Six years ago, I had to abruptly leave the church I’d attended for five years. This church had acted like family to me, some members giving me a place to stay when I needed one, others staying up with me late into the night when my inner torment became too much for me, still others supporting my efforts to come to terms with my gifts and desires, yet still others reparenting me at key moments. Everyone pitched in for my wedding, which was four months before the event that required my husband and I to depart from the church without saying goodbye.
That event was the pastor, who had spent hundreds of hours with me, he and his wife praying for me, taking quick road trips to Canada, taking me to lunch, exchanging long emails — I see the red flags now, of course. Back then, I was emotionally and spiritually and relationally homeless, and what I thought was basically being adopted by a childless couple in their 40s and finally being given the emotional attention I grew up without was actually the pastor having inappropriate feelings for me and imagining he could firewall them so he could continue doing ministry with me in a way he told me he believed no one else could.
This pastor initiated my departure from church, which has thus far been permanent, by inviting me to an urgent lunch with him and his wife. Things were normal for about an hour. We finish our food, his wife leans toward him and they whisper, she gets up and leaves, and it’s just me and Pastor. My word versus the word of a white man in power. Pastor opens this part of the conversation with: “I’ve never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you.” Hindsight has clarified the icky feeling I couldn’t name back in that moment: blame. Not only does his statement not corroborate with my experience in life, but I, like so many women before me, was apparently at fault for this man, who has been married the entire time I’ve known him and graduated from high school the year I was born and was my pastor for the last five years, developing a crush on me. I had called this pastor’s “confession” for a number of years before I realized that the slimed feeling I got upon the pastor’s opening line was due to the fact that he didn’t actually feel bad about it at all — and that the way he and his wife responded to our leaving was because he actually thought I was going to say “me too” when he made his feelings clear. So this was not a confession. This was an invitation.
Now, “it could have been worse,” a formerly close friend reminded me. “He didn’t touch you, no one’s pregnant.” Sure, it could have been worse. He actually did touch me, but it was only once, and the bruises that left (he was squeezing my arms while screaming in my face after a small group meeting had adjourned from his apartment) looked like fingerprints. But it could have also not happened at all.
If it hadn’t, I might have still been at the church, continuing to follow the pastor’s direction about what’s helpful for healing and how the process works, allowing him to make the decisions about how to proceed without either giving me all the information or asking what would be helpful. I didn’t even initially go to the pastor for advice on personal growth; he approached me under the guise of hospitality after one of the first services I attended. It was true that I was in need of some type of assistance — I’d had a lot of childhood stuff I hadn’t had a safe place to work through — but he didn’t really ask me what I might need. He assumed it was “healing,” which means he assumed I was broken and, more importantly, that he was not, or at least less so than I was. It seems that he, confusing himself with Jesus, was looking for a project, someone to “work with,” which was about his needs — to be a savior, maybe for his own self-esteem, maybe to earn brownie points with God. And then, once he developed his crush on me, his “help” was for the purpose of continuing to have access to me in a way I wouldn’t have allowed had I known. At one point a few years into this, we did briefly discuss my seeing a therapist. He and his wife discouraged it and I was too afraid of getting involved in the mental health system to really consider it. There was no further discussion, as if pastoral counseling or psychotherapy were the only options to heal the emotional isolation and confusion about my life’s purpose I’d been feeling my entire life.
It seemed, given the way the other leaders in the church handled the pastor’s revelation, that they didn’t believe in getting feedback about what would be helpful, either. I don’t know all of what happened — all eight or nine members of the elders team were instructed not to talk to me by the regional leader whose job it was to handle inappropriate situations like the one my pastor was causing — but I do know that a few of them made decisions on my behalf that they deemed “helpful” without checking with me. Julie’s response was a particularly clear example of the patronizing assumptions a lot of people who want to “help” make.
Julie and her spouse were missionaries in Asia for 20 years, so they were basically treated like gods in the church. I never got to know them particularly well so it’s not like they could have used their knowledge about me to guess what I might need without talking to me. After the pastor’s invitation, my husband and I had a rough time. We began a series of fights that culminated in him abruptly initiating a separation on Valentine’s Day and only informing me of his whereabouts after three days by CC’ing me on an email he sent to Julie and her spouse. This email was inquiring about the possibility of staying with them longer-term, among other things. I’m not sure what all he told them about me, but neither of them ever came to me to learn anything about my side of things.
Around this time is when the regional leader’s behavior toward us took a turn. Rose had originally stated that my husband and I could be as involved as we wanted in the process going forward with the pastor and his wife. Because this was about an abuse of spiritual power, either there would be remediation or there would be discipline, depending on how her conversation with them went. And then, she stopped responding to my emails and got snippy and harsh in response to my husband’s. I would likely have never found out the reason had he not inadvertently dropped into a conversation that he’d told Julie a bit about what was going on between us and that Julie had spoken with Rose.
So I attempted to get more information from Julie directly. “I’m wondering what it is you might have said to Rose,” I wrote to Julie. “I’m curious because you haven’t come to me and so you don’t have all the information. I’m afraid there may be a misunderstanding.” Julie never wrote back. My husband informed me over a week later that Julie “did not feel safe” responding to my email but “not to worry” because she “was being helpful.” Without talking to me or asking me what I needed or making sure she had accurate and complete information, she had met with someone in power who also knew nothing about me besides the fact that my pastor had a crush on me and thought it was my fault and that my husband had abruptly separated from me on Valentine’s Day… and whatever else Julie told her. To this day, I have no idea what Rose knows about me or my marriage but her responses to my husband and other pastors who attempted to step in, and her lack of responses to me, shows me that the story she got was not written by me.
