Kari Benton Shares: Spiritual Recovery after a Lawsuit and Spiritual Abuse

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Some may recall the story of Titus and Kari Benton who were in a defamation lawsuit by their former pastor, Steve Wingfield, of First Christian Church of Florissant. The case was later dismissed, but when you are sued by your former employer and pastor, your long-term church home, and experience spiritual abuse, it takes a long while to recover.

Kari recently posted the following note on her Facebook page and gave me permission to share it. I wanted to share it here because many times we don’t get to see follow-ups to the posts, and also because Kari describes some of her recovery process. Maybe some will be able to relate with her story in some ways. ~Julie Anne

Related articles:

Florissant church, pastor dismiss defamation lawsuit
A Youth Minister’s Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart
Is it Enough – blog detailing the cover up at First Christian Church of Florissant

 


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kari benton, First Christian Church of Florissant, Steve Wingfield, spiritual abuse, defamation lawsuit

Kari’s Facebook Cover Photo

Real Talk, by Kari Benton

I had no idea how much I wanted my husband to quit doing full time ministry until he did. The sense of relief and freedom I have felt since he made that decision has been liberating and surprising.
More real talk: being a pastor’s wife used to make me feel special. Like somehow this position I held by association made me a little bit closer to Jesus. Or at least made my membership in the church club a little more secure. A deep need of mine is to feel like I belong. And I never had to question my longing in the church as long as my husband’s name was on the door of one of the offices.

But over the last 7-8 years some things have been shifting and changing – and I have found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to be a part of this club called the church anymore.

Things started to change when I began reading the New Testament literally and feeling like Jesus was telling me to spend my life out side the church building walls and in the world – getting my hands dirty. Things continued to change as I noticed I had to read books and listen to podcasts or online sermons in order to learn more about how to do this because it wasn’t being taught to me on Sunday morning.

Things changed still when I went through some conflict with the leadership at a church we formerly attended. I spoke up about some things that concerned me and the elders of that church disagreed with me. – and the way that this disagreement was handled knocked me completely off my feet. An entire board of elders made the decision to shut me out, refuse to dialogue with me respectfully, and were even willing to take our disagreement to court.

That conflict is mostly in the past now – but I’ve been cut off from that community, I’ve been told I’m no longer welcome in that community, and I’m treated like I no longer exist by the leaders in that community. Nothing about that situation looks like Jesus to me.

 

Part of me longs for reconciliation in that situation – mostly because I think it’s the right thing to do.

 

It’s confusing to me why the leaders of that church don’t also desire reconciliation. That situation made me question everything I thought I believed about the church. I thought that the church was a safe place where disagreements would certainly happen – but they could be handled with grace and mercy and reconciliation would always be the goal whenever possible.

Things changed yet again when I shockingly watched as Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States. It wasn’t just that he won the election- it was that I kept hearing the statistic that 81% of evangelicals supported him or voted for him. I still cannot get that fact to compute in my brain. I know it’s a complex issue – I know that people have their reasons for voting for him that have nothing to do with him as a person. I know all of that. It’s hard to explain – but watching evangelicals support Donald Trump makes me feel lost. Makes me feel like maybe I don’t quite belong in this category of “evangelicals”. Which then makes me wonder where I do belong.

After Titus announced his resignation publicly, I felt free. I felt like I now had the freedom to choose whether or not I wanted to repair my relationship with the church. You see I believe that the church is important, not only in the world as a whole, but in my own personal life. I believe that she is the bride of Christ – and that she is to be cared for, respected, and not given up on. Up until now I have felt like I was being forced to work things out with her – frankly because she paid my husbands’ salary. But now I feel like I have the freedom to work things out with her because I want to. And I really do want to. But I want to do it in my own way and in my own time.

So for right now that looks like attending a Baptist church on Sunday mornings because they have a Sunday School class for couples in their 20s and 30s. I am attending this class each week and a mid-week bible study with the ladies from this class. I am practicing just being me, being comfortable in my own skin, and learning how to build some community with other people my own age. It is uncomfortable for me at times, it is taking longer to get to know people than I would like, and it is really stretching the introverted parts of me. But this is what I need to do right now.

