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My Church Leaders Were Abusive: Should I share my story publicly with Christian media? Is there something I can do that will affect positive change?

Bethlehem Baptist Church

Yesterday, I read a post in Christianity Today in which reporter Kate Shellnutt wrote a long article about a mess occurring at John Piper’s old stomping grounds, Bethlehem Baptist Church (read: systemic abuse).

It indeed is a mess at Bethlehem Baptist. Back when I was blogging routinely, John Piper was the subject of a number of blog posts: Piper’s teachings on women, misogyny, his statement about women should endure a smacking for a season, his permanence view of marriage, his cordial connections with pedophile-hider, boob-objectifier, documented plagiarizer, spiritual abuser, Doug Wilson, shall I go on?

But, alas, a new group of folks who have been trying to “do church well” at Bethlehem Baptist have been seeing the light, and are trying to do the right thing by exposing the problems and sharing their personal experiences. I get it.

When you are part of a church, you become invested in the church, the people, the mission, the theology, the hopes and dreams. When something goes amiss, you want to see it get back on track and want to be part of that positive change.

When you try to put critical issues you see on the table in front of church leadership and don’t feel heard, or are dismissed, it makes it very difficult. What do you do?

This perfect storm of various issues coming together somehow got to the attention of reporter Kate Shellnutt. She wrote on the culture and many of the issues going on in this article: Bethlehem Baptist Leaders Clash Over ‘Coddling’ and ‘Cancel Culture’. Quite a few people were interviewed, but what I read on Twitter this morning got me sad and angry. Many of the people interviewed felt like their collective voices were not heard. They felt that church leaders got more space in the story than the survivors who worked hard to expose this.

My heart goes out to them. I’ve been there and done that. My regular readers know my experiences with Christianity Today on several high-profile cases. For example, I was interviewed by Christianity Today for the Ravi Zacharias story because Lori Anne Thompson was under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I had files from Lori Anne that she had given me before she signed the NDA. So, essentially, I could speak for her, even quoting her own words, because I was not bound to the NDA. But Christianity Today refused to publish a statement I made, even though I was told it would get published. So, Ravi Zacharias got a full-page spread defending himself (even though he, too, signed the NDA), and Lori Anne Thompson got nothing published to defend herself….zilch.

Of course we know the rest of the Zacharias story. He’s dead. The investigative report three years later proved that he indeed did great harm and used his position of power and influence to rape and sexually abuse many innocent victims. Christianity Today defended a sexual predator, and it wasn’t the first time they had done so, They also gave a big spread to “Pastor” Tullian Tchividjian, another clergy sexual predator, even though I had reported with credible resources what he had done in several blog articles.

I’ve thought long and hard about this dilemma. I have an excellent track record on reporting on high-profile (and not-so-high profile) church abuse cases. My name and blog are quoted in Christian media (Christianity Today, The Christian Post), as well as mainstream media, books, academic journals/articles, etc. But yet I find that it’s primarily Christian media that screws up and gives abusers a platform, and once again, survivors feel maligned and not heard. Ugh!

So, there’s that media issue, but then I think about this: how many times have I reported on something, the truth is exposed, I provide necessary documentation or testimonies to prove survivors are telling the truth, and then NOTHING HAPPENS? This is what happens more often than not. Let’s reminisce on just a few cases I’ve covered where the truth is exposed and nothing happens to the perpetrator:

  • My first case – the pastor who sued me for $500,000 was running a cult is still running a cult. As of last month, a relative of a current member told me about the shunning their family is experiencing because they don’t believe the same as the pastor (Chuck O’Neal). He’s still in business even after a lot of public exposure.
  • Tullian Tchividjian – the pastor who committed multiple cases of clergy sexual misconduct and spiritual abuse was put in church discipline by his Presbyterian church leaders. He up and left that church group and is now pastoring independently, rebranded. He’s still in business.
  • Mark Driscoll – his empire of Mars Hill Churches established in the Seattle, WA all shut down after exposure of spiritual abuse, plagiarism, financial mishandlings, misogyny, etc. He rebranded himself in Arizona to start fresh, and guess what, rinse and repeat, now more personal stories of spiritual abuse and shunning are coming from congregants in his Arizona church. Mark Driscoll is still in business.
  • Doug Wilson – continues to run his cult in Moscow, ID after much public exposure how he harbored pedophiles, his stance on slaves, misogyny, spiritual abuse, plagiarism. Doug Wilson is still in business.
  • C.J. Mahaney/Sovereign Grace Ministires – one of the first stories I discussed after my own. SGM had a huge exodus of pastors leaving because of spiritual abuse and sexual abuse cover-up, but C.J. Mahaney is still in business and rebranded his church group.

