone!), report this criminal activity immediately. You can report a criminal sexual assault by calling 911, by visiting the emergency room, or by contacting the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE to be connected with a local rape crisis center. 

For more resources on finding hope and healing for sexual assault victims, read Justin and Lindsey’s book 
Rid of My Disgrace or their blog posts on the topic. To learn how to help your kids protect their own bodies, read God Made All of Me. For churches looking to improve children’s ministries, for the protection and encouragement of all children and survivors, contact GRACE.

In this post I’m addressing non-physical, but abusive behavior and speech done by officers in a church. This sort of activity, although harmful and sinful, is not activity that can be reported to the police. It can, however, be reported and brought before the courts of the church and disciplinary action can be taken in church bodies that have established procedures in place.



Dear brother and sister,

If you have suffered from pastoral abuse in the past or are currently in a church with an abusive pastor, I’m so sorry.

(Or leadership abuse of any kind. This is by no means limited to ministers of God's flock only.)

In any case, this is not the way it should be. 

Your pastor should be one of the few people in this world that you can, without reservation or hesitation, trust. And this sort of behavior is unacceptable and egregious before a holy, loving, and peacemaking God. 

God knows that you are suffering right now and are having a difficult time understanding why. You came to a church that is faithful in its doctrine on paper, but there are layers of other issues that don’t seem to add up in practice. Much of what is said from the pulpit is true, but how it is said is far from the truth and love that Jesus demonstrated to his first disciples, and that those disciples modeled for ministers of the gospel. 

If this is happening to you, I pray you are able to escape from this horrible situation and that you will find peace and freedom in a healthier church environment. Don’t give up. Don’t leave Christ’s church for good just because of a bad under-shepherd. He will get his just judgment as a teacher of God, in due time, if he continues unrepentant, and more swiftly if God lets it happen sooner. 

But for now, there are a few things you need to hear and there are a few things that you can do about it.

This topic is very sensitive. More often than not, you’ll find loving and caring ministers in and out of the pulpit from Sunday to Sunday. But in the rare case that you don’t, this is for you.

Describing pastoral abuse

In their book, Is it My Fault?, Justin and Lyndsey Holcomb define domestic abuse as

“a pattern of coercive or controlling behavior used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner.” 

Notice that in this definition, abuse is not limited to physical violence. If someone is verbally manipulative to the point that it brings great harm to another, that still qualifies as abuse.

With this definition in mind, we can turn to “pastoral abuse,” which is often not physical in nature. Pastoral abuse can, of course, work both ways and has been defined as either abuse of a pastor (that is, the people of God are taking advantage of the pastor by demanding too much, or not caring for him) or abuse from a pastor (that is, the servant of God is desiring too much from God’s people that only God can provide, and not caring for them). To be clear, and to reiterate, I am addressing abuse that is from a pastor—and in this specific case, God’s people are the victims.

This is, unfortunately, the kind of abuse that can be found in today’s bully pulpits. Verbally, pastors may say things that are excessive and unnecessary. They may say things that tear down not only weak consciences but stronger consciences as well. They may say things that prop up the ministries of their own tribe, but that tear down everyone else. This can be done in subtle ways. A snarky remark here or there. Or it can be done in more forceful, vengeful, and aggresive ways—yelling at the congregation or speaking to the congregation in a condescending tone or by being known by others for having a temper. 

But the Lord's servant—or minister—must be "gentle." Gentle and meek, like Jesus his master (2 Cor. 10:1).

Signs of pastoral abuse by a pastor in a church can be noticed fairly easily. An abusive pastor is never wrong—it’s always the congregants or other enemy churches who are deviant and "the problem.” Abusive pastors will justify every action, often under the guise of being faithful, when really they’re just abusive and need to be called out for what they are doing. An abusive pastor will do everything he can to protect himself at the expense of others, and is often insecure. This insecurity manifests itself in the propping up of self and the belittling, bashing, or bullying of others.

In an interview over seven years ago with Tim Challies on spiritual abuse, Dr. Bob Kelleman identifies symptoms of what a heart adrift toward abuse might look like. In this helpful two-part post on spiritual abuse, he says:

“These might include actions and attitudes such as:

  • Using our spiritual position to control or dominate another person.

  • Overriding the feelings and opinions of others.

  • Using spiritual authority defensively to bolster the position and “needs” of the leader.

  • Considering oneself above questioning.

  • Labeling the person who questions us as wrong and rebellious, thus subtly shifting the focus and blame. Questions are assumed to come from a wrong spirit, not simply from an honest attempt to have give-and-take dialogue. The worst is assumed of the other; the best is assumed of oneself.

  • Labels can include accusations such as, “You’re rebellious.” “You’re disrespectful.” “I detect a pattern of anger and a critical spirit.” “You are unspiritual and emotionally immature.” Such labels heap condemnation on the recipient, rather than offering wise counsel and constructive feedback.

  •  Interpreting our spiritual authority to mean that my thoughts and opinions are supreme.

You also asked, wisely, that we ponder what abuse is not. Here are a couple of introductory comparisons.

  • It is not abusive when a spiritual leader speaks the truth in love and confronts sin in a gracious way. It is abusive, however, if the leader seeks to defend himself, or shame or discredit others.

  • It’s not abusive when a spiritual leader uses his best judgment and chooses to go against your opinion. It is abusive, however, if the leader uses his opposing view to devalue and demean others.

Because of the intricacies of the issues, and because of the complexity of the human heart, if a pastor and parishioner cannot come to agreement on the nature of the relationship, then it is always wise to invite other godly people to help assess what is occurring (Matthew 18:15-17).”