For right now it also looks like attending a church in the city on either Saturday or Sunday nights. This church follows the liturgical calendar, participates in liturgical readings together, and has sermons that are intellectually stimulating in a way that I didn’t even realize I was longing for. Sermons include topics such as The Enneagram and book recommendations such as “Nonviolent Communication”. The worship is simple and mostly hymns. It is absolutely feeding my soul right now in such a nourishing way that it makes me want to cry every time I am there.

Every weekend we have to have the conversation about when and where we will go to church.

I know for many people this is a normal conversation to have – but for us it has always been decided for us, we have never had the freedom to choose where we went to church or what service we attended. It’s a little overwhelming honestly.

Barbara Brown Taylor talks in her book “Leaving Church” about how once she left her position as priest in the Episcopal church she was able to learn about being fully human. And I completely resonate with this. In all our years in ministry in the local church – there have been many times when I have not felt fully human or I felt like other people didn’t see me as fully human. People assumed that because my husband was a pastor on staff that I had it all together, that I always knew the right answer, or that I was closer to God. I often struggled how to be authentically me and let people know that I did not have hardly anything together, felt like I didn’t have any answers but only questions, and often felt very far and disconnected from God.

A quote from “Leaving Church” says :

I thought that being faithful was about becoming someone other than who I was. It was not until this project failed that I began to wonder if my human wholeness might be more useful to God than my exhausting goodness.

So for right now we are spending our weekends at places where we have no title, we have no expectations. We are just showing up and trying to be fully human and learning how we can be fully human while engaging with the bride of Christ. She and I are going to work things out. It will take as long as it takes – but I believe we will figure it out.

23 comments on “Kari Benton Shares: Spiritual Recovery after a Lawsuit and Spiritual Abuse

  1. Thank you for following up on this. This one hit very close to home for me – in proximity and same church “denomination.”

    Kari, I hope you and your family have found that you’re able to move on. I wish the best for you both!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I take very seriously the fact that you have chosen to continue in your desire to be in a local church. It appears that you have spent precious time putting your relationship with the local church in perspective.

    As a now divorced, former pastor’s wife, I have finally(8 yrs later) found a local church home. ( Tried 3 others) Only 2 or 3 women know of my past role. It is so freeing to walk into church simply being me. I am graciously accepted by my first name. I am involved in ministries that are vital to me.

    I pray that your healing will continue and daily joy will flow freely.

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  3. Powerful article and powerful emotions.

    [Mod note: JA deleted political content.]

    On a more positive note, I am very glad Ms Benton is finding peace. Looks like they did her a huge favor by shunning her. She needed that congregation like she needed a hole in her head. This forum is doing a very good thing if it helps more spiritually abused persons leave their churches and join more enlightened ones.

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  4. Admin note: I don’t want to veer off topic and discuss Trump and politics. Kari relayed the bit about Trump because of the emotional impact it had on her. No worries, LEB, you are new here. 😊

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  5. I was devastated when I saw papers full of lies and accusing me of slander. My heart, mind and soul all broke and I’ll never be the same. The senior pastor was ‘taking care of me as a widow’ in the church after my husband died. I loved and trusted these people. He was going to sell my and my husbands home for me after I moved to a smaller home. Instead, they let an elders daughter’s family live there for 15 months, without paying expenses, and telling me not to worry because they would make sure I got what was due me.

    I had to do a legal eviction after one of the pastors told me I couldn’t make them move out of the house, tens of thousands of repairs had to be done to the home to get it in a salable condition, and the expenses (taxes, insurance, utilities) have never been reimbursed in the seven years since that time.

    These people were not just my pastor, etc. They were my close friends. I didn’t have children or family after my husband died. I considered these people to be my family. One pastor had been my neighbor since before my husband died. I thought they were trustworthy and honest. They all seemed to have a good story. Until their lies came to light. One pastor told me I was suppose to “forgive and forget and be friends again.”