I could go on, but suffice it to say: abusers DO NOT CHANGE. Even when there is a spotlight shown on sin and abuse, if the abuser stays in power, the dynamics DO NOT CHANGE. There is simply a rebranding, but the core issue is still there: the abuser is still the abuser cultivating a climate of abuse with anyone around him.

If you have not seen the movie, Spotlight, I highly recommend it. This movie describes systemic abuse powerfully. When we are exposing abusers, we need to understand this: it’s not just the abuser abusing. The abuser creates a culture of abuse and utilizes the people around him to keep the system in motion. Any person who supports the abuser is complicit in this system of abuse until they entirely leave the system. Here is a tough pill to swallow: you cannot stay and change the system. It doesn’t work.

So now what? What do we do when we’ve been an abusive church, we expose the issues, and see no changes?

When I started publicly exposing my spiritually abusive pastor, I hoped that there would be enough uproar that he would be confronted, and maybe he would see the error of his ways and come to repentance, and step down. Now I know this: abusers never see themselves as doing anything wrong. They will never step down (as we can see by the cases I identified above).

So . . . if these bad leaders refuse to step down, now what? What should our end goal be now?

It took many years for me to come to this conclusion and I think that many of us who are spiritual abuse survivors have been spinning our wheels because we wanted to fix our churches. Our spiritually abusive churches cannot be fixed if there are abusers in power, period. Getting our stories told by Christian media outlets doesn’t work. I’ve seen it time and again. It may identify some problems, but usually survivors will not get an even playing field. It only alerts the general public that there is a problem, but the general public never knows how bad it really is.

I’ve been doing this gig for a long while and here is where I see positive results. Personal stories are powerful. Reading personal stories helped me identify the abuse I was incurring (in my church and in my marriage). When reading a personal story and connecting with it, we are allowing our brain to connect with like scenarios. When we hear someone label a familiar situation we have experienced as “abuse,” it engages our brain to consider, “hey, could I have experienced abuse, too?” You’ll know you have a connection when it happens because you can sense your body’s physical and/or emotional response.

I’m going to say it again . . we can’t change the culture of an abusive church, because while an abusive leader is in power, there is a system of abuse involved. We cannot change an abusive system. But what we survivors can do is provide a safe place where personal stories are told, heard, believed.

Here is what I would recommend for those who are involved in an abusive church.

Create a blog/website specifically to discuss the issues at the church. Allow people to share their personal stories. I recommend allowing pseudonyms. I found that most spiritual abuse survivors are living in fear of being discovered. They need to feel safe to share openly and freely. Share your story. Share personal incidents that have troubled you. Allow comments. The moderators need to be trauma-informed and really do a good job of ensuring the safety of the environment.

This is what happened here on this blog for many years. Many abuse survivors came here to read personal stories. They identified with them even though people were talking about abuse from different churches. In this dialogue among survivors, they found they were not alone, and we created a lovely safe place where trust was established and people could heal.

If you have experienced spiritual abuse and would like to contact me for ideas on how to create this type of environment, please reach out to me. I don’t do many blog posts any more now that I’m working full-time, but I will make the time to take phone calls.

I originally didn’t think I’d get this post finished, and what do you know, my Saturday plans changed and I had time to finish. But here’s a video on the same topic I shot using my camera. Very low-tech and unscripted, but there ya go.



Personal note: I’ve missed you all and the community that once was here. I know many of you still subscribe. Hope you all are doing well. I am now one year post divorce. I just bought a new home in June. My cyber security job is going great. I have a great team and really enjoy the work dealing with a different kind of vulnerability than I was dealing with here. But it’s interesting, it’s all the same – it takes diligent effort to keep people and data safe. Feel free to drop a note from time to time. Take care, friends 🙂

19 thoughts on “My Church Leaders Were Abusive: Should I share my story publicly with Christian media? Is there something I can do that will affect positive change?”