This kind of authoritarian bullshit and lack of transparency is why my generation is leaving the church in droves, if they bothered to try to go at all. Julie was a leader in the church and was able to wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation in which she should have been held accountable by claiming that she “didn’t feel safe” responding to an email from the only person in this situation who did nothing wrong. This is one of the more minor failures in the orgy of victim-blaming and secondary trauma the leaders and people in place to protect victims inflicted on me; the overall result of the cowardice, lack of moral rectitude and apathy rampant among the leadership of my former church as well as the regional leadership was that I, the victim, was framed as the terrifying, church-destroying monster.
In some ways, I guess victims are scary. If we were to take the victims of our society’s institutions seriously, said institutions would pretty much all have to be dismantled. And that’s because, if everyone who is need of support or assistance in some way knew what took me way too long to learn — that is, that you get to decide what’s helpful for you — then we’d have to stop constructing structures we claim are serving people in legitimate need when what they’re really doing is protecting those in power from the consequences of their own actions and letting the consequences fall on people who are already vulnerable. Failing to hold people in power accountable by, among other things, requiring that they ask those they purport to serve how they can best serve them isn’t just abuse of power, it’s a moral failure and it goes way beyond the church.
Part of the relentless beauty and inexorable difficulty of being human is the ability to choose for oneself. Part of the reason we all have such a hard time getting along and living in peace with each other is because we disagree on personal agendas as if there are absolutes in this area. We are so blinkered by capitalism’s saturation and individualism’s permeation that it is hard to imagine a different definition of caring for oneself than “being able to obtain food, clothing and shelter (without assistance) and pay your taxes.” Nearly all social services are built around attempting to help people become productive members of society to the extent they are deemed able to do so. Telling people how they need to care for themselves and then punishing them (while calling it helping) for not complying with an external definition is obviously contradictory. It is also counterproductive: Dr. Ashfield writes on MIA late last year, “empirical trans-theoretical common factors research, which aimed to identify key contributors to positive and effective outcomes in psychotherapy, discovered that extra-therapeutic variables (a person’s own personal, interpersonal, and environmental capacities) contribute a huge 40% to these outcomes, with therapeutic rapport coming in second at 30%, and therapeutic method and placebo each being last, individually contributing 15%.” It is also fairly close to what our mental health system amounts to.
So, if you’re in a “helping” profession — if you’re a therapist, social worker, crisis responder, pastor or church leader — let’s remember this together: it is really arrogant to assume that you know enough to be able to decide what’s helpful for other people. Even if they appear to be coming to you for advice or practical assistance, most of the time, what people really want is to not be so fucking alone anymore. The best thing you can do to help is advocate for people being treated well — which starts with asking them what they need — and say out loud that the harmful ways they’re being treated aren’t okay. Jumping right to how you or they can fix it implies that they’re at fault and you’re superior and sends the message, which most of us have gotten damn well enough of, that they are incapable of autonomy and not worthy of anything more than transactional relationships wherein they are receptacles with nothing to offer the world.
More than anything, people need to be joined, to have people come alongside them as they face difficulties in their lives. If you’re in the counseling profession, that looks like calling abuse what it is rather than opting out and refraining from commenting. If your goal really is to truly help someone, the most effective way to do that is to actively condemn the abuse, neglect or mistreatment they are experiencing. In my attempts to process what happened at church, and the neglect and abuse I’ve experienced in my marriage, I’ve been told not to take it personally, “it takes two,” “his behavior is not my focus,” among other dismissive, victim-blaming and deeply uncaring statements. If you’re trying to help someone care for themselves, as it seems most therapists’ stated goal is, then finding out about the behavior of other people in their life and how that’s affecting the person in your office is imperative. It’s hard for someone to feel like you care about them if they have to ask you whether it matters that they’re being treated badly. It’s also a failure clinically to assume that people who have been being treated like crap for a long time are going to be able to see that they’re being treated badly. You need to validate them — not just their feelings, not just their experiences, but that yes, in fact, they are being treated badly. I’m not sure why everyone including professionals is so afraid to call someone else’s behavior wrong, but it’s extremely damaging.
A married pastor saying, for example, to the congregant he just performed the wedding of, “I’ve never met anyone as good at getting people to love them as you,” sharing his inappropriate feelings he’s attempted to firewall for the majority of the relationship, and then stating, “If I were younger and this were a different universe…” is not okay. There is not an explanation that makes it okay. If you are that congregant’s therapist, there is no reason you should not be condemning that behavior. And the husband of that congregant not standing up for his wife when his pastor unapologetically informed her of these feelings one on one (as in, no witnesses, setting things up to be a he-in-power-said-versus-she-who-has-been-seen-as-a-mess-in-need-of-a-lot-of-help-said situation) and continuing to prioritize others over the one he promised his life to is not okay. You don’t need to know both sides of the story to say it’s not okay.
The fact that I have to explain any of this indicates just how broken the mental health “care” system and the counseling profession is. I should not have to ask my therapist to validate that being abandoned by my spouse right after losing my only community in the city is actually hurtful. I don’t need advice on how to fix this situation. I need my therapist to give a damn about how I’m being treated and not be afraid of “blaming” someone and calling unacceptable behavior what it is. These are the things that are helpful to me.