    I found out it was a NAR affiliated church, although that had never been disclosed. I requested meetings with the elders and their self appointed ‘apostles’ but they wouldn’t talk to me.

    I was diagnosed with PTSD after this. Until this, I thought you were safe when you went to church. Unfortunately, since we are so trusting, we are very vulnerable also. I have learned things I didn’t want to know. But I hope I am helping others when they are hurting like I was.

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  6. This church follows the liturgical calendar, participates in liturgical readings together, and has sermons that are intellectually stimulating in a way that I didn’t even realize I was longing for. Sermons include topics such as The Enneagram and book recommendations such as “Nonviolent Communication”. The worship is simple and mostly hymns

    This sounds a lot like the church I attend. It seems to suit me. My only concern is when they veer off into politics (which one pastor does more than the others).

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  7. These people were not just my pastor, etc. They were my close friends.

    I’m so sorry, Angie.

    Of all the common threads in these stories, fake friends seems to the be the most disturbing to me. I get people drifting away sometimes, but I can’t imagine turning my back on someone I loved because someone else told me to. I can’t imagine using someone and discarding them. Its just awful.

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  8. Amazingly this story is nearly identical to what has just happened in the church my parents worked at. They left immediately after my mother called the pastor out publicly for deceit & cover up of abuse. They are drained emotionally, somewhat distraught and have a much more realistic view of the current state of churches in America.

    I know this is rather immature and petty of me but I’m loving it. Having gone through 20 years of judgmental comments from family after taking an extended break from church (10 years) , after my already ten years of very limited involvement they were kind of embarrassed by me. With their other 3 children in full time christian service I was expected to come around and “get serious ” about the Lord. I would tell them rather sarcastically that if this was required for salvation I would denounce Christ and leave the faith.

    Now I’m attending church (going on a few years now ) and they aren’t . I told them if you want to be part of a church, great. Just realize the more involved you are the more drama & BS you will have in your life.

    I’m enjoying church once a week. In & out style. No dinners, fellowships, singles events, Sunday school or retreats. Zip. Never again will I feel the need to be emotionally & financially sodomized by the church as some form of proof that I love the Lord. Honestly if Christ walked the earth today , I don’t see him tolerating the church scene for 3 seconds. The church industrial complex has taken over and hijacked Christianity just as much as radical jihadist have Islam.

    Frankly, I’m not sure which has done more damage.

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  9. “It’s confusing to me why the leaders of that church don’t also desire reconciliation.”

    My initial response would be: “Just because you are in a garage does not indicate that you are a car.” I often wonder at the amount of unregenerate people (men in particular) who are leaders in fundamentalist and evangelical churches (we have them too in The Episcopal Church). We shall know them by their fruit, eh Jesus?

    I once heard a preacher say: “The church would be great without the people.” We might easily enough argue that there have been problems in the church since the beginning. Look at Corinth. But that doesn’t excuse toxic people claiming to be Christians, or leaders or pastors, from their toxicity.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. @Scott1253 – I wonder what “getting serious about the Lord” means. That sounds like a terrible burden rather than a relationship with Him that is daily and personal and joy-filled. Our relationship with God should not feel burdensome but winsome, we should enjoy prayer as personal conversation – a privilege rather than a process, and we should be free to experience the Spirit as our guide and companion, not our condemner.

    My relationship with the Lord has become stronger, deeper and more personal, powerful and joyful than it ever was when I went to church. It shouldn’t be that way, but there you have it. Too many churches are focused on numbers and programs and image and squishing people into their little legalistic boxes rather than revealing the healing, gracious heart of God, receiving His grace, and living powerful, outside-the-box, Spirit-led lives.