  1. Like Dave Ramsey (not a pastor, but close enough) — There’s been several articles on the abuse in his organization, yet just yesterday in a comment section for an advice column, I saw a bunch of comments recommending him. argh

    Like

  2. Hello Julie Anne

    Thank you for posting this. Quite often abusive churches also create abusive marriages because the ethos is a greenhouse where toxic thrives. My experience as a battered wife by my then husband the bible study leader and church planter, involved finally speaking to the pastor and being told it was my fault (something my batterer never claimed himself but was emboldened to do so after our counseling session) I was informed if I was the pastors wife he’d beat me too, that I needed to do a lot more sex, be a lot more submitted when I was a hyper submitted mouse to begin with. When it emerged that my then husband was actually gay, I was blamed for that too. Anyhow, lots of wife beating got slid under the rug. Jesus could appear himself in front of that pastor and his congregation to confront him for his abuse and they’d say it was the devil…

    Therefore, not one iota of the sharing, truth telling, does anything but embolden abusers and their enablers whom I consider just as guilty. What the truth telling does is liberates the captive of those systems. It lets them out of the prison of denial where they wonder if they are losing their mind. Gaslighting works that way. They heal They recover and that is a very beautiful thing for the captive to go free. The perpetrators remain captive to the enemy that came to steal, kill and destroy but truth tellers let their victims find an abundant life.

    HELPFUL THINGS for Spiritual Abuse Recovery: 1. survivor stories that got their life back–success stories i heard lots of trauma stories but few of people that really thrive post abuse. 2. Recovery tools (Wellness Recovery Action Plans for example) involve a work shop where people learn to stabilize their own mental health because all abuse is extremely crazy making. 3 Boundary setting tool kits 4. Self advocacy (the meek mild submitted soft spoken females these sects create feel it is sinful to speak up for themselves and tend to spend the rest of their natural lives getting pushed around.) Survivor thrivers need to learn how to support each other0learning some basic aggressive stances (normal assertiveness feels like agression if you spent your life licking the boots of misogynists convinced that was your God given role 5. Bible studies to liberate the captive slave mind…

    AN EXAMPLE OF LEARNED SKILLED SETS FOR THE SURVIVOR I’ve been offered a job after living in poverty and oppression for years. I never did pull myself together after the abuse as far as self-respect goes. I’ve never negotiated a salary even though my recent offer is an insulting level of pay given my education and past experience. I just took whatever garbage offer people throw at me in my past. Today I realized growth for me might include insisting I’m paid the going rate for the position given I have 3 times the qualifications they needed. In fact my willingness to take something that doesn’t require this education and skill set reflects that ingrained unworthiness misogynist churches leave you with. Stories of what a recovered lifestyle looks like, creates a sense of possibility and hope. And cheering each other on for assertiveness victories could be useful too.

    I’d be interested in seeing workbooks for spiritual recovery developed too.

    A favorite poem about truth telling *Memory Shouldn’t Be…**by Frank Ochberg, MD*

    *June, 1993*

    Memory Shouldn’t be Shards of a broken dream Secret pain Shouldn’t strain Breathlessly to scream I know the where I know the when I know the who too well Believe me or believe me not I have a truth to tell

    But Mother, if you cannot hear I’ll keep your peace A day, a year. Forever Your doubt and fear Convinces me to silence

    Your Honor, if the proof you seek Is rusted, lost Too old, too weak, forgotten Then I shall not speak Dismiss my plea with silence

    It matters not who hears the voice Once I have understood The thunder of the truth untold Will echo in the wood And judges naked in their robes Will shudder at the gate How thin the cloth of innocence Against the chill of hate

    Memory Shouldn’t be Shards of a broken dream Secret pain Shouldn’t strain Breathlessly to scream I know the where I know the when I know the who too well Believe me or believe me not I have a truth to tell

    Caroline Wise, MPA

    On Sat, Aug 21, 2021 at 7:04 PM Spiritual Sounding Board wrote:

    > Julie Anne posted: ” Bethlehem Baptist Church Yesterday, I read a post in > Christianity Today in which reporter Kate Shellnutt wrote a long article > about a mess occurring at John Piper’s old stomping grounds, Bethlehem > Baptist Church (read: systemic abuse). https://tw” >

    Like

  3. One more thing I want to add that I think is a key point in educating survivors towards an abundant and restored life:

    How to recognise red flags. I was shaken for years that I was a power abuser target and they were always going to land on me and I had no agency. NO, we need to develop agency with practice and coaching. If forensic studies are done on churches that abuse what are subtle and obvious flags? A flag for me are pastors that make subtle jokes about women. Mark Driscoll’s flags about women hating are as obvious as a freight train if one recognises that those that advertise themselves as protectors of women are often chief predators.

