Over the last few days of telling stories of church abuse and/or poor leadership, I have been asked about the issue of the experience of pain a handful of times. The stories I have been telling happened between 2005 and 2010. A significant amount of time has passed, and someone can legitimately ask if I should have gotten over these issues by now, but the question assumes that when I speak about past betrayals I am speaking out of my pain, which is not necessarily the case. The answer to this kind of question can never be a one size fits all answer. The variety of difficulties we go through, the potential for redemptive value found in our stories, the context of events, and the varying personalities we carry are determining factors for the longevity of our stories. How long we keep talking about difficult events in our lives could be as short sharing it with a friend and moving on, or as long as history itself.
I will state as a caveat, that I do not believe that someone is automatically correct when they tell stories of victimization. Our perceptions of our own history can make us hypersensitive to minor issues, and in some cases people make big issues out nearly nothing. Like the Yale students freaking out about a Halloween costume email.
I believe that there some basic guidelines that can be determining factors for holding onto stories of betrayal and leadership abuse, and using those stories in ways that promote positive change. These are not necessarily absolute statements, but perhaps can be thought of as general guidelines for speaking out, and using our stories of betrayal to help others. The guidelines here are only in regards to the pain of our experiences, and avoiding the traps of bitterness and depression.
Forgiving others is necessary to speaking truth without bitterness
For a Christian, this should be an obvious truth, but to what degree we retain bitterness is not always evident to us. Other people may see our retention of bitterness better than we ourselves do. Yet, people who struggle with bitterness themselves, and those who have unresolved issues in which they have betrayed others are likely to anticipate bitterness where it does not exist. Just as you may be able to see something in me that I cannot see, it opposite is true as well. When I speak about painful experiences of the past, and you respond to me you may similarly be divulging the secrets of your own heart to me. It is too easy for each of us to read in others, what is true about ourselves, but we are not machines, and we do not all process life in the same exact way. So, whether we read about painful betrayals and abuse in church life, or we write and speak about it, it is necessary to do our best to speak from a heart of forgiveness, even – no especially when issues remain unresolved. Forgiveness relieves depression, bitterness, and fear; but forgiveness toward our unrepentant aggressors is a hard for battle for many people.
This step of forgiveness is a necessary component of speaking about our pain without speaking out of our pain. To speak about our painful experiences from a perspective of hope provides the transforming power of a story of redemption. Speaking from the midst of our pain is more akin to protest, than to offering a story of hope.
When Protest is Warranted and When it is Not
My situation had a direct financial impact of about $100,000. Indirectly, the numbers were certainly significantly higher. There were further direct impacts on relationships that were devastating, and such impacts cannot be measured. There are no possible monetary payments, which could make up for the devastation. Despite all this, I recognize that my experience does not reach the level of trauma experienced Native American children stolen from the their homes to be raised in church schools forcing them to become culturally white, or the trauma of those sexually abused by priests and pastors.
The examples of sexual abuse, and taking Native children from their homes are examples of when I believe it is acceptable to speak out of one’s pain in protest. Even then, finding the courage to forgive is still good for the soul.
There may be other times when the protest warning is appropriate. A voice of prophetic warning to others who could also be hurt is a valuable resource in a world of pain, where healing should have been present. This type of reminder about the sins of the past is a call to corrupt leadership to cease their abusiveness, and a warning to followers who are enamored with their apparent successes. Jim Henderson in Seattle spent a few years as one of the primary voices of warning in the case of Mark Driscoll’s corrupt and abusive leadership at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Jim was regularly accused of creating strife as he faithfully warned people about the abuses at Mars Hill. In the end, when the ministry collapsed, Jim was proven correct. Jim was a outside onlooker without direct experience under the abusive leadership of Mark Driscoll, but he helped others to use their pain as a prophetic announcement.
In my case, I could see other people rising up in protest, and I would encourage their voices, but I am not the person to do such a thing. I have no need to name names, or suggest that my former denomination has taken on cult-like behavior. Instead, I will simply tell the stories as they come to light for the benefit of others who have been abused, and I choose to light a way for deliverance and prophetic correction.
When to Respond Privately, When to Respond Publicly
If I have been offended in private, and the occurrence is not issue of illegality or personal danger, then I will respond in private. This is the injunction of scripture. Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the process of speaking to the person who has offended you, and if they will not listen to take it up with others present, and if they still will not listen to take it to the whole church.
In my case, I was accused at a national level without having been spoken to prior. I received a surprise email accusing me of aberrant practices and beliefs, and the email was simultaneously sent up the chain to all the District leadership, and even to the denominational headquarters. I began to immediately respond privately, then to the group who received the email, and meanwhile gossip spread like wildfire across denominational leadership. I believe that in a case like this, it is acceptable in a first response to begin to immediately responding publicly, because the lies and accusations were public. People may perceive this as vindictive, but the fact is that even Paul responded to pubic accusations against him in public letters.
After our church was kicked out of the denomination, the Wall Street Journal contacted me. This was not by my own doing, rather it was Jim Henderson who sent them my way. So, that which began as a public slander of me, ended up as a public account of the abuses of the denomination. This made my story an international story, which I will always be attached to. Therefore, it becomes a defining moment in my life, and a permanent part of ministry for me. Even 10 years after the beginning of these experiences, people seek me out for advice, or bring the subject up on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis. This is tattooed upon my personal history.
I have chosen to speak about those days of my pain, but I seldom speak out of my pain, and when I do it is intentional and passionate. I choose instead to speak these hard truths with a glimmer of hope for redemption and reconciliation, but make no mistake, I may forgive those who have done terrible things, but I do not trust them. Forgiveness and trust are not the same things. I owe all people my forgiveness, but once you have shown that you are untrustworthy under important situations, I will not put those situations under your charge again – until you prove that you have grown up. Until then, if I am asked, I will tell it like it is, but I will offer you an opportunity to make things right. In some cases, I may feel compelled to warn others about the dangers of working with you.
These are only a few thoughts how we tell the stories of betrayal in a redemptive manner. As is always the case: with God, most things begin with forgiveness.