    Sad…

    Liked by 2 people

  11. We finally left our former IFB church two years ago. We started attending a church that’s the Polar opposite of where we came from but to be honest, we hardly ever go. Our children go regularly and they’re active in the teen group. We spent so many years practically living at church, especially on Sundays, that I feel like I am still recovering from it. I refuse to commit to a church ever again. Even though this church is totally different ,I’ve been too hurt and scarred to take that chance again. Maybe I am just paranoid but I guess that’s what happens after spiritual abuse. It changes you forever.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. @Cindy Burrell, since I left the Fundy world, I’m trying to figure out some things. One of them is the preaching of “having a personal relationship with God ” yet in the IFB church, you’re expected to check off the boxes of what a relationship with God is according to their rules. Something I’m learning is that God means different things to different people, and I’m still trying to figure out what that means to me. (2 years officially out of Fundy land but I had mentally checked out at least 2 years prior to that) I do know that God isn’t one size fits all, and He’s not sitting up on a throne waiting for us to screw up so He can throw lightning bolts at us if we don’t fit in the legalistic box.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. @Sunshine, your story is a little heartbreaking… but many of us have also learned the hard way that relationship with God is never a checklist but rather it begins with simply receiving what God wants to offer us – His grace, mercy, healing, favor, presence and peace. The church tends to present God as One who is perpetually displeased with us rather than acknowledging how very approachable and personal and compassionate He is.

    Jesus so warmly said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

    I for one have been blessed to experience this truth in a thousand ways, in the midst of heartache and brokenness and loss. Still He says, “Come to Me,” rather than “Go to church.” Jesus has been my source of strength and my safe place, and I pray He can be that for you, too…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. {{{HUGS}}} I’m just amazed at what people have endured here in abuse from the local church. My abuse was more like being a boiled frog and at some point someone jumped a level too far, and I reacted by leaving. Even then, I have lasting emotional and spiritual trauma. I know others (and read the stories here) of people whose worlds were turned upside down by intense, personal abuse at the hands of pastors.

    The leaders of the church do desire reconciliation. Just like the leaders at my friends’ churches, reconciliation means the “wrong” party repenting and returning. So, if the abused want reconciliation they can repent and return.

    When I left my church… exact same thing. They admitted that they were “fallen humans”, then listed every sin they could pin on me and offered to welcome me back so I could work on MY sin. Most of my sin involved questioning their theology in front of others. Most of the time, their theology was out of step with what was historically taught… which was not a comfortable place to be in. So, the solution is not for them to bring their theology in line with church doctrine, but for me to stop pointing out their flaws. That ‘s what reconciliation means. It doesn’t mean them seeking forgiveness for manipulating the congregation against me or trying to silence me.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yikes, Mark. That’s horrible. I’m sorry you went through that, but I think it’s pretty dang awesome that you stood up for the truth just the same.

    Your experience brings to mind what Jesus said: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

    Let’s just say there are a lot of church folks out there with logs in their eyes who are wholly preoccupied with other people’s splinters.

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  16. I volunteer a lot on Sundays in my new church, and it’s hard sometimes, but I don’t feel taken advantage of. I can say no and I can back off without feeling like I’m going to get some sort of visitation.

    A previous church it was the same people who made everything work. When the leaders tried to get serious about outreach, they doubled the number of events, and those same people started to push back. Instead of grace and accepting “Nos” the leaders started a blame campaign against the lazy congregation trying to pin the spiritual deadness and lack of numerical growth on the few people willing to actually do something.

    Truth is, I think, that healthy people came in, saw how abusive and dysfunctional we were and decided they didn’t want to be any part of it. It wasn’t for lack of visitors that the church wasn’t growing.

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  17. @cindy, wasn’t necessarily the truth 🙂 but it was what the denomination supposedly taught and had written in their foundational documents.

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  18. Having been in church for 64 yrs, I have encountered many, many inappropriate, degrading, condemning and judgemenal statements from men claiming authority. Thus includes missions and Christian colleges as well. Marriage 30+ yrs to a minister who nearly destroyed me is frosting on sauerkraut.