    A story about flags of their abusive pastor. John Piper once waxed eloquent that daughters are “nice” but son’s, sons are beyond words the most beautiful thing ever (something to the effect that you haven’t lived until you had a son, and someone that explains the Godhead so women are and always will be an after thought, and not an important one Flags…

    Caroline Wise, MPA

    On Sat, Aug 21, 2021 at 7:04 PM Spiritual Sounding Board wrote:

    > Julie Anne posted: ” Bethlehem Baptist Church Yesterday, I read a post in > Christianity Today in which reporter Kate Shellnutt wrote a long article > about a mess occurring at John Piper’s old stomping grounds, Bethlehem > Baptist Church (read: systemic abuse). https://tw” >

    Like

  4. Thank you – that was a very helpful article. I suffered in an abusive church for 2 years. A couple of years after leaving it I read Jeff van vonderen’s ‘subtle power of spiritual abuse’ and as I was reading it the lights came on and the fog I’d inhabited for 4 years began to be dispersed. Then I could see my marriage for what it was too…. When I read the title I thought ‘oh dear, does God want me to stick my neck out and tell the story?’ – so glad to know that I don’t have to do that. The idea of a ‘spiritual abuse survivors’ website where we can post our experiences so that they can be validated by others. I suspect that in the area of churches – as in the area of abusive marriages – we will discover that ‘they read the same textbook’….
    I’m still trying to get my head round how ‘christians’ can ‘cancel’ those who failed to match up.

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  5. First, Julie Anne, thank you for popping in with this, the seriousness of the situation, and the conclusions that you have so eloquently shared. It’s good to hear from you even if it is only sporadic.

    Second, Graceovercomes: “5. Bible studies to liberate the captive slave mind…”

    I have one that I have been developing for years. I started studying certain scriptures while still married to my abuser, before I knew that he was an abuser. And the study has carried me all the way through my divorce (as of February) and continues to lift me up today.

    It’s been very personal. But I’ve often thought that it would be good for others if I could ever get it out in front of those who need it.

    I’m nobody but a fellow survivor who is on a continuing journey, continuing to learn how to rest in the love of God and thrive on the other side of escaping religious and marital oppression. In other words, I have no platform, no prospects for publishing the study, and no vehicle to get it to where it might do some good.

    I guess I’m looking for advice concerning possibilities for reaching the hurting with a message counteracting all the negative, misogynistic, supposedly biblical B.S. that is being spewed by so many abusive systems.

    Like

  6. HI Mara, thanks for your comment and it’s good to “see” you. While I have been having difficulty keeping blog posts going, I think I’m getting to a place where I can open the blog back up for people who have their works/stories written. Would you be interested in the possibility of it being posted here in bite-size chunks? I’d be happy to take a look.

    Like

  7. Thanks for your comment, Tekel. I’m sorry to hear that you, too, belong to the spiritual abuse club, a club that not one of us tried to get into, but here we are, nonetheless.

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  8. Thanks for your comment, Caroline. Yes, sometimes we overlook obvious red flags because we want to believe the best of our church leaders. Joking about women is never appropriate, and when we see that kind of joking, we often will find the women in those circles silently suffering in their abusive marriages.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Nyssa, I hope one day the Dave Ramsey empire will implode with its toxic practices and misogyny. It’s disgusting. At least now there are people publicly speaking out and being validated.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. A conclusion I came to, and it was validated by “A Church Called Tov” is that the first step of any twelve step program is admitting you have a problem. Even churches that admit to instances of wrongdoing often don’t want to recognize that there is a cultural system in place that protects abusers.

    The instances above, some of which I studied, involved a pastor creating a narcissistic system where those who might hold him accountable were pushed away in favor of those who were part of the fan club.

    In my religious background, it was the same thing. The system protected itself against all outsiders – outsiders being all who weren’t part of the leadership or the in crowd. The system claimed accountability, but there was an unwritten rule that leadership could only hold each other accountable, not outsiders.