**To read both parts of this helpful interview in full, you can also go here for part 1 and here for part 2.

One passage in Scripture that comes to mind, and that is speaking directly to all of God’s people—including leaders in the church—is from James. In chapter three, he mentions a kind of abuse that comes out of the mouth—from the "tongue." He says,
 

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

James 3:9-10

Being able to recognize a problem is one thing, and addressing it is another thing entirely. What's not so easy is figuring out how abusive patterns or tendencies can be addressed once it is happening and ongoing.

I’m in a church where I Think or Feel That my pastor is abusive, what should I do?

If some of the things I have described above are happening to you, or a family member or friend you know, my suggestion is to bring this issue up with the elders or board in the church you are attending. Give them the opportunity to deal with your pastor’s sin. If nothing happens within a reasonable timeframe, take it to the higher courts of the church (if your church has this option—in the PCA we have Presbytery and General Assembly, two higher courts to bring appeals to, and this at least provides everyone with the necessary tools and framework to deal with the problem of abuse.) If there is nothing else you can do, and you've tried to go through proper channels, with prayer and patience, my next suggestion is to leave as quickly and quietly as possible. 

That might sound like strange advice, but there's a good reason for this: you don’t want to create an even bigger issue in the church, as that might single you out and make you the primary target for more verbal/spiritual abuse. Instead, leave quietly (if possible), and find a church with a minister who is faithful in both word and deed, verbally and physically. They are out there so don't give up hope. In a sin-cursed world, sometimes even officers in the church of God can be faithless and ruthless, but remember, God is always faithful. And this pattern is not and should never be accepted as a norm or tolerated among those who belong to God and love his people.

Now, before you settle into another church, be sure to ask around about the overall temperament of the leadership in the church. If you survived pastoral abuse in the past, there’s no guarantee that this can’t happen again in the future. 

Protect yourself and your family by asking some basic questions to current members and leaders in the church.

For example, ask questions like:

  • “Have you ever had any bad experiences with the pastor during your time here?”

  • “Do members of this congregation generally enjoy being around their pastor and other leaders?" Ask others if they have been to the pastor's home before, or if he is present with his flock, or if they've been invited to spend time with leaders in the church.

  • You could even be quite blunt and ask, “Is the pastor of this congregation a trustworthy and loving person?”

  • Whatever you ask, just make sure to do some homework before settling in for good.

The apostle Paul wrote to young and ordinary, Timothy:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.

1 Timothy 3:1-3 (emphasis mine)


Ministers of the gospel are not to be violent, but gentle. In other words, a minister should never be abusive in his speech, sermons, or life.

And if any minister is acting this way, the first step is not to cover it up or excuse it by appealing to personality types, or circumstances ("Everyone gets angry sometimes..."), or by talking about how great other aspects of the ministry have been, or whatever else, but to repent and seek forgiveness in Christ and reconcilation with those who have been wronged by you.

In cases of extremity, maybe it would be best for the minister to exit the pulpit either for a season to get counseling and help, or indefinitely if he remains unrepentent and has brought great harm to others. 

 
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
— Matthew 6:26
 

If you have been a victim of pastoral abuse, remember that you are not alone. Others have been there, others have suffered just like you, others are survivors like you, and you are of more value than this kind of mistreatment.

You are valued—you matter.

You matter to God, to pastors, and to God’s people.

A Final word to fellow pastors

Our call to the ministry and ordination is a warning, dear brothers, fathers, and fellow ministers, for us—me, and you—not to be harsh with the people whom God has entrusted us with to protect and care for. Pray with me, and for one another, that the Lord would guard our hearts and minds against all forms of abuse and that we would remain steadfast as God’s ambassadors in this world for reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).

The staff is for God's sheep, leave the rod for wolves (Ps 23). Confuse these two hands, and any one of us can quickly qualify as a bad undershepherd according to the Bible. Our response, now, and tomorrow, is to remain humble, and repentant.

We are never to beat, bully, badger, or bruise God's sheep, but are to seek to gently encourage and steer his people to safety; providing them with all of the nourishment they need to grow in the fear and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Coming Soon!

This post is one blog post out of many on one very sensitive and complex topic out of many. Because of that, blog posts are not enough to help provide resources and meet tangible needs in dealing with any and all kinds of abuse or assault.

Well aware of that, and well aware that web or social media awareness is not enough, the church I'm so thankful to pastor (Redemption Church) is co-hosting an upcoming conference with our sister church (Resurrection Presbyterian Church) and other partners around our city and region to talk about sexual abuse and the church THIS upcoming March 2019.

It’s called . . .

The VALUED CONFERENCE

 
 

We are hosting a church-based conference to serve as a resource for churches and believers in Southern California to biblically and thoughtfully UNDERSTAND, PREVENT, IDENTIFY AND RESPOND TO SEXUAL ABUSE AND ASSAULT, as Jesus Christ's Church.

We hope to raise greater awareness about cultures of abuse, offer hope and healing for those who have been victimized, and equip churches, non-profits, organizations, and businesses to better protect all people from all forms of abuse and assault.

We hope this will not only help churches in our city here in San Diego, but will be a blessing to others regionally and globally.

Conference speakers include:
Rachael and Jacob Denhollander
Dr. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb
Dr. Michael Horton
Boz Tchividjian (
G.R.A.C.E.)

More details and promo materials coming soon. Please visit this page in the meantime for updates.

Nicholas Davis

San Diego, CA

Rev. Nicholas Davis is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America.

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