    I find refuge in a wonderful group of mostly elderly people that compromise a rather liberal church. Here, I am loved, accepted, respected. I am a remnant to help draw the group back to more Bible study and prayer. Individually, many hold to a deep faith in God.

    I was given open reign to reestablish a nursery. It is one of my passions. Two toddlers attend faithfully. We encorporate God/Jesus into many facets and open the Bible to teach a lesson.

    This, to me, is a purposeful life.

    I choose to leave the fundamentalists to their own demise, and put an end to their destructive hits on me.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Celeste, I’m glad you found your way to true freedom and peace with people who love God and care for you. So sorry to read of your abusive marriage to a man who claimed to represent God, too. It’s sad how many more with similarly tragic stories are out there. Thanks for sharing…

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  20. Yes, Cindy. There are far too many of us. There are many more women still married to ministers, getting sicker and sicker each day who have no idea yet that their illness source is ‘sleeping with the enemy”. So thankful for ACFJ where regular readings and study have helped me get out of the cloud and slowly heal.

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  21. Celeste, grew up in a similar environment, minus the missions. Amazing how many pastors and elders I’ve talked with/debated on issues where once every argument they try to put forth is shown to be ridiculous, they pull out the “I’m the authority” card. For as many issues as my dad had, he never ever pulled that card when debating theology. I’m thankful about that because it prepared me to completely ignore people trying to use that on me, like name one “authority” who was 100% without theological error.

    I don’t understand why being a pastor’s wife was such a big prize in my old denomination. I guess in some ways it was the ultimate calling, but what a price! Living under such a microscope where half the congregation wants to copy everything you do and the other half sits there and waits for you to screw up so that they can one up the pastor’s wife.

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  22. I grew up clueless about navigating “authority” mongers. I was sheltered under parents who had no desire for leadership roles or discussing issues. Here lies a curse and a blessing.

    Now, there are two words that raise a red flag; “I believe”. When someone begins a topic with those words, I move away. Usually, those words are used to manipulate and intimidate.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I have been pondering the role of a pastor’s wife since your comments last Thursday. There is an aspect that I had never considered previously. It is a process that imposes my thought on other’s thoughts. They, being members of a church, but it’s worthy of consideration for me.

    This role is an assignment of Barometer.

    When a new pastor arrives, the wife is sized up, maybe for a read on whether she’s keeping track of their new minister. After all she’s got behind the scenes info. I am probably referring to the quiet, questioning, fearful, skeptical ones. And as long as she appears happy with him and what he’s doing, they can be, too.

    Truly, a false sense of security. I was a quiet, non confrontive PW, and thinking back, I wonder if people explained away his reckless, free wheeling, spontaneous traits as uncomfortable at best. Perhaps, they told themselves it must be ok because PW seems level headed and doesn’t seem concerned. This would come from my role as Barometer.

    Well, none of it was OK with me, and I was dying because of him, but I never told anyone. It was mass confusion to me that couldn’t be put into words. So I survived in depression mode which he manipulated so that people would feel bad for him, having it live with a chronic sick woman.

    10 yrs past divorce, I know that some of my role as barometer was occurring. I know because little statements seep out from those I am coming back in contact with. These dear people had been duped, but mostly clueless. I have been blessed with resources of ACFJ, like going back to college to retrain.

    I should keep a record of how many of those dear people I have come back in contact with, living a short distance from that town. My ex lives in that town, married a church women 4 yrs after our divorce and are now members of another church in town. I know that’s a serious red flag to many, but they don’t really know why. He didn’t appear, on the surface to be a “bad” person, and I never criticized him in public. Me, their Barometer, was as duped as they were.

    Those that I come in contact with are amazed, relieved to see me, I am standing tall, smiling, off my meds, living with and caring for extended family members. I think that perhaps our unexpected encounters verify unanswered questions that they had about him. To some extent, many still see me as their PW and I am still being read as a barometer of their ex-pastor of 17 yrs. we all need to bring understanding and closure.

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