    I did dip my toe in reform. My church violated their own laws to close their ears to what I had to say. That is how much they didn’t want to deal with abuse.

    Like

  11. Mark,

    You said, “The system protected itself against all outsiders – outsiders being all who weren’t part of the leadership or the in crowd.” That was my experience, too. It produced an evil us vs. them mentality and we were always right. That is so unhealthy and toxic. And makes it so you actually despise outsiders, rather than love them like Christ commands. Yuck!

    Like

  12. Now I know this: abusers never see themselves as doing anything wrong.

    Because in their alternative reality, They Can Do No Wrong.
    Echoed 24/7 by their Inner Ring of Yes-Men.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Don’t wait till sexual molestation, “officially designated” financial misdealing or misogyny appear. I left several denominations after concluding there was:
    – bragging of advantageous connections;
    – dumbing down;
    – sentimentality;
    – patronising towards those more knowledgeable or thoughtful than themselves;
    – thoughtlessness in relationships;
    – no respect for Holy Spirit, Who is not about what we were told He is about;
    – enforced ignorance concerning Kingdom of Heaven, sanctification, fruit bearing and crowns.
    I foresee that the very worst churches are going to actually “tick all the boxes” one day (fly under the radar).
    I also know a very large denomination that overtly flaunts sexual molestation as cover for property fraud with bribery (not the other way round) and is gaining members! Merely being in trouble will never get them in trouble. So don’t wait for someone else to discern “for” you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. So don’t wait for someone else to discern “for” you.

    Whenever anyone goes on about their Spiritual Gift of Discernment(TM – Which usually manifests ass discerning DEMONS in someone else), remember this:

    Four out of five American Evangelical Christians(TM)’ Gift of Discernment(TM) consistently mistakes Donald Trump for Jesus Christ.

    Like

  15. Bingo. I think the reason(s) that abusive churches don’t get shut down when abuse is exposed are varied. For starters, the members of abusive churches (the people who keep paying and attending to keep the show going. . . ) have often “signed off” on loyalty to their abusers, and have agreed to run all information through the filter of what the church/abuser, etc., says. Abusive leaders validate and define “truth” to their followers. This is one reason why victims are not heard and believed. Another reason for the lack of change is that the vast reading/viewing public out there has little/no power to do much about the abuse. They don’t attend the abusive church. They don’t send it money. They probably don’t even know anyone who attends it. So for them, it’s often just another story in the news. Finally, the abuse (esp. if strictly ‘spiritual abuse,’ is often legal and allowed, so the people with badges, search warrants, etc., are not going to get involved. Abusers who commit prosecutable crimes DEFINITELY keep an ear open for the sound of police and detectives knocking on the door–and that’s a sound that gets their attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. @Ken, right on. Having read, “A church called Tov” that was essentially their conclusion as well. For Willow Creek, the case they were familiar with, the entire system was built to protect Bill Hybels. When anyone dared confront him, the experience was extremely unpleasant, and leaders learned that it wasn’t going to work out. That meant that for ordinary people who had raised concerns, it was more expedient to say “something is being done” and bury it than to deal with Hybels’ rage.

    So, at first, when the accusers went to the media, the church’s response was to avoid Hybel’s rage by deflection and denial. When enough people came forward, and this doesn’t always happen, there was enough evidence on the table that made Hybel’s rage less onerous than having to answer questions about what the church was going to do. That’s for a megachurch. For smaller churches, I don’t know if there is ever enough pressure to tip the scales.

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  17. Mark – I have in my time spent more time than I should on Willow Creek; it has exported its methodology around the globe. European churches fall for it, desperate to stem the ongoing decline in numbers.

    It might have started out with good intentions, but struck me as thoroughly worldly, and although it did seem for a long time at least to have escaped the abusing leader problem of so many churches, I wasn’t entirely surprised at Hybels succumbing to worldly behaviour in a worldly church (or “church”). It’s more of a business than a church, so he ended up behaving like a CEO of a corporation. The amount of revenue and influence at stake was not likely to make the church want to deal with the problems when they eventually surfaced.

    I would also note in passing that the absence of the Holy Spirit from an institutional church cannot be compensated for by using pop psychology as a substitute, let alone pseudo-Christian mysticism and new agey occultism, all the more so when the doctrine of self-love was so heavily propagated. Abusing others is a classic example of self-